Archives for December 2009

The PC Gamer’s Manifesto

Having recently come into possession of something I can only classify as a “gaming PC”, I realize it would be silly to own this thing and not use it to actually play games. Certainly it is very capable of doing my usual Facebook and blogging updates, but it is capable of so much more. However, I also remember quite clearly that it was not a lack of hardware that has turned me into a near exclusive console gamer in the past few years. I’ve still played the occassional PC game, but only as a rare foray since the PC was the obvious or only platform of choice.

Powerful hardware or not, I will turn this machine back around and make it some of the most powerful hardware used to poke people on Facebook if the PC gaming industry doesn’t start to shape up. I’m willing to be enticed away from consoles again, but here is what it will take to get me back as a regular PC gamer.

1. Your game will install easily and work the first time
I am sick and tired of installing games that don’t work, that want me to update my drivers, or doesn’t actually run on hardware that the box claims it supported. I dealt with the old days of trying to switch between expanded and extended memory and constantly trying to keep from getting the two mixed up. Oh how I would love to go back to that problem compared the what the average install has become. In the past two years I have had more games with install problems than not. If anything it seems like this is getting worse. PC games are not a new phenomenon, this should not be hard! Your chief competitor only requires someone to pop in a disc and start playing. I’m not asking for that level of simplicity, but I think asking for an install process that works is not unreasonable. These are games, not enterprise level business applications.

2. You will design games for systems people actually own
I hate the claim “The PC is the largest platform base”. It’s not true because there is so much hardware and operating system variation that is lumped in under “PC”. Laptops typically have integrated graphic cards that are nowhere near the capabilities of what is inside a dedicated desktop gaming computer. Somewhere along the way you must make a business decision as to what kind of market you will support. I hate to point this out, but more and more people are going the laptop route, which means you desperately need to figure out how to support those “lousy” integrated graphic cards or lose a huge chunk of your market.

3. Your copy protection will not keep me from playing the game
I paid money for your product. I kept my end of the bargain. Your end of the bargain is to give me the product you advertised. When I can’t play your game because your stupid copy protection scheme has some issue with my system settings, chosen install location, or some random occurrence based on the position of the stars we have a problem. If I can’t get my money back, chances are good I will not buy a game from you again. Even if I can get my money back, the process of trying to return software is so egregious that I’m unlikely to risk putting money down on your products in the future.

4. Your copy protection scheme must have no impact on the game
I often hear claims about how cracked games have often run better because they’re not running the copy protection software in the background. I’m willing to let that go as hearsay evidence at best, but I also know enough about software to understand those claims are entirely plausible. If your copy protection is making the pirated version of your product the superior choice then you’ve created a self-defeating process. If I see system processes kicking off in conjunction with performance problems while running the game, it won’t take much for me to figure out if its some stupid scheme you’ve got running in the background. If this happens I will avoid your products in the future.

5. You will not treat your customers like criminals
Call me old fashioned, but I prefer physical media and I don’t mind a bit having the disc in the DVD-ROM while playing even if the game is entirely installed on the hard drive. That said, if I own authentic physical media then we should be done. I should not have to verify my identity, be forced to register, or do anything that involves some external process to prove that I paid for the game. This is a huge public relations problem. We already live in a world were many valuable products are locked away until some underpaid struggling college student comes to unlock it for us. We go through security scanners, have security tags removed, and receipts verified all too often for my comfort. When I get home I feel like my domain is sacred. Having your product then come up and ask for identification is a slap in the face.

6. I should not have to mod your game to make it playable
I do not pay for unfinished software. Every piece of software has bugs, every piece of software has issues. The more complex it is, the more problems it has. See, I get it. I’ve been in software development for over a decade. I know what you go through to get a product to market. I do. However, there is a reasonable level of expectation that says I am buying a finished product that will work as advertised. In my world that’s “works as documented”, but it’s the same thing. We don’t want bugs in software, they’re just nearly impossible to avoid. I hate it when I complain about a game and the first response is “You need to download mod [X]”. WRONG! I paid for the game, I installed it, I may have gone through who knows how many convolutions already just to get to this point. Now I have to go spend additional effort researching, downloading, and installing something else? Probably something being offered for free? Mods are not a crutch and should not be required. Having mod support is a nice feature, but the average Joe and Jane are not going to do anything further to your software. Instead they will just perceive an inferior product. As for me, the not-so-average Joe, what I see is a poor effort turned in with expectations of access to my wallet. I have every right to be offended.

