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Game of the Year Time!

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Hello to anyone who still takes the time to read my very occasional blog. I am still alive and kicking and I do still visit the site regularly, but my blogging days seem to sadly be mostly over. I have 12 more blogs to go to hit my 700th blog and about 8 months to go before I hit my 10th anniversary on the site. I have done some sort of Game of the Year blog every year for the past, I dunno, at least 5 years if not more. So I wanted to at least do something quickly this year.

I sadly didn't get a chance to play nearly as many games as usual this year. I ended up playing a lot of very lengthy games which limited the total number of games I could play. I spent well over 100 hours playing through most of both Dragon Age games. I spent an additional 30 hours playing most of Risen. I also spent a ton of time playing some turn based strategy games like Shogun 2, EU3, Warlock Master of the Arcane, X-Com, Settlers and a bunch of other games with no real end game. I did, though, manage to get through about a dozen games this year although only half actually came out this year. There are still a huge number of worthy games I haven't played, but with no next-gen console and a lengthy PC backlog I don't imagine I'll be getting to most of those games any time soon. So basically my list will be culled from PC, 360, and PS3 games.

I've thought a lot about format and such and basically I've decided a Top 4 list is in order. Why only 4? Because I only played 4 worthwhile games this year. Like I said, I didn't get through all that much. With each entry I'll also note any sort of superlative element, such as best graphics or best story and so on and so forth. Okay so here be the list.

4. DMC

BEST: Action Game, PC Performance

THOUGHTS: When it was announced, DMC earned the ire of fans for changing Dante's haircut and being made by British people. Luckily the British people did a good job and included an unlockable skin that let you make Dante look like the old, ugly, version if you wished. The secret, though, is that the new Dante was better written and better drawn than the old one. His story was more relatable, his world more original. On consoles the slow framerate caused some fans to lament the loss of the super smooth controls of the previous games, but the incredible PC port ran at a constant 60 fps at max settings in 1080p without fail. The platforming aspect of the game was vastly improved with the addition of chains that pulled Dante towards objects, or them towards him. A controllable and reliable camera helped with this. The combat may not have been as deep or as technical as DMC3 or DMC4 but it was far better than anything Ninja Theory had done before, and was at the very least comparable to the God of War series. I really don't have any flaws to mention. One might say that technically it is not as impressive as the best looking Unreal Engine 3 titles, but framerate is important here. You could also argue that the facial animation here maybe isn't as good as previous Ninja Theory games, and the same might be said about the story. Overall, though, DMC easily takes my prize as the best action game of the year, beating out Metal Gear Rising, Remember Me, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge and God of War Ascension.

3. Tomb Raider

BEST: Hair Physics

THOUGHTS: Tomb Raider was the other reboot released this year that had people worried. Like DMC, though, the worry was mostly for naught. Tomb Raider is a solid action adventure game. It combines Uncharted style set pieces with side missions, open areas, and RPG style upgrades. The story could use a bit of work but it isn't the misogynist mess people would have had you believe before its release. Unlike Uncharted's Nathan Drake, Laura reacts remorsefully when she has to butcher largely innocent people and animals. She feels pain and lets you know it. But Laura is far from weak. In fact she overcomes her initial insecurity and ends up rescuing all the big burly men who wanted to protect her. And she does all this while keeping her hair perfectly flowing, a physics defying feat that proves that she won't let little things like the laws of nature hold her down. While performance on consoles was a bit iffy, on PC Tomb Raider was a lovely looking game all around with solid if not spectacular performance and great art direction.

2. Bioshock Infinite

BEST: Graphics/Art, First Person Shooter, Use of a Song, Most Thought Provoking, Sequel

THOUGHTS: Bioshock Infinite was announced over three years before its eventual release. In those three years the hype for the game grew almost immeasurable. The end product was one of the best games released since the original, although it didn't quite live up to the quality of its predecessor. The greatest success of Infinite was its stunningly realized world. Rapture is one of the most iconic settings in a game, and Columbia managed to be every ounce its equal. The world was truly a thing of beauty, with a deep and layered backstory that had more social commentary than the rest of this year's AAA games combined. The solid Bioshock combat returned from the first game with the addition of the skyhook and Elizabeth. Ah yes, the classic damsel in distress. Elizabeth is quite literally a princess locked in a tower who the player is sent to rescue. But as it turns out, Elizabeth is far more powerful than either her captors or savior. Director/Writer Ken Levine takes Elizabeth and Booker's journey in an entirely unexpected direction and the conclusion has lead to some of the most fascinating discussions amongst gamers I have ever seen. With an incredible story and characters, a beautiful and awe inspiring setting, and solid gameplay vastly improved over the original, Bioshock Infinite is about as close as one can get to a perfect game without being there, and the heart warming scene which sees Booker and Elizabeth singing Will The Circle Be Unbroken proves to be one of the best scenes in gaming for quite a number of reasons.

1. The Last of Us

BEST: Game, Music/Score, Actor, Actress, Character, Story, Third Person Shooter, Original IP

THOUGHTS: It seems that the key to making a great game this year involves having Troy Baker play a middle aged man redeeming himself by rescuing a teen girl who ends up becoming something of a daughter figure to him. While Bioshock takes this premise in a more detached, thoughtful direction, Naughty Dog's The Last of Us goes straight for the emotional jugular. From the heartbreaking opening scene which may be the most powerful scene I have ever played in a game, to the pitch perfect conclusion, The Last of Us is a perfectly paced story filled with relatable, believable characters, written well and acted better. The outstanding motion capture technology allows the actors' smallest facial movement to be translated into the game. The result is maybe the best story a game has yet seen, or at least the best told. It isn't just the story that impresses, though. The Last Of Us is a masterful survival horror game that actually focuses on survival. Combat is brutal and death can come swiftly. The AI is some of the best in the business, flanking, making good use of cover, and generally behaving exactly how you would expect an actual person to behave in the situation. Meanwhile, the zombie portions are tense moments where even a small mistake can lead to a near instant death. All of these situations are set in levels that both look and feel believable. What's more, these levels allow you to experiment with multiple paths to the same objective. This is no Call of Duty. The Last of Us let's you choose how to get through each level.

