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JonathanL Blog

Rest in Piece, Anthony "CrimsonpugTwo" Larson

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Im not sure how many people still track my updates, but those who knew me back when I kept a journal probably remember CrimsonpugTwo from discussions across the forums and our OGU game nights. CrimsonpugTwo passed away from cancer on Sunday morning after keeping it at bay for eight years. He will be missed.

The Holy Grail

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I've been mildly obsessed with Summer of Arcade darling Bastion of late. The game itself is quite good, of course, though perhaps a touch on the actiony side for me, and a little light on that whole RPG thing, which is really tied more to the isometric perspective and visual similarities to genre hallmarks like Landstalker than it is to how the game actually plays. Anyway, I was first drawn to the game because Greg Kasavin was a part of it, and as we all recall, Greg presided over what I would still call GameSpot's Golden Age, if for no other reason than it saw a perfect score awarded to the best game of all time, Squaresoft's Chrono Cross (ahem).

As I played it, I became more enamored with other aspects, as well. Sure, Logan Cunningha's knowledgable yet jaded rumble was one of those hooks that got into you right away, but Darren Korb's music and Jen Zee's art really took it to the next level, and the very idea, of a small team putting out a game together, of the focus and creativity and quality of the end product, make the game more than the game. I bought the soundtrack, and my young son both recognized and enjoyed listening to it apart from the game itself. When I tweeted this, I did so out of pride, watching my young son appreciate not only gaming culture, but a wide range of music as I expose him to everything from Vivaldi to Smashing Pumpkins, Neil Diamond to Yasunori Mitsuda. After I tweeted this, Greg responded about how one of their goals was to make the game age-agnostic. While the game is rated E10, I don't think the game is as violent as the cartoons that air every day in America, the use of "alcohol and tobacco" far less prevalent than an old Disney movie (seriously, watch Peter Pan, a rampant tear through racial and sexual stereotypes, alcohol, and tobacco abuse - it's kind of amazing that this used to be acceptable when anime has been cutified to "tea" or "coffee" as a mysterious beverage for ages).

Age-agnostic is the holy grail of artistic design. While I enjoy lots of entertainment appropriate for my age and (im)maturity level, some of the greatest artistic endeavors I've been able to enjoy are those that I loved as a kid and still love today, or that I've discovered as an adult but can already share with my son. Calvin & Hobbes, the modern standard of all newspaper comic strips, is age-agnostic. Monsters, Inc. is age-agnostic. Neil Gaiman's myriad offerings in the "picture book" category are age-agnostic, as interesting a read for the older set as they are for the younger. There's danger and suspense in these, sure, and a few concepts that will sail right over younger heads, but there's a type of entertainment value that does not have an expiration date, that isn't hidden behind a black bar. Truly great art pushes boundaries all over the place, but some of the very best also hits the sweet spot of what almost everyone can enjoy. You don't need to understand it all, and it doesn't need to target you as a consumer; it just IS, and what it is can have value whether you're learning how to ride your bike, file your taxes, or raise a child of your own. Sure, I might want to play Mortal Kombat or watch Kill Bill while my son is napping, but it's pretty wonderful to play Super Mario or watch My Neighbor Totoro or listen to "The Nutcracker" and know that we both enjoy something for very similar reasons, despite the disparity of age. The appeal is that broad, the vision that pure.

This is why I gladly ponied up $20 for Animal Crossing this past weekend as a birthday present for my son. There's something to be said about enjoying a game with my son where the goal is just to fool around and have a good time, to go fishing and bug-catching and fossil-digging. The goal is to find a dinosaur bone that was missing, to haul in a giant fish, to write a letter to a friend. It's about fun that we can all participate in. And that kind of experience is truly wonderful.

The Myth of the Gamer

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I am expounding on an issue that was touched of in GGD that has bothered me for years. If you've read that thread, some of this will look familiar, but I've added to it, so there's more to it now.

