Monday, July 4, 2011

Building on Success

The Supreme Court's decision last week to overturn California's violent video game law was a huge success for the games industry and First Amendment proponents. However, I can't feel like the purity of our message has been lost in the celebration that has followed. The video games industry is far from perfect, and there are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about kids (and even adults) playing violent games. Just because I don't think California should be deciding what's too violent and what isn't doesn't mean I don't think they're right to be concerned. In MediaPost's Gaming Insider I said I hope our industry builds on this victory, instead of sitting back now that we feel safe. Read it, and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ready for Social

If there was one thing that every major developer and platform provider at E3 agreed on this year (and there were many things on which they did not agree), it was that they simply could not ignore the emerging possibilities offered by social networks anymore.

This admission is an important first step for the video game industry, currently roughly divided into companies that are DTF ("down to Facebook") and those that ain't. The current state of things is really sad because it limits the marketplace in artificial ways - there are not many options out there right now for the Street Fighter IV player who likes finding matchmaking opportunities with his Facebook friends, nor are there many ways for me to share my Halo 3 user videos to a place where people are actually going to see them. I can't tweet comments about my favorite user-generated Portal 2 levels as I play them because the Steam community is very averse to the idea of the invasion of external social networks, which incidentally is the same reason that popular "casual" destinations like Pogo and Big Fish Games avoid Facebook like the plague, for fear that their change-averse communities will rise up against them.

But why all this fear? Are we as gamers all really so limited in our world view, despite comprising such a large and diverse portion of the world's population? Do we really lack the collective clarity of judgment to realize that just because 99% of the games currently using Facebook's platform are imitations of one cleverly designed farming game in their marketing tactics, business model, and simple gameplay, that their simple connection to the Facebook platform makes them so? Are we truly so blind to the diversity of games already available on Xbox Live, Steam, and on the iPhone that we believe a game's mere use of a social networking API could actually communicate anything meaningful about its quality or substance?

I'd like to think, "no," but so far my experience is that many gamers and internet-savvy users, aware of the popularity and success of Facebook and of the amount of "real information" it asks of its users, are loathe to accept any implementation of its API in their games, no matter how harmless, option, or beneficial, and that's extremely disappointing, because it limits my options. I'll have to save my diatribe about internet privacy for another post, but I completely agree with anyone that doesn't think Facebook should be a mandatory component of a game that could be played without it (i.e., most games, including the ones in the top 10 apps on Facebook). I'll be the first to tell anyone considering opening a Facebook account to take a long hard look at their Terms of Use, their privacy settings, and their track record, and make an informed decision about how they do and don't use the service. And I'm not a big proponent of the perceivable desperation baked into any game that has access to your news feed. But I do feel the opportunities for good far outweigh the potential downsides.

Fact: Facebook currently has over 500 million users. If you live in the United States or one of the many other countries with a high adoption rate for the site, then you are more likely to have friends using Facebook than any other social network, including AIM, Steam,, Meebo, Myspace, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, GameCenter, Twitter, Second Life, Flickr, LiveJournal, or your bizarrely-specific-to-your-cultural-nice online dating site.

All of that being said, here is my hypothetical evidence to support my theory that the [transparent, optional, secure, game-appropriate] use of social networks like Facebook can only make our favorite games better.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: "Super Guide Ghosts"

I just finished playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 (at least, the "first quest") and loved the game to pieces. Here's a game more challenging than its predecessor, yet more accessible than ever before - a wonderful example of smart game design that's fun for players of all types. The game has a few very clever built-in hint systems, one of which Nintendo likes to refer to as the "Super Guide." This is an in-game movie that will play through a level for you if you're stuck - letting you intervene when you feel comfortable taking the reigns again. The game also has a "co-star" mode where a second player can take on a helping role as an in-game pointer for collecting items, stunning enemies, and pointing out secrets.

What if I was stuck on a level, and the Super Guide was able to tell me that I have 5 friends with this game, 4 of whom have all beaten this level already? I can select my friend Andrew, and the game will download a 'ghost data' file of his playthrough. In seconds, I'm following a jump-for-jump copy of Andrew's path through the level, missteps and all. When I'm done, I'm able to send him a one-up as a thank you for sharing his play-through data with me, and Andrew's rating as a Super Mario Galaxy 2 Super Guide increases, meaning others are more likely to select his play-throughs later. Andrew might even take it upon himself to make his play-throughs completely public, and gain such a reputation that his user profile becomes the de facto replacement for the Super Mario Galaxy 2 GameFAQs page.

Furthermore, when I see him later that week, I can tell him that not only did I beat the level, but I also caught a glimpse of his trouble avoiding fireballs - something I'm sure he'd be quick to defend.

Portal 2: Co-Op
Did I say Portal 2 Co-op? Let me re-phrase that. I meant "Steam."