I think in the end what really puts The Last of Us over the edge as not only the best game of the year, but one of the best games of all time is the attention to detail. It's very rare for a game to catch me by surprise these days but one moment in The Last of Us really stood out. In the scene Joel and Ellie are riding a horse onto an abandoned university campus. This isn't an on-rails situation mind you. You have free movement and multiple paths to your objective as usual. At one point I walked into a hallway with Ellie following on horse. I realized that I had made a wrong turn so I jumped up onto the horse to ride out. As I came to the doorway I realized that Joel was going to be too tall to make it through. I didn't have time to stop so I just kept riding, expecting the game to either stop me or for Joel to clip through the wall. What happened instead, though, blew my mind. Joel ducked. It doesn't sound like much, but this was the only time in the entire game where you road a horse, and the only hallway you could enter too short for Joel to get through. Not only that, there were some broken points in the wall that would have likely let me through if I had more carefully threaded my way through. No one would have taken Naughty Dog to task for not accounting for this one situation. But they did. And Joel ducked. It's the type of tiny, minor detail that raises The Last of Us from an excellent game to a classic one. If I have any critique of the game it would be the poor framerate. But considering how far The Last of Us is pushing the ancient PS3 hardware it's a tradeoff I can accept.

Well Aren't You Looking Lovely Today Gamespot!

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Link. Class. F$%^ yes! It's been over three months since I last blogged. Yea, I know, it's a long time. But I have been visiting the site regularly, and been participating in the beta for the new Gamespot, which all of you lovely people are now able to see!

I wanted to congratulate the design and engineering teams on a great new site! Compared to the Giantbomb launch a year ago this has gone a ton more smoothly and I'm looking forward to seeing some of the great improvements (like the video player) being ported back over to that site. I love the look. It's easy to use. I was able to find everything I needed right away. The left hand news feed is one of my favorite additions, as is the new page design for reviews. Of course I've already told the team all this. I also wanted to thank all you guys so much for including the advanced search feature on the games page! I know I pretty much included that as my number one requested feature in every single report and survey and I really appreciate its inclusion!

A couple other things I wanted to talk about. Of course two the biggest bones of contention will be the new review system and the use of an adblock blocker.

The new review system I think is fine. When Gamespot was founded it used a 100 point scale. Then it dropped down to 20 and now down to 10. I don't think this is a bad thing. Film reviewers have been using anywhere from a 4 point scale to a 10 point scale for decades now. The reason? Because there is no real difference between a 8.4 and an 8.3. All it does is let fanboys argue that their chosen game is better than another. The goal of a review is to let the reader know whether or not to get a game, not to rank the games on a system. That is the purpose of year end awards and top 10 lists. The 20 point scale worked well with that, but this simplifies things and doesn't really change the rating system, since there were only 10 different levels of ratings before (see the rating guide). As for having more than one reviewer review a game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand the more editors review a game the more likely you are to get an editor with similar tastes review a game you want. On the other hand, that time could also be spent writing reviews for lesser known games that really could use the boost that a review on a major site like Gamespot could provide. I'm sure people who had never heard of Gone Home decided to at least look it up after Gamespot's glowing review.

And then we have Adblock. There are a couple of things to note with this redesign of Gamespot. While there have been a good half dozen redesigns of this site in the past 15+ years, none of them really changed the back end of the site. That is, all they did was add a new coat of paint to a building that has been crumbling for well over a decade. This new site is a complete revamp based on the code used to design the new Giantbomb. It makes a ton of things a hell of a lot easier on the back end as well as the front including the ability to make quality versions of the site for all manner of platforms and browsers. The video player has seen a major overhaul, the review creation system has seen its first real update in over a decade, and numerous other changes have made it easier to get content to us more quickly and with less hassle. So for those who argue that the only point of this redesign was to increase ad space, well you are very, very wrong. This design took over a year and the team behind it are a really passionate group of guys and gals who very clearly care about the quality of the site and the user experience.

So why block Adblock? The key reason is that ads are this site's only source of revenue. A ton of people have complained that the site is being greedy by forcing users to see ads. It isn't greed, though. It is the sole form of revenue. The editors, video production staff, and site design/engineering team all need to get paid for this site to stay open. That means either directly charging users for content (on either a pay by use scheme or a subscription scheme) or indirectly charging them through ads. Now I'm sure a lot of you will say you would prefer the former, but the fact is that such a scheme just won't keep the site afloat at its current scale. So we have ads. It isn't the greatest thing out there but I think the vast majority of people who visit the site would prefer to see an ad than pay $15 a month or what have you.

So with all that out of the way, I want to again congratulate the team on a job well done and I hope everyone enjoys the new site!

I also want to get back into the habit of blogging and reviewing stuff more often. Hopefully this setup will get me back into that more often.

Oh and for those who haven't seen my profile on Giantbomb, I just copied and pasted all of the images here since the user section is pretty much identical.

Don't Count The Wii U Out Yet

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There's a sentiment among gamers this year that the Wii U was dead on arrival. There have been comments saying that this will be Nintendo's last console, and that the publisher will focus on only handheld titles, or even go third party like Sega did a decade or so ago. What a lot of younger gamers don't know is that this sentiment has followed Nintendo around since the N64. People love to say Nintendo is doomed to fail. And time and time again Nintendo proves people wrong. I've come to learn to never count Nintendo out.

