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September 2008

Just stop thinking

Megaman9promoart Playing Mega Man 9 is like submitting yourself to a battery of tests on the health and well-being of your gamer cred. Have you still got what it takes to overcome eight robot masters, or have the ravages of time eroded your once-mad skillz? Fortunately the game provides more fun that turning your head and coughing, but you must prepare yourself for a disappointing diagnosis.

I'll just get this out of the way now so I don't have to mention it again. I died roughly a dozen times before reaching even the halfway point in the opening Concrete Man level. Falling into gaps, mis-timing jumps, making the same mistakes and paying for them over and over again - ignominious, humiliating defeats.

Had I never played a Mega Man game before, I might have walked away and resumed my pleasant life with loving friends and family. But no. I've beaten this game before, and I know I can do it again. Okay, maybe not exactly this game, but I plowed through Mega Mans 1-3 with nary a scar (a rose-tinted memory blurring many controller-tossing moments), and if I could do it then, by golly I can do it now! It's not like running a marathon (which I never did when I was younger anyway); surely my age-addled brain can still manage to signal my fingers to run, jump, and shoot my way through the easiest level of the game!

So I took a break, ate some dinner, drank a glass of wine and returned to the game - whereupon I proceeded to sail through the level all the way to Concrete Man, whom I defeated on my first try. No sweat. Somehow, it all came back to me. Maybe it was the food, or maybe the wine, but upon reflection I chalk it up to not thinking. I know how to play Mega Man games (the early ones; I bailed after the series left the NES) because the Mega Man games wired me to them in ways I believe are still imprinted on my brain.

It's a fascinating thing when you stop to consider it. But, of course, the very act of considering it prevents me from succeeding. As long as I'm aware of playing Mega Man - remembering how to do things, noticing the care and fidelity to the spirit of the original this new game conveys, and generally thinking "Wow, I'm playing Mega Man again!"...I'm a dead man.

If you're new to the series, Mega Man 9 is a wonderful way to jump in. It's not just an homage or a loving tribute to a classic. It's a full-on original Mega Man game built from the ground up to severely test your skills, regardless of where or when they were honed. If you're a Mega Man old-timer like me, this game will make you feel like you've come home. Just don't think about it too much.

FYI, Mitch Krpata posted a terrific piece on his experience with the game, refracted through his memories of Mega Man 2; and Mike Walbridge has an "exhaustive analysis of 8-bit Mega Man music" that's well worth a read too.

Voice acting reboot

Rec1 Narrative video games continue to explore new and better ways to tell us stories in vivid  environments with engaging gameplay. Technology plays a big role in all this, of course, and I've written here about the many ways game designers are leveraging procedural AI and other game engine approaches to make this happen.

But as my friend Iroquois Pliskin points out, innovation needn't be aimed exclusively at programming and technical improvements. Creativity can emerge from anywhere, aimed at anything. Simple human imagination can make all the difference, especially when applied to things that don't specifically rely on technology.

That's a good thing, because if there's one aspect of video games that could use an infusion of imagination, it's voice acting. Unlike other elements of game design, which have progressed measurably over the last 20+ years, voice acting remains mired in needlessly conventional, amateurish approaches to production. Developers too often accept shallow, 1-dimensional performances by actors as good enough for video games. Caricatures and stereotypes pass for characters, even when the writing transcends clichés, which isn't often.

Game writing may not often reach very high (and the nature of the medium may have something to do with that), but from an actor's point of view it doesn't matter; nor is it an excuse for poor acting. An actor must make a script come to life, regardless of its flaws or limitations. Believe me, good actors can often rescue a poor script with cleverness and imagination; but no amount of dramaturgical brilliance can salvage a play or film from bad actors. If you've seen Shakespeare butchered before your eyes, you know what I'm talking about.

If you want to hear first-rate voice actors elevate the toughest material of all - exposition - to something like lively drama, take a look at what Khary Payton (Drebin) and Debi Mae West (Meryl) achieve in Metal Gear Solid 4. Payton is saddled with endless streams of backstory and psycho-babble, nearly all of which he enlivens with humor, personality, and stylish characterization. West performs her own miracles. Here she is hauling a truck full of exposition in a scene with Snake.

