Tuesday, December 28, 2010

48. decade of the anti-hero

kratos in god of war III (godofwar.com)
so 2010's drawing to a close, and of course most sites are publishing their obligatory "best of" lists.  so i thought we'd do something a little more year-end themed here.  well in this case, decade-end themed.  i know a bunch of you will probably either publicly or privately flame me for what the definition of the end of a decade is, which was actually the end of 2009.  but hey, if gameFAQs can do their "game of the decade" stuff at the end of 2010, then damn it, i can do something too.

we saw a lot of change in the last 10 years of gaming, first and foremost in technology.  in 2000 we were busting 900's in tony hawk's pro skater on the first playstation and reveling in the graphical delights of soul calibur on the dreamcast.  then came a wave of technology - a couple of years after this saw the death of the dreamcast and birth of the ps2, xbox, and gamecube, and ultimately the ps3, xbox 360, and wii.  but in the grand scheme of things, this wasn't really a big deal.  it's a damn decade.  it's expected that new technology is going to be released in a time frame that large.  it's what that technology brought and enabled that shows what has really changed since 2000.

and that change was full immersion into complex, interactive, graphically advanced worlds that required multiple saves and hours upon hours of gameplay.  it allowed the creation of games where players actually felt a connection or some kind of indentity to the characters they were playing, which is a far cry from what was available before in the 80's and 90's.  there wasn't really any backstory to characters or worlds back then, and with games that were easily finished the same day you brought it home from the store, why should there be?  those characters were disposable.  now there were of course exceptions.  i don't lump games like final fantasy or dragon warrior into this group, even though their character design was actually pretty generic.  they were literally still "save the princess" games.

now as i may or may not have asserted before, video games can act as interactive art, in the sense that it can imitate real life and vice versa.  it should come to be expected, as it's the next logical progression from books, movies, and television.  with this new tech the most direct analogy of this concept are war-themed shooters like US army produced america's army and the recent call of duty, in which the protagonists are up against modern day terrorism instead of some vaguely formed antagonistic threat.

dante in devil may cry 4 (devilmaycry.com)
but more than that, what this really has led to is cultivation of the anti-hero as the main character in modern gaming while the concept was being cultivated in society.  the term is thrown around a lot, so what exactly is an anti-hero?  not a villain, as its name suggests, but a hero that lacks some qualities of a traditional hero archetype, like a noble purpose in life, strong morals, courage, a sense of duty, etc.  in a nutshell, think guy gardener versus hal jordan.  jack harkness versus doctor who.  heroes that are willing to cross a line.  that aren't willing to become part of a system.  the same flawed humans as you and me.  so heroes became less and less like superman and establishment - a big blue boy scout representing the ideal, and more like iron man - human with problems, like reality.

anti-heroes have been around since the dawn of time and make up a lot of the television and movies we watch - we all love watching dr. greg house and his skewed sense of morality, clint eastwood's man with no name, and of course guts from the anime series berserk.  but this decade has seen that concept force a wedge into video games.  what kind of game heroes did we have to grow up with before 2000?  mario, megaman, samus aran, link, crono, etc.  these are all characters that carried a sense of nobility in what they do - they the right thing because it's the right thing to do, be it out of a sense of duty or loyalty.  the goals in a lot of these games was equally noble - rescuing the princess, a friend, or simply defending the world from destruction at the hands of evil.  all very "lawful good" for those who think of this in terms of D&D alignment.  sure crono had magus hanging around in an anti-hero role but he was still a side character in chrono trigger, not your main.  but it doesn't quite work that way anymore.  now that we have these complex characters in fully developed worlds that players will spend a significant amount of time with, players are more often looking for flaws in their heroes.  they want to watch and/or play as characters who they can see some of themselves in - someone a little bit more human.  someone a bit more anti-establishment.  someone struggling with themselves.  it's that relatable imperfection that leads to the player being able to identify with something in the character.  and this partially led to how the anti-hero played in gaming.

how did that affect the games of the 2000's?  my last gaming decade includes max payne, devil may cry's dante, god of war's kratos, alta├»r from assassin's creed, and arthas menethil from warcraft III just to name a few for a super-condensed list.  there are dozens more that fit the bill.  these characters aren't driven by some moral code.  in this list they're mostly driven by revenge, and are willing to blur the lines of morality to achieve that end goal.  and that blur not only adds fun but sometimes flexibility in gameplay and interesting story progression.  shadow of the colossus and its main character wander were lauded for this kind of moral ambiguity, where it's ultimately revealed that wander's good intentions to save someone he loved had some very dark side effects.  so there it is, the first 10 years of the 2000's very well could have been the decade of the anti-heroes.  but if this is cyclic, as all things are, in a few years we can expect gaming to re-introduce a throng of classical heroes sometime in the future.  but until then, enjoy the rough-around-the edges heroes and heroines of today's games, because of what that says about us.

that the greatest anti-hero of this decade is on the other side of the controller.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

47. guillermo del toro wants to make you cry

del toro in wired magazine
we're at the point in gaming (particularly console) now where i don't think tech is so much of an issue anymore.  the xbox 360 and ps3 can both generate excellent graphical experiences and the wii... well if the wii's your primary console you probably don't really care.  like motion?  you have your pick of the litter between the wii, the move and kinect.  but either way, giving a player ridiculous graphics is more or less commoditized now.  and since that (in my opinion) doesn't enter too much into user experience anymore, some game makers are trying their best to bring players something unique through the game itself.  the fable series was one of the few games where your character's choices had direct consequences, and you gradually had to choose whether or not your character would be good or evil through action (yes i know, you're thinking chrono trigger and maybe jedi academy, but i'm working from a current graphical platform here).  as RPG's have more and more cinematic elements than they used to, quantic dream tried to mix it up earlier this year with heavy rain - which was really an interactive movie more so than a game.

and now the lines between movies and games are becoming even more blurred.  THQ announced that they are entering into a multi-year deal with guillermo del toro, director of pan's labyrinth and screenplay writer of the upcoming the hobbit movies, for a series of horror games called inSane. he's going to be a creative director, and while THQ has rights to the game series, he has the rights to any and all associated "filmed entertainment."  which less than explicitly says that this is going to be a project with multiple media outlets, the bare minimum of which will be games and movies.  i'm sure there will be some sort of web element to tie the whole thing together, but that's just a guess.

so back to games challenging players with creative play styles.  how is inSane any different than other games of the horror survival genre?  well according to him, "with this new series of video games, i want to take players to a place they have never seen before, where every single action makes them question their own senses of morality and reality" (1up).  and coming from del toro, that's completely believable - he openly comments to the media and press on the topic of video games as art.  passionately.  when he was asked at a book signing in october, he described games as the comic books of our time, and is upset that the medium "gains no respect among the intellegentsia (gamerant).  he goes on to say, "they say, 'oh, video games...' and most people that complain about video games have never ****ing played them." (i know i know, this here's a family show, but that noise was on point)

so needless to say, i'm a fan.

logo from the teaser
and the teaser trailer that is out there right now supports that - which consists of 30 seconds or so of viewer discomfort, followed by 10 seconds of an image that may even make horror buffs twitch a little bit - see for yourself on the game's official website, www.insanegame.com.  according to del toro, we can also expect some sort of lovecraftian tentacled creature.  i'm still waiting for details to slowly drip out from the THQ camp, because there will be a lot more to come.  the first installment of inSane won't be out until 2013.

now i'm trying to treat this film-game union with a healthy bit of skepticism.  there have been a number of partnerships like this that never really panned out to much.  remember the movie hard boiled?  john woo tried to make a direct video game sequel in 2007 with stranglehold, but it never really took off.

but then again, no kind of movie/game crossover/sequel will EVER be the goonies II.

