The past, present and future of games

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I'm old enough to remember playing Pong when it first came out. I recall adventure games having no graphics at all. My first computer hooked up to a TV and programs were loaded from cassette tapes. My second computer was an IBM PC Jr. and didn't have a hard drive whatsoever, only dual(!) 5 ¼" floppies. Arcades were still hugely popular and that was the place to go for the top-of-the-line games. And today, decades later, I wonder just how antiquated current AAA games will look a few years from now.

I was playing the re-mastered Secret of Monkey Island games recently, and while this classic is both fun and funny, it really shows its age compared with modern adventure games such Alan Wake. In the old days, we were satisfied with games that relied primarily on humor and puzzles. The systems of the day just couldn't offer advanced graphics and music, and there was no spoken dialog… nearly everything was text. I'm curious just how many younger gamers who have no recollection of these classics could even play Monkey Island. I'd guess that they would think the game was too primitive and could not play past the first five minutes.

But just how good were the "good old days" of gaming? At the time, I think they were excellent. We loved the Sierra, Infocom and Lucasarts adventures, the RPGs like Wizardry, Bard's Tale, and Ultima, and many other classics like Star Control, Wing Commander and more. To play any of those games today might be an interesting diversion, a trip down memory lane, or a way to reminisce about our youth. But can any of those games hold a candle to even the mediocre games of today? I'm not saying that today's advanced graphics and sound make a game. But the entire package of contemporary games is just so much more complete, including the story, presentation, characters, and technology.

Another variable of games over the years is how they have matured. I'm sure this is due in the most part to the maturing of the audience. Like me, many kids grew up progressing from Ataris to Playstations, and Commodore 64s to quad-core PCs. As we got older, we craved games with deeper plots and adult-oriented material. PacMan eating pellets and ghosts evolved into Prototype destroying tanks and consuming people.

So what's next? Motion control and 3D displays seem to be the bleeding-edge technologies of the moment. It's amazing how far things have progressed in 30 years. We've gone from small, pixilated monochrome images to wall-sized monitors that push the boundaries of realism. And while it is still in its infant stages, gamers can control a game with gestures, where 3 decades ago we relied on large and clunky input devices. In the year 2040, will we play simply by thinking? Will we be incorporated directly into a global computer network? Will the images be piped directly into our optic nerves?

But it's not just the way we play games that have changed, and will change in the future. The games themselves have come a long way. Action games used to be about keeping a square pixel bouncing between two movable rectangular pixels. While today's action games can rival the best movies in their cinematic flair, complex stories and wonderful character development while giving the player actual control over what happens. Driving and flight games are no longer about moving sprites around on a screen, but are true simulations of real-world vehicles. Even the arcadeiest racing game has more realism than the best racers of 20-30 years ago.

I can't even imagine what games will be like 30 years from now. Yet when I think back on my lifetime of gaming and how much improvement we've seen over the years, I can only predict things will only get better. And when I'm in my 60's, I expect I'll be reminiscing about the "good old days" of 2011 and how archaic our games were back then.

AI in games: Cheating != Challenging

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Everyone hates a cheater. It doesn't matter if you're playing poker, sports, a board game, or the stock market. Someone who breaks the established rules to gain an advantage over everyone else only earns the ire of others. So why is it that the very video games we play cheat as well? I'm not talking about multi-player cheaters. I mean the games themselves... the AI opponents in a single-player game. I think the simplest answer is that it's easier to program a game that cheats than it is to program a game that "thinks". A game that thinks would not need to resort to cheap shots and underhanded strategies to beat or challenge you. Yet when you are playing a single-player game, you expect a challenge. While we would love to have an AI opponent think like we do, where they have to use process of elimination, intuition, and skill to defeat you, we get AI that cheats instead!

The most recent object of my frustration and catalyst for this blog is Split/Second. This arcade racer has all the ingredients to be one of the most fun driving games in years, yet Black Rock has ramped up the "challenge level" of the game not by making smarter opponents, but by allowing your opponents break the rules. What fun are the single player season races when the AI doesn't bother to use power plays on each other, but only on you? How enjoyable is it when slower AI cars slingshot past you on the last corner to steal your hard-fought lead? Racing games with rubber-band effects and rule-breaking drivers are not the only culprit. Games in nearly every genre utilize cheating behaviors to ramp up the difficulty.

