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Wednesday, Oct 8, 2008
Stardock has released a reduced but free version of their political simulator.

With the conventions over and vice presidents chosen, the electoral process is in full gear in America. Both sides have chosen candidates based on the gimmicks and audience they claim as their base, manifesting political divisions that have existed since Nixon first launched a campaign based on these nonsensical cultural divides. As an impressively neutral column over at The Economist explains, any hope of those cultural divides being put aside for the sake of saving our Nation have been all but forgotten. The Republicans all jeer about the liberal media whenever the flaws in their platform are pointed out, the Democrats ignore every flaw in their economic plan that doesn’t involve taxing the rich. Palin is legitimately inexperienced and ignorant of anything beyond the few issues she dealt with in Alaska. Obama’s inexperience is equally a legitimate point, making the Third party arguments more interesting than ever before in this election. And the fact that I’m comparing the Vice-Presidential nomination and the Presidential nomination’s qualifications instead of say, how they plan on saving the economy, speaks volumes about how idiotic the process has finally become. We will, as with the past two elections, get the President we deserve in this country.


I was not overly kind in my review of Stardock’s The Political Machine 2008 but I also admitted that I could very easily be biased because I just wasn’t in the mood for a lighthearted game about Presidential Elections. I’m not sure many Americans are at this point. Yet it must be conceded that any game that induces some kind of discussion about the election has value. Stardock has recently released a free to download shrunken version of their game that takes away your ability to make up candidates or tweak variables. Instead, you play as Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin in a set 24 week period. Just the mere act of pumping deceitful ads and tweaking your campaign message to your target state as a player heightens one’s awareness of the process in the real world. It is still not the deep and complex experience I pined for in my review, but perhaps it does not need to be. Whether you’re painting Obama as a snooty liberal or McCain as a dying old man, participating in the action raises awareness. And if we can do that, perhaps we’ll deserve a better leader than the ones we’ve been getting.


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Monday, Oct 6, 2008
An in-depth analysis of Ico based on the ideas from the Zarathustran Analytics. Spoilers abound.


Fumito Ueda’s Ico is hailed as one of the first mainstream games to really inspire emotion and potent characters. Sometimes to appreciate a video game it’s best to frame it not only using a simple method but also looking at it from a critical angle. In this specific instance, Ico raises a really interesting question because it crosses the disingenuity barrier that Jonathon Blow describes in many games. Specifically, he refers to how a game where I’m waiting for a character to unlock a barrier while I defend them creates a disingenuous relationship. I’m hanging out with them because of circumstances, not because I care. I’m keeping them alive to open the door and keep the plot moving, not because I’m worried about their safety. How does Ico follow a similar game design and yet surpass this issue?


 


Ueda’s two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both contain interesting elements of animation that really enhance a sense of fragility in the avatar. Both of the protagonists from his games have gawky, awkward running and walking animations. Contrast this to a game like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, where the characters move like Olympic athletes and are the epitome of physical perfection. This is also highlighted by the fact that a stick is your main weapon for much of the game. When you do make the transition to a sword in Ico, it’s heavy and you can tell it drags down Ico’s arm. This awkwardness of presentation carries over into Yorda as well. When she climbs up stairs or a ladder, she carefully steps on the same leg to get up. When Ico is pulling her across a room at full run, her arms flail and you can tell she isn’t used to moving at this pace. Contrast this to the agile and liquid fast shadows that hunt both of you while you move through the castle. A real sense of fragility, of being inferior to the monsters that hunt you is communicated through the animation. The game begins to bridge the disingenuity gap by animating the characters as fragile and thus getting the player worried about them. Contrast this to a game where you play some ultimate badass who is then handicapped with someone much weaker and you see the dilemma. If the game is making me feel like I’m a scruffy but weak kid, a different set of emotional expectations develop as opposed to being Super Death Guy.


 


The game design takes the relationship established by the animation and further enhances it.


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Monday, Oct 6, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-10-06...

It seems so long ago that LucasArts was known for anything other than their Star Wars games.  Once upon a time, it may actually have been known more for its classic point ‘n click adventure games than the prize license it wields.  Maniac Mansion, its sequel Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road...these are games that LucasArts built its non-Star Wars reputation on.  Lately, it’s been…well, pretty much nothing.  Nothing, that is, until tomorrow.