Friday, December 10, 2010

46. when game ratings make sense

back in 1994, there was a lot of concern in the united states about the amount of violence in video games.  granted, this was the age of the super nintendo and sega genesis, where everything still looked like pixelated cartoons ad the concept of what reflected "realism" was primitive and limited.  it was during the high time of mortal kombat and doom, both of which brought a new level of 16-bit gore to consoles and pc's across america.  it was this environment that gave rise to the entertainment software rating board, or ESRB for short.  their job was to look at software and give it an age appropriate rating based on the content of that software.  they came out a few different bands in the ratings spectrum, more or less mirroring the movie rating system that was already in effect: E (everyone, "G" or "PG"), T (teen, "PG-13"), M (mature, "R"), and AO (adults only, "NC-17").  There have been a few additions since then like EC and KA, but the first three are the ones that make up the ratings on most games in the united states.  i've only really seen AO-rated games on certain director's cuts or re-releases, like the PC uncut release of indigo prophecy (fahrenheit, for my outside-of-north-america readers).  and i agree with the system.  i think there's enough distinction between different types of games that it makes sense to parents.  i personally think there's a lot of M-rated games young kids shouldn't be playing.  but that of course is up to the parents' discretion.

take a trip down under and you'll find that in australia the rules are a little bit different.  they established their ratings system back in the 80's, with the most restrictive rating being MA15+, which seemed fairly logical.  back then they didn't really need anything higher, because no reasonable person would make a case that the mario brothers would drive children to violent killing sprees and still be taken seriously for every word that came out of their mouth.  except michael atkinson, south australian attorney general, who was the only australian AG holding out for the addition of a higher rating in their system.  every game that came out after that that were found too harsh for an MA15+ rating were refused a rating outright.  and a game refused a rating is a game banned for sale.  he led this charge for banning games instead of coming up with some sort of 18+ rating for them, and caught a lot of flak from many angles for doing so.  even their movie ratings have R18+ and X18+ ratings.  providing, lets say, questionable reasoning for banning certain games, he even at one point said  that "i feel that my family and i are more at risk from gamers than we are from the outlaw motorcycle gangs who also hate me and are running a candidate against me."  no joke.  gamepolitics has that story from just this past february.  granted, he claims a gamer slipped a threating note under his door at 2AM one morning, but other stuff he's said, like seeing fake people does make me file him on more of the paranoid side, so who really knows.

but now he's gone.  atkinson stepped down as attorney general in march of this year (he's still in parliament though), at which point gamers rejoiced, and looked forward to the day where they wouldn't be restricted to games the rest of the world is enjoying, and that their wishes would be fulfilled at todays meeting of the standing committee of attorneys-general.  but alas, no luck.  the AG for western australia said he needed to consult his cabinet, and another AG had just started his job and didn't think he was in a position to make a decision.  so they wait for a verdict until the next meeting, in 2011.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

45. world of warcraft and fantasy football

there have been two notable time sinks in the past few weeks for me outside of work and actual living - the first is world of warcraft, trying to level a paladin because the guild needs another tank (and cataclysm drops today), and the second is the two fantasy football leagues i play in.  to the outside onlooker the two things have nothing in common - the classic "nerd" and "jock" social archetypes that you all experienced during your childhood still kind of stick with people through the years.  back in high school and college, most people's social choices were clearly made between nerdery (and associated gaming/science/tech) and popularity (and associated drinking/sports/people).  that is, until senior year, when no one really cared anymore and everyone just partied because school was coming to an end.  you know, the whole "no more teachers no more books" thing.  but with beer.  while my cohorts and i did try to somehow pull of both paths of society in college, we all sharply leaned towards the former.  friday and saturday nights for me in sophomore year, for example, either consisted of going to $5 to $10 shows put on by small local bands or playing diablo II with the other guys in my wing on the 4th floor of good ol' forbes hall (sometimes command and conquer: red alert 2 was used as a change of pace).  we didn't even know our own 4-digit on-campus extensions for our phone numbers, but we could sure as hell rattle off our IP addresses for you.

just the network, 3 engineers, a programmer and sometimes some chinese food.  and we owned, if that's at all relevant to anyone.

but there's way more similarity between these two things than one casual observer might think.  look at every major MMO or RPG that has been released in the past two decades.  the basic elements of hit points, mana, damage, defense, evasion, etc., etc., etc. are all modifications to different degrees to old school dungeons and dragons and tabletop RPG's.  these are the same base principles that flowed into other forms of nerd entertainment, like collectible card game magic: the gathering.  everything is driven by numbers.  in warcraft my hunter gains 1 attack power per agility i have, so my choices in weapons and armor will naturally be high in agility, to maximize the amount of damage i can deal.  characters whose role involves tanking, or damage mitigation, would optimize their gear for stamina, dodge or parry to enhance their defenses instead, because more defensive stats mean less damage will be inflicted on them by opponents.  every role has it's own numerical values, and a player will benefit from learning those patterns and trying to optimize those statistics with stat bonuses and augmentation.

so that's my quick nerd speech on basic stats in world of warcraft.  so how on earth is fantasy football, a game played traditionally by people into sports, and NOT gaming, related?  it goes back to the numbers-driven play that is present in a lot of gaming.  fantasy football has similar rules.  suppose i wanted to run a successful 10-man raid, let's say icecrown citadel.  i would want my team to be made up of 2 tanks, 2 healers, and 6 dps (damage dealer) players.  on the other hand, i also want a successful team in my fantasy league - so i would need (in our league setup anyway) a quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker, and defense/special teams.  in both situations, a win is only obtained through good performance from a majority of your players, or if a few perform exceptionally well and carry the rest.  bad performance hurts your chances. your raid will be sunk if your tanks can't survive long enough.  and your fantasy head-to-head matchup and playoff dreams could be done for if your quarterback is throwing interceptions.  just as anyone who had mark sanchez this week.  poor jets.  poooooor jets.  that game was a massacre.  but anyway, again, everything is based on points.

so like i said, my warcraft hunter may get a point of attack power per agility, but my running backs get 1 fantasy point per 10 yards rushing (plus bonuses) and 6 for a touchdown.  quarterbacks get a point per 25 yards passing.  defense gets points for sacks and interceptions.  meaning while my hunter was delivering 10k damage points per second in azeroth this past weekend, maurice jones-drew was delivering 24 points for me in tennessee. and those points, even though they came from a great run game and not by stacking agility and level 264 gear,  could easily be considered damage - against my opponent for week 13.

see everyone?  fantasy football.  the nerd shall inherit the earth.  on schedule.  and at least make it to the playoffs.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

44. EA squeezes some fresh truth juice for their boy tiger

and i'm back.  hope everyone's thanksgiving holiday went well.  mine was one of turkey bliss, including 2 varieties of mashed potatoes (regular and cheesy bacon) and made me feel happy in the belly.  anyway, down to business - we'll ease back in with a short one.  this one revisits the whole tiger woods scandal and EA en masse - you remember tiger, right?