Take shooters for example. I won't even name one, because I've run into this phenomenon in more shooters than I can recall. You're stealthily trying to sneak up on some AI opponents. There's no way they should know you're there, or even if they did, they wouldn't know your exact location. Yet all of a sudden, BLAM! one shot and they've pegged you! How about those AI dudes who have uncanny accuracy!? No, not every shooter stoops to these tactics. But there are too many that do. It is so much more fun and rewarding when the AI actually "outthinks" you without blatantly breaking the rules. But it's easier to make a game challenging by allowing the AI to see through walls and have pinpoint accuracy.

Puzzle and strategy games can be just as bad. How many of you played Puzzle Quest and wondered why the "random" gem drops almost always favored the AI? It was amazing how you'd struggle to beat some of the tougher foes, yet on nearly every turn they'd get chains and combos that decimated you. Or how frustrating it was in an RTS when the AI knew exactly where to find you even in the fog of war?

You have options when facing human cheaters in multi-player games. If you are the host, you can kick them out. You can play a different map or game mode, or just leave that particular lobby. Or you could just play with people you know. But how do you avoid a cheating single-player game? How do we convince developers to stop taking the easy way out when programming the AI? We could vote with our dollars, but that doesn't help when you buy a game not realizing it's going to cheat on you.

I'm not looking for easy games. I'm not just some whiner who can't beat a game and am looking for the Easy Button. I enjoy games that challenge me and provide a sense of accomplishment when you defeat it. But fun quickly turns to frustration when the game breaks the rules to be more difficult instead of actually playing better. I'm all for smarter games, not cheaters.

Would the better arcade racer please stand up?

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I'm into cars and love realistic racing games. But sometimes I just want to have some stupid fun with a game like Burnout or Need for Speed. The greatest thing about arcade racers is anyone can play them. You don't need to be a racing fan or like cars at all. Just a suspension of disbelief, a desire for speed, and the drive to win.

A few weeks ago, the Blur multiplayer demo came out, and at this point is open to anyone on the 360 who wants to download and play. You get a few of the tracks and a handful of cars. You only get to play against other people, but it's a great indication of what the game is going to be like. It's a mix of kart racing, Need for Speed, and Tron of all things. Certainly there's some fun to be had here. Blur was created by Bizzare Creations, so you know they've got some success under their belts.

I noticed today that the demo for Split/Second is available for the 360 as well. I downloaded it and played through the one track that is included. You get a single car and race against the AI. But there's enough here to give you a taste of the game. Where Blur is all about the power-ups and using those weapons against your competition, Split/Second is less about direct combat and using the track itself against your fellow racers. Staged to look like a cross between a reality TV show and a Michael Bay blockbuster action flick, the drivers trigger explosions that cause mayhem or open up shortcuts.

Having played both demos, I must say that I enjoyed them both. The Blur multiplayer demo had some kinks yet to work out, and the Split/Second demo would have been more interesting against live opponents. But having been behind the wheel of both, I think Split/Second gets my vote.

Blur has some exciting racing... the power-ups can change the race in a moment. You can go from last to first or vice-versa. But the destruction is very tame. Besides lots of neon lights and flashes, nothing really goes boom. And most gamers love things that 'splode. Split/Second 'splodes real nice! The amount of explosions in a single race might well equal the entire explosion budget of a big movie!

But Split/Second isn't just about explosions. To me the game just felt meatier. It was a lot more visceral to watch a jumbo jet crashing onto the track wiping out the opponents ahead of you then to fire pew pew bolts of light to make someone skid out a little.

I'm sure both games are going to be good. But with today's price of games, there's only going to be room for one new arcade racer on my shelf this year. And for this gamer, that game looks like it's going to be Split/Second. But that's just MY opinion. What do you think? If you've played both demos, let's hear your thoughts. And if you haven't... well, what are you waiting for!? Go download them! They're free.

ReFUSEal to work

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I was excited to see the Fuse service announced here on Gamespot. Working with Raptr, Gamespot would be able to display your gaming history, update your now-playing list, and other gamer goodness. Well, I "upgraded" my Gamespot account to include Raptr and even installed the silly Raptr client on my work PC. But 24 hours later, both Gamespot and Raptr show zero information from my XBOX Live account!

Anyone else experiencing problems like this? I checked the FAQ at Raptr, and they do state it could take a bit for your profile to update. But just how long should that take? Perhaps the service is overloaded with all the Gamespot people flooding the system this week. Whatever the case, I wonder if I need to keep this Raptr client installed on my PC. I really have no need for it. All I want is more XBOX history to show up in Gamespot.