There are a couple reasons for this cycle of doubt followed by massive success. I think one of the foremost is that Nintendo consoles and handhelds tend to launch rather poorly. While people today remember the DS and Wii as the biggest successes of this generation, during their first year neither console proved to be a massive hit. Then word of mouth built up, and a couple Mario games and a system redesign later both the Wii and DS were selling like hotcakes. Nintendo's main flaw is their lack of software early on. Now almost all systems suffer from a light first year release schedule, but Nintendo suffers more than most for a couple of reasons. One is that people buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games. Until there is a 3D Mario game, a new Zelda game, a new Smash Brothers, and a new Zelda, a lot of people just aren't interested. A lot of people talk about the concept of a "killer app" or a game that is so good it is worth buying a console for. For Nintendo that killer app will almost certainly involve Mario or Zelda. And while New Super Mario Brothers U is a nice start, there have been a few too many of those games coming out, and a 2D platformer isn't exactly the best way to prove the merits of a new console.

Outside of Mario, Nintendo has only released three games for the Wii U, Nintendo Land, SING Party and Game and Wario. That's it. No really, I checked. Two mini-game collections, a dance game, and a 2D platformer. I don't think the Wii U is dead. I think it hasn't even begun. It's almost like Nintendo put the system out a year early without any games ready for it just to beat Sony and Microsoft to the punch. In fact that is most likely exactly what happened. In a couple weeks, though, Nintendo will release its first fully 3D game for the Wii U, Pikmin 3. If you've seen the videos starting to circulate online, you can see that it is a truly beautiful game that puts the vast majority of current gen titles to shame both technically and artistically. It's the type of system showcase that would have made a big impact six months ago. Now with much better looking games on the horizon it is a bit hard to be too excited for the visuals of the Wii U. And while we all love to say gameplay is king, let's face it, for the average person, visuals are going to be a huge factor in deciding what games to get. If it doesn't look good in an ad on TV or on the Internet then chances are it won't sell well. Because of that, Nintendo has an uphill battle when it comes to marketing its games. Because, let's face it, few companies make better playing games than Nintendo. But that is something incredibly hard to show off, especially with the crazy control schemes for something like Pikmin 3.

So that said, what does Nintendo need to do? In reality not all that much. Pikmin may be a hard sell. And The Wonderful 101 is going to be all but impossible to market. But then next year we get our 3D Mario and our Mario Kart and our Smash Brothers and maybe even our Zelda and this year won't matter. You might say that there is no way Nintendo can succeed releasing the same four games yet another time, but look at the 3DS. It went from a disappointment to a major hit as soon as that Mario Kart and Mario game got out there. If next Christmas the Wii U still looks to be in bad shape, then it will be okay to start predicting doom and gloom. But Nintendo systems haven't had great first years since the SNES for a console and GBA for a handheld.

To put it in perspective, sales of the DS more than doubled during its second year on the market. It's big breakout moment? Q4 2005 right after the release of Nintendogs and Mario Kart DS when sales essentially doubled. Point is that games sell systems and Nintendo is notoriously slow at putting out new games. Give Nintendo a year to turn things around. Chances are the Wii U will not be the success that the Wii was but it doesn't need to be to keep Nintendo going. The Genesis sold less than a third as many copies as the Wii. The SNES sold only half. The Gamecube sold only a fifth as many copies. Nintendo has most likely hit its peak at least for the foreseeable future. But anyone saying that the Wii U is finished should hold judgment. Nintendo very rarely strikes out. It may take a while for them to warm up, but eventually they'll manage something.

Double Fine Kickstarter Delay: The Gamer Publisher

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Yesterday news hit that Double Fine's Kickstarter Adeventure game, Broken Age, was not going to be finished within the current budget. To complete the game as envisioned, Double Fine was going to have to release the first half of the game on Steam and use the sales to fund the completion of the second half. [EDIT: I wanted to clarify since many people seem confused that the second half of the game will be released as free DLC for those who buy the first half. If you backed the game at a level where you received the game as a reward you will get BOTH HALVES for free. They are doing what Steam refers to as Eary Access, which lets developers sell unfinished games with the promise to update the game for free as more content is completed. Think of this like Minecraft. People are getting the pre release build with half the game and will receive the second half when it is done] Many backers accepted this as the best solution in the situation, but probably a majority were extremely upset to not get the game they were promised when they were promised on the budget they promised. Their responses were, unsurprisingly, the exact same responses a publisher would have given in the situation. It is a beautiful irony that will hopefully really improve the relationship between publishers and gamers.

Why does Activision rarely change Call of Duty? Why are they still using an updated version of the engine Infinity Ward made  in 2007, which was itself just an adapted version of the engine used in Call of Duty 1 and 2, which was itself just an adapted version of the Quake 3 engine? Why is this also true of a fair number of other engines? Why do developers make the same game over and over? The answer is that making a new engine, a completely new gameplay style, or a completely new world takes time and money, and it will go wrong. That's not it might go wrong. It will. Without a doubt. That doesn't mean the final product won't be great. But it does mean that to reach that great point the budget is going to have to increase. Maybe a piece of tech doesn't work as planned. Maybe a new gameplay mehcnanic isn't as fun as expected. Maybe there were just too many ideas being thrown around for too long before the developers could find the exact set of mechanics they wanted. Whatever the reason, making a new IP is tough and no matter how safe your schedule seems, it is never going to be safe enough.

The average game developer gets paid about $80,000 a year. For a Call of Duty sized team of 150 people or so, an extra year of development costs around $12 million. For a small indie team of 10 people or so you are talking about $70,000 a month or $800,000 a year. Now every time a game is delayed there is a common response from gamers. "Take as much time as you want. Just make the best game you can." They don't care that investors lose $1 million every month the game is delayed. They don't care that for each month of delay a game has to sell as many as 50,000 more units to make the investment worth it. They just want the best game possible. And that is fair.

