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April 19, 2006

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Round Table: There's Nothing but Strangers Out There

"Friends? Friends? We've only gone out together three times, and already you just want to be friends? You never gave me a chance! And for that, you'll fry like a pork sausage!"
--Mad scientist, Sam and Max Hit the Road

Video games are not my friends. Characters from video games are not my friends. This is not dismissive--well, maybe a little--because it's not like I have friends in other media. I don't have relationships with characters in books or movies. The very idea that I would be friends with even well-realized characters like Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is as alien as befriending Hiro Protagonist or Indiana Jones.

I don't want to get into a long definition of friendship. Let's go with the pithy phrase "someone who hates the same things you do," which I think is workable enough. To establish a relationship, my interpersonal communication classes would tell me that it requires establishing levels of trust and shared communication. It requires interaction. Theoretically, that's something a game should be able to provide.

But when I interact with characters in games, mostly it's to shoot them.

Don't look at me like that. You do it too. The history of intimacy in gaming is littered with the corpses of Black Mesa security guards, cartoon chickens, and crazy-taxi'd pedestrians.

Why the violence? I don't think it's out of any anger. I just think that it's asking a lot for me to care about a digital persona after I've had some kind of transaction with them, because the latter usually exposes their inhumanity. I can care what happens to the Prince in Prince of Persia because he's a funny, naive guy. I feel a little sorry for him. I hope he does well. But if you asked me to actually hang out with him in the game, talk to him and act like a "friend," you're going to run into a digital divide pretty quickly. And that breeds a kind of callousness.

Even attempts at creating a ghost in the machine as the primary goal have usually failed. Remember Seaman, the Dreamcast game about a drugged-out fish-person, narrated by Leonard Nimoy? Of course you don't. Me and three other people played it. And we only enjoyed it because the fish was so incredibly abusive and needy that we wanted to see how long we could go without cranking the heat in his tank to 200 degrees. Roast the little punk alive. And Seaman was one of the better attempts: he would read your memory card to see what games you played, remembered your birthday, had long conversations about your childhood, and even managed this through voice interaction. It was a valiant effort, one that nonetheless inadvertently reminded you--constantly--that what you were doing was talking to your television, and hoping that it would understand you.


Who else wants to talk?

March 29, 2006

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Clean My Room

A while back Corvus had a round table on "home" in games, which was a really good topic. I didn't write about it, because I'm still on the whole "I can't quit you" self-loathing-toward-writing-about-games kick, but it was a good topic. A week or so later, I guess, Corvus gets a DS and posts his Animal Crossing friend code in my DS networking thread. Being a good neighbor, I extended the invitation to him, as with several other people, to drop in on my town if I ever leave the damn thing open long enough.

But I'm not entirely comfortable with that. Not with Corvus specifically. I'm a little nervous about anyone visiting Lexingtn, because I don't feel like it's very impressive. I wouldn't say it's home exactly--one day I will write about how Animal Crossing reinforces several weird capitalist biases as well as being really funny from my newly acquired development perspective--but it's a personal "space." I don't have time to jazz it up or pay off my next house loan or plant flowers--and games like Animal Crossing, and to some extent ranked online games like Metroid Prime: Hunters, turn time almost directly into value. In a way, the grind has come to my previously untainted portable action gaming experience.

On the other hand, this guilt is tremendously amusing--I have no problems whatsoever with my self-esteem, I dig my job (both B-SPAN and my freelance work), and I love my music (although server logs would indicate that I'm the only one). And here I feel bad that I don't have time, with all of that other business, to sell coconuts to a raccoon in order to buy low-resolution Nintendo memorabilia?


December 13, 2005

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Value Ad'd

I feel somewhat prophetic, having written about class in games before Corvus announced the new round table about prices and the role of advertising. But I know what you're thinking: "That article didn't really have anything to do with me! I can afford to keep playing, and ads will probably even drop prices for those who are less fortunate!"

Oh, you poor, deluded fools. Only as a lazy writer's attention-getting device could you say something like that, I would hope.

The Internet is to blame for this "ad-driven" economic fallacy, because it's one of the few places where a relatively strict implementation of the model has remained in place. There are cultural reasons for this, as well as a relatively low cost of entry. It's comparatively cheap to start a Yahoo! or a Google, and investors will throw money at you. But games are not, despite their digital nature, the Internet. They are not a search engine that will build its own database once smart people have done smart work making it smart. They are not a set of web applications built on standards that have been honed over many years. They are content-based, and we don't have any cultural or economic reasons not to charge a lot of money for content. In fact, we have a great precedent for it in the cable industry.

Everyone loves to hate cable. Disclaimer: I once worked for a small cable company, which is not the same as working for a cable content provider. It's a very strange market. Your cable company doesn't just set the prices on their own. They buy the channels from the content provider (Disney provides ESPN, for example) at a certain rate per subscriber to that channel. Larger companies can get discounts based on the economies of scale, but the baseline cost is still determined by the channels themselves. Those channels can raise their rates at a specific amount, which is specified by their contract. This increase can be, but is not always, tied to the rate of inflation. ESPN, again for example, knows that a system which does not carry them will hemorrhage customers. The last time I saw an ESPN contract for the National Cable Television Cooperative, which provides purchasing power for small cable companies, the maximum price increase yearly was 20% (more or less--it has been a while). And trust me, ESPN doesn't hesitate to go for the maximum every single year. Something like 10% of your cable bill probably goes directly to that one channel.

