Latest Blog Posts

by L.B. Jeffries

26 Jan 2009

The single-player of Halo 3 is fairly easy to grasp. It’s an effective game design for providing a relatively light combat experience. You play the ultimate cyborg badass and you run around curb stomping aliens in a static sci-fi narrative. The game design supports this by giving you regenerating shields, having cutscenes of people fawning over how awesome you are, and generally providing a solid FPS except for the blue A.I. interrupting you randomly. There isn’t much that anyone can’t grasp on their own, which is an accomplishment in of itself. The multiplayer, on the other hand, is still played today in the thousands and merits a closer look. Now that some time has gone by and the game has been dethroned by the extremely different Call of Duty 4 in terms of popularity, there’s now a chance to contrast the two and learn more about how they work. While the latter game that allows players to compete purely on skill, Halo 3 offers a larger amount of variety by having the weapons break the game into separate modes of play. Each mode has a distinct advantage over the other, so that the game allows both skilled players and unskilled ones to compete in the same space.

The chief virtue of the game in terms of appeal is the variety of play styles it supports. I have a decent middle-range game but prefer getting into close quarters with the spiker. Others prefer sniper rifles while there are always the power sword types who like close quarters. Iroquois Pliskin did a write-up of the multiplayer where he discusses this virtue in-depth. He explains, “The driving idea behind Halo’s combat is to create engagements at three distinct registers: long, medium, and short-range. Succeeding at each of these three distances requires the mastery of a different set of weapons and tactics; lobbing your grenades well is one of the essential skills in the game, and using them effectively is a different proposition at each of these three distances.” Indeed, the huge range of skills involved with the game and the wide range of players involved are what constitutes the typical Halo 3 multiplayer experience. A player using a sniper rifle typically jumps around and will immediately lose if you get into close quarters while its equipped. A player using a sword is easy prey for a sniper if they catch them in the open. The consequence of this constantly dueling range of skills is that in Halo 3 you can genuinely “dominate” someone. You can negate the combat range they are using by using the counter and get an advantage that is usually an instant kill. Although some levels do specialize or limit the ranges possible, Halo 3 maps usually feature a wide variety of terrain so that you can successfully engage with any of three approaches.

This idea of randomized dominance can be seen in the weapons as well. Guns that stay strong over multiple ranges tend to have a handicap like the Spartan Laser’s recharge time while guns that only work at one range tend to fire quickly and reload fast. Other guns can work at two different ranges, such as the Spiker’s extra damage in close quarters while still being a decent medium range weapon. Specialization is then the quickest way to rise in skill with Halo 3 so the player typically finds the weapon that supports their preferred combat and then they try to engage players in it. You grab a battle rifle and then try to engage people at medium to long range, for example. In terms of dealing with a gun being fired at you, realizing what’s being shot at you is only half the battle. Picking up on what kind of weapons the player you’re facing is always going for and then disarming that advantage by using the opposite kind is the quickest way to get ahead. This also illustrates why working as a team is so important, one person works at one range while another is going at a different distance. Contrast that to Call of Duty 4 where the players are all typically spread even and using the same set of weapons. Everyone has a basic assault rifle, everyone is shooting from the shoulder, and everyone is blindly lobbing grenades and ducking behind cover. A great deal of this can be attributed to the levels and class system in Call of Duty 4. As soon as you’re on the level where long range is best, everyone switches to those weapons. The game levels the variety of Halo 3 by allowing all players to pick their starting weapons and thus everyone is purely competing in terms of skill. There’s no random chance that the person is just using the superior gun for that range since they’ll have picked it. Halo 3, due to its ‘Find the gun’ setup for most types of play, cuts the skill barrier down and allows less competent players to still play. Contrast it to other games where you race to the guns: whoever gets the best weapon quickly dominates. Because Halo 3 balances out each weapon to always have a weakness, it doesn’t succumb to someone just finding the best gun on the map either.

