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Wednesday, Jan 6, 2010
Rather than “liberate” the player, “The Midnight Club” download encourages a very specific action based on the player's own libidinous propensities: purchase of The Sabotuer, especially a new copy of the game.

I sometimes wonder if the Hayes Code and the FCC has led us to believe that sex never occurred before the advent of color.  Much like the film Pleasantville, Pandemic’s new game The Saboteur leans on the conceit of liberation being represented by transforming a black and white world into color.  More specifically and also much like Pleasantville liberation is marked initially by sexual freedom being the most obvious form of liberation.


The game’s opening sequence represents this concept visually as the player is greeted by a bare chested woman in black and white whose darkened form is slowly lit by the glare of stage lights and the camera pans back to takes in her whole hip swinging burlesque performance at La Belle Nuit.  Behind her emerges a backdrop featuring a fully colorized Paris cityscape.  It is, after all, the City of Lights.


The camera continues to pan back revealing a group of drunken Nazis enjoying the view, who are interestingly the only Nazis in the game not programmed to respond with suspicion to Sean Devlin’s (the game’s protagonist) any deviance from normative behavior while on the Paris streets (like climbing a building, drawing a weapon, or lighting a stick of dynamite).  Devlin himself is revealed at the bar and the player is quickly immersed in the first mission of the game, whose goal is to light up and colorize the currently black and white Paris streets by liberating the city from Nazi oppression.


That La Belle Nuit is in the first neighborhood that is colorized, the red-light district, is telegraphed by the stage performance.  The Parisian heart apparently beats to the sexual freedom embraced in its bordellos and strip clubs.  Later missions will also serve to free areas of the city associated with French culture and more traditional arts (like freeing the neighborhoods containing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower or stopping a book burning occurring beneath the Arc de Triomphe), but the freedom of expression that Nazi rule would stamp out ostensibly begins with this most basic expression of a liberated libido.


However, the game does not necessarily begin as described if the player has not purchased a copy of the game and downloaded a free add-on to the game called “The Midnight Club” or rented a copy of the Xbox version (for example) and purchased this addition to the game for 240 MS points (about $3.00).  A player loading up The Saboteur without the “Nudity” feature on will instead be witness to the same scene, but the stripper will be just barely clad in pasties, which in and of itself seems to have little bearing on the implications of the sequence that I have described above, particularly in terms of the game’s themes and those themes’ relation to the game play.  Additionally, though, a room in La Belle Nuit will be missing, an underground speakeasy featuring additional burlesque dances and a game that allows the player to unlock an additional pimped out ride for the game.


Now I realize that breasts can sell a product, but “The Midnight Club” is an interesting way of selling product as it depends on such a prurient interest on the player’s part in an interesting way. The literal value of “The Midnight Club” is contingent in part on the permanency of ownership.  As I see it, as a marketing device, “The Midnight Club” download suggests a different value than the one implied by the opening cut scene’s thematic purposes.  Indeed, rather than liberate the player, it encourages a very specific action based on the player’s own libidinous propensities: purchase of the game, especially a new copy of the game. 


While one could certainly rent and play The Saboteur and still get the vibe of the game, it seems unlikely that most players interested in the nude sequences are likely to want to purchase a download online if they intend to later turn the game back in to the video store.  Though $3.00 might be the value of temporary virtual nipples (assumedly one would drop a little more on real ones at a real club?).  However, it is probably a cost that is close to doubling the cost of the rental itself. 


Alternately, players looking for a copy of the game on the cheap could purchase it used, but since the code that ships with the game will only allow for a download to a single console itself (and assuming the original owner of the game would have wanted to see pixelated nipples), any used version of the game will be lacking the free version. Thus, once again the value of nudity is a few bucks more.  Making this purchase for $3.00 more sensible practically since the content would be relevant throughout ownership of the disk, but it still might be easier to simply buy the game outright, newly packaged with fresh, free nudity. 


