DLC and How to Do It Right
- Mar 5, 2013 10:14 pm GMT
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So, I got a lot of comments on my previous blog on micro-transactions regarding DLC, and while that wasn't the topic of the blog, it did have a bit of relevance to the conversation I was trying to start (to varying degrees of success). Instead of writing out my thoughts on DLC (as a separate idea from micro-transactions) in the comments of my previous blog, I decided to write them as a new blog because I have a lot to say.
Now, let me get this out there, while I do not care about micro-transactions in my game, I do take a different stance on DLC. I don't hate it by any means. In fact, there's quite a few games where I welcome it. However, there are, of course, companies that abuse the practice of DLC, and I feel that gamers focus far too much on those companies' practices. The general consensus about DLC from what I've seen is that DLC is pure evil and should not be tolerated in games. It's always content that should have been included in the original release of the game and now [insert developer] is nickel and diming its fanbase with content excluded from the original game.
I like DLC when it's done right. And believe me, there are developers out there who do it right.
To me, DLC is a wonderful opportunity for developers to extend a player's time spent with a particular game in a meaningful way. Whether it's adding new missions, maps, characters, or gameplay modes, DLC can make for some surprisingly great experiences in games you might have forgotten about.
Please note that I used the word "opportunity". In no way, shape, or form do I believe that every single piece of DLC out there matches what I believe it should be idealistically. No, for every Fire Emblem: Awakening (a game that makes proper use of DLC) out there we have two Capcom titles that has on-disc DLC. For every Mass Effect 3 we have three shooters that charge $15 for new maps every 2 months.
What I admire in Fire Emblem: Awakening and Mass Effect 3's DLC policy is that there is a mixture of substantial, meaningful free content as well as paid content. I will go into detail into both of these games later, but I want to note that there are many developers out there that should look at these two titles and take notes. There has been some very positive reception for them both.
Fire Emblem: Awakening's DLC exists in two forms: the "bonus box" and the "outer realms". The bonus box is where gamers will receive their free content, and the outer realms is where you can buy DLC maps and challenges. Now, typically a developer would have the bonus box include a sparse amount of content. It would exist only to entice a gamer to buy more DLC maps, but this is not the case with Fire Emblem: Awakening. The bonus box includes (as of today) seven challenge maps, approximately forty recruit-able characters from past Fire Emblem titles (all with their own army for you to fight), two rare weapons for your army to use, and two bonus paralogue (side missions) chapters, where you can recruit villains from the game's main story to your army. And, if we're going to get everything Japan got in their bonus box, there's a hell of a lot more to come. For free.
The DLC that is paid for is quality, as well. It includes maps where you must fight armies comprised entirely of past Fire Emblem characters, maps where you can harvest loads of experience, gold, and legendary weapons, and in Japan there are maps that constitute entirely new storylines. However, even though these maps exist, the game does not feel incomplete without them. They exist to augment your game, rather than dangle a bit of content in front of your face that the game feels incomplete without (ala Resident Evil 5's multiplayer mode).
Mass Effect 3 does what most multiplayer-focused games (NOT that Mass Effect is multiplayer-focused) should do with its multiplayer DLC and makes it completely free. I remember when I used to have my Xbox 360 and was a frequent player of Halo: Reach and feeling cheated when I had to fork over $15 for 3 new multiplayer maps (for the record, I never paid for it). Or even in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (when I used to play those games), when extra maps meant extra money. At the time, it was an OK practice in my eyes because I didn't really see the issue with charging for the time the CoD devs spent making those new maps. After seeing how Mass Effect 3 handled their multiplayer DLC, I don't understand why other devs won't follow suit. Clearly you can make your new maps, characters and weapons free and not lose any money, otherwise Bioware wouldn't be doing it. The only time I ever paid for new maps was in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and I will never do it again after my experience with Mass Effect 3's surprisingly good multiplayer.
Say what you want about Mass Effect 3's day-one DLC, From Ashes (I do think it should have come with the initial price tag, but some people were OK with it being paid-for. The game does feel incomplete without Javik.) but it does its paid-for DLC, for the most part, correctly. It's substantial, and that's what we should be asking for when paying for something. Quality can be debated upon (I think Leviathan and Omega were sub-par) but one cannot argue that the game feels incomplete without them.
DLC is done incorrectly when it is clear that some desirable part of the game has been arbitrarily withheld from the players in order to make some more money off of it. Capcom is the most frequent offender of this scheme, with many of their titles having DLC that's already on-disc, but blocked off from the players (unless they pay). It's unfair to fans of the game, whether it be holding off two fighters from Marvel vs Capcom 3 or multiplayer mode in Resident Evil 5. The game is complete, we just can't play the whole thing unless we play $5 or $10 more. That's cheating, and that's what I have a problem with.
What's ultimately abusive about on-disc DLC is that what's usually withheld is something that gamers will really want. It becomes irresistible because of its relatively low price, and people will buy into it. I admit, I did buy Jill and Shuma-Gorath in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 because I hated seeing two grayed out portraits in their places on the character select screen.
What I feel is really important to remember when talking about DLC is that not all DLC is bad (even though that's the popular opinion). The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a wonderful example of a game where both good and bad DLC exist. Yes, there was that really crappy Horse Armor DLC, but there were also full-on expansions available (ala The Shivering Isles) that allowed you to spend more time in the game's universe, something that many people valued. If done right, DLC can be a very good thing, and I feel we need to stop focusing on the bad.
Gamers are More than the Sum of Their Killcounts (Walk it Off/Charity Edition)
- Mar 4, 2013 8:20 am GMT
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FPS Doug: Poster Child of Our Gaming Community!
Boom, headshot... BOOM headshot.... BOOM!!! HEADSHOT!!! From the recent publicity attempting to link violent acts in the world to video games, FPS Doug (WARNING: link contains strong language) may as well be the poster child for gamers worldwide in the eyes of the media*.
