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

 
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Saturday, Aug 16, 2008
Glenn McDonald reports from day one of GenCon, Gary Gygax's annual tabletop and board game convention.

Hello from GenCon, the largest annual gathering of hardcore gamers in the world today. Founded by Gary Gygax, the inventor of a little something called Dungeons & Dragons, GenCon has long been the mecca of so-called “hobby game enthusiasts”—popularly known as D&D geeks.


I’ve been attending GenCon for several years now, to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary game design, which I find endlessly fascinating. This convention—held every August in Indianapolis, Indiana—truly is the event horizon of gaming. Not videogames, mind you—although that is part of it—but games in a more fundamental sense. Card games, dice games, role-playing games, board games, pretty much any game you can think of that doesn’t involve sports or gambling.


So: A few quick hits and photos, and hopefully I’ll be able to blog in again tomorrow. One of the areas I’m tracking this year is general-interest, family-friendly board and party games. The games that, their developers hope, will supplant the moldy old stand-bys of Monopoly, Life, and Trivial Pursuit.


Talking with some of the exhibitors in the main hall, I’m getting a better sense of how the industry works. For instance, it usually takes about five years for a new game to even get a chance at cracking the retail shelves of big-box outlets like Wal-Mart or Target, or even the expanded game sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Typically, a game has to move hundreds of thousands of units on its own merits, via online sales and specialty hobby game stores.


One such success story is Wits and Wagers, from the small Washington D.C. outfit Northstar Games. I played a demo on the convention floor with some other passing gamers, and it’s very fun indeed—an ingenious mash-up of trivia and Vegas-style oddsmaking. Wits and Wagers just recently earned enough success to get some coveted retail shelf-space at Target, and it won Games Magazine’s Best Party Game award last year.


Publicity art from Grey Ranks

Publicity art from Grey Ranks


On the other end of the spectrum, I spoke with Jason Morningstar, creator of the literary role-playing game Grey Ranks. A radically indie game project, Morningstar’s game is only sold online and via mail order, and is shipped, literally, from Morningstar’s living room. No wizards or lasers in this game. Instead, a player assumes the role of a Polish teenager during the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw. Dark in tone and aesthetically sophisticated, the game deals with themes of adolescence, love, war and death. Grey Ranks won this year’s prestigious Diana Jones Award—GenCon’s equivalent to the Indie Spirit awards. My prediction: The industry will one day look back at this game—and its recognition at this year’s convention –- as a watershed moment, a turning point in which the RPG as an artistic form began to fulfill its potential.


Then, of course, we have the real fun of GenCon – people dressing funny. I leave you with a handful of pics from the Convention Center, after the jump.


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Friday, Aug 15, 2008
A look at Kevan Davis' quietly groundbreaking grid and text-based sandbox MMORPG.

Just before Christmas 2006, I heard about a new(ish) online game played in real time.  In it, you create a character, gain experience to level up and buy skills, and engage in combat with other player characters.  The game lacks NPCs, so every interaction takes place between two real people.  The action takes place in Malton, a ruined, quarantined city after a zombie apocalypse, and players may take the role of either survivors or the undead.  Best of all, the game is browser-based and free to play.  So what’s the catch?  Widespread narcolepsy, apparently. 


The game I’ve described, Urban Dead, is grid-based, and each movement on the map, use of an item, or search conducted uses one action point.  These action points are rationed to about fifty per day—they replenish at a rate of one per half hour, give or take.  When your action points are used up, you fall asleep.  In an abandoned bar, in the street, wherever—you just pass out.  I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water in Malton, but it sure as heck isn’t caffeine. 


The rationing of action points is not an entirely new system—Kingdom of Loathing has been running a similar system since 2003—but unlike life in the Kingdom, which mainly pits player characters against NPCs, running out of action points in Urban Dead can cause your survivor character to be dismembered and devoured by undead minions hungry for the bloody flavor of harman hambargars (that’s zombish for human hamburgers), or your zombie might end up getting a fire axe to the back of the skull and staying down for the count (requiring ten additional action points to stand up after a head shot). 


