Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ramblings: Totally Not Delayed

[Ramblings is a weekly column by The G on subjects pertaining to video games, gaming culture and real life.]

So, it's been several weeks since I've written an entry for this column. I could say real life got in the way; I could say I was lazy (that one's probably the right answer). Regardless of the reasons, you - the expectant reader - are a bit miffed, aren't you? You thought you'd have something nice to read every Saturday but, instead, you had over a month of nothingness. Makes you mad when something you got all hyped up about isn't being delivered, doesn't it?

Let's talk about that, shall we?

In 2003, a little game called Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy ("Attack of the Colons") was released on PC and Xbox by developer Raven Software. The game promised to let you create your own Jedi knight, develop your force powers and make critical choices to either walk the path of light or fall to the dark side. With these greatly-hyped features fresh in my mind, I played the game and found myself faced with a direct choice near the end: attack a character to go dark side, or put away my saber to stay on the light side.

Not joking: it literally said "do X to be good, do Y to be bad." No matter which you chose, the following boss battle was fought the same way (with different plot undertones, of course), the final mission simply had you fight Jedi as well as fighting Sith, and instead of killing off the game's main antagonist, you fought Kyle Katarn. Even the ending cutscene was partly copied from one to the other.

So they cut corners at the end of the game, you think, so what? Well, you can be a total dick throughout the game, killing innocents and amassing every Dark Side force power there is, and still choose to walk the path of light at the end with the simple push of a button. What was that, Star Wars Yom Kippur?

Games get hyped before release: we know this and accept it as part of the production process. The designers want to make something cool, the programmers don't want to do a whole lot of work to make it happen, the publisher wants it done as cheaply as possible, and whoever they pop in front of the TV camera to talk about it wants to make it all sound like the most awesome, innovative and world-ending stuff you will ever experience. The lesson here has been learned through constant repetition: "Don't Believe the Hype".

Case in point: Dynasty Warriors: GUNDAM - which I picked up on GameFly this past week, played for an hour and promptly shipped back - states in its description: "Multiple playable characters give you different perspectives on the same epic story!" You might think "Hey, multiple characters, that's always good!" What it means is you can play the exact same story over a dozen times with different characters swapped in, making for a mind-numbing tedium should you ever think to yourself that completing the game with every character sounds like fun.

Well, I suppose it could be fun, in the same way deciding to use a hammer to break your own arm, allowing it to heal, breaking it again in a different location on your arm, and repeating this process, oh, 10 times in one year could be fun.

Granted, DW:GUNDAM is a slight change on a series of more than a dozen games with the same mechanics and the same story played with the same characters, so the fact that it doesn't change anything is to be expected. Other games have made some changes to the gaming world: Mass Effect, Bioshock, even Grand Theft Auto IV. Yet each game that brings "change" isn't changing much on its own. What they bring is a new example of how things can be done right in game design and the execution of said design. Still, for every new game that comes out, there's a talking head trying to tell us how much it will "change everything".

No one game can change "everything", and even those which did change everything did so in the days of gaming's infancy, when there was nothing but change. Today, when we have the first real signs of the games industry leaving its infancy stages to become something accepted by society proper, changing "everything" seems not only impossible but most likely a very bad idea.

You know the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". Well, games are not broken. On the contrary, games are now starting to become widely accepted by "mainstream" society as a form of entertainment rather than a childish or counterculture obsession. I'm not saying innovation is a bad thing when it comes to game narrative, gameplay mechanics and AI; just that what we're doing now seems to be fun and seems to be working.

But wait, wasn't this article supposed to be about the hype factor? About how stupid it is to promise that something has or does something that it really doesn't just to get you to pay into it? I made it sound like that was the subject of this article while, in reality, the meat of it talked about something completely different-

...Oh, I got you good, didn't I?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ramblings: Ten Dollars Better Than You

[Ramblings is a weekly column by The G on subjects pertaining to video games, gaming culture and real life.]

Electronic Arts (EA) is one of the biggest publishers in the games industry, with over 9000 employees worldwide and 31 titles in 2009 alone to sell more than one million copies apiece (all according to their corporate website). They own the big sports games franchises: FIFA, Madden NFL, NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball, Tiger Woods PGA, NBA LIVE, NHL, and Fight Night. EA's revenue for fiscal year 2010 (April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010) was $3.654 billion.

EA has money. I think we can all agree on that and just move on, right?

