Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 5, 2009
Speculation and opinions on what kind of changes will be proficient in 2009.


To kick off the year 2009, I thought we’d start by looking at the business and culture of video games as it stands to develop now. What are the current trends and possible outcomes? How is the medium evolving due to technology and economic demands? There are some new video game genres developing, some new trends with distribution, and the smoke settling from the console war to gauge. To start, I was stuck at a Christmas Party this year where I met a guy who runs a beverage distribution business. He’s the person who supplies vending machines, stores, and gas stations with soda and beer, in other words. We got to talking shop and he told me that the major trend going on in the beverage industry is what he called functionality. People, particularly people in their twenties and younger, no longer purchase by brand. We’re instead attracted to drinks that perform a service like energy, vitamins, or some other perceived benefit. We don’t care if it’s a Budweiser, instead we ask what is it going to do that makes it better than other beers? This coincidentally sums up the exact same direction video games are headed in. Looking back over 2008, function was one of the major advantages the Wii had with its user-friendly games and Wii Fit. The idea of a console and fitness machine proved more than enough to move units for Nintendo. How will this growing concept play out in 2009?


 


The idea of gauging a video game console by its function isn’t anything new, one of the biggest selling points of the PS2 back when it came out was that it played DVDs. Making your console do something besides just play video games adds enormous value in the consumer’s eye. The trick is that you have to improve on that additional function, not just repeat it. A strong example would be the PS3’s Blu-Ray, because even though the technology is clearly of superior quality, it lacks any major improvement in terms of the DVD’s ability to play movies. I hate to use the dreaded comparison to Betamax, but that’s another case of quality not being a decisive advantage. The DVD was an improvement over VHS tapes because you didn’t have to rewind or risk degradation of visual quality from repeated use. DVDs, in turn, suffer from potential scratching and the ever-present issue of not having access to one when you want to watch a program. The Xbox 360, with its inclusion of Netflix and a downloadable movie service, has upped the convenience of the initial functionality of playing movies on your console. No scratching of discs and instant access to films means the Xbox 360 is the more convenient media center. Blu Ray may be superior, but it’s also still suffering from all the issues of a DVD. There’s still room for improvement in this new media, Netflix’s visual quality leaves something to be desired when watched on High-Def. Yet with Netflix’s growing line-up of digital shows and movies, particularly a superb selection of independent films, it’s hard to argue with the edge that the Xbox 360 has established.


 


Even the act of paying for something is technically a form of functionality when it comes to media. Piracy and the second-hand market for music, movies, and games are a testament to this. As an old essay by Ray Kurzweil on Copy Protection in the Music Industry outlines, the eventual alternative music has already had to accept is going to start applying to other media. In order to beat digital pirates, you have to beat them at functionality. You have to make it so it’s easier and more beneficial to get media your way than their way. An example is the iPod, which made itself an essential mp3 player that led to people buying mp3s for it. Netflix going online is also a good start to this, but its catalog of popular films is still somewhat lacking. Kurzweil noted in his book The Singularity that the new digital distribution method would be characterized by an unholy intellectual property bidding war and you can already see the symptoms. The other problem is establishing a pricing model that still generates enough revenue to make the whole thing worthwhile. Subscription services like emusic, which has now passed 100 million users, are paving the way for this new distribution model. A media service like Netflix will eventually offer a similar tiered subscription service, although regulating the number of videos one can download is creating an unnecessary weakness. Downloading an entire movie and watching it is inane when I can just click and watch it streaming. The best model for profitability while sustaining function would be to use anticipation and time delay depending on which subscription the person has paid for. Gold members get instant access to a film the day it goes online, Silver has to wait, Bronze even longer, and so on as companies find ways to continue to keep the business profitable.


 


Which leaves the question of games themselves and the new market of downloadable games. The perk is that you have no pawn shop losses, no contending for shelf space, and can allow a game to continually make money without an expensive PR campaign. The downside, as Soren Johnson explains, is that you lose perceived market value and potential customers. Not everybody has sixty bucks to drop on a game, so the secondhand market allows these people to participate in gaming where they otherwise would spend the money on something cheaper. There is also the bonus of knowing that when you’re done with a sixty-dollar game, you’re going to get some of that money back. Functionality is, once again, the way they’re going to maintain the profits. Presuming developers have begun to acknowledge that sixty dollars can no longer be the only pricing model for new releases, there are a couple of alternative. The first is the The Force Unleashed experiment, which involved selling an individual level to the player, an approach that has already proven successful for Telltale Games. Since games have already begun to mimic television episodes in their pacing, it stands to reason they’ll just start copying the way episodes are sold. You can buy the entire game for sixty bucks, or you can buy individual episodes and eventually play the whole game that way. Buying the entire game gets you bonus content, buying each individual episode means paying more money in the long run.


