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May 2009

The fun dichotomy


Attendees at the Games for Change festival this week wrestled with the F-word. Throughout the two-day event developers, educators, non-profit reps, and journalists repeatedly found themselves asking the same question: what role should "fun" play in so-called serious games? The problem is thornier than it appears because fun, it turns out, is tricky business.

Fun confounds because it opens doors while closing others. Two-time Pulitzer prize winner Nicholas Kristof described the "fun dichotomy" (my phrase, not his) in his opening keynote address: "There is resistance to accepting games as a means of reaching people. Journalists and educators are resistant because games are not seen as serious."

On the other hand, 'serious games' are equally problematic. "A game that smells of being 'earnest' and 'good for you' is probably dead on arrival. It must be fun." If we want to deliver serious content, Kristof believes "we need to be willing to back off" when polemics overwhelm the fun of play.

Not everyone sees it this way, however, and concerns were expressed at several sessions about fun as a self-imposed imperative, constraining the expressiveness of games and their potential as an art form. In the Q&A following Lucy Bradshaw's closing keynote (sprinkled perhaps a bit too liberally with EA promotion), Greg Costikyan took issue with the notion that games must always be "fun" and warned that neither the medium nor the industry will truly progress until we unshackle ourselves from such a limited concept of games. (Randy Smith's recent series of columns in Edge Magazine devoted to "Not Fun Games" is also well worth a read.)

And it's here we run into the inevitable "definition of fun" many have tackled in recent years, including Warren Spector who calls fun "a four-letter word" that's "flabby, ill-defined [and little] help to designers and developers." Worse, it "locks us into a 'games are for kids' mentality" and erects "a ceiling...that separates us from other media, media that are allowed to strive for something other than simple 'fun-ness.'" [1]

Perhaps games, and the audience for games, would be better served by design that emphasizes values beyond fun, but it's clearly a difficult assignment. A notable undercurrent at this year's festival was a sense that the current crop of games for change aren't reaching their intended audiences. Most of these games are perceived by players as preachy, and even their developers admit they often fail to match the engaging gameplay offered by commercial games. Several people I spoke to think it's time we jettison the "serious games" moniker altogether because it's perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a cod liver oil game genre.

Some would say we simply need to be patient. Today's educators and cultural gatekeepers will eventually be replaced by a generation of gamers predisposed to taking games seriously. This sentiment was espoused by several speakers at the festival, but I have my doubts about its validity. If my own students' opinions about video games are any indication, they may be no more likely to accept the cultural viability of games (beyond their "fun" value) than the preceding generation. I wish I had a dollar for every prospective freshman visiting campus who's asked me with a smirk on his face, "So, do you really teach a course on video games?" In my view, this generation may have grown up on games, but the jury is still out on whether or not they're willing to take them seriously.

What seemed to emerge from this year's festival is a growing awareness that we need developers with commercial sensibilities who can bridge the gap between "fun" games and "serious" games. Clearly, this is an arbitrary separation, challenged by games like Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, and Flower that, in their own ways, contain thematically ambitious content.

But the Games for Change devotees believe we can do better, and in my next few posts I'll try to describe some ideas for achieving that goal, advanced by a community with more than its share of gifted contributors committed to leveraging the power of video games to make a positive difference in the world.

Changing the world one game at a time


Just a quick post to let you know I'm attending the Games for Change Festival in NYC today and tomorrow and will be writing about what I see and hear. I've met some fascinating people doing remarkable things, and I look forward to sharing their stories with you.

One thing is abundantly clear. Our definition of games, the purposes they serve and the audiences they reach are all quickly evolving. No one wants to replace Halo or Call of Duty, but plenty of other kinds of games are appearing on the horizon, and the folks at this festival are working hard to figure out how to make them compelling, challenging, fun, provocative, and a dozen other applicable adjectives I'm too tired to think of at the moment.

Watch this space and, as always, thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Now I've got to caffeinate and head back for the afternoon sessions.

Evergreen games

SMB3-gameplay Playing older games can be a joyful experience. Revisiting an old favorite evokes a certain nostalgia that feels less like re-reading a book and more like driving your first car through your old neighborhood. Some things appear just as you remember them; other things seem oddly small or ordinary. Sometimes the car doesn't handle like you remember it.