Still, EA always likes having more money. Their revenue from last year was actually down $677 million from 2009 ($4.212 billion). From a corporate standpoint, posting a loss from a previous year is a terrible thing. As a complete outsider, I could really care less: they still made over three and a half billion dollars. That's more money than pretty much any other entertainment publishing/producing company you can think of.

If they're dead-set on making more money next year than ever before, then they have to try something new, right? Precisely what EA's CEO John Riccitiello thought sometime back in February of this year when he outlined the company's new "Project Ten Dollar".

Essentially, EA sees used game sales and game rentals as a threat to their bottom line. To that end, they're making incentives for gamers to buy games new by including exclusive downloadable content and other special features. Gamers who buy new copies get a unique code they can enter in-game to unlock the content, free of charge. Unfortunately for the hated used game buyers and renters, each code only works once. If you buy a game used, you have to pay EA directly to get this special content, with prices set between $10 and $20.

Recent titles such as Mass Effect 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are using this system already, using vacuous and seemingly-unrelated names like the "Cerberus Network" and "VIP Code", respectively. The features available with these codes were basically meaningless: Mass Effect 2 unlocked a team member for Commander Shepherd to recruit, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 dropped some extra multiplayer maps.

Now, however, EA is stepping up its game. According to a recent article on Ars Technica, future EA Sports titles will include an "Online Pass", a code that locks up the game's online multiplayer content. Those who buy new are in the clear; those who rent or buy used have to pay $10 to get their own pass. And that pass doesn't carry over to other games in the EA Sports library: every title has its own pass to use or buy.

Great, you're thinking. Now those worthless used copies of last year's sports games will be even more worthless, threatening to be $10 more expensive if you want to play online. And why bother renting if you only get half the game? It's basically an extended demo.

Playing devil's advocate for a second, compared to the $10 plan EA has for DLC content of its other titles, this is actually not that bad of an idea. Online play costs developers a lot of money over an extended period of time, from software updates and customer service complaints to server maintenance and bandwidth. If this is how EA wants to recoup a piece of that recurring cost, then by all means.

From the consumer's perspective, though, it can be quite frustrating, especially if those consumers enjoy playing these types of games through rental services. The Ars Technica article states that the game will allow 7 days of free online play once per copy. So, the lucky first-wave renter grabs the game, jumps online and has a blast for a week. Any and all future renters are out of luck, given only the single-player experience and the option to pay $10 to enjoy all that the game advertises. It's like renting a DVD with the extra features cut out unless you pay extra to the movie's publisher. In that case, what's the point of renting at all?

This is what EA wants, though. They want to pump the sales figures for their games by making the used games and rental markets unattractive to potential consumers of their products. If it works for them - and it probably will to some extent - they will see a growth in overall sales for the product due to some, who would have rented or purchased the game used, instead choosing to buy the game new.

Still, there will be those who balk at the decision. There are many in the video games market that are strapped for cash, for whom used games and rentals are the only way they get to enjoy the content they want. These people are forced to endure the restrictions being set on them by EA and other publishers who may soon follow suit, reducing their overall gaming experience compared to those who have the money to buy the new or "premium" version of the game. (Of course, we've all seen how well "vanilla" and "premium" goes over with consumers in the past.)

Thus, EA has created a system that has the effect of a premium subscription service, but without the recurring monthly cost we usually associate with such a service. Those who don't want to or can't pay the premium get the "vanilla" game, the crappy version for all those darned freeloaders, while the truly dedicated subscribers get all the "real" content. From this (if we're to take this little sarcastic rant to the extremes of paranoia), a social rift is born between those privileged few with the income necessary to compete online and the poor saps wallowing in the dark basements of their parents' houses on their not-solid-gold couches playing the free demo level of Call of Duty: Star Wars 2012 for the millionth time to try to get that thrill back.

Clearly, if EA thought consumers would be willing to pay for subscription services to all of their content, they would have implemented it long ago, but public stigma towards such systems prevents them from doing so. Their $10 plan has avoided some of this stigma so far, but it still leaves a bitter taste for some.

I will admit that this hobby of ours can be a costly one, but even gamers who acknowledge that fact will initially cry foul on EA's ongoing $10 plans. We're not all made of money, you know: we'd like to use the money we have on other things from time to time.

Credit for several of the links in this article goes to Ars Technica, which you should probably be reading, anyway.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Loudspeaker: The Magic Returns

[Loudspeaker is a weekly column written by The Don on gaming, game development and gaming culture as they fit into a gamer's growing list of responsibilities, or at least the things he attempts to be responsible about while still refusing to grow up to become a boring old man. He sometimes posts unpredictably random stuff too. You have been warned.] 

