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January 2012

Put me in, coach!


Sports games are wallflowers at the video game dance. Routinely ignored or dismissed, they rarely appear on best-of lists, nor do they get much GOTY love by reviewers. Last year NBA 2K11 (an extraordinarily well designed game by any measure) got a few cursory nods from critics, but when we talk about important titles or influential games, we seldom pay much attention to sports games.

Lessons in Game Design
It’s a shame because sports games have much to teach us about game design - especially with regard to thoughtful iteration and sustaining player engagement over time. The mistake we make with sports games is to assume they’re all lazy sequels with minor tweaks and simple roster updates. Slow-witted Madden players will amble in a mindless herd to buy the latest version, regardless of quality, so why bother making a big effort? Or so the thinking goes.

The Madden series may too often herald minor changes as major features, but other franchises have more carefully iterated from season to season, listening and responding to player feedback. These games borrow  shrewdly from other genres to offer players a hearty menu of gameplay modes and options. While other game genres struggle to stay relevant, sports games like the FIFA series and MLB The Show continue to find news ways to add value to the player’s experience.

I’m a big fan of Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show franchise, and I believe it offers some valuable design lessons for anyone willing to look. Here they are in no particular order.

Rethink “Gaming on the go”
I’ve played handheld games for as long as there have been handheld games, and one thing about them has never made sense to me. Why can’t I use my portable device to extend play on my console? Shouldn’t this thing be able to grab my character - progress and stats intact - and let me continue adventuring, puzzle-solving, stealing bases, or whatever on the road; and then export that character - progress and stats intact - back to my console to continue playing? Given that most portable games are derived from console counterparts, doesn’t this just make sense?

The forthcoming MLB The Show 12 will let me do just that. If I’m willing to pony up for both the PS3 and Vita versions of the game, I can transfer my player, team, season, franchise - you name it - back and forth between units with the game’s cloud sync feature, and never miss a beat. The console and portable versions are 100% feature compatible, so when I’m on the road, I’m not playing a stripped down version of the game. Portable gaming can mean different things to different players, but this kind of gaming on the go is - ok, I’ll say it - a game changer for me.

Re-think “Persistent World”
JoeSports games have always relied on role-playing, but in recent years many sports titles have fully implemented RPG design into their core systems. “Road to the Show” mode in MLBTS includes character customization and baseball analogues for quests, leveling up, items and inventory, and even a dynamic story setting. A player-created character can live in this universe from high school to retirement, experiencing dynamic events from season to season, winning and losing, and gradually unfurling his own unique story.

Granted, sports games have the advantage of an unchanging play space (baseball diamond, football field), so designers needn’t endlessly generate new content or environments. But there is great appeal in creating a character whose player-earned properties span many seasons over many years. My favorite player that I created 15 seasons ago was recently sent down to the minors. His skills had eroded with age, and I did everything I could to keep him in the Bigs. But his day finally came, and I have to admit I took it hard. As role-playing goes, I couldn’t have felt more connected to him or more engaged with his story.

Re-think “Modes of play”
Most games have a binary concept of play modes: solo and multiplayer, typically with three available degrees of difficulty. Sports sims like MLB The Show (Out of the Park Baseball is an even better example) offer players far more granular control, as well as layers of play modes that are less about difficulty than modes of fun. If you enjoy choosing every pitch, you can do that. If not, the AI will take care of it. If you want to make every trade decision for every team in your league, you can do that…or let the AI handle it…or choose something between those two extremes.

Be a manager. Be a player. Be the commissioner. A good sports game positions you in a variety of settings, altering your play experience and enabling multiple points of view from which to exist inside the game’s universe. And, of course, if you prefer to play with live opponents, sports games typically give you many more options for controlling the parameters of such games, including minute control of the mechanical properties of your “weapons.”

Rethink “Player Agency”
If narrative games create a possibility space for players to generate or discover their own stories, sports games offer a captivating vision of that possibility space, unconstrained by branching-paths or author-driven plot points. I’m not suggesting authored narratives are a bad thing; nor do I think Mass Effect-style storytelling is broken or inferior. But a game like MLB The Show shares important characteristics with Minecraft, especially in the ways they rely on strict rule-sets that constrain player behaviors, yet also enable imaginative meaning-making within that space.

KoufaxI know the story of the 1962 LA Dodgers, who won 102 games, but still finished second, one game behind the San Francisco Giants. In a baseball sim I can attempt to change that story, and through my own efforts engineer a better conclusion by making different choices, assigning different roles to my players, and generally trying to be smarter than real-life manager Walter Alston, but limiting myself to only the tools available to him. Or I could make a few trades. Or maybe limit the season to 50 games. It’s up to me, but whatever I choose, a story will emerge.