Whether you believe the hype or not, playing video games have also been linked to some very positive effects. Several studies have shown that video games can ease pain in patients, and that violent video games may increase pain tolerance in some people. My mother, who is in chronic pain due to various conditions, has personally found that Farmville helps her relax and improves her pain management.
Then there are all of the conflicting reports from the media at large, showing that 89 percent of parents believe game violence a problem but that a former FBI profiler says games do not cause violence. So, what to believe?
Enter Cody Thompson: Walking Gamer
Whichever side you're on, there's one gamer who is breaking this stereotype. Enter the Walking Gamer. Cody Thompson is on a mission for both himself and for charity. He is going to walk across the country, from North Carolina to California, on a journey that is to start this weekend and will take an estimated 8 months to complete. During his travels, he will be dependent on the kindness of strangers for lawn space on which to pitch his tent, donations for food and supplies during his travel and support during the difficult months he faces away from his home and his wife.
So, who is this Cody Thompson? In the spirit of full disclosure, he is the husband of one of my sister's dearest friends, and that's how I first heard of his journey. He is an avid gamer and has been since the age of 4, is a former EMS dispatcher and has a bone to pick with DLC--I won't repeat here what he had to say about the horse armor DLC for Oblivion--and he was kind enough to allow me to interview him personally for this blog. (I found out the hard way that he also hates being called "Mr. Thompson", which I did when I first requested the interview and subsequently made him twitch something awful...)
See, when Cody was 4 years old, he had a serious eye disease which required surgery. As a part of his recovery regimen, his doctor actually prescribed video games. With that, his parents got him an Atari. It's no surprise that the charity he is bringing along for his walk is Child's Play, an organization that provides various toys, books and video games to hospitalized children to try to make their stay less arduous and improve their spirits and recoveries.
He still remembers his first games, Pitfall! and River Raid. He remembers the Christmas his mom scraped together enough to get him the NES with Super Mario 2. In true gamer form, Cody will be bringing his 3DS along for the walk, with an assortment of games (if you donate enough to his Indiegogo campaign, he will even send you one of his used games from his walk!). Cody sequestered his 3DS for the last few months so that the games would be fresh and new for his journey, so he has spent his gaming time lately playing a lot of his console and PC games in the meantime (DMC, Starcraft 2 and others).
Cody's Trusty Walking Companion Will Be His 3DS
The idea to walk across the country originally came from his love of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" which introduced him to a world of adventure and self discovery he wanted to impart into his own life. He says it is only natural to bring a charity along for the ride, especially since Child's Play is so close to his own heart.
Bilbo vs. Frodo: Tough Choice!
For those of you wondering where he stands on the issue of Frodo vs. Bilbo, when asked the proverbial question, "Frodo or Bilbo?" Cody replied, "My answer is............. [darn], that is not a fair question really...the Hobbit is such a different tone than LOTR. Bilbo is having this adventure. He is outside his comfort zone, and I suppose I relate to that more for this walk. Frodo knows he is carrying the source of all evil around his neck, and well.... that [messes] a dude up." So now you know. (Thanks to GunnyHath for suggesting that question!)
While not the focus of his journey, Cody is well aware of how the gaming industry and community is being perceived, and he has his own ideas about games, violence and the roles of parents in all of this. When asked about his thoughts on the connection between violent acts and video games, he responded, "...the issue with games and probably movies is parents think it is just a game, so they get it, no biggie. Let's hand Darksiders over to a 12 year old and not pay attention."
He also recalls how his mom handled video game violence with him as a kid: "I grew up playing violent games. My mom got me Mortal Kombat 2 for the SNES but she watched me play it and she made the call if she thought it was appropriate for me to play." He does not believe in government censorship, and instead puts duties on the parents to make the call. To all who believe that violence in games has a widespread effect on gamers, he replies, "We are going to see a HUGE boom in America's farming community any day now. Farmville was THAT popular." I guess my mom is going to become a farmer. She already has a huge garden at home.... hmmm... I see truth in this sentiment already...
With all of the negative publicity the gaming community faces, it's nice to see something so positive coming from one of our own. So the next time somebody scared of the world and looking for a neat and tidy way to explain the violence in the world blames you, the gamer, just tell them to walk it off.
Well done, Mr. Thomps--er, Cody. Safe travels on your longest journey.
Walk on, gaming brother. Walk on.
Interested in donating to Cody's cause? Donations in his honor can be made to Child's Play by clicking here. Donations will first cover his expenses for the walk, and all unused proceeds will then go directly to Child's Play.
You may also donate directly to him to cover his expenses, which he estimates will be $8,000 by the end of his trip, at his Indiegogo site.
Cody will be updating his Walking Gamer site with blogs during his travels, but you may also connect with him via other social media sites below:
*It should be known that I think FPS Doug is about the most hilarious YouTube video ever, I'm not knocking him in any way, shape or form
Why perma-death is integral to Fire Emblem
- Mar 2, 2013 4:54 pm GMT
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Was diggin' the recent Gamespot article about perma-death, but as much as it's easy to romanticize the mechanic, it's more than merely a matter of "because it's more manly." I've plugged in over 120 hours (on all three slots) with Awakening, went back and finished Sacred Stones a few days ago, and I'm now midway through Shadow Dragon (the underappreciated, red-headed stepchild of the Fire Emblem series), while simultaneously playing Radiant Dawn off and on. I've got Fire Emblem on the brain right now. The new game has definitely inspired a personal revival.
But what about this whole "perma-death" thing. First, let me just say, though I didn't use the option, I was glad to see Intelligent Systems add the Casual Mode to Awakening (not its first appearance in the series, by the way). The series has had a bit of trouble gaining traction here in the States, in spite of a very devoted, albeit relatively small, fanbase. But it should be obvious by now, Awakening has really made a dent into the mainstream awareness of this series, I'm certain in no small part due to lowering the barrier of entry.