I'm sick of having four Steam friends, despite my overwhelming confidence that I know more than four people using the service. Steam has so many great tools for players and developers - great communication tools (chat, messages, groups), a great client and storefront - but Steam is not a dedicated social network. It exists for a fringe purpose (gaming) and because of that it's never going to be as frequent a stop for casual gamers and fringe gamers (like many of my friends) as a site like Facebook.

If Steam had a Facebook app with a decent adoption rate, however, I'd have a lot more real Steam friends. I'd know the instant one of my friends started playing Portal 2 and I'd be able to be the first one to swoop in and offer to walk them through the first few levels of co-op. I'd see that girl I knew in high school that I thought I had nothing in common with, who actually has more achievements than me in my obscure indie puzzle game, and I'd consider reconnecting (and asking what she thought of the game).

Moreover, I'd have an achievement for every friend that wrote "Spaaaaace." as their status at some point in the last two months. But then again, maybe that's what the nay-sayers are worried about.

Grand Theft Auto IV: my wildcard idea
I figured it would be fun to come up with something really out-there for my last suggestion. Here goes!

Fans of Rockstar's pioneering, envelope-pushing Grand Theft Auto IV (can you tell I'm one of them?) often cite the in-game television as one of its brightest spots - a trivial bit of detail that goes a long way toward building the world (and being hilarious satire).

Picture playing GTA IV while connected to the internet, when all of a sudden, you walk past a TV in a storefront playing a news story with an image of your friend Garrett on the screen: 

Newscaster: Police say they are still on the lookout for their suspect, who they believe could still be hiding in the vicinity. Witnesses are encouraged to call a toll-free number if they have any information, for a reward of up to $200,000.

You recognize Garrett's Facebook picture instantly, of course. You know that Garrett must have caused some serious mayhem in his game in order to rack up that kind of bounty on his head - and you also know he'd turn you in in a heartbeat. You dial the in-game number and correctly select Garrett from a multiple-choice list of friends. Your character is rewarded in-game money, while Garrett's is fined. But Garrett's informants tell him you were the rat, and now you're a marked man - good luck next time you need a favor from that guy.

Looking Forward
Consoles and "hardcore" gaming have a long way to go towards acceptance of the "social networking" trend, but I'm confident that someday we'll all be used to the idea enough to be accepting of the good ideas and shielded from the bad. All it takes is a little bit of imagination on our part (the players!) to see that there's good there (and to understand the nature of the potential evils) so that we can protect our interests and seek out new experiences. I'm excited to rat out my friends in GTA and count my "Spaaaaaace"-related statuses. I just hope everyone else gets excited soon, too.

If you think I've said something worth repeating, try Re-Tweeting! I'm DTF, too - share a link to this post and get a discussion going in the comments!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What's on the 21st Century Tube

Disclaimer: The title of this post contains an anachronism. You've been warned!

In April I said I wanted to play more games. My last game purchase was Portal 2 (a great investment), but I told myself I wasn't allowed to spend another penny on games until I had completed that game and at least nine others to some level of satisfaction. This gave me a goal, some pressure to play quickly, and would theoretically help me tick a few boxes off on my long list of "games to play."

Well, it turns out that I have great timing! Two weeks ago I moved into Queens (bye bye, Jersey, though my heart belongs to you). When my father learned that Lori and I were saving money by not signing up for a cable TV bill, he reminisced about the days before cable TV and said, "Wow, so you're living in the 70's, huh?" I pointed to the piles and piles of games and DVDs, and though the irony was apparent, I had to drive it home:

"No, dad, this is the 21st century - I pay for my internet bill and Netflix, and I have my games. I don't need cable!"

But really, what's been my go-to source of entertainment after work, now that I don't have 100 channels of 24-hour entertainment? Games, of course! Games that might have previously seemed like too large a time investment this late at night, or too alienating for the other people in the room - now, games are my nightly pastime, and that just feels right.

The move also means I'm closer to work, which means a shorter commute (bye bye, bus! I never really loved you!), which means my gaming balance has shifted from being all mobile games on my DS, to weigh much more heavily on couch-gaming on my Wii. Change is good!

Now that I'm more than halfway through, I'm afraid what happens at 10! Most likely I slip right back into my old habits of compulsively picking up cheap used games at a faster rate than I can play them - but maybe, just maybe, I'll be playing a little more often than before. We'll see!

6/10 games complete.
4 games to go before I can buy games again.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Play More Games

I was this close to starting a new Final Fantasy VII file the other day! Thiiiiiis close. Why? Because of this excellent series of open letters between gaming bloggers Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton, chronicling the former's obsession with the game and the latter's recent introduction to it. I defy anyone to read and not let nostalgia get the better of them.

That being said, I have "a thing" about replaying single-player narrative games. Since I fancy myself a connoisseur (full disclosure: spellcheck helped me out on that word) of the interactive arts, I have it in my head that I need to be constantly broadening my pallet, so to speak. Of course there's nothing wrong with replaying games, and in fact games in their purest form are meant to be re-played. Still, I think there's something to be said for trying new things.