For many players, it’s easy to think of this game design as flawed instead of brilliant. The idea that you cannot win purely on your skill is offensive to many players simply because what else is a game for except a contest of skill? With Halo 3 the emphasis on inclusion means that you can always pop into a match and make a kill. Even if you’re having a weak day or playing by yourself, you can engage with the game. Unlike Call of Duty 4, which is a bit tricky if you’ve had a few beers or are trying to relax, you can turn on Halo 3 and just unwind. The design also allows for very intense competitive play should you choose to engage on a different level. Mastering all the tricks with grenades, knowing when to retreat, and knowing each map perfectly allows players to gain a decisive edge. Team play is also a world in and of itself, since this essay is based mostly on rounds of playing Social Slayer solo. These options are still just ways around what is essentially engaging in an elaborate round of rock, paper, scissors. If you both choose the same range, it boils down to skill. If you choose rock and they choose scissor, then that dominance factor comes into play again. What makes this so impressive is that Halo 3 is an FPS you can engage with in a variety of ways. You can play it over a couple of beers, you can play it in a tournament, or you can play it to cool off from work. A little bit of chaos in the game is what makes that variety possible.

by Rob Horning

26 Jan 2009

PSFK linked to this post by Russell Davies, in which he explains his strategy to make himself actually pay attention to what he listens to:

unless I trick myself into paying attention to music that I either just revert to tried and trusted favourites or let all sorts of new stuff drift by me an in ambient haze. Not really listening.
So I thought I’d try a 26 week experiment; listening to a new letter every week. Just to see what I notice. This is week A.
Projects for paying attention to attention. Those seem interesting now.

I’m sympathetic to the desperate feeling of being overwhelmed by all the music that’s accessible to us, but I’m not sure that setting up arbitrary limits is the best solution. Ideally, there would be something at least semi-organic about how we pursue pleasure and pay attention. Is that the impasse we have reached, where we have to force ourselves to pay attention to the things we intended to do for fun? Maybe the “ambient haze” he worries about is actually preferable—the best we can do nowadays. (And maybe that explains why people like Animal Collective—and it’s even in the A’s!)

That said, my arbitrary listening approach has to do with waging a campaign to play every song I have on my iPod at least once. It’s a Sisyphean task and a bit joyless too. It certainly isn’t what I want music in my life for—to be the arbitrary yardstick for how much entertainment-industry product I’ve compelled myself to consume.

Anyway, this makes me wonder if we really have in fact entered into the so-called attention economy—the idea that our most precious currency is the attention we pay to something, since so much is freely offered and the competition amongst marketers for our eyeballs has never been fiercer. We do have a limited amount of time in which to concentrate our attention on things, but these limitations have not translated into a clear hierarchy of where to focus. Instead, we seem more bewildered than ever by all the possibilities, and we become more and more whimsical without necessarily wanting to. The need to pay attention to attention suggests that our culture has been too successful in promoting distractions; it may be that we can no longer tell distractions apart from things we want to be interested in. Distraction has become the common denominator of all leisure experiences; the only alternative is basically work, socially constructed as joyless.

(Bonus: My 15-song all-A playlist, judging by iTunes play count:
1. Abba, “Bang-a-boomerang”
2. AC/DC, “Dog Eat Dog”
3. Addrisi Brothers, “Time to Love”
4. Al Kooper, “Be Yourself (Be Real)”
5. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes”
6. Alice Cooper, “Under My Wheels”
7. the Arrows, “Toughen Up”
8. Allman Brothers, “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ “
9. Asha Bhosle, “Ankhen Meri Maikhana”
10. Andy Kim, “Shoot ‘em Up Baby”
11. Angry Samoans, “Lights Out”
12. The Association, “It’ll Take a Little Time”
13. Aerovons, “World of You”
14. A.C. Newman, “Battle for Straight Time”
15. Allen Toussaint, “Electricity”)

by Lara Killian

26 Jan 2009

Yesterday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, fondly known as the Bard of Scotland. Celebrations around the globe toasted the poet and lyricist responsible for bringing Scottish poetry to the world and Auld Lang Syne to us on New Year’s Eve—‘Hogmanay’ on his home turf.

image

The Daily Record detailed some of the events taking place in Scotland to celebrate the day, while the BBC News provided a summary, accompanied by a photo of an actor reciting some of Burns’ poetry outside the poet’s family home in his birthplace of Alloway, Scotland. On NPR’s All Things Considered program, there was an interview with Alison Jones, the winner of the “Robert Burns World Federation Secondary Schools Competition Festival” for reciting his poetry.

