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Remembering Ryan Davis

A bunch of random Ryan Davis memories on this weird and tremendously sad day:

  • I sat next to Ryan Davis at GameSpot for three years. Well, not right next to him but close enough that I was privy to practically everything he ever said (for better and worse). Right now, however, I can't remember a single thing he said (and he would talk practically ALL DAY). Instead I remember his wondefully infectious laugh.
  • Ryan Davis convinced me to play Katamari Damacy. Ryan loved golf games and always seemed casually bemused with how seriously I took the games and the sport. Same with racing games.
  • I didn't review many games in my time but I always had Ryan's writing voice in my head when I did. He had a clear economy with words and a straightforward, inviting voice that still managed a level of sophistication. Infinitely knowledgeable, but never in your face about it.
  • Most embarassing memory: Mistakingly IMing Ryan with a love note that was meant for my wife (whose IM window was opened next to his). I was mortified but, to his credit, he never brought it up again.
  • Just after the Kane & Lynch ordeal, Ryan was still at GameSpot, thought it was clear his heart wasn't really in it. Nonetheless, I had a idea for a dumb video about pencils for one of our sports shows. I wanted Ryan to star in it and he graciously agreed. And he made it so, so funny in a way that only he could. To this day, it's one of my favorite things he ever did.
  • We had a weird and ongoing in-joke/contest to see who could create the greasiest, most hideous character in tennis games. Each time a new Top Spin or Virtua Tennis game would come out, we'd immediatley hit the character creation and giggle over one another's flea-ridden creations. A few years after I left GS, Ryan tweeted me, showing off his most recent creation and basically saying "Wish you were here."

My old colleague Bob Colayco said it best on Facebook today: "That generation of GameSpot writers was a unique brother- (and sister-) hood and Ryan was a big reason I felt privileged to be a part of it."

When I started with GameSpot in 2004, I was immediatley struck that it was unlike any place I'd ever worked before. Everyone was smart. Everyone was funny and opionated and, for lack of a better term, pop culture-fluent. Coming from the stodgy newspaper world, this was intimidating and thrilling for me. Ryan was at once the most intimidating and friendly guy in the whole buildling. It felt strange to look up to someone who was nearly a decade your junior, but I certainly looked up to Ryan.

I was proud to sit next to him for all those years, and prouder still to have called him a friend.

Six Games That Meant Something to Me in 2011

Here's six games that took up a lot of my free time over the last year, and some brief thoughts on each.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12
I had a chance to go to Augusta back in college; to attend a real-life Masters. A friend of mine's father had tickets and invited me to go, to which I politely declined. Talk about a life's regret! This is one that's especially haunted me over the past few years as I've gradually picked back up the sport that meant so much to me when I was younger. Anyway, I've always been a fan of the Tiger series but I never thought EA Sports would pull this one off. Forget its seemingly eternal exclusive with the NFL and NCAA. Finally landing Augusta National in Tiger 12 was the coup of the decade for the company in my book. It does beg the question though: Having delivered golf's Holy Grail to such fine effect, where on earth do they go this year?

NBA 2K12

NBA 2K12 owes a huge debt of gratitude to Sony. The first time I popped in 2K12 in my 360 and dove into "My Player" mode, the first thing I thought of was Sony's hoops games from the mid-2000s. You remember those, right? No? Well, you're probably not alone there. Featuring narrative-fueled tales dubbed "The Life", these games were as inarguably ambitious as they were deeply broken. These were bold (or, perhaps, foolish) takes on sports gaming; titles whose innovations were ultimately overshadowed by their prodigious fundamental flaws.

In 2011, 2K12 finally took those same ambitions and nailed it. "My Player" mode is an engrossing look at the life of an NBA player--both on and off the court. The key difference here is that, unlike Sony's melodramatic narratives, 2K still keeps the focus on the business of a ballplayer. There's no hangers on, no seedy agents, or any other superfluous subplots. Instead, "My Player" keeps the focus tight on your NBA career: what happens on the floor and immediately afterwards in the post-game press conference (where, to my eternal joy, you have a wealth of options--from being the fan favorite to being a locker room cancer. Think of it as Bioware focusing its talents on 7-foot-tall multimillionaires instead of Grey Wardens, Jedi, or people named Shepard). It's a fascinating and well-executed mode with a huge amount of variety and, this year, it felt really well-balanced.