7. Your game should not crash at random
Games crash. Software crashes. Even some console games have the occasional glitch. Like I said before, every piece of software has bugs. Even knowing that, you should have a graceful way of handling errors. You desperately need to address memory leaks and not just hope the game’s garbage collection handles it before it crashes, assuming you even bothered to do enough memory management to actually implement garbage collection. It’s one thing to have a workaround to a problem, it’s an entirely different matter to suddenly find yourself back at the desktop for no reason. That doesn’t feel good to the consumer, especially if they were in the midst of an epic battle.

In short, what I’m saying is that your product needs to be usable. I need to be able to judge a game based on how well it plays. Unfortunately, I’m having to surmount many obstacles just getting to the point of being able to even play the game. By that time I’ve already soured on your product. I used to enjoy PC gaming, but what turned me off wasn’t the increasing abilities of consoles but the passive-aggressive attitudes of PC game developers towards their customers, a constant refusal to adapt to the market, and increasing difficulty in actually getting games to work on hardware that was fairly standard.

If you want to call yourself a PC game developer then quit treating your customers like the enemy and give them the products they paid for. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Move Over N64 Kid…

With the screaming, legs kicking, dog barking, and dad bending over this is just screaming for a remix. Make it so. Video after the jump.

In my hands

Under our tree and in my hands: New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Left 4 Dead 2. (I also got Halo 3: ODST from Gamefly.) I hope to get in quite a bit of gaming next week!

What was your loot haul?

Crushed

Boy, I rarely have a pile of shame this big. Between the holidays, sales, and some Blockbuster stores going out of business around me I have acquired a ton of games just in December. For the PC I now have Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Haze for the PS3, Phantasy Star 0 for the DS, and Shadowrun, Ace Combat 6, Quake 4, Wolfenstein, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Pure, Call of Juarez, Too Human, Lost Odyssey, and Dragon Age: Origins for the 360. 13 games right before my favorite game purchasing season is about to start!

Are you Freaking Kidding Me?!

We bought the boys Super Mario Bros. Wii for Christmas and gave it a spin today. Find out that our Wii is suffering from an artifacts glitch. It’s pretty bad on levels with a lot of blue sky. The only hope? A $75 repair. That’s two separate systems in less than one month.

Take Two in the ditch

So everytime I worry that I’m being too harsh about this recession, how it impacts my hobby in particular, I find a new piece of information that only helps reinforce my apparent pessimism. Take Two has announced more losses. Their new strategy is essentially “We’re going to be just like Activision and EA”, which is disastrous.

I swear this isn’t a segue, but am I the only one who remembers the dotcom days? How about the days when everyone was going to beat Microsoft at their own game? How about the days when everyone had the new “Doom killer”, “Diablo killer”, or their product catalog had some kind of upcoming Real-Time Strategy title? Am I the only one who remembers how that played out for most of the people involved?

The big problems with the game market right now is a lack of diversification. As more people jump on the bandwagon they’ll quickly realize there isn’t enough room for everyone. That means someone has to fail. Since Call of Duty came on the scene, the Medal of Honor series hasn’t done so hot. Brothers in Arms made a brief foray, but they’re largely getting dominated by Call of Duty as well. In other words, their just isn’t a huge market for quality World War II shooters. Ironic considering Infinity Ward doesn’t even make World War II games anymore. Likewise, games keep trying to be like Halo and keep finding out, the hard way, that we already have a perfectly good Halo.

I imagine that this may be Take Two’s swan song. I can’t see their being enough demand for three mega-publishers all pushing AAA titles. The problem with the “AAA” concept is that it only works when a handful of these super expensive heavily marketed games are competing with each other and a large number of non-AAA titles. If every title is “AAA” then what that really means is that a lot of money is going to be pumped into failure. In a way that’s good news because it will only kill this failing business model faster. The game industry has always had big releases, we’ll always have “big” games. What we cannot have is nothing but AAA games. There will be no sleeper hits, no innovation, and no risk. Either consumers will flock to one franchise or everything will fail as people lose interest.