What isn't fair, though, is when publishers are villified when they choose not to spend $10 million more on a game to improve its quality. After all, what Double Fine is talking about is asking for a good 3x increase in funding to release the game they want. Now I don't know this for certain, but I would say at least 90% of backers would choose to receive a worse game over increasing their backing by 3x. That is a logical thing to say. As an investor you don't want the best product possible. You want the best product possible for your investment. And those two things are never, ever, the same thing. Yet gamers constantly demand that publishers take major risks on games that may go millions, or even tens of millions, of dollars over budget. Ask them if they would have supported this game if they had known it would go millions over budget, almost all of them would say no. It's a two faced standard. The consumer isn't meant to care about the cost of making a product. At the same time, it is wrong for them to assume that a publisher is "evil" if it doesn't take the risks that the average person would never take themselves.

People have said that Double Fine should know better. But that simply isn't true. Virtually all of the best games of all time were delayed at least to a degree. Just this generation I can name Half Life 2, Portal 2, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Red Dead Redemption, GTAIV, Assassin's Creed, The Last of Us, Braid, Mass Effect, and countless more. Back in the 90's Halo was not only delayed, but it changed genres three times, started out as a Mac exclusive before moving to PC and finally Xbox, and went from being self published to being published by Rockstar to being published by Microsoft. And Bungie had been making games for over a decade by that point. The fact is that new IP's never go as planned and sometimes, like in the case of Bioshock or Halo, the game can go through numerous entirely different iterations before the developer settles on a setting, platform, or even genre. And that happens to people like Miyamoto (Hell Pikmin 3 isn't even a new IP and is has been delayed by nearly a year) who has been doing this for 30 years, as well as people who are making their very first game. It just happens. And it is not the fault of the developer or the publisher. It is just part of the game making process. The only difference here is that this process has suddenly been exposed to the public like never before.

Call of Duty is the same every year because the less you change the less chance there is that something will go wrong. That's why Call of Duty is generally much more polished than, say, Battlefield or Medal of Honor. By making major changes every iteration, the final product is not as polished as it could have been if the scope was less ambitious. So we end up with massive Day One patches, and bugs that persist for months after the game is released. And people complain. But that is the sacrifice that EA makes to get out a more ambitious game. It is also arguably why their single player games are less fun. See for most games the first 60-80% of development is spent making the game work. The rest of the time is spent making the game fun. The lower that former number is, the better the game will be. For Call of Duty, the game will work almost immediately. Their number is probably closer to 30% or 40%. That way they can spend 60% of the time or more balancing and polishing. And that is literally the difference between a good game and a bad one. The folks at Activision have the time to redo something if it isn't fun enough. They can rearrange a level over and over until it flows perfectly. At EA parts of the game aren't even functional until 80% of the way through development. That gives them almost no time to change something when it isn't as fun as it seemed.

And that right there is the challenge of making a new IP off of a new engine. Because it is going to take a long time for the engine to even be at a point where you can start really testing the stuff you make. And it is going to take even longer to make that stuff work. And at that point you've probably already spent a couple years and you haven't even tried to make the game fun yet. That's why new IP's on new consoles often end up more as proof of concepts than fully realized games. Assassin's Creed, Gears of War and so on and so forth all required a couple iterations before they found their stride. And that's because by the time they made the game work they had to focus on just a small amount of content if they were going to have time to make that content fun.

Anyways, the end result of all this is that most of the time the final product is drastically cut from the initial vision. But normally the public has no idea what that initial vision was because we don't see the game until it is at the working stage. With Kickstarter, though, we suddenly get to see how a game goes from its initial vision to the final product. And let me tell you, the final product is very rarely as cool as the initial promise unless you are willing to invest insane amounts of money to make it so. And most publishers aren't. And that doesn't make them evil. It doesn't make them heartless. It makes them the same as any other person who invests in a project and expects results based on the initial funding amount not 3x more than that. Sometimes you get at Take Two who will delay a game by half a decade to make it work. For them that pays off half the time (Bioshock or Red Dead Redemption for example) and sometimes it doesn't (Spec Ops: The Line or Max Payne 3). Luckily for Take Two, when they have a hit they usually have a major hit. And that lets them take big swings at risky products and miss. It is also why Take Two is considered the riskiest investment in gaming. Because if they miss too many times then it is all over for them as they don't have any sort of yearly release to keep them afloat.

So before you next call a publisher evil for cancelling a game or releasing it before it is ready, imagine you were an investor in the company, and imagine if you were told that you would have to invest 3x more money to release the game as initially envisioned. Would you agree to that, or would you try to reach a point where the game was good enough. Because that point where a game is good enough is where every publisher is going to stop spending money on it. And for a publisher, good enough is the point where additional investment in the game will not increase sales enough to offset that investment. And that isn't an evil thing to do. It is what any of us would do in the same situation as has been proven today with Double Fine.

Today's Xbox Reveal Desires

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Later today, Microsoft will unveil its latest Xbox. For months rumors have been swirling around about the hardware, software, and features of the latest box. Today the truth behind these rumors will be revealed. But I don't want to talk about what I think will come today, but instead what I want to see. Most of these things almost certainly won't come to pass, and a couple likely will, but that won't stop me from wanting the best possible box from Microsoft and the best possible presentation.

 

1. Focus On The Games - We know that Microsoft almost certainly will be pushing the multimedia capabilities of the next Xbox, but if I had my way I would want a system that focuses on games first and everything else second. It is nice to have an all in one box in my room, but if I had to choose between the ease that comes from a single box and the quality that can come from a system designed first and foremost for games, I would always choose the latter. We know the multimedia features are coming. We don't care. Show us the games today and talk about the other stuff at an event focused on people other than gamers.