It seems to me then that “The Midnight Club” rather than being a download intended to make some additional money on the basis of fans willing to purchase a game (as most downloadable content seems to exist for the purposes of gathering “a few dollars more”) that instead it might intend to serve as one of the primary basis for sales (as opposed to rentals) to begin with.  It seems an interesting gambit to maximize copies that go directly to the player as a single serve game rather than sitting on the shelf of some video store to be pawed at promiscuously by a heap of players whose money is being thrown at the rental agency rather than at the publisher and developer. 


If such thinking was part of the thinking about the distribution model for “The Midnight Club” (and certainly the club could simply have been included on the disk without the histrionics necessary for downloading the content if the only thought was to protect people from questionable content that they didn’t necessarily want—the club can be turned off in the Options menu simply by selecting Nudity to off), it does raise questions about the thematic or narrative necessity for these sequences at all in The Saboteur.  If the nudity is at all essential to telling the story, shouldn’t it already be there?  Doesn’t this inclusion suggest pure gratuitousness?  Or, does the fact that the pasties covering these characters act to only narrowly alter what is going on in the scene suggest that the scene’s message can be clearly conveyed with obscured nipples or covered up nipples? What purpose then does nudity serve in telling a story?


I recently watched a documentary called Sex and the Cinema in which a variety of directors discussed the purpose of gratuitous sex scenes in movies, suggesting that the best sex scenes serve the additional purpose of speaking to the characters relationships and identities in the story (ironically, I had also just watched Desperado again and had been thinking how the gun fight that follows the sex scene in that film actually speaks more about the relationship between that film’s main characters—all the pushing and shoving and stepping protectively in front of one another done by Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas speak more clearly to how they feel about one another then the dialogue or sexuality in the film—nevertheless, like a sex scene all of this information is communicated by seeing it visually through the bodies of the characters).  If sexuality and sexual images speak in any way to the themes of The Saboteur is the nudity necessary to understand those themes?  If so, are those themes compromised by this sales technique?  It would be interesting to know how the developers feel about the marketing of the game and whether or not it “obscures” their sense of the usefulness or mere gratuity of the scene.


Assuming there is any merit to understanding La Belle Nuit as an expression of the spirit of liberation in the wake of the “colorlessness” of oppression, one way or the other the metanarrative of the game complicates the message of the narrative.  The libertine theme is confused by a marketing campaign depending on a sense that restricted sexual imagery can pay off in the short term at least.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 5, 2010
So...how about that STEAM sale?

There’s a funny quirk to digital distribution that people are starting to pick up on: you make a lot of money by lowering the price of a game for a short period of time. The idea of a temporary sale is called price discrimination, where you take a calculated loss in order to attract a customer who would otherwise never buy a product. An essay on Black Friday Sales by Arnold Kling explains, “If you need something now, you have to buy it whether or not it is ‘on sale.’ But if the purchase is discretionary, you may only buy it ‘on sale.’ The store keeps its prices high ordinarily, in order to pick up profits from the price-insensitive shoppers. The store puts items ‘on sale’ on rare occasions, hoping to pick up profits from price-sensitive shoppers.” Temporarily dropping the price means that you can leverage a lot of product at people who would normally denounce it as too expensive, and you can pull those prices back up to make sure that you don’t lose money to people who would’ve paid full price anyways.


The weird thing about this principle when applied to digital distribution is that a sale will generate enough buzz about a game to make people purchase it even after the sale is over. You effectively create new customers by dropping the price temporarily. Consider the World of Goo experiment where the company announced a “Pay as Much as you Want” sale. A Rock, Paper, Shotgun article by John Walker on the phenomenon noted several interesting behaviors. Minimal cost was $ .01 for the game. You could pay them however much you wanted on top of that. More than twice as many people chose to pay between one and two dollars than those that chose to pay between one cent and one dollar. PR from the sale caused a boost in sales at both STEAM (of 40%) and on WiiWare (of 9%). Both services charged the usual $19.99 for the game and neither offered a physical copy. News websites that noticed the sale reported it as a bargain along with the usual gossip. Profits after one week for an item that had been on the market for a year came in at about $100,000. That’s not even accounting for the numerous benefits of distributing that much product. If World of Goo 2 or a different 2-D Boy project was going to be announced, they would’ve increased potential consumers for that game through simple brand awareness.


