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Tuesday, Feb 2, 2010
Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality.

Easily the biggest revolution in video games this past decade was the explosion of casual games. Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality. Jesper Juul’s latest book, The Casual Revolution, outlines the basic design principles of these games, corrects misconceptions about how they work, and makes the argument for designers to break out of their own perspectives. The last third of the book features interviews with casual game fans and the creative directors of some of the most successful games in the field.


Juul outlines two basic categories for a casual game: mimetic interfaces and downloadable casual games. In a mimetic interface, “the physical activity that the player performs mimics the game activity on the screen.” Bowling on the Wii or using a Guitar Hero controller are the prime example because the average person can look at the game and immediately grasp what they’re supposed to do. The other category is a “downloadable casual game”, which “are purchased online, can be played in short time bursts, and generally do not require an intimate knowledge of video game history in order to play” (5). A game like Bejeweled or Zuma can be understood quickly, unlike a lot of console titles which consistently presume that the player understands tenets of video game logic like “Go towards the shiny object” or “All bad guys drop ammo.” Common assumptions about the casual genre such as all gameplay must be short or that casual players don’t like challenge are untrue. Rather, it’s just that a casual game is very flexible about time commitments and difficulty. Juul writes, “a casual game is sufficiently flexible to be played with a hardcore time commitment, but a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played with a casual time commitment” (10). He uses the example of a game like Scramble, a coin-op game from the 80s. It’s an old game, but the simplicity of the design makes illustrating his point easier. You fly a ship around while bombing enemies, collecting fuel tanks, and seeing how far you can progress. The goals are explicit and only a narrow range of play styles (blow crap up, dodge bullets) will allow you to continue playing. Juul explains, “The problem with goals is that they may force us to optimize our strategy in order to win rather than do something else that we would prefer . . . games without goals or with optional goals are more flexible: they accommodate more playing styles and player types, in effect letting you choose what kind of game you want to play” (138). Examples of this principle in casual games would be Rock Band’s no-fail mode or Bejeweled’s untimed mode for those who just like to play without feeling pressured.


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Friday, Jan 29, 2010
Dragon Age: Origins constantly reminds us that our choices have consequences and that makes us feel important, but that feeling is taken away when we see the long term effects of our decisions.

So finally, Dragon Age: Origins offers an open ended, branching narrative without a karma system. This is something that gamers have long asked for from BioWare, a company known for making games that focus on choice and consequence. We know our actions have consequences because we see those consequences play out in the plot and character development. This combination of a branching narrative and plot related consequence is so effective at making our decisions feel significant that at times it seems like every little choice that we make will have a dire impact on the world. But what’s most remarkable about Dragon Age is how it can create this feeling of importance in us, and then take it all away when we actually get to see the long term effects of our actions.


There’s no explicit morality attached to our choices, and the story reinforces this ambiguity by putting us in situations that seemingly have no easy solution. A child is possessed by a demon. Do we kill the child or sacrifice his mother to kill the demon? This moral ambiguity makes any consequence more meaningful to the player since we’re not doing what the game thinks is best, but what we think is best. We’re not influenced by outside forces when making a decision, it seems.


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Thursday, Jan 28, 2010

I’m now deep into Mass Effect 2, and so far, I’m liking it a lot. I played the first game release week as well and liked it fine at the time, but I replayed it recently and enjoyed it more the second time around. I think in part that was because I was more familiar with the fictional world that Bioware has created for its sci-fi series. The more I knew, the more engrossing the story became. With that experience in mind, I decided to read the novel, Mass Effect: Ascension before diving into the new game. I’ve only read a handful of video game novels, but I liked that the author Drew Karpyshyn was also a designer on the game because it signaled to me that the book’s events were likely to be fully integrated into the canon of the games.


Mass Effect: Ascension takes place in between the events of the first and second games and features as one of its main characters Kahlee, who also featured in the other Mass Effect novel, Revelation. Here she finds herself at a facility for training young Biotics (those with psychic powers) and is particularly focused on a young girl named Gillian, who is autistic and has the potential to be a powerful Biotic.


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Wednesday, Jan 27, 2010
Playing a video game is fun, watching it, not so much.

Folks have noted that the aesthetics of video games have crept into Hollywood for a number of years.  One of the first times that I can recall someone discussing the idea of video games influencing film was back in 2002 at a media conference.  In a presentation called “Placing the Dominoes: The Issue of Free Will in Run, Lola, Run,” Angela Stephens noted that the titular character in Tom Tykwer’s film essentially “gets three lives” in the film to accomplish her run and that this notion may be derived from the pseudo-immortality of video game character “lives.”


While Stephens wanted to suggest that this notion complicates our own sense of free will because of how such illusions might alter our sense of how much control that we have over our own lives, such complicated readings are probably less common than the simple observation that the visual aesthetics of video games (especially action sequences) have often influenced cinematic visual aesthetics.  For instance, I recall watching Revenge of the Sith and thinking how much the sequence with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting over a lava field on chunks of rock resembled a platformer like Mario.


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Tuesday, Jan 26, 2010
What Weird Worlds offers is an enormous deck of variables: what aliens you meet and what gear you find, and shuffles them up every game.

The roguelike is a genre that is about developing skills to compete with randomness. While a basic core set of rules make-up the gameplay, the things that you will be encountering will always be presented randomly. There will be a different set of items for you to find, a different way that you’ll progress through the world, and the player must rely on their judgment and skill to progress. For many players in competitive games, the goal is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the effects of randomness so that they can always win. Greg Costikyan notes in an excellent post about randomness in games that “if we feel that we just got lucky—or, worse, that someone else won even though we were obviously the smarter player, because they just got lucky—we’re likely to think less of the game”. Yet creating a balanced game design where the randomness keeps players on their toes without seeming unfair is hard to do. One of the best examples of balanced randomness is the indie classic Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. Playing like a cross between Solitaire and Star Control 2, it offers an interesting take on games that randomly create their worlds because many sessions do boil down to pure luck. It still stays engaging precisely because the strategy of the game is learning to work with what you’ve got.


At the start of each session, you’re asked if you want to operate as a scientist, pirate, or military vessel. Ship type will decide which scoring system will apply to that session: military awards points for signing treaties and defeating enemies while science awards points for collecting artifacts and animals.  The size of the galaxy that you’re in adjusts how long the play session will be, enemy strength can be adjusted for those wanting to rev up the combat, and nebula mass can be changed to make navigating the map more difficult. Less nebulae means that the galaxy can be travelled around much faster. Playing as the science vessel is a fairly calm experience, you don’t have enough weapons to do much combat. You move around the galaxy collecting artifacts and trying to find ways to get various aliens to talk to you. The military version, on the other hand, is a tough grind as you search for stronger weapons then start taking on anyone that you think you’ve got an edge on. Piracy is a bit more random as you snatch anything that you can find. The scientist mission usually ends peacefully because you never bother with fighting while military missions typically end violently with you biting off more than you can chew.


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