In the last two years I have taken to buying used games at a rate that far exceeds my capacity to play them. I'm not really averse to playing decade-old games for the first time (this year I've played and finished Metal Gear Solid 2, Chrono Trigger, and Metroid Zero Mission, amongst others), so after my recent purchase of Portal 2 I set a temporary rule for myself:

I'm not allowed to buy another game until I beat ten games that I own but haven't beaten before.

I'm willing to be flexible, of course, since some games don't focus on their "completed state" (i.e. Rock Band 3) and others perhaps have unrealistic goals for theirs (i.e. Pokemon Black). That being said, I need some help sorting through the stockpile of games I've amassed. That's where you come in! Help me choose games! See anything that sets off a wave of nostalgia? Want to play through any of these alongside me? Let me know!

In no particular order, the list of games I own that I should probably play:

Left 4 Dead 2
Machinarium (pictured)
StarFox: Command
Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

Monday Night Combat (pictured)
Cortex Command
World of Goo

Ben There, Dan That!
Time, Gentlemen, Please!
Revenge of the Titans
Rayman (pictured)
Chrono Cross
Elder Scrolls - Daggerfall

Monte Python and the Holy Grail
The Darkness
Deus Ex
Eternal Darkness (pictured)
Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King
Shadow of the Colossus
Link's Crossbow Training

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Skies of Arcadia Legends
Rayman 2: The Great Escape
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
Red Dead Redemption (pictured)
Rock Band 3

Baten Kaitos
Viewtiful Joe (pictured)
Lost Odyssey
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Fallout 3

Lego Indiana Jones
Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen
Retro Game Challenge (pictured)
Breath of Fire II
Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Tales of Symphonia
Golden Sun: The Lost Age
The Legend of Zelda
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Sonic & Knuckles

I completed Portal 2's single-player campaign (excellent! great fun) and I'm looking forward to the rest of the co-op. That will be game one of ten!

Sharing Content with Social Relevance

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to write an editorial series that was published on GameZebo, a casual games review site. The series was called "Core and Casual: What are We Talking About?" (click the link to read part 1).

Well, I'm at it again! This time, I'm tackling the issue of sharing from games to the 'outside world,' generally through social networks like Facebook or specialized gaming networks like Xbox Live. There's an interesting rift right now in what is generally referred to as the "gaming industry" - a small part of the audience is very accustomed to social network games that contain many prompts to post stories about your in-game accomplishments for your friends to see. The rest of the gaming public tends to look upon this practice as a degradation of the sanctity of games, even while the games they play grow more and more "social" (if you need proof, read the comments on Kotaku regarding Valve boss Gabe Newell's recent statement that all of Valve's games will be multiplayer in the future).

I hope having a bit more of a balanced, thoughtful consideration for the benefits of social sharing in games might at least enlighten game designers and players to the opportunities that await them. At the same time, any thinking about the topic should also serve as a warning to those who would abuse the powers social networks bring: namely, those that end up creating games that feel like they're trying to get something out of you instead of giving you something.

You can read the full article on GameZebo. Of course, thoughtful comments and criticisms are always appreciated!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

My Existential Crisis

I was corrupted at an early age by the agents of a dark and powerful force, and for the better part of two decades this force has festered in my soul and grown stronger. Its tendrils reach my brain and re-route logical thought. Its nourishment feeds my body and makes me dependent on it. But two weeks ago, I confronted my own inner Nintendo Fanboy, and I think I may have won.

Consider that the only Nintendo system I have never owned is the Virtual Boy, and that I would gladly trade a week's meals for one, if you can name your price (e-mail me!). Or that I've been present, cash-in-hand, for the day-one launch of the Game Boy Advance, the GameCube, the DS, and the Wii. That my man-child poster wall gives Zelda more real estate than Lord of the Rings (a nerd amongst nerds?) and that my senses detect SNES cartridges on thrift store shelves as readily as most people notice loose cash lying on the sidewalk.

It seems within reason that I'd be picking up the Nintendo 3DS - Nintendo's newest handheld, a significant upgrade to their DS line that can play newer, better games and features a stereoscopic 3D screen (think Avatar) without the need for 3D glasses (and it's awesome!). Indeed, that was my plan.

But I chickened out! Or at least, that's how I first described the decision to not spend my money quite yet. Sure, it has its flaws, the launch lineup of games is terrible, some of its online features won't activate until May, and they're likely to release a new model or drop the price by the holidays, but I knew all that before this weekend. So did I chicken out? Did my miserly attitude hold me back?

My crisis wasn't in deciding whether or not to get the 3DS - the moment that seed of doubt was in my mind, the crisis became whether or not to acknowledge that it was right. I should not buy the 3DS at launch, because I might end up deciding that I don't want it. My crisis was acknowledging that there might be better options out there, a thought that terrified my Inner Nintendo Fanboy. He raged against that thought, but the instant it formed, there was no going back.

I fought and I won, but with questions still lingering ... will I eventually pick one up? Should I hold out for the NGP? Is it finally time to cough up for a smartphone that I can game on?

I suppose time will tell.