Downloadable content is particularly significant in the multiplayer aspects of a game. Adjusting distribution and pricing models is probably not going to come about anytime soon, but there are still ways to maintain profitability by keeping the player from selling the game back in the first place. The trick to multiplayer longevity is to maintain a constant stream of new content while tweaking gameplay so that new players are never discouraged. An excellent article at The Escapist by Tom Endo outlines the downfall of the multiplayer game ARC. The more you allow your game to remain static, the more people become proficient at it and dominate new players in a way that discourages playing online. As a consequence, they’re more likely to sell the game back. Players memorize maps, master unbeatable moves, and generally make the learning curve much steeper than it should be. It also accounts for the fact that no amount of play testing can handle millions of people playing your game and looking for an edge. The gold standard for this is Blizzard, whose games made over ten years ago are still played today because of the constant tweaking. Once you factor in that new maps and guns not only sustain the game, they also earn you money, then it’s easy to see how this will continue as a trend in gaming. Johnson, in the essay above, also noted that DLC ensures sales for both pirated and second-hand games by making sure purchasers still must download the additional content, thus in turn ensuring an extra sale from even these games.


 


Finally, the genre to keep an eye on for 2009 is that of the forum game. Greg Costikyan has recently released a Myspace and Facebook Vampire RPG, and the satirical ForumWarz has demonstrated how easily an RPG game design can be applied to social networks. The two basic systems are to either let people do a few things each day or to incorporate the game’s use into the actual website itself with unrestricted moves. Either design aesthetic has the same goal—find a way for people to play while cruising Facebook or MySpace—but I’m not sure anyone has mastered the formula of how to make money off it yet.  That isn’t a sign of weakness in the market, as you’ve already got people sitting on the websites mindlessly clicking around, it’s just finding a way to coordinate this in a productive manner. The most probable change will be an adjustment in design aesthetic that adjusts its purpose towards generating traffic to the hosting website rather than being a game for its own sake. The most sophisticated website I’ve seen incorporate game design into the actual participation with the site is The Escapist, but others have their own methods that are similar. Forum badges, notification when someone quotes you, and ranks based on number of posts demonstrate a website that has designed the very fundamentals of socializing into a game of its own. Attempts to shoehorn micro-transactions or induce extraneous conduct are a bit misguided here. Functionality and using the game design to improve the actual goals of the website itself is going to be the trait of whoever finds the decisive model. As with all successful innovation, by the time someone is getting rich off of it, it’s too late to copy the idea.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Jan 4, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-05...

Way back in June, back when “The Week in Games” was still relatively new (because, well, Moving Pixels was still relatively new), it seemed like kind of a big deal that a game was coming out for every single platform in a single week. It’s the sort of event that takes serious coordination on the parts of both developers and publishers, and it usually signals the arrival of a pretty major release.


Hotel for Dogs

Hotel for Dogs


Well, I’m never going to make a big deal about it again, because this week another game is coming out for every platform imaginable, and that game is…Hotel for Dogs. Look, I didn’t even know this thing was based on a Nickelodeon movie starring Emma Roberts and Diego’s voice until I started madly Googling for information on this game…information that is surprisingly hard to find, as it turns out.  There’s barely a whisper of the game on the movie’s official website, the usually comprehensive gametrailers.com yields nothing on the search results, and searching on YouTube reveals but a single trailer for the Wii/DS side of the gaming equation, which looks really terrible.  Chances are, even high-end graphics won’t save this thing.  Of course, it’ll probably still sell more than LittleBigPlanet.


Fishing Master World Tour

Fishing Master World Tour


If you’re going to go after anything, your best bet this week would probably be to give Saints Row 2 a runthrough if you haven’t yet.  The game is the type that seems to divide critics and players, but if you’re into the whole sandbox thing and you don’t mind a hefty dose of highly immoral behavior, it’ll probably entertain you until next week.  Otherwise, Fishing Master World Tour for the Wii is the sequel to the highly underrated Fishing Master, which actually makes fishing fun with a pleasing, cartoony presentation style and a surprisingly fast-paced take on reeling ‘em in.  Honestly, if you’re looking for a family game, you’ll probably have about ten times as much fun with Fishing Master World Tour as you ever will with Hotel for Dogs.


That said,  I’m putting the Hotel for Dogs trailer after the jump anyway, just because there’s a place for “hilariously bad” when nothing quite qualifies as “highly anticipated”.  Enjoy!


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Tuesday, Dec 30, 2008

“Each chapter also has its own small story arc, with background flavours involving targeted marketing campaigns, beauty products, brand loyalty, evil products with glossy packaging, etc. Just like the story, these themes inform the artwork and level design, but are never ever crammed down the player’s throat. You’ll notice them only if you read between the lines.”
-Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy


World of Goo is a work of art in the way that The Butter Battle Book is a work of art.