Having Words With Friends

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Browsing Wired magazine yesterday, I came across an interesting recommendation. An iPhone/iPod Touch app called Words With Friends. Basically, it's a generic version of Scrabble. If you don't mind an ad displayed at the end of your turn, the game is fully functional and free. If you want to ditch the ads, it costs less than $3.

The best part, you can play multiple games with multiple people at the same time. Push notification will let you know when it is your turn. My wife and I are each playing on our own iPhones. I invite everyone to grab the app and play too. Challenge me to a game... my user name is EAJack.

Also, nobody has joined my Fantasy F1 racing league! Come on, there's nothing to lose, it's free, and bound to be interesting. Try it out even if you don't really get into racing. (See more details on my previous blog.)

Calling F1 Fans

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Formula 1 is something I enjoy when I'm not gaming. SPEED is hosting an F1 Fantasy League for this year's F1 season. I've created Team Pixel Hunter and made my picks for drivers, cars and engines. If you also love F1, or are just interested in another kind of game... please join into the league with me. It's completely free!

Go to the Speed Fantasy Racing site: gpedition.speedfantasyracing.com

Everyone gets put into the overall fantasy league. But I've created a mini-league for us to play against each other as well. You can join multiple mini-leagues, so if you already play, you can join the F1Spot mini-league as well. Use this link for the mini-league:

gpedition.speedfantasyracing.com/league.aspx?page=league&id=13297

The mini-league name is F1Spot and the password is F1Spot (no spaces in name or passsword)

Is The Future DLC-Only?

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I've got a lazy bone or two, but I go to the gym three days a week. I park in the outskirts of lots to avoid shopping carriages and idiots who ding your doors. And I'll take a flight of stairs instead of an elevator or escalator when I can. So why am I so averse to getting up to change a game disk in my console when I want to play a different game? I don't have to get up to change the TV channel anymore. Maybe training your cat to swap disks for you is the solution. Or perhaps DLC is the answer.

Downloadable games from XBOX Live or the Playstation Network reside on your console's hard drive. When you want to play them, you select it from your dashboard and play away. No disks to juggle and no cases to store on a shelf. With the XBOX 360's option to upload a game to the hard drive, you'd think you could avoid having to insert the disk any time you wanted to play that game. But no… due to piracy concerns, the disk must be inserted, lest you rent a pile of games, upload them, and wind up with a complete library without having purchased anything.

You do have to admit that keeping disks is a bit of a hassle. They take up space. They can become dirty or scratched, preventing them from playing correctly. They can be lost or stolen. And they require you to get up from the couch when you want to play something different. Okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch. Unless you have trained cats.

But there are advantages to having physical media as well, such as the ability to trade, borrow, sell or buy used copies of games. Right now I'm borrowing a friend's copy of Fallout 3, since I want to play all the DLC, but traded in my copy about a year ago. (However, my friend had to buy this used copy of Fallout 3 after his kids knocked over his XBOX while playing it, causing his original new disk to become damaged beyond repair!) So right there in a single example, I've pointed out some pros and cons to physical media.

With this latest generation of consoles, and on the PC as well, there is an increasing amount of content that can be purchased via direct download. Not just the "small" arcade games, but full games once sold at retail, such as Microsoft's "Games on Demand" program. The PSP Go has eschewed the physical media altogether for download-only software. And look at the iPhone, Blackberry, Android and other handheld devices… everything is downloadable only.

There are many good reasons to embrace this new model of distribution. First: It's convenient. Want a game at 2AM on a holiday? Sure, no problem. You won't find many retailers open at that hour. Plus, you get instant gratification without the need to travel to a retail store. Second, you often have the security of knowing it can't be lost. Even if you delete the game from your device, you can re-download it at no cost, since you own a license to that game.

But there are detriments as well. Digital rights policies can be restrictive, causing annoyances if you replace your console. Downloaded software isn't portable, meaning you can't bring it to a friend's house to play on his machine. And once you purchase it, there is no way to return, trade-in, or sell your games. On top of that, the pricing schemes of DLC often provides no benefit over a physical copy of the same software, despite the fact that there is no physical medium to produce, ship and sell with a middleman's profit.

However, I'm going to make a prediction: The next generation of gaming systems will be downloadable content only, or will heavily favor DLC over physical media. We're already seeing that trend begin with many new games offering DLC expansions and bonus content, DLC-only arcade games, and downloadable re-releases of classic or best selling games. Who's going to benefit from this new age of distribution? Will it be the gamers or the developers? I think gamers will see some benefits (see my points above), but the real winners will be the console makers and developers. The losers will be the traditional retail outlets.

