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Friday, March 30, 2007

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Kate Moss in Oblivion Scandal

I think that games are showing a tendency to simplify mechanics for the gamer, perhaps in an effort to become more inclusive to newcomers, perhaps in acknowledgement of the maturation of the medium. Just Cause, sequels to Deus Ex, Rainbow Six, Zelda and especially The Elder Scrolls series - they've all refined the elements of their predecessors and become more easily approachable, but have they lost something in the process?

Today I'd like to focus on auto-travel, featured in three of the games I've mentioned above. As the road analogies commence I fear that developers are on the wrong track in removing the necessity for players to follow their own path as they course their way through a game. In Oblivion, for example, the route from the Imperial City sewers to Weylon Priory could present itself as a trail pebbled with chance encounters, paved with the corpses of slain highwaymen, embedded with the cat's eyes of ... OK - enough of that - let's just say that travel can be an adventure in itself.

I try to make best use of my time, so it's with a sad obligation that I oft choose to auto-travel. I curse my self-depreciating efficiency as I click my way through lush forest and rugged heathland, vomit the bile of a philistine as I neglect the weeks of development time devoted to perfecting the noxious volcanic wastes of some entirely forgettable place; a place which would have been seared into my memory through trial by fire were it not for the inevitable pyroclastic flow of me and my need to go.

This isn't a criticism of developers, quite the opposite - development teams show surprising modesty in their acceptance that many players won't discover the richness of their world. If you've read this far, and you agree, perhaps it's time to consider auto-travel as a lustful temptation, the apple in the garden or Kate Moss in your bed - initially attractive but ultimately a shallow, bitter distraction from life's pleasures.

Vehement Vehicularisers

For a student, I've been unwholesomely busy as of late. Mostly everyday stuff, although I'm preparing for a dissertation on the antisocial nature of gaming and also for a trip to see my Mum in Nigeria, so if anyone can recommend reading material for either I'd appreciate it!

Let's see... I'm playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (that's the last time I bother to type the dots) but I don't consider myself ready to write a review yet. It's atmospheric and often unfair - I understand that the persistency of the AI characters had to be toned down, but really, infinite ammo? If I turned on Punkbuster then STALKER's zone would be an empty one.

Game Politics have aptly acknowledged the connection between these two recent stories. As you know I always appreciate when games can be utilised as an aid to the most impoverished of our society. Although coughing up cash to the vehement vehicularisers of violence seems immoral, perhaps the action is more amoral - surely the route to peace?

Tired and inebriated. I'll try and write something but it won't be clever.
DuBBle out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Here's a Thought

Let's be realistic. Our minds conjure visions of the games we'd love to play, that we'd hope others would love to play. Occasionally, a gifted person, a games developer, is granted the opportunity to shape reality in the form of their vision. But we're being realistic, and reality demands that one cannot create without also suffering a loss. There's a certain attrition about games development. Priorities change. The meeting of deadlines becomes almost as essential as breaking even upon release. The mind's vision becomes hazy.

Let's be idealistic. The constraints are removed. The way I view our prospects, unshackled, there are two routes we can take:

The first is amateur development, as opposed to professional wages-for-work development. Traversing this route most often leads to a euphoric community of enthusiasts which science has collectively termed 'modders'. They work out of love, and to demonstrate their talent. The length of time they take to complete a project hardly matters - there's no production cycle they must adhere to. This means a collective creative vision can be fulfilled before work ceases. Modders can take satisfaction as they guide their project to completion.

The alternate route has yet to be attempted, but I have faith in the concept. I like to call it development+1.

The traditional business model for games development involves the development team, the publisher and the consumer. The traditional model relies on the developers' gaming vision demonstrating itself to the publisher as being financially viable (ie: guaranteeing a profit) or it won't get support. Now, what if the development team could guarantee a minimum level of sales before their work even began? What if, instead of approaching the publisher with a demo, the game was instead shown to the public? If a concept level were placed on a server and made freely available then, as seen with the recent phenomenon of popularity which is Line Rider, news of an innovative demo will spread via word-of-mouth and interest in the full game's production will grow. Observing their demo's popularity, the development team now sets up a forum or IRC channel where they'll foster a community of enthusiasts, ideally these people will hope to see a full game come to fruition. The devs can converse with the community, ask for their opinion, judge the merits and failures of the demo and in which areas a full game could be improved. After the community has grown to a sufficient size (exactly what size is deemed sufficient will be a decision which has to be made by the devs), the devs will ask an important question: Would the community like to help us create a game?

Although the response will be mixed, ideally some of the community will be willing to guarantee that they will buy the game for a stipulated price upon release. In return, these people will become creative assistants for the project - their ideas will be considered by the devs and their names will appear in the final game's credits. The budget for the game will increase in proportion to the number of people willing to guarantee their purchase of the game upon release, which means the developers may remain cash-strapped. However, the advantage of this process is that a game will be produced entirely by a staff of people who want to see nothing more than the original creative vision come to life. The community will be involved in every decision in the game's production, so the full game ought to culminate in a satisfying outcome.

I think that developers and the vast majority of gamers see the unfulfilled potential of games as a necessary evil. I've ordered S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even knowing it's far from the game that GSC Gameworld originally proposed. I'm not blaming publishers - it's only natural of them wishing to protect their investments, but their priorities clearly do not lie in the quality of the finished product. With some fine-tuning, I think the theory outlined above could prove that publishers are not necessary, perhaps even that a game developed without publisher support can deliver more of what gamers truly yearn for. The question is - can a good game be funded entirely by enthusiasts? I hope that time will tell.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Doormat Physics

Sony's upcoming Home platform, as you can see in the video below, offers little that cannot easily be found elsewhere, and for a tithe which could topple a king from his throne and simultaneously demand his loyalty to the brand of Playstation. Nonetheless, I think Sony's Home has installed some utterly tempting double-glazing on the facade of their franchise whilst consecutively tarnishing their competitors through an unexpected re-routing of air traffic over Microsoft's coughing corporate offices and Nintendo's now bronchitis-afflicted kingdom.