now do you like sports games?  sure, who doesn't!  every gamer i know, whether they're spending 80 hours unlocking stuff on an rpg, years on a mmo, or tracking head shots in an fps, can enjoy playing a good sports game, even if the occurrence is no more than few and far between.  and chances are whatever their sport / game of choice is, it's produced by electronic arts.  in my opinion they make some serious stuff in their EA sports line, with team sports hits like madden NFL football and FIFA soccer, which try to deliver something new every year.  with their links to the NFL and FIFA, marketing these to the gaming public was fairly simple.  take madden NFL football for example - since they deal with the actual NFL and use real players and teams (of whose rights are owned by the league), marketing the game was advertising for the NFL, and the same sort of followed in vice versa.  picking a poster boy is easy, and everybody's happy.  it was a little more difficult for EA's electronic version of the PGA tour -  it just wasn't as popular as other sports in the US in the 90's, and on top of that they were being beaten by likes of microsoft golf and links, as well as jack nicklaus' brand of games.

tiger and his old fedex cup (pgatour.com)
enter tiger woods in the late 90's.  tiger was a great addition for golf for multiple reasons, and in my opinion is responsible for the resurgence of the popularity of the game from the late 90's to today.  EA hopped on the tiger train for their golf games after his explosive play and 1997 masters win, added his name to their game, and tiger woods pga tour is what we've gotten ever since.  his endorsement breathed new life into the series, and has grown in popularity as viewership for golf increased, continuing even today.  EA even held on to the tiger woods brand through his highly publicized off-course issues for tiger woods pga tour '11, because their concern is about endorsing "tiger woods the player."

"the player."  no pun intended.  i promise.

but according to reuters, recent statements by EA's head honcho john riccitiello may indicate that this partnership is on the rocks due to his performance post-crisis. "we have no plans to move away from him, but it's a business relationship on the basis of we make the best golf game and he's the best golfer." he went on to say "both of those things need to be true in the long run for the partnership to make sense."  later he seemed to backpedal a little, saying that this statement wasn't a threat to tiger.  but i don't see how it can be taken another way.  while EA is definitely giving a little breathing room to someone who's brought them so much success to bring his game back up instead of just immediately dropping him, there's still a message here:  start winning again, or EA will join the list of tiger's former sponsors.  and it makes complete sense.  if you want to sell these games, for any sport, you need to associate it with someone the fans are excited about.  madden 11 features drew brees - a super bowl champion and MVP.  heisman trophy winner tim tebow is on ncaa football 11.  do you think this year's madden game would sell as well if instead of drew brees, the cover art showed a triumphant tyler palko getting ready to bomb it deep?

the hyundai tournament of champions is in january.  tee it up strong woods, or we could be looking at a rory mcilroy solo cover for pga tour '12.  and while he's working on that, EA, work on those DRM methods.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

43. head in the clouds - directions in gaming?

hello there kids, today's word of the day is going to be cloud.  can you say cloud?  thought you could.  now this doesn't concern what you see when you look at the sky.  nor will it get into a certain spikey haired character in a squaresoft franchise.  what we're  talking about is cloud computing.

the concept of cloud computing and what the hell "the cloud" in fact is used to be a very simple and straightforward definition.  unfortunately it got caught up in the marketing machine and they've decided to pick it up and run with it, and is now a "phrase du jour," as garnter analyst ben pring would say.  and those of you that know me know that "phrases du jour" and marketing buzzwords usually serve little purpose in this world other than to anger me.  to tech civilians this new cloud lingo is just a buzzword that companies use to shill their software in television commercials.  "to the cloud!" is the battle cry microsoft uses in their latest windows advertisements to highlight people doing things that are already easily done without cloud computing and have been easily done for the last decade. well, what most geeks have been able to easily do for the past decade anyway.  and now?  hey look at that!  you can look at your photos online or stream tv waiting for a plane at the airport?  i saw it on a tv commercial so it must mean anyone can do it now!


so what is cloud computing really?  as i mentioned, it's very straightforward - instead of data processing running on your own computer or device and using its own resources, the processing is web-based using shared resources, then pushed back to you over your network connection.  in kind of an on-demand fashion.  this is becoming popular with businesses because it means they don't have to buy as much hardware for data processing, and more importantly, don't have to hire more people to support that hardware.  it's an instant increase in power without an increase in infrastructure investments - basically outsourcing computing power.  and why call it the cloud?  clouds have historically been a metaphor for the internet at large for a long time.  whenever i've ever had  to do network mapping you can rest assured that the image on the other side of my cute little firewall symbol is clip art of a cloud to represent the outside internet connection coming into our network.  just the way it's always been.

boring, i know.  but large enterprise isn't the only place where "the cloud" is taking a hold.  there are other far more entertaining uses.  ever stream a movie from your laptop or tv from netflix?  that requires a cloud stlye infrastructure.  and even gaming is moving that way, with the existence of companies like valve's steam (steam cloud, get it?), which came out in 2008, and the more recent opening of onlive.  onlive is a company that's been around since 2009 that works a lot like netflix, except that it streams PC games instead of tv episodes or movies.  so what's the advantage?  much like businesses, it gives home users the opportunity to have more gaming power without a big upgrade cost.  you can breath life back into an old laptop or last-generation computer and still be able to play new games with high graphics settings in HD.  your machine specs don't even have to be all that impressive, as long as you have a broadband connection.  this is made possible by all the processing being done through the cloud, instead of seriously taxing your processor, GPU , and other local device resources.  pay for the game, and it is instantly available for play.  no trip to the store.  and no media required.

onlive's game system, shipping dec. 2 (img: kotaku)
it may seem like i'm focusing on onlive int this and fully ignoring steam and the contributions that valve has made to this type of game delivery system.  the reason is that onlive is upping the ante a bit.  while steam is still on PC's only, and facing threats in europe, onlive is beginning to take orders for new hardware for their service (pic on the right)  tomorrow, and shipping on december 2.  that little onlive box connects to your tv and a broadband live, and works with the included controller and a revamped pricing plan.  onlive used to work on a $14.95 per month subscription in addition to the price of the games.  all that's over with the new hardware, which puts and end to the subscription fee for a one-time hardware cost of $99.

this could prove to be a viable (and affordable) alternative to pricey consoles and $60 price tags on games.  granted, onlive's library is limited right now, but it still has some decent offerings like borderlands, darksiders, and kane and lynch games.  steam definitely owns it on game availability and selection, boasting the recent hit call of duty: black ops as part of its library.  but again, limited to use on a computer.  by opening up cloud based game delivery to more tiny console-type peripherals or even building it into to services like xbox live or the playstation network, this type of game delivery method can only get bigger.

you know, once they can make it profitable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

42. living (and loving) in a fantasy world

andurus and branwen in final fantasy xi
so.  post number 42.  i actually hoped and hoped that when i went through my daily news sites this morning that i would find something that related to hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy, the answer to life, the universe and everything, or even some sort of suggestion not to panic or recommendation that i keep a towel handy.  hell i would have even settled for something on mos def, but alas, i found none.  maybe once i DO find something like that i'll renumber all of my posts to make it line up.  we'll see.  in the meantime this story will have to do as my attempt to entertain you monkeys.  it's a story about technology bringing people together and tearing them apart.  love blooming where it may seem impossible.  a torrid tale about two star-crossed lovers finding each other... and their avatars.