Every game is a story. Every series. Every season. A good sports game lets me tightly adhere to “history” or go hog wild with possibilities. I once made a team that included Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb. We won lots of games…but lost the World Series. How I managed to do that is a whole story in itself. My story. My humiliating story...

To dream again

Ahh, do you not feel the grand romance of the wide open skies? The roaring invitation of the wind? The soft call of the clouds? You are a boring, boring creature.  --Willi, the Bird-Man in Wind Waker

LinkWhy is every new Legend of Zelda my drop-everything game? Why, after 25 years of playing essentially the same game over and over, does my heart race with excitement at the arrival of a new one? And, importantly, why am I so willing to overlook its obvious flaws?

Zelda Blind Spot
Why does my Zelda blind spot extend even to its designers’ stubborn unwillingness to update outmoded systems of character interaction and item discovery? Why must I be endlessly reminded that red rupees are worth twenty? How many times must I be exhorted “Don’t spend it all in one place!” Why must every shop owner deliver the same introductory spiel every time I engage them? The Legend of Zelda is the premier adventure series in the history of video games. Couldn’t somebody at Nintendo knock out a few more animations and lines of dialogue?

My blind spot obscures even more issues. Why, after nearly 15 years of navigating a 3D space, is it still so hard to get Link facing in the right direction to move a block or open a chest? When, after giving us so many cool gadgets and weapons to control, will Mr. Aonuma finally allow the player to control the simple action of making Link jump? And when will I - a grizzled veteran of Zelda games dating back to the original - finally be given the option to skip, or at least condense, the interminable hand-holding series of tutorials at the beginning of every game?

I ask these questions facing a paradoxical reality: I love these games. The latest Zelda release, Skyward Sword, was my favorite game of 2011. Not the best game and certainly not the most innovative, but nevertheless the game that delighted me more than any other.

How to make sense of this? I suppose I could chalk it up to nostalgia, but that word doesn’t quite characterize my experience. It’s easy to find familiar moments that resonate through the franchise. Link waking up at the outset. Link opening a treasure chest. The stirring moment when Link embarks on his adventure.

Hyrulian Tales
Despite their formal similarities, it would be a mistake to see these moments as cut-and-pasted from one game to the next. They are purposeful narrative motifs that connect Link to each of his previous incarnations. They resonate because they operate within a ritual storytelling tradition more akin to fairytale than epic poetry.

Critics often describe Legend of Zelda games as classic Hero Journeys in the tradition of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. While it’s easy to find connections here - the call to adventure, supernatural aid, descent to underworld, etc. - I see more resonance in Zelda’s connections to Japanese folklore and, especially, the series’ deep roots in Shintoism.

Great_Deku_Tree_Artwork_(The_Wind_Waker)Link often enters a “Sacred Realm” (“Silent Realm” in Skyward Sword) where he encounters beings inflicted with suffering caused by Ganon’s corruption of the earth. All beings in nature suffer from this polluting force: spirits, trees, forest creatures, and humans alike. Link must set things right by healing the land, restoring harmony to humans and nature.

In essence, he must embrace the Shinto philosophy of humans and nature as one, and he must accept his pivotal role in Shintoism’s indigenous vision of Japan (Hyrule) as connected to its ancient past. Link is that link.

Zelda games touch me in ways other games simply don’t. They express a lighthearted spirit of adventure, tinged with melancholy. Link’s youthful naiveté gradually gives way to an awakening that can only emerge through trial and discovery. This recurring journey from child to adult requires Link to accept his own mortality. I like Dan Merrill’s description in his terrific essay “Immortal Childhood”:

[Zelda games] express what it means to live bound to the flow of time. They are stories about the beauty of mortality, the journey from childhood to adulthood and from life to death. They are about growing up and leaving behind the immortal playground of childhood, letting go of the familiar to venture out into the world that lies beyond.

Whimsy World
My attachment to these games is more than philosophical. Every time I enter the world of a Zelda game, I’m enveloped by a whimsical universe that’s always richer and deeper than it appears. Whimsy gets a bad rap. When games strain for it, the results are painful and embarrassing. The Zelda world is full of delightfully playful, mischievous, idiosyncratic characters, and they are all loved and all welcomed without judgment. Even the “evil” characters have something to tell us about suffering and regret.

