A letter to my kids about videogames

I have regular discussions about videogames with my kids, but I also have a lot of parents who are less game savvy ask me about what I do and don’t let my kids play. I think the most common question I get is “Why?” In other words, why is one game ok and another is not? Why do I sometimes follow the ESRB recommendations and other times do not. The short answer is that I am using the greatest power any parent possesses. Discretion. However, if I had to sit down and give a lecture to my kids about playing videogames it would go something like this.

Look guys, you see Dad playing videogames a lot. It is one of my favorite pastimes. I play videogames pretty much any chance I get and I play them with you guys on a regular basis. Obviously I think videogames are fun and I know you guys do to. I think we just need to come to an understanding about a few things so we can continue to enjoy them in this house.

First, let’s always remember the word game in videogame. Games can get serious. In professional sports multi-million dollar careers can be made or broken over a game. In this house though, we use the term “game” in the more traditional sense. We play games for fun. If a game is leading to hurt feelings, frustration, or anger, then it’s probably something you don’t need to be playing. Yes, even I can get frustrated at a game. You know what though, there is a point where I’ll give up on a game and simply get rid of it. Games are for fun and if a game is not providing entertainment we don’t want it in this house. Also, Mom says we’re too mean during Rock Band. I know we all want to five star every song and we hate it when someone flubs their part. We need to be more constructive though. Yes, I still entirely approve of you two playing Super Smash Bros. rather than actually beating on each other. When the whining starts the game goes off though.

Second, I know some of your cousins get to play games like Modern Warfare 2 or Gears of War. I want to say I respect that I trust you guys enough that I don’t have to put those games up and you’ve shown a lot of maturity. More maturity than some kids your age that are allowed to play games like that. I know you guys get exposed to worse language at school and I’ve watched some pretty intense PG-13 movies with you. I think there is a difference between spectating and participating though. When we play games, we’re a participant. We choose to shoot that bad guy, we choose to race down city streets with reckless abandon. Our willingness to make choices when there are no real consequences does say something about us as people. I want you guys to grow up some more before you’re put in a position to make serious choices without consequences. Just because games are for fun doesn’t mean they can’t be thought provoking. I want to make sure you guys have the proper knowledge to fully understand and appreciate what you’re doing.

While we’re talking about content, I want you to know that the answer to your question “When will I be old enough to play game such-and-such” may well be never. Look, guys, your Dad has held jobs that are best done by rough and occasionally unruly men. You guys know I’m no saint and I’ll never pretend that I was or will be. That said, I want all of us to be good, strong, moral men. To that end there are certain games that I do not play because they contain some very negative content that doesn’t reinforce the type of person I want to be, and certainly not the kind of person I want you to be. Reckless escapism is acceptable in small doses. We’re doing a good job in this house so far. Let’s just remember that we want to be the good guys in the real world. You can role-play as a Sith Lord in Knights of the Old Republic if you want. I think you may have fun but find it’s less fulfilling than you might have guessed. What I really want though is that when your adults and the choice is all yours that you will still ask the question, “Do I want to be exposed to that?” before you see that movie, read that book, or play that game.

Third, we need to always remember that games are just games and that just because we can do something in a game doesn’t mean we should try it in real life. The real world has consequences that we ignore at our peril. You’re my kids and we have a long family history of doing stupid and illegal things in our teenage years. I shudder to think what I’m facing in just a few years time. I just want you to remember that before you go off and do the same stupid stuff that I, your grandfather, and great-grandfather did that you will face Hell’s Wrath if I ever have to come get you out of jail. So be certain that if you try to pass the buck like some of these kids and say you got the idea from a game it will not do anything to lessen your punishment. I’m hoping about talking to you guys about this early and with my own experiences working at a jail you realize there is plenty of fun to be had in your teenage years without involving law enforcement officials. You know right and wrong and you know where the right places to learn it are. Movies, videogames, books, or music will not be your moral compass.