I think Home is a gimmick, and Sony designed it as such. I also think Home will be a huge success - augmenting a standard console OS with the stylistic tendencies of The Sims, with the capability to meet up with friends and then join them in gaming - that's hardly genius, but it's perfect. Essentially, a successful gimmick garners attention, which is undeniably what Sony should be doing right now in order to survive this generation. Substance must then follow.

Sony's Home

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mind the Fluid

If you recollect, gamers of the early 1990's were mollycoddled by a mass of quality platform games. I grew up playing Bubsy the Bobcat, Sonic and Toejam and Earl; and although I was hardly a critical child, I believe I became a discerning gamer through recognising and rejecting the titles which I'd have less fun in playing - the Cool Spots of my day.

Contrary to Nintendo and Sega's belief at the time, I don't think the appeal of platformers lay in the identity of each game's main character. Even to my childish mind the fun was in the fluidity. The spontaneous grace to which that bright figure on the screen would gesticulate and gyrate, I'd watch in awe until an obstacle reminded me that I remained in control. Perhaps platformers attained the best fusion of video and gaming at a time before interactive movies - Sonic's sprightly aerial springing relegated my person to the status of viewer for a few exciting seconds before placing my nimble fingers back into the digit-shaped hotseat.

I won't deny it, Ubisoft's recent offerings to the Prince of Persia shrine have proven that much of what I have termed 'fluidity' can be delivered alongside a third dimension, but much of that essential avatar autonomy seems to have been lost. For example, I've never seen the prince take initiative beyond the limits of my frantic clickery. I enjoyed that moment in Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy where Lucas broke the restrictions imposed on him by the Bust-A-Move style gameplay and shocked me by violently impacting his punching-bag off its hook and directly across his living room. If the combat (and, more generally, the game proper) of modern titles allowed for your character to amaze even you - the master and controller - once in a while, I think we'd see better games.

I believe the below video of Fancy Pants Adventure (world one) displays much of what has been lost from gaming since the demise of the 2D platformer. If you like what you see, check out the Fancypants demo.

Fancy Pants Adventures

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Abide Sony's Abode

That screenshot? It's the future, it's Sony's Game 3.0, it's quite simply everything the discerning gamer has ever wanted but never had delivered... that is, unless they own a PC. The above picture (besides being incredibly cute) depicts the new game from Media Molecule - the developers of Rag Doll Kung Fu - it's named LittleBigPlanet (not a result of my rushed typing - there really are no spaces in that name).

LittleBigPlanet is a game of creation. It's a gem of modification. It's all about you - the player, the dreamer, the centre of inspiration in LittleBigPlanet's little big world.

And best of all this is only the beginning. Sony's Playstation Home has just been announced at the GDC. Seemingly Sony has embraced a credo of creativity. The 'Home' to which the title refers will be available to all connected Playstation 3 owners - a kind of virtual, entirely customisable hub. Sony envisions a neutral ground for meeting others, connected to many personal spaces laid out as apartments. The extent to which these apartments may be customised remains to be seen (can I build my own Naval Yard/Meat Processing Plant?) although I'm impressed by Sony's ingenuity. You'll find screenshots if you click the link.

The Blog Apology/Challenge

The Games Developers Conference has begun. This reliably high-profile event has become a focal point - an opportunity for the games industry's talent to converge, discuss, and polish their top-brass. There's loads of wonderful stuff happening and I'd love to keep you updated with it all, sadly my life is overflowing with bulky wonderless time-traps (such as applying for a Nigerian visa - arg!) - as such I'll recommend you visit some of the links on the far right of this screen - infectious carriers of information, each and every one.

I'll share with you one snippet. In a bold move, Microsoft have issued a challenge to six experienced XNA programmers, setting them the task of creating a game from scratch in a mere four days. It's likely Microsoft have hedged their bets by choosing only the developers they deem most unlikely to embarrass themselves, but such a public display of confidence in their development kit's power has to be applauded. The competition ends on Friday. Best of luck, corporate pawns.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Social Science

Apologies for the slump in wordmongering of late, all the usual excuses are applicable. Today's the town beer festival. In light of this day of restful inebriation, I'll be throwing all worldly responsibilities to the wind (so that's essays, gastric discipline, and the duty to scan the pavement below for signs of small children). Thankfully I regard this blog as a pleasure to write for, never a burden. So, without further verbal stew - here is the news:

A daring academic has seen reason. Karen Sternheimer - sociologist at the University of Southern California - publishes her informed opinion, outlining the media's role in the construction of our understanding of violence:

"Politicians and other moral crusaders frequently create “folk devils,” individuals or groups defined as evil and immoral. Folk devils allow us to channel our blame and fear… Video games… have become contemporary folk devils because they seem to pose a threat to children."

"The biggest problem with media-effects research is that it attempts to decontextualize violence. Poverty, neighborhood instability, unemployment, and even family violence fall by the wayside… Ironically, even mental illness tends to be overlooked in this psychologically oriented research."
The above discourse should be familiar to anyone who's found themselves defending video games in public - this, however, is not old hat:

"White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous."
Emile Durkheim urged sociologists to embrace their school of thought in a scientific manner, for "the aim of science is to make discoveries, and every discovery more or less disturbs accepted ideas". I'm overjoyed to view Karen Sternheimer so effectively challenge accepted prejudices against gaming, and against the falsely-defined characteristics of certain social stereotypes.