My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose. --Ganondorf in Wind Waker

BeedleWhen you visit Beedle’s Airshop in Skyward Sword, Beedle is furiously pedaling a makeshift bicycle which turns the gears that power the propellers which keep his shop aloft. If you leave without buying anything, he stops Link at the door, berates him for adding weight to his vessel, and opens a trapdoor through which Link falls to the ground. It’s a silly surprise, but Beedle’s ridiculous contraption fully belongs in this world.

If you’re more curious (and Zelda games have always rewarded curiosity), you may decide to sleep in Beedle’s shop until night. If you do, Link will wake up on Beedle’s Island where the airship is parked at night. If you find Beedle at his campfire, he will reveal to Link that his shopkeeper persona is not his true identity. I won’t say more than that. Go talk to him yourself. Things are often different at night in Zelda games. Find Rupin the Gear Shop owner at his mother’s house after sunset. Once again, things aren’t always as they seem.

“The rising sun will eventually set, A newborn’s life will fade. From sun to moon, moon to sun… Give peaceful rest to the living dead.” — Inscription on Tomb Door in Ocarina of Time

Zelda games present a broader scope of humanity than other games. We see preschool children playing games, teenagers locked in petty arguments, young adults, middle-aged men and women; elderly figures foolish and wise. It is a world of misfits and eccentrics, and Link must messianically save them all.

At the end of Link’s Awakening, we discover that the idyllic paradise of Koholint Island is only a dream of the Wind Fish. Link must awaken the Wind Fish to complete his mission, but that awakening comes with a cost: Koholint Island and all its inhabitants will vanish, and Link will be cast into the ocean, adrift on a piece of his wrecked ship. “It be the nature of dreams to end,” the Wind Fish explains to Link.

Like another character on another island, we will yearn for the next great adventure.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.* –Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

It Lives!!


The holidays are a time for love, joy, even an occasional miracle. I should know. Such a miracle unfolded before my eyes this past Christmas, in full view of family and friends: I fell in love with my Nintendo 3DS.

You heard me right. A long-forgotten aqua blue device with a depleted battery suddenly sprang to life and filled my holiday with 3D reveling. Joy to the virtual world! A handheld immaculate conception! How did it happen? Most unexpectedly.

When the 3DS first appeared, I wrote about it and expressed dismay at the dismal launch lineup, high price, and befuddling absence of an online store for apps and games. I patiently waited for Ocarina of Time 3D to arrive, played it for a week, then proceeded to shelve my 3DS and forget all about it. A few months later Nintendo dropped the price by a third, angering many of us early adopters. Pundits wondered if Nintendo had finally lost its portable mojo, after 20+ years of market dominance. Meanwhile the iOS/Android market exploded, and a slew of sub-$5 games signaled the end one-trick-pony game devices.

No company responds to being pressed into a corner better than Nintendo. History suggests that the company tends to narrow its vision when it leads (“Who needs optical discs?!”), but when Nintendo senses a whiff of its own irrelevance, it springs to creative action (“Who needs motion controls?!”).

I fell in love with my 3DS for four reasons, all converging this holiday season. The usual YMMV caveats apply, but if you’ve been on the 3DS sidelines, or if you can’t say for sure which drawer you stored that overpriced gadget in, now may be a good time for you to take another autostereoscopic look at the 3DS.

Reason 1: Games!

The 3DS launch lineup was disappointing, but it’s worth remembering that the most successful gaming device in history, the Nintendo DS, launched with even fewer games, none of them notable…Ping Pals anyone? The Urbz?

It’s taken awhile (too long, for many), but the 3DS now has a growing library of games that easily justifies purchasing the system. Here are my favorites in no particular order, with snapshot descriptions of each. I’ll talk in more detail about these games in my upcoming podcast.

  • Super Mario 3D Land - The best portable Mario game ever made. It’s gorgeous, beautifully balanced, and a terrific example of judiciously implemented 3D. EAD Tokyo managed to marry its floating Galaxy game universe with older side-scrolling Mario games, and the result is a platformer that sparkles with fun and imagination.
  • Mario Kart 7 - If you’re a close observer of the dev scene, you may know that Retro Studio has played a major role in designing top-tier Nintendo games like the Metroid Prime trilogy and the criminally under-appreciated Donkey Kong Country Returns. Last month’s Nintendo Power revealed that the studio quietly collaborated with EAD Tokyo on course and character design for Mario Kart 7, and the effort shows in the game’s immaculate fit and finish. It’s Mario Kart in 3D with hang gliding, underwater racing, and rock-solid online competition. What’s not to like?
  • Pushmo - a cuddly gem of a puzzle-platformer, and the best title to emerge so far from Nintendo’s revamped eShop. The video below describes the game better than I can in words. Pushmo is called Pullblox in Europe.
  • Mighty Switch Force - another stylish puzzle-platformer by Wayforward (A Boy and His Blob), the player controls a fembot named Officer Patricia Wagon, a “cybernetic cop send forth by the Galactic Penal Squad to put the Hooligan Sisters back behind bars.” You must turn translucent blocks solid, often in midair, while navigating environmental hazards and enemies. The game uses 3D to enhance the puzzles…and provoke gleeful giggles you vanquish baddies with blocks that suddenly materialize to crunch them.