Compare that to this chunk of awkwardness:

I honestly feel for the actors who must deliver such insipid dialogue, but they do themselves no favors here. Both fall prey to indicating; that is, playing the character in a way that tells the audience exactly what we are to think of him or her, instead of trusting the audience to discover these things for ourselves. In this case, the actor is the "cool detached RPG hero," and the actress is the "innocent young princess" - both from the RPG central casting department. I'm not saying these actors could have made this scene good; but they certainly could have avoided making it worse.

I spend most of my time teaching acting and directing to undergraduates, and I see them struggle with certain tendencies that limit their effectiveness and diminish their believability. These problems are common to young or inexperienced actors; but they can also arise with good actors who don't have time to adequately prepare for their roles. Perhaps not surprisingly, I see many of the same issues in video game voice acting. Aside from indicating, here are a few other common ailments:

Over-animated: Young actors often assume that acting means being larger than life. They make everything bigger than necessary to convey the character to the audience. This usually results in portrayals reduced to emotions like "nervous," "angry," or "excited." Emotions are adverbs. Actors can't play adverbs.

Forced formality: Actors sometimes try to charge their dialogue with weighty importance or magnitude. This usually results in an arch, fabricated style sure to provoke unintentional laughter. Again, no verbs, no acting. Two examples:

Johnny One-Note: Locking onto an inflection, a dialect, or a speech pattern to the exclusion of other meaningful choices narrows the actor's range and diminishes the character to a repetitive line reading machine. David Hayter's portrayal of Solid Snake has always troubled me in this regard. It seems to make no difference what he is saying: the lines are all delivered exactly the same.

Incompetence: Sometimes video games make fools out of people who have no business being actors. In my profession, we try very hard to give actors the tools they need to be stageworthy, even when they have very little experience. Apparently, some game developers simply don't see, or don't care, how intolerably bad these "performances" are. Things often hit rock bottom when localization issues are thrown into the mix.

Why do we accept such abysmally poor acting in narrative games? Have we grown accustomed to simply overlooking it? Or, after 30 years, have we come to see this kind of acting as a convention of the medium? Are video game characters like Snake and Marcus Fenix intended to be self-consciously iconic, with a purposeful lack of range or expressiveness? Does it even matter that these performances would be considered hopelessly incompetent outside their own medium? Perhaps voice actors in games are like divas in opera: perfectly suited to the requirements of their unique art forms, but a little silly when considered outside their natural habitats. I'd like to believe all this is true...but I don't. Frankly, it's just bad acting to me.

I believe good acting is good acting, whether it occurs on stage, in film, in a cartoon, or in a video game. It can be done well and quite professionally, as Mass Effect, Bioshock, GTA4, and the Half-Life series have proven. We may not wish to apply the same criteria to all actors across all media, but we ought not lower the bar for actors simply because they're portraying characters in video games. I think it's time for a voice acting reboot. If we want to advance this art form with sophisticated and imaginative storytelling, we need to insist on a process that enables good actors to properly do their jobs.

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Spore on trial

Spore_wallpaper03_2 I wonder if it's possible to have a reasonable discussion about the Spore DRM controversy? I've been looking for one online, but the hostility and vituperation surrounding the issue has tended to drown any real opportunity for useful discourse on many sites I've visited. Spore's official forums have been riddled with malicious attacks by angry gamers and accusations of censorship by EA against dissenters. The ad-hoc avalanche of negative reviews posted on Amazon took on the appearance of a viral virtual riot.

I thought about posting a "Whaddya think about the Spore DRM brouhaha?" piece, but it occurs to me there may be another way to isolate the arguments related to the issue in a somewhat less charged environment.

I begin with the premise that there are, in fact, two sides - at least - to the issue. I do not believe EA exists as an evil empire; nor do I accept the notion that gamers are grubby pirates hellbent on stealing anything that's not nailed down. I believe it's possible to make dispassionate arguments for either side, and I believe doing so will enable people curious about the controversy to make informed judgments about it. This isn't simply a rhetorical exercise. The DRM question, and all the issues surrounding it, have a direct bearing on gamers and the gaming industry going forward. If there were no stakes, EA wouldn't bother with DRM, and gamers wouldn't get worked up about it.

So, I'm opening two separate pages: one for commenters who wish to make the case FOR Spore's DRM; the other for comments AGAINST. I'm aware the online community of gamers is likely to be heavily weighted to one side, and that's fine. But, as I like to remind my students, a properly educated person should possess the ability to argue either side of an issue with equal persuasiveness. Perhaps even some of you who vehemently oppose DRM can craft arguments for the opposition, if you're interested in such a challenge.