image

Traditionally, Burns’ anniversary is celebrated with haggis and whisky, and this year is a special landmark, with gatherings likely taking place in every city where those of Scottish descent reside, as well as those who feel, rather than share, that connection in their blood. The makers of The Famous Grouse whisky certainly planned ahead, crafting 250 bottles of a 37 year-old whisky which are now being donated for charity fund-raising efforts around the world. Though he only made it to his own 37th birthday, Burns’ legacy has withstood the test of time, and his influence has been felt for over two hundred years in poetry and song, from Scots Wha Hae to Tam O’Shanter. If you missed the celebration yesterday, feel free to raise a glass tonight.

by PopMatters Staff

26 Jan 2009

by Jason Gross

26 Jan 2009

To continue along in this series looking at the new kingpins who are running the music biz now (instead of the major labels), let’s take a looksy at Activision.  Who’s that?  Well, they sold over 20 million copies of a lil game you might have heard of—Guitar Hero, a product that’s been called a competitor to iTunes.  In fact, last summer, GH was noted as one of the few bright spots in the music biz.

Unlike Steve Jobs and friends, Guitar Hero looks like they have a good chance of signing a deal to get the Beatles catalog.  In fact, after the success of their Aerosmith-themed game, other bands are lining up to have their own versions go to market.  Metallica has already inked deals with Guitar Hero and should have their game out soon.  And as is only fitting, Guitar Hero is also trying to link up a Hendrix game with his estate, which is appropriate since he’s THE guitar hero after all (and that’ll be a big deal for sure when it goes on sale).

So what is it about the game that’s so damn appealing?  The main thing is that it ain’t just a game that you play on a screen with a control pad.  You get a ‘guitar’ or rather a controller that’s shaped like a guitar, which you can wear strapped around your neck like the real deal.  Using avatars or actual images of the string-benders you worship, you can play along without having to know how to really play the instrument—you just follow the color patterns on the screen and press down on the corresponding ones on your ‘guitar.’  Though you’re not playing, you still get the thrill of mimicking along to rock classics in a much more concrete way than playing air guitar (though the champs of that sport might disagree).  Rather than being a passive listening, Guitar Hero gives you something of a sensation of being part of the music and ‘playing’ it and getting rewarded for doing it right- you get applause from the game plus you get to unlock more songs.  But uh… isn’t part of what makes rock exciting sometimes NOT playing everything exactly right?  That might have to wait for a future version of the game (then again, since Guitar Hero lowers the bar for anyone to play it, maybe it is kinda punk in a way…).

At this point, Guitar Hero has enough clout to get some bands to actually re-record some of their catalog (even the Sex Pistols) when they don’t have access to the masters.  And it’s not just established bands lining up for Guitar Hero—indie bands see this as a great way to break into a larger audience and it’s a win for Guitar Hero too as they can license their material for less money.  Add in the fact that Guitar Hero also lets you download songs, then you can see why they’re considered competitors to Mr. Jobs—just like Apple, Guitar Hero learned that consumers don’t just want tunes but they also want a cool, sleek way to get at them, whether it’s an iPod or a guitar-shaped controller.

At the moment, Guitar Hero‘s biggest direct competitor is MTV’s Rock Band game, which has sold 4 million copies and is responsible for 30 million song downloads.  Rock Band also goes Guitar Hero three or four better by adding a rhythm section and mike for the full ‘band’ experience (though without built-in groupies or substance abuse problems).  Nevertheless, their downloads are still a fraction of the numbers that iTunes gets and as of yet, Rock Band haven’t signed up as many bands as Guitar Hero has. As this NY Times article notes, Madden and Wii are also competitors in the video market, with Madden’s games also becoming a hot place for bands to promote and sell songs.

You’d think it’s all peaches and cream for Guitar Hero and the video game market but as this Variety article notes, sales are starting to flatten out for the market, which is no doubt a measure of the sinking economy plus the high price tag for these games.  Still, with artists like Aerosmith finding bigger sales and bucks with their Guitar Hero game than with their latest album, big labels have another reason to worry about this kind of competition.

ADDENDUM: As some commentators have indelicately noted, my own experience is limited with GH (played it once) and I should have noted that and not detailed it as I did in the 3rd paragraph.  I apologize for that.  I hope to at least stimulate some conversation about the popularity of these games and what the future holds for them.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

'Five Came Back' Is an Unusual and Seminal Suspenser

// Short Ends and Leader

"This film feels like a template for subsequent multi-character airplane-disaster and crash projects, all the way down to Lost.

READ the article