Face it, Microsoft, Sony, et al want to make as much profit as they can. When 100% of the sales of software are funneled through them, they make the maximum amount of money. Right now, every game that is traded in and resold as used, lent to a friend, or rented is lost sale for them. The console maker doesn't get their cut of the new game sale, and the software developers don't make profit from those units to help fund future projects. So it's only natural that the developers and the console makers want every person to play the game to have paid them for it.

That doesn't necessarily mean the end for consumers. Unless you are a pirate, you are already paying for every game you play. Wouldn't you rather see your money go towards the people who make your games (and hardware) to help fund the future of gaming instead of lining the pockets of those who have no influence on the games you play at all? On the other hand, consumers don't want to be ripped off when forced to buy downloadable content.

I've blogged about the "broken" economy of DLC before. When it is cheaper to buy a retail disk version of a game than to download the very same software, something is wrong. When a 4 year old Live Arcade game costs the same today as it did 4 years ago, something is wrong. An example I've used in the past was Forza Motorsport 2. You could buy the Platinum edition for about $20 which included all the DLC that was released for the game. Or you could spend about $23 just to download the same DLC content, plus still need to own the original game!

What about the retailers? Gamestop is the 800 pound gorilla of video game sellers, and they would be hit doubly hard if all games went download-only. Not only would they have no physical games to sell anymore, but they would lose a large chunk of their profit in the sale of used games. Though there is no love lost with me if they lost the used game market, since they rip off gamers by paying peanuts for used games then turn around and sell them for near-new price. I think the only way a company like Gamestop would survive is if they could sell download codes for games, much like the MS Points or Live subscription cards they already sell, or if they became a portal for downloadable content.

There are a lot of variables when considering a change from one distribution method to another. Who ultimately benefits from a migration to download-only software remains to be seen clearly. Consumers don't seem to mind iPhone, Blackberry or Android phones where the only way to get software is via DLC. And we all know the huge success the MP3 format has had in music downloads. But can this same level of consumer satisfaction be realized in the gaming console market?

I, personally, would embrace and endorse download-only games for my consoles only if the following were to be true:

· Reduced prices – since there are no disks or packaging to manufacture, there is no physical product to ship or warehouse, and there are no distributers or retailers to take a cut of the profit, the price of a downloadable game should be lower than what we pay now for the traditional product.

· Price reductions over time – retail prices of games drop over time as they age. People don't still pay $60 for COD4 today when Modern Warfare 2 is sold for that price. So there is no reason old DLC games should be the same price they were the day they premiered. DLC needs to drop in price at the same rate disk-based games do. Without price reductions, budget gamers would never be able to buy games.

· Promotional pricing – It's not uncommon to find retailers selling brand new games for 10% off or more. To encourage sales, the DLC should have promotional pricing, such as offering 10% off a brand new game if you purchase it the first week of release.

· Returns – Sometimes mistakes happen and you purchase DLC you don't really want. There should be a grace period of a few hours or even day or two to allow you to delete the DLC and garner a full refund.

· Rentals – Not everyone wants to spend $60 on a new game, or even $20-40 on an older game. Gamers should be allowed to rent the use of a game for a specific period of time for a small dollar amount. After which time, the game no longer works unless additional play time is purchased.

· Giftability – Not everyone who buys games buy it for themselves. Sometimes the buyer doesn't even own the device necessary to purchase or play the software. Provisions need to be made to allow anyone to purchase the software and give it to anyone else.

· Phony money – Microsoft is the biggest culprit here. Carnivals used the scam of making you buy 5 tickets at a time, but the ride cost 3 tickets to go on. Inevitably, some tickets would go unused and the carnival made more money off you than they should have. Microsoft Points are no different. DLC should be purchased with the legal tender used in the country the buyer is located in. Or, the buyer should be allowed to buy exactly the number of points they need.

· Trade-In value – Many gamers never play a game again once they finish it. Unlike an MP3 which may be listened to for years to come. Gamers should be allowed to delete a game from their library and gain a credit towards additional purchases. There is no "used" game being sold to someone else which would bypass profit for the console or developer. But goodwill would be fostered towards gamers, and encourage them to purchase additional titles. Many gamers rely on the money they get on trades to fund new game purchases.