Raging Goblins. Shivan Dragons. Prodigal Sorcerors. Black Lotuses. All players, or plays, in one of the biggest games that fit nicely into the BBL gaming sphere, Magic: The Gathering.

Magic: The Gathering (aka MTG or just Magic) is a trading/collectible card game with complex strategies built on simple math based rules. Initially launched in 1993, Magic has never stopped growing, with 62 expansions released so far and seven more slated by May, 2012. The game maintains both a large casual following along with a full-fledged professional playing circuit. You can bet on this game being around for a long time to come, making it a solid time investment that provides a lot of game value for the dollar; which greatly contributes to it being my gaming area of choice at the moment.

One of the issues facing our new growing generation is we don't always know where we may be when we finally find a spot in our increasingly busy schedules for some relaxing gaming. Magic shines in this respect because of its physical simplicity. The only materials needed to play are the cards themselves, with some slips of paper and a pencil if you don't feel like remembering the score. If you have a surface and an opponent (and some variations do not even require one of those!) you can just shuffle up a few cards - perhaps one of the intro packs - and get your geek on.

When you manage to find more time (and space) in your gaming schedule, you'll find that constructing your own deck involves a deep strategy element. Magic is a game with variable depth and will let you play with the amount that works for you and your schedule: if you have more capital (time and/or money) to invest you'll see a return on that investment, yet the game caters equally as well to an extremely casual style with lower limits.

Speaking of limits, Magic provides many different modes/arenas of play with one even bearing the name Limited. Limited play is exactly like it sounds: it's Magic played within certain constraints, they being a random card pool to craft decks from. Limited play is attractive to the BBLG generation because it provides a sort of even playing field where games are not dependent on how much previous capital was invested into the card pool.

While Limited is usually considered tournament style competition, Magic also encompasses many other more casual formats. Some of the most popular casual formats include: Elder Dragon Highlander, a format where only a single copy of a card is allowed in a 100 card deck; Multiplayer Free For All, where it's every man for himself against an entire table of players; and of course simply trying out the deck you just created against your friends. Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic, is constantly introducing new ways to play with products like Plane Chase and Archenemy, as well.

Magic can be as casual or as competitive as you want it to be: all you have to do is decide how you want to play or what you feel like doing in the free time you have. It can be as casual as tossing fireball spells at each other across your kitchen table or as competitive as playing in tournaments around the world for huge prizes, with over $30,000,000 in prize money awarded so far as of 2009.

That large figure points to how big the secondary market under the Magic: The Gathering umbrella is. There are players out there that have very intense desires to make their mark on the history of the game and be a recipient of some of that ever growing prize money. These players can end up paying you good money to help them get there. There are entire websites and blogs devoted to Magic's secondary market and how to leverage the game to supplement the income you used to get those first few packs. For the more casual players, the popular method of trading cards with other players to get the cards you really want is an amazing benefit of a giant secondary market.

Perhaps the most overlooked feature of the game is the most important. Magic allows you to instantly have something to talk about and connect on some level with the other gamers scattered across the gaming universe. After all, we are all gamers at heart and would love to become the supreme overlord crushing everyone else with our awesome power: Magic is like a "Awaiting new challenger!" screen for your life.

At the end of the day, I would argue that Magic is the game with the highest value per investment with its near infinite replayability, game modes, official support, chance to generate its own fiscal returns, and perhaps the most important, the ability to fit into your gaming windows whenever they pop up. You may even find like I am that you are creating more windows to fit it in. Why? Because it can be just that much fun hurling spells at another planeswalker and crushing them mercilessly beneath your iron fist of power.

Friday, May 14, 2010

No Ramblings This Week

G here. I know there's only been one post (one!) of the Ramblings column so far, but I have to postpone the second installment until next week. I've been in the process of moving this past week and have had no time to write anything decent, thoughtful or in some way awesome enough to put up as a column entry.

So, no column from me this Saturday. But I assure you, I shall return!

In the meantime, someone please kick the cubicle and wake up our fellow contributors (*cough* or become one yourself *cough*).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ramblings: Bowling for WoW

[Ramblings is a weekly column by The G on subjects pertaining to video games, gaming culture and real life.]