yes, avatars.  as in the onlines.  and the interwebs.  this whole story takes place in the virtual realms of final fantasy XI online, an MMO (massively multiplayer online) game based in the final fantasy universe.  in it, as is the case in most MMO's, players can create their own characters and specify their attributes - including race, gender and class.  you can play as anything from a heavily armored berserking beast of a warrior that takes care of things up close and personal to a intellectual giant - a robe-clad magic caster who deals with their enemies from afar and many shades in between. this is the backdrop for the story of paul turner and vicky teather of the UK, or as they're known in avatar form, andurus the hume and branwen the tarutaru.  after playing together for while, they became friends and grew close, until andurus (paul) had a job change and had to cut his daily 4-5 hour final fantasy intake from his schedule.  branwen (vicky) always had a crush on him, but didn't realize to what extent until he left. living with her boyfriend at the time, her conscience was wracked with guilt and she couldn't suppress how she felt about her hume friend. according to an interview with the london daily mail - "... i couldn’t help but feel guilty as i was living with my partner. at first i tried to forget my feelings." she went on to say "but i couldn't. fortunately, i had paul’s MSN address and nervously sent a message to him telling him how much i missed him and confessing my feelings."  paul, who also had a serious girlfriend at the time, suggested that they meet up in southampton on christmas eve.  so they did.  and the rest is history.  she broke up with her boyfriend, he dumped his girlfriend, and by new years day they were an item, visiting each other on weekends and continuing their "date nights" in virtual space, until the power vested in someone by something somewhere pronounced them mr. and mrs. turner.

so how did this attraction even begin?  according to mrs. turner, "one day, when as andurus he endangered his own character in the game to save me, i felt an incredible bond between us. it might sound strange to people who have never played an online game, but the fact he was a traditional man with values to match and was protecting me was what first drew me to him."  and i guess i can understand that on some level.  but lets face it, according to this logic, anyone playing the MMO role of a "tank" (a character that absorbs and takes damage to defend their party) should be able to instantly attract the affections of anyone else they happen to be tanking for.  and if they can't defend a clothie, then they're really not doing their job, are they?  they better be picking up those mobs and keeping them healers alive.  could this just have been a player fulfilling their class role?  and if they endanger their own character and "die," they are resurrected within minutes.  unless this was in the old diablo II hardcore ladders, in which case that kind of action would be far more moving.  back when a dead character was a dead character.

...but i digress.

the turners' nuptials
anyway, as i said i do understand it on some level.  i do have a few friends that i know only through playing world of warcraft.  a friend of a friend of a friend of mine had as his best man someone he's only met once in real life, but had been playing halo with for 6 years.  and in that sense, MMO's, as well as other online gaming, have brought about what i would call serious sociological shifts in the way people interact.    it can already be seen that people will interact in these virtual worlds more or less the same way they would in real life, with slight situational modifiers (one of my friends wrote a masters thesis on identity and communication in virtual worlds - an excellent read, let me know if you want me to hook you up).  it's an interesting evolution from just chatting online to actually doing something while talking and having fun.  some quests and objectives in these games force you to interact with others.  for example a couple of nights ago i was playing with 24 complete strangers in one of warcraft's raid encounters.  anyone has spent significant time with a geek in their life can attest that social interaction is a subject foreign and feared by most of us, and for some people, this forced social bonding over a common goal might be all the social interaction they have.  romantic couplings between people who may or may not be socially well adjusted are the next logical step.  i can understand how it can be almost be like an e-harmony or something similar, but for geeks, to get to know someone and figure out whether or not you really want to meet in real life.  the turners weren't the first couple to meet and marry this way.  a couple of years ago, again in the UK, a chance meeting in second life led to the marriage of kristen birkin and steve sweet.  and we can expect this trend to continue.  according to social psychologist dr. arthur cassidy, "cyber-dating" is becoming more common and actually a preferred method for young professionals these days.  as many professionals put in increasingly long hours at their jobs, they have less time for socializing.  so in addition to online dating, some people are logging into fantasy worlds just to meet people (on this subject, for a real social adventure log onto a "role playing" server on warcraft to see some... interesting stuff).  "intelligent people like the control they have over their character. you are not revealing your whole self straight away and if you don't want to talk to someone any more, it is easy just to click out of the fantasy world."  true words, doc.  true.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

41. remake, re-release, reboot - a go-to when all else fails

cover art, goldeneye 007 for the wii
and by current evidence, all else has failed.  we're getting to the point where the game industry is, for lack of a better phrase, enhancing their use of these three techniques in game development as much as or more than generating original intellectual property.  sometimes it's pulled of very well, and the publisher gets a big thumbs up from gamers and critics alike.  but at others, the result is a tarnished franchise, unhappy gamers, and pure rage.  2010's been a big year for all of these things, and brings with it a sort of strange shift in the industry.  and why?  my guess is the opportunity to get some revenue for a cost that is lower than new game development by millions.  so it's what we've got to work with right now.

first, re-releases.  i'm actually a fan of this.  if you've been into video games for any extended period of time i'm sure you'd be too.  they bring back stuff i miss, unchanged, in standard definition, without tampering.  it's the purest form of these techniques the industry now employs.  and there's a reason.  what we have these days is a different era of gaming, where consoles have the connectivity and capacity to deliver games from past generations for old school fans to relive and younger fans to see for the first time.  and it servers a purpose.  there are sequels and part 3's and 4's of games that are being released, where their target audience couldn't even grip a controller when the original was released!  let's look at street fighter IV as an example.  the series is a classic, and i played street fighter II on the SNES for the first time in 1992.  for those keeping score, that was 18 years ago, and i was a wee lad of 11.  now yes, i know, some of it is just a marketing ploy that plays on the nostalgia of older gamers (myself included) but it in addition to bringing in new fans it does provide gamers my age something we want.  sometimes i just don't want to have to go digging through the basement to find a PS one or SNES.  it's much easier to be able to download it online and play it through the same next-gen console you already have hooked up.  right now playstation's doing just that, and is re-releasing parasite eve and parasite eve II through digital download on the playstation network.  now granted, the next parasite eve game, the 3rd birthday, is coming out for the PSP soon and this is serving as a lead-in, but it works.  when 3rd birthday was announced my first thought was that i kind of wanted to play the first parasite eve game.  and i will indeed be downloading them when i can.

now a re-make is a little bit different.  it's where you get into a grey area, and try to find balance between quality and how true to the original the remake is.  some have been warmly received by the gaming community, but there have been some that are critically panned and anger-inducing.  as an example of the bad, let's look at metal gear solid: twin snakes, which was a remake of the original metal gear solid.  konami completely retconned play style of the newer games to the remake, completely destroying the feel of the original and removing a lot of the challenge.  it featured added cutscenes and voicework as well.  critics universally lauded the game as wonderful but destroying the original made it a failure in my eyes, and i believe there are more than a few people who would agree with me.  but there is a lot of good in remakes, and nintendo's leading the way.  recently on the wii for example, donkey kong country returns and goldeneye 007. the original DKC was a huge hit on the SNES, and goldeneye dominated shooters and local non-networked multiplayer on the n64 (that 4-way split screen made it extremely fulfilling when playing in golden guns mode, by the way).  neither of these games are identical to the originals back in the 90's, instead they're the original games reimagined.  for example, daniel craig is the model for james bond in goldeneye instead of pierce brosnan, who played him in the film and original n64 game, and most of the other models have been changed.  maps and areas are different as well.  DKC returns is pretty similar to the original too.  except the kremlings are gone and they've been replaced by new antagonists called tikis.  oh, and it's a lot harder.  it's almost like parallel universes (i must be watching too much fringe) where everything is juuuuust slightly off.  both have been graphically restyled with the power of wii's hardware, but still retain the pure fun that both of these games brought in their original releases.  they're impressive in how they keep the same feel as the originals, but give the player something a little different as well.