Now, we have Fracture, LucasArts’ foray into the world of new-IP first-person shooting.  As with any new IP in this genre that’s not exactly hurting for games, there’s a hook: namely, that one of your guns can raise and lower the surrounding terrain.  Look, this is like playing Populous as one of the people on the ground.  Potentially, this could be (pardon my gushing) AWESOME.  Raise the ground to provide yourself with some cover, reach previously unreachable platforms, really confuse some poor sap who happens to be standing on a hill…the possibilities are tremendous.  This is the sort of mechanic that tends to only reach its potential when the sequel (or the sequel to the sequel) hits, but the idea of this one sounds great.


If you can defeat your enemies by creating impromptu ponds underneath them and drowning them, I’m so there.


I talked last week about having a hard time letting go of my old devotion to Sonic the Hedgehog, and this week features another of my old standbys that I have a hard time letting go of: Crash Bandicoot.  Granted, the last couple of Crash games have been just fine, honestly, but they’re not as absorbing and certainly not as novel as the original PlayStation versions of the games.  Part of that might have something to do with the fact that Crash, as a character, was designed with the limits of the PlayStation in mind; a large part of Crash’s character design was around creating a character using polygons that looked like he was actually made up of a bunch of polygons.  Crash has always looked a little awkward, but it was perfectly natural on the PlayStation.  The current generation of systems hasn’t quite figured out how to render the bandicoot such that he looks natural in HD.  Maybe Mind Over Mutant can figure out the secret.


This year’s editions of EA and 2K’s competing NBA franchises come out this week too, and hey!  There’s an Etch-a-Sketch game of some sort coming out for the PC, too.  Who wants to bet they get sued because someone shakes the microprocessor clean out of their laptop just trying to clean the screen?


What are you looking at this week?  What did I miss?  Scope out the full release list and a trailer for Fracture after the jump!


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Wednesday, Oct 1, 2008
I found this flash game thanks to Play This Thing!.

There are a variety of barriers that come up when you try to coerce someone into engaging with a video game’s narrative. The first inclination is to have them roleplay a character that lives in that story. This has a few problems. For starters, the player might be repulsed by the role you’re asking them to inhabit. They might not like what they have to say and do in the story or game design. If you solve that by completely removing all traces of personality, then the player may be irritated at the lack of expression and feedback available to them as a deaf-mute protagonist. The natural solution to that dilemma is to give the player absolute control over their character’s appearance and personality, but this tends to alter the roleplay relationship into one of caring for your creation. Attempts like Mass Effect or Fallout are impressive, but they are still operating on a connection much more similar to a parent-child scenario than actual roleplay. The peak game of this parental connection, The Sims, illustrates this psychological shift best. It isn’t you inside that house, it’s your little man or woman or whatever. So it still leaves a fundamental question: is there some way to engage a player with characters and story in a game that circumvents all of this?


Yes, and it’s surprisingly simple: chuck the baby and keep the bathwater. Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller is a flash game in which you don’t play as any particular character. You instead control three separate characters in a three part story-panel. Depending on where you position the characters in the initial ‘Once upon a time’ panel will affect their presentation in the middle ‘When they grew up panel’. Put the girl on the poor, deserted half of the panel and she becomes an evil wizard. Leave one of the men on the green, white castle portion and they become an armored knight. The middle panel features a similar set of options: place the man inside the cage as the prisoner, make the woman the knight, and then dictate the outcome of her duel with the wizard (whom you created). You can use this character placement to dictate how the romantic relationships turn out in the final panel along with who dies and who wins the battle.


This engagement method is, like The Sims, founded along the principles of giving the player a dollhouse to play in. When you add a narrative though, a distinct shift occurs: I’m not guiding the characters to see what happens to them in the plot, I’m directing them to the outcome I’ve created for them. Frankly, given the amount of time I spent exploring and tweaking three little people and seeing the results, I’d say it solves the engagement problem quite nicely. You can find more of Benmergui’s stuff here.


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Monday, Sep 29, 2008
The fun and wacky world of lawsuits and what may happen when they go online.

I’m going to start this blog of by saying two things.


One, I am in no way a qualified legal expert and you should consult a licensed attorney if you have further questions. Actually, it would be awesome if you didn’t even mention me. Two, all the opinions stated here are conjecture. I am simply making guesses about the future.