I fear that, in a few iterations from now, 2K Sports will evolve "My Player" in one of two ways: deeper into the "traditional" NBA experience, resulting in something truly authentic and (dare I say it?) resonant, or they'll go the easy way and inject some of that trademark cheap 2K silliness into the mode--"My Crib 2.0" perhaps? Still, the possibility of overkill in the future certainly doesn't detract from the promise that's on display right here and now. Far and away my best sports game of 2011.

Forza Motorsport 4
Probably no explanation needed here, right?

Grand Prix Story
I devoured Game Dev Story with a sort of devotion I normally reserve for Scarlett Johansson. So, I was primed to love Grand Prix Story. But I only liked it. Liked it a lot, mind you; enough to sink tens of hours into the game. But something about the balance felt off to me. More to the point, I suppose in the end my passion for the Game Dev Story formula had already been properly sated by the original.

Developer Kairosoft continues to pump out these charming eccentricities, all seemingly cut from the same cloth--"Oh! Edo Towns" (Game Dev Story with samurai), "Epic Astro Story" (Game Dev Story in space), and so on. And as much as I love their commitment to their niche, I feel like I've seen it all. In other words, there's really only one Scarlett… everyone else, no matter how easy on the eyes, feels like a cheap knockoff.

Magic the Gathering -- Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012
Don't you dare judge me.

Ticket to Ride
Based on an old boardgame of the same name, Ticket to Ride is a charming game about the railroad business, where the goal is to control as much of a particular country's rail system as possible.

I never played the original Ticket to Ride boardgame and I'm actually glad I didn't. Having experienced experienced it on the iPad--with its gorgeous artwork, evocative soundtrack, and rewarding fast-paced gameplay--I suspect that, as with Magic the Gathering, playing Ticket to Ride in its original form would be a pretty unsatisfying experience. I mean, who wants to count mana cards and do the math needed to calculate damage in Magic? Who wants to keep track of remaining train cards in Ticket to Ride?

Forget online play or portability. The real reason retread games like these succeed on modern platforms is two-fold: 1) Time-tested gameplay and 2) The automation of tedious mechanics. After all, games are about relaxation, aren't they? In the immortal words of Butthead, "If I wanted to do math, I'd go to school."

So there you go. That's a handful of games that meant something to me in 2011. Here's hoping for an even better 2012!

Links With My Dad

On Tuesday, May 24, my father, Larry Ekberg, died of complications from his long-standing diabetes. Though in relative health for most of his life, the last 17 years had been a seemingly unending string of health-related setbacks, surgeries, and a slow deterioration of the man whom I was proud to call my hero. He died peacefully in his home with my Mom nearby.

It was easy for a stranger to look at my father—frail and shrunken in his wheelchair—and see someone whose life had been taken over by his disease. But just as none of us are entirely defined by what we do, or where we come from, or even what games we play, my father was never defined by his sickness. It was happening to him but it was never him. And that's why, even though his death and my family's collective grief are the foremost thoughts in my mind, it's not at all how I choose to picture Larry Ekberg.

My father was a golfer. A gifted athlete in high school and mostly self-taught, he took an early interest in the sport and played it for as long as his body allowed him to.

When I was young, I'd accompany my Dad to the local course and play along with him. In the earliest years, I was too young to appreciate golf's intricacies and too carefree to be impressed by either my father's natural ability or his careful instruction. At that age, it was fun simply to be outside or to be in charge of driving the cart from one shot to the next. One of my most vivid early memories is my father and I running an impromptu race to see who could reach the garage that held our golf cart—by the time we reached the building we were both sweating in the humid south Alabama heat, laughing so hard we were both already exhausted, and with a full, fun day of 18 holes still ahead of us.

As I got older, my outlook on golf changed. What at first seemed like a fun chance to spend time with my Dad eventually became a chore, as I became more and more frustrated by my lack of ability on the course. Perhaps there was a bit a jealousy there—I couldn't do what came so easily to my father.

Even as I shied away from the real thing, golf was always a common thread between us. We watched tournaments together and talked about our favorite players on the phone. We marveled at the spectacular rise of Tiger Woods in the late 1990s (and more recently, commiserated over his meteoric fall, both in his public perception and in the degradation of his physical skills).

And, endlessly, we played golf games together. First and foremost, we were Links guys. The long-running PC golf game was our go-to game, mainly because of the extensive course collection. These were the days of floppy disk drives and, somewhere in my house, I still have the massive collection of expansion course disks that my Dad and I collected over the years. We each had our favorites—for me it was courses like Banff Springs, with its impressive mountainous scenery and challenging layout. My Dad gravitated towards courses he had played in real life—Pinehurst, Harbour Town and, of course, the famed Pebble Beach.