2. Announce Free Xbox Live - Probably never going to happen, but I would love if Xbox Live took the PSN approach and offered online play for free. Sony's PS Plus service has put Microsoft to shame this generation and with Sony's promise to vastly improve its network on the PS4, Microsoft might lose the current advantage it has as far as speed and ease of use is concerned. I think it's also important for Microsoft to realize that one of the big reasons people stuck with Xbox Live this generation was because they started there and all their friends were there. In the end it didn't matter how much better a game was on a Sony system. For any game that people wanted to play with friends, they played on the system those friends had. In the US, chances are that system was an Xbox. And the reason for that was that Xbox came out first, and in its first couple of years, the PS3 was a pretty awful system with even worse marketing. This time, though, the releases of the systems will likely come within a month of each other, and Sony looks to have fixed many of the key problems with the PS3. Microsoft doesn't have the advantage of a much better start this time. They need to push their features if they want to win back the highly coveted Call of Duty crowd.

3. Don't Announce an Always Online Xbox - Please, please, please, don't make people always be online to play games. Not only is it encroaching on the rights of consumers, but many people throughout the world do not have access to constant internet service and it would be a shame for those people to not be able to use the next Xbox. I expect if Microsoft pushes always online then consumers are going to fight back. We've yet to have a case like this reach the Supreme Court here in the US, but I would definitely expect them to have to issue a verdict on this issue. When buying a game, in theory consumers own that game, or at the very least a license to use that game. By saying that people cannot play their games when their Internet goes down it could be argued that Microsoft is trying to restrict people from using their property. That is a major battle and one I hope Microsoft would not win. In addition, it means that when Xbox Live one day goes down, all those games will be worthless. It's a major issue and one I hope Microsoft will avoid altogether by simply letting people play offline.

4. Put the PS4 Hardware to Shame - Again, not going to happen, but I would love for Microsoft to at least match the hardware in the PS4. All signs, though, point to the next Xbox being a much inferior system from a pure processing standpoint to the PS4. Notably, the next Xbox will supposedly not use GDDR5 RAM but standard DDR3 RAM. While quite a few people don't really understand the signifigance of faster RAM, many would argue that the speed of the RAM is just as important, if not more so, than the overall amount. The vastly inferior RAM that Microsoft will probably use is going to ensure that games will simply always look better on the PS4. Add in the fact that the PS4 is rumored to have a much faster GPU and Microsoft is going to have a really hard time proving their system is worth getting for gamers, especially because both systems are most likely going to use near identical parts. In such a situation it is quite easy to say that one system is more powerful than the other, unlike currently, where the use of different architecture means that direct comparisons are sometimes difficult.

5. Don't Be All About Kinect - Kinect is going to be a focal point of the next Xbox. For things that aren't games it is a great way to control the system. Give it a Siri level of intelligence and it could be a great thing. Watching TV and see an ad for a product you want? Wouldn't it be nice to ask Xbox where to find the product and read reviews and so forth. Ordering food on Xbox is possible even now, but seamless (get it?) integration with an online food ordering service would make dinner and a movie an easy thing to achieve without ever leaving your couch. But as a gaming controller, Kinect is never going to replace a normal dual analogue setup for certain types of games. Yea, the increase in fidelity offered by the Kinect 2 might make things easier, and there are definitely games that can be made with the Kinect in mind, but make it a 10 minute segment of an hour long presentation. I don't want to hear that every game on the next Xbox has to use Kinect in some way. That isn't how it should work. Developers need to make Kinect games with Kinect in mind. Shoe horning additional functionality into an existing game just is never going to work as well as it is supposed to.

But imagine a VR system like Occulus Rift combined with something like Kinect and you could see how a true virtual reality experience might be possible. Even using Illumiroom with other Kinect features could lead to some cool results. How awesome would it be to control an interface like Robert Downy Jr. does in Iron Man? Move an object in real time with your hands, and have that object move beyond the confines of the TV, or use the Occulus to literally make the world evolve in front of you. Imagine combining an Illumiroom type Kinect system with the Occulus Rift. You could literally make a fully working simulated version of the room you are in and what you are doing and view it all in what would seem to be a fully realistic environment. It would be actual virtual reality, and it is possible with Kinect and Occulus Rift. But unless Microsoft is ready to unveil that type of tech later today, then show off a couple Kinect games and then move on. And in all honesty, I don't believe that the next Xbox will have the horsepower to actually do that, speaking to create a 1080p image on an Occulus Rift you actually need a 4k screen and recent tests have shown that not even 3 Geforce Titans in SLI can manage 4k on the most demanding games like Crysis 3.


6. Don't Worry About Backwards Compatibility - I know this is going to rile some feathers and it rightly should, but I'll try to explain why I don't think the next Xbox should be backwards compatible. First off, the thing that makes this hard is that the next Xbox will most likley use an x86 based CPU, unlike the PowerPC IBM CPU used in the 360. This means that the only option for backwards compatibility is putting the actual physical 360 hardware inside of the next Xbox (as Sony did with the original PS3's) or use emulation (as Microsoft did this generation). The first option is simply going to be too expensive and I'd personally rather not spend an extra $75 at least on the system to have a 360 included in it. The second option is going to require some of MS's best engineers to work on emulating a bunch of stuff. That's fine, but I would much rather have those dudes working on software for the new Xbox instead. Look at how much of a graphics boost Sony got when its top techs came up with MLAA. Suddenly, AA, one of the most processor costly effects in gaming, especially on modern deferred rendering engines, was suddenly cheap to use. Games could add in a ton of new effects and increase texture and model detail just because of that simple algorithm. Microsoft, meanwhile, had to wait until Nvidia came up with the similar yet inferior FXAA before they could use cheap AA in their system. Point is, I don't want Microsoft to have its top engineers working on making old stuff work on the next Xbox, I want them to make brand new software that will make new Xbox games look and run much better. Honestly, if I really want to play a 360 game I will play it on a 360. I think the other option is to have some sort of attachable device that you could plug into the next Xbox that would essentially be a mini 360. Doing that though would require a connection with much faster bandwidth than a USB drive. You'd need something like Apple's Thunderbolt tech to make something like that possible, which will again increase the cost of the system, and is honestly pretty useless. I have a 360 now. Why would I sell it and buy an add-on instead of just keeping the 360? Not all that hard.