Urban Dead has its own mythology, much of which is documented in its dedicated wiki, and which includes the ability of certain individuals with the requisite training to revive those who have been infected with the strange zombie virus and restore the undead to the, ahem, sunny side of life.  This has created a number of conventions invented from whole cloth by the players on both sides of the grave, which in many ways is more interesting than the game itself.  For instance, those who prefer to play as survivors and log in to find that they have been chewed on during the night can move their shambling corpses to one of several dozen designated revive points—usually cemeteries—and stand in a queue to be brought back to life.  There are players who devote their entire daily ration of action points to reviving their fallen comrades, and who may never actually fight zombies at all. 


Then there are those who play as survivors, but instead of helping their fellow humans fight the zombie hordes, they load up on shotguns and rampage around shopping malls, capping innocent bystanders and generally spreading chaos.  To combat these “player killers,” an unofficial character class has evolved, and bounty hunters seek out and kill the player killers.  Of course, death is a temporary state in Malton, so the circle of life and undeath ebbs and flows like a bloody river flowing to an eternal sea.


Most fascinating, however, are the groups that have repurposed the mechanics of Urban Dead to play a game so completely their own such that it resonates both in-game and out.  Take, for instance, The Shamblin’ Crooners.  This is a group of zombie players that travel from venue to venue performing for human audiences.  In-game, zombies with sufficient experience can buy skills that allow them a rudimentary form of speech (using only the letters a, b, g, h, m, n, r, and z) and something called “Flailing Gesture,” which unlocks the option to point north, south, west, east, or at nearby people or objects.  The Shamblin’ Crooners combined these skills to choreograph elaborate song-and-dance numbers, to be executed just before all the survivors in the chosen venue are, well, executed.  The result: a bunch of dead players who are pretty amused by the whole thing, really, when it gets right down to it. 


I could go on. There are zombie lexicographers, who tirelessly catalog the constantly evolving slang that is zombie speech (survivors with guns: bangbang manz).  There are keen hackers who forge slick apps to make the user interface prettier, tidier, or more accessible.  There is a group called Upper Left Corner, which gathers in the titular corners of malls (which occupy four grid squares) and consume themselves with small talk and witty banter—zombie apocalypse be damned. 


Urban Dead has inspired a few spin-offs since its inception in July 2005, and its creator, Kevan Davis, has been supportive of games like Nexus War.  In my experiences with these games, however, the relaxation of various limitations—responses to common complaints about Urban Dead‘s restrictive gameplay—renders them too simple and drops the stakes to an unsatisfying low.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, it’s rather like playing tennis with the net down.  The limited capabilities of Urban Dead characters inspire creativity and resourcefulness in its players, and therein lies its real magic.  Instead of creating a story and inviting the players to watch it unfold, Davis has succeeded in crafting a sandbox and letting the players create their own world inside it.


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008
Capcom's 1942: Joint Strike gets the Checkpoints treatment, courtesy of Arun Subramanian.

The 194x series of games were some of the earliest successful vertical scrolling shooters.  They were also one of the few examples of the genre not steeped in a sci-fi mythos.  1942: Joint Strike plays like a long lost entry in the series, though it’s interesting to note that despite the success of titles like Pacman: Championship Edition and Space Invaders Extreme, Joint Strike plays it comparatively safe.  Certainly, what made those reimaginings successful was the way they modernized gameplay concepts while leaving the core mechanics untouched.  Joint Strike, on the other hand, is largely content to present itself as a graphical update.  This is not inherently bad, particularly considering that scrolling shooters are fairly timeless, and that by and large Joint Strike is presentationally top-notch.  Finally, the electronica-inspired aesthetics of Pac Man: CE and Space Invaders Extreme would certainly be out of place in the context of 1942.


While not quite difficult enough to earn the description of a “bullet-hell” shooter, there is more than enough challenge in avoiding enemies and fire.  There are three available planes that vary in key statistics, any of which can take more than one standard enemy shot without exploding, but it’s probably best to behave as though any shot can take your plane down.  The three weapon types are standard, and it’s easy to imagine players will have different favorites.  The reality is that much of what makes Joint Strike enjoyable is what has always made it so.  The widescreen support is welcome, since it gives the game the opportunity to present more enemies, at the same time as it gives the player more room to maneuver.  This is especially noticeable in cooperative play.


