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

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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008
L.B. Jeffries goes over the various problems with gauging how hard a game should be for developers and some potential solutions.


Despite how seemingly obvious the concept may be, there is actually a great deal of discussion about how difficult a game should be. Why should a game be hard if the goal is to get as many people playing as possible? The original purpose of having challenge comes from the arcade days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Games weren’t even meant to be beatable by the average person, just to be interesting enough to earn a set amount of money. On the Pickford Bros. blog, Pickford remembers the break from this model with the first console game he made. The publisher simply requested that the game be winnable. Now games have to have a last level, Mario actually gets the right Princess eventually, and the game has a point where it finally ends. How do you balance the desire to have the player beat the game with the need to make that accomplishment satisfying?


 


Tailoring difficulty for a player’s enjoyment is a much tougher task than it sounds. The traditional method of counting quarters was a simple gauge of success for a game; you knew the game was fun because people were playing it. Now a developer has to factor in a huge number of variables. For starters, the players themselves don’t always know where they stand with a game. The easy mode for Devil May Cry 4 may be highly appropriate for someone new to the series, while easy in Bioshock is borderline boring for anyone even remotely skilled at games. Chris Bateman explains in a fascinating blog post how tricky this balance becomes even if you have the alternative of making the game adapt to the player. With adaptive gameplay, the best strategy is to lose a few times so the game makes itself easier. If the player gets killed too many times before they have learned how to play, by the time they figure it out and are ready for a challenge it’ll be too easy. Finally, there is the simple problem of some players enjoying difficulty more than others. Challenge and overcoming it is still a source of satisfaction for some people. Bateman ends the post with the lament that there is simply too little information for developers to really know if they’ve got the right level of difficulty for their audience.


Beyond balancing difficulty is the simple question of whether it serves any purpose in the game at all. Back at the Pickford blog, another article goes into the various game design options that let a player break down the difficulty at their own pace. Although these games still utilize difficulty to a certain extent, there is always a way out. In some games, you can just level grind until your characters can overpower a boss. Interactive fiction or puzzles rarely maintain their difficulty because you can always check for hints online. The origin of such accommodations in these games was to make sure that someone who enjoyed the plot would always be able to get to the end. After all, as Pickford notes, when you’re telling a story, getting to the conclusion is the reward, not overcoming a tricky boss fight. Using GTA 4 as an example, Pickford notes that keeping up both challenging gameplay and also having a compelling narrative then becomes problematic. We all want to know what happens to Nico at the end, but doing those last couple of missions over and over can ruin the pace of the story. They just become annoying. Where is our way out if we don’t care about the satisfaction of saying we beat the game? If we’re there for the experience, is any difficulty that stops it really appropriate?


 


Yet just because the difficulty is hard to get right doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. What if we used difficulty in conjunction with the plot? A more organized approach beyond just making everything have more health or deal more damage. For example, going back to Bioshock, if you play the game on Easy, hunting the Big Daddy becomes a light affair. Yet that’s contrary to their role in the story as fearsome protectors, which you appreciate more in the higher difficulty settings. You don’t really get the full narrative experience if you play it on a low difficulty. If you play the game on Hard, a Big Daddy is a very difficult, strategic affair that can take several tries. Would it have been better, for the sake of the story delivering an experience, if the Big Daddy was still hard to kill even on Easy? The method seems to work in more free-form RPG’s like Fallout. If you pick a fight with a super mutant in that game, rather than talking your way out, it is always guaranteed to be an unpleasant exchange for you. That’s consistent with the story and the setting: the super mutants are extremely dangerous and poised to take over the West Coast. Yet in the couple of instances where the game forces you to engage in direct combat with them, it offers a lot of help to lighten up the exchange. What one game does and the other doesn’t is that they adapt the difficulty with the plot. A person who is represented as a badass stays a badass.