All that being said, I still believe perma-death is absolutely an essential part of the gameplay because, well, if death isn't a concern, all you have to worry about is getting through a given battle. But with perma-death present, you have to think several battles -- even endgame -- ahead. It's really as simple as that. It's not about being elite or manly or hardcore; it's about a fundamental change in gameplay. With perma-death, Fire Emblem is, in a lot of ways, similar to chess. Without it, it has more in common with any number of other SRPGs on the market.
I love Awakening. It's up there with my favorite FE games. I love the options, the production values, the carefree changes that play into all the trappings that make us love games like Final Fantasy Tactics. But don't underestimate the importance of perma-death in a Fire Emblem game. Play it any way you like, but trust me, it's an integral part of the formula.
In response to Carolyn's Persona 4 article...
- Mar 2, 2013 1:40 pm GMT
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You know, I like it when the writers of Gamespot voice their opinions and write articles about various issues in the gaming industry. They're usually very interesting reads. However, that doesn't mean I agree with each and every one of them. One article in question is Carolyns recent article on Persona 4. In the article, she voices her disappointment with how Naoto and Kanjis characters are portrayed in the game. She claims that the issues of sexuality and gender identity are handled quite poorly in Persona 4, and that it goes against its themes of accepting ones self. She says that their characterizations "[send] the message that such sexual orientations and gender identities are too scary to accept."
While I respect her opinion, I disagree with it. But before I start, I'll give all you readers a fair warning: Since I'm replying to an article about sexuality and gender identity in gaming, of course I'll be addressing these issues. If you're sick and tired of hearing about this, do yourself a favor and press the back button right now. Also, this blog contains numerous spoilers for Persona 4.
Kanji is put out on the cutting board first. The tough talking, foul mouthed, troubled youth's shadow manifests as a flamboyant man in a loincloth spouting dialogue with some very obvious homosexual undertones. And even before Kanji was kidnapped and thrown in to the TV, this is heavily hinted (as you can infer from his first encounter with Naoto). It turns out that this isn't the case. When he finally accepts his shadow, it turns out that he isn't homosexual, he just deeply dislikes women and how they judged him. It turns out that he's just more comfortable with guys.
Petit's answer to this is: "To me, this is a huge cop-out. It rings psychologically false; the ultimate truth of Kanji's character as someone who was just afraid of rejection because girls had been cruel to him in the past doesn't quite mesh with the imagery of his dungeon and the personality of his shadow self. By clearly raising the idea in the player's mind that Kanji is [homosexual] and then rejecting that idea, Persona 4 sends the message that homosexuality is shameful and should not be accepted."
First of all, the characters personalities and actions do not PERFECTLY match with the personalities of their shadow selves. Its actually said in the game that the shadows are only one facet of the characters personality. Also, the shadows and the dungeons are very extreme manifestations of the characters deepest troubles and fears.
For example, Rise's strip club dungeon was the result of people not seeing the real her. Rise constantly had to be everyone's charming, cute, and most of all, perfect idol for the camera. Fed up with this fake personality she was forced to show, she left show business and went to live a normal life. But of course everyone still approached her, wanting to meet Rise the media darling, not the real her. Therefore, the whole "I'm going to strip and bare it all" was a very extreme way of saying she wanted to shed her generic idol shell and show the world the real her.
Yukiko's dungeon was a castle; her shadow wore princess' clothing, and constantly spoke of "scoring a hot stud." Her shadow, once provoked, manifested as a bird in a cage who summoned a prince to fight for her. This represented Yukiko's feelings of being trapped in a life she didn't want to pursue. She didn't want to inherit the family inn. She wanted someone ("a prince charming") to come and whisk her away. The Void Quest dungeon, manifesting itself as an 8 bit JRPG dungeon, represented Mitsuos idea of his actions all being a game, with him being the hero. The Heaven dungeon manifested from Namatame's view of himself as a God who was saving lives. It could also possibly represent Nanako's desire to be reunited with her dear departed mother.
The disconnect between the exaggerated dungeons and reality is especially evident with Yukiko. She's a reserved, refined, and classy girl (a Yamato Nadeshiko if you will) who's never even had a boyfriend. Yet her shadows words that go something like "I've got my lacy underthings on, now I'm ready to score a hot stud," carry a very obvious sexual connotation.
Okay, now lets bring it back to Kanji and his whole bathhouse bonanza. Remember, these are extreme and exaggerated manifestations. Rise is not an indecent girl who'd strip in front of millions, Yukiko is not promiscuous, Nanako doesn't want to die, and Mitsuo and Namatame are delusional (among other things).
Kanjis character was handled in a very ambiguous and slightly confusing way. And at times, it seems that his confusion about his sexuality is merely played for laughs (as evidenced by the two scenes Petit mentioned. Ill give her that one). But it just doesn't seem like the creators were trying to be disrespectful to homosexuals, or paint homosexuality as dirty or shameful. I think Troy Baker (his voice actor) put it best in this video. All in all, Kanji is a kid struggling with his identity. Conflicted between accepting himself (along with his hobbies that are seen as feminine), or rejecting the world that rejects him. I also thought it was really cool how Baker said that people came up to him and told him that his character kind of gave them the courage to be open about their own sexuality.
And with that we move in to what Petit had to say about Naoto's character. First, she refers to Naoto as a male throughout the article on the basis that Naoto uses the masculine Japanese pronoun boku. I dont know if Petit knows this, but girls who refer to themselves with a masculine pronoun are known as bokuko (boku + ko, which means girl). In the west, we refer to them as tomboys. It does not automatically mean they identify as men. It complements both Naoto's personality and backstory.
Also, Naoto's reason for wanting to craft herself as the hard-boiled detective did not only stem from her attachment to fictional characters. She is descended from a line of famous detectives and she intends to continue the tradition. Her parents dying when she was young forced her to grow up quickly, explaining her mature demeanor and personality despite being a teenager in high school. The detective novels she loved as a kid were only one small piece of the puzzle.