7. Finally, and maybe most importantly, have some really cool games to show off. Sony really knocked it out of the park with their demonstrations. While Killzone maybe wasn't quite ready for the primetime, the stuff from third parties looked great, and having Bungie on stage was a big coupe. The challenge will be showing off enough big guns at this event to get people talking, while still saving enough surprises to outdo Sony at E3. Of note, Naughty Dog has yet to show off a game, Meida Molecule hasn't shown their PS3 game, Guerilla is working on a new IP they might show, and the Resistance team at Insomniac most likely has a PS3 exclusive under their belt. Add in a probable new Final Fantasy reveal and Microsoft will have some major work to do if they want to show up Sony next month.

But with the next Forza being revealed today most likely, Call of Duty officially on the docket, and a new Kinect game from Rare and Harmonix almost sure to make an appearance, that leaves Microsoft with few reliable names to call on. There's little chance that a new Halo is ready to show speaking Halo 4 launched only six months ago, which leaves Lionhead as the only remaining major internal studio at Microsoft. They haven't released a game in a couple of years, so it is probable they have something to reveal. But the list of games so far doesn't have any huge reveal in it. Forza is nice, but with both GT6 and Race Club coming from Sony, it will take quite a bit for Microsoft to win the racing title. That leaves a couple close second party studios to pick up the slack. I would love to see Alan Wake 2, and have the game be what the first game was promised to be back when it was announced in 2005. And Epic has shown off several great tech demos over the past couple of years, but I would expect and hope that they have a great new IP ready for display, although that might be something to save for E3. I guess the big thing is that Sony has a ton of first and second party studios and a significant number are in a good place to announce a new game, including some of their most acclaimed teams. Meanwhile, Microsoft has only a handful of studios and both Gears of War and Halo saw releases in the last six months. They are in a tough spot and I hope they manage to pull some great tricks out of their hat. A couple other wildcards are Ryse from Crytek which is rumored to have moved to the next Xbox, and possibly a new Crackdown. Really, though, sequels are nice, but Microsoft needs some major new IP if it wants to compete with the more powerful PS4 and its current relationship with both consumers and developers makes that seem highly unlikely.

The Greatest Photographer To Never Share a Photograph

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Some of you who are art lovers may have spent time over the past year exploring the work of Vivien Maier. This brilliant photographer is today considered one of the greatest who ever lived. Yet despite taking over 100,000 photos throughout the 1950's and 1960's she never developed a single negative. It wasn't until 2007, over half a century later, that her undeveloped work was purchased by an amatuer historian at a Chicago auction house. As he started developing the photos he realized that he had stumbled upon a work of great importance. Here were some of the greatest street photos of Chicago and New York ever taken yet he had no idea who took the photos or when. It wasn't until 2009 that he learned of Vivien Maier, and at that point she was already dead. Speaking to her friends and relatives, the historian learned that no one knew about her photographs. She never spoke of them, never showed them to anybody. In fact very few people knew anything about her. She was private and secretive. Her life remains mostly a mystery even today. Later this year a documentary will be released that does its best to piece together the life of Vivien Maier. Meanwhile you can look through some of her photos and find more info here.

I think the most interesting part of this story to me is imagining in today's society a person who never shared a single photo they took. Today's obsession with fame, fans, and followers means that most people put as much of themselves as possible out there for the world to see. People make art and post it online hours after it is done. You aren't an artist unless you have an online portfolio, and a Facebook Like page where all your friends and fans can openly admire your greatness. Who now makes art for the sake of art? Vivien took photos because it was her passion. She created art for the sake of creating art. Creativity was her drive and creation was her end goal. Fame and fortune were not in her mind. This was a woman who knew her skill and talent and didn't need or want anyone to tell her how great she was. Some of my friends on Facebook have well over 1,000 photos posted. Instagram lets people take and share a photo instantly across the web. Seeing something cool means sharing it with your friends. Making something cool means sharing it ith your friends. In our connected society the idea of a Vivien Maier is almost ridiculous. Yet here we are about to learn the story of one of the greatest photographers of all time who never shared a single photograph. It just makes me think about today's society and our obsession with celebrity. To be so great yet never admit it. Now that is truly an artist.

To The Moon and Interactive Narratives

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To The Moon is the most powerful game I have ever played. As I went through this incredibly affecting and stunningly powerful tale of love, loss, and redemption I found myself near to tears several times. That beats the previous record held by Mass Effect 2 of me being momentarily sad when Tali's father dies. To The Moon features outstanding writing and one of the greatest musical scores I have ever heard in any medium. To The Moon also was made in RPG Maker. It's simplisitic and often poorly drawn sprite graphics might turn away more visually minded gamers, but To The Moon is an incredible example of a game whose graphics don't make or break the experience. Unfortunately, the gameplay also is largely inessential to the experience. And herein lies my problem with To The Moon. The "game" part of To The Moon borders between boring and downright bad. The only real gameplay present outside of walking around the environment to progress the story, is a simple flip puzzle where you have to flip squares on a grid to create a picture. It's incredibly simple, easy, and boring. By the third or fourth puzzle I just wanted to finish the damn thing and get back to the story. And I began to question how big of a problem this was.

