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The Rise of Co-Dependent Video Games

You guys miss me? I've been M.I.A. for a while as I worked out some of my issues. I had to work out that whole incarceration thing (I swear to God I never dropped my soap in the shower and you can't prove that I did). Then there was the whole straight jacket incident... yeah, let's not discuss that. But I'm back now. And you know what that means? It means you're going to have to live with my gaming pontification once more. Deal with it; you know you love it.

Someone out there has to tell me what is with the proliferation of co-dependent video games? I'm going to use two (arguably) excellent games to explain my point: Nintendogs and Animal Crossing: Wild World. I'm going to reserve my judgment on these games for the moment I've actually played them enough to give suitable judgment on them. However, the little I have played begs the question "why do I want to feel as if I have gaming obligations?"

I play video games because I want to, not because I have to. However, with these two games there are time-dependent obligations that must be fulfilled. If one of your neighbors in Animal Crossing tells you to come back tomorrow, they really mean come back tomorrow. If you leave your dog alone for a couple days in Nintendogs, it reacts with such utter sadness and despair that you literally feel guilty.

It's a video game, for pete's sake! It's not even an MMO where I can understand that kind of behavior given that there are real people behind the characters and real relationships are affected by your presence (or lack thereof). However, I do not want to get guilt trips from a polygon puppy who doesn't understand I have bills to pay and women to chase. Ok, so maybe I just have bills to pay. A man can dream can't he? (And if they told you I was stalking them, they're liars, I tell you. Liars!)

The concept of having real-world tangibles such as your voice or the time of day affect your in-game experience is certainly an interesting idea; but I'm not sure how much I'm going to be able to jump on board with it. I don't want to feel obligated to play a video game. The beauty of World of Warcraft was that even with being in a guild I didn't feel obligated to play every day. In fact, there were whole months that went by when I didn't touch it because the real world demanded my attention.

I play video games for one reason alone: because I want to. And unless there's more to this new generation of guilt-tripping video games, I don't think a lot of them will be on any of my top ten lists.

Hurricane Katrina

I'd been going out of my skull all week long because one of my close friends live(d) in New Orleans (he's a freelance writer for GameSpot Mobile). Ironically enough, he was supposed to move to Southern California in the middle of September. I tried calling him and emailing him to no avail (understandably so). Then last night he contacted me. He and some of his friends had gotten out just at the start of the storm and he was doing ok.

Then he started telling me stories. Some of his friends had gotten out later than him and showed up at the house where he was staying a day or two after he did... and they inevitably came with horrific stories detailing the decline of human behavior in the region. 80% of the city was under water. Corpses were floating past rooftops. The details he gave me were so much worse than anything I'd envisioned that I can't even repeat them.

I put up a bulletin in the 4th Wall about what you can do to help if you want to. If you have three weeks of your life to give, the Red Cross is offering two days intensive training followed by three week deployment in New Orleans. If I could, I would be there in a second. But there are other ways to help and the first place to start is to contact your local Red Cross or a local church group. I'm an atheist, but this transcends my feelings about God.

The whole week, I've been sitting here in relative ignorance of what's going on down there. I'm pissed off at myself because I didn't fully understand the magnitude and the depth of things going on down there. The news reports are obviously disturbing, but it's a layer of abstraction that allowed me to not be as concerned about it about as I now am. I mean, outside of my own friends, I wasn't too concerned because I was under the mistaken impression that our disaster response would be adequate enough to handle it.

Now I'm less upset with myself, but I'm definitely more upset at what I see as a lack-luster response by the federal government. The media has done a (surprisingly) excellent job of keeping us up to date on the happenings. But the federal government took four days to appropriate funds for disaster relief; they took five days to get the National Guard there in any significant numbers; they took five days to get the airlines to start offering flights to affected residents to places where they could get help; and all Bush can do is go on TV and say something to effect of "it looks bad now, but we'll be stronger after it's over."