and then the last realm...

promo art, ninja gaiden 3
the reboot.

yikes.  it's a word loathed by people on the wrong end of helpdesk calls, windows network admins, die hard comic book fans, and of course, video game enthusiasts.  it's something usually uttered in pure rage or fear - as it pretty much represents a last ditch effort to make right something that could go horribly horribly awry.  go ahead, install an exchange server or watch x-men origins: wolverine (not x3: x-men united, thanks rob miller for catching that HOWLING typo) and take note of the disgust you feel.  i mean deadpool with cyclops' optic blasts and wolverine-style swords? it was so offensive i nearly wretched.

rebooting is the scariest one out of all of these - and again becoming more prevalent than actual new intellectual property development.  i touched on this a little bit when i talked about capcom and ninja theory's upcoming devil may cry reboot a little while ago, and made my doubts clear then on how i felt.  now team ninja (not to be confused with the aforementioned ninja theory), is planning the same to follow suit, hinting that their upcoming release of ninja gaiden 3 is going to be released as a reboot of the series.  this is a game franchise that started (for me) back on the NES in 1989, and has never failed to deliver a solid action game through every console and every iteration of ryu hyabusa's adventures.  but my opinion on this reboot is a little different than my fears for devil may cry.  a lot of that is the reasoning and presentation.  the dude on the right still looks like ryu hyabusa.  it's got the same feel as series is famous for.  and the honcho at team ninja, yousuke hayashi, says that they want to bring the franchise back to basics, and trying to start from the beginning without being hindered by the past... yeah those game studio heads definitely have a way with words over in japan.  if you want more on that story along with some other news from team ninja, check out andriasang.  check i'm really hoping for the best here - anyone who's played the reboots of classic games like rygar and golden axe will understand what i mean.

now on this topic, i have to end this with a question to square enix.  when the playstation 3 was released, a demo of the final fantasy VII animated on a ps3 engine was released to showcase the ps3's power.  that being said -

where's my damn final fantasy VII remake for the ps3?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

40. motion gaming - here for good or for short term kicks?

microsoft kinect
video game manufacturers are always looking for new ways to keep gamers interested in their products.  and by that, i mean they're always trying different ways to stay profitable.  it is a business, after all, and i can't really blame them.  using motion or control methods other than a wired brick-in-hand controller spices up the mix, and gives gamers something new and different.  of course it all started waaaaay back in the 80's, with nintendo, with world class track meet on the power pad.  that game was clutch, and something you were jealous of when your friend has the triple super mario / duck hunt / world class track meet cartridge.  there were a couple of games for it, and after that...


nothing for years.  well, nothing very memorable.

not until the power pad's descendant the dance mat made an appearance in the US in 1998, coupled with the wildly popular series dance dance revolution series.  that game was lots of fun, for anyone from a skinny cheerleader to lanky white guys to tall lumberjacks to large indians.  at least that was the make up in our particular living room in pittsburgh circa 2002.  coupled with the ps2's eye toy, it seemed that motion gaming was going to be around for a while.

well...  it didn't quite turn out that way.  again, another lull in motion gaming.  not nearly as long as the the time between the power pad and dance dance revolution, but also nothing but rehashes of the DDR franchise, and really not a whole lot with the eye toy.  there still wasn't anything to capture the gaming audience and provide something more than a simple diversion.

nintendo wii
now the next wave.  nintendo's release of the wii back in the 2006 holiday season revived the publics's interest in motion gaming and started the longest lasting active wave of motion gaming production since the 80's.  it was a game changer, quite literally.  by introducing wireless motion control (affordable wireless motion control at that) they forced their rivals to think a little bit differently.  the other two major console manufacturers had to play catch up, because while stores couldn't keep wii's on the shelves, their xbox 360's and ps3's were collecting dust.  to combat this, sony started to work on their move project, which is similar to the wii in the sense that it uses a wireless wand, but adds additional camera support.  microsoft went a different direction with their kinect peripheral, and designed it to be controlled by controller-less body movement and voice, which just came out a few days ago.  it's been four years since the wii, and motion is still kicking.

now i've played games on the wii extensively.  it's pretty damn cool.  i've also played with the move.  also pretty damn cool.  i haven't used the kinect yet, but mainly because i write this thing for free, and can't really justify just tossing money around on gaming peripherals.  so why don't you get off my back about it, eh?  until the peripheral is a full size robot, i'll stick with what i've got to work with.  then i'm down.  but after reading the reviews and watching the videos on the kinect, it looks like we may be at the point where motion gaming isn't just going to be another wave followed by another lull.  this could be the push that makes motion a mainstream mainstay.  so why now?  why are we willing to accept it this time?

sony's playstation move
it's because everyone's following the nintendo model of game production.  think about it - in every generation of game consoles, the nintendo was always a little behind at providing awe-inspiring graphics.  look at the n64 vs the dreamcast.  or the gamecube vs the ps2 and xbox.  and of course, the wii vs the ps3 and xbox 360.  don't be fooled, this was entirely by design.  while microsoft and sony were focusing on pushing high end graphics and realism to attract that all-important male 18-35 demographic, nintendo did what it has since the beginning - put the focus on family entertainment, and of course occasionally throwing out a rated-M gunslinger.  it's following this philosophy that makes this round of motion gaming popular.  the controls are easy enough for anyone to get into, and actual physical involvement makes it fun for people who aren't traditionally into gaming.  example:  god of war III, in all its dominance, graphically sweet, sufficiently violent, with an interesting enough plot is right up my alley.  my parents?  playstation move table tennis.  when the wii was scarcely able to be found on shelves, my mom's sentiment was "you know if you buy a wii i'd like to play it."  and that's the real difference.  this is something that grabs the attention of the casual gamer.  players that are interested in more social arenas, where armor points or attack power don't matter, and there's no real objective.  the only important thing is the fun factor.

but that doesn't mean that's all motion can do.  while it's tremendous for casual gaming right now, given these three formats of motion play, the potential for gamers of a more hardcore variety are huge.  the playstation move, for example, tracks motion with a camera, capturing movement in 3d space.  the kinect integrates voice control.  sounds like a great starting platform for virtual reality.  motion gaming is here to stay, and this is only the beginning.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

39. weekend short: happy halloween! ...unless you're capcom

samanosuke and jaques from onimusha 3
capcom has been responsible from some of my favorite time sinks in my lifelong pattern of gaming nerdery, actually increasing their presence in my gaming interests as gaming evolved.   in the 80's and early 90's, an when my NES and/or the NES consoles of my associates were on, a lot of it was on the mega man series, ghosts n goblins, and bionic commando.  street fighter II above all else was a prominent mainstay in the SNES era, with the king of dragons and final fight backing it up.  eventually in later generation consoles, the resident evil, devil may cry and onimusha series completely took over the action-adventure genre, as well as physical space in my game collection.  unfortunately since then, as i've written about previously, we've seen japanese gaming, including capcom, start to slip.