Although they have very recently undergone something of a renaissance, scrolling shooters have certainly waned in popularity with the demise of the arcade.  Along with traditional beat-‘em-ups, arcade shooters had the quality of essentially being beatable by anyone willing to continue paying money when they died.  Because adding another credit traditionally just topped off your health and lives precisely at the point where you perished, it was generally possible to simply buy your way to the ending.  That’s not to say skill wasn’t rewarded, but the reward had to do with the monetization of that talent as measured by money saved.  This is something of a different idea than that of a pinball master getting endless replays or a fighting game wizard taking on the competition for hours on a single quarter, in that those game situations don’t really have discrete endings. 


In their transition to home consoles, then, with no money leaving the pockets of the player once the game has been purchased, many shooters have instituted much more stringent life and continue policies.  Certainly, in the arcade, there is more money to be made by allowing less skilled players to continually buy their way back in, but in the absence of this pay-to-play environment, there is a tendency to impose restrictions on the player in the home console versions, essentially limiting the number of virtual quarters the player has.  This necessarily removes some of the accessibility of these titles in favor of an artificial difficulty, but is likely the best compromise available.  Joint Strike is no exception to this, and in order to unlock level selects and continues, you must beat the game straight through.


In many ways, Joint Strike is a prime example of what’s good about downloadable games from the perspective of an established company, revisiting a classic franchise.  While it certainly doesn’t contain enough content to warrant a purchase as a full priced game published on physical media, a quality common to many classic arcade games, it works perfectly as something downloadable on a whim, imbued with both modern graphics and classic gameplay.


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008
L.B. talks about the convergence of game designs and the idea of creating one universal model in a single game.


I was sitting in my friend’s apartment, watching him play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and ticking off the number of game design elements used. You duck and cover during the gun fights like in Gears of War. You climb around ruins like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider. You have rail shooting sequences. You have vehicle sections. What makes it interesting is that they are all competently sitting in one game. And it’s not just this title—many combat games are developing similar overlap in terms of their features. They are all marching towards being more realistic and giving the player all the options he could want in a fight. The question this raises is that if we are continually having our games mimic reality and allow the player to do whatever they would want to do in an actual fight, are we not basing this on a finite series of options? Isn’t there a point where you’re going to be able do whatever you want, where those features will be refined to the point of flawless? Could there eventually be one universal game design that competently lets you do anything in a game?


 


Lets not get into a semantics argument here, because I don’t mean level designs, stories, or weapons. I mean the basic physics and ways that you interact with the game environment. Nor is this really referring to an absolute recreation of reality. Games have already developed their own unique lore, as outlined in an excellent article in Popular Mechanics. Uzis are actually extremely accurate guns, but for the purpose of gameplay balance, most games make them much wilder. Pistols aren’t as useful at long distances as many games would have you believe. Not to mention the lack of recoil bruises and regenerative abilities of the average protagonist. I’m going to steer away from swords and sorcery for most of this essay, but I highly doubt many gamers would be pleased at having their sword get stuck inside an orc while swinging it either. But even deviation from the reality could merely be another choice for the player. Do you want to play on ‘real life’ difficulty, or set yourself up as a physics-defying super-human death machine? In either case, a big blow-out action sequence is still going to have a finite number of activities for you to do. Again, I’m not talking about weapons, plot, or basic environmental physics. This is just basic run, drive car, duck, reload, shoot, and electric slide actions becoming part of one unified standard.


 


With so many games copying and incorporating game designs from each other, the main difference between game options now really boils down to refinement. You might have a great FPS system in your game, but as soon as you jump into a vehicle your physics stop making sense and the cars become a pain to drive. Or, your great flight simulator becomes awful as soon as the kung-fu sequences break out. It’s a factor that developers have started to account for, and one of the most innovative ways is Midway’s method. All of the developers under that publisher share technology and resources. In the Gamasutra article cited, the developer explains that they actually borrowed the car physics and programmers from a developer who makes racing games for their free-roaming Vegas game. In return, they showed the other developer better streaming technology for their environments. Imagine a world where instead of a game being good at one thing and having a couple of mediocre sections, the mediocre sections were developed by an equally skilled group. Vehicles, gunfights, physics…these features would become so refined as to actually stream them all together. We would no longer distinguish a game about driving cars and one about shooting aliens. They would all become one game design, one epic experience.