There, now that all that noise is out of the way, let’s talk about something that doesn’t often come up with video games: the law. More specifically, the potential lawsuits and rights that people are going to start fighting for as the internet develops. Up until this point, video game litigation hasn’t exactly been a page turner. A lot of patent, copyright, and intellectual property disputes make up the bulk of the legal questions that have gone to court. Is Donkey Kong ripping off King Kong? Nope. Does Game Genie violate Nintendo’s Intended Use policy? Nope. A couple of inventive companies have started patenting game designs…which might lead to some interesting exchanges, but given the millions it would cost to declare these illegal, most companies will just tweak their own games to not violate the patent. I could go into video game violence cases but these won’t go anywhere until quantifiable proof that games (as opposed to bad parenting, drugs, or boredom) caused the violence. But with the growing market of MMORPG’s and online services, a whole new breed of virtual lawsuit is on the horizon.


 


Griefing is when someone in an online game or community disrupts someone who is taking it seriously or having fun for the sake of getting them to lighten up. Whether it’s by screwing with an online match or hacking Second Life, playing pranks with people online can be pretty funny. I can honestly say that back when I was first getting used to internet culture, the first time I made a fool of myself by spazzing online was both humbling and helpful. You have a couple of beers, realize it’s not that big of a deal, and become a better person for it. Nor is there much to discuss in terms of legal issues. The general reaction of most courts to “they said mean things to me” is to recommend the person grow a thick skin. Short of being able to show quantifiable damage (therapy bills or worse), there isn’t really a law (depending on where the lawsuit is filed) to base a legal claim on.


What’s becoming tricky is that people ARE starting to need therapy. This is usually a little clause in the average insurance contract which explains that in the event you make a damage claim caused by someone else, the company can sue that person to get their money back. So when someone hands their insurance company a massive therapy bill for a destructive prank pulled online, the company doesn’t pay the Piper. They find the townsfolk who ticked him off. Most of this trauma is coming from MMORPG’s, where people invest years of their life into property and characters within the game. Erin Hoffman explains in an article for The Escapist the extreme trauma one player went through from losing her character and items due to pirates. We’re a long way from players buying insurance for their virtual lives, but they can certainly be traumatized by the loss at this point.


Another reality is that property with genuine economic value is now at risk in-game. A recent article in Wired points out that a lot of these online games are starting to have in-game items that are worth real world money. 20 million game dollars and a fully trained technician on EVE can get you 150 dollars on Ebay, which is chump-change when you factor in Player-controlled Empires that can get into the tens of thousands in value and have hundreds of people working for them. The culture of griefing may be relatively harmless in something like Second Life or online competitions, but costing someone real money is another issue entirely. That’s a quantifiable loss you’ve inflicted. Micro-transactions make this more complicated. If the person spent real money on that starship and you just blew it up…how is that different from blowing up their car? The main defense the griefers use is a sound one: the in-game policy you’ve agreed to clearly states that it isn’t your property. The thing is, none of those companies are going to defend this once some enraged player files a class action lawsuit. This is an amateurish guess, but why would the company not merrily hand out the ID of any player someone has a claim against? Why would they spend money defending your right to make their clients miserable? The alternative is start doling out items to anyone claiming a loss, which would work fine except once these things have an economic value the company can no longer just print more money when things go sour. Other players will cry foul when their own hard earned battlecruisers are suddenly worth less.


 


Which brings us to the inevitable debate of whether anyone owns the virtual stuff in those video games anyways. As a blog post at tobolds explains, the heart of the issue is whether you really want to own stuff in an online world. The author isn’t a lawyer but the conversation in the comments properly highlights most of the problems from the gamer’s perspective. An expansion pack devalues your virtual property, but does that mean we sue over it? If it becomes recognized as property, does that mean I can be taxed for my Level 70 Paladin? What if I’m selling him? Does the company get a cut of that? If you want to get technical, the game company handed me a Level 1 Paladin and I invested hundreds of hours making him into an epic Level 70 Warlord. Who gets to keep those improvements to the property? Virtual Property rights are hardly a simple “Make it like Real life” situation. A completely different set of laws and conduct need to be established and accepted by people in the real and the virtual community.


Griefers are hardly a unified club or sect, as the Wired article mentioned above notes many are just having fun. But like any good party or fun joke, eventually someone is going to take it way, way too far. California’s reaction to such a tragedy is already setting a precedent for the Federal level, Congress is looking at drafts of a cyber bully law as I write this. Nor does allowing a company to completely own their virtual property make sense after a certain point. A lot of those games are, quite frankly, worthy of a place in history. World of Warcraft has over ten million users and changed the entire economic model of video games. Once that game stops being economically viable…what’s to keep them from just shutting it down? How do we ensure people will have an accurate understanding of the names and places of the game world? Should a historical preservation society step in, create servers, and keep the game running? Is it really all that different from preserving a piece of land? It’s hard to say where the hammer is going to come down in all this, only that it has to eventually.


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