I'm telling you, I was not a lover of our President before this disaster. But his lackluster response to a disaster of this magnitude on American soil doesn't have me pissed off at him any more; it just has me completely and utterly disappointed. I disagreed with him on Iraq. But if there was one thing I never doubted it's that somewhere in his warped mind, a part of him thought he was doing the best thing for the country. Emotionally, I was in sync with him when 9/11 happened and in the days surrounding 9/11 he was nothing if not Presidential. During the immediate weeks following 9/11, I was actually proud to have him as our President. I thought about what it would have been like if Gore were in office and I was actually happy that Gore lost the election because I couldn't see Gore speaking to the American people on the emotional level that Bush was.

But now I'm just completely disappointed almost to the point of feeling broken. I was hoping I would have the opportunity to get that feeling back again; that feeling of American pride that was so obviously present in this country post-9/11. It was a feeling that stemmed directly from the leadership of the federal government. But I've been unable to find that feeling during thie crisis because our national leaders are dropping the ball. I listened to the Mayor of New Orleans address the nation on the radio and I've never heard a politician more... I used the word "raw" when speaking with WedgeWu earlier, but I think the word I was searching for was "real". I've never heard a politician more real. And he's nothing if not upset.

Two buildings fall down in New York, thousands dead, and the federal government's response was swift, sure, and decisive. A whole city sinks under the sea like Atlantis and it takes four days, an upset mayor, and corpses floating in between rooftops before the federal government gets the National Guard mobilized in any seriousness.

Before, I just strongly disagreed with Bush; now I'm just fed-up. I'm done with this administration. If you guys see me mouth off about Bush and his policies again remind me I said "I'm done with this administration". I'm done writing about them and I'm done caring about them. I'm just done. My tirade is over.

The 4th Wall

It's alive!

For a little while now, I've been talking about getting a few people together to put together a union to end all unions! Well this one is it. It's a place of opinion put together by a small group of us, including Oilers99, Adam_B, Andrew_A, and wedgewu. More will most likely be added over the next couple weeks.

What's the idea behind the whole thing? Well to get different members of the community speaking out about what's important to them in gaming. The first week of opinions is on a very tame issue: what gives a game value. Don't worry, it probably won't stay tame for too long... after all, Oilers99 isn't exactly a tame guy. :)

We will be adding new opinions every weekday (and if we get enough people, eventually every day). There are new features which we're thinking about adding to the mix as well... so this is only beginning. Check back daily (except this week Adam's not available, so he's probably not going to be posting)...

.. and let me know if you're interested in joining up and posting regularly.

Where TV Shows Go To Die

As this is my first posting on TV.com, I figured I should give a tribute to the shows I care about that will no longer be with us. Well, there's only one, really; Star Trek: Enterprise. This will be the first time in almost 30 years where there won't be a Star Trek on TV (not counting the ones in syndication) and it hurts my heart. I admit, I was skeptical of Enterprise in the beginning when I first heard that Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame was going to inherit the giant shoes of William Shatner and (more importantly) Patrick Stewart. But he surprised me; he was perfect. The premise of the show was really cool (for lack of a better word). I mean, as a Trekker (note: not Trekkie), I always wanted to know about the evolution of the transporter and warp drive. The way the Federation was formed always intrigued me. And Jolene Blalock definitely intrigued me. :) Seriously, though. What did Paramount expect when they put Trek on a Friday night? Friday nights are where television shows go to die. Another show I watch right now taken a serious drop in the ratings most likely due to their Friday night time slot (Joan of Arcadia). No, I am not even in the slightest bit religious. However, the show is very well done. But I mean come on! How many people really sit at home on a Friday night and watch TV? Not too many people I know. In the case of Firefly, Fox figured out after-the-fact that they made a big mistake taking it off the air. Yes, the show had low ratings while it was on the air... but dammit, it was put on a Friday night time slot! One of the only shows I know that did well on a Friday night was the X-Files. And not all shows are as exceptional as the X-Files once was. I was already pissed off by UPN's overly-stereotypical portrayal of African Americans, but cancelling Enterprise has pushed me over the edge. I have actually removed the station from my DVR listing in protest and unless it's a Star Trek, I'm never watching anything on UPN ever again. I would boycott Paramount altogether, but they make too many movies... I can't avoid them in the theater. Oh well, enjoy TV.com everyone. The crew here worked really hard to get it out the door and up and running. This is just the beginning of things to come. Now let's have a moment of silence for Friday night shows past, present, and future...