I will insist on only a couple of guidelines: 1) Post rational arguments based on claims you can support. 2) Be respectful and as dispassionate as possible. I will delete angry rants and diatribes. Feel free to remain anonymous if you prefer. That's it. If you're interested in making your case, click on one of the links below. Or, if you have mixed thoughts about the issue, post on both!

The case FOR Spore's DRM

The case AGAINST Spore's DRM

I want my software toy

This is my final post on the games I previewed at EA last week.

When you give someone a toy of a system it gives them a new perspective on it. They see that system as a dynamic, organic thing. Living in it in the real world, they don’t notice day-to-day changes, but when that system is sped up over 50 years or more, they see the changes clearly. And they gain a new perspective on it.”[1]  --Will Wright

Simanimals After nearly 20 years of attaching the "Sim" moniker to Ants, Farms, Parks, Refineries, Helicopters, Roller Coasters, Theme Parks, and Golf (I'm leaving out 11 others), EA is poised to strike again with SimAnimals - yet another milk-the-franchise installment in the SimYouNameIt series, due this January.

That came out really cynical, didn't it?

But hoooooold on thar, Baba Looey. I've seen an early version of SimAnimals, and guess what? I can't wait for the game. I'm genuinely excited about it. Of all the games I saw last week at EA, SimAnimals surprised and delighted me the most. If the developers can make good on their promises - always tricky, but this game has rather modest and attainable ambitions - SimAnimals could be the game that best connects with the original Sims Maxis design principles of creativity, open-ended play, and relationship building.

SimAnimals isn't really a game at all. It's what Will Wright likes to call a "software toy." Watching the designers demo it (on both Wii and DS), I was struck by a powerful urge to get my hands on it and play with it a toy. It communicates a tactile feel to the player, inviting you to jump in and interact with the animals and their environment.

The game contains 32 species of animals from North America. There are no humans. You engage with the animals via a floating god-hand (ala Black and White, but smaller). You can feed them, play with them, and earn their trust. If you mistreat them, they will learn to distrust you. Your relationships with the animals and your stewardship of their environment are the keys to unlocking deeper areas of the forest, woodlands, and swamps.

You can pick up and move anything in the forest, including plants, flowers, trees, and the animals themselves; if they like you, that is. If not, they will bite your hand or run away. You are essentially helping the animals create an environment in which they may thrive, and the animals are designed to behave as naturally as possible (with modifications, of course), driven by AI based on four factors: hunger, fun, energy, and safety. They are also motivated by fear, and the designers of SimAnimals see this as a pivotal element in the AI system.

Everything in the game is ephemeral. Plants, trees, and animals all age, decay, and eventually die. The game allows you to grow "rares," which are plants that can bestow special effects, such as reversing the aging process, and players are free to use or ignore these at their discretion.

The developers invested a significant amount of research into the behaviors and habitats of the animals featured in the game. Several natural scientists and zoologists have served as consultants on the project, and the designers have made a clear choice to steer away from anthropomorphizing the creatures, e.g. bunny rabbits with pants and cuddly bears wearing hats. The animals move, react, and generally behave like real animals...animals in a game, that is. Strict adherence to the laws of nature isn't the aim of the game; but if a SimAnimal squirrel wanders into the path of a SimAnimal hedgehog, that SimAnimal squirrel will likely find himself SimAnimal dead.

The Wii and DS versions of the game provide very similar gameplay. The Wii version offers 4-player coop in which each player develops his or her own relationships with individual animals. I can imagine parents playing with their children in this way, with plenty of opportunities for learning about species and their habitats. I can also imagine me tossing your skunks in the creek while you pursuade your beaver to build a dam to cut off my water supply. Ahh, cooperative fun!

I'm a bit worried about the graphics on the Wii, which looked rudimentary at best. I'm hoping the build I saw isn't an indication of what the final version will look like. The DS version, on the other hand, looks fantastic with stylish 2-D versions of all the wildlife; and the stylus works flawlessly. Squirrels, skunks, and hedgehogs - all in your purse or pants. Oh, yes. I want this software toy.