I hate to talk so seriously about something that is for entertainment. I’m only having this discussion because other people have taken this topic way too seriously already. I want you guys to understand appropriateness about everything. Videogames fit in a very particular place in our lives. They are for entertainment, they are for fun, and they can and often do stimulate your minds. Enjoy them, but don’t take it too far or ever forget their proper place in your life.

How Weak I’ve Become

Whenever I intend on buying an XBLA game, I always download the demo first, no matter how sure I am that I will love the title. This is to avoid contributing to the many “I think this game was going to be like this, but it was like that!” posts that I see on gaming-related forums. No matter how sure I am of a game’s quality, I always try the demo first.

Except for Perfect Dark.

I’m not sure what possessed me to skip that step. It isn’t like I have to redownload the game after trying the demo. Buying the full version of an XBLA game from the demo is pretty easy and quick to do.

Luckily, Perfect Dark is just as great as it was when I played in on my N64 all those years ago. I haven’t finished it yet, so I won’t be writing a review right now, but I wanted to mention how much more difficult this game is when compared to modern FPS games. I don’t mean in terms of the AI, but in how little guidance the game gives you.

While walking through the Carrington Institute (the hub area that missions are launched from), I couldn’t figure out how to actually begin a mission. None of the terminals were lit up or had a floating button above it or any sort of indication of what to do with them, so I assumed I couldn’t interact with them. That isn’t the case at all; most of them can be used in some way. I just had to hit the A button. In the years since I have played Perfect Dark, I had forgotten about that.

I was off on my first mission. After infiltrating dataDyne’s tower, I saw a light switch on the wall. “Hmm… what happens if I hit A on it?” I hit the button, and the lights went out. I pulled down on the left analog, moving away from the wall. All of a sudden, I was lost. There was no way to get back to the switch, forcing me to restart the mission.

During the three missions that take place in the tower, I learned the following:

  • Joanna’s health will not regenerate.
  • There are no maps to guide me.
  • There are no checkpoints, so when I die, I start the mission all over again.
  • The game will not auto-select items for me; if I need the Data Uplink to hack into a computer, and I don’t think to use it, then I will be stuck until I figure it out.
  • As mentioned before, anything I can interact with will not be called out in any special way, forcing me to figure it out on my own.

The more I play this game, the more I realize that modern FPSes (and games in general) have all these crutches in them that I have come to rely on, and I am a “softer” gamer as a result. I plan on playing through Perfect Dark a few times. I hope to finish it on Perfect Agent difficultly; a feat I was never able to accomplish in the N64 version. Perhaps this game will toughen me up a bit.

On a related note, the auto-aim feature is insane. Most FPSes will nudge the reticle a little to line up your shot. This game jerks the reticule halfway across the screen to make sure you hit your target. While it is a little much, it makes me feel like a secret agent when I one-shot a room full of dataDyne agents. I don’t recall the original doing anything like this.

Trimming the Fat

As I mentioned before and I promise to go into detail later, I am no fan of Japanese RPG’s. Yet I am not alien to the format. Two of my favorite JRPG’s are MS Saga and Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. The first game is essentially Final Fantasy: Gundam. The second game might leave you scratching your head. “That’s not a JRPG!” you might claim. Well, actually, it’s about as JRPG as you can get without the weird anime character designs. Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was essentially a Lord of the Rings game made on the same engine as Final Fantasy X.

Oddly, the Third Age and FFXIII have something in common. They cut out a lot of crap. See, the Lord of the Rings game was widely criticized for the features it cut. Town visits in particular. This is also a common complaint about Final Fantasy XIII. My recent foray into Lost Odyssey reminds me of why I hate town visits in JRPG’s so very much. They are pointless and annoying. The towns are spread out amongst multiple maps, and there will be no more than three things to do on any one of them. When I say “to do”, that could a combination of an alleyway with some minor item in it, some citizen with pointless game minutia to share with you, or a shop of some sort. Often a part of a town will have nothing to do. These sections exist as transitions between parts of the town that do have something to do.