Such considerations of difficulty become even more prevalent as multiplayer becomes a huge feature in video games. Why develop a brilliant A.I. or carefully balanced difficulty system when players can just go online and fight real people? Rankings and choice of opponents give a player the same set of options that developers spend years developing themselves. It also lets them feel that sense of accomplishment that beating a tough game provides as well. In an article with ‘The Escapist’, Kieron Gillen muses that challenging games are quickly becoming the equivalent of ‘80s metal. They’re such an acquired taste and appeal to such a small group that they aren’t able to find a home anywhere except the underground scene. This seems like a loss in terms of what difficulty could potentially add to a game if there was a bit more thought behind it. The satisfaction of beating a difficult game or having the highest score will always be there for players. It cannot hurt to wonder what other uses challenge in games may have for creating a game experience.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 30, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-30...
From Gamecock\'s Hail to the Chimp

From Gamecock\‘s Hail to the Chimp


Is it surprising at all that there are but 11 releases (ten if you knock off one version of Gamecock’s Hail to the Chimp) for the week of the American Independence Day holiday?  Probably not.  It’s one of the first full weeks that schools are out, it’s a popular time for vacations, and it’s all but ready made for outdoor fun, what with fireworks having to be an outdoor activity and all.  Just about the last thing on anyone’s mind is finding another reason to stay indoors, and maybe that’s a good thing.


For those who absolutely must get their kicks underneath the cover of the infinite-SPF protection of a roof and walls, however, there are a few goodies in this nearly-empty bag.  Hail to the Chimp is notable for being one of the few attempts at a “party game” (does Fusion Frenzy even count?) on the Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms, and if you’re not sick of election mania already, it might just be the thing for you.  The Wii is getting a pet sim called Purr Pals this week, which surely surprises nobody, and the PSP might have a hidden treasure on the way in the form of Fading Shadows a platformer for people who like puzzles in their platforming more than baddies.


Soo…we're drawing stars on jellybeans then. (From Atlus' Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2)

Soo…we’re drawing stars on jellybeans then.
(From Atlus’ Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2)


Atlus, however, comes through again with a big release for the summer season in the form of Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2.  The original Trauma Center was one of the benchmark releases for the Nintendo DS, offering up the opportunity to use the DS stylus as a scalpel, a brilliant move on their part, especially given how obvious it seems after the fact.  The second in the series apparently addresses the consequences of the first, and you’ll surely be taking on lots of difficult surgeries and finding body parts you never knew existed.  Is that a pancreas?  To the garbage with it!


So once again, three cheers for Atlus, still giving summer gamers reasons to rejoice.  The full (or all but empty, if you prefer) release list and a trailer for Under the Knife 2 is after….the jump.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 23, 2008
L.B. takes a look at some of the issues raised in the ZA comments about assessing a game in the culture of rabid fans and supporting new video games.


Much derision and digital ink has already been spilled on the topic of fanboyism and video games. One cannot post a negative review of Smash Brother Brawl, no matter how popular you are, and not expect a mountain of steaming hate to be heaped at your door. The same goes for countless other revered games, be it Halo 3 or Twilight Princess. Any attempts to pose a poignant and insightful criticism of a game that has been hyped by the media is generally a good way to get kicked in the back of the head. Yet give it a few months and the tides always roll back, the fans move on to another game. Or even better, they calm down enough to actually notice the flaws in the game and maybe agree with you. What kind of relationship do we then establish with this “no negative thinking allowed” approach to criticizing newly released games?


 


The first question is what exactly is motivating these people to rabidly defend this stuff. The always-illuminating Brainy Gamer had a great essay and several comments that hit at the heart of the issue. The average underage gamer probably only gets one or two games a month along with one console. There is a natural instinct to defend that purchase as the best choice because it is, no matter what, that gamer’s choice. Abbott also makes the distinction between a critical piece and a review, since one involves the cultural importance of a game and one involves whether it’s worth shelling out the cash. One is looking at the game’s importance in terms of the growing canon of video games, the other is looking at how much fun it is. These do not always coincide nor do many consumers necessarily care. Zork is a historical landmark in video games. The average player should look at it to gain a better understanding of the medium’s origin and appreciate the clever dialogue. But I can’t imagine many people advising someone to shell out twenty bucks for it just to play for fun. When we tell people they really need to play a game, how much should that advice be conditioned to our wallets? Because once someone drops the hefty price on a game that’s fresh out the gate, that’s it.