When someone uses the word "Gamer", a switch flips in my head. The "gamer" label is as laughable as they come, an attempt to segregate those who enjoy a simple game like Pet Society from those who attend tourneys and have a backlog of games they'll never get to. It's a chance to feel self-satisfied about what you do in your free time, that somehow you're having more fun than a "casual" is, that you're supporting the hobby in a way that others can't. In most circles the proper term is "hipster", but much like games are their own beast, so do those that play them. There's always someone who wants to be "hardcore", who wants to say Game X is the greatest but no one hasever heard of it, who tries their best to like impenetrable games because taking the time to figure them out makes them somehow better or more legitimate in their hobby. There are those who just love a good challenge, who wanted to get good at Gunvalkyrie bad enough to stumble through its tough-as-nails beginning. And that's fine. But the moment they start flashing their "gamer" badge, it's all over for me.

"Gamer" is a word the industry loves because it allows them to market directly to people who consider gaming a main hobby. I don't think they came up with it, but they sure love it. A way to immediately validate and ingratiate yourself with a core audience is always a winning move. I love to play games, but I also love to read, listen to music, watch movies, cook and eat good food, go to cultural events, all that stuff. But I don't define myself by meaningless terms that indicate my superiority over others. I'm not a "listener" more than a radio dial jockey is, nor am I a "reader" because I read books and not just magazines and newspapers. Heck, I'm a big George R.R. Martin fan, but does that mean I lord my superiority over those who just watch the HBO show or "just" read the series, at several thousand pages and counting? Do I tell them that if they haven't read Dunk & Egg, or The Ice Dragon, or A Song for Lya, or The Armageddon Rag, they're not hardcore? I probably care more about music than most, because I hunt for bands I might like, listening to entire albums by an artist I like, following them, carving out my own taste, my own mix. I don't listen to the radio really, and if I do, it's just '60s and '70s rock anyway. But it doesn't mean I get to exclude others from the "listener" clique because I care about it more, because I take the time to care. It doesn't invalidate someone else's perspective on that form of entertainment.

One game that was taken to task in this thread was Angry Birds. Talking bad about Angry Birds is so off-base it's funny. You know who likes Angry Birds? Almost everyone. My three year-old son likes it. My wife likes. I like it. My 81 year-old grandmother-in-law played it once and immediately loved it. Peggle is a similar game, that I am able to enjoy with newbies and veterans alike, because it's FUN. That's all a good game is - fun. It's not an arbitrary set of guidelines about complexity, cost, or origin. It's a device for entertainment. Whether you're playing Catan on a board or over XBL, it's a game, and it's FUN. If you love ICO's austere beauty, that's great. That doesn't mean the guy who plays Frontierville isn't having the same kind of good time. And while you might think Facebook games are dumb (I know I'm not a fan), it doesn't make the person that likes them less of a "gamer", as silly as that word has become.

If being a "gamer" means treating games like fine wine or artisinal coffee, where I rattle off more aromas and tastes than the human body could possibly identify, count me out. I'm not interested in cutting others down to make myself feel better, and I don't really care if Julie at work loves to play Sims Social. She probably wouldn't WANT to be called a "gamer", because she sees it as meaning "spends too much time and money on games", where most self-described "gamers" think of it as some badge of honor. To me, a gamer is what it has meant for years - someone who fights hard, who plays with integrity and grit. It's used in sports to talk about someone who loves the game and plays it with a passion, and whatever game you play, whether it's on a field or over a coffee table or in front of your hi-def television, if that's how you play it, you're a gamer.

Me, I'm more concerned with labels that matter. Husband. Father. Things that will define me when I'm gone. Games are something I do to enjoy my free time, like a half-dozen other hobbies. And it's not worth figuring out who's in, who's out, and what qualifies you for what group. Games are for fun. Have fun. And don't worry about what you call yourself or others.

After You've Saved the Princess: A Postscript

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I bought The Saboteur for $9.99 at Toys R Us months and months ago. I played it for a bit and set it aside. Eventually I came back to it, and what went from a casual lark on a cheap game became something of a minor obsession. It wasn't enough to do the main story missions; I had to do every side mission. I also had to tackle every single freeplay target in the countryside. Then I had to blow up all the bridges. Get most of the perks. Beat the game. Get every single freeplay point in Le Havre. Paris Area 1. Saarbrucken. Area 2. Every single perk. Every single achievement. EVERY SINGLE FREEPLAY POINT. And while I didn't get every single vehicle available in the game (something about driving tanks a few miles sounds less than ideal), I've beaten the game as much as one really can. There's nothing left to do. Every scenic point, every postcard, every enemy oupost, every perk, it's all been done. I've jumped off of the Eiffel Tower and lived to tell the tale. I've kissed Parisian women to avoid capture by the Nazis 50 times. I've saved 40 citizens, some French and some German, from execution by power-mad soldiers. I've done it all.