Naoto is young, short (5'0"), and a woman. This doesn't fit her idea of what a detective is. She can't change her height or age (at least not right away), so she chose to change her appearance in order to be taken more seriously by the older detectives. Its enough that she gets treated like a child (something made evident in the game). I doubt she'd want to deal with sexism too. I think Naoto's true intentions were to become a splendid and ideal detective, not a man. Like Kanji, Naoto is struggling with her identity. I also do not think she is transgender. She just doesn't fit the bill. Later in the game, she has no qualms about putting on a girls school uniform and speaking in a more feminine voice for the protagonist. It would seem to me that if she identified as a male, she would have refused, being highly uncomfortable and maybe a bit angered by the request. It seems she would have demanded that the protagonist accept her the way she is: as a man.
Also, in Persona 4 Arena, when an illusion of Akihiko comments on her overdeveloped chest ("its all fat and no muscle"), she blushes and remarks that that's the part of her self-image that she's most sensitive about. From her choice of words, it seems to be embarrassment of a grown man's blunt comment about her developing breasts, not shame or anger of a female body she didn't want. Also, in the epilogue of Persona 4 Golden, we see Naoto comfortably donning feminine clothing and slightly longer hair. Throughout the game and even more so in the social links, the protagonist helps the characters through their troubles and insecurities so they can accept themselves. Naoto accepting herself as a woman who could still be a great detective without pretending to be something she was not adhered to that formula.
There's also a few other things to consider here. Japan is an entirely different country that speaks an entirely different language. Some things get lost in translation. Some subjects just aren't handled in a way that coincides with the way we Westerners would handle the subject. Japans views of gender identity and sexuality are probably much different than they are in the US. Couple that with the fact that video game stories still have a lot of growing to do as a whole. There's a lot to be desired in its budding methods of storytelling. However, in terms of video game stories and characters, I'd say Persona 4 is top notch. Its characters are as well fleshed out as they are dynamic and interesting. I don't think it was Atlus' intention to mock or shame homosexuals and transgender people.
Perhaps in a way, I am a bit biased. I absolutely adore the game and have spent well over 150 hours on it. So of course I'm going to defend it, because I think the game is so brilliant. In no way would I ever defend it if I shared Carolyn's sentiments and thought that the game was even remotely disrespectful and offensive.
Microtransactions And Why I Don't Care
- Mar 1, 2013 6:11 pm GMT
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With Dead Space 3's release, the hot-button topic of microtransactions in AAA titles has been resurfaced again by gamers. Yes, paying an extra dollar for a significant in-game bonus has stirred up more anger among gamers about the current state of their favorite industry (right when you thought nothing else could piss 'em off, too). I guess I can see why...people can now pay for what are essentially the new form of cheat codes. It's obviously a cash from the publishers who do it, but I seriously don't care. And I seriously don't see why other people do.
To understand my point, we should probably talk about the origin of microtransaction-based games; social networks. Games such as Mafia Wars and Farmville are completely free to play, and have a focus on social interaction with your friends who play the game. You can play them and be completely free of the worry of having to pay a dime to be successful, but there's a cost. In these games, you may have an energy bar that lets you perform X amount of actions when full, and once it depletes you must wait an hour or so before it fully regenerates. In others, you must wait for certain tasks to be completed, and if you wait too long to come back and collect on those tasks you may be punished. In order to offset those drawbacks, the game would offer players a chance to buy an item with real money that would make it easier for them to play the game and speed up their progress. The items are never expensive...usually costing around a dollar each...but if you have a game that, say, 50 million people play (I'm guessing here) and 5 million of them (10%) pay a dollar every day for a new item, you have some serious profit. That's why companies like the much-loathed Zynga are so successful, they have a host of these games that have a large userbase, and even though the majority of players don't pay, the amount of people that do really adds up.
That Windmill will take 24 hours to build, but if you pay $1 it will build INSTANTLY!
Now, while gamers hated games such as Farmville (because, really, what don't gamers hate?) for being obvious cash-grabs (although they probably didn't even bother with playing them), they didn't have as much of an effect on the industry until recently. EA, the big bad evil devil satan publisher of the video game world, has suddenly included microtransactions in many of their new games, and has announced that they intend to implement them into more, sparking an outcry among gamers.
My question is this: why? Why do they care?
Mass Effect 3's multiplayer has a microtransaction system that lets players pay for booster packs that include new armor, characters, and weapons, but they could just earn them from playing the multiplayer enough.
My thing with microtransactions is that they're completely optional and have no direct effect on the game if you decide not to use them. You want to look around for tungsten in Dead Space 3 for free? Go ahead! You'd prefer to grind up credits in Mass Effect 3? Sure! Go for it! Do it! The game is still there in its entirety, completely available to everyone who purchases it. Honestly. You can still craft the weapons and upgrades you need in Dead Space 3 without paying for extra tungsten, and you can still unlock every character and every gun in Mass Effect 3's multiplayer without paying a dime for a booster pack.
These microtransactions are, essentially, glorified cheat codes. Remember cheat codes? Those things that were really popular up until this generation? Did anybody else notice that, even in single-player games, cheat codes seem to have fallen off the map? Game Informer used to have a "CHEATS" section, but that was removed a few years back because there were simply no cheats to publish. G4 (may it rest in peace) used to have an entire television program dedicated to cheat codes called, you guessed it, Cheat! Now, one could argue that the rise of multiplayer made cheat codes obsolete (they would destroy game balance entirely), but even in most single-player games and campaigns they just up and disappeared.
Now, let me ask you a question. If a game had cheat codes, were you a frequent user of them? If not, then what's bothering you about microtransactions? Just like you opted out of cheat codes, you're opting out of paying for bonuses. You still have your full-featured game. You can still play it and beat it however many times you want. You can still sell it second-hand (unless you bought it digitally). Really, these microtransactions have no effect on your game if you don't choose to use them.