It got to the point where, deep in the Alabama summers when I would be home from college, we would spend more time in our basement playing Links than actually going outside and braving the heat on the actual course. We were together, enjoying a beer, some conversation (or none at all), and spending hours taking turns on the mouse to make a shot.

In the real game, my Dad's skills were light years beyond mine. On the PC, things were a bit more lopsided in my favor. We loved to compare stats over time—my Dad had a thing for printing our post-round statistics so he'd have time to analyze his performance later. Now, I find myself desperately wishing we had kept those printouts; they would have been a tangible link to some of my fondest memories.

Our shared love for golf—whether virtual or the real thing—has proven to be increasingly important for me in the past few years. Naturally, I'm still a huge golf game fan—there's not a year that goes by that I don't buy EA Sports' Tiger Woods series. But I've also come back to the real game with a renewed vigor, if not any more natural ability that I had when I was younger.

These days, I often think about how my father played the game. I think about how he would have handled certain situations on the course—both in terms of the physicality of setting up the shot, as well as the mental aspect of dealing with that shot's result. That Dad was a natural player did not mean he didn't hit plenty of stinkers on the course. The difference was that he had a maturity and a good-natured spirit that easily dealt with insignificant failures… and, as a lifelong perfectionist with the soul of a sore loser, that's the part I'm still working on.

Due to his failing health, my Dad "retired" from golf a long time ago. The last round I ever played with him was a decade ago while I was home for my sister's wedding. He didn't play much that day; instead, he joined our foursome as we played and took only a few swings of his own. Riding along with him as we played, and seeing such a sense of longing in his eyes—I think he knew that he would never again be able to play the game he loved—was perhaps the saddest thing I've ever seen.

But was it really sad? I think back to that time now and I don't remember him being bitter. I don't recall him complaining. I remember him laughing and telling jokes, and making fun of my bogus swing. I remember him teasing my soon-to-be brother-in-law, and laughing with my cousin about some ridiculous occurrence from 20 years past. I remember that beautifully graceful stroke he took on the first tee and thinking, "Damn, I wish I could do that." I remember the ball sailed straight and far.

A Long Goodbye

First, let me tell you what I have to tell you: Tomorrow, Friday, July 16 will be my last day at GameSpot. I've decided to resign my post and have accepted a job elsewhere in the industry.

Whew. OK, now let me tell you what I want you to know.

I screwed over a friend to get a job at GameSpot. Well, sort of. It's not like I stole his wife or something really terrible. But getting this gig back in 2004 meant that I had to leave a job that had been graciously offered to me by a long-time friend. At the time, I was working for his start-up company and, before that, I had spent the previous couple of months struggling as that most tired of clichés: an unemployed writer.

When my friend offered me the job, he was doing me a real favor, and I had no qualms about taking the job he offered, even though it wasn't what I really wanted to be doing. For many years, I had harbored a fantasy of writing about games full-time. Earlier in my career, I had covered the industry tangentially for a couple of magazines in Atlanta and, once I moved out to the Bay Area in 1998, I wrote for small sports gaming sites, some of it paid, most of it for no money at all.

Do what you do, after all, even if it means work for free. That's what I kept telling myself.

Dotcom gigs came and went and eventually I was hired by my buddy. About a month later, I saw an ad on Craigslist (if memory serves) for a sports editor position at GameSpot. Because I had spent the majority of my free time playing, talking, and writing about sports games, I figured I'd give it a shot. So I turned my resume and application in, never realistically thinking that anything would come out of it.

Then Greg Kasavin called me.

To be completely honest: I didn't know Greg by name alone (though, in hindsight, I should have) and it took several moments for my brain to register what was happening during that phone call: Greg was calling me. Greg worked for GameSpot. GameSpot (and Greg) had seen my resume and they were interested in meeting me in person.

I remember jumping up and down a lot. And then calling my wife, while jumping up and down a lot.

Not long after the phone call and the jumping, I came to the GameSpot offices for the interview. I clearly remember sitting with former GameSpot editor Bob Colayco and talking about NCAA Football 2004 (probably my all-time favorite entry in my favorite sports videogame series) for what must have been 20 minutes or more. It occurred to me: Here I was talking about my favorite thing in the world, as part of a job interview. What a surreal and utterly enjoyable experience! At that moment, the idea of any obligation to my friend and my then-current job went out the window. This was, after all, what I wanted to do for a living for the foreseeable future.

Do what you do, after all, even if it means you have to step on a few toes. That's what I told myself.

