games

All posts tagged games

Yesterday night we returned from a weekend spent in Toronto visiting my mom's side of the family, and my Grandma who is pretty far gone down the dehumanizing imprisonment of a body stricken by Parkinson's disease. I know she could see us, hear us, and understand who we were, all by the steady twinkling in her eyes, but the best she could manage for a greeting was one upturned corner of her mouth.

You're going to wonder what the hell Diablo 3 has to do anything with my grandma. It doesn't really. It's just this anxious feeling I get, this yearning for radical change, that renewed in me seeing what my own frail old age may be. You ever get that prickly desire to go out and do something anything that matters? Watching the old folks at the convalescence home been force spoon-fed their medicated gruel, Xstine kept gouging my ribs and saying "See! Exercise! Take care of yourself!" But that feeling wasn't new to me, as I had volunteered at these places when I was a teen.

So when I excitedly saw the gameplay trailer for Diablo 3 (see below), I knew I was set up. I happened to have been playing Titan Quest recently with Xstine, which is nothing but mindless grinding, slaying monsters, gathering loot, repeating as flea on flea on flea. It's a game that is fun because it offers no redeeming values, and you yield yourself to that like a drug. The art is fantastic, but the game is simplistic. I never actually played the first two Diablo games, but I imagine they weren't much more.

The question we ask ourselves often is "Have we wasted our lives playing things we have nothing to show for?" Unlike many of the other games I've played, Diablo-type and World of Warcraft-type games feel like they've added very little to my person and yet have debitted so much of my productive free time. How should I translate every second wasted in these games into seconds of my life I could have extended with exercise?

Then I had to listen to Blizzard, the masters of game design, ruminate like guffawing film students as they talked about their design approaches to Diablo 3. It was embarrassing. It shattered my mental picture of them to hear them say stuff like "it makes it more interesting to make the hero the center of the story." Or to point out their grand "philisophical" vision taught to make a barbarian class more barbaric. My gods. I hold those game designs to be self-evident. Hearing that kind of "enlightenment" has seriously made me consider what the personal value these games are having on my life. Now when I play, I can see my grandma's eyes through her haze, judging my expense of youth.

Michael Walbridge the Game Anthropologist has some interesting things to say about why he felt the Team Fortress 2 community was more civil and mature than what we’ve all experienced to be the absolute dregs of humanity in other online FPS’s. I won’t mention Unreal Tournament, Counterstrike, and Halo, but oops I just did.

While I think his points are on the dot about the way the team dynamic of the game fosters a cooperative us vs. them bond for the players that ultimately leads to self-regulation, and I like how he explains that anti-social behaviour is deflated by being an actual part of gameplay, there’s another point I’d like to add. So far, his comments are true for most team-based online shooters, just handled more elegantly in TF2. Yet one aspect of the game that stood out to me only after a lot of intense playing is that the character classes in TF2 were like tools to me.

Tools? Well, at a certain level of skill, we pick and choose from a small range of classes that we know well, and apply them to the current situation on the battlefield. I don’t think the majority of players play only one class. For myself, I choose between soldier (objective-driven offense), pyro (defense and chokepoints), and engineer (control) constantly as needed. The classes are like my swiss army knife of the proper contributions my team needs.

I think this leads players to identify less with some avatar online through which they would normally evoke all the horrors of anonymity, and instead a certain fourth wall is broken and a player is displayed onscreen as his tactical choice. In my opinion, this places players and their decisions in much greater proximity to each other because their intentions and personalities are more transparent. Only in that kind of openness will player-to-player advice and criticism mean much. I had similarly mature companionship in games such as the Battlefield and the Tribes series, and provide the same way of thinking about your avatar. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

If you care about games as games, then you should be as disappointed as I am to see that Boom Blox sold only 60,000 copies, even with pantheonized director Stephen Spielberg at the helm. Was his own critically panned addition to the Indy series a harbinger of the move away from well-executed formula in both games and films? Or have the formulas simply become more surreptitious about invading our pop psyche?

Boom Blox is a great game. It accomplishes what many party games want but can't do- elicit laughter, name-calling, and a group agony of suspense over an individual's gameplay, all within ten minutes. The physics are so well done that smashing blocks is the Wii equivalent to popping shipping bubbles. But each ball toss, nothing we haven't done a million times in our lives, causes a whole room to hush, tense up, and then explode along with the shower of blocks in the game.

I think the game takes advantage our primal instinct, that need to dash apart hours of construction a castle made of blocks represents, but gives it to us without the need to clean up the mess. There's no guilt, just the enjoyment of aftermath. Cause, reaction, cause, reaction… and at the same time we know exactly what will happen, but not what happens exactly.