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked - one of my favorite DS titles has been revamped for the 3DS, but it’s mostly the same tactical JRPG that too many players missed in its original incarnation. I wrote about the game back in 2009, and I love the game no less fervently now. If you can overlook some gratingly effusive voice acting, Devil Survivor will bring you many hours of smart, well designed role-playing fun.
  • Cave Story 3D - The definitive indie game gets a loving 3D makeover that honors the core spirit of the game, yet also manages to enrich it. Rich Stanton at Eurogamer described it as a “chibi pop-up book with the 3D effects…and it looks wonderful, both faithful and surprising.” I can’t think of a better way of describing it. Despite what you may have heard, Cave Story 3D isn't just a re-release with a new coat of paint. There's artistry here that's more about intepretation than reiteration. I wrote about Cave Story in detail back in April of 2010.

Reason 2: Nintendo Love

3dsLet's face it, Nintendo screwed up, and they're trying hard to fix it. The eShop is finally worth visiting because it now includes news, games, apps, and preview videos in 3D. In other words, it's actually begun to resemble a shop where you might buy something.

The "Ambassador Program," aka, "The Great Iwata Guilt-Trip Giveaway" was an effort to "show appreciation" to consumers who bought a 3DS in the first months of its availability. I was initially skeptical of this maneuver, but when I saw the final list of 20 free games - 10 classic NES and 10 GBA titles - I whistled a different tune. It's hard to dismiss some of the best games in the catalogs of both systems, including franchise launchers Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda; and other terrific games like Yoshi's Island, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Fire Emblem, Metroid Fusion, Wario Land 4, among others.

Finally, Club Nintendo at long last looks like a club worth joining. In addition to nerd-cool trinkets for frequent buyers, players can now trade in coins earned from registering games to purchase new games in the eShop.

Reason 3: It's a Zelda machine!

Zelda (1)If you're a Zelda fan, the 3DS is a good way to go. In addition to being backwards-compatible for DS Zelda titles Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, seven other games are also available for the system:

  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
  • The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
  • The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition (free via eShop until Feb. 20, 2012)
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
  • Four Swords Anniversary Edition is especially worth noting. It includes new levels that pay sonic and visual homage to previous Zelda games, and, unlike the cumbersome 2002 version, this is multiplayer Zelda without the crazy GBA-to-Gamecube connectivity issues. Even if you don't own a 3DS, pick this one up for your DSi or borrow one from a friend. It's a blast.

    Reason 4: It's still a pretty cool device

    Despite the 3DS being on the market since last March, lots of people have yet to lay eyes on it, as I discovered spending time with family and friends over the holidays. I still get a kick out of showing it off. Unfortunately, now that more quality games are available, few people hand it back to me quickly. Mario Kart 7 and Pushmo, in particular, make my 3DS disappear for mysteriously long periods of time. 

    I should also mention it's sturdy. Like most Nintendo hardware I've owned over the years, it can take a licking and keep on ticking. Good thing, too, because I've got a 4-year-old gamer girl with butterfingers.

    At the risk of filling this "glass half-full" cup to the brim, I'll also note that I'm excited about some 3DS games on the horizon, especially Resident Evil Revelations (which I've briefly played); Luigi's Mansion 2 (be sure to check out the 3D video for this one in the eShop); and new Paper Mario and Animal Crossing games. I'm also a big fan of Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii, so an enhanced version of that game, Monster Hunter 3G, has me pretty excited too.

    So maybe the 3DS got off to a rocky start, but 4 million unit sales in the U.S. (more than the Wii in its first nine months), suggest things may not be as dire as some of us thought. Who knows how smartphones and tablets will continue to impact Nintendo's gameplan, but for now I'm happy to say my 3DS was a welcome part of our holiday festivities.

    Happy New Year, everyone!