Now, cable companies try to balance out the massive increases in their popular channels in a couple of ways. First, new channels often offer incentives to companies as a loss leader to gain market share. Second, not every channel increases at this rate, and so the programmers try to find a balance between different shifting tiers and packages. But let's face it, they're going to have to increase the prices anyway and they want a piece of the pie. So cable bills have traditionally risen much faster than inflation, sometimes up to four times the Consumer Price Index, depending on where you live.

You think you're getting economic value from the ads running on Comedy Central or Sci-Fi Channel? Because I think it's getting pocketed by The Man, personally. And then they raise your rates again. It's hard to imagine that producing a TV show has actually become so much more expensive, particularly with technological advances. Why would it be any different for gaming, where the expenses really have risen?

Now we have the GameDaily article where the Massive, Inc. CMO insists that ads will make for better games, and will subsidize post-publication content. And that may be--although, pessimist that I am, I doubt it. Advertising hasn't stopped Sturgeon's Law from applying to every single other medium available to mankind. But if cable teaches us anything, it should be that ads won't make anything cheaper than it already was. For gaming especially, where the advertising will not pay off unless a large audience is created through sales in the first place, gambling on ads as a revenue-recovery strategy won't play well with the suits. Following the industry standard for another generational $5-10 increase in price will.

See you at the cash register--or maybe not. I'm just about priced out of this market, myself. And whether or not we're actually getting a good value from gaming anymore, as peterb noted the other day, is a whole other can of worms.

Who else wants to talk?

September 16, 2005

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

SKU'd perspectives

Here's the problem with Vanessa Schneider: despite all appearances, she's got no rhythm.

P.N. 03 is a game that should have had musical aspirations. The heroine, Ms. Schneider has a battlesuit with the glossy white texture of an iPod and a pair of earphones that constantly pump bass-heavy techno. The environments surrounding her look like a Bjork video. All of her moves are stylized and dance-like--even when she's standing still, her body twitches with the beat. And the enemies she faces are predictable, repetitive robots acting in patterns. Surely this is a game with a groove.

But the elements never gel. Everything in P.N. 03 tries to be centered around a techno aesthetic, when it should be centered around the beat itself. So where the music should act as a hub, there's only an empty space, and you're left with an avatar who doesn't control well, environments that can't hold interest, and enemies that kill you the same way, over and over and over again. The game flies apart like clay on a turbocharged spinning wheel.

For obvious reasons, music games are near and dear to my heart. I first stepped on a DDR machine while in Xi'an, and when I stepped back off (surrounded by politely voyeuristic Zhongguoren staring at the White boy with the grin and the Chuck Taylors) it had been a real revelation for me. It was the same giddy feeling I'd had when I stepped into an arcade for the first time. I suggest that we need more music games--not so much with scrolling arrows, but with that same visceral pull.

We've reached the point where music is a part of games the same way it's part of movies--we mainly notice when it's done badly. Will Smith or Nick Cage reaches for a gun, something explodes in slow motion, and Michael Bay triggers the same march music that he's been using for ten years now, thus proving finally that if a thousand monkeys were put behind a thousand video cameras they still couldn't make something worse than Armageddon. It's laughable--and then we play Halo and (for all its cleverness and skill in execution) no-one so much as chuckles at the men's choir swelling behind the ridiculous majesty of your pulse rifle.

...Forgive the phallic nature of the image. But you see what I'm trying to say.

Where were we? P.N. 03. Right. Like most games, it doesn't use music of a game in any way other than as background and a mood-booster, even while it's clearly trying to do more. But why is this, exactly? Why is it that sound in games has to be like the walls of a pre-Half-Life shooter: no matter what you do, you just can't leave a mark? And their composition is always the same, so your tactics share their immutability.

Some people get it. I've never played Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez, but his Meteos reacts to the player--joining the puzzle pieces triggers chords, sound effects, and other parts of the music. The effect isn't much more than the beeps of Space Invaders, but it adds just as much to the game as the visuals of the different planets. I would have taken even just that level of involvement from P.N. 03--the game's bullets move slowly enough that a clever designer could even have cued more elaborate musical sequences in response. Give me a soundtrack that reacts to my every move--uses that same cue system to encourage play to match--and I could forgive the sluggish controls, the Death Star interiors, and the repetitive enemies. Like P-Funk, I'll put up with a lot for the sake of a good groove.