This pointless padding just frustrates me, especially since these games rarely have maps and so I find myself wandering lost as I try to find that one person who will give me the information I need to progress the plot. Heaven forbid I actually need to find that shop again. Hopefully the next monster I fight will drop some healing potions because I’ve spent all the time in this town I want to!

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was story, battle, cut scene. Those were your three options. So far, Final Fantasy XIII is the same way. Is it linear? Almost ridiculously so. You start the game fighting on an elevated highway with two options, forward or back. Really, forward is the only option for obvious reasons. The concern was that in making FFXIII appeal more to western audiences they might have focused on the wrong things. Westerners like our freedom, we like our choices. Don’t take away overland maps or town visits!

Actually, I think that’s a mistake. While westerners do like our freedom and we do like our choices, we also have a very low frustration threshold and a very easy irritation trigger. I don’t want to wander aimlessly and lost through a town were I have to traverse five screens just to buy a handful of healing potions. Actually, I wouldn’t mind if I could at least tell where I was at and which way is the quickest exit? Dragon Age has a fairly large town in it, but it features it’s own map for quick travel between sections. You know what? Thanks for that. Don’t force me to wander around and spend precious gaming time doing nothing.

This is a big improvement for Final Fantasy XIII. Get rid of everything the game doesn’t need. Don’t try to add features to “westernize” a game. Do that later when you understand the culture and can do it in a way that hopefully won’t alienate your home audience. Instead, trim the fat and focus on the game and story itself. I bought this game for a reason, so focus on what it does well as the first step in improving your franchise. Take a page from American game designers on how not to improve your game. More sequels have been ruined by adding features that nobody wanted instead of focusing on the areas that nobody liked or were done poorly compared to the rest of the game.

Crap, I can’t believe with my hardcore anti-JRPG stance in general and strong distaste of Final Fantasy in particular that I’m having to admit they got something very right with this game.

The BioWare Effect

In my opinion, no company is sacred. A proven track record of good products is likely to attract me to a day one purchase but it only takes a single misstep to lose that trust. I’m not asking for spectacular games, just games that don’t make me regret paying full price. BioWare gets a lot of credit in the industry. Too much credit if you ask me, but they make solid games. The key word here being “solid”. Yet they can’t help but meddle with their own success. I’m often stunned that BioWare gets a pass for design decisions and gameplay mechanics that would push a game down as “mediocre” in most reviewers eyes. Only BioWare could get away with massively slashing a sequel down to bare bones simplicity and be considered genius for it.

When it comes to party-based RPG’s, BioWare is the master. Of this there is no doubt. That kind of system is so complex and difficult to manage that rising above mediocrity is a huge barrier to overcome. Yet I remember Might of Magic VI, the Mandate of Heaven, which essentially rebooted the RPG genre and made BioWare’s accomplishments possible. What happened to 3DO and the Might and Magic series? If you don’t remember or weren’t around the answer is simple. They became victims of their own success.

I think BioWare is working overtime not to become victims of their own success, but they don’t seem to stop and ask what works and what doesn’t. When I first heard about Dragon Age I had this picture of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) ported into a fantasy setting. That’s not a bad thing. Aside from being the long awaited Star Wars RPG that many gamers had been waiting for, what really set KOTOR apart was that it was great in every way. However, it’s greatest triumph was its least appreciated feature. The controls of KOTOR were incredibly easy to grasp and use. There was complexity there, but you didn’t have to use it. Directing my characters in combat was a piece of cake. Navigating the many menus and statistics was easy. Quite an accomplishment considering I was also playing this on the XBox. The brilliance of KOTOR was that, like any RPG, it was essentially spreadsheet gaming without throwing the spreadsheet in your face. You were able to enjoy the story, the combat, the RPG tropes (new equipment, levelling, etc.) because the interface never got in your way.