In hindsight, any guilt I felt at the time for screwing over my friend was completely unwarranted. For my part, I've been able to spend the past six years working a dream job, traveling the world, and acting like an idiot on camera. And for his, my buddy made a ton of money from his business, subsequently retired, and has spent the past few months sailing solo around the world. So, you know, things have a way of working out.

And things have a way of changing. Thus my decision to leave GameSpot for another opportunity. I'm not ready to announce my future plans yet--I'll wait until I'm settled in at my new position first--but I will say that the new job probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me and my gaming preferences. I can also say that I cannot wait to get started.

There are so many things I'd like to say before I sign off but, in essence, they all boil down to gratitude. I'm thankful for GameSpot taking a chance on me back in 2004 and for allowing me an astonishing level of professional freedom in the six years since. Even in a job that is fun to begin with, I've always felt like I was getting away with murder--being allowed to cover exactly what I was passionate about, create incredible stuff from scratch, and basically make GameSpot a personal playground. My output hasn't been perfect but it's always been from the heart.

I'm thankful to every single person I've worked with here at GameSpot--past and present--all of whom have made an impression on me. Being surrounded by people who are smarter than you is an opportunity, and you're a fool if you don't take advantage of it. For the past six years, I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by the industry's best and I've learned and grown much in the process. Special thanks go to GameSpot's illustrious editor in chief Ricardo Torres, who has been a wonderful mentor and friend, and whose belief in me has been thoroughly inspiring.

Thanks also to my family, especially my wife Karen. She doesn't play games--I vividly remember the time I begged her on bent knee to play one hour's worth of World of Warcraft with me, her mouth agape at the outright, unrelenting nerdity she had agreed to--but she knows that they are at my root. As a result, she's put up with my long hours, frequent travel, and enthusiastic rambling with all the patience and love you could ever hope for.

I'd also like to thank you, the GameSpot user. You folks are the reason we get up for work early and go to bed late. You're the reason we obsess over every word in the reviews we write, and pray for inspired moments when on camera. You're the audience we get to be silly in front of, the folks we strive to entertain and enlighten, and the people we want to please the most.

The thing is, we're just alike. We are all driven by a lifelong passion for games--us GameSpot editors are just privileged enough to be able to have a wonderful platform upon which we can share that passion. That platform and your presence here are never taken for granted and is always appreciated.

Finally, I'll leave you with some advice. Over the years, I've been asked many times for thoughts on how to get into the games industry. Beyond the nuts and bolts you've probably heard before--learn how to write and write fast; learn how to spell; have some respect for grammar--the larger issue for me has always about persistence. My path to GameSpot was full of stops, starts, and unexpected turns. Whether working at companies I knew would fail, writing for free, or quitting a job that had been offered to me as a favor, I've always tried to keep my eyes on the ultimate goal. I wouldn't have had my long, strange trip to and through GameSpot any other way.

Do what you do, after all, even if nobody is listening. Because someday, they might.

Thanks and see you around.

Text Adventures

I don't have much of a topic for my blog today. I'm really just sick of looking at the pictures of bad hairdos from my previous post, including that hideously frightening nightmare-witch Kate Gosselin. SO! New topic, a chance for some fresh discussion, and an opportunity to shove my previous post down the page a bit.

Books I'm Currently Reading That Would Also Make a Good Videogame

Chronicles of the Black Company -- Glen Cook

I've been wanting to read this fantasy series for a long time now. I'm normally not much of a swords and sworcery type--though I'll admit an undue fascination with George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice & Fire" series--but Cook's war-torn approach to the tales of the hardened badasses known as The Black Company appeals to me because of its gritty, realistic tone. Often noted as the fantasy equivalent of a Vietnam-era war tale, Chronicles is significant to me for its "grunt's take" on the business of war, as well as its relatively modern dialogue (no "thees" and "thous" here; characters instead refer to each other as "guys" and say "Yo.") The effect isn't anacrhonistic; instead, I find it makes for easier reading, especially when dealing with the large cast.I'm pretty early on in this story collection but I've been mightily impressed so far.

The Game Pitch: Grim war tales in a fantasy setting, full of black humor, and abounding in violence. Seems like ripe territory for an action game to me.

Under the Dome -- Stephen King

Didn't King retire a few years ago? Thank goodness his self-imposed hiatus was short-lived, else we wouldn't have this hefty gem of world-building and small-town dread to dive into. I'm roughly about halfway through this story of a small Maine town that finds itself inexplicably trapped under a transparent dome, and I'm continually surprised by King's commitment to what, on paper, sounds like an utterly preposterous premise.