To The Moon doesn't even have the excuse of games like The Walking Dead that the interactivity comes from making story choices. To The Moon has a linear narrative. The question is, really, would To The Moon work better as a visual novel? If the gameplay does nothing to enhance the experience, and, in fact, hinders it in several situations, why have gameplay at all? It's an interesting question and one that many people will argue over. For my money, a good game narrative is one that works best as a game. It's the type of narrative that is either enhanced through gameplay, or makes some sort of commentary on the game you are playing. A great recent example is Spec Ops: The Line. The story in Spec Ops was linear, but it forced the player to question the nature of modern military shooters and their sense of bravado. It is a story that would be an average movie, but because it is a game it works incredibly well. To The Moon gains nothing from being a game.

All that said, I have to return to my original statement that To The Moon is the most powerful game I have ever played. It is something that makes me pause. The recently deceased Roger Ebert said that games couldn't be art because of their interactivity. He said that the author of a piece needs to be able to direct the experience of the person entirely for the piece of art to have its intended effect. Looking at many of the non-linear narratives in gaming, I can't say that the story itself has been enhanced by non-linearity. It gives the player greater agency, and a sense that he or she is truly having an effect on the world. But as far as telling a compelling story goes, most of these stories would be as good or better without the interactive element. At the end of To The Moon a character makes a choice. It was a choice that could have been left to the player. But in doing so, the developers would have had to forsake the powerful ending that was the perfect conclusion to this tale. In letting the character make their choice without player input, the game was able to keep their motivations hidden, and the result is something that makes this story as amazing as it is.

So I guess the question on my mind is, is it possible to create an interactive story that has the same effect on the player as a linear story does? Or, is the addition of player agency a compelling enough reason to ignore the lower quality narrative? It's a question I am curious to explore and I'm curious to hear what all of you think about this. Regardless of my feelings that this "game" is much less a game and more of a visual novel, I would highly recommend it to anyone who values story in their games. This is the most powerful story ever told in a game. It combines a great premise with realistic dialogue and a musical score that is worth listening to over and over long after the game has finished. In fact I am listening to it as I write this blog. If you need action, excitement, or challenge in your games then stay away. This game isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you are willing to put aside the weak gameplay to experience this incredible story then please do so. It is worth your time and your money and will affect you like few other games you have played.

Is The Vita Failing That Badly?

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So today I was in Wal-Mart and I stopped by the electronics section just to see if they had any good deals. As usual they didn't. As I was looking through the gaming section I passed by the 360 section, the Wii section, the Wii U section, the DS and 3DS section, and the PS3 section before arriving at the end of the row. I couldn't help but feel like I was missing something. Then it hit me. Where was the PSP and Vita section? I walked back along the row thinking I must have missed it among the PS3 section but it wasn't there. I searched the accessory section, the new releases section, the strategy guide section, and even the discount PC games section but couldn't find any trace of Sony's handhelds.

Then I happened to look at an odd angle at a glass cabinet that mostly contained big box stuff that no one wanted. Sitting on a shelf that was certainly not viewable when normally walking by were the Vita games thrown hapazardly in no order and with no prices on them. There were no accessories for the system, and I honestly didn't even see any traces of the system itself. Just a handful of games tossed out of sight and out of mind. The PSP meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. I knew the Vita was struggling but is it really doing so bad that Wal-Mart has more shelf space for discount DS games than it does for brand new Vita games? I've heard Wal-Mart has been having shelving issues across the US so maybe this is just a case of not having anyone to shelve the games properly. But it was kind of shocking to see a system that is only a year old shoved out of sight while the DS had half a row worth of shovelware that must have been sitting there for several years.

So I'm curious. Has anyone else experienced anything similar at their local Wal-Mart? How about other stores? Is the Vita really doing that bad or was this just a single case of a poorly run store?

Back To The Future of Gaming

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I just want to start out this blog with an unrelated shout out. EA recently announced it will be holding a summit for developers to discuss LGBT portrayals in gaming. As a huge supporter of that community I think it is great that one of the biggest companies in the industry has put themselves under fire to support those guys and gals. EA obviously does a lot of terrible stuff, but I have no qualms saying I absolutely admire and respect them for doing this. Gaming has long been one of the most unfriendly places for homosexuals, which is a terrible tragedy. For a demographic that often needs a way to escape from reality more than any other, it is shameful that our industry does such a piss poor job of including them. So thank you to EA for taking a leading role in trying to change things from the industry end. I sincerely hope that gamers themselves can work to make our community more inclusive for all types of people.

Okay, just wanted to get that out of the way, because I do strongly support what EA is doing. Now the topic of the rest of this blog is about the movement of top developers from AAA to Indie studios and the support these Indie teams have gotten from the press. I think it is interesting because if you were to ask the average visitor to a site like Gamespot if they would prefer someone like Cliff Blezinski work on a AAA game or an Indie game I think almost everyone would say AAA. Yet if you were to ask most any developer who has been in this industry for as long as he has which they would prefer to work on, almost all of them would say Indie. Now a lot of people would blame this on the evil publishers who require lengthy hours for little reward. And there is definite truth in that. I think there is a bit more to it than that though.

A lot of the developers who are at the top of the industry today, grew up in the days of Atari or even earlier. To them, games were just that, games to pass the time away. Early game designers were called engineers. At Atari, Nolan Bushnell hired programmers not artists. Games didn't have much in the way of stories. They were "drawn" by a programmer and designed by a programmer. The industry was small and developers made the whole game themselves. These games had no ambitions beyond providing some fun for kids for an hour. Developers designed for a controller that had one joystick and one button. It was a simple time when break rooms were filled with weed and rock and roll music filled the hallways.