So close, yet so far...

Lumines has taken over my gaming life for the past couple weeks...

Last week I couldn't get above 638k. Today, my good friends, I'm here telling you've I've now hit 859,127 points. Now I know there are people who have already reached the 999,999 limit. Fortunately for them I don't have the time to play this game as much as I would like (what, with E3 approaching and all that).

999,999 is now within my grasp!

Final Fantasy VIII ...

...is the second worst Final Fantasy in the whole series. What's the worst? Final Fantasy VII.

I'm going to wait for the fanboys to calm down before I continue.

So now you're going to ask why I think these two are horrible Final Fantasy games? Well it all centers around one theme: choice. In both VII and VIII there's just too much choice. The graphics are great. The stories are up to Final Fantasy standards (read: excellent). But there's just too much choice.

My particular flavor of Kobe Beef with these games have to do with the materia system. It took away all attempts of character differentiation. In both games using the materia system I was able to give everyone Ultima and Knights of the Round Table making the battles a complete joke. My black mage had excellent white magic abilities. My fighter could toss lightening like nobody's business. All around character differentiation went down the tubes. The idea that each character had a particular strength appealed to me. But once the materia system came in to play each character could have the exact same strengths and then the only thing to differentiate one character from another was their back story.

That, my friends, is my beef with Final Fantasy 7 and 8. With that said, one of my favorite Final Fantasy's to date is Final Fantasy 10. Why? Because they gave you limited choice. Sure, you could spend an ungodly amount of hours giving everyone the same skillset through the sphere grid... but at the end of the day, Lulu was your black mage for most of the game given that she started out in that section of the grid (unless you moved her off that section way in the beginning). This limited choice is something I prefer. I have the freedom to tweak her in-game skills but not to give her (and everyone else) the powers of a deity.

Character differentiation is important to me in a role playing game. I want to know there's a reason for me to level up one person over another. I don't want to feel like I can just have three or four main characters who are unstoppable and can do everything -- because if I feel that way, I have no inclination to play with anyone else. As it is I have my favorite characters, but I still use everyone.

Is Final Fantay VII still a good game? Yeah, it is. But it's the worst one of the bunch.

And hey, none of them even hold a candle to Chrono Trigger.

The Rebirth of Video Games

Let's face it, I've been a video game slacker for years now. I don't know, for the most part, they had lost their pizzazz for me. That's not to say I wasn't playing them any more (because I certainly was still playing them a lot). However, I was playing them more out of habit than any fiending need for it. Whole months used to go by without me picking up a controller. Too many clubs to go to, too many movies to watch, too many girlfriend-related activities to attend to, and too many different things to arrange in the apartment.

Well I'm now re-dedicating myself to my second love (that being video games). I have removed the girlfriend-related activities from my life by removing the girlfriend (who would have thought a simple tactic like that could work); and let's face it, Hollywood hasn't been at it's best in the last couple years; and the apartment is all set (in fact, it's totally pimp). Why am I re-dedicating myself, you may ask? Because the PSP has fanned the flames of my passion for video games. I don't know why, but there's something about a new console that just gets me going again. In case you all haven't noticed there is now quite a long list of games on my "Now Playing" list. And yes, I am playing all of them at least twice a week.

And honestly, this isn't all due to the PSP... it's actually more due to Lumines. That game has single-handedly been responsible for reminding me why I love(d) video games so much: the multiplayer action. For the past couple weeks I've been locked in a heated point-scoring back and forth with Justin Calvert, a GameSpot editor. After a week or so of hard core Lumines we passed the honorable Greg Kasavin. Then it was just the two of us battling for the top slot in the office.

I've managed to hold him off for a little over a week now, but he's gunning for me. Until last night, I had a score of 303k points which he had yet to beat. Then he came back and beat that score by over 10k points. Luckily I had picked up Lumines again last night and put up a chart-topping 368k. Clearly I have to stay on my toes with him, otherwise he might regain the top slot he only recently lost.

This is why I love video games... the competition.

Sony Did It Right. Period.