What's interesting with games like this, with games that let you play AFTER you've won, after you've done everything, is what's left. There are still Nazis in Paris, holding down the checkpoints and walking the streets, but there are far fewer than there once was. Sometimes a fed-up Parisian will get jostled by a Nazi soldier, and instead of running away, hands covering his head, he'll ball up his fists and rock that soldier right in the jaw. There are larger groups of people gathering, enjoying the sights, and it's actually kind of nice to see.

This kind of denouement also makes for an interesting piece of gameplay. I've put the game away now, possibly for good, but it's kind of weird to think of this gaming world that is defeated that I can still participate in. I can still make some Nazis very upset and lead them on wild chases through the streets, and I can still infiltrate Germany for some old-fashioned explosive hijinx, but for the most part, there's nothing left to do. What remains is a largely empty world, with no goals, no levels, and no missions. There are no conversations to be had with compatriots, there is nothing new left to discover. The world has been scoured as clean as it can be, and what remains is a lack of what was once the point of the game. There are no AA guns perched on the top of buildings, there are no more glowering statues of the madman Dierker. Propaganda-spewing speakers have been blown to bits, and sniper and lookout towers have been levelled. The only mark of my success is that something that never belonged has been removed, that I can walk the streets and find them a bit more free of the offending presence of occupation.

It's an odd feeling. Maybe I'll play the game a few more times, just to enjoy the work I've done, to reflect on it. To drive a regular car out of the garage, nothing with mounted machine guns or nitrous boosters, and just enjoy the change in the scenery, the lack of goals or challenges. To enjoy what happens after you've beaten the game, with the game world forever changed by your actions, and, for once, to be able to enjoy that. To be able to take a jaunty stroll through level 1-1 and find no goombas or koopas, to visit a Halo ring and find that there is no Flood, no Covenant, not even a bratty robot. Just a place where there ocne was conflict, and that conflict has been removed. I've saved the princess, and the mushroom kingdom is mine to enjoy.

The Dis-Kinect

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I suppose I should blame Nintendo. At first, I didn't mind that they made a system with waggle. It was actually kind of cool to talk about a few games with co-workers the past few years. They'd talk about Wii Sports, and sometimes, at special work events, there'd be a Wii for people to play. It was fun, being able to game with non-gamers, to be on a similar playing field. Almost everyone I know has or had a Wii, and for a few months, everyone played their Wii. It got old eventually, though, and now no one talks about it anymore, but for a while, I could talk to people I worked with about video games without having to explain everything, or get blank stares as I tried to run through how World of WarCraft works. There was some common ground about a hobby that I only get to share online most of the time.

When Microsoft launched the Kinect last fall, I admit I rolled my eyes. I didn't want MS to fail, with the 360 being one of my favorite systems ever,, but I also know a gimmick when I see one, and this whole motion/dance/waggle thing is a gimmick. It's music games writ large, an attempt to redefine technology with limited resources in a limited manner with diminishing returns. Worse than that, it's taken the focus of gaming from good games to goofy stuff people can play at parties.

I'm not saying gaming is dead, or dying, or growing stale, or even headed down the wrong path. There will always be a place for large demographics of gamers, from the hardcore to the ultra-casual, and this is fine. But when I see companies put a large focus on games people buy, play for a week, and then never pay attention to again, I worry that the focus is on making disposable products without any lasting value or merit. Most of these games don't have interesting stories or reasons to play them again and again; they're interactive tech demos, fun for a bit but running out of steam farly quickly. They also require that people buy peripherals, the very thing that was once a profane word in the games industry. Saying you needed an N64 expansion pack all those years ago was an obvious attempt to boost a system by forcing the consumer to buy inand spend even more cash, and hopefully justify the purchase by buying more games to support the additional investment.