It's been almost five years since Jet Grind Radio kicked out the jams on the Dreamcast. When the game fades into the past, the reputation that remains will be its cel-shaded graphics--and they are extraordinary, no doubt. When someone mentions the music, it'll be for its j-pop flavor--and it is extraordinary, as well. Nonetheless, the reason I still snap the disc into its little white console is because of the extraordinary way that it mixed that j-pop from track to track on the fly, complete with DJ-scratches and interplay between the songs. You really have to hear it to understand: JGR lets you grind down the side of a building, spray paint in hand, and if Guitar Vader st-st-st-stutters in just as you hit the ground: even without any actual interaction between player and soundtrack, you feel a little bit more punk. No chorus necessary.

Well, that's an experience I think we need more often. We need more music games--not in the DDR all-about-the-music sense, but to the effect that the music becomes an interactive part of the gameplay along with the visuals and the feel of the controls. It won't show up in a screenshot, and many players may not even notice the change. It certainly won't feed the designer's Quentin Tarantino fetish. It will have players tapping their feet while they're tapping the buttons, and any musician can tell you how addictive that becomes.

And a-one, two, a-one two three four--

Who else wants to talk?

August 17, 2005

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Finding the First Person

When I first sent Corvus an e-mail saying that I would take place in this Round Table on "Innovation in the FPS Genre," I thought "Cool. I love shooters. This'll be great."

A few moments later, I realized that the most recent shooter I'd played was Halo, on the PC, purchased months after its sequel was released on the X-Box. Before that, I'm pretty sure my most cutting-edge experience had been with Unreal Tournament... not 2004, the first one. Right now, I've got both of those, plus Half-Life (the first one), Alien Vs. Predator (also the first one), Doom, Quake, and Blood installed on my machine. These are all, I'm ashamed to say, pretty dated games.

And the reason for that, conveniently enough, is precisely because of FPS innovation: since Unreal Tournament, it's all been graphical. I've only had a desktop machine capable of serious gaming for a year, and although I built it myself (or perhaps because I built it) I don't really want to go through the hassle of upgrading anything other than the RAM and the hard drive. More importantly, I don't really have an incentive to. So instead of playing a few tweaked gameplay modes of UT2k4 or running through the corridors of Doom 3, I play the originals and I don't feel like I'm missing anything. They were pretty much arcade games then, and they're pretty much the same now, although they're much prettier.

I'm not going to try to toss out a bunch of fresh new ideas that will revolutionize the industry, because I'm sure that there are a bunch of game designers out there who are smarter than I am, and they've probably already tried and rejected them. What I will say is this: just as the advances in FPS games have all been graphical, many of the major innovations have revolved around its viewpoint. Wolf3D and its generation moved the camera from outside the maze to inside of it. Doom gave us a better camera and one that was fallible (relying heavily on the darkness for the game's thrill). Quake implemented the mouselook for a player experience that really took advantage of the 3D environments. Half-Life used the player's point of view to create a "story" based around a mix of passive observation and active destruction.

This is not to say that everything in the genre has been camera-oriented. However, in many ways these other advances have merely involved playing catch-up. Doom's networking (and Quake's Internetworking) were simply the only viable ways to implement first-person multiplayer, something that third-person games have had for years. Duke Nukem 3D set a standard for environment interaction that was gimmicky, but still not really matched. Half-Life 2's physics are a great step forward, but they're being implemented everywhere, not just in shooters. As far as I can tell (and I could be entirely wrong, since as I said I haven't played the game) the much-vaunted gravity gun is really just a greatly-expanded Force Pull from Jedi Knight. It's nice that you can stack crates, but it's not really rocking my world. The whole design feels stale, and so I haven't bought any of the recent games, even though I love the genre.

In order to break out of those doldrums, I think I'd like to see the FPS genre lose the "S." My feelings on guns in games aside, the reason I have always played first-person games is because of their immersiveness--and a great deal of that comes from the perspective they offer. I'll always love Virtual On, MDK, and Jet Grind Radio, but they don't pull me in quite the same way. I don't lean away from the rockets roaring past, or crane my neck around their corners. There's a feeling of detachment in a third-person games that excuses limits on interaction with the world. In contrast, the feeling of immediacy and transparency from an FPS, with their lack of an "avatar," is what keeps me coming back.

Now, I know that just a few paragraphs up I made it sound like the focus on perspective has been a weakness for this genre--and I really do believe that it is, as long as developers are simply more interested in putting a more realistic shine on that crate before I throw it at a zombie. We hear a lot of lip-service paid every year to gameplay over graphics, but we're still just deathmatching in a more brightly painted concrete corridor. So maybe by abandoning the floating forearms clutching a weapon--by abandoning the "Shooter" emphasis--a developer might be able to step back from convention, bringing us just a little bit closer to the virtual experience we know the FPS might be capable of. It might require a different input style (could the much-maligned control glove finally see its day?) or a smarter mapping of the mouselook we've got, but just a few extra verbs for the player could go a long way (and already has: what is the gravity gun, really, except a clumsy hand that can only push or pull?).

In other words: I know this sounds hackneyed and trite, but where's my VR?

We have the technology. We've got the viewpoint, the scripting, and the graphics--it almost feels like you're right there. But even after years of advancement, despite all the immersion we've managed to accomplish, the only thing we can reach out and touch... is the trigger.

Who else wants to talk?

Future - Present - Past