For all of us serious gamers, it's not about the system, it's about the games. Right? 20+ games at launch, five of which have massively multiplayer online play. I myself have purchased 4 games: Lumines, Twisted Metal: Head On, Metal Gear Acid and WipEout and there are still a handful more that I need to purchase. But before I go in to the games, let's discuss the device.

The first thing everyone mentions is the sexiness of the device. But after days of using the PSP, it's not the sexiness that I'm impressed with, it's the ease of use. I don't know why, but I had expected things to be more complicated. Even though I've been playing with the PSP for a few months with the Japanese units lying around the office, it's different now because I actually own one and can experiment. First off, I expected the wireless setup to be more difficult than it was. I've now set up two different wireless hotspots (one with encryption and one without) and both times it was easy as pie. It was dirt easy to connect to the WipEout download site from inside the game. Playing Lumines and WipEout against local players was even easier. But there was one thing which I approached with complete trepidation: connecting to the Twisted Metal: Head On network and playing a game. My fear was completely unnecessary as I booted up Twisted Metal, logged in to the server (it automatically created my login with the password I supplied) and I was able to play immediately. My reaction: "Holy crap! Online works!" But the games? What about them?

Lumines. Wow. Those of you that know me from the forums know that I've been raving about this game since I first played the Japenese version in December. I was afraid that it might lose it's flavor once I bought it for myself. Boy was I wrong. It's just as addictive now as it was when I first played it. For those of you who haven't checked out one of the more recent Penny Arcade strips, check it out (I would just put the strip image in here, but I don't want to take away their ad impressions). While there are definitely some technical flaws with the game, replayability and enjoyment is at its peak whenever I play it. The few flaws I've noticed are the following:

  • The music takes a little bit of time to spin back up whenever I put the game on pause. While this doesn't really bother me or disturb my gameplay, it is something that's pretty obvious and I wish they had fixed it.
  • I don't know if this is a flaw or deliberate: if I'm pressing down to drop a block, once the block has landed the next block will continue to drop fast unless I take my finger off the down arrow. I would prefer it that the next block doesn't drop fast regardless of if my finger is still on the down arrow or not. Again, I'm not sure if this is a bug or deliberate, but it's a pin in the butt, especially when it gets to the point where I'm dropping things close to the top.

WipEout. Again, wow. This is one of the graphical powerhouses of the launch titles. While I agree that a game is more than just graphics, for all you DS fans, a good game with excellent graphics is better than a good game with crappy graphics. And WipEout is an excellent game with excellent graphics. The D-Pad is responsive; the speed is intense; the racing competitors are cutthroat; and the multiplayer is a nailbiter. I'm more than satisfied with this launch title.

Metal Gear Acid. You know, there isn't a single game I purchased at launch that actually has not made me say "wow". I haven't played MGA as much as I would like to, but I'm shocked at IGN's low score and bad review of the game. It's not what you would expect from a Metal Gear, but after playing it for the little time that I have played it, it definitely has the feel of a Metal Gear. The emphasis on stealth is there; the need to strategize in order to avoid confrontation is just as strong as in every other MG. The high end graphics you've come to expect from MG is also there as the PSP is definitely no slouch in that department. And the story, so far, is very much in the style of a MG game. I have a hard time not agreeing with Brad's review of the game. Gamerankings is putting the game in the mid-seven's. If you're a Metal Gear fan, just keep an open mind about this game. The card mechanic is different, but it fits very well.

Rather than go on to speak about Twisted Metal, instead I'm going to speak about Sony. If there are any Sony reps out there reading this journal (which I doubt), I just want to congratulate you guys on a launch well done. You have put out a group of games which is not only enjoyable in the short run, but some of them even have long-lasting replayability (specifically Lumines and Twisted Metal out of the ones I own, IMO). Not only that, but you didn't rush the launch and you managed to give your publishers and developers enough time to launch titles with online play. You've developed a device that's easy to use; easy to configure; and very sleek.

My only wish now is that you will figure out the media portions of the PSP. Getting videos and MP3s on there is too difficult for the layman. And as of yet, there's no way to purchase music from Sony Connect. Also, I need a 1 gig memory stick. And no, I refuse to pay the $230 price tag that you guys are charging at your store. That's only $20 less than the price of a PSP. No way. You should have had the SanDisk sticks available at launch.