If you were a frequent user of cheat codes, I still don't see the complaints of the prospects of maybe having to pay for them now. They've been largely absent from games over the past generation, and that doesn't seem to have stopped anyone from playing. They're back now in their cheating glory, but, guess what, now you'll have to pay some money to cheat.
And before you tell me that I'm an EA apologist and blah, blah, blah, I'm not. I'm just a rational thinker here. I absolutely hate what they did to Bioware and the ending of Mass Effect 3 and I don't like that they have a reactive business model, rather than a proactive one. I would like to see EA dissolve and release all of the developers under their umbrella, but until that happens we're going to have to put up with their money-grabbing.
Some of you will claim that the eventual result of EA's use of microtransactions will be full-fledged, AAA $60 games will have systems like those of Mafia Wars and Farmville. We'll only be able to play 2 levels of a game in 24 hours, and in order to play more we'll have to buy an energy pack for $.99.
Except that won't happen. As soulless as EA is, it's aware that gamers will react extremely negatively to a $60 that employed such a model and would sell a miniscule number of copies. The microtransactions they currently employ are small little boosts that effect your game, and your game only. What's the issue?
And, let's be honest, I'm willing to bet that a lot of people who cry out against the microtransactions have used them at least once or twice. That's why EA will keep using them, gamers are purchasing them. Really, it's nobody's fault but ours that EA will keep this up. I admit, I have paid a grand total of $5 into Mass Effect 3's microtransaction system because I wanted to see if I could get a rare character without having to play 3 matches first. Does my getting a rare character hurt other players? No, the multiplayer is co-op, so, in fact, it almost helps my teammates if I get a rare character.
So, yeah, I don't see what the big deal is. Until a game like World of Warcraft offers legendary items for money, microtransactions can exist and I still won't give a single sh*t.
Back To The Future of Gaming
- Mar 1, 2013 12:58 pm GMT
- 0 Comments
I just want to start out this blog with an unrelated shout out. EA recently announced it will be holding a summit for developers to discuss LGBT portrayals in gaming. As a huge supporter of that community I think it is great that one of the biggest companies in the industry has put themselves under fire to support those guys and gals. EA obviously does a lot of terrible stuff, but I have no qualms saying I absolutely admire and respect them for doing this. Gaming has long been one of the most unfriendly places for homosexuals, which is a terrible tragedy. For a demographic that often needs a way to escape from reality more than any other, it is shameful that our industry does such a piss poor job of including them. So thank you to EA for taking a leading role in trying to change things from the industry end. I sincerely hope that gamers themselves can work to make our community more inclusive for all types of people.
Okay, just wanted to get that out of the way, because I do strongly support what EA is doing. Now the topic of the rest of this blog is about the movement of top developers from AAA to Indie studios and the support these Indie teams have gotten from the press. I think it is interesting because if you were to ask the average visitor to a site like Gamespot if they would prefer someone like Cliff Blezinski work on a AAA game or an Indie game I think almost everyone would say AAA. Yet if you were to ask most any developer who has been in this industry for as long as he has which they would prefer to work on, almost all of them would say Indie. Now a lot of people would blame this on the evil publishers who require lengthy hours for little reward. And there is definite truth in that. I think there is a bit more to it than that though.
A lot of the developers who are at the top of the industry today, grew up in the days of Atari or even earlier. To them, games were just that, games to pass the time away. Early game designers were called engineers. At Atari, Nolan Bushnell hired programmers not artists. Games didn't have much in the way of stories. They were "drawn" by a programmer and designed by a programmer. The industry was small and developers made the whole game themselves. These games had no ambitions beyond providing some fun for kids for an hour. Developers designed for a controller that had one joystick and one button. It was a simple time when break rooms were filled with weed and rock and roll music filled the hallways.
The game development of today is anything but simple. Designers at major companies don't answer to a couple hippies but to a room full of shareholders. Content is tightly controlled to appease market trends and rating requirements. The days of just sitting at your desk and making a game seemed gone until the rise of digital distribution through Xbox Live and later Steam and Smartphones. While many gamers look poorly upon many Indie games, especially those on smartphones, to many developers, smartphone games are what they signed up to make 30 years ago. And self publishing from their garage is the business model they planned when they started. For many of them, Indie games, especially smartphone games, are what they think of when they think of the term video game. And making those games either by themselves or with a small team is what they always wanted to do.
I guess that is the interesting split for me. For many designers and many of the older journalists and gamers, Indie games are what they imagine when they think of game. Yet for teenagers or younger, those types of games are trivial or inferior to what they consider true gaming. They call these games casual or describe them as "simple time wasters" or something to that effect, maybe unaware that games are in fact simple time wasters in many cases, and especially were if you go back more than 10 years.
Now I'm not saying that gamers and game designers shouldn't respect the changes and innovations that have occurred in the game industry over the past 15 years or so, but I think it is foolish to look down upon the designers, journalists, and gamers who claim to love Indie games, even of the smartphone variety. For many of these people, these were the games they grew up with. The games they wanted to make or wanted to write about or wanted to play. For many of my fellow bloggers and for several of the journalists on this site, gaming as a kid involved a controller with no more buttons than a smartphone. I don't want to turn this into another pro-smartphone blog, because that isn't the point. The point is that I feel younger gamers just don't understand why a developer or critic would want to make or cover an Indie game over a AAA game and that is sad. It shows a lack of understanding about gaming history and the type of "my games are better than your games" mentality that makes kids hate their parents' music.
In the end a game is meant to be fun. It is meant to entertain and the scale of a game doesn't really effect that one way or the other. But regardless of that, the point of this blog is to merely acknowledge that for many designers, critics, and gamers, games have changed so drastically from what they started out as, that it is very compelling to try and go back to those roots and try to bring gaming back to how it was when things started - a bunch of hippies just trying to have some fun.