Fun with flaws

Simcityc SimCity Creator has issues. Limited zooming, an overly sensitive camera that moves when you don't want it to, frequent load times between menu screens, and an incessant musical soundtrack that will quickly drive you to distraction (or to the setup screen to turn it off). Overall, it's just a bit clunky. Lots of critics are going to hate this game, and I'm betting it will take a beating on Metacritic.

But I like it anyway. The problems that plague SimCity Creator are real, and they do diminish the overall experience, but the game gets most of the important stuff right. Hudson, who developed it for EA, has largely succeeded in its primary objective: making a SimCity game that is friendly, fun, and accessible to new players, while preserving most of the depth found in previous titles.

SimCity games are PC games. With the exception of the surprisingly successful SNES version, SimCity has lived and thrived on the PC, and as the game has evolved, its reliance on a point/click/drag input system has only increased. Too often lost among the Wii's waggle and accelerometer features is its natural and intuitive use as a mouse-like input device. Yes, it's too touchy in SimCity Creator - and I wish the sensitivity could be calibrated by the player - but this game lets you draw roads, including curvy ones (a series first), zones, railroads, power lines, etc. all by hand. This feature alone makes laying out your city more intuitive than it could possibly be on any other console (with the exception of the DS, I suppose).

SimCity Creator's whimisical art style and MySims advisors may suggest a dumbed-down version of SimCity, but beneath this colorful exterior lie nearly all the management layers fans have come to expect, including control of finances, salaries, health and safety, the environment, and many other factors that will determine the success or failure of your city. Playing on easy mode (there's even a "cheat mode" which makes failure virtually impossible) will help newbies learn the system; playing on hard mode will require you to keep a close eye on your reports to maintain growth and happiness among the citizens.

My favorite new feature of SimCity Creator is the option to build a variety of distinct city styles (13 in all) including Chinese, Japanese, European, Mediterranean, Indian, Egyptian, Las Vegas, Sci-Fi, and Jungle themes. If you want your city's buildings to look like cupcakes and cookies, you can do that too. You can even mix these styles within the same city; so if you want a northside Little Italy and a southside Chinatown, the game has you covered.

Unfortunately, you must unlock these styles in Mission mode. I keep hoping designers will stop doing this to us, especially in games that are essentially glorified construction sets. I want all my tools from the beginning. Save the unlocking for linear progression games...or, better yet, get rid of it altogether. But that's just me.

It's a silly superfluous thing, but SimCity Creator also allows you to jump in your Cessna and pilot your way around your city from the air. As a different way of experiencing the city you've built, it's pretty cool. For more wacky fun, the game also gives you all sorts of ways to destroy your city (or a pre-built one) with earthquakes, tornadoes,  fires, robots, giant Katamari-like balls, and monsters that aren't called Godzilla, but look like him anyway. As yet another way of adding a lighthearted touch, it's a nice idea, and wreaking urban havoc with your Wiimote delivers more satisfaction than you might expect.

SimCity Creator is a better game than its flaws suggest. If you've never played a SimCity title and wonder how building and micromanaging a virtual city could possibly be any fun, I say give SimCity Creator a look. The old formula still holds up remarkably well. For SimCity veterans, this game won't throw a lot of new content your way, but the Wiimote and extra little features provide a welcome new spin. I expect the detractors will tell you otherwise (hope I'm wrong), but I encourage you to try it and decide for yourself. Why no 3rd-party demos are available on the Wii is a sore topic for another day.

Sims in the world of Wii

I visited EA's headquarters last week for an event called Blogger Day. This is the second in a mini-series of posts describing my visit and the people I met, places I saw, and games I played. You can read the first post here.

Mysimsking Oh, what Nintendo hath wrought. In the world before Wii, everybody knew who the gamers were. Consoles had wars, genres had definitions (sort of), and grandma stuck to her knitting. No more. Thanks to the Wii (and, it must be said, its dual-screened older sibling), it's hard to know who's who anymore. Casual, hardcore, family-focused, fanboy - the boundaries have been blurred - or at least made less obvious - thanks in large measure to the little white box.

Gamers will debate this point vigorously, but I see no useful distinctions between gamers who spend hours leveling up in WOW and gamers who spend hours playing Wii Sports. Unless we accept the idea that "gamer" excludes people who don't attend PAX or subscribe to Kotaku's RSS, we're living in a culture with all sorts of gamers who want to play all sorts of video games.