Dragon Age is a lot like KOTOR in that it’s a party-based RPG, you can control the individual characters, and you can pause (sort of) combat to issue orders. Unfortunately, the spreadsheet is in your face. The difficulty settings in Dragon Age are “Easy”, “Normal”, and “Hard”. The translation of these difficulties is “Cakewalk”, “Pointless Micromanagement”, and “You don’t play games for fun, do you?”. I started Dragon Age on the “Normal” difficulty, only to find that I spent every battle carefully watching everyone’s health and mana. There are these great battle animations that play out, far superior to even the thrilling battles of KOTOR. I was completely missing the battle and instead carefully monitoring everyone’s status like Lt. Gorman in Aliens.

You can futz with “tactics” if you want. This is where the game really breaks down into pointless minutia though. I don’t want to get into that level of detail in the middle of battle. I want my archer to shoot arrows, my mage to rain mystic death, and my warriors to wade in with big swords and their swinging cods. Furthermore, the “tactics” I’ve selected and the actions of their characters on screen seem to line up only loosely. This is always my complaint about real-time battle systems. Look, either I’m in control or I’m not. If I have to take individual control of each character then let me just pause the entire battle while I adjust each person individually instead of the “switch-pause” tango you have me doing.

My impression is that Dragon Age is adequate graphics, decent story, horrid gameplay mechanics. I finally just put the game on easy so I could get through missions. I’m trying to decide which is worse now. The utter insipidness of the game on easy, or the ridiculous micro-management of normal. Neither mode is hard, but neither is particularly fun either. That’s what really surprises me. Once I peeled away the combat system I find the rest of the game is, well, good. Just not super great. Not “A+++, Perfect 10, 99.5%” or whatever reviewers are doing to fellate BioWare right now.

Which leads to Mass Effect. At least it doesn’t pretend you’re in control of your squadmates. You can direct them to use powers or have them switch weapons, and that works well enough. Sure, it’s a radial menu, which seems to be BioWare’s addiction lately. At least Mass Effect and its sequel don’t have radial menus that open up other radial menus (ARGH!!!! I’m looking at you Dragon Age!) Mass Effect had a neat system going, but it probably was too complex and usually poorly presented. I want to sell off some armor, when I go to the store I can’t see what the armor looks like. I get a colored box that the armor might have come in. Which one was that? Was it the black kickass armor I want to keep or the green camo crap that was worthless? Actually, that was Mass Effect’s other problem. Too much crap. You’d think it was a loot drop grind the way they kept picking up the same worthless pistol or upgrades. There was actually a point in the game, on the first playthrough no less, that if you meticulously sold everything that you didn’t need then you would never lack for money in the game.

Mass Effect 2 keeps “simplifying things”, but to what end? I think they’ve cut too deep. The game feels oddly generic. It’s all about the story now, but this just displays how mediocre writing in videogames still is. It’s not a bad story, it’s just not great. I think it would actually be more interesting if I didn’t have everyone telling me how awesome I am all the time. Hey, I get it, the guy effectively saved all sentient life before. They don’t even talk about that though. It’s a never-ending praise parade of how awesome it is to see me in action. How over the top is Mass Effect 3 going to be? Women spontaneously ripping their clothes off when Shepard walks into a room? They’re not far from it now.

In a lot of ways I think that is what gets BioWare it’s legendary reputation in the gaming media. They provide the ultimate in geek wish fulfillment. You’re not just a Jedi in KOTOR, you’re a secret amnesiac badass who brought worlds to their knees. In Dragon Age you are the last and only hope to keep the world from literally going to hell. In Mass Effect you’re the only individual in the entire universe that can save the entire universe. The Campbellian theme of the “Hero’s Journey” is tossed right out the window. We start at the end of the journey and proceed from there.

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.

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.

A little rant

rantBy hitting control-option-command+8 in Mac OS-X, you can invert your screen colors (make them go negative). I’m sure there’s a reason why someone would want to do that, but I’m most certainly not that person. Nevertheless, the other day, I opened up my laptop only to find my colors have been inverted. Somehow, my two year old had hit this improbable key combination and plunged me into bizarro negative world. It took me a little internet sleuthing to get back to normal.