Horror, Horror Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink
- Feb 28, 2013 11:59 am GMT
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Video games have often allowed players to fully immerse themselves into the world of the game. From the very first game I played, Super Mario Brothers on the original Nintendo, to the most recent game, Metal Gear Rising, games have the ability to transplant you to a place in time that may be wholly foreign to your normal, everyday life. The first game that made me think differently was Grand Theft Auto 3. The game initially didnt strike me as immersive, but as I played, switching to cars I liked, finding the right radio station, I soon realised I was engrossed in the game, lost in its nuances and trivialities. When Vice City came out, I found myself playing just to drive around and enjoy the environment. In a horror game, the same is true, though instead of longing for a familiarity, I'm ill at ease by it, uncertain and sometimes even terrified by what the game delivers.
The first horror game I played is really the first horror game that affects me still. And while it was recently re-released, I doubt I'll pick it up, not wanting to sully the memories of that terror. Silent Hill 2 was a terrifying adventure. Unlike many modern games that try to pander to a wider audience, Silent Hill 2 caters to the horror audience alone. Others may partake, may find it diverting, but fans of pure horror will appreciate what Silent Hill 2 accomplishes.
The ambiance of the game is the first thing that struck me, the game felt eerie and off-putting from the very beginning. In most games, it is important to be able to see whats going on, hear things as they approach. In Silent Hill 2, a great dense fog descends and permeates every corner of the city. The protagonist, James, returns to this town after receiving a letter from his dead wife. Once he arrives, he is struck by his inability to see too far, needing a small radio, flashlight and his own sense of hearing to navigate away from things as they approach. The game is steeped in trying to disorient you, giving you a map, but half of the places are inaccessible or unreachable until a certain point in the game. One of the many goals of the game was to confuse you, to make you misunderstand the direction you were supposed to go, or the room to enter, the piece of the puzzle to use. It wasn't until I played Resident Evil 4 that I appreciated what Silent Hill had done, giving you more things than you needed, more tools than you could use or carry, purposely forcing you to choose to carry health or ammo, not knowing which you'd use or need more. There was no way to know what was around the next corner.
The enemies in a game are often a good way to gauge whether you will be scared or find it comical or not affecting at all. The real taste of something nasty for me was the nurses in Silent Hill 2. Faceless, dismembered, at times, not fans of light, they roamed the streets and hospitals of Silent Hill, ready with a knife or other implements to slice James in half. In most games, stealth is usually used to move through a level undetected by an enemy, but in Silent Hill, this takes on a whole other level of concern because it is not always clear what will set a nurse off to pursue you. And when one comes, more invariably follow. If that weren't bad enough, Pyramid head makes his debut and is well-nigh un-killable. Like in Amnesia The Dark Descent, the goal when fighting Pyramid head is to run away, something that, at the time, wasn't all that common in gaming. The idea that an enemy was not bothered by your bullets or bat, that you were literally powerless to slow or stop him in any way is what many horror movies base their premise off of.
It is in this final realisation that I come to the crux of my argument. I read a lot of horror novels (or I did when I was younger), I see a lot of horror movies as well. What I look for in a good horror piece is whether it affects me long after seeing it. The same is true for a video game did it affect me long after I stopped playing? With Silent Hill 2, however pathetic it may seem to many of you, I had nightmares for a week. Never anything specific, just waking up in a cold sweat, terrified of something coming out of nowhere to get me, as it did in the game. What makes Silent Hill 2 so affecting was the way the entire presentation and gameplay lead you back to the same feeling, the same warning. Each episode, each battle, each encounter, draws you further in, confuses or scares you, but brings the lore, the mythos that is Silent Hill to bear, in front of your eyes whether you're ready or not. Truly, Silent Hill is the king of all horror games, none have surpassed it, none have equalled it, none ever will.
The Elements of Horror: Human Fears and why AAA Titles Forsake Them
- Feb 28, 2013 11:34 am GMT
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When we as humans are brought into this world--kicking, screaming, and drowning in the blinding light of our first few breathes--we enter this existence knowing only two inherent fears: The fear of falling, and the fear of loud noises. We laugh, we cry, and we experience as our consciousness expands into the world around us. Our minds, enlightened by an illuminated world of opportunity and possibility, evolve by a need for survival honed evolutionary by the success of our ancestors. We grow, we learn, we adapt, and in the light of our everyday life, fears and phobias silently take root and blossom from the shadows of our traumas and insecurities.
The nature of fear is elusive though many phobias can be traced back to some triggering catalyst. A fear of heights, for example, could be the result of a traumatic fall while a fear of water might stem from a bath-time burn or frightening submersion. Even the act of witnessing fear in others could be enough to trigger a lifelong phobia. While the process is seldom clear, with effects defying the logic of the unafflicted, fear, at its root, can be summed up as a primitive emotion, biochemical reaction, and a learned behavior.
So what makes a book, movie, or videogame scary? We aren't personally experiencing the event and even witnessing it occurs through an altered sense of reality. Yet, we've all had moments in games and movies alike where we've jumped from fear, gripped the sides of our controller or seat in anticipation, or felt the cold rush of adrenaline as we put the lights out, walk terrified across a foreign room with new shadows in every corner, and crawl into a bed that no longer seems safe. Can fear be controlled, channeled, and crafted into the stories we write or the games we play? Can horror be cultivated and molded through a master's touch to rival the living experiences of eating, sleeping, and breathing life? Or does fright ascend beyond the realms of categorized limits and human boundaries, bound by neither, through a mastery of art and prose?