And like the expansion pack had some benefits, I'm sure Kinect has some as well. I admittedly don't own a Kinect, and I never intend to. Gaming, for me, is not about jumping around, shouting at my TV, and looking life a goofball. It can consist of that sometimes, sure, but I remember issuing squad commands in Rainbow Six 3, of playing Wario Ware on my Wii, and it all got old pretty darn fast. I want to disappear into the game, and the controller is my conduit to do so. Jerking around and watching my on-screen avatar lag behind my own actions isn't immersive; it's a stark reminder that I am not doing something, but rather am acting those things out.

I do think the tech will get there someday. It may be that some genres find the sweet spot that Harmonix found when they got people to pick up plastic guitars and drums, where they could participate in something, get a genral feel for it, but not go so far in you might as well do the real thing. And some concepts, like a Harry Potter or Star Wars, just need that tech to get there to become fascinating experiences, though I still have my doubts about the long-term viability of games that make adults stand around and wave their arms. Being an adult is a lot of work, and I don't want to have to work even harder to play games.

Maybe it's sour grapes; after all, if non-gamers can enjoy a facet of this hobby, is there harm in that? Should every game be about what I want? Of course not. But I wonder if we aren't losing the focused experience that a great game can provide to what amounts to no more than parlor games, something to waste money on and forget about as soon as it no longer feels new. That might be good in the short-term for publishers, but I have serious concerns about this as a long-term strategy. Ask EA and Activision about how that whole music game thing is winding up. Seems to me that the returns will diminish sooner or later, and then you'll be back with us, the core audience of gamers, who just want to play great games and don't need the gimmicks that made The Joneses buy a Wii. Of course, once they bought it and four sets of controllers, maybe that's all the publisher wanted anyway. That's a nice amount of pocket change for customers that you don't have to support once they've packed the Wii up with a bunch of controllers and games, then stuffed it into the attic six months later. But it's not the way to grow a dedicated customer base. I am very curious to see what Nintendo has learned, with their new console's announcement imininent, and what Microsoft sees as the endgame here. It should be a very interesting E3.

The Value Principle

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I didn't realize it at the time, but the first time I was introduced to the concept that the value of time was greater than the value of money was when I bought Eternal Darkness at launch. Lots of people enjoy the game, my wife included, but I've never been one for survival horror. When I found out that I had to beat RE2 AGAIN after going through it once, I threw my hands up and moved on. Aside from the first Silent Hill, which was creepy as all hell, I wasn't interested in horror as a genre. But I tried Eternal Darkness anyway.

Back then, I could try a game for a short while and return it for a full credit at my local GameStop. I played ED here and there over about 48 hours before I realized this game wasn't for me. To my dismay, however, I'd lost the receipt, so I had to accept trade-in value for the game.

I paid $50 for the game new, and I made $25 back in store credit. I paid $25 to RENT a game. But I was enjoying gaming, diving into the culture, spending extra cash on digital entertainment, and it didn't bother me too much. I was a bit disappointed about the financial circumstances of the game, but the concept of the value of the time spent playing it never crossed my mind.

As an aside, I did eventually find the receipt. It was on my windowsill. I found it when I did one last go-round of my room before moving out to Iowa. Months and months later.

Anyway, I went through an experience I'm sure most folks here know quite well. Buy a new game. Play it briefly. Buy another. Don't even play it. Buy the one I REALLY want. Play that one until I can't anymore. Buy another one. Play it briefly. And so on and so forth.

My collection swelled to hundreds and hundreds of games even as I entered adulthood, and I was starting to do the math. We only have so many hours, so many breaths, in our lives. And there was no way I could play every game of interest, that I could even replay old favorites, or get back to that game I liked but didn't love years ago, while still consuming new content. There's only so much you can do.

So I started to sell my collection off. Not everything, mind you. I kept Final Fantasy games, Chrono Cross, sentimental favorites like Halo 2. But Suikoden, Valkyrie Profile, the entire Sega Saturn collection I'd acquired for a reason that seems as fuzzy as a kitten now, all gone. And instead of keeping up, I let myself fall behind. Played what I liked. For a time it was FFXI. For even longer it was World of WarCraft.