The game development of today is anything but simple. Designers at major companies don't answer to a couple hippies but to a room full of shareholders. Content is tightly controlled to appease market trends and rating requirements. The days of just sitting at your desk and making a game seemed gone until the rise of digital distribution through Xbox Live and later Steam and Smartphones. While many gamers look poorly upon many Indie games, especially those on smartphones, to many developers, smartphone games are what they signed up to make 30 years ago. And self publishing from their garage is the business model they planned when they started. For many of them, Indie games, especially smartphone games, are what they think of when they think of the term video game. And making those games either by themselves or with a small team is what they always wanted to do.

I guess that is the interesting split for me. For many designers and many of the older journalists and gamers, Indie games are what they imagine when they think of game. Yet for teenagers or younger, those types of games are trivial or inferior to what they consider true gaming. They call these games casual or describe them as "simple time wasters" or something to that effect, maybe unaware that games are in fact simple time wasters in many cases, and especially were if you go back more than 10 years.

Now I'm not saying that gamers and game designers shouldn't respect the changes and innovations that have occurred in the game industry over the past 15 years or so, but I think it is foolish to look down upon the designers, journalists, and gamers who claim to love Indie games, even of the smartphone variety. For many of these people, these were the games they grew up with. The games they wanted to make or wanted to write about or wanted to play. For many of my fellow bloggers and for several of the journalists on this site, gaming as a kid involved a controller with no more buttons than a smartphone. I don't want to turn this into another pro-smartphone blog, because that isn't the point. The point is that I feel younger gamers just don't understand why a developer or critic would want to make or cover an Indie game over a AAA game and that is sad. It shows a lack of understanding about gaming history and the type of "my games are better than your games" mentality that makes kids hate their parents' music.

In the end a game is meant to be fun. It is meant to entertain and the scale of a game doesn't really effect that one way or the other. But regardless of that, the point of this blog is to merely acknowledge that for many designers, critics, and gamers, games have changed so drastically from what they started out as, that it is very compelling to try and go back to those roots and try to bring gaming back to how it was when things started - a bunch of hippies just trying to have some fun.

The Best Game Ever Made Is On My Phone

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I bet you've heard this one. A gamer who argues that a good game simply can't be made on a phone containing only one button. For a "hardcore" game you need a controller with a dozen buttons, or for the PC crowd, a keyboard with dozens. Few would argue that I could make a deeper, more strategic, tactical, and overall better game using only one button than I could using ten or more. But the fact is such a game already exists and it has for centuries. Go is a board game that is played with one hand. The best way to play Go electronically is on a touchscreen. Simply touch where you want to place your piece and you have mastered every single mechanic in Go. In fact the game only contains four or five rules. Essentially, in Go two players take turns placing either white or black stones on a 19x19 grid with the goal of surrounding more areas of the board than your opponent. The only move you can make is to place a stone on the board. There is only one type of stone. There is only one type of square. The only rule is that you can't place a stone that would revert the game back to the way it was the turn before. It's a game so simple a five year old could learn it. It is also the most difficult game to master in the world. It requires more tactics and strategy than can be learned in a lifetime. It is perfectly balanced in almost every way. There is no luck involved. The more skilled player will always win. Don't believe me when I say how deep the game is? What if I told you there are more end game possibilities than atoms in the known universe? Or that there are more variations to a single game than there are named numbers in human science? There are in fact so many variables in play at any moment in Go that it would take the most powerful computer in the world longer than the remaining lifespan of the universe to calculate a single move. Even taking into account only four turns ahead would take such a computer almost a year and there are hundreds of turns in a game of Go. The 360 would not be able to calculate even a single turn in advance if they had started the day it came out and ended the day the next Xbox comes out.

So in essence you have a game that can be played by a five year old with one finger that makes all our so called hardcore games look like children's toys. A game so complex that a computer can't play it. A game so complex that no one has ever truly mastered it. In fact if you ask the top Go players in the world what their strategies are, they say they don't have any. They enter the "zone" in a way most people can only dream of, where they play entirely by feel. They can't tell you why they made a move because they are not consciously making decisions. They are so at one with the game that they have every sense tuned to the board. They see patterns everywhere and from decades of experience they recognize these patterns and simply know what to play. Because of that it literally takes a lifetime to become a master at Go. It requires you to dedicate decades worth of time to become one with the game so much so that your body and the board are one and the same.

Go is the best game ever made. It is incredibly easy to learn, but takes a lifetime to master. It is almost perfectly balanced and does not feature any aspect of luck. It is the most pure game ever to exist. And it doesn't require 20 buttons and hundreds of moves to do it. Point is, games don't need to be complex to be deep. The best games are those that anyone can pick up and play but only a select few will ever master. That really is the only requirement and that can be done with one button or 20 buttons or with your bare hands on a board. Never mistake complex mechanics for deep gameplay. Complex mechanics are not a good thing. A game should be easy to learn. The depth should come from the way those simple rules and mechanics can be combined to create numerous variations that are all fair for every player and fun to achieve.

Now before you ask, I have said several times that Go is almost perfectly balanced. And yes, that means that even the best game in the world isn't perfect. There is one minor flaw in the game, and of course that flaw is that black goes first meaning the black player always has the advantage. This advantage is miniscule and for two even players it should not make any difference, but generally if a more skilled player goes first the other player will be given a small handicap to make up for it. So, no, there is no such thing as a perfect game.

What say you guys? If Go can be so complex than what stops some iPhone designer from making a game that puts console and PC games to shame? A game of such incredible depth that no one will ever truly master it? We don't need massive controllers to do that. All it takes is one mechanic, one rule, and infinite possibilities.