keiji inafune, from kotaku
now unfortunately, whatever little talent capcom had left is gone.  last week, keiji inafune publicly announced that he would be leaving capcom in november.  he is the mastermind behind games like the megaman, resident evil, and onimusha series, and earlier in his career a designer in a lot of capcom's other hits.  inafune claims that after spending 23 years with capcom (and daletto, one of their subsidiaries), he's reached the highest heights one in his position can achieve, and how a creative person like him can't just settle down and be a figurehead.  does this mean that he's got something else lined up?  probably.  he's drawn comparisons between himself and legendary film giant akira kurosawa, who made movies until he died.  inafune went on to say kurosawa was a "true creator who was recognized around the world."  in recent times he also felt as though he no longer had a shared vision with capcom management, and there was really nothing more he could do.  this is all from his blog at daletto.

so what's next for capcom?  out of the developers and designers that made capcom a powerhouse, they literally have no one left.  in addition to inafune, shinji mikami (resident evil) and yoshiki okamoto (street fighter), and hideki kamiya (devil may cry) are ALL GONE.  they can't rely on making franchise hits anymore - i'm just not sure they have the talent left to pull it off.  they still have monster hunter, i mean, i guess.  maybe they'll start focusing on mobile platforms.  or some sort of social games, who knows.

all the english versions of this news and translations from keiji inafune's blog was gotten at andriasang.  come on people, i don't speak japansese.  yet.

UPDATE: as of today, november 1, inafune's blog was deleted from daletto.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

38. apple in the ballroom with the candlestick... what?

yeah, i'm kicking it off with a clue reference.  i love that game.  enough to own a t-shirt with the phrase "miss scarlet in the hall with the revolver" emblazoned across the front (on a side note, check out that link to threadless - they have a lot of cool t shirts, if you're into that sort of thing).  after all the tech news of this past year, i can't help but think about the world's major tech giants as characters from that very board game.  there's something going on all the time - who's doing what to who?  with what?  what's being hidden, and where?  to win you have to keep your eyes peeled and tune your ears to whispers, and occasionally leak misinformation to neighboring players, just to keep them on their toes.  at least that's how we roll.  and you always want to catch a glimpse of the secret envelope in the middle to see what's really going on.  especially since that envelope can give you the win.  apple of course would be miss white.  look at an ibook and you can pick that one up pretty clearly.  google would be professor plum by my estimation, and you can fill in the rest with microsoft, sony, verizon, and at&t.  yes i know there's many more players in this game en masse, but they kind of fill in the gaps between.

unless you want me to break out clue master detective.  then it's on.

gaming, media, and communication is slowly (well less slowly now) but surely becoming one conglomerate mass media market, complete with industry guesses, blogger conjecture, and acquisition rumors.  oh and the secrets.  now then, after apple's latest earning reports, one of their cards is shown and it's pretty public that they're sitting on $51 billion in cash (as per brian marshall, gleacher & co) in their fruity coffers.  for those not in the know about how much money is considered a lot of money, that's an insane amount.  crazy insane is the industry term, i think.  of course with that kind of information comes matching levels of output from the rumor mill.  in recent interviews, steve jobs has hinted that his mad stacks of loot may be used if the opportunity comes along to shore up their strategic position in the macrochasm of computing.  so what's there to buy?  some rumors indicated that netflix was on the list - which is something that would make sense for apple to buy.  these are the people who killed blockbuster with their rental through mail system.  moreover, a lot of their business is now done sans disc - as in streaming movies and media from your tv, ps3, and xbox 360 consoles.  given the popularity of the iphone/ipad, as well as apple tv, netflix would indeed give apple the pure power and media libraries to facilitate more offerings to the consumer.  but again, just rumor.

playstation phone (engadget)
a second rumor, sony, is a little more interesting.  some people say apple was targeting sony's gaming business, since they really don't have any presence there.  or maybe their hardware division, so they can have that cell processor that makes their ps3 run oh so smoothly.  but it's just not true.  there's no merit or evidence behind it.  all of this hoopla was started by a pure speculative guess at barron's by blogger eric savitz.  i would post a link to the report, but the site seems to not be up anymore.  though afterwards he put out a retraction of sorts:  "in the piece i noted that the company could do something aggressive, like bidding for adobe, sony or even disney. but that was pure speculation. yeesh."  so who cares, right?  apparently investors do - enough for an innocent blog statement to affect the market.  from an unfounded piece of speculation, sony's stock actually went up 3% given the prospect that they may become an apple property.  it leveled out after a while, but still.  THREE PERCENT just on potenial buzz.  that's just insane.

i'm not sure why analysts thought it held any weight.  an apple-sony deal is clearly never going to happen.  in addition to all the obvious reasons, there have been images roaming the interwebs of something we've heard rumors of for a while now - the playstation phone.  this has to be sony's answer to some critics' opinion that the apple mobile platform is the next big area for gaming.  while sony has had a lot of success with the PSP, that success didn't fully follow into their PSP go device.  with its shortcomings, even after their very public price cut, i don't see their sales numbers for it jumping through the roof anytime soon, including the holiday season.  but a PSP go-like device that runs on top of a phone running an android OS?  i think there's more than a few people would be interested in that.  so why would apple want any piece of a company that's adopted android, and thereby google - their arch enemy?  they wouldn't.  unless they bought it to destroy it.  so let me try my hand at messing with free markets - could this be why apple recently pushed back release of their white iphone 4?  maybe it's not because they're having issues manufacturing as they report, but that they want to make it more game-able on release day to compete with the playstation phone.  is this nothing more than misinformation?  whispers and a stall tactic from the kingdom of jobs?

i'm sorry, let me take that back.  i don't want NASDAQ to go all nutty now.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

37. xbox hacks and the feds

has anyone ever approached you in disgust after you had an xbox 360 modded?  did they look down on you from their moral high ground?  was your response "well make a federal case out of it why don't ya?"  for your sake i hope it wasn't, because you're about to read some pretty groundbreaking stuff here.  this is about the first federal case in the united states about modding an xbox 360 that will see a jury.  the defendant: matthew crippen, 28, of anaheim, california.  he is accused of running an video game console chop shop - a home business where he would mod customer's xbox 360 consoles for no less than a hefty profit to be sure.  he was arrested by homeland security (after some undercover work) for breach of the digital millennium copyright act of 1998.  and why would one be so bold as to do this?  and customers willing to pay?  because modded consoles allow play of downloaded and burned games, be it backups of your own (technically legal in my opinion) or to fly the pirate colors and download/burn the games of your choosing.  the indictment (thanks, wired magazine!) shows that he is charged with 2 counts, and as a result can see up to 10 years, the max sentence, in prison.

seems pretty open and shut, right?  why would someone mod an xbox to not pirate games?  read on, that's just part 1 of the story.