I've been thinking about why certain games age better than others. Playing Ultima IV with my students recently, the neighborhood felt like home, but the car was stiff and hard to drive and, after awhile, not much fun anymore. I confess I found it mildly heartbreaking. Revisiting Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, makes me wonder why I bought the car I'm driving now.

Is it simply a matter of mechanics? In terms of playability, RPGs have improved greatly since Ultima IV, but I'd be hard pressed to name a platformer released in the 20 years since SMB3 that improves on its formula. Or is it more than mechanics? Aesthetically, Ultima IV is, let's face it, an ugly game to look at these days. When my students saw it for the first time, the looks on their faces told me all I needed to know. They struggled with the game, not simply because it was hard to play, but because they found it so visually primitive and unappealing. SMB3, as you might expect, required me to physically extract the controller from certain students' hands so they wouldn't be late to their next classes.

Comparing a 25-year-old RPG with a 20 year-old-platformer probably isn't fair. Apples and oranges. But I do think there's something to be said for the staying power of games that unify their elements in ways that continue to appeal. If I were to compare apples to apples in this case, it's worth noting that my students had a significantly more positive response to the early Dragon Quest games for the NES, which appeared at nearly the same time as Ultima IV.

I'm intentionally posing more questions here than I can answer because I'm eager for your thoughts on this issue. Why do certain games age better than others? Can you think of a game you once loved that seemed somehow diminished when you revisited it? If so, how do you account for that? Conversely, have you replayed a game recently that stands the test of time especially well? If so, why? What is it about that game that shields it from aging?

I hope that by sharing our experiences we'll identify some of the evergreen characteristics of games and better understand why some games seem to age better than others.

Update: Sinan Kubba reminds me that a recent episode of the Big Red Potion podcast deals with this very subject. Sinan produces a good show, and I encourage you to check it out.

Vintage Game Club: Alpha Centauri

K06pg1.jpg The Vintage Game Club begins its collective playthrough of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri this weekend, and you're welcome to join us. Released in 1999, Alpha Centauri remains one of the best strategy games ever made, affirming Sid Meier's stature among the most gifted and influential designers of his generation.

Alpha Centauri is an epic sci-fi turn-based strategy game set in the 22nd century. Meier translated and refined his Civilization-style balance of exploration, discovery, empire building and conquest, transporting the player to an alien planet full of mysteries and unique factions. You can discover over 75 technologies, develop over 60 base upgrades, and build your empire as peacefully or aggressively as you choose.

If you've never played Alpha Centauri - or if you're a veteran who'd like to play it again and discuss it with friends - we'd love for you to join us. As I've pointed out in the past, we all have busy lives, so the club requires nothing but your interest to join. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

A few details:

  • When do we start? - We begin playing this weekend, and we'll continue our forum conversation for a month. We've arrange our discussion threads to encourage newcomers to jump in and participate at any point, so if you can't begin playing right away, no problem.
  • How will it work? - We organize the forum threads to flow in a way that reflects the unfolding of the game. Alpha Centauri is tricky for us because it isn't a linear game, and every player's experience will be different. So we've tried to organize the discussion with flexibility in mind. We hope the posts will look more like a conversation and less like a series of disconnected comments. We encourage you to play at your own pace. Post daily, weekly, every once in awhile - whatever works for you.

We hope you'll join us for Alpha Centauri. All are welcome.

The Vintage Game Club

Wii got it good


For several years now, Nintendo has provoked consternation from forlorn gamers who feel abandoned or even betrayed by the company. The common wisdom is that Nintendo surveyed the scene and discovered an untapped well of soccer moms and retirees with disposable income, so they dropped what they were doing and redirected their efforts to making casual and lifestyle games, with an occasional Super Mario or Super Smash Bros. thrown in to sate the faithful.

Once regarded as a savior by Nintendo loyalists, NOA President Reggie "I'm about kickin' ass, I'm about takin' names" Fils-Aime is now a regular target of ridicule in game forums and discussion groups. Even the legendary Miyamoto is depicted these days as a sell-out, wasting his talent developing cash cows like Wii Fit, Wii Music, and Nintendogs.