To understand horror in both storytelling and gameplay, we must understand fear at its root. We must acknowledge that beyond the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises inherited as birthright, fear is both a learned and conditioned behavior, and subsequently, can be altered to fit our needs as readers, storytellers, developers, or gamers. While many experience personal fears including, fearing the dark, heights, death, spiders, and aliens on a space station, they remain individualized phobias while fearing the unknown, abandonment, and the prospect of losing control are far more universal and psychologically damaging in nature. While we may fear a spider or snake because of the physically threat they represent, our fears of the unknown or of losing control cut far deeper into our mental and emotional states. Understanding this explains why AAA games like Resident Evil or the Dead Space series can offer the occasional jump of the joystick with their overplayed gore, heavy reliance on dim settings, and ungodly sound effects--while smaller titles like Fatal Frame (Project Zero in Europe and Zero in Japan) or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, offer up something more visceral and haunt us on a much deeper level.
Fatal Frame, which is by far the scariest game I've personally played, haunts and horrifies for multiple reasons. I loved it. I hated it. I never finished it. Perhaps playing alone in the middle of an unlit and unfinished basement was overkill, but the game was horrifying from start to panicked finish. If you haven't played it, the story revolves around Miku Hinasaki, a schoolgirl clad in stereotypical Japanese uniform, armed with an old camera and her physic touch, as she wanders through a demonic mansion in search of her missing brother. Sounds horrifying, right? Like a little Pokemon snap with ghosts? You'd be surprised. Here you face something beyond the realm of the physical, under a distortion of falsified perception, where neither gun, plasma cutter, or professional training matter. You are driven by the believable ambition of saving a sibling as you unravel a history rooted in historical claims and urban legend. You are alone, facing the unknown, and losing control with every step forward. Prepare yourself, and keep a pair of clean underwear nearby because Fatal Frame attacks at the core of life and death and the world that exists between.
So why does it work? Fatal Frame succeeds where others fail by understanding the nature of fear while supplying pseudo moments of calm in a rollercoaster ride of terror. Though you can fight back with your camera in an exposed, tunnel vision manner, the effects are often temporary and vanquished spirits can return through walls, ceilings, and even the floor beneath you. Unlike games where a monster's movements are limited by their environment (windows, doors, and the ventilation), the denizens of Fatal Frame perversely break our physiological boundaries by defying our definitions of reality. Forget the occasional jump or sweaty palms of suspense, Fatal Frame grips in a way that takes weeks, if not months, to pry loose.
Another great example of true horror, though I'm still in the process of completing it, would be Amnesia: The Dark Decent. Amnesia is an Indie game developed by Frictional Games that follows the protagonist Daniel, a gentleman mysteriously stuck in a foreboding castle, as he descends into darkness in search of both his memory and sanity. I know, you'd never guess with a title like that, right? Regardless, the game is terrifying in ways similar to Fatal Frame while creating a character utterly vulnerable to every psychologically whim of the imagination. In Amnesia, even shadows are dangerous as hallucinations break way from paranoia to pure insanity as darkness, or even the close quarters of the castle, begin to close in around you. Forget a gun, knife, or even a camera for that matter: Daniel is completely defenseless in a game that commands suspense through anticipation, uncertainty, and dread.
So why does it work? The horror of Amnesia: The Dark Decent is capitalized by a gradual increase of suspense as the unknown is slowly unraveled to reveal a truth far more frightening than the perceived realities of the game's opening scenes. Here the enemy is unknown, your purpose, mission, and background are equally unexplained, as the atmosphere of emptiness consumes until heightened suspense breaks way to the psychological horrors of the imagination. You are constantly expecting something, and as seconds give way to minutes, that suspense rises like bile in your throat until every sound echoing through the empty corridors becomes another doorway in the halls of your own deepest fears. Amnesia ruthlessly attacks the insecurities of the uncontrollable--the horror of losing our mental cognition and drifting slowly into madness--while driving us forward in torment at a Jigsaw pace. Here, our only hope lies in doing what we fear most: Moving forward, exploring the next room, and facing the horrors of an ever growing sense of insanity.
While experiencing fear is part of human nature, and the elements of horror exist on many levels of the physical, spiritual, and emotional realms, understanding the phenomenon is neither brain surgery nor holy clergy. So why then is the aspect of capturing fright so elusive to mainstream developers and AAA titles while lesser or independent developers excel with tighter assets and limited resources? Both Fatal Frame and Amnesia: The Dark Decent are master strokes in the genre and yet big named companies continually fail with their offerings. If fear is so readily understood, why aren't game or movie studios pushing the envelope rather than overcompensating with gore and shock tactics? Do software giants fear creating games too scary for the million dollar masses when the medium has far more potential for fright by virtue of forcing the viewer to participate in the horror? Even when big name games like the original Dead Space manage to get it right to some degree, the following sequels abandon fear for accessibility or multiplayer options. Is corporate greed, parallelized by the inability to take a financial risk, killing the genre by making games more accessible to the weak willed and terror sensitive? Now, that's a frightening thought indeed.
Please, post your thoughts. And thank you for reading!
Also, what is the scariest game you've played and why? What worked and what didn't?
Why I'm NOT Buying Assassin's Creed 4
- Feb 28, 2013 9:28 am GMT
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Assassin's Creed 3 was the most disappointing game of 2012. AC3 was proof that the series has hit a wall in terms of new ideas and innovative gameplay. Think about it. What was the major marketing point of Assassin's Creed 3? The setting. There weren't any ads about Connor's climbing ability, or his weapons. It was "hey America come get a glimpse of your history with Assassin's Creed's version of the American Revolution." I'm not going to lie, the setting is what convinced me to give Assassin's Creed 3 a shot. I was done with the series after Brotherhood, but figured enough time had passed for the series to be fun again. Boy was I wrong. Colonial Boston is nowhere near as beautiful or fun to explore as say Italy in the 1400's or the Middle East in the 1100's.