I'm not against the DLC-only future which seems so inevitable. But I'm not sure I'm ready for it either. Developers and console makers need to tread carefully, without cramming this new distribution method down our throats. Instead, I'm hoping the steps taken in this migration to DLC-only benefit both the consumer and the companies. After all, MP3's did not bring the end of the music industry like the record labels feared. You can still go out and buy a CD today. And I don't mind the DLC-only format on my iPhone, so I am encouraged that life could be just as easy on future gaming systems.

Here's to not having to get up from the couch in the future. Well… unless you need to go pee, or out in the sun once in a while.

Can I bring myself to do it?

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Anyone who has read my blogs knows 99% of my gaming is done on my XBOX 360. I've given up on PC gaming, and unlike last generation, I decided not to get all three consoles. I have nothing against the PS3, it's a terrific console. But when I decided to join the current console generation, the 360 had the hardware price point I was comfortable with, and also the game library that I was more interested in. Two and a half years after getting my 360, the PS3's game library is finally beginning to tempt me.

The problem is, I'm loathe to buy another console. Why? Well, the 360 and the PS3 are, for the most part, 95% the same damn thing. Sure there are differences that make each unique, or features one has that are superior to the other. But that's beside the point insofar as I'm concerned. I'm a proponent of a shared console standard. I'd love to see Microsoft and Sony and whoever else set a standard and each build their own version. Much like VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray all became standards in their generation. The important thing is… people like me wouldn't be writing blogs like this because they can't play exclusive games for a console they don't own.

So here I am in a sort of dilemma. There are a dozen or so great PS3 exclusive games I want to play. But it's very hard to justify plunking $300-350 on a second console to allow me to do so. Especially when there are other items I need more urgently, such as a new laptop and server, plus countless items for my house among other things. On top of that, my friends have 360s, not PS3s. I'm sure some day I'll get one anyway, even if I use the Blu-Ray player as the justification.

It's not like I have even run out of good games to play on the 360. I have about 6 games I haven't even started yet, including the epic time-eater Dragon Age: Origins! But regardless of that fact, these are the PS3 exclusives whose siren calls beckon me to my doom:

· Demon's Souls

· God of War III

· Heavy Rain

· Killzone 2

· Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

· Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction/A Crack In Time

· Resistance: Fall of Man/Resistance 2

· Uncharted: Drake's Fortune/Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Those are the exclusives that interest me most. Perhaps you have some other AAA title ideas. In the meantime, I'll be happily chugging through my backlog of 360 exclusives and multi-platform titles.

How to get started with Rock Band?

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Sure, I like music. Who doesn't? But I never, ever thought I'd have any interest in playing Rock Band. Until I went to a friend's house the other night and everyone started playing Rock Band. At first, it was fun to watch, but I refused to try because I have lousy coordination and am not musically inclined in the least. Finally they got a bass controller in my hands and I gave it a shot.

Wow, I had fun!

So now I actually think I want to get Rock Band for myself on my X360. Problem is, I'm not sure about the best way to start out.

My wife LOVES the Beatles. So I could get TB:RB. But at ~$250 for the super-duper set, that's a little pricey. However, the ~$150 box set seems to come only with the RB1 controllers. If I'm going to buy into this game now, I'd rather have the latest generation controllers.

So maybe I can get the basic RB2 box set for the newer controllers. Prices for RB2 seem to be around ~$100. Then I could just buy the TB:RB game alone for another ~$50. I'd wind up with the latest generation controllers and two games (double the songs) for a "bargain" price. Oh... and I guess no matter what set I get, I'd have to buy another guitar controller, and probably another mic for the Beatles game.

My wife being such a Beatles fan, I'm wondering if she'd miss out not having the Beatles-specific controllers and bonus content.

It's a shame the song lists from the two games don't mix, so it'd be a pain to be switching back and forth all the time.

Meh, I don't know what to do. Any advice on the best way to get started, or where to get good pricing? Thanks in advance.

GameSpotter of the Year

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GameSpot is holding a GameSpotter of the Year contest. They have chosen 39 members over the course of 2009 and highlighted them in the Member Spotlight. I feel privileged to have been one of those selected. The members listed are good people with great blogs. Check out the story with the link above.

This is the time when I should say "Vote for me! Vote for me!", but I'm not like that. Here's what you should do: Read the story here and check out the members listed, each of whom deserves your attention. Pick someone who connects with you in their blogs and vote for them.

Wait! What? I'm suggesting that you vote for someone else? Sure, why not. You're more than welcome to vote for me, but each of the other members who made the list are equally deserving of a vote. I even track several of the other members listed myself. Unfortunately, you can only vote once. So… make up your own mind, and I thank anyone who votes for me in the end.