It's a time-tested formula. It's proven. It usually works. And yet it failed on the same platform Nintendo made it work. I don't want to believe there is some kind of Nintendo magic that they apply to their first-party games. There were too many mistakes in how Boom Blox was marketed, how its art was directed, how it was priced, etc. blah blah. However, at the end of the day, I can't help but feel that its simplistic fun, like the taste of a fine Italian pasta with nothing but EVOO and a shred of cheese, is not what epic thrill-seekers with a taste for more "refined" fare are willing to give a sliver of chance…

…unless of course they're giving it to Nintendo.

I selfishly "borrowed" the Wii Fit board at work for the long Memorial holiday, although it was more like grand larceny with the kind of looks people gave when I called shotgun. And boy was I sorry to give it back today. I called every single store I could think of, and many no one has ever thought of, and places were sold out within an hour or two. Fry's Electronics emptied their hoard of 80 in three hours. Nintendo stock, Nintendo stock.

Like all things Nintendo makes, if you try it with an open mind and the intention to find something enjoyable, you usually will. The Wii Fit board was no exception, delivering a level of fun and intangible feelgood that I never expected in the three months I had the opportunity to place a pre-order. Along with the Mii channels, Wii Sports, Everybody Votes, and their Brain Age games, the Wii Fit board capitalizes on something that Nintendo has dominated to great commercial success: our desire to discuss ourselves. Everything about the Wii Age and the Brain Age rankings, the nifty progress graphs, the popularity contests, etc. are about finding the personal information we're secretly dying to examine and share. It's that famous saying that our favorite subject is ourselves.

So does it work?

Well, my sore abs, bruised feet, and Xstine's whole aching body can attest that it definitely does more than we ever thought a video game capable of. There is no doubt that with regular use, it can make you fit. That's not to say you can bulk up, or run marathons, but for the average inactive potato, it's great to work out in the fun and comfort of your own living room.

To all those parents out their shocked that the game told your precious spawn that they were overweight or obese… yeah, your kid is probably fat. Or you didn't read the part in the manual where it explicitly states that BMI is not an accurate index if your kid is muscled from all the sports they supposedly do. And most importantly, you haven't taught your kids that their self-image should never be dependent on the non-judgemental conclusions of a mindless toy. Unless your child really is "big-boned," promise.

The two big swaths of entertainment for us this past week has been Iron Man (which Xstine and I saw for a combined 5 times!) and, of course, Grand Theft Auto 4.

Ah, GTA4… I quickly got bored of the original Playstation one, but somehow this latest entry has really brought back the fun. THere is a certain threshold that the right amount of variety crosses to give you the feeling of an infinitely rich world, and they were finally able to pull it off. Don't get me wrong, there are still obvious repetition in peds and vehicles, and the facial animation isn't nearly as well done as people seem to think, but all is forgiven the moment you enter this beautiful game. They've set a standard in time-of-day lighting, panoramas, and sheer environmental variety. Every part of town has it's own flavor reflecting the virtual "realities" of the local economy, history, and people. It's as close to a living breathing city as we have in video games.

The gameplay interests in a different way. Sometimes, the missions can be unforgivingly hard since the camera is utterly obtuse, and the controls are a mash-up of schemas that just couldn't get along. I suppose they had no choice, but there is certainly little elegance in getting your protagonist Nico Bellic to do a wide range of mundane to violent actions. Somehow, the sandbox play eases up the difficulty scaling by letting you go on murderous tangents whenever you feel frustration rising. It's very self-regulating. I may be en route to a critical mission when an off-the-cuff remark from a sassy pedestrian will send me into a rampage, and an hour later I've accomplished nothing but a trail of bodies. What better way to take out my frustrations at repeated mission failings.

That lack of progress is a bit tiring, and the game's punishment system is too binary (being arrested is worse than dying because you get all weapons stripped?), and the saving is a penalty itself (you can't save mid-mission, you can't quit missions, and you only have one place in a huge town to save). But for once I can overlook fundamental gameplay flaws because the game isn't just polished, it *is* polish. From the endless webpages you can browse to a huge amount of television and radio content, there is no shortage of quality satire of every aspect of our real lives. There's too much to absorb that it's almost paralyzing.

There is even an in-game joke referencing idiot attorney extraordinaire Jack Thompson, who oh-so-cleverly phoned into NPR to voice his misguided attack on the game's content. Unfortunately, the gamer correspondent on the show made for pitiful defense. Gamers need to stop masturbating over the game's features and start talking about the issues intelligently.