Sony: don't screw up. Nintendo will be gunning for you and while you guys are going after different markets, there is overlap and all you need is the perception of competition. You have a golden opportunity to make a foothold in the handheld market. I don't care whether you take over the market or not. I only care that I get to play my PSP for years to come. I also care that you keep the games coming. Do not under any circumstances make the same mistake that Nintendo has been making with the DS. Keep a steady stream of new games coming to the device and I'll be a happy camper. I don't mean just 1 game a month. I mean at least 5 to 10 within the next four weeks and I want to see a ramp-up in games after that too. I expect E3 to be big for you. So don't let me down. You're off to a great start... don't screw up.

Gaming Journalism: Is it broken?

Over the course of the last couple months, there's been a lot of talk in the media about the state of journalism. Most of that started due to the revelations that the Bush administration was paying journalists and pundits to push certain agendas. It continued when it became known that the very same administration has been paying actors to produce news, paying journalists to write propaganda, and paying Republican party members to pose as journalists. It was only a matter of time before someone in the gaming industry turned their eyes to gaming journalism and asked the question "is gaming journalism broken?"

In the recent Game Developer's Conference here in San Francisco last week, there was a very interesting session basically allowing developers to rant and rage about their issues with the industry. Jason Della Rocca, director of the IGDA, briefly hinted at the fact that gaming journalism was broken. Of course, everyone on the panel had quite a mouthful to say, but for some reason, he just glossed over this point. Unfortunately, that's the point I was most interested in hearing more about.

So instead, I decided to take a close look at our industry and see exactly how it might be broken. As with any industry, there are problems. I myself have only been in this industry for approximately two years. So while I don't have nearly as much experience as the irreverant Greg Kasavin, I might have the unique perspective of a being new and fresh. I guess I should start by saying that I have come to have the utmost amount of respect for the editors here at Gamespot. I had no idea how difficult their job was until I started working here. I had been a long time patron of Gamespot before working here and I always thought to myself "It would be the best job in the world to play video games all day long and write about."

While I think all of our editors would agree that they absolutely love their jobs, there's a lot more to it than just playing games and writing about them. It takes a certain amount of integrity and strength of character to stay as objective as they do. After all, we all have the innate potential to become a little fanboyish at times. But somehow the GS crew manages to keep their fanboy tendencies out of their reviews and impressions. They approach each game with a fresh pair of eyes and that's something I'm not sure I would be able to do. You guys are lucky I don't write reviews and just write the occassional opinion on Gamespotting.

But is game journalism broken? I think we're much less broken than the rest of the media. However, there are a few points that need to be worked on. First of all, we're one of the few forms of journalism that have a very obvious effect on sales. If Gamespot, Gamespy, or IGN say a game sucks, chances are that game isn't going to sell too well. While you can think of it as "educating the consumer", I see the potential for it to take away a lot of choice from consumers. Granted, the games are expensive so you should get as much information as possible on a game before you buy it. But who's to say that just because we don't like a game that you won't like it?

Then there's the whole quantification issue. Maybe it's just me, but looking around GGD and System Wars (I know... not the best example) there are a lot of people who pay more attention to the score than they do the review. When Greg gave Metal Gear an 8.7 the community flipped out. Most of them didn't seem to care that he said it was a great game in his 4 page review (in more ways than one), all they cared about was the score. I understand the need to quantify these things, but to me, gaming sites might be doing the industry a disservice by putting such a strong emphasis on that number and not as much on the 4 pages of review written about the game. While Gamespot editors will always tell you "read the review", visually on our page there's a lot of emphasis on the score. That's not just on Gamespot, that's on most other sites.

I have a lot more to say, but I've already written a fair amount. I'm going to end with one more point, though. Before I started working here, this was the only site I came to for information on games because they didn't pull any punches. I think the purpose of a gaming site like ours is to report on the industry. However, we also have an ethical responsibility to make sure that through our efforts we're adding to the industry in a positive way. Maybe it's by telling publishers they can't keep giving us the same crap and expecting us to swallow it. Maybe it's by educating users on exactly how hard the developers and publishers work to get a game good for you. But we have a moral imperative to make sure that through our efforts, the industry is better at the end of the day than it was at the beginning. While the rest of journalism has slowly decayed in to long-winded paid advertisements for one politician or another, gaming journalism on the whole hasn't devolved to that level. We're all still very independent voices speaking out about the industry which we all love. And I think that given all that, we're not nearly as broken as Jason Della Rocca may believe.