Of course, the strength of this novel isn't found in its flimsy conceit, but rather in King's careful buildling of the fictional world of Chester's Mill and, more importantly, its inevitable, surgical dismantling. It's about the slender nature of a community's bonds, and how quickly those threads can be unraveled. King is precise and ruthless and it makes for a fun ride.

The Game Pitch: Survival horror for sure. You play a resident of Chester's Mill and, in a matter of hours, your life is transformed from that of a happy, productive citizen, to a survivor trapped in a small town where resources are scarce and no one--not even your former friends and neighbors--can be trusted.

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Jake Adelstein was an American student living in Japan when he was hired by Tokyo's Yomiuri Shinbun (one of the nation's largest newspapers). This fascinating book follows Adelstein early days as a cub reporter and, later, his work covering the crime beat in Tokyo, a job that put him necessarily close to the yakuza. Simultaneously a memoir, an eye-opening examination of (among other things) the massive and seemingly impenetrable human trafficking rings that operate in and out of Japan, and a detailed look at the inner workings of the yakuza and the Japanese media in the late 1990s and beyond. If you've never been to Tokyo, this book will make you want to go; if you have, you'll see it differently the next time you return.

The Game Pitch: An open-world crime game? The main character and plotline for the next Yakuza game? You play as a rookie gaijin reporter trying to get scoops in a town that you don't fully understand and that wants nothing to do with you. Incidentally, by way of his Twitter feed it's obvious that Adelstein is a fan of videogames. I wonder what he would have to say about a game based on his life story?

So that's what's sitting on my reading table these days. What about you?

Thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII--Tutorial, Linearity and Bad, Bad Hair

I'm about ten hours into Final Fantasy XIII and a few things have struck me about the game so far. Some mild spoilers ahead:

Would You Like to Know More?

Could FFXIII have the longest tutorial in gaming history? Considering I was still getting tutorial menus at around the eight-hour mark, I can't come up with a longer one off the top of my head. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--combat, which starts out as a prettily animated excuse to press the X button--quickly amps things up once you start exploring the paradigm system. Combat came alive for me at around the 10-hour mark, in the boss battle with the Aster Protoflorian--it took me longer to defeat that mutant flower/snail thing than it probably should have but it was the first real glimpse of the power and flexibility of paradigm combat.

Line Drive

The game's unyielding linearity continues to surprise me. That linearity serves the game's mega-extended tutorial well and, from what I understand, it continues well into the game's narrative, only opening up near the end. That's a far cry from the Final Fantasy entries of old; and it precluded me from engaging in the ritual I've engaged in with every FF game up to now: buying the strategy guide along with the game and then proceeding to unlock every item of the game while flipping through the guide page-by-page. Without a guide this time around, there might be the occasional FFXIII nook and cranny I'm missing, but I can't imagine it being that important.

Where There's Hope...

Unlike in previous Final Fantasy games, I don't have strong feelings for any of the characters in XIII. Unlike in FFX, for example, where I liked Yuna and Tidus the moment I saw them; or FFIX, where Vivi's unrelenting cutesiness rubbed me the wrong way from the get-go, I'm not sure I've formed an opinion about anyone in XIII yet. Even Hope and Vanille--two characters who seem to inspire most of the fan ire--haven't gotten on my nerves yet. Vanille can be irritatingly upbeat, of course, but, in the early goings, I think the pairing of her with Sazh makes for some nice moments. And Hope, a character I was sure I would loathe, has had a pretty interesting arc so far, as he tries to cope with his personal loss and what his desire for revenge means to him.

All of that said, I'm still no fan of Hope's haircut, as I've discussed elsewhere. Earlier today I figured out why Hope's 'do is so excruciating to me: it's the exact same cut every woman in the civilized world was wearing circa 2001. Consider:

TLC's Paige Davis

FFXIII's Hope:

Then again, Hope wasn't the first to rock this style:

Halle Berry, circa 2001:

FFX's Tidus:

I will now get on my knees and pray that Final Fantasy's developers never gets wind of Kate Gosselin, else your next Final Fantasy hero might look like this:

I Love Japanese TV

Our TGS coverage will be kicking off in earnest a bit later in the week but, in the meantime, the GameSpot crew is embedded in Tokyo and have been prepping for a fun and exhausting week. Here's a taste of one of my favorite things--Japanese television, which is endlessly fascinating to me. I took these mix of clips this morning from a variety of different channels:

[video=dSFgn2T65bIEuj7f]

Sorry for the low volume level, but it was early and I didn't want to wake up my neighbors.