If we must have definitions, why not make them about how people play games, rather than which ones they play. As Brinstar put it in my most recent podcast (regarding Animal Crossing Wild World), "People bill this as a casual game, but I played it so hardcore." Makes sense to me. Gamers love playing games; we relish the opportunity to play them. So, the old guy in the retirement home who pwns the competition in Wii Bowling and Boxing three nights a week? Yeah, he's a gamer too.

I've been ruminating on this subject lately because I'm trying to figure out what to think about the games I saw last week at EA. SimCity Creator is the easy one. It's terrific, and I look forward to explaining why later this week. But the others - MySims Kingdom (Wii and DS), SimAnimals, (Wii and DS) and MySims PC - are a bit harder to get a grip on.

In appearance and gameplay, it's impossible not to see MySims as a Nintendo-ized, Mii-esque version of The Sims aimed squarely at the massive Wii/DS market. Tim LeTourneau, executive producer of the upcoming MySims Kingdom, stated it clearly: "MySims is targeted at Nintendo's audience." Emmy Toyonaga, creator of the MySims character designs, has said she equates short stubby characters like Mario with fun, "so these characters kind of came naturally."[1]

EA clearly sees a big opportunity with MySims. The Wii and DS games have sold roughly 5 million copies worldwide, and as producer Erik Zwerling told us, MySims PC - a remake of the Wii version with a graphical boost and online play - is EA's answer to its customers (many of them, presumably, Sims players) who want MySims on their PCs. LeTourneau says the designers think about the MySims universe of characters a bit like the Muppets - a set of recognizable characters with personality traits that carry over from game to game, regardless of the setting or story.

And it is story that most clearly distinguishes MySims Kingdom from the original. LeTourneau says the design team decided to take the new game (which, he insists, is not a sequel) in a completely different direction. Responding to criticism that the first game was long on construction and collecting, and short on  pretty much everything else, the designers of MySims Kingdom are trying to weave the 'design and build stuff' gameplay into an adventure story that takes place in a variety of themed locations.

This is where my grip on the game begins to loosen. As a gamer who has often complained about guns as the default means to accomplish things in games, I love the philosophy underlying MySims Kingdom. Construction is the means by which the player advances through the adventure. Combat, at least in the first hour of the game I played, is nonexistant. Townspeople come to you with a problem, and you build or repair something to solve the problem, such as a bridge or an irrigation system for a farmer.

So as a game mechanic, building things, rather than destroying them, feels rather fresh and new. But the adventure itself - the new frame upon which the game is built - felt flimsy, repetitive, and childish to me. Despite insistent proclamations from LeTurneau and others that "we do not target kids," it's hard for me to imagine myself (an unabashed Pokémon and Animal Crossing lover) embracing the "cute aesthetic" that permeates the MySims universe and narrative. Perhaps, as in the case of Zack and Wiki, if the gameplay grabbed hold of me sufficiently, I might overlook the cartoony characters and settings. But too often in MySims Kingdom I found myself fetching and mini-questing my way through puzzles or objectives I've seen too many times. Knowing that I'm doing these things for a wacky, nutty, or otherwise silly NPC helps...but not enough.

MySims Kingdom also suffers from the dreaded Super Mario Galaxy Graphical Inferiority Phenomenon. Veteran Wii players are painfully aware of this condition. Once you've played Super Mario Galaxy and seen what the Wii is capable of, it's very hard to overlook the unrefined jagginess of games that fall well short of that standard. MySims Kingdom is a month from release, so it's possible I was seeing a build of the game that hadn't been optimized. But EA has a poor track record when it comes to graphics on the Wii, and I had hoped this game would suggest improvement in this area.

Despite EA's protestations, I think MySims Kingdom is largely targeted at kids and young adolescents; and for these players the game could provide a lot of fun. It's not a saccarine-sweet or brain-dead kiddie game by any means. The designers expressed pride in the game's offbeat sense of humor, and I can see why. It's a smart, self-assured game with high production values and a cleverly designed gallery of characters and environments. Perhaps game publishers think "kiss of death" whenever they hear "game for kids." If so, that's too bad. We could use a lot more good games for 10-year-olds.

I'll return tomorrow with thoughts on SimAnimals - a game that may have altered my thinking about squirrels in my pants.