It's 4:30pm on a Wednesday. You're just thirty minutes away from getting out of the office, trying to finish up the last of the day's work so you don't have to see it tomorrow. One of your coworkers – we'll call him Fred – decides now is the time to suddenly take an interest in the life of his next-desk neighbor, which is you. He strikes up a little conversation, asking you how things are going, how's the workload coming along, so on.

Eventually, Fred notices that you've been going at a pretty quick pace for the last half hour of the work day. It's almost as if – and Fred's eyes light up as he ever so slowly comes to the realization – you've got plans for the evening! So, of course, he can't help but ask what you're doing later that has you trying to get out of here faster than that girl from Accounting on the casual Fridays when Jimmy down the hall decides to go “all out”.

As it turns out, what you will soon be doing is packing up your things, heading home, firing up the computer and logging into World of Warcraft for your guild's weekly raid night. Soon you'll be in ICC or VoA or the weekly, doing your part to achieve victory over whatever baddy stands in your way. Maybe that nice piece of gear you've been ogling over in the loot tables will drop tonight, and hopefully you'll roll well enough to actually get it this time, unlike the run last month where that damned PUGer took it right out from under you...

Certainly, a fun evening is ahead of you, but you're not quite sure if you should tell all of this to your new buddy. Maybe the subject of WoW feels too nerdy on its own, or maybe Fred has some aversion to video games in general that would make him think less of you if he knew you were one of those "gamers". There's always the chance that he plays WoW, too, but is that chance worth the risk of being ridiculed by your peers for being a nerd?

Unfortunately, gamers are still viewed by many as some weird subset of society, neatly tucked away in basements or tiny apartments or Korea, far from the things they would consider "normal". A stigma exists in the minds of the uninitiated masses that gamers are antisocial in real life and perhaps even deeply disturbed, as if they have no problem killing people and stealing cars as long as there are points involved. I've found it incredibly frustrating just trying to explain to one of these naysayers the fact that most modern games don't have point systems, let alone how I can stand in direct sunlight, without them seeming utterly baffled.

If you're reading this, you've probably come to understand this fact. There are certain times when recounting the awesome thing you did in WoW last night will get you weird looks from a stranger, as though what you're saying is completely taboo. They hush their friends' conversation and point over their shoulder at you, snickering and whispering “Do you hear what they're talking about? Wizards and dragons and shit! OMG!”

I mean, really, it's not like we're discussing the finer points of why Picard is better than Kirk (or vice versa, if that's your thing) or what happened in book three of a series of Star Wars novels that completely negated what was written in book seventeen of a wholly different series. I'm just talking about shooting stuff with my level 232 crossbow so efficiently that I pull off the tank every time. I don't know, is that weird?

[NOTE: I don't mean to say that Trekkies and Star Wars fans are lesser individuals than anyone else, but the people who go that far into the subject matter and actually have arguments about it with other uber-nerds really need to take a step back and remember that they're discussing fiction as though it were fact. Just sayin'.]

I propose a new concept. If someone asks you what your plans are tonight and your plans happen to be WoW, go ahead and tell them about it. Just be ready to explain yourself for a minute if the other person is taken aback by the subject. Personally, when someone laughs after I say I'm planning to go home and raid, I ask them what the difference might be between that and, say, a bowling league. Both are communal activities; both involve using a certain set of skills, both physical and mental; both involve small teams of friends who gathered together for love of the game and the desire to help each other get better at it; and both are conducted simply for fun.

Well, both might involve people who are entirely too competitive for their own good, which can really kill the enthusiasm for those who are just there to have a good time. Both can get repetitive after a while, doing the same thing every week, sticking to the techniques you've always done rather than having to do much else (twist your right foot more, make sure you wait for the tank to get some aggro before you start hitting the boss, remember to clean the ball every time, mind your DoTs, and so on). And both involve the same people every time, some of which might be having a really shitty day and don't want to talk to you at all tonight.

At the end of an analogy like that, the person you're discussing it with might come to understand what you're saying or they might still think you're a weirdo. If they still don't get it, then they just don't get it. Why should their beliefs on what's normal and decent for a person to talk about in public have any effect on the things you like to do for fun?

In truth, they're the weird ones trying to tell you that you're weird. After all, you were just sitting there, doing your work in the last half hour of the day. Fred's the one trying to poke and prod around your life, perhaps for a lack of his own. Poor chap doesn't even know that the girl who brings the mail stares at him every time she comes around. Cute girl, too. Reminds you of that Blood Elf chick you totally one-shotted last week in Wintergrasp.

...And just like that, you realize you play too much WoW.

- G.