The biggest new thing in terms of gameplay for AC3 was the Naval Battles. Naval Battles are the fights between battleships that took place in Assassin's Creed 3. Many people who criticized AC3, gave praise to the Naval Battles. Some even used Naval Battles as an excuse to finish playing the game. I guess it comes as no surprise that Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is set completely around the idea of ships and pirates. Ubisoft is pretty much taking the one thing (some) people liked about Assassins Creed 3 and making it the center point in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is apparently a Pirate Themed game set in the Caribbean. The promo picture being set on a ship is a big indicator that Naval Battles are going to be a focal point in Assassin's Creed 4. That's a bummer. I for one wasn't a fan of the Naval Battles. By the time they showed up in AC3 (around the 6 hour mark) I was tired of everything that made Assassin's Creed 3 up to that point. I was tired of the plot that was going nowhere. I was tired of running from one cutscene to the next. I was tired of a series that clearly hurt itself with yearly releases.
AC4 being announced less than 6 months after the release of Assassins Creed 3 is a huge red flag for me. It more than likely will be available this holiday season which means Ubisoft learned nothing from it's mistakes in AC3. What I liked about the Assassin's Creed series was actually being an assassin. Nothing made me happier than climbing structures and stealthily killing people. I'd have fun climbing each viewpoint no matter how repetitive it was to jump in a stack of hay. I loved searching for treasure before AC 3 added a stupid lockpick minigame to the mix. If AC4 can go back to a beautiful city with gorgeous skyscrapers and fun gameplay, I'd be more than excited for it.
Will Assassin's Creed 4 remind me of the things I love about the series, or will it be another snoozefest with more cutscenes than actual gameplay? That remains to be seen, but if it's coming at the end of the year. I almost guarantee it won't be much different from AC3. That means more running from cutscene to cutscene combined with a boring character, boring location, and a boring story. If that's the case I'll gladly pass on Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. I'll wait for the reviews before I decide whether or not to give this game a try.
Bicycle Clip Time - Stagnation and Innovation in Horror Games
- Feb 27, 2013 3:05 pm GMT
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Ever since I started thinking about video games more seriously, I have had to acknowledge the significant advantages media such as literature and film have over video games when it comes to such elements as storytelling, pacing and composition. The obligatory focus on gameplay in video games causes them to have a virtually unsurpassable disadvantage when it comes to the development of these secondary but still important aspects. However, this does not automatically condemn gaming to being an inferior form of entertainment. Due to the high level of interaction with the player, video games offer unique possibilities in terms of immersion and emotional involvement. The only catch is that video game developers do not always capitalise fully upon the potential.
Much like how horror films are seldom about the sensation of fear itself, horror games frequently focus on secondary elements such as gore and violence, relegating the nightmarish horror universe to a fancy backdrop rather than the centre of the experience. Even when the horror aspects do become the central focus, convenience dictates they take the form of short-lived jump scares rather than a more constant, suspenseful sense of dread. Many horror games give the impression the developers made the core game first and only then started creating the horror setting around it. This method leads to several fundamental errors finding their way into the design of even the most renowned horror titles of today.
Better bring a shopping list.
A major problem lies in the fact that many of the more traditional horror titles are, at their core, puzzle games. It is absolutely true that a well-designed puzzler can offer the same flow as the smoothest action titles, but lamentably, many developers lack the finesse to prevent the difficulty of their puzzles from hindering the overall pacing. Finding the right item or speaking to the right NPC in order to progress the game does not need to be complicated, but all too often, developers are too ambitious when they expect the player to come up with the far-fetched solution to the situation at hand. Swedish developer Frictional Games seemed to have realised this after it finished making the Penumbra series: its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, presented items and locations in a much more logical fashion, their purpose being more obvious off the bat and puzzles being less convoluted in general.
"Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks."
However, there is an even bigger obstacle on the way of horror games becoming truly scary. Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks in this department: things do not become scary until the protagonists (or victims, if you will) become vulnerable. You can put all the creepy noises and eerie locales you want in a game, but if you subsequently give the player the arsenal to overcome all these terrors, they will never feel truly threatened by the game world, reducing the moments of fear to jump scares. The latter have a very limited effect, because more intelligent players are likely to quickly familiarise themselves with the pattern enough to be able to roughly predict what is coming.
Time to soil some loins, perhaps?
Granting the player too much power resulted in a game such as F.E.A.R. being only mildly frightening during the first few levels, when the details of the story are still alien to the player. In more advanced stages of the game, though, the knowledge of the player about the context of his surroundings, as well as his rather excessive arsenal make it hard for the game world to feel as hostile and dangerous as it did in the first two hours of gameplay. By the time F.E.A.R. 2 came out, the mystery surrounding the story about the ghostlike girl Alma had been unveiled and the game barely managed to live up to its horror pretence any more.
"The feeling of being hunted creates a more genuine sensation of fear."
Fortunately, the indie scene has managed to revitalise the horror genre, to a point where outlook is bright for those who look for a new influx of truly terrifying video game experiences. The afore-mentioned PC hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent hit the sweet spot of terror when it stripped players of the possibility to fight the hideous monsters they encountered. The feeling of being hunted and not being able to do anything about it creates a more genuine sensation of fear, as players realise that the game world is essentially way more powerful than they are, and can strike them down at any given moment. The effectiveness of this method was further confirmed by the cult hit Slender. This primitive, home-made game proved that the simple concept of having the player be chased around a forest at night can make for an experience easily more terrifying than many AAA horror titles. The reaction videos will attest to that.
Granted, F.E.A.R. did have moments of absolute terror.
Still, the key to suspense is not only vulnerability, but also surprise. Slender in particular spawned tons of clones on Steam (aided by the fact that the Slenderman is an internet fabrication that does not seem to be copyrighted), and it is only a matter of time before the concept becomes obsolete - once players know what to expect, their anticipation may render numb any terror derived from it. Fortunately, recent developments in the genre have been promising, as developers all over the world finally seem to have realised that it takes more than just severed limbs and spooky faces to make the modern audience sweat. But they will have to innovate if they want to keep catching us off-guard.
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