crippen's claim is that he didn't provide mod services for piracy.  he offered the service for people who wanted to play backups of games they already own.  this is meant to circumvent what ALL of us xbox 360 owners have experienced, which is ridiculous scratching on the discs after a lot of use that makes them jumpy and sometimes rough to play.  enter andrew huang (he goes by "bunnie") - the man who literally wrote the book on xbox hacking.  huang wants to testify on crippen's behalf and provide argument as a system expert.  why is this going to be helpful to the defense?  huang would show the jury a process on how modding a console does not circumvent the technology "designed to prevent copyright infringement" as crippen is accused for.  in an interview with wired, huang said that what the defendant "was insufficient on his own to violate anything," and further suggested that the DMCA should be interpreted with the spirit for fair use as exemptions.  his reasoning, which is sound, is the iphone.  many users used jailbreak software on thier apple iphones to install unapproved 3rd party software and apps on their devices with legal immunity, thanks to a US copyright office exemption tothe DMCA.  using this as a prime example, it's a short stone's throw to see how that precedent can be applied to video game consoles.

but the prosecutors aren't having it.  huang's had his own brushes with the law, and specifically the DMCA  for his xbox modding expertise.  with that in conjunction with their claim that "fair use" isn't a valid defense, the prosecution is trying to block huang from testifying on crippen's behalf.  whether or not huang is able to testify, the outcome of this case is going could prove to be interesting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

36. blizzard says it's not cool to cheat

and i'm sure a large majority of the population would agree with that.  it's why tiger woods can't shill gatorade anymore.  why bernie madoff went to jail.  why everyone is suspicious of the banker in monopoly.  and it is, of course, why everyone hates rogues in world of warcraft.

damn rogues...  dirty, cowardly, cheap bastard rogues...

but i digress.

for those who don't know, blizzard entertainment is the brainchild behind three great franchises - adventure series diablo, as well as real time strategy games warcraft and starcraft.  traditionally it can be said that they know how to make a game.  today's mayhem concerns the latter franchise, starcraft, which saw the highly popular starcraft II launch earlier this year.  it opens up questions on fairness and to what extent a player actually owns the game they purchase.

naturally cheating in an online realm would have its consequences, making one's opponents not stand a chance against you, regardless in skill or strategy (ugh stupid rogues).  in addition, it also brings risk of a ban.  which is precisely what happened in starcraft II.  5000 players who were using cheat hacks were banned from the game for, well, obvious reasons - they cheat.  so normal circumstances considered, i guess blizzard is acting on part of the good and on behalf of other players - the playing field has to be level for any real online competition and fair play to exist, and encountering cheating players makes others just want to turn the game off.  i've been in a number rounds of counter strike, quake, and other first person shooters for example where it was clear as day that one of the opposing players was using an aim-bot.  i immediately dropped game to find other ones.  playing on the wrong end of those conditions makes it impossible to achieve the end goal of playing most games in the first place - to have fun.

but there's a slight anomaly in the story here - the cheating players (those infamous 5000) that blizzard has chosen to ban are using cheats in single player missions.  not against other people.  single player. against the starcraft AI., i.e. "the computer."  anyone who is familiar with blizzard's past releases would probably agree that this seems extremely strange, given blizzard's practices on single player cheating in the past.  they actually included cheat codes as part of the software in their real time strategy games, starting with the original warcraft onward.  for instance, typing WHOSYOURDADDY in the console would activate god mode in warcraft 3, meaning your units took no damage and basically destroyed everything they touched in one hit.  but do it now, and blizzard will bring the hammer down upon you.

and who can forget the level skip code from the first starcraft? THEREISNOCOWLEVEL.  a classic.

and why?  achievements.  at least that's one of their reasons.

some of my own achievements, from world of warcraft
that's right, achievements.  little digital awards that often provide no real value aside from being able to brag to cohorts in your online community about all the things you've done.  blizzard added an achievement system similar to PS3's trophies and xbox 360 achievements to their blockbuster MMO world of warcraft in october 2009.  which for that particular game works well - earning certain achievements for great feats actually granted you in-game benefits and perks that are otherwise unavailable.  but this stock achievement concept has since expanded into blizzard's online community, batle.net, which bridges a player's feats in all three of their franchises - warcraft, starcraft, and diablo - into a single player account and public identity.  blizzard's argument now is that if cheats are overlooked in single player missions, then achievements in starcraft II would be rendered meaningless - as the degree of difficulty would be outright nullified.  which i can understand, BUT...

what does that mean as far as a user using the software they paid for as the see fit in a single player setting?  it's a weird line that's been completely blurred between single player and multiplayer in this case - players can play by themselves running single player campaign missions, not caring about achievements or online play, but the publisher can still see them because they have to log on to battle.net first to play at all.  and what's the big deal?  no one gets hurt, and someone who wants to play alone can play alone.  cheating against the computer doesn't affect anyone but that player.  and they paid for that right, damn it.  these days online components of games are getting far more common.  can't i just play on my own and obliterate everything to please my own twisted whims?

what makes no sense is that there is a way around this.  what's even more odd is that blizzard has done it before.  back in the days of the first diablo, two versions of battle.net existed - battle.net and open battle.net.  why is it so hard for blizzard to have a line of demarcation letting the system know whether a player is playing open against the computer or "for achievement" against the user and act accordingly?  i mean there is a "guest" mode, but that removes all social interaction with your friends list and other social functions.

i absolutely cannot be the first one to think of this.  does this solution seem over-simplified?  i don't think so - it feels like a pretty practical application of occam's razor to me.

jason schreier in wired magazine's game|life blog did a piece on an anonymous gamer affected by this going by the moniker gm0ney.  you can read it here for some more detailed information on what happened.  cheatshappen.com, the site where the starcraft hack was downloaded from, also address this on their site.

Monday, October 18, 2010

35. happy 25th birthday, nintendo!

there's a lot of news swirling around today on miscellaneous tech: facebook security, naturally apple stuff, windows phone 7 launch and blaaaaahhhh blah bloopity blaaaaah.  none of that news in the technical sphere should outdo something that is far more important, which has had more of a lasting effect on society than all of the above combined:  the original nintendo entertainment system (NES) turns 25 today, october 18, 2010.  back then nintendo president hiroshi yamauchi and nintendo of america's minoru arakawa forced their way into the american market after success of the japanese version, the famicom, back home.  but they had to fight a seriously uphill battle.  video games were dying in the USA, where the best we had was atari (who i also believe is celebrating an october anniversary for the 2600).  the industry was stagnant, stores didn't want to sell it, and it definitely didn't go with the mantra of "buy american."  but somehow they did it.  nintendo was a company that used to only manufacture and sell playing cards, so this was a major jump for both the company and the game industry.  and boy are we glad they made it.

and how they made it shouldn't surprise you.  first look what they did with the wii - they introduced a family friendly console with a control style that moved away from traditional console controllers. and the people rejoiced, buying up so many units that for a while you'd be hard pressed to find one on the shelves of your local stores.  25 years ago their game plan wasn't so different.  if you look at console controllers of the time, they were fairly primitive. even the NES controller was similar - a directional control and two buttons.  but what they did introduce in addition to this was really something new - the zapper light gun.  it allowed a completely different kind of play, and bundled with the super mario brothers / duck hunt combo cartridge, it changed the way we game.  and let's not forget to mention the power pad and the R.O.B. (robot operating buddy) as alternate controllers too.  after a bit of a climb, nintendo gained national popularity, with mario mania breathing life back into the video game industry, and i think you know how it went from there.  the NES gave rise to the game boy SNES, sega came back with the genesis and game gear, then sony entered the game, and guess what?  competition in the west and 3rd party software devs!  a race to provide the best which still goes on today in console and mobile gaming.  all sparked by the NES.