So now I’m wondering if 2010 is the year gaming loses the mainstream? Actually, that will probably be 2011. If game publishers fail to move their business forward they’ll lose the public. Some gamers might think this is a good thing, but I think we’ve benefitted by having mainstream status.

Killing your productivity

One flash game at a time…

An NBA game usually lasts two and a half hours. I spent the majority of the Cavs vs. the Suns playing this little flash game. Physics and sports, my favorite combination.

Dear Santa,

All I want for Christmas…

SOLID!

is a $500,000 solid gold Wii.

The Year of Preeminence

Have the protagonists in gaming evolved into that of god-like power?


2009 may be remembered as the year of domination in gaming. In recent years there has been a shift in many popular titles where the main character seems human but in many ways display the powers of a god. They are in complete control of their situation but at the same time helpless by their environment.

In many games, we see the character evolve. In a few rare titles, the character is supreme from the first loading screen. This seems to be more difficult for the developer to pull off. When done well, however, it’s an experience like no other.

Certainly there have been some games in the past years that have exhibited this trend. It may have even started with such titles as the GTA games, God of War, Crackdown, the first Assassin’s Creed, and—with a bit of stretching—Star Wars The Force Unleashed. It’s this year though where it has been the most prominent. Never in the history of gaming have so many titles been produced with this concept.

Before we get to those titles I must first establish some criteria when referring to preeminence.

  1. The protagonist must essentially work alone. Certainly there can be some NPCs that help and such, but his dilemma has to be overcome on his own.
  2. Although there is a sense of god-like powers or abilities, the protagonist must be vulnerable. This vulnerability can come in the narrative, used as a character limitation (losing abilities and powers but gaining them back), or come from the environment.
  3. Even though there is vulnerability, dying often in the game should not happen. Gods don’t die—often. Of all the points, this is the most ambiguous. One gamer could play through Halo 3 and not die once while others respawn constantly. The same could be said for the games mentioned here. However, in general, most gamers won’t die playing it.
  4. There can be an evolution to god-like status with the character or the game can start with it. At the end of the title, the gamer must feel in total control. Nothing can stop them.

The one where he just won’t die

wolverine Many of the characters presented here come from comic book backgrounds. Wolverine is no exception. In what may be one of the best movie to video game translations to date, X-Men Origins Wolverine presents a great experience where the main character is virtually indestructible. Logan has amazing health regeneration abilities and developer Raven uses this to the fullest. Certainly, he can be taken down, but only at the expense of sacrificing the mythos of Wolverine himself. They solve this by throwing numerous enemies at Logan who are equipped with the same type of metal that is bonded to his skeleton or with shields that his claws cannot penetrate. Another tactic used is to make the enemies teleport, but this can be countered by allowing Wolverine to use his special tracking "sense". As the game progresses, other gimmicks are used to weaken the player—the main ones being removal of health regeneration or the tracking sense. Although this may cause some minor frustration, there is never any true loss of complete power—especially when Wolverine rips an enemy combatant in two over his head.

The one where it’s the shocking truth

inFAMOUS Sucker Punch’s Cole McGrath does something a little unique in the world of inFAMOUS. Essentially, Cole is a quintessential 21st century comic book character in video game form. At the start of the game he has very little power. By the end he has evolved into one who owns and dominates the city he inhabits. The twist Sucker Punch gives us is that the Cole can be played as a hero or anti-hero. They succeed in presenting two different type of skill-sets, two different narratives, but with the same result. Cole realizes that he is a god among men by the end of the game. The game player feels this with the mention of his last words and actions—good or evil. Cole’s powers come from electricity and he does have some limitations: water (in some forms), chain link fences (confusingly, yes), and stronger enemies. Sucker Punch gets high marks for creating a completely unique video game character with depth and motives. The electricity power may not have been thought through completely but in the context of the game if fits well.

The one where this is my turf

batman Batman: Arkham Asylum was certainly the surprise hit of the year. This is one of those games where right from the start we know that the main character is awesome and is going to dominate. And dominate he does. Nothing about Batman feels weak from his character to his intelligence to his strength. There’s a fine line in creating a game like this. Make the protagonist too god-like and the game is a cake walk. Rocksteady does a fine job of still making him vulnerable but it’s almost never Batman’s fault. It’s the players. Still, the developer resorts to using large numbers of enemies, but the game really shines in how it handles that combat. Other unique hindrances also come in the form of intelligent riddles, puzzles, psychological trials, and the counter-strengths of most major Batman villains. It may be the first game where the player really feels like the comic book character he is supposed to be. Players loved it.