Brainy Gamer in the land of The Sims

On Friday I visited EA's headquarters in Redwood City California for an event called Blogger Day. I met producers, designers, artists, and writers working on a variety of projects, and I spent hands-on time with several upcoming games. This is the first in a mini-series of posts describing my visit and the people I met, places I saw, and games I played.

EamazeEA's Redwood Shores studio is home to the wildly successful The Sims franchise, its offspring MySims, the forthcoming Dead Space, and several unannounced new games based on original IPs. Lest we forget, The Sims is the best-selling PC game series in history and the 3rd most popular franchise ever, trailing only Mario and Pokémon. To ensure this point was fully hammered home, the nifty green Sims spiral notebook I received in my swag bag was emblazoned with the logo: “The Sims: Celebrating 100 million sold.”

The campus occupies four sprawling buildings situated on twenty-three acres just south of San Francisco. It is an undeniably impressive facility that makes good on all the wild speculative assumptions we gamers tend to make about big development studios: a chic but casual beehive of creative activity full of games and other playful amenities, state-of-the-art 24/7 gym, full-size basketball court, soccer pitch, cafeteria, coffee shop, free movie and game rental store, child daycare with outdoor playground, and a large, open, naturally-lit atrium. And, of course, floor after floor of conference rooms and dozens of dimly lit cubicles littered with concept art, workflow charts, pop culture artifacts, snacks, and personal family photos.

If the idea is to create a workplace that your 2500 employees will never want or need to leave, EA Redwood Shores pretty much nails it. The fact that your pre-school kids (if you've got 'em) are only a short walk away is a pretty big deal, and several designers told me they considered this, and a flexible work schedule, major perks. With an average employee age of 30 and rising, it seems clear the company is making an effort to accommodate the needs of its employees with families. My impression is that Redwood Shores employs more women than most game studios, perhaps because The Sims and MySims are such centerpieces of development here.

In a nine-hour visit, it's impossible to get a truly accurate sense of a place, but one can certainly collect a series of impressions, and I must say mine were overwhelmingly positive. The designers, producers, and artists we met were uniformly upbeat and welcoming, including those I simply bumped into on my way from one place to the next. I've spent considerable time in a variety of work environments - from breweries to factories to Silicon Valley code shops - and I must say that EA Redwood Shores is one of the happiest workplaces I've ever seen. The people I met seemed genuinely enthusiastic about what they're doing, and the whole place exuded an air of creative energy and cordial professionalism.

The profit imperative is deeply embedded in the EA ethos (surprise!), and I was startled by the degree to which our host openly reflected this and conveyed it to us repeatedly. Despite my left-wing socialist egghead-academic leanings, I must say that I found this transparency oddly refreshing. EA is in business to make money, and they don't mind telling you so right up front. Nobody is much interested in making critical-darling games that nobody buys. When our host listed EA's obligations, she made no bones about its priorities. First come the shareholders; next come the employees; and finally, she noted, come the consumers. “We want to make great games,” she said, “But we need to make great games people want to buy.  If we don't make $3 for every $1 we spend, then we're laying off people.” Scary, but at least everyone knows the score.

Touring the campus, it's impossible not to bump into one shrine after another to EA's industry dominance. One hall, in particular, is decorated with plaques commemorating games that reached certain sales milestones. 500,000 units sold was once the threshold; later it was upped to a million; then 2 million. Today, if your game doesn't sell 5 million copies - sorry, no plaque for you. EA's cross-platform muscle is simply stated: “As a developer we outperform Sony on Sony consoles; we outperform Microsoft on Microsoft consoles; we're the number one developer on the PC; and we're second only to Nintendo on Nintendo consoles.”

Obviously, we weren't given free passes to roam the facility unimpeded, but I sensed that as bloggers we were considered less threatening, or perhaps less jaundiced, than our counterparts in the mainstream games media. Clearly, most of us operate apart from the enthusiast press, and our opinions have no impact on Metacritic scores. We're safe, you might say, and as I'll discuss in my next post, we may be a more appropriate audience for the kinds of games EA showed us.

Of course, another way of looking at it is that we're naïve bloggers - easy prey for corporate spin and free hotel/airfare-induced obeisance. Perhaps. But having met the other writers invited (terrific people, but decidedly un-giddy), I would say it's not likely. Frankly, I never felt terribly “spun.” After touring the campus, the format was fairly simple: meet with each game producer (usually accompanied by several artists and designers); watch a walkthrough of the game's features; vigorous Q&A; and hands-on time playing the game with developers nearby to answer more questions. Despite the fact that we were looking at games in various states of development, nothing was embargoed, and we signed no NDAs.