It's ignorant to claim games can't incite violence. There is no way that that amount of violent exposure doesn't cause some level of aggressiveness or desensitization. Gamers need to accept that. Then they need to turn around and point out the double-edge sword that treats games as brainwashing kill trainers, but pretends violence in TV, film, comics, books, music, or any other medium is innocuous. Yes, GTA4 will end up in the hands of certain impressionable children, but you can't sue Take-Two for that, you have to blame the retailers. And frankly, they really can't, because game retailers have done a great job controlling sales to minors. Check out the FTC report yourself.

But since stupid lawyers want to reduce games to nothing but murder sims, I see nothing wrong with putting lawyers into games as nothing but sims to murder. After so many violent games, it's not like we have the free-will to think otherwise.

Taking the top-100 games between March 13th, 2007 and March 13th, 2008, as reported by Next-Gen.biz, I did some number crunching to find some correlations. Keep in mind that the conclusions drawn are only appropriate to the games and timeframe stated, and that I did make certain assumptions along the way (like treating re-releases as different games). Plus my math isn’t so hot, but you get the idea.

Here are my findings:

And you can download the excel file here.

What I found is that there is a 0.28 correlation between daily game sales (DS) and Metacritic score. Is this alot? That I cannot tell you, but what I can point out is that this is (surprisingly) higher than the correlation between DS and the # of SKUs the game was released on, which was 0.20 based on the data.

You may notice that there is a negative correlation of -0.13 between total sales numbers and days since release. This is not a mistake. Because the timeframe ends not long after the holiday season, this season’s blockbusters actually have higher total sales than games released after the last holiday season. This goes to show how important that season is. I am aware that the # of sales decreases at an exponential rate after release, so keep in mind that DS is probably weighted higher for more recent releases.

Dividing the mean DS by 100 possible Metacritic points and then multiplying by the correlation squared, I guesstimate that last year each +1% to the Metacritic score was worth 7.67 sales per day (for the top-100 selling games). Is that worth it to developers and publishers? Without more data on budgets and per SKU revenues, it’s hard to tell. One thing to notice is that no top-100 game scored below 30%, so I would think the DS per Score would be slightly higher.

Similar to Chris Pruett’s article (except that I corrected for number of days released and extrapolated correlation) I conclude that a good score does not guarantee sales. I’d clarify his observation that there are no bad games over a million units by saying that companies who make bad games wouldn’t have the budget to attempt a million sales. Scores are important for selling blockbusters, but that doesn’t mean you need to make great games to make money. Sadly, the majority of games just need to be between 50% and 95% to sell well.

In the future, I would like to further refine this data, using platform marketshare and total SKUs, as well as including IP vs. non-IP into the discussion.

Love PC games but hate the mouse+keyboard setup? Want to just kick back with an ergonomic controller in your hand, feet up on your desk? Ever wonder what it'd be like to hook the wiimote up to your computer? Well, wonder no more, Pinnacle Game Profiler let's you do just that and more!

<takes off infomercial hat>

After wearing out the cartilage in my index finger with that brutal combination of WOW and animating in Maya, I started looking for better mice, touch-pens, trackballs, anything that could let me continue gaming on the PC without jeopardizing my hand health. I've tried them all. I finally decided to try using a gamepad for my PC, and after trying several programs, I've found my calling in PGP's excellent and dirt cheap solution. So far, I've connected wireless XBox 360 and PS2 controllers to it flawlessly, and it even supports the wiimote. My co-workers were impressed. …

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Mythic's upcoming Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning has been delayed, much to the dismay of our unsatiated but repressed MMORPG addictions. Every so often, we crave some kind of mindless persistent entertainment that requires no effort. Since quitting WOW and DDO, nothing has been able to broach that hunger, but WAR may change all that. Just look at this historic occasion… the greatest collector's edition ever!

We're talkin' 128-page hardcover graphic novel, 224-page hardcover art book, limited edition figurine, open beta / head start keys, and a staggering amount of in-game goodies… all for $79.99??? :yikes: Well, I got our two pre-orders today, I just didn't have a choice. I was held at steampunked gunpoint, while the acrid sting of saltpeter smoked off my credit card.

So I read up on some Warhammer lore, being only vaguely familiar with it before, and was shocked at how many ideas Blizzard took for their Warcraft series. Granted Blizz did a good job, and Warcraft lore is exceptionally well written, but it's hard not to say that Blizzard losing their Warhammer project and then going on to appropriate the remnants into the beginnings of Warcraft must have been the best thing to happen to that series. The wealth of imagination within prognosticated success.