The one where silence is deadly

AC2 Ezio Auditore is sort of a street-brawling, womanizing bumbler. He has no purpose in life other than to live off his father’s wealth. Thus begins Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II. By the end of the title he has become the feared assassin of the Italian countryside dominating many of the countries famous cities. Along the way Ezio learns to follow in his father’s footsteps by climbing buildings, killing silently, and avenging the wrong that has been done to his family. The niche that Ezio fills is that he may be a feared god among men but he is silent and hides—in broad daylight. Compared to the first title, this is one where the sense of being an assassin comes into the foreground. Blending in with crowds is no longer a gimmick. Just walking into a group of people and your lost (at most times) to the guards. As an unintended effect he becomes the protector of not just the cities he scans but maybe mankind as a whole. Ezio is just a part of a larger mythos presented in the game but it’s one where in his time period he takes on the leadership of the known world and succeeds well.

Is this a trend?

There are many other games that could fit this criteria but for some reason or another the sense of being a god among men is lost: [Prototype] (very difficult end-game), Red Faction: Guerrilla (too easy to die), and Bionic Commando (death by invisible gas? just…no.). Take a look at many of the finalists for game of the year. It’s certain that you’ll see games that fit this mold win quite a few accolades—one may even be the game most remembered for 2009.

Team Fortress 2: WAR! Update

war_01

I’ll let the Team Fortress 2(TF2) team describe the update themselves.

“So: how is the War update different from our other class updates?

In many ways, it’s not. Like any other class update, the War update will reveal three new weapons each for the Demoman and Soldier throughout the week, as well as some maps, achievements, and surprises, right up until the day of release, when everything we’ve been teasing goes live.”

The best thing about the TF2 developers is that are continuing to release FREE, that’s right, FREE updates. All but 3 of the classes in the game have been updated with new weapons/items, the Soldier, Demoman, and the Engineer. The updates have generally been one class vs another class and both have received their updated weapons.

The War Update is no different in that its all about the Soldier and the Demoman fighting each other. Each class will get at least 3 new weapons, but both classes are fighting through the week for one last weapon that goes to the class with the most kills of the other. So for example; the soldiers have killed 4,666,558 demomen so far and the demomen have killed 4,441,214 soldiers. As of December 14th @ 9:42 PST.

The cool thing about this whole update is that it really has changed peoples attitudes towards the classes. Some of those on “team soldier” and playing as a medic will only heal a soldier and let the demomen die in order to help the soldier win and get the fourth weapon, and vice-versa for the demomen.

The developers of TF2 definitely know what they are doing with this update. They even made a comic of the characters involved in the WAR! update, putting the acquisition of the weapons into art. The demoman has already received 2 of his 3 weapons updates which have been revealed to be The Eyelander and The Chargin’ Targe.

The casualty updates are going to be daily and from now until the end of the week there will be the reveal of what the soldier weapons are and the remaining demoman weapon. Oh, and I can’t forget the coveted 4th weapon which is causing this whole thing in the first place.

Who’ll get it in the end?

Its up to you the player to decide!!!

So get out there and kill kill kill you maggots!

I almost forgot! They are also doing a propaganda contest too! Whoever can create the best propaganda poster for either side will get a one-of-a-kind in-game item with their name on it. Very cool. Second and Third prize winners get something in-game as well, just not as cool as the first prize winner. 25 runner-ups will get the “MANN CO PRIZE PACKAGE, which isn�t one-of-a-kind but is nonetheless free.”

This is the kind of stuff that I like to see a developer doing for their game, update the game for free and in doing so feeding their rabid/devout fans.

/raises hand

Guilty as charged.

[Update: THE SOLDIERS WIN!!!!!!! The secret 7th weapon turned out to be “Gunboats” which are shoes that allow for less damage to be received when doing a rocket jump. I enjoyed the update, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had so much anxiety and impatience in waiting for an update to a game. Thanks Valve!]