 


Another observation on fanboys is Leigh Alexander’s oft-cited piece the Aberrant Gamer essay, which outlines the problems in expecting any kind of objectivity from gamers or reviewers anyway. We are psychologically conditioned because of our familiarity with a mascot to like a game. We trust Mario, we like Master Chief. Anything they do is going to garner a more favorable response than something entirely new. It’s also inherently a part of gamer culture to identify with its symbols and icons.


Yet beyond the rabid screaming posts of death that makes many journalists quiver, there is also the fear that giving a game a bad review is like giving video games themselves negative input. GTA IV received so much press and attention from non-gaming media that for the brave few who pointed out flaws in the games, it almost comes across like they’re insulting video games themselves. They’re insulting our public image by criticizing our daring attempts at being art. Which makes dealing with the fans all the more difficult when you know you’re shooting them and your beloved art form in the foot.


 


All of these issues are something a critic should be aware of before ripping into a newly released game: some people like a certain title no matter what, there will be plenty of time to say a game isn’t a classic, and the standards of greatness are not the same as the standards of marketability. And like it or not, game critics play a role in developing an artistic medium in our slightly disturbing way. The final issue with these problems is the outcry that objectivity is the ultimate solution. The problem being…people who want this don’t quite understand what they’re asking for. Objectivity is not about being unbiased, it’s being able to accomplish a task without any emotion or concern for the consequences. A truly neutral reviewer is perfectly capable of explaining why a game deserves a 1/10 just as much as they are capable of explaining why a game deserves a 10/10. They do not see a game or art, they see a thing. What the objective viewpoint then asks is what they want the thing to do. Do they want it to be good? Bad? Irrelevant? And in my personal experience with lawyers and objective thinking, most people are horrified, disgusted, or confused by this. Not only is the objective opinion fully capable of agreeing and supporting everything you say, it’s capable of making your opinion look stupid and idiotic at the same time. An objective opinion may look at a game neutrally, but it is still being steered by something.


 


Unlike Sergeant Slaughter, who wisely advised me as a child that knowing is half the battle, I believe that being aware of these issues is pretty much all of it. What you choose to do with your writing while being mindful of these issues is up to you. Between the gamer who has already spent cash on a game they now must like, the personal prejudices, and the dangers of objectivity…how do we talk about video games? Lester Bangs, a prominent music critic, once wrote, “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.” It does not seem so great a leap to conclude that the problem with fanboyism is that they are looking at one face and game critics are looking at another. Destructoid’s 4.5 for ‘Twilight Princess’ comes from the lack of innovation and how quickly the game will be forgotten. 1UP’s perfect score of 100 for the same game comes from how fun and rewarding it is for Zelda fans thinking about buying it. Such a system of dual-perspectives on video games is not just necessary in terms of proper critical assessment, it’s about being fair to the games themselves. Not every game can change the way we think and play video games. There can only be so many breakthroughs like Ocarina of Time per decade, per century. For a critic looking at both sides of a game, perhaps the higher standard of the future can wait for the right time.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 23, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-23...

Wow.


You know, I’ve seen a lot of summers at this point, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that video game publishers generally don’t like to release things in the summer.  It’s probably a matter of something like, oh, too many kids playing outside, or perhaps not enough gift-giving holidays in the season’s general proximity.  Whatever it is, I’m used to the summer being a slow time, a time when I can catch up on games that I didn’t give a fair shake the first time around, on games for which my Gamerscore is a highly mockable, measly 5/1000 (Hello, GTA4). 


Not this year.


This year, summer is a season of life, of flowers, of party games and shooters and the requisite movie tie-ins that usually make up the majority of the summer schedule, now relegated to the background in favor of triple-A releases given a chance to shine in the sparse desert of releases.  Except that this year (or, at least, this week), it’s not even close to sparse.