After another flurry of precise key presses, the same two year old bought me a subscription to Guitar Hero on my cell phone. Best three dollars I never spent. I have no idea how he did it, but there it was.

I relate these stories in preface to a rant about Microsoft’s ridiculous Xbox Live Arcade refund policies. (Hint: they don’t have one)

Up front I am going to admit that this was my fault. It was me that left the controller out in the open with the 360 on. While I was up at the computer I get an email from Xbox Live, thanking me for my Games on Demand purchase of GTA IV. Sure enough, in the space of no more than THREE FREAKING MINUTES, my two year old had navigated to the XBox Live Marketplace, located Games on Demand, selected GTA IV (at least the kid’s got taste) and purchased it. My heart sunk as I see the “no refunds” disclaimer in the XBL email. Great.

So against my better judgement, I give Xbox/Microsoft a call. All I was looking for a little understanding and maybe a little compassion and maybe to get the purchase wiped off my credit card. I explained the unlikely sequence of events that had got me to this point (I mean come on! I own the game. Why would I buy it again?) and asked for the refund. I made my way through about four levels of “you can speak to my manager” before I was met with utter silence on the other end of the line when I declare, “I find it hard to believe that a company as large as Microsoft has no way to remove a purchase from an account. At all. That is mind boggling.” “You have to dispute the charge with your credit card company, sir. There is nothing else I can do,” she finally replies.

Yeah, so we had to dispute the charge with our credit card company.

I am still flabbergasted that Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, did not build in any mechanism to deal with this type of issue. It’s nigh unexecusable. I wonder sometimes why I stick around.

A grim time for gaming

Most of the time I prefer to link to Bill Harris then the actual news article simply because his commentary is usually worth considering. However, while I agree with his points and encourage everyone to see what he has to say I have better things to do then reiterate what has already been said. Instead I want to take some of the facts as we know them and shed some very painful light on them.

Electronic Arts just shed a large number of workers. I think the analysis at Dubious Quality is being conservative in saying they’ve released a quarter of their workforce. 2,600 people this year, around 1,300 in this most recent layoff alone. At a time when unemployment has hit double digits in America (I understand these were not just American jobs at EA) this is a terrible time to be looking for a job much less a job in an industry that is struggling to survive.

Hubris has destroyed many large corporations. I was there to see it bring AOL to its knees. Steve Jobs admitted outright that it nearly destroyed Apple. Yet at the end of 2008 and well into 2009 we had one executive after another talking about the “recession proof” gaming industry. How many development studios have shuttered their doors this year? I have actually lost count. Sadly, the nature of the gaming industry means that even beloved companies will close their doors in even the best of times. The epidemic of failing studios this year does not mean good things for gamers in 2010, and probably 2011. The real lesson learned though is that games are not recession proof. No luxury good is ever recession proof.

While people are out of work and budgets are tightening, the gaming industry is selling games at a higher price, targeted the secondary market, and looked at methods to put their hands in our pockets as directly as possible searching for whatever loose change they can find. One use codes, exclusive pre-order bonuses, and other strategies seem intent on making it clear that “buying new” is the way to go. I have to say that my biggest incentive to “buy new” is when a game hits a price I actually think it is worth. I didn’t hesitate to get Borderlands at $50, but the initial $60 asking price is simply too high to risk on a potentially bad game.

Questionable marketing strategies aside, the grim reality is that EA may not have any choice. At this point the gaming industry, like any industry, just needs to survive long enough for the economy to improve. This means less innovation, less risk-taking, and more “sure bets”. This means that we as gamers will have fewer choices and more of the same. After Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sells a bazillion copies do you think Activision is going to tell Treyarch “Hey, people are tired of you guys making the sucky Call of Duty versions, so why don’t we just release every 2 years and you can go back to making games you actually care about”? NO CHANCE! Bobby Kotick is going to milk that cow with his calloused little fingers until the udders fall off.