A much larger example is Valve’s online service STEAM, which is a digital store, update service, and game client all in one. All STEAM games automatically patch bugs. Once you buy the game, you can download it onto any machine you like and access is controlled through your STEAM account. The process of perpetual value is something that they’ve demonstrated several times over now. A Gamasutra interview with the service’s director Jason Holtman explains, “Traditional retail wisdom says that lower price points are associated with lower perception of value, and price adjustments are only downward over the long term…But in a connected market, you can shift prices up and down, and people don’t care. You can change prices instantaneously. Customers are incredibly sensitive to pricing. You can adjust the price by five dollars, or a dollar, and you can see the demand curve shift.” The interview is about a STEAM sale for Team Fortress 2 which dropped a game normally priced at $19.99 to $ 2.50. Holtman reports that the increase in sales lasted for not only the sale but well into the following weeks. Gamers would buy the product themselves or purchase gift copies to give to their friends, which STEAM allows thanks to its social networking service. He notes that retail sales were generally unaffected. Holtman concludes, “That phenomenon demonstrates a new, somewhat-paradoxical, property of product value in a fully-connected service economy: devoid of the scarcity of goods, a lower-priced product actually increases the overall product’s value, because it increases the size of the community that surrounds that product.”


Making these kinds of sales possible is not just an exercise in putting together an online store and creating fluctuating prices. No one seems to be totally certain how much of the digital distribution market STEAM controls but estimates run from 70% to 40%. Whatever the figure, another Gamasutra article highlights the fact that the second leading competitor to Steam, Impulse, controls about 10% of the market. The competitive spirit came to a head between these companies when Activision announced that one of their most popular FPS titles, Modern Warfare 2, would be wrapped with STEAM. Other distribution channels refused to carry the game. A column by Derek Smart explains their decision better than I could, “Steam wrapped games (with or without third party DRM) can be sold at any ESD (Electronic Software Distribution) site and even on retail discs. What makes this possible is that Valve generates the serial numbers for the product, then gives it to the developer/publisher who then hands it over to the ESD site operator who adds it to their server backend so that each purchase is given a unique key. This is how come you see some Steam wrapped games (e.g. Dawn Of War 2, Fear 2 etc) on Direct2Drive. When the game is installed, the Steam client downloads it and asks for the key. In this case, the authentication is done by Steam servers.” In other words, every single person who buys Modern Warfare 2 for PC has to download STEAM to even turn it on. Faced with the prospect of losing even more customers to the competition, many of these services simply refused to sell the game. Smart concludes his column by pointing out that the decision probably did more damage than good because the game is still just a mouse click away.


What’s wild about these services is the degree to which a company can take an old intellectual property, decrease the cost, and then ride the resulting buzz into a new wave of sales when the game resumes the normal price. It works like a perpetual motion machine. Price decreases all the way to the bottom of the wheel, then gets pulled back up as more consumers take interest in the product. A company like Valve is the most likely to reap the benefits of this because they constantly update their games and can justify charging about the same price for very long periods of time. The quality stays the same, only the numbers change.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 22, 2009
Thank you for making 2009 such a great year! Here's a few odds and ends you might have missed.

I’m taking a break along with the rest of Popmatters for what’s left of 2009. It’s been great year, and I really appreciate you folks stopping by to read Banana Pepper Martinis. At the risk of looking pretentious, I thought I’d throw up a few links to other websites I’ve worked on while I cook up some new stuff for 2010.