How about a little love for Tom Hamilton, am I right?

How about a little love for Tom Hamilton, am I right?


Of course, my house will certainly end up with a copy of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, loathe as I am to admit it.  Whether I buy it at full price ($59.99?!) now or wait until it gets a bit, oh, cheaper is another story.  Hail to the Chimp looks to be a fantastic way to capitalize on election mania in party-game form, on the off-chance you’re not utterly sick of election mania yet.  Battlefield: Bad Company is the one getting all of the advertising dollars, and the advertisements have me this close to buying it, though I’m still waiting for a sense of the buzz on it to make a final decision.  Sports nuts get Top Spin 3, just in time for Wimbledon.  And there’s even plenty for the kids, what with WALL-E making its way into homes tomorrow and even an American Girl game coming out for the PC this week.  There is, in the most literal sense, something for everyone this week.


Of course, there’s nothing I could possibly be more psyched about this week than the upcoming release of Atari’s reimagination of the Alone in the Dark series.  This is a series I’ve been playing since it originally appeared on the PC in…jeez, 1992, and none of the games have really approached the wonder of the first.  Perhaps it’s because the original was the progenitor of the cinematic style that is the series’ trademark (using polygons instead of hand-drawnsprites was a pretty big idea at that point), and the rest couldn’t help but live in the shadow of the first’s definitive style and innovation, but it hasn’t quite been the same since the original adventure of Edward Carnby.


The new Carnby wields a mean sword.

The new Carnby wields a mean sword.


The new, 2008 version of Alone in the Dark appears to be trying its darndest to follow in the footsteps of the original game’s innovation, but not in the graphical arena, given that graphics are sort of plateauing right now.  No, this new Alone in the Dark has a gameplay innovation: it’s episodic, and in an interesting twist, players can play the episodes in whatever order their little hearts desire.  Want a true blockbuster experience?  Play it from beginning to end.  Want to turn it into Memento?  Play it in reverse.  Want a Tarentino-esque experience?  Play the middle episodes first.  It doesn’t matter!


What would be interesting to see is just how many people play for a while starting at the beginning, eventually get frustrated, and skip to the end.  Not that I ever would.  No sir.


The full release list, and a trailer for Alone in the Dark, is after the break.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 16, 2008
Having survived ten weeks of wearing the serious game critic pants, L.B. takes a break and shares a little story about video games and himself.

Every ex-core gamer has a particular couple of games that they were really good at. Those games, back when free time was abundant, that they utterly conquered. For me, it was always Starcraft. It wasn’t that I was unbeatable and this was all before the Korean domination, but I had a weird knack for efficiency in that game. I once won a bet with a superior player because I said I could get a higher score than him. When he blew apart my last Protoss drone, I happily collected twenty bucks as my ratings for resource collection, efficiency, and kill to unit all soared past his. To this day, I have no idea how the score system worked or what I did that made me score so highly. But I still like to think that I was one of the most efficient Starcraft players back in my prime.


 


But that was another time and place. A year out of college and way out of my video game prime, I was sitting in a restaurant kitchen in Lake Tahoe wondering how I’d gotten myself into such a mess. A little too much Steinbeck and way too much fear of growing up had made me pack everything I owned in a car and drive across the continent. I moved to the first internet job I could find, patiently waited for the ski season to fire up, and on the first day of skiing I turned my left knee’s inner meniscus into jelly. The ski accident left me a limping mess with an extremely unsympathetic landlord. I couldn’t wait tables anymore and most of the other ski jobs didn’t pay enough. So I did the only thing I could: I grossly exaggerated my resume and got a job in a restaurant. I’d been a prep cook for a couple of months before the ski season hit in a cafeteria, so I figured they couldn’t be all that different. Come in early, slice & dice, drink a beer, and fight over the music on the stereo for about 6 hours.


Unfortunately, a short-order restaurant and a cafeteria are about as different as night time and a kick to the groin.


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