Tomorrow I'll discuss a couple of the games I saw, including one I'm playing now just prior to its North American release: SimCity Creator. And by “just prior” I mean I get to play it a full 48 hours before you do. See how special I am? ;-)

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 17

This episode of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features the debut of the Gamers Confab. My guests this month:

Brinstar - Acid for Blood
Matthew Gallant - The Quixotic Engineer
Manveer Heir - Design Rampage

We discuss our games of the month; big promises from big games; why men don't play SingStar; and much more - all in this edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast!

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.


Brilliant Occasionally, somebody says something in just the right way, using just the right words. The rarity of such moments makes me appreciate them all the more. When they occur, they invariably produce an involuntary affirmative response from me. Yes! Precisely! Brilliant!

Such was the case when I came across a statement made by game designer Clint Hocking in a recent issue of Edge Magazine. I heard Hocking speak in February at GDC, and found him similarly eloquent, if eloquence can be wrought out of a 90-minute speech delivered in 45 - which it can. Hocking is an incredibly bright guy with big ideas; you just need to put on your smart cap with the chin strap and be prepared to keep up.

In the Edge interview, Hocking discusses his forthcoming game Far Cry 2 and his sense of it as an open world game:

I don't really think of our game as a shooter, I think of it as an open world game. I think we have a lot more in common with GTA or Crackdown than we do with Doom or Quake, that's for sure. The genre's evolving and there are lots of different interpretations of how they should work and what the genre's conventions are. Maybe that's why they're so attractive - because there aren't that many conventions yet - it's so freeform that it gives a lot more room for expression. It's certainly that which attracts me to it as a player - an opportunity to express myself. The ones I don't like are the ones where I feel I am not expressing myself.

Brilliant! For as long as I've played video games, I've never quite hooked into the thing that's happening to me which keeps me interested. I've called it engagement and immersion, and these are suitable terms. But Hocking's notion that games provide me the "opportunity to express myself" hits it squarely on the nose for me. Brilliant.

Clearly, expressing myself in video games can happen in all sorts of ways - with open world games and RPGs, of course, but also with well-designed platformers and action adventure games. Hocking's statement utterly captures why I'm enjoying Spore so much, but it also helps me better understand why I'm so enamored of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The Zelda franchise has always made me happy, but Wind Waker's oft-maligned sailing navigation mechanic and Link's expressive, animated presentation elevated the experience for me. I felt more free to make this Link my Link.

It also helps explain my affection for Zack and Wiki, a puzzle game that conveys to the player a strong sense of freedom to find solutions in his own way by turning the environment to his advantage. In this case, the freedom is essentially an illusion since there is typically only one solution for each puzzle. But how I go about solving it and the methods I use to explore and discover feel very much like my own.

And what is Portal, after all, if not an environmental puzzle game whose great innovative gift to the player is self-expression?

So, thanks Clint! :-) I imagine many of you found your way to the "games as self-expression" eureka moment long ago, but I hope you'll indulge me my little discovery. It feels like somebody just raised the light dimmer in my room to full.

Somebody say amen


I love RPGs. I've played them for nearly as long as I've played video games. Even after all these years, I've never lost my enthusiasm for them. If my total hours playing games were translated to a pie chart, RPGs would represent the biggest slice of pie...and, oh, what a tasty slice it would be! :-)

In particular, I've always loved Japanese RPGs. I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but the 16-bit era - the golden age of console RPGs, in my view - engendered a permanent soft spot in my heart for the style and structure, as well as the epic storytelling and quirky, indelible characters found in so many of those great games. Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV - all big bites of a scrumptious JRPG pie. No worries, I'm dropping the pie metaphor now.

Soft spots can sometimes produce blind spots, however, and I think in recent years I've allowed myself to go easy on games like Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Quest VIII, ignoring their essential lack of innovation and celebrating how they function as superlative modern examples of games we've been playing for 20 years. I truly love these games, but I'm also aware of how reactionary the genre and its audience have proven themselves over the years. More than any other genre, even the smallest incremental change in gameplay mechanics or inventory management is generally hailed as either revolutionary by RPG defenders or an abomination by the traditionalists.