 


A universal game design wouldn’t just stop with action games or titles where you’re directly in control of the protagonist. It could extend out to strategy, space combat, anything really. What else is Starcraft but an action game where you hover high above the battlefield? The concept has been experimented with before in games, but with the kind of refinement we’re talking about it’d be possible to mix completely unrelated players in one game. Take Left 4 Dead. One player controls all of the zombies, the others are all playing characters trapped in the fray. One is engaged in a strategic battle, the other is having a frantic shoot-out. A player who isn’t a huge fan of playing Halo may nevertheless buy a game where they get to control the battlefield while skilled players opt for FPS mode and try to take them out while they control armies overhead. Beyond the always promising broad economic perks of such a game, there’s the co-mingling of different players and preferences in one Universal Design. It’s not a game within the game, it’s a game that has every means of interaction possible in it.


Stephen Hawking once wrote that in order to create a universal formula for the universe, you’d need to design it like a series of maps. You need one kind of map to get around a park. You need another kind to tell you where a country is. One kind of map isn’t always going to suit your needs even if it’s just as accurate as another. It seems plausible that the same could be said for a Universal Game Design. You need a finite series of interactive options that change depending on what you want to do in the game. If I want to quantum leap into a space fighter and skillfully blast my way through a whole armada, it brings up a new series of options. If I want to coordinate a group of capital ships to surround that one pesky fighter, there’s a series of options for that too. A Universal Game Design doesn’t mean that there will be only one kind of game, it means that there will be one we can all play.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 11, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-11...

Much like the odd little release schedule of two weeks ago, there are two releases this week that are valiantly fighting for my own personal affection, one of which is a tremendous, big-ticket release, and the other of which happens to be an Xbox Live Arcade download.


Seriously, Xbox Live Arcade is on a roll this month, a roll that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.


In only a matter of time, I'll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.

In only a matter of time, I’ll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.


Rather than cop out as I did those two weeks ago and choose co-winners, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room and just acknowledge that the release that everyone has their eye on this week is Madden NFL 09.  The cultural phenomenon surrounding the tremendous franchise once known as simply John Madden Football is nothing short of fascinating, and despite the fact that every year I caution myself away from getting swept up in the unavoidable torrent of hype surrounding this yearly event, I can’t help but want to absorb every detail that might be hidden in every word written about the thing.  Sometimes I buy it, sometimes I don’t, but despite all of the advances that have come about in multiplayer gaming over the years, there’s still very little that is as exhilerating as getting the phone call: “I’ve got the new Madden.  You coming over?”


Of course, unfortunately for EA, much of the attention given to the new Madden game this year centers on its cover and not on any of the gameplay and graphics tweaks that it’s given the latest model of the flagship EA Sports franchise.  Specifically, there’s the presumed-to-be-retired Brett Favre, in glorious Packer green and gold, ready and willing to deliver a pass.  The cover was supposed to be a celebration of the player who exemplified the love of the game, a tribute to a man who in so many ways exemplified the best qualities of the game he played.  Now, of course, Brett’s a Jet, the airwaves have been saturated with the “saga” of his “battle” to return to the playing field, and nobody’s sure anymore whether his presence on that cover is helping or hurting the game that he is supposed to be symbolizing.


That aside, I almost want to get the Wii version of the game simply so that I can play the exclusive 5-on-5 mode.  As a playground touch football veteran myself, it may well trigger flashbacks of the “glory days”.


(drool)

(drool)


Of course, it’s impossible to hide my biases, and that’s why it actually crossed my mind to hand this week’s spotlight to Bionic Commando: Rearmed, the remake of perhaps my favorite game of all time.  Just having a good excuse to bust out the bionic arm again is going to be reason enough to not want to leave the house on Wednesday morning.  I can only pray that Capcom has retained the ability to take multiple approaches to beating a level, and I can’t wait to try out the Scorpion “get over here” mechanic of actually being able to use the bionic arm to pull enemies into close range.  My fingers are getting excited just thinking about this…if it lives up to the original, Bionic Commando: Rearmed might be the most fun I have with a video game all year.


Even past those two games, there are a couple more goodies on the way this week.  The DS gets Bangai-O Spirits, which should satisfy space shooter fans lamenting the dearth of such games on the Nintendo DS, and the Wii gets Line Rider 2: Unbound, which will at least be an interesting study in how to (or, perhaps, how not to) translate a flash game into a full-fledged retail title.  I mean, Line Rider is a killer little waste of time.


Check out the full release list, and let me know what you’ll be buying this week!  A Madden trailer is just past the jump.


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