I got married in 2007. In 2008, I became a father. And while I still enjoyed games, I began to realize that even more important than cost, the value of something is in the time you spend doing it. I don't judge how good a movie is by how much it costs, though of course I enjoy a good deal (probably even more than most- I love sales of interest and sites like Woot! and Spoofee). I judge a thing's value by how much I enjoy it. In doing so, I cut back on the games I paid attention to, on the games I played. If I wasn't REALLY excited to play something, why would I waste my time playing it? I'd rather buy Plants Vs. Zombies three times (guilty) and enjoy the heck out of it than to try to keep up with what's new and interesting to the gaming community at large. And while it's fun to talk about a shared experience, getting on the hype train at launch really wasn't that important. It didn't have that big of a value impact on my experience.

What's funny about perceiving value without direct relation to cost is how it can undermine or reinforce price drops. I waited for months and months to play Mass Effect 2, but when I did manage to snag both it and Assassin's Creed II for $40, I was very excited, somewhat moreso than I would have been if I'd paid the full $120 for both at launch. But that's because I enjoyed the games so much. I would've had a blast with them anyway, but the impulse cost meant there was another layer of appreciation. When the Gears of War Triple Pack was announced, I thought at first it would be a no-brainer. Why wouldn't I jump on so much content for the bargain bin price of $30? But after some consideration, I passed. I like the Gears games, and they're fun, but I'd already played them once, and if I'm going to spend some time gaming, I want the value of that time to be as high as possible. I want to love playing it. And I couldn't see myself loving a second go-round with games that I had only mildly enjoyed the first time.

It's why I've been playing The Saboteur so muc lately (aside from a Memorial Day weekend binge with Mortal Kombat with my wife). It's a bit rough around the edges, but gosh, it's as fun as it gets sometimes, and it's been a great $10 spent (TRU is a great place to scout for clearance titles). There's a certain value I anticipate when I pay for a thing, sure, but when I play it, the value of the game is no longer tied to that. It's only tied to one thing, and it's how much fun I'm having. And that's what gaming is all about.

GameDev Story

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GameDev Story was $0.99 this weekend. It always sounded like fun to me because it's a shop sim, but about getting a games company up and running, where if you're good (and it's not too hard to get good, eventually), you can launch your own system and become your own Nintendo, propping up your system with 3-5 knockout titles a year.

It's very simple, but it's also hellaciously addictive because there are no natural stopping points. For example, if I boot up the game, I've just started development on Cherry Kisses 5, the fourth sequel in a romantic dating sim series that put my company on the map (which is certainly strange, but whatever). I am fidgeting with my staff, huring and firing if need be, levelling up staffers when able, and also attending the games version of E3. Once this game is released, I start work on the next game immediately, while the recently released one racks up the sales. The cycle continues and won't end until I've simply played the whole game's 20 year time frame. I only stop when my lunch break is over, or I have to leave the house RIGHT THEN, etc. It's crazy.

I think I'll start up a second company once the first one is done since I think I can do even better again, but even with just one play-through it's something like 8-10 hours of compulsive enjoyment. If you're willing to clear an entire weekend day, go for it.

If they ever make a sequel that is more fleshed-out, I tremble for my child, for the negligence he will likely endure.

Sol Survivor

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Been getting more and more into this more hands-on tower defense game. Instead of rewarding careful placement and the hoarding of resources in a marriage of ruthless efficiency and razor thin margins, a la Defense Grid, Sol Survivor puts an emphasis on maximizing range and player involvement. Letting players choose from one of many commanding officers, who each have their own array of turrets and special powers, players conform their strategies to the commanding officers they choose. What's most surprising is how it starts off light and easy before ratcheting up the difficulty to the point where I have actually started to fail levels. It lays out the creep path before it even starts and it's all very linear that way, but actually maximizing your usage of towers, with an emphasis on placement for range purposes and judicious use of special powers, makes this game feel just unique enoug to be worth your time.

Anyway, I bought a four-pack when it was on sale on Steam a while back. I still have a spare copy. If you want it, drop your Steam ID below. I'll send you a friend request (if we're not already friends on Steam), and I'll send it over, completely gratis. So long as you promise to play it.

Fantasy Football 2010

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It's that time of year again. My fantasy football league, which is comprised entirely of memebrs of The Virtual Underground, is nearing draft day. We have nine teams and I am looking for at least one more, though I'd be happy to take another pair after if interest is there. I don't post here anymore, but my friends at GS always get a chance to join.

IM me with your e-mail address if you're interested. We're not a hardcore league, but please plan to be a season-long participant if you join.

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