Isn't it about time for the ladies to get on board?

It's no secret that women do actually play video games. So the question is where are they hiding? I used to pride myself on the fact that I have converted more than half of my girlfriends to the worlds of the Prince of Persia, Windwaker, and yes... even Starcraft and Quake. Now as I look around the gaming sites and as I play this year's MMORPG of choice, with few exceptions, I still see the same misogynist, heavy-handed, sexist talk I've been seeing since I was roaming around IRC during my early teens.

The gaming industry has taken on a life of its own in the past few years and has grown at an incredible pace. SpikeTV is now putting on garbage award shows to appeal to the audience of gamers who don't know what it means to be a gamer (I apologize if you actually enjoyed that debacle during which your favorite gaming site won the best gaming site award - I certainly didn't). Meanwhile, parent organizations are making wild claims about how their kids are getting screwed up by the messages given to their kids in mature games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (here's a thought - try being a parent and pay attention to the things your kids are doing). The entertainment industry on the whole is seeing the threat of piracy on the horizon and I'm sure they're salivating at the pubescent gaming market as their ticket to new untold fortune and fame (it'll just be too difficult for them to start making good music and movies again, so why not steal ideas from those who are still innovating).

I can't help but wonder if now isn't the time to get women more deeply involved in this land of testosterone-filled chest-thumping. For anyone who's played an online game, you know how sexually intolerant the community online is. Most of that is because the community hasn't been forced towards tolerance. What I didn't find out until recently is that in the UK, approximately 25% of gamers are women. In the US that number grows to 39%. And in South Korea that number skyrockets to an all time estrogen high of 69%. So if 39% of US gamers are women, then why do we in the gaming industry (and the gaming community at large) consider their influence insignificant?

It's a chicken/egg problem all over again. When I do my own informal polls, the games I find women most laying claim to are the following (in no particular order): Pac-man, Bejeweled, Zelda (any of them), Mario (any of them), Mario Kart, Soul Caliber 2 (yes you read that right), and many many more. And yet, the industry is putting out more GTA and Halo clones every day. In the mobile space (my current bailwick), over 50% of gamers are women. However only under 30% are actually purchasing games. Many people have come up with theories as to why this is. I personally think it's because men are the only ones stupid enough to pay $50 a pop for a less-than-stellar game (or $5 a pop in the mobile world). (Ooops... did I say that out loud?) But you can come up with your own equally sexist theories as to why this may be.

I look around the industry and there are very few women in sight. On the development side of things, they seem to be few and far between. I wonder how many women are truly in positions of power in the gaming companies? And if there aren't any, what's the barrier to entry? Tell me if you guys read the same Wired article I did which stated that companies with women in senior management have a 35% higher return on equity than those with the fewest women. Those same companies paid their shareholders 34% more than the companies with the fewest women.

Alright, alright. By now you're all rolling your eyes and telling me to get down off my soapbox. Well I'm about to, so hold your horses. It just so happens that I enjoyed the hell out of almost every single game my informal poll of women brought up. Most of them are among my favorite games of all time. If getting women in to this industry means that I might be able to get more games like those, then I don't see why we're wringing our hands and shaking our heads wondering when the women will come? They're already here! We (and by "we" I'm speaking specifically of the 90% of you out there reading this who are men) just need to start being a little more welcoming. We're a young industry, but we have a history of moving faster than any other industry out there. We have the entertainment value of the movies (when they were good) backed by the fast-paced advancement of the computer industry. We can adapt -- and we can adapt well.

And I think to get video games to the next level of innovation, we need to adapt. Not only for the monetary returns the industry will see, but also for the sanity of all us gamers out there. Come on guys! This challenge is no more difficult than beating Ninja Gaiden (maybe even slightly easier) and the rewards are ...

... well you get the point.
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