Perhaps it’s too simplistic an assessment, given that the Seussian inspiration that World of Goo sports is immediately evident from the title screen alone:



Where the homage is most pointed, however, is in the narrative that it presents.


When I was six years old, I didn’t get The Butter Battle Book. I mean, I found it funny enough, what with its increasing levels of Yook and Zook technology and the clever way in which Seuss found the most trivial thing possible for the two sides to disagree on (probably not in those terms at age six, but you catch my drift), but I didn’t know what it meant. There is no way for a six-year-old to understand that the story is based on an all-too-real arms race, and that the strange, unsatisfying ending to the story—a Yook and a Zook at the top of the wall that divided their people, waiting each other out for a good time to drop a civilization-ending bomb—was uncomfortably close to the actual political state of affairs at the time.


At least, there was no way to understand it until my mother explained it to me and proceeded to give me nightmares for the next week.


Similarly, my 29-year-old self didn’t really grasp the allegorical nature of World of Goo until, provoked to comment on it, all I could come up with was to mumble something about an “anti-establishment” sort of undercurrent, which, while sort of accurate, is hardly insightful. The truth is, to that point, much of the play time that I’d devoted to World of Goo had been by the side of my own six-year-old daughter, as it’s a game that truly shines as a family-centered experience without being obviously marketed toward kids; the huge fonts and the wry humor of The Mysterious Sign Painter are, as it turns out, awfully appealing to young children, as is the almost Tinkertoy-esque nature of many of the goo structures that are built throughout the game. As such, my understanding of the undercurrent of the game was victim to a sort of willful ignorance as my time was spent focusing on the stuff a six-year-old would like, the stuff a six-year-old would get.


What could I do but play it again?


(there are spoilers ahead. click at your own peril.)


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 24, 2008
A company called Zendesk stumbles into the sublime.

This is the Sam Poh Buddhist Temple, located in Malaysia and dedicated to Zheng He, a Chinese admiral:


...and this is a picture of Zendesk’s “Buddha Machine Wall”, based on FM3’s little plastic box known as (predictably) the Buddha Machine:


The second is said to be inspired by the first, though it’s difficult at a glance to see how.  The Sam Poh Temple is an ornate, reportedly well-kept structure filled with Chinese artwork, Buddhist statues, and myriad flowers of types atypical to that stretch of Malaysia.  The Buddha Machine Wall is a minimalist, almost Warholian webpage consisting entirely of a series of Flash applications.


Zendesk is, apparently, a developer of help desk facilitation software.  Beansbox, which actually created the wall under the direction of Zendesk, is a web solutions company.  Is any of this making sense yet?  The cryptic blog post that Zendesk published announcing the creation of the machine doesn’t really seem to help matters, except perhaps the bit about the “Zen encompass[ing] you”.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the connection is inner peace and stability, as influenced by outside forces.  Sure, the connection is kind of tenuous—okay, really tenuous—but if there’s a connection to be made, that’s it.


That said, I was rather taken with the Buddha Machine a few years ago, and still bring it to the office on those occasions when i do need some calm, some music designed specifically for the background.  That it never changes or ends unless I ask it to is not only a peaceful feeling, but that the listening experience depends entirely on the listener lends the listener a sense of environmental control.  Not to mention, people love the thing—it’s always a source of questions and conversation when it comes to the office.


Despite the odd motivation (or lack thereof) in putting it together, the Buddha machine Wall is nearly as inspired.  While the novelty of the artifact disappears in a haze of flash applications, the sense of control is heightened; you still get the satisfaction of controlling when it begins or ends, but you also get the even greater satisfaction of “composing” what it is you’re listening to.  Rather than being limited to the nine loops of a single machine, one can instead build a beautiful, layered thing that still sounds like drone.  The minor-key chords of the first go wonderfully with the sparse melody of the fifth, the second tends to overpower things if used more than once, and I still haven’t found a use for the ninth.  Perhaps your experience with it will be totally different.  That’s the beauty.


What’s truly amazing is that after three years, the musical possibilities of a machine that contains less than three minutes of actual unique sound are still being explored in new and fascinating ways.  Unlikely as its source may be, the Buddha Machine Wall is at least worth a visit, and maybe even a bookmark.


LINK: The FM3 Zendesk Buddha Machine Wall


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Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008

L.B. Jeffries’ column is on break until Tuesday, January 6, when PopMatters has resumed its regular publishing schedule.  In the meantime, you can check out more of L.B.‘s work at the Banana Pepper Martinis blog.


Alternately, you can check out the most recent edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast, hosted by fellow PopMatters writer Michael Abbott, on which L.B., Michael and I each talk about one of our favorite games of the year (here’s a teaser: three of the four picks on the segment where L.B. and I appear can currently be bought for 15 dollars or less…and the other one’s an expansion).  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, scope out the rest of Mr. Abbott’s blog while you’re over there—it’s worth a regular visit and then some.


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