Nevertheless, I've made it one of my little missions in life to convince people who don't like JRPGs (especially young gamers) that they ought to try one. I attempt to dissuade them of their notions of clichéd save-the-world plots and stereotypical reluctant, conflicted, emo heroes. "Play Persona 3!" I tell them. Okay, so maybe the kids are a little emo, but here's an RPG with great production values that goes places you won't expect. "This game will change your mind," I tell them.

But no. Persona 3 is a PS2 game, and PS2 games are so 2006. These are Xbox 360 owners, and they want a true, updated next-gen experience. So when I urge them to play a JRPG, what do they do? They play Infinite Undiscovery. And, of course, they think I'm an idiot.

In case you're not familiar with it, Infinite Undiscovery is an action-RPG released earlier this month exclusively for the Xbox 360, developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix. I won't attempt a full review (or even a mini-review) of Infinite Undiscovery, but suffice it to say that the game is yet another standard-issue JRPG with a reluctant hero of unknown parentage who must realize his special status and save the world. While it's not impossible for such a familiar story arc to succeed, unfortunately Infinite Undiscovery steers directly into a headwind of clichés and never veers away.

Despite claims by tri-Ace that the game contains ten years of ideas that can only finally be realized on the Xbox 360 [1], the game's "true evolution"[2] of situational battles and real-time combat are hardly genre-redefining. They do very little to dissuade a JRPG naysayer that this game does anything more than rearrange the JRPG furniture. And am I really still reading screen after screen of text dialogue on a modern, next-gen RPG that comes on two discs?

I need some help out here, folks. I need somebody to say amen...and mean it. I keep telling everybody JRPGs matter, but with every Infinite Undiscovery, Blue Dragon, and Lost Odyssey, my case gets thinner and thinner. Certainly, JRPGs are important (and Final Fantasy XIII will inevitably sell a gajillion copies), but I fear they have become beautiful, intricate museum pieces; highly desirable to collectors and enthusiasts, but largely irrelevant to an art form that insists on meaningful innovation. Outmoded and ever-so quaint. Tiffany Lamps.

I have a horrible nagging suspicion the party's over, but nobody has the heart to tell me.

Geometry Wars 2 - review

If you still haven't hurled yourself into the maelstrom that is Geometry Wars 2, here's one last push to get you off the fence. PopMatters has posted my review of the game, and here's a snippet:

Geometry Wars 2 exhibits one principle of superior game design that dates back to the early arcade era and links to its spiritual predecessor, Robotron 2084. Great games ramp up their difficulty just enough to entice you to improve your skills, but not enough to permanently discourage you. This is a difficult balance to strike, but Geometry Wars 2 nails it perfectly. The game encourages you to keep trying, and this repetition is bound to make even weak players feel they are making progress. On the other hand, allowing a novice to observe an expert playing the game can result in one of two outcomes: a slack-jawed look of utter awe, or the novice screaming in terror and fleeing the room. This game eventually gets very, very hard.

You can read the full review here.

Podcast reboot

Radiomic After 16 episodes of me gabbing into a mic with an occasional interview thrown in, I'm reformatting my podcast in an effort to improve its quality. Surveying the landscape of current games-related podcasts, I see a real need for focused conversation about video games that isn't about news, reviews, previews, or the brand of scotch I'm drinking while I record. :-)

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of the 1UP podcasts and a few other similar shows, but as you probably know if you've listened to any of my podcasts, that's just not my style.

So I've assembled a team of the best games bloggers around - more than 20 of them were crazy enough to say yes - and from this pool of talent I'll invite two or three each month to join me for a regular segment I'm calling the Gamers Confab. We'll discuss a variety of issues related to video games and offer opinions and analysis that I hope will be unique and useful to our listeners.

The Gamers Confab will feature bloggers and writers who aren't currently heard on gaming podcasts. I believe much of the best writing and thinking about games is happening in the blogosphere, and I'm eager to share conversation with some of the very people whose work you and I read nearly every day.

I'll contribute my own segment to each podcast, and I'll also continue to include interviews with notable people whenever I can. I hope to produce a show you'll enjoy, and I think the new format will help me do a better job of that. As always, your comments and feedback are most welcome.

Look for the 2.0 version of the Brainy Gamer Podcast - featuring the first edition of the Gamers Confab - early next week. Thanks for listening.