Back in June and March The Escapist published two articles by me, The Parables of Gaming, which discusses religion in games and a more personal piece about going 5 days without the internet. I also helped produce a retrospective on The Warriors for EDGE Magazine, although I don’t think that one is online at the moment. Finally, I participated in a large collection of essays on video games with my particular one being on Bully. The other essays in the book can be read from the right column. Personal favorites of mine from the book were Corvus Elrod’s piece on Ultima Underworld and Nick Fortugno’s essay on Shadow of the Colossus. And although it hasn’t been released yet, I put together a retrospective on Ocarina of Time for the soon to be released Kill Screen.


If you’re up for something long and wordy, I’m in the habit of posting my research papers from law school on my personal blog just because I hate to see them go to waste. A very long discourse on Privacy Rights in MMORPGs along with a brief overview of developing issues in Criminal Copyright Law. They weren’t written for a general audience, so they’re not really oriented around being entertaining. But you might find them relevant to your interests. In that same spirit is a history paper on legal changes after the black plague in England.


I also throw up the things on my personal blog that are too academic or too dense to really be read by someone unless they really want to know something. I did a four part series of essays applying Jungian Dream analysis to video games. You can find Part One here. The rest are in chronological order as I completed them, so just scroll into the later months on the blog. There’s also a piece that explains my basic style and reason for producing these kinds of blog posts along with an explanation for how I find the time to produce all this crap. If you liked the Lester Bangs and Pauline Kael write-ups, I went full Book Nerd and wrote a long essay about what Samuel Johnson would bring to video game criticism, a weird ramble about the ending to Battlestar Galactica along with a prime example of me actually trying to be funny were also highlights.


Finally, I was able to produce some retrospectives on some actual video game critics themselves for Critical Distance. The first was about the ARG Pixel Vixen 707 and her too short career. The second was a lengthy piece on Ten Years of Penny Arcade.


It has been a great year, and I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of great people. Have a great holiday season, and again, thank you for taking the time to stop by and check out the BPM along with the rest of Popmatters.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Dec 18, 2009
The first-person shooter has made compromises for consoles and is now flourishing, but the same can’t be said for the real-time strategy genre.

Whenever one compares PC and console games inevitably the subject of controls comes up, paricularly the fact that controllers simply can’t offer the same speed and precision as a mouse. This means certain PC-centric genres, like first person shooters or real time strategy games, must make compromises and concessions in order to compensate when they’re brought to consoles. The first-person shooter has made the necessary compromises, and as a result, the genre is flourishing on consoles, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the real-time strategy genre.


Both speed and precision are necessary for any first-person shooter to work. If headshots are instant kills, then the controls must be precise enough to actually allow the player to hit the head, and if our virtual life is on the line, we must be able to hit the target quickly before we’re killed instead. The solution for this issue of speed is rather simple: slow down the game. Halo did this quite well; Master Chief can’t run, and he even walks at a fairly slow pace. Combat is slowed as a result, giving the player extra time to consider his options. Compare an online game of Halo with the still popular PC game Counter-Strike and this difference in speed becomes obvious.


There’s also a heavy focus on cover in many console FPS games: Killzone 2, the Rainbow 6: Vegas games, any Call of Duty, and Gears of War to name a few. Not all of these games have specific cover mechanics, but they all have regenerating health, which encourages the use of cover. The use of cover itself slows down the pace of a game considerably and has the added advantage of making the player more precise as well. Enemies will also get behind cover, which means that they’re usually sitting still and all that the player has to do is train our sights on their cover and wait for them to pop out. Hitting a moving enemy in a console FPS is still far more difficult than it is on a PC, so most console FPS games are structured in a way that makes moving targets less of an issue.


But cover itself doesn’t solve the problem of precision, “auto aim” is needed as well. Auto aim helps make the player more precise by automatically moving the camera towards an enemy, giving players an easier shot. Early console FPS games had a very judicious use of auto aim. Take the classic GoldenEye for example, the use of auto aim was so blatant that your gun would actually turn to shoot at enemies even if the player was standing still. Compare that to the more advanced and elegant implementation in Modern Warfare 2, which uses what is essentially an “auto aim button”. Players hit a button to look down the sights of their gun, a button not in many PC shooters, and if they’re looking at an enemy when they hit this button, the camera snaps to that enemy giving the player a clear shot. Releasing and hitting the button again makes the camera snap to another nearby enemy, giving the player another clear shot. These compromises for speed and precision have made the first-person shooter a viable and massively popular genre for consoles, but the same can’t be said for the other PC-centric genre, the real-time strategy game.