Nobody roots for Goliath. Nintendo accounted for 56% of the entire industry's revenues last month, thanks to evergreen games like Mario Kart (both Wii and DS versions), Wii Play, and Wii Fit, all of which remain in NPD's Top 10 long after their releases. Nintendo's strategy of expanding the market has worked better than anyone expected, and that success has provoked a strangely hostile response from many in the gaming community. Destructoid's mock motto for the company: "Nintendo, printing money on the backs of diehard loyalists since 1985."[1]

I realize it's unfashionable to deviate from the cynical snark that characterizes so much writing devoted to games these days, but when I look at the landscape of recent Wii games (and those appearing on the near horizon), I see a sunny picture. It's unreasonable to expect any game platform to be all things to all people, but in my view the Wii currently offers an impressive array of new games that should appeal to players who fancy themselves serious gamers. Obviously, the system will never compete for supremacy in the shooter market, but don't let the malcontented fanboys deceive you. Discriminating players looking for polished, well designed games will find plenty of exciting options available for the Wii.

Here's what I'm talking about:

Little King's Story - a gorgeous and wonderfully clever genre mash-up, combining real-time strategy, life-simulation, adventure-RPG, and god-game elements. Designed specifically for the Wii by a team of all-stars, this game deserves your attention when it arrives in North America next month (PAL version available now). I've been playing it for nearly a month, and I can't wait to discuss it with you here. I recently wrote about Little King's Story in more detail.

EA Sports Active - currently punishing me on a daily basis. EA has high hopes for this franchise-starter, and they clearly lavished attention on it. EA Sports Active takes what Wii Sports did well and does it better; and it takes what Wii Sports did poorly and jettisons it (more on what I mean in a forthcoming post). I'm currently in the first week of my "30-day challenge," and with the exception of Bob "You may know me from the Oprah Show" Greene's smarmy intros, this game is a solid and rigorous trainer. Believe me, you will break a sweat.

Punch-Out!! - a terrific remake of a genuine classic; accessible to newcomers, a stiff challenge to veterans. The rare game that actually earns its hyperbolic double exclamation marks. I wrote a more descriptive post about Punch-Out!! a few days ago. This is the game all my local friends are playing, and the head-to-head competition is growing more fierce (and louder) every day. 

Muramasa: The Demon Blade - another beautiful game by Vanillaware, developers of the criminally under-appreciated Odin Sphere. I'm admittedly taking this game on faith, having only seen screenshots and trailers, but I'm excited by the prospect of a tough, hand-drawn, 2D action-RPG based on Japanese mythology. The game has received an enthusiastic reception in Japan; it's due here in September.

Other Wii games available now or coming soon:

  • Boom Blox Bash Party - an enhanced version of one of the best Wii games.
  • Excitebots - crazy fun racing like racing games used to be before sim-fever set in.
  • Bit.Trip.Beat - Pong for the post-Rez set. Strap yourself in for a frenetic challenge.
  • The Conduit - folks at GDC who played it tell me not to overlook it. Due next month.
  • MadWorld / House of the Dead: Overkill - the two funniest games I've played this year; and we all know comedy and games rarely mix least intentionally.
  • Pro Evo Soccer 2009 / Tiger Woods 10 - a highly-regarded soccer title, and possibly the first sports game to fully leverage motion control. If you have doubts, watch this video. Hey, you know me. Gotta throw in a sports title or two. ;-)
  • Pikmin 2 - one of the best games released on the Gamecube, the Wii version is your chance at redemption.
  • Zelda: Majora's Mask - okay, not a new game, but it's appearance on the VC is still big news to us Zelda fans.

By the way, another bit of conventional wisdom says that 3rd-party games can't succeed on the Wii. Note that 10 out of the 14 titles listed are developed by companies other than Nintendo. Punch-Out!! makes it 11 if we credit Next Level Games in Vancouver, who developed it for Nintendo.

I'm not a Nintendo apologist, nor do I believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. But I do think a reasonable consideration of the latest Wii games (and my list is only a partial one) refutes the notion that serious gamers have been left behind.

Go ahead, punch me again


My thumbs have I've gone soft. Back in the NES era, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! conditioned the tip of my left thumb with a D-pad callus I proudly displayed as a badge of honor to all my gamer pals. They earned their calluses playing games like R-Type and Contra, but I was never very good at side-scrolling shooters.

Punch-Out!! was my game, and I played it endlessly in a New York City summer of '88...a summer in which Mike Tyson crashed his Bentley on Varick Street, crashