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masterpinky2000 Blog

Graphics Matter...A Lot

A screenshot from Super Mario World (1990) Screenshot from Doom (1993)

We've come a long way, haven't we? I chose the images above to jump-start this discussion because they are the first games I can distinctly remember playing as a child (yes, for better or worse, my parents let me play Doom when I was under ten). I suppose there are users here who can remember the 2600, and would kick off such a column with images of Pong in all its pixelated glory.

In some ways, then, I seem to be sabotaging my main point. After all, don't games like Super Mario World, Doom, or (even) Pong attest to the enduring fun of games whose graphics have long since been superseded by more recent titles? Let me start off, then, by disowning an argument that I don't want to make: that games with inferior graphics are not worth playing. Clearly, legendary works like the above two games disprove my point without needing to say any more on the subject.

However, I think there's an equally nonsensical argument that some people make: namely, the claim that graphics don't matter. In this column, I'd like to explain why I think graphics matter. A lot.

A Graphics Whore's Apology

I'm the first to admit that I have a weakness for good graphics. To this day, I won't watch videos of Crysis on the PC - I'd probably collapse into a catatonic state due to the pure, concentrated jealousy juicing through my veins (I have a laptop that couldn't play Crysis on the lowest settings if I shrunk it down to 640*480 resolution). I can still remember going slack-jawed in wonder the first time I played Halo: Combat Evolved on my new Xbox. The moment I walked closer to a bulkhead and saw the texture's bump-mapping, the awkwardly large controller and bizarrely insecure power cable were forgiven and forgotten. A similar sensation ran through me the first time I played Gears of War, and I recently experienced it again when I ran through the first level of Killzone 2.

When people argue that graphics don't matter, I think they're implicitly falling back on two old maxims that we're told as children: first, don't judge a book by its cover; and second, beauty is only skin-deep.

These little bits of wisdom have been around for a long time for good reason. They're quite helpful in any number of circumstances (not least in cases of romantic disappointment...but that's a digression I won't pursue further). But when it comes to games, they miss the point.

When you're looking at a novel, the cover really shouldn't impact your judgment. It's not even made by the author - it's just his or her publishing company's facile attempt to draw the purchaser's eye to the book. Some great books have incredibly nondescript or even corny covers; some stunning covers gloss over works of utter mediocrity. But in the case of books, then, the cover is something distinctly separate from the meat of the thing.

In games, however, the graphics are inextricably interwoven with every aspect of the game. Art design lends the work its tone, atmosphere, and mood; fidelity (high polygon count, detailed textures and lighting) lend it realism and enhance the immersion of the gamer.

What about that second maxim? Is beauty in gaming really only "skin-deep," as the saying goes? The idiom implies that there are other qualities upon which we should place more emphasis. When applied to people, for instance, we might think that kindness, a sense of humor, or some other characteristic matters more than good looks. But graphics - when applied by a good developer - enhance all of those other qualities that we value in a game.

Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)

Take the Half-Life saga as an example. By the time I played this series, the graphics had noticeably aged. But one feature which I found remarkably striking was the facial animation technology that Valve developed for this game. Quite frankly, it's still the best I've seen to date (perhaps the videos of Heavy Rain have beaten it, but I haven't gotten my hands on that game yet). Half-Life 2 and the attendant episodes in particular rely on your concern for the character of Alyx Vance as the game's emotional propellant. If you don't feel any empathy for her character, it's hard to care about all of the tasks you complete during the game or all the twists in the plot. This aspect of the series represents the perfect synthesis of high-end graphics technology with narrative and gameplay.

At this point, I should also admit to an important bias on my part. I'm a huge partisan of games that aspire to cinematic experience. While I enjoy games like Tetris that are based not on a narrative arc but on the accomplishment of discrete goals, I believe that the future of gaming lies along the other path. Games have the potential to be a sublime art form, one in which the impact of the emotions drawn out can be amplified by the illusion of one's personal stake in the story, created by the interactivity inherent to the medium itself. That is, games can one-up film and the novel in one very important (and historically significant) sense: they offer the potential for a more highly-realized form of catharsis.

New Worlds

What demands do narrative place on gaming, and where do graphics come in? I'd like to approach this question in a roundabout fashion by looking at where graphics are headed.

Everyone seems to think we want to re-create this world with computer graphics, and it's certainly true that photo-realism has long been the holy grail of graphics technology. Maybe in the next ten years, ray-tracing will become a viable rendering method and we'll actually reach this seemingly insurmountable summit. But valuing photo-realism is a fundamental misunderstanding of what graphics should be doing in games. Graphics aren't meant to re-create this world so much as they are meant to create new worlds, places that might look as different from this one as Okami does from Gears of War.

The big buzzword that everyone throws around in this discussion is "immersion," but I actually think it's quite appropriate. Gaming constantly pushes the boundaries of the real, allowing you to feel something deeply that is (most likely) entirely separate from who you are. I still hear to this day about people who were devastated by Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII, a game I've never had the pleasure of playing. Graphics facilitate this process of emotional recognition - more than that, they are essential to this process.

To answer the question I posed earlier, then, the central demand of any fictional narrative is the suspension of disbelief. At a fundamental level, a person enraptured by a novel stops seeing it as words on a page and starts seeing it as a glimpse into another world (unless, like myself, you're an English major who has been trained to scrutinize the words themselves to the detriment of reading pleasure). A person watching Gladiator can't think, "That's Russell Crowe pretending to be sad about the death of his son, who's actually another actor!" It's both a flaw and a great advantage of the human psyche that we're capable of forgetting the real in such circumstances, that we can allow ourselves to be absorbed by the story being told.

As a side point, I'd like to disavow games that emphasize graphics over narrative or gameplay. I'm arguing that graphics matter, not that graphics should come at the expense of the things that they ultimately serve.

Finally, I've noticed a tendency for people to complain about games with better graphics as lacking innovation. I disagree with this view. A game like Heavy Rain, for instance, is panned by some as merely a prettier version of The Indigo Prophecy. But it's a perfect example of how graphics work synergistically with the medium. Better graphics technology is innovation - after all, isn't the point of innovation to add something new to the game or improve what's already there? Even watching trailers for the game, I felt shivers going down my spine. Compared to the games coming out in 2005 with the launch of the 360, Quantic Dream's creation looks like it's from an entirely different generation. Only time will tell, but I am confident that the graphical leaps they've made will greatly enhance the already excellent narrative and gameplay qualities that they've retained from earlier titles. Upcoming projects like Heavy Rain will validate the fact that graphics matter - a lot.

Gazing Into the Future of the Console Wars

Author's Note: This is a continuation of my earlier editorial, in which I discussed the recent Sony price drop and the release of the Slim. This time, I'm going to look at (and attempt to critique) Nintendo's business model. Personally, I'm not a fan of the Wii, but I've tried my best to limit the impact of that bias and focus instead on a more rational analysis. I'm sure I'll still get a few flames for my opinions, but I did the best I could to be neutral.

Console War

Who you got?

We are moving into a completely new battle in the console wars now. Whereas the first few years have been marked by great differentials in the price, functionality, and control interfaces of the three rivals, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo will all be in the $199-$299 price range by this holiday season, when the most expensive console you can purchase will be $299 (either the PS3's new 120GB slim model, or the 360 Elite model pending an official announcement of its almost-certain price cut). The Wii will stay around $250 for now. By next holiday season, the difference between the three machines will be even less pronounced, as Sony and Microsoft will roll out motion controls in time for 2010's Christmas shopping period and prices will continue to drop.

Of the Big Three, I am most cynical about Nintendo's prospects for the future. When it comes to the Wii, the problem is that its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Motion control has brought in a ton of non-traditional gamers, but the benefits are the greatest in the short term as profits rise and investors are happy. But the fact is that you don't change non-gamers into gamers simply by handing them a nunchuck controller. That's why Wii attach rates are consistently lower than the other two consoles, albeit rising to a respectable seven games. There are a fair number of Wii buyers who get the console and then stop playing it.

There are two very significant issues that Nintendo must address in coming years. In this generation, the Wii's different controls and inferior hardware have necessitated completely different games than the 360 and the PS3. Whereas owners of either of those two systems can enjoy blockbuster multiplatform titles like Call of Duty 4, Wii owners miss out on those games completely. For reference, 19 Xbox 360 games are rated 9.0 or better on Gamespot. The Wii has seven. It's hard for a third-party developer to put aside an entirely different team to work on a Wii version of a multiplat game, whereas making a PC version of a 360 game (or vice versa) is considerably simpler.

The second issue will crop up in the generation to come. Consider this fact: the Gamecube sold roughly 20 million units in its lifetime, and the Wii has blown by that by leaps and bounds (currently sitting around 50-55 million). But where did you add those 30+ million gamers? It's not like there were rabid, lifetime Nintendo fans who didn't own a Gamecube but who returned to the fold thanks to motion controls. So it seems a sound assumption that Nintendo's "base," to borrow political terminology, is somewhere on the order of 15 to 20 million. That is, even in the next generation, those guys are still buying the next Nintendo console, no questions asked. The big question that should be asked is whether the company keeps the loyalty of those 30 million new recruits from this generation, who aren't necessarily lifelong Nintendo loyalists who can still remember playing and loving Super Mario World (an old favorite of mine) or The Ocarina of Time.

The sustainability of brands like Playstation or Xbox is driven by two factors: the demand for cutting-edge technology, and popular, marketable game franchises. Yet Nintendo cannot entice its 30 million new customers to sign up for the Wii 2 or Wii HD based on the former, because it deliberately marketed the Wii to those uninterested in it. The Wii attacked and secured a base that didn't buy video games, cleverly sacrificing cutting-edge graphics and sophisticated gameplay mechanics because its target consumer was the exact opposite of the guy who scours Gamespot's PS3 vs. Xbox 360 graphics comparison features looking for minute differences in shaders and anti-aliasing ("What's that?" asks my mom, who loves the Wii). And as for its huge game franchises such as Mario or Metroid, their selling power is mostly limited to the base discussed above.

So what happens in the next generation? You can't make your controller more motion-y, can you? It appears that Nintendo capitalized on a historic moment in this generation. But it does feel like a moment, rather than a trend. I doubt the Wii 2 will get the overwhelming amount of mainstream press coverage devoted to the Wii if it simply has the same motion control interface and improved graphics -- the Today show isn't going to book the Wii 2 if it's just more of the same. So the pressure is really on Nintendo in the next generation to come up with something new.

Of course, since the current consoles' lifespan may carry through well into the next decade, we probably won't see the new Wii for another four years. But I'm convinced that there's a lesson here that we're ultimately going to learn, one so simple it's very easy to forget: game companies should cater to gamers.

As I noted in an earlier editorial, Nintendo's not the only one who's forgotten or neglected this mantra. Sony's early marketing pushes for the PS3 were a jumbled mess that advertised it as a miracle device with the properties of a home theater, a Blu-ray player, a multimedia storage device, and — oh, by the way! — a video game machine. Thankfully, they've streamlined their strategy since then, lowered the price to a palatable number, and they're finally starting to pump out their catalog's premier titles. Starting with Metal Gear Solid 4 and Littlebigplanet, and carrying through the forthcoming releases of God of War III and Gran Turismo, Sony has, for lack of a better phrase, re-entered the gaming business. It's paid off, and now their attachment rate is almost as high as the 360's.

In light of this rededication to their core consumer, I'm more than a little disappointed that Sony has chosen to emulate the Wii. And I'm even more aghast at Microsoft's attempt to do the same, since they seemed to comprehend the strategy of focusing on the core gaming audience much better than their rivals. In the end, I believe both the PS3's wand and the 360's Natal will end up being stillborn (couldn't resist the pun!).

The reasons for this are many and varied. First and foremost is the fundamental issue that plagues Nintendo. You're trying to sell game consoles to non-gamers, and even if you realize short-term gains, it's a questionable strategy in the long run. Secondly, and more importantly, they're doing it way too late — and with way too much baggage. If you ever make a 360 or PS3 game that necessitates motion controls, you alienate a huge percentage of your base that owns the console but not the additional accessory. So, inevitably, you can only incorporate these controls as an option and hence cannot make them play a central role in the game's design. In other words, you can never make the more than a gimmick.

Do you think game developers are really thrilled by the Natal? The Epic guys have already dismissed its inclusion in the 360's best new IP, Gears of War. Bioware has been enthusiastic about it in interviews, but if your read into their statements, they're not including it in their known upcoming titles and believe "to really make use of it you'd want to design a game from the ground up with Natal in mind."

But the incentive structure isn't set up to encourage Natal-only development. If any developer came up with a brilliant design for motion-sensing, why would they bring it to the 360? The majority of the install base wouldn't be able to play it. Instead, the logical course of action would be to rework that concept and bring it to the Wii, whose install base is larger and more excited about motion-sensing anyways. Because of this, it makes virtually no business sense to sink significant resources into Natal games. This reasoning applies equally well to the PS3's new motion controls as well.

So what happens now? Here are my personal predictions:

1) The Playstation 3 pulls equal with the 360 by holiday 2011, with neither console gaining a big edge on the other by the end of this cycle.

2) Due to the need to produce games for both the 360 and the PS3, multiplatform titles will be held back due to the limited storage capacity of DVD. Towards the end of the PS3's lifetime, we'll probably see some truly extraordinary exclusives that push technical boundaries to new heights, but this will be very difficult to do with a multiplatform title.

3) The Wii wins the sales crown for this generation easily, though none of the three consoles will reach the PS2's lifetime sales numbers.

4) Both the PS3 motion controller and the Natal project end up being extremely expensive experiments that produce at most one or two AAA titles. Neither will have huge market penetration, and Sony and Microsoft will shelf motion control by the release of the next generation of consoles.

5) Nintendo does not defend its title as top-seller in the next generation. Whereas the vast majority of 360 and PS3 owners will migrate to the next generation, Nintendo stands to lose a significant portion of its users who were caught up in the Wii phenomenon but won't see the point of buying a new, upgraded version.

Round Four: Sony!

After almost three years of taking a beating, Sony has finally gotten it right as we barrel forward into the fourth year of the Playstation 3's lifespan. The 360 got the jump on the high-definition crowd, and the Wii stole away all the "mom gamers" out there. Meanwhile, the PS3 seemed designed to cater to a decidedly smaller demographic: the technophile, cinematic enthusiast who also wants to play a few video games now and then. Because of that move, Sony - a company whose success was so staggering in the previous generation that it seemed to give them a catastrophic case of irrational exuberance in this one - has struggled. The Playstation 3 debuted at a price that was above and beyond what I (and a lot of other people, including about 75 percent of the former Playstation 2 user base) had ever even imagined paying for a video game console.

It came with a Blu-ray player, sure, which made it future-proof and a great deal relative to the stand-alone players released at the same time. Sony's logic was that people would see a PS3 at $499 sitting next to a Blu-ray player that cost $1000 and think it was such a great deal it couldn't be missed. Big mistake: very few people wanted Blu-ray at $1000, but only slightly more were willing to shell out $499 for the privilege. This is even more true when one considers that 1080p TV's also cost a fortune back in those days.

Finally, the most recent price drop has returned the Playstation brand to the promised land (i.e. the sub-$300 realm where disposable income actually feels disposable rather than that $500+ realm where you feel like you're making a major life decision). And it's changed my mind on owning a Playstation 3, a shift that's sure to make the execs at Sony ecstatic.

Let me explain. I'm a veteran Xbox gamer and hence a true gutton for punishment. I first played video games on the Super Nintendo, but I got out of consoles for quite a long time after that. After years of playing games solely on the PC, which generally involved morosely looking at jagged shapes with low-res textures and desperately wishing for a new graphics card, I finally returned to consoles in 2001. Not, as a thinking human being would have done, with the purchase of a Playstation 2.

No, I got an Xbox, seduced by the promise of technological supremacy and by extremely positive reviews for Halo: Combat Evolved. I didn't regret it at the time, since I then played Halo for the next year and a half without losing enthusiasm for the game. Unfortunately, that's about all the good that came out of that - I didn't find another game that I truly enjoyed until Knights of the Old Republic. Along the way, however, I began to notice the myriad problems like the titanically large controller or the power cable that could barely stay in the console.

Yet somehow, when the next generation came around, I got a 360. Part of it was because it came out earlier, and part of it was because (like Halo before it) I was enticed by another, big-budget shooter blockbuster in Gears of War. And despite one red ring of death in the interim, I have loved the console ever since. With a much deeper game library than its forebear, not to mention better exclusives, the 360 has been a hit.

Is the tide turning at long last? Many factors are coming together at one time that will carry the Playstation 3 to broader audiences and better sales numbers. First and foremost is falling prices: not simply on the console itself, but also on 1080p televisions and Blu-ray movies in general. This positive price trend is combined with an enhanced awareness of Blu-ray as a video technology - in its first year of release, half my college-age friends didn't know about it, and 90 percent or more didn't care about it. Now, most people acknowledge that it's here to stay, and are happy to find that it's affordable enough that they can make use of it.

Most importantly for something that is, above all else, still a game console, the PS3 has a game library that matches or exceeds all others on the market. Multiplatform titles, which used to lag behind their 360 counterparts, are now as good or better on the PS3. And the exclusive library is adding a lot of "gamers' games," things like God of War III that won't necessarily light the sales charts on fire like Halo 3 but demand the attention of the hardcore gamer crowd that flocked to the 360 in its heyday.

All in all, I think Sony's righted the ship after years of inexplicably boneheaded business and marketing decisions that have hampered the Playstation brand. It's too late for the console to ever match the dominance of its illustrious predecessor, but it's a big step in the right direction.

For the first time in this generation, I'm tipping my hat to Sony. Now, how about dangling a poor original Xbox owner a bone, and reintegrating some backwards compatibility into the PS3 Slim so I can try out all those games people love to reminisce about?

Madden NFL 10: First Impression

Unlike all the lucky people who got their copies a week or so in advance thanks to stores breaking the debut date, I was dumb enough to pre-order this game online after hearing about all of the new features they've put in to the game. I owned and played the heck out of both Madden 07 and 08 on the 360, but I didn't get 09 after trying out the demo and finding it to still be riddled with the same problems and exploits. So I've had some time off from the series, including a ton of time with NCAA Football 09, but now I'm back.

Most of the improvements are on the offensive side of the ball, and it really shows. I immediately kicked off my customary Cleveland Browns franchise and, after pulling off a trade or two (getting the Cowboys' Felix Jones as my new starting halfback and Kenny Phillips from the Giants as my new starting free safety), I started playing some games. Here are three things I noticed:

1) Running the ball is amazing - I don't think a certain surprisingly low-scored review of the game really appreciated the impact ProTak animation technology has on the game. At its heart, ProTak isn't about having bigger gang tackles, which is why it's named Pro(cedural) rather than GangTak. It's about adding a level of dynamicism to tackles that has previously been lacking. In older games, the play was pretty much dead when one player ran into another player. Sure, really big running backs could sometimes escape if you rapidly tapped the turbo button, but this occurred infrequently and had to be on glancing hits.

What a difference a year makes. This time, every hit that doesn't trip you up or slam you flat on your back has a bit of give-and-take. Your back is still on his feet, and if you keep pushing forward on the right stick, he'll continue fighting for yards. Success, of course, depends on his strength and trucking ratings relative to the defenders. This is an immensely impactful feature, not only because it makes the game look more like NFL football. In a "game of inches," as the cliche goes, the ProTak system gets to the heart of what makes football a great sport.

2) The passing tweaks make it more realistic, but can also make it more frustrating. Remember that I'm playing with Brady Quinn here, not exactly the God of Tight Spirals. So I found it appropriate (and approriately infuriating) when he would occasionally miss open men. This happened much more frequently when I was trying to fit the ball into tight spots - again, appropriate. The most agonizing play that comes to mind is one in which Braylon Edwards got a good release outside and had no safety help over the top; I'd been waiting for the opportunity all game and had seen the safety creeping in before snapping the ball, so Edwards was my first read. As soon as I saw he had a few yards on the DB, I threw the ball anticipating a glorious, 60-yard touchdown and...Quinn hurled a bomb that landed a good five yards past his target. It nearly drove me crazy, and for any Browns fans out there, you've definitely seen (and felt) that on Sundays.

The other big change is the "real" pocket formed around your QB. I like it as a theoretical concept, but I have to confess I'm not used to it yet. I found myself still trying to fall back 10-15 yards into a comfortable zone to throw the ball, as in old iterations of this game. It'll take some adjustment, but on the plays where I stayed in the pocket and even - gasp! - stepped forward before throwing, it generally led to good results.

3) It's not perfect. Yeah, there are still the same old problems. Receivers are much better about the sidelines now on your side, but I saw a few AI guys step out a bit too early. Also, blocking still has at times staggering problems with recognition. When you're running up the gut, you'll still see that middle linebacker go completely unblocked by a clueless center way too often. It all leads to one of the big, traditional Madden inaccuracies: you still have to pass to set up the run. In football, it should be the opposite way.

As a minor aside, the fullback dive still works a little too well. I've only run it three or four times, but each of those times was for 4+ yards, whereas my halfback was regularly getting stuffed behind the line against the Vikes (perhaps realistically, since the Williamses are in this game and not suspended).

Now for defense. Again, I'll list three things for their side of the ball that immediately jumped out at me:

1) There's no more "beast safety." Especially in Madden's cousin series, NCAA Football 09, I was able to exploit the user-controlled safety technique where you line up fairly close to the line of scrimmage. If it's a run, you can blow them up in the back field by taking a good route to the ball carrier; if it's a pass, you generally have time to drop back and get right in the throwing lane for curls and posts, giving you plenty of interception and knockdown opportunities. Well, there are two problems with that strategy now. First, running backs can blow you up, too. Compared to NCAA 09, where I would rack up 12-15 tackles a game (4-6 for a loss), Madden 10 feels a lot different. In my game against the Vikings, I still got into position to meet Adrian Peterson in the backfield three times. On the first two, he lowered his shoulder and literally knocked my teeth out, embarrassing my safety and rumbling for another 8-10 yards before being subdued. It's good to know that star running backs need to be respected like star running backs, unlike in previous games where you were guaranteed to shut down the run even if you couldn't stop the pass. The second big change is to game speed - it's slower, which means you can't make a bad decision and then make up for it by simply jamming down turbo and sprinting back into coverage. If you guess the wrong way on a route (in instead of out), you get burned.

2) Despite what I just said above, which perhaps will affect how you play individually, it remains too easy to stop the run. In the aforementioned game against All Day, he made me call him daddy a few times, but in the end I still had him at 13 carries for 56 yards at the end of the day. It was even worse when I played the Packers, as Ryan Grant got like 20 yards on me before I put up two scores and Aaron Rodgers started airing it out on 80% of plays. So, as in previous Maddens, there's comparatively little to worry about when you see a handoff, and you'll devote more attention to stonewalling the pass.

3) I like the new swim moves. My instincts are working against me on this one, as they are with the QB dropback change, but when I've used the right stick to get around my opponent, it's felt much more natural than the old bumper button. It makes sense that if you want to slip around to the outside, you quickly flick your stick that way instead of jamming on a bumper button while moving your other directional stick. D-line play is a bit more fun this year, though counter-balanced by the fact that QB's can throw while being hit. You're still not going to get that many user sacks, which can be a frustrating in-game ordeal (but again, considering the NFL's best pass-rushers average around one sack a game, this is also quite realistic. Pass rush is a hard job, and 90 percent of the time, thankless).

Anyways, that's about all I have for now. I'm pumped to get more time in with the game, I'd like to progress further in franchise and check out how progression and drafting holds up after a few years time. I did a quick sim to the end of the '09 season just to see what it was like, and found that progression definitely bumps up faster than in previous years (Quinn and Jones were both +6 or something like that, even after years that weren't exactly MVP-caliber). Hope everyone who has the game is enjoying it so far, and I'd definitely recommend it to football fans, even those who have been disenchanted with the series. It's a big leap - not just a small step - forward for the franchise.

Soulmates: Valve, Meet George R.R. Martin

People generally don't like waiting around for a long time. We get bored, we get anxious, we move on to better (or at least more present) things. This brings me to the subject of two creators whose products are among my favorites in their respective genres: Valve and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin.

Martin's sure to be the less familiar of the two on this site, so the basics first: Martin writes an epic fantasy series entitled A Song of Ice and Fire (I swear, the titles in this series are probably the lamest thing about it). The series is notable for having a very large and well-developed set of characters, who exist in an extremely morally ambiguous world that allows for many stunning betrayals, tragic deaths, epic battles, etc. The series is a roaring good read for anyone who liked Robert Jordan's first few books than gave up when plot stopped, you know, actually happening. And they are a powerful evolution of Tolkein's original high fantasy concept, with much more focus on human motivations and failings that makes it read like a fictional account of a real history involving real people (in particular, in draws on the English War of the Roses for both thematic aspects and motifs).

OK, so where's the comparison? Here's a timeline of Martin's releases:

A Game of Thrones - 1996

A Clash of Kings - 1998

A Storm of Swords - 2000

A Feast for Crows - 2005

A Dance with Dragons - Unreleased (2010? Hopefully?)

2 more novels forthcoming

Now there's a troubling pattern there. Whereas he was pretty snappy with the first three books, considering they all weighed in between 700-1000 pages long, Martin's become interminably tardy these days. Originally, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were one novel, but it got too long and the plot got too convoluted and he said, "Screw it!" and split it into two. A Feast for Crows was published in '05 with the understanding that the next volume would probably be out in a year or so, since -- supposedly -- most of it had already been written or at least completely plotted out.

Well, A Feast for Crows came out while I was a freshman in college, and now I've graduated and I'm still waiting for those damned dragons. It's occured to me that this series began when I was 9 years old (I didn't discover it until '03, so it's not like I've waited through the whole life of the series). Most likely, it won't finish before I'm 30, and in fact may take a great deal longer than that.

Now let's check out a Half-Life timeline:

Half-Life - 1998

Half-Life 2 - 2004

Episode One - 2006

Episode Two - 2007

Episode Three - Unreleased (2010? Hopefully?)

Inevitable followups, including hopefully Half-Life 3 or 4 or whatever they call it

If you want a laugh, go check out Gamespot's review for Episode One. It contains these great lines: "Rather than have us wait years and years for the outcome of that cliff-hanger, Valve has taken the series into episodic territory to get us answers more quickly. Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first in a new trilogy of episodes that are scheduled to be released over the course of the next year." In retrospect, this is eerily like Martin. His site has a funny section entitled "Update" that he stopped updating because there was never any news to report. By 2006 his fan community was already milling around worriedly and sending him a lot of inquiries, so he finally put up a big "Done when it's done" thing in 2007. That stayed until the current update, which is from January 2008, and basically says, "Still working on it."

Now, Martin and Valve are both great story-tellers, and I'm going to stick with them until the end. There's plenty more to do anyways, so I'll count it as a pleasant surprise the day I hear that Episode Three actually has a release date, or that A Dance with Dragons is actually in bookstores. But it still is a little annoying, as a fan, to hear all these excuses. And greatness in one area - creativity - doesn't excuse being absolutely terrible at the more technical side of things.

For Valve in particular, I'm amazed that such a good game developer can actually suck so much at, well, making games. They have great ideas, very captivating plots, and they pull it off well. But why does it take them so long? Episode One took them two years, a full development cycle for most teams, and that was a three-hour game.

In the future, I hope they work on a few things to streamline the process. First and foremost, they should stop creating proprietary graphics engines. Source looked great when it came out, and good to this day, but the fact is that they should leave the engine business to those who are best at it (Epic with Unreal, or Carmack and crew over at id). Source is notoriously hard to develop for, which is why no one licenses the beast, and making it clearly took up a lot of that time between '98 and '04 without being at all beneficial to more rapid development of subsequent episodes based on that engine.

It's a remarkable coincidence, but I'm hoping that both these long-delayed projects will actually see the light of day in 2010. Anyone want to place bets on which comes out first?

My (Sort of) Boycott

Bargain Hunting


In my last blog post, I looked at the issue of pricing and the controversy (read: s-tstorm) that arose around Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's decision to bump its price up in the U.K. Thinking about it from an economics perspective, I can't get particularly riled up about it. But on a personal level, I'm obviously not thrilled by the shifting tide towards rising game prices.


Especially in light of the big recession, game purchasing decisions do strike me as being more serious than they were in the past. In the fall of 2007, I remember casually pre-ordering Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, and Mass Effect, laying down almost $200 at the time for those three games. The end result of all that money? I beat Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4's campaigns in a combined 20 hours, played perhaps a dozen online matches in Halo 3, then let both games sit on the shelf for the next two years. I recently checked and found my Halo disk wasn't even there anymore; I must have let someone borrow it and forgotten about that.


I also started a Mass Effect campaign, but I had trouble getting into it during the fall semester because it was more fun to go out with friends than spend long, three to four hour stretches playing that game. I ended up finishing Mass Effect this summer, when I had a lot more downtime. I really loved the experience, so I don't regret the purchase-but the fact still remains that I could have just waited the two years and picked it up as a $20 Platinum Hit.


As someone who predominantly prefers single-player, story-central gameplay to mindlessly running around, circle-strafing, and being profaned by 12-year olds, I have come to a startling realization during this summer: it's no longer worth buying games at release prices. I realize that makes me sound pretty stupid, but I never really thought about it before.


This only becomes truer because the bottom seems to be falling out of the gaming industry in 2009, and all of a sudden prices fall fast and fall hard (to match the trend in sales that we've seen thus far this year). For instance, I could spend $65 to get Modern Warfare 2 on release day. But I'd probably only get 10 hours or so out of the campaign, and I'll be at school then anyways, so I'm not going to be sinking a lot of time into multiplayer. On the other hand, a quick search of Amazon shows me the following prices for used games:


Battlefield: Bad Company - $12 + 4 (shipping) = $16
FEAR - $8 + 4 = $12
Far Cry 2 - $13 + 4 = $17
Crackdown - $10 + 4 = $14


In total, that's a little under $60. FEAR (Oct. 2006 port of 2005 PC title) and Crackdown (Feb. 2007) are fairly dated titles, but Bad Company (June 2008) and Far Cry 2 (Oct. 2008) are both only around a year old. Their Metacritic scores? FEAR, 85; Far Cry 2, 85; Bad Company, 83; and Crackdown, 83.


In the past, I let a lot of decent games like the four mentioned above just slip through the cracks. This is especially easy during the academic year, when I can go a whole semester without picking up the controller. But now that I'm winding away the last weeks of summer, I'm discovering not only that I missed a ton of fairly good games over the last few years, but that it's now possible to pick up those titles for pennies on the dollar.


I think my next calendar year or so in game purchases is going to look very odd. Whereas ultra-popular hits like Modern Warfare 2, Assassin's Creed II, and Halo 3: ODST feel like solid rentals to me, I'll be picking up a lot of these bargain-bin titles in the $10-20 range. It's certainly not glamorous, and it'll make my game collection look like the best of the B-list. But for every ODST I don't buy, I can a) rent the game from Blockbuster for $10 and b) pick up 3 other games on the cheap. As long as the numbers add up this way, I don't know if I can justify purchasing anything other than sports games full price, since those have (at least for me) an almost infinite replay value.

The Real Modern Warfare - Game Pricing

Bobby Kottick and Chris Deering have recently become marked men for gamers everywhere. The former Sony Europe boss declared (like some sort of cursed prophet) that games should cost 70 pounds if the game industry's current pace of producing blockbusters is to be sustainable. This comes on the heels of a mini-scandal across the pond over a big hike in the price of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, from the customary GBP price of 45 to 55. Kottick, Activision's CEO, then went on record saying he would charge even more if he could. Obviously, a 22 percent increase in price, during a recession no less, is nothing to dismiss out of hand. And it does look like a bit of calculated avarice from Activision, who know that Call of Duty will still bring in millions of sales regardless of the price point.

I'm not particularly outraged. Maybe it's because I'm shielded from this mess in the states, where everything is tons cheaper than in Britain. But the whole mess brings two thoughts to mind: first, what Activision has done is simply smart economics. And secondly, Deering is probably right.

One thing that's puzzled me about the gaming and film industries is the lack of price discrimination. It costs the same-a $10 movie ticket-to see the Picture of the Year and Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost in a theater. An abysmal game debuts at $60 just like a guaranteed AAA title like Modern Warfare 2. That never made a lot of sense to me, especially when you see a movie like Land of the Lost bomb so abysmally. Obviously, $10 is not a price anyone wants to pay to see that steaming pile.

On the gaming side, however, there is actually price discrimination. The game hits shelves at $60, then after initial sales dwindle, you knock it down to $50, then $40...you get the idea. That's why Activision's decision is so brilliant, really: if Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's only worth 45 pounds to you, you're still going to end up buying it. You'll just have to wait another six months or so, or jump on a good holiday sale. So Activision is not losing customers or driving them away; it's just delaying their purchase. Unless, somehow, the sheer outrage of a price increase is enough to make them swear off the series-and I'd bet on their resolve cracking, probably right around when the game's price was reduced, in fact. Meanwhile, the company get to test out the waters and see how eager and loyal their fanbase really is. After all, the only downside to the current pricing system, which otherwise perfectly (price-)discriminates below the 45-pound threshold, is that it misses out on potential profits from consumers willing to pay substantially more for the game. Well, now Activision's going to get some of that money they've been leaving on the table.

On the second point, think about the divergence in movie ticket prices and video game prices since the early to mid-1990's. My earliest memories of both industries are of $6 movie tickets and $50 video games. Those prices were the gold standards of my childhood, the amount of pocket money I had to have to see movie X or buy game Y. In fact, PC games still generally debut at $50, while the next-generation consoles starting with the 360 had the audacity to bump the initial asking price to $60. And yet it costs $10-12 to see a movie nowadays, thanks to inflation and rising costs.

Somehow, games aren't in the $80-100 range, as one would expect if those two prices were correlated. Why not? If anything, they should have risen more! Movie budgets have gotten huge in recent years, but it's not like they've drastically increased. Big movies cost $200M+ to make in the mid to late 1990's, and the price tag is actually pretty similar now. But game budgets have gone up 10 or 20 times since those days. Daikatana, the disastrous John Romero game that has become infamous in the industry as a "big-budget" flop, cost about $10-20M. Nowadays, every major title costs that much. Ghostbusters cost $15-20M. Grand Theft Auto IV cost $100M. That's probably five times what they spent on GTA III, which released on the PS2 for only $10 less than its sequel.

In his interview, Deering was quick to point out that there's a psychological "glass ceiling" that means it'll be awhile before we see $100 games. As a gamer, I'm grateful for that, as is my wallet. But I'm also aware that it does mean the industry's going to be able to support fewer big projects-especially bold and original ones-in the future. It's why we're deluged by sequels now: no one wants to roll the dice on a new IP when the stakes are for $20M+ rather than the odd million or two you used to spend.

As a final note: would you even think about paying $100 for a game? It sounds outlandish, but perhaps it's not unreasonable. That $10 movie ticket is getting me about two hours of entertainment, plus whatever social value comes out of going with friends and then talking about it with other people later. If I shell out $100 on Halo 3 and get 10 hours out of campaign mode and ten times that in multiplayer, it's actually a much better dollar-to-hour ratio. For something truly phenomenal like Starcraft, which I played back in the day for an ungodly amount of time, I probably averaged a cent for every hour I spent on that game. Ironically, when I saw it on the store shelf for $50, I remember debating with myself whether it was worth it or whether I should wait until it dropped down to $30-40.

So Deering's right in more ways than one. I definitely feel that "glass ceiling" on price. Even with my 360 today, two-thirds of the games I've played have been rentals, used games, or heavily discounted titles in the $20-30 range. I can count the full-priced games I've purchased on two hands: Gears of War, Gears of War 2, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and the forthcoming Madden NFL 10. In the end, I find, I'm part of the problem. But where is the solution?

Why Are There No Good Movie Tie-Ins?

Looking over reviews on Gamespot recently, I found that I really wanted to play the last two Harry Potter games. Not because the reviews were at all positive-"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" earned a world-beating 5.0, and "The Half-Blood Prince" matched that abysmal score (the site couldn't even be bothered to post a review for the Xbox 360 version, so I'm going by the PS3 version here). But I've always had a soft spot for the Harry Potter series, regardless of its oft-criticized literary shortcomings-which cannot be denied-and its younger target audience. The books excel at what they do best, which is creating a world that everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, would like to live in. For a day, at least, if not for a lifetime.

I ultimately resisted that urge, since I knew that the games would only disappoint when I actually got my hands on them. The lackluster demo for the earlier game didn't help, either, as I immediately sensed what a frustration the non-controllable camera would be with extended playtime.

All of which made me ask the question: why are there almost never good movies made into video games, and vice versa?

While books and movies are certainly excellent media to act out these fantasies, nothing could be better than video games, no? After all, interactivity implies immersion, and a truly well-built Harry Potter game that fully realized the potential of the license could actually be one of the greatest games in recent memory. There are a lot of things going for it, things that would make it stand out from the crowd: the world is rife with personality and charm, and has plenty of room for new stories (or old ones retold) that can engage with Rowlings' trademark mixture of humor and high values.


This has high production values.

This, not so much.

This, not so much.

The economics certainly play a role in it. The license owners are well aware that a mediocre effort branded with the Harry Potter or X-Men name is likely to sell almost as many copies as a stellar AAA effort in the same intellectual property. After all, you're not likely to get the Gears of War crowd clamoring to spend a year at Hogwarts just because the game nets a 9.0 on Gamespot. And when parents stroll down the aisles of Best Buy, they're not likely to pull out an iPhone and tell their pleading son or daughter, "No, honey, we can't get this game, see-it's getting bad reviews!"

In formal terms, you have a very inelastic demand curve as a consequence of a very defined target market which, among its other characteristics, cares little about quality or is willing to sacrifice quality for other values. X-Men fans haven't played as Wolverine since Marvel: Ultimate Alliance in 2006, so I'm sure they were chomping at the bit for both the movie and the game versions of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Looking at the review scores for both, the only saving grace for the video game is that it actually has scored significantly higher in critics' eyes than its big-screen counterpart, which was a piece of high-budget trash exceeded later in the summer only by Transformers 2.

Nonetheless, I can't help feeling that there's money being left on the table here. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sold around 1.7 million units. Guess how many copies the book sold? 55 million.

OK, that's a little-a lot-unfair. Not everyone who bought the books owns a video game console, and a ton of those Harry Potter fans are still below the age where they, and not their parents, control the purchasing decision.

Still, when the combined install base for the Wii, 360 and PS3 is now well over 100 million, these companies are missing out on a lot of users. Again, the statistic is a little unfair-it doesn't account for people who own both or all three, which means the number of distinct individuals who own a gaming system has to be smaller. But the Wii alone has sold about 50 million, so that's the lower bound for what I'm talking about here. "The Order of the Phoenix" sold 2 million copies in a market ranging from 50-120 million users. Especially on the Wii, where kid gamers tend to gravitate, they could be doing a lot better.

It's a true shame that no one's taken the risk yet. The video game industry has undeniably become a big-budget business now, and no one is thrilled with the idea of dumping an extra $30M into game development while simultaneously gambling $150-200M on the movie itself. If they both flopped, it would be an unmitigated disaster, akin to doubling down on the original bet. But imagine how many more copies Iron Man could have sold if that putrid game (scoring between 4.5-5.5 in its various iterations on Gamespot) had actually been treated seriously by its developers. No one's complaining, since it shipped around 3 million counting the portable platforms. But given how well-received the movie was, the video game could have made serious waves if it had captured the attention of serious gamers as well as the casual crowd. I mean, it's not like the hardcore market is apathetic towards comic books and all things nerdy. Build it, and they will come-probably in costume.

On the other side of the coin, video games are rarely made into good movies. The ones that actually see the light of day are often terrible-see (or better yet, don't) Doom. Others are tabled, like the Halo project.

This time, I don't think it's just economics that hurts us. To be honest, we have to face a harsh truth: video games' narratives are simply not as well-developed as those in other media. Of course, video games have a lot more going for them: since you control a character, interact with others, and make important decisions about their stories, you naturally develop sympathy for them that writers and filmmakers often struggle to foster. On the flip side of this, games rarely innovate in the story department, far too often resorting to clichés and generic conventions. The hit games of this generation almost all feature terrible main storylines: Gears of War ranges from incomprehensible to banal to laughable, Rainbow Six: Vegas features painfully anonymous characters, and even the famed Oblivion features a canned main quest that would lose the battle for shelf space in a book store against Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and George R.R. Martin. And the former two in that list aren't exactly literary luminaries, either.

In its presentation elements, Mass Effect was stunning as an almost-cinematic achievement. But even that game, in the end, relied on a fairly basic narrative structure. From the status quo, you moved to a basic complication (Saren goes rogue) to an important revelation (the Reapers) and to a climactic battle and resolution. Along the way, you see a clichéd heroic sacrifice/tragic death or two, but it's not earth-shattering and it doesn't really compare to the brilliance of something like Asimov's "Foundation" series.

The only game in this generation which, in my mind, could be converted successfully into a compelling film is Bioshock. With its killer atmosphere and equally killer twist, which anchors a story that pulls you in with the singular mystery of Rapture, Bioshock stood head and shoulders above the competition in the narrative department. Only time will tell if it gets the film treatment, however.

One of the buzz words in recent years in the entertainment industry has been "convergence." That is, people love predicting that video games will find a natural ally in films and the two will "converge" as graphics and processing power finally give gamemakers the tools to create cinematic moments and lure the brilliant filmmakers to realize their visions in a media where they don't have to coddle spoiled, overpaid actors. I tend to think the media will remain distinctly divided for quite a long time, but I do think we'll see a lot of improvement in gaming in the coming years, specifically in the creation and presentation of truly original narratives. When people start calling this "convergence," they will really mean that the games are becoming more like movies, which remain the standard-bearer for narrative presented through audiovisual media.

In some sense, then, isn't it logical for the harbingers of this new "convergence" phenomenon to be the games that are based on movies? Games that already feature the stronger narratives demanded by the medium itself? The lesson of this generation has been that a truly mega-budget game with first-party support is rarely a total flop. When Microsoft or Sony get involved and christen a game as a flagship title, it usually becomes a success just by dint of the tremendous wave of hype it generates in the years before release and the spectacular graphics that come with big budgets. If, say, a Harry Potter game were allocated a $30-35M budget like Killzone 2, who knows what magic they would make?

Trade Logic and Franchise Development in Sports Video Games

In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King

As a passionate sports gamer, nothing frustrates me more than wonky trade logic in video games. Everyone knows what I'm talking about -- somehow, I can trade for Adrian Peterson in Madden by giving up Jamal Lewis, Derek Anderson, and a second-round draft pick. If I took that offer to the Minnesota front office on behalf of the real-life Cleveland Browns, I'd probably be laughed out of the twin cities. Or shot. When all the GMs in the league are this stupid, you don't have to work very hard to build a successful team.

Alternatively, in Madden you are capable of cleverly arbitraging draft picks and players so that you end up with two or three top-10 talents every year. It's really quite simple - sign a few free agents you don't want to contracts with little or no bonus money, then trade them away for draft picks with no impact to your salary cap. Then combine draft picks (it usually takes your first-rounder and a third-rounder) to trade into the top 10 of the first round and pick up that franchise cornerback who will reach 90 overall in rating in two or three years. In fact, you don't even have to do the free agent cheat: every year, if you package your second, third and fourth-rounders for another first-round pick, you end up with two players who a) almost never bust and b) will be starters for your franchise for the next 6-7 years.

Another, equally harmful problem is broken player development. Recently, I rented FIFA 09 and found out that I could spend a few million euros on upgrading my scout and then send him off on perpetual scouting trips around the world. Starting with Wigan Athletic, whose entire defensive back-four is rated in the 70's, it took me all of 10-12 games for my scout to produce no less than six defensive prospects who were all rated 80 or higher and were all between 18-21. That's obviously ridiculous: there is not a single top-30 or 40 defender (much less six) simply hiding away in a little Portugese fishing village waiting for a Wigan athletic scout to come and realize he can be a top-10 defender by the time he's 24.

The major problem with faulty trade logic or scouting like FIFA's is that it ruins the primary single-player component of these games: franchise mode. I love nothing more than taking my favorite downtrodden hometown franchises (the Browns and the Indians, especially, and at one time the Cavaliers) and patiently working to make them contenders. But too often I find that it's way too easy to build a super-team while adhering to the budget for my chosen club. Even the Indians can afford to keep CC Sabathia in video-game-land.

Introducing Bargaining to Trading

As an example, I'd like to sketch out what a working trade system would look like in a baseball game. Most of these aspects can be applied to other games with minor modifications.

First of all, trading should be based on a proposal system that takes time as opposed to one that happens instantaneously. This would allow for an element of negotiations that is crucial in real life: deadlines and limited resources. Your virtual GM should have a limited number of "conversations" or "negotiations" available, perhaps allotted as emails per week. You would then use these emails to send out an offer, and you would have to wait for anywhere from one to four days to get a response.

Negotiations would then become the complex games they are in real life. It's not simply a matter of filling out the "acceptability" meter at the bottom of the screen. Even if your first offer seems good enough to the other team, they would obviously come back and give you a counteroffer asking for more just to see how much you value their player(s). It thus becomes a game-theoretical situation: your first offer should be a little bit of a lowball, but if it's too much the other GM might just table discussions entirely or become displeased with you and raise their price. On the other hand, if you offer too much initially, they'll ring you dry by sending you higher demands in counter-offers.

All the while, you have to be conscious of your limited time available and the possibility of other options out there that you could also be negotiating - in fact, you should be able to make a "mixed" offer sheet. By this, I mean that your offer should not only be Player X1 + X2 for Player Y1; it should also include relevant information such as, "I want to inform you that I'm also negotiating with a third club for Player Z1." Again, it's a risky maneuver: the GM for team Y could simply say, "Fine, go get that guy instead" and break off talks, wasting the time you've spent. Or he could be pressured to lower his price.

As an example, let's imagine I'm playing with the 2009 Phillies and want a top-shelf starting pitcher. I have two options right off the get-go: either look at the news and find out what players are rumored to be on the trading block, or just shoot off an inquiry about a player not offered for trade. This year, the biggest names mentioned as trade bait are Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Jarrod Washburn. On the other hand, I might really be in love with Matt Cain since he's younger than all those guys and San Francisco is a complete non-contender.

I have five emails to use for this day, so I send out inquiries on all four to commence negotiations. Basically, it's just a generic, "What'll it take?" question. After two days, I get these responses:

Halladay - Asking price is SP Kyle Drabek, SP J.A. Happ, OF Michael Taylor, SS Jason Donald.

Lee - Asking price is SP Kyle Drabek, OF Michael Taylor, SS Jason Donald.

Washburn - Asking price is SP Kyle Drabek, C Lou Marson.

Cain - Asking price is SP Kyle Drabek, SP Carlos Carrasco, OF Dominic Brown, SS Jason Donald.

I dismiss the latter two because, even with hard negotiating in the future, it would be impossible to get those two down to a reasonable price. Drabek is the team's top prospect, and though he's a year away from the majors, the scouts love his potential (more on how potential should be evaluated later).

So I respond to the Halladay and Lee emails with my first formal offers. Since I know Halladay's better, but I still don't want to give up Drabek, I send them an offer that includes Happ, Taylor, Donald and Carrasco. I can choose to make this a "one-time" or "standing" offer, with the disadvantage that a "standing" offer will eat up one available email every day. The advantage is that, even if the other guy initially rejects it, he may eventually cave in to deadline pressure and accept my offer the day before the deadline. With Lee, I send them an offer for Happ, Donald, Carrasco, and Marson.

On Day 3, the Blue Jays respond with a counter-offer of Drabek, Taylor, Donald and Carrasco. It's a one-time offer, which indicates their firmness on the situation. They aren't going to lower the price much. I reject it, but leave my standing offer for Halladay on the table. The Indians, however, respond with an intriguing offer a day later: Donald, Carrasco, Marson and AA right-hander Jason Knapp instead of Happ. Apparently they like Knapp better. It's a standing offer, but they could still pull it anytime they wanted.

After waiting two days, it is now July 30 and the Blue Jays haven't blinked on my standing offer for Halladay. Not knowing for sure how long Cleveland's offer will be there, I finally accept, picking up Cliff Lee to front my rotation for the pennant run.

Player Evalution, Scouting and Development

If the trading system is to be realistic, then clearly something must be done to first fix the methods teams have for valuing their current players. I'm fine with the existing system of player ratings, but projecting changes in those ratings in the future is unfortunately flawed. Knowing future potential should be contingent on the skills of your team's scouting arm, which should have reports for you on every player. Instead of just simple numerical ratings, however, these evaluations should be qualitative, thus introducing an element of chance or uncertainty into progression.

Here's an example. Let's say I'm the Cleveland Indians, and I'm trying to evaluate the Phillies' prospects during the above-discussed (and more or less real life) trade scenario. When I get the initial inquiry from the Phillies, I ask my scouts for their existing reports on the Phillies' farm system. I have their ratings now, but obviously they are quite low and I want to know how they'll develop. I'll only have extremely rudimentary data at this point, with one or two sentences written about every player. Here's what I find out:

SP Kyle Drabek - Potential future No. 1 starter; Outstanding curveball considered among the best in the minors.

SP J.A. Happ - Potential No. 3 starter; Lacks dominant stuff but knows how to pitch.

SP Jason Knapp - Potential future No. 1 starter; Very raw, needs time to develop.

SP Carlos Carrasco - Potential No. 2 or 3 starter; Strikeout pitcher who needs to work on his control.

OF Michael Taylor - Future starter and potential All-Star; Combines power and plate discipline.

C Lou Marson - Future starter; Average hitter for his position.

SS Jason Donald - Future starter; Excellent defensive shortstop who can also play other positions.

I have a limited amount of scouts available, so let's say I have five scouting trips in a day. I send the scouts to see Drabek, Happ, and Taylor (keep in mind, you may need your scouts scouring other farm systems, too, since others are probably inquiring about players like Victor Martinez). The next day, I cover Carrasco and Donald. After the scouts return, I get some added information written like an actual major league scouting report. I'll only do one quick example here:

Jason Knapp, 19 - 6'6", 225

Stamina -He's young and on a pitch count, but he has the body of a workhorse.

Makeup -A gamer who attacks hitters and wants to intimidate them.

Arsenal:

Fastball (93-97) - 60/80 on scout's scale; excellent movement and very hard for hitters to pick up on his downward plane;

Curveball (78-84) - 50/80; Inconsistent but occasionally brilliant;

Changeup (82-86) - 45/80; Needs work, but shows potential.

Injury - No long-term concerns.

Additional Comment - The scout loves this guy and thinks he could be a frontline starter in two or three years.

OK, now based on this information you've decided you like Knapp more than Happ, a competent lefty starter but probably a long-term No. 3. In Knapp's scouting report, you're looking at a power-pitching right-hander who is very young and could develop three major-league quality pitches (pitches rated 55-60 or better) by the time he's ready for the bigs at 21.

But you don't want to show your hand in trade negotiations, so you initially ask for a high price: Drabek, the team's clear No. 1 pitching prospect (fastball rated 65, curveball 70, changeup 55), Taylor, their No. 1 position player, and Donald. They offer Happ, Carrasco, Donald and Marson. It's an intriguing package, but you're lukewarm on Happ and Carrasco's a risk. Already 22, he still lacks control, and seems to be reaching his ceiling according to the in-depth scouting report you've received. You don't know much about Marson, as you haven't scouted him yet, so you take a day to send a scout out to see him. You like what you hear: the kid could replace Victor Martinez, who is also probably going to be traded.

You then counteroffer with the player you'd really like in the deal, sending them the same offer back with Knapp instead of Happ. Knapp has a lower rating at the moment, so it seems like Philly should jump on the offer. But will they accept? What do their own scouts tell them about Knapp (they already have the detailed scouting report on him, just like you already have detailed reports on all your own players).

Anyways, this system goes hand-in-hand with drafting and development. At the beginning of each draft, you are given a sense of where players are projected (1st round, top 3 rounds, top 8 rounds, etc.) and then a sentence or two about each one. Based on your spot in the draft and what you read, you then pick some of them for more detailed scouting (all this could be handled automatically if you don't want to micromanage, of course, that goes without saying). Once again, you receive scouting reports that are more real-life, with players rated along the actual baseball scouting scale up to 80 in various categories.

After you draft or trade for a prospect, how are you going to develop him? Let's take the case of Knapp again. You should be able to give the minor league coaches specific orders regarding his development. For pitchers, the possible categories may be, just to give a few examples, Stamina, Command, Injury Prevention, Learn New Pitch. Since Knapp's young, you shouldn't worry too much about stamina, which you can boost in the year before he reaches the big leagues. It's his control and command that are major concerns, especially with his secondary pitches. Also, you don't want him to get injured. Therefore, you assign (out of 100 potential focus points) 10 to stamina, 10 to fastball command, 30 to curveball command, 30 to changeup command, and 20 to injury prevention.

Alternatively, if you want to develop him quickly and get him to be a bullpen man, you may slot 0 stamina, 50 fastball command, 50 curveball command, and 0 to injury prevention while converting his position from staring pitcher to setup man or closer in the minors. In a year, he'll have declined in stamina and his changeup will be rusty, but his fastball and curveball will be major-league quality and you can bring him up to close for the Indians.

Also, you could try to teach him a new pitch, which would be the most risky maneuver. Perhaps you think a slider would better suit him than the curve, and devote 40 points to teaching him a slider. It could be rated anywhere from 30-60, higher depending on how many points you spend on it and how much you later spend developing its command.

Needless to say, player ratings themselves should be appropriate to level. No drafted player should be any better than a 70 overall in a baseball game, since it is almost an impossible feat to draft a player and bring him to the majors in less than a year. On the other hand, the best players should be able to progress (with wise training decisions and a little bit of luck) into the mid to upper 70's after a year or two, making them major-league ready.

In with the New, Out with the Old?

So far I've only focused on young players, but what about older ones? In the case of older players, I think in addition to player ratings you should also have the scouting reports in the ****I mentioned above. Under "Additional Comments," you would have to pay very close attention to what your scouts are thinking. For instance, let's say you have a young corner infielder rated 78 now who the scouts say could be "poised for a breakout." On the other hand, your current 85-overall first baseman is now 33 and "is on the downside of his career." When do you flip these guys? If you just keep with the current status quo, the 78 overall guy will languish on the bench, his potential gains will decrease, he'll become unhappy, and perhaps even demand a trade. The 85 guy, meanwhile, will decline in coming years in undefined quantities - the worst one-year drops in rating could even be as high as 10-15 points (a la Mo Vaughn), though this would happen infrequently.

More troubling, your scouts could be wrong, just as they could be in the case of those young players you've drafted and developed. Like the famous Duquette quote on Clemens, players you dub "finished" and release to free agency or trade away could actually have years and years of productivity left. In fact, traded players may experience a spike in motivation (a rating that should definitely be in sports video games, and should be the most volatile and erratic of the ratings in the game) and hence perform better in the short term. Witness what Matt Holliday's doing now in St. Louis, or what Clemens himself did after Duquette dropped him.

Conclusion

OK, I realize this has been an intolerably long post, and in all likelihood no one will ever read its entirety. But I hope to see the ideas mentioned here implemented in the (distant, most probably) future, so that we can get the sports game experience we've always wanted.