Most RTS games on consoles try to mirror their PC counterparts exactly, and whenever they do, they inevitably fail to effectively translate the experience. Halo Wars, and Command and Conquer 3 try to replicate the genre like this. They both try to keep all the little intricacies of the genre intact, and while both are certainly playable, they’re also still plagued with problems of speed and precision. The control sticks cannot scroll across the battlefield as fast as a mouse can, and if the speed is increased to compensate, then selecting individual units becomes impossible. Command and Conquer 3 made no concessions for the console, but as a result, the controls are overly complicated, requiring players to flick though menus while fighting. Halo Wars makes resource management automatic and confines base building to pre-selected zones, but selecting small groups of units is difficult, especially if they’re off screen. In order to effectively translate the RTS experience on a console, these kinds of minor concessions aren’t enough; the genre must be radically changed. 


In that regard, Brutal Legend is a step in the right direction. The RTS portions of the game are played from a third-person perspective with our avatar being the commander who was once invisible. There is no base building at all. The strategy lies entirely in the units that you train, knowing when to build what kind of soldier and how to best use it. But this new approach brings with it new problems. Because of the third-person view, it’s hard to see what units are selected. The maps are small and your avatar can fly, so speed is not a problem as players can quickly survey the entire battlefield, but a lack of precision is the game’s biggest hindrance. You must be standing next to a single unit in order to select it, which means jumping into the middle of a battle if the unit is in combat, and if the desired unit is in a group, singling out the one that you want is painfully frustrating. There is a surprising depth to the strategy in Brutal Legend, but the lack of precision makes it difficult to take advantage of that depth. To date, there is only one RTS game on consoles that offers players a control interface with the same speed and precision of a mouse: EndWar.


Like Brutal Legend there’s no base building, but there’s also no resource management at least not in the traditional sense. You begin each battle with only three units, and as you take over certain building, you’re allowed to bring in more units. What sets EndWar apart is its use of voice recognition software in place of a mouse or a controller. We’re only allowed a limited number of units out a time, and to select one, we only have to say “Unit X.” We control our army though short phrases that can be issued no matter where the camera is on the map, there’s no need to scroll back and fourth from one unit to another giving orders. Selecting an individual unit is quick and easy, and we can jump around the map by saying “Camera unit X.” The voice recognition is precise and fast, solving both major issues that plague console RTS games. Removing the base and resources altogether complements this new interface as there are fewer menus to worry about, and therefore, fewer phrases to learn. The biggest complaint about EndWar is that the strategy boils down to a game of rock, paper, scissors: helicopter beats tank, tank beats APC, APC beats helicopter with a few other units thrown in for good measure. But as far as interface goes, this kind of radical approach is what the genre needs to succeed on consoles.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009
Solving the mysteries of Assassin's Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.

One might observe that the opening few hours of Assassin’s Creed II resemble the pacing of a story told in a still life painting (that is: going nowhere fast).  Blessedly once the player has a larger sense of the picture of the game as its vistas and views unfold, it becomes a canvas much much more vividly alive.


While this metaphor between painting and game might seem just a cute criticism, it is also a rather appropriate one for a game that is set in one of the most fruitful eras and locations for painting in Western history, the Italian Renaissance.  Also, it is notably a game particularly focused on vision and seeing as the game’s protagonist, Ezio, is an assassin who can only get his bearings in the world by scaling buildings to overlook the places in which he will be hunting his prey.  This need translates into one of the major objectives in gameplay. Unlike other open world games, which usually feature a fairly clear sense of the layout of the place that the main character will be residing in through a map in both compass form and/or accessible through a pause menu, both Assassin’s Creed games require the player to uncover the details of such maps by reaching perches noted on a map that is otherwise obscured by a fog of war.  The fog of war is removed when the player figures out how to reach a perch and presses a “sychronization” button that results in a long sweeping camera pan around the city revealing its heights and depths to the player on the main screen but also as it clears away the obscurity of the mini-map.