I see fewer and fewer games of interest to me. I think it’s going to be a rough couple of years for my hobby. The good news is, this too shall pass. Like a kidney stone, it will pass.

The infamous Modern Warfare 2 airport shooting

Controversy can be good advertising. Although I have to give Infinity Ward some credit, when your game has been pre-ordered by everyone and their cat it’s not like you need cheap publicity to sell your game. While I tend to take a cynical view of business many times, this is one time when the facts as we know them seem to contradict the more jaded conclusions being jumped to.

I am, of course, talking about the already famous “No Russian” sequence in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Since the cat is already out of the bag and other websites have discussed this in detail I am going to give a spoiler warning here and move on.

Initially I thought I might skip over this scene, especially after finding out there is no way to avoid conflict with the police. Yet when the police came I managed to take advantage of game logic to avoid killing any of them until the very end. At that point I realized that I was not becoming the player. That I could see myself trying to disguise my non-killing of civilians but when shots are fired in anger am I not going to shoot back? I do think some of the game logic ends up sacrificing some of the impact from the scene, since half a dozen armed men are not going to be able to take on what seemed like the entire Moscow police force and real life can’t exploit AI weaknesses to push on to the next checkpoint without killing someone.

The payoff for the scene was anger. While many have criticized Infinity Ward and said there was a better way to portray how villainous the main antagonist is without such a heavy handed (and heavily scripted) sequence, when I took Makarov’s hand and he casually shot me in the head I realized all my agony, all my regret, all my concern over the consequences of my actions were for naught. Despite trying to hold onto my humanity, trying to be one of the good guys, I was going to die for nothing. Worse, I was going to be used to start a war.

The emotional payoff is huge. I don’t think I’ve been this vested in a villain since I was betrayed by Rhalga nar Hhallas (aka: “Hobbes”) in Wing Commander 3. Videogames have seen their fair share of villains and many of them I would consider far more epic than Modern Warfare’s Makarov, but I hate this guy. I can’t wait to take him down.

Was it cheap, exploitative, and unnecessary? Was there a better way to convey the depths of Makarov’s villainy? I think Infinity Ward was desperate to show there was no nuance to this character. No matter what may have happened in his past, there is no justification for his actions. He cheaply slaughtered his own countrymen and women so that he could turn the murder of an American agent into a full-scale war.

People are not going to like this sequence. They’re going to question motives of developers and producers. I think that’s good. It’s a powerful scene that is not to be taken lightly. I would definitely encourage anyone who feels too disturbed by the content to skip it. I think it’s a fair thing to do. Otherwise, experience it, even knowing what is going to happen, because it has a major impact on the story.

Funny, though, that even though the people at the airport are not real I could not shoot unarmed civilians when I was a “good guy”, even if I was in deep cover. Odd that even though they were not real, I began to hate Makarov right from the start simply because he could so casually slaughter them.

On Why I Loathe Mario Kart Wii

mariokartsummarySailing along in first place and leading by almost half a leap on the group. The finish line is in site. Maybe a game distance of 20 feet. Blue shell. Red shell. Red shell. Green. Green. Red. Red. Hello 9th place. What just happened?

Poor balancing, that’s what.

I’ve never completed Mario Kart Wii. I don’t have the patience to do so. It has the most playtime of any of our Wii games at home (over 200 hours), but it’s not a game to play for serious players. It is a fun game, but it has this wonderful knack for not rewarding skill.

I don’t mind the powerups. I do mind that there is no counters for some or even a remote chance for others. Do the powerups add any strategy to the game? Not one bit. Some people may argue that, but it’s just too random. To random for this gamer to enjoy. I’ll stick with my DS and SNES versions.

As a side note, does anyone else’s Wii put slight scratch marks around the outer edge of their games–especially ones they play a lot? We’ve gone through one Excite Truck disk and our Mario Kart copy has been giving read errors lately.