ahh the zapper... fond memories
like i said before, this little unit shaped my generation's life in a pretty major way.  over the atari this thing was like magic, with at the time incredible graphics, and vivid and colorful stories that provided us with adventure and excitement (though as we all know a jedi craves not these things) in more or less a home version of the arcade, entrenching itself in popular culture.  i was only allowed to play for a limited time during the school year growing up, but i remember playing super mario brothers and duck hunt with my dad (who would never let me cheat by going right up to the tv).  figuring out secret patterns and acting as a cartographer while trying to work my way through the goonies II.  boss fight strategy from final fantasy.  timing from mike tyson's punch out.  and most importantly, learning that sometimes victory is only earned through sheer attrition from ninja gaiden.  i'd like to think that all of this made me smarter, engaged my brain a little bit, and was even partially responsible for my lifetime interest in tech, computing, and gadgetry.  my interest in math benefited too - winning in some of the NES games offered involved a lot of mental math and numerical decision making.  i still have my old NES stored away with my SNES, and still break it out every so often to play it.

they had more monster titles that inspired the next generation of games, and the next, and the next, etc.  in addition to what's been mentioned, there was kung fu, excitebike, mega man, castlevania, and the legend of zelda.  and this list goes on for a mile.  as a result look at video games now - they've come out of the basement to be a tremendous part of today's mainstream media.  it's no longer solely associated with geekdom worldwide, but draws a lot of different types of people to the variety of games that exist.  and my generation, who were kids during the NES era, are what's driving that.  you can tell by where the target market for the gaming industry lies.  it's not kids anymore, but the 18-35 demographic that most of the industry's marketing dollars go to.

that's right kids, the nintendo generation is getting ready to run things around here.  rejoice.  and with that, my hats off to nintendo for 25 years of technology, innovation, memories, and most of all, fun.

the folks over at 1up actually has a great retrospective of 25 years of the NES, which you can get to here.  wired magazine's "this day in tech" is also a good short read on the topic here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

34. globalization and character identity crisis: devil my cry

the grown up dante we know from devil may cry 4
those of you that know me and my gaming style know that i'm a big fan of the devil may cry series - not counting devil may cry 2 of course.  that one was a shocking example of quantity over quality failing hard.  one of the reasons i'm a fan of the franchise (and the first game overall) is for four main reasons.  1 - the gameplay - actively forcing the player to be creative with their play otherwise get penalized on in-game currency collected.  it's a perfect way of getting around the boring and repetitive gameplay that some games of that many games of the same genre struggle with.  which was refreshing in a time where action game button mashing still got you wins.  2 - the challenge (ignoring DMC2 again here) - i like a challenge, the first installment was a hard game.  even on the opening level, mis-timing attacks would lead to your character's health dropping to nearly nil at the hands of possessed marionettes, forcing you to scramble like hell to find some health orbs.  this only got more challenging as the game progressed.  3 - the environments - the game environments were well laid out and the puzzles were hard, but not impossible.  and even though it has waned sharply since the first devil may cry, a lot of places gave you enough of that creepy feeling to jolt a little bit when something happened.  because of this, i used to play around midnight with minimal lighting -  it was the perfect ambiance to take advantage of the full trip-horror that the game provided.  and finally, 4 - plot and characters, namely the main hero (or anti-hero if you want to get jungian) dante.  and lastly 5 - the overall  fun factor.

dante as a character pretty much is the devil may cry franchise.  his character is one of a mysterious man with an dark past and lineage.  that, and additionally through his dress, style, attitude, and fighting, laid the framework for what "cool" was in a video game hero in the early 2000's, and more importantly, provided a lasting model.  and the best part about this mythology they created was that the player could actually get into it, because dante was a believable character.  his signature red trench and pants with platinum hair is part of his rightfully earned icon status in gaming.  i'm actually more impressed with capcom looking back on it now then i was back then, they really pulled it off well.  in my opinion there were a lot of later games in the genre that drew heavily from it - off the top of my head god of war, darksiders, dante's inferno, and bayonetta (even though the producer says DMC had nothing to do with it, but i ain't buyin' it).

those are really the five reasons why anyone would be a fan of any game.  but reason #4 on my list - plot and characters - is by far the most important one when you're developing multi-volume sequels and franchises.  a huge part of getting your fans to stay with you is for them to buy into the mythology.  and to do that they need to have a connection with the world and it's characters.  i remember the xenosaga series being the same way for me a while ago, ironically also ignoring part 2, even though it was a completely different style of game.  and why is  that?  it's because games have become extremely good at cinematic and character-driven themes.  evoking feeling in a player from character interaction and emotion isn't something that's just reserved for hollywood studios anymore.

i'm not going to lie.  i was sad when aeris died in final fantasy vii.  even jin's end in xenosaga: episode iii was a little rough.

young dante, from the DMC reboot
so on to why i wrote this.  i mentioned in a previous post about the trailer for "DMC."  this is a reboot of the devil may cry series, but is being primarily done by ninja theory (the folks behind heavenly sword).  what they have experienced (rightfully?) is a huge backlash from fans from their tokyo game show trailer.  the trailer does show us the same gameplay style we're accustomed to, good mixes of swordplay and the signature "ebony and ivory" pistols, so on that part we're good.  what has fans objecting is a complete overhaul of dante's character design.  now i spoke last week about japanese game studios starting to outsource - working more and more with western studios to appeal to the western gaming market.  their reasoning on this one:

"the essence of devil may cry is all about 'cool.' it's about dante being cool and making you feel cool when you're playing it, and so the combat and the style system and everything is integral to that. but, you know, what was cool 12 years ago -- i think that was when the first game came out -- isn't cool anymore." [via 1up]

this was according to tameem antoniades, ninja theory's creative director, who by the way got the number of years wrong.  also, if you google him, you'll find he bears a stark resemblance to the new dante.  he goes on to say if the current dante was standing outside of a bar in his current look he'd get laughed at.  this statement brings me to my question - is this new dante the world's opinion on what kind of characters we can relate to on our side of the world?  a skinny goth emo kid that looks like he's looking for his next score?  some kind of cross between a vampire and american idol's adam lambert?  this new redesign, along with parts of the trailer, are claimed to be part of an origin story, so this is supposed to be taking place before the entire current devil may cry series, when dante was a young man.  it portrays dante as some strung out kid being tested on in a lab, breaking out and killing some bad guys chasing him in old school DMC style.  but the way the character looks - not even a shred of the dante we know in him.  any relation to the characters and world we've gotten used to has been shattered.  i saw the trailer featuring chuckles the emo monkey in the mugshot above, and was pretty upset.  what other changes are there going to be?  what about the other characters?  vergil?  trish? lady?  nero????  i think i speak for a lot of the fanbase when i say that we would have preferred an in-sequence game, fleshing out nero's connection to vergil and the devil bringer.  but, hopefully that's another game for another day.

so i'm going to tread cautiously here.  if this is a game that shows a rough dante becoming the character we all know and love now, then i'll be ok with that.  or if this guy is possessed by some demon or through some psychological trauma thinks he's dante, i'll be ok with that.  those are the only ways i'll be ok with that.  but if it was to be one of those, then they would have advertised it as such to avoid the fan backlash, right?  thus i fear it's a reboot to get a new generation of fans.  sad.  if this is a true reboot, then i may abandon the series altogether, and keep the old characters in the old series that's in my head.  i've seen too many reboots fail.  they all can't be batman begins.