In other marginally related news, Atari got delisted from the NASDAQ. That is Atari, the developer formerly known as Infogrames, who thought owning that legendary name would do them good. Instead, not even their attempts at leveraging the venerable Advanced Dungeons & Dragons franchise could save them. I'm sure dear old Gary Gygax is… well I'll let this Penny-Arcade comic finish the joke:

Saturday night, I waited in line at midnite outside an EB Games to get my pre-ordered copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. The nerd mass extended almost two blocks, a bit short of the Halo 3 line, and was quite impressive. I stood behind a midget and every assortment of Fanboyicus ultimus you could think of. I foolishly made a bet with a co-worker against the chance that people would cheer as the door opened. Sure enough, the door opened and a squeaky roar erupted, nearly knocking over the Kirby-esque midget in front of us. My co-worker went on to predict that the first person to get his copy would walk out with his copy held high above his head, lips puckered into a shameless woot. Sure enough, exactly that happened.

And that is the phenomenon behind this game. Boys near tears came out of the store skip-trotting in an effort to reach their cars and get home asap with minimal dignity lost. All in vain.

Anyways, I immediately had a mini smash party the next day, and it was good. The game is everything you loved (or hated) about the previous ones, but with utter content overload. My brain staggered when, after unlocking nearly a hundred trophies, I went to my trophy gallery to see that I had barely covered up a speck of the trophy room. The amount of polish is unbelievable for a game this size. The only real downer is Nintendo's friend code system, which makes it a pain to add friends to play with. The WiFi connectivity is smooth as butter, and anyone who disagrees probably has their wireless set up incorrectly. Even the Wii controls aren't all that bad, although I still use the Wavebird.

Six years later, I am still playing a game that kept my college years unproductive. Nintendo, sir, is genius, or we are all fools, blissfully smashing away.

There is a party game played called Werewolves, also known as Mafia. I’ve figured out a pretty strong strategy for villagers to win, but they have to work together, they have to trust each other, and trust logic of the system itself, because, after all, the game is just liars versus truth-tellers. The rule set that we played by is simple…

 

 

Gather at least 8 people into a circle, and also get one neutral narrator.

  1. With everyone’s head down, narrator assigns two people as werewolves (made men), the rest as villagers, and one villager as a priest (informant).
  2. Every round, everyone discusses and tries have a majority rule vote to kill off a player. If a player is voted off, he leaves the circle, and admists to his real role.
  3. Between rounds, players put their heads down for hte night phase. Narrator asks the werewolves to look up and silently pick a target. If both agree, the next round the narrator announces who was killed at that night.
  4. After werewolves choose a kill in the night phase, if there is a priest, the narrator will ask him to look up and point to a person in the circle. The narrator will nod if that person is a werewolf.
  5. The game is over when either 1) both of the werewolves are eliminated, or 2) there are an equal number of werewolves and villagers.

Now, there are many variations. But for the one I’ve described, here is what villagers do to win:

  1. Wait until roughly half the players are killed off, or until the priest has identified at least one werewolf. The latter is hard to know, so there is some luck.
  2. If you are a villager, announce the following: “I may or may not be a werewolf, but this strategy works regardless of my truthfulness. At this point in the game, the priest must step forward to admit is identity if he feels there is enough info. Then he will proceed to tell us everything he knows about who is innocent and who is a werewolf. If you think this is a werewolf ploy, that’s fine, just vote me out, but consider the logic behind this plan. It does not need my survival to work.”
  3. A couple things will happen if the priest complies.

Scenario A: He confesses and then tells the group some information to help narrow down which are the werewolves, but likely sacrificing his life.

Scenario B: Another werewolf pretends to be a priest and offers false information.

Scenario C: Both werewolves pretend to be the priest, using teamwork to thoroughly confuse the villagers as to the real priest.

So the scenarios boil down to A) having solid information, B) two possible priests and one possibly hidden one, or C) priests and werewolf roles all laid out. Clearly, this is a trap for the werewolves. The best thing they can do at this point is to go with scenario B and have only one werewolf pretend to be a priest. Otherwise, players will either know the truth, or will have the candidates narrowed to three people.

In scenario B, villagers should NOT vote anyone out at first. The reason is simple. The werewolves will have to vote out the priest, who will identify the hidden werewolf, or identify villagers and address them directly. But if werewolves kill off the priest, then they’ve fallen into a trap. Clearly, the other candidate at the time was the werewolf then.

This strategy isn’t foolproof because it relies on the priest complying (in one game our priest didn’t come forth, a werewolf did) and the faith villagers have in the logic of the system. However, it is designed to give villagers an edge as long as players want to win… that means villagers tell the truth and werewolves save their skin. You will be accused of being a werewolf, and likely voted off, but that doesn’t matter. If your villagers are reasonably intelligent, they will see the logic here and follow through.