Renaissance painters are frequently cited as the chief developers of the landscape painting in the history of art, so this camera pan, which has qualities of the landscape painting (revealing the immensity and grandeur of size of human surroundings) seems particularly fitting for this second game in the series.  After all, it is set within this time period. 


The Healing of a Madman

The Healing of a Madman (1494), Vittore Carpaccio

While one might note that landscape painting very often revels in showing the small stature of humanity in relation to their surroundings, art critics have noted the complicated relationship between landscapes and human beings especially as they relate to human power and authority.  The central thesis of Kenneth Robert Olwig’s Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic is that in landscape painting the viewer discovers that “our environment, conceived of as landscape scenery, is fundamentally linked to our political landscape.” Olwig’s observations concerning the landscape painting that developed during the Renaissance is especially indicative of this correlation between nature and the political.  For instance, he describes the world controlled by a Renaissance prince in terms of how it is viewed as landscape by such a ruler:
One characteristic of that world is that it was observed at neither ground level nor from a vertical point infinitely above, but somewhere in between—a compromise, as it were, between the vertical and the horizontal.  From the vertical axis were taken such elements as pagan gods and goddesses floating in the sky and tableaux showing the unvarying cycle of the season; from the horizontal axis, pastoral landscapes of Virgilian inspiration opening out to the horizon, that is, reaching deep into the recesses of an elongated stage.  The potentate viewed the entire spectacle from a well-placed, elevated seat.  HE was the force that made it all happen and now he could see it all—an essentially harmonious universe—going through its paces before his commanding eye.
Interestingly, in Assassin’s Creed 2 such tableaux’s become the object of Ezio’s studied eye and not that of a Renaissance potentate.  Having to crawl up the walls of Venetian churches or bell towers in Florence, Ezio finds himself at the “top of the world” to study and map the region and its doing.  That so much of Renaissance Italy’s heights are marked by churches and the like, though, is indicative of Olwig’s thesis.  As much of the game suggests, most of the powerful men of this period were directly or indirectly related to the church, and thus, the “elevated seat” of rulers could often be mapped to the elevated steeples and bell towers of the churches of the area and the men who control the knowledge of the world and cosmos that occupy those spaces and would normally then “control” those heights.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558), Pieter the Elder Bruegel

That Ezio climbs to these heights himself is indicative of his character as assassin and general troublemaker.  In attempting to figure out his bearings and to suss out the mysteries that underlie the landscapes (both their physical space but also the political realities that the cities represent and that he will involve himself in) before him, Ezio takes it upon himself to share the perspective of the vertical and horizontal worlds controlled by his opposition.  That Ezio is capable of surviving on the rooftops is suggestive of his challenge of those normally “seated” there to view the spectacle.  He wants to be able to view this spectacle too.  He may be able to wrest control of the heights, or at least, do so long enough in game terms to understand the lay of the land beneath him, what treasures and objectives that it holds (again, in game terms, since the mini-map provides information on collectibles and mission starting points).  In this sense, the game mechanic of revealing maps by climbing towers in order to understand how to proceed next is emblematic of the narrative, as those physical spaces represent the political world that Ezio needs to map and wreak havoc upon.

Thus, landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game.  Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape.  Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.  Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.  To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.  The apple of Eden involves coupling the concept of rebellion against authority with knowledge, thus, overcoming one’s lowly stature as mere mortal and becoming powerful “like a God.”  While taking on such authority through knowledge is warned against in the traditional views of this story, the man that so comfortably scrabbles over rooftops and cornices, the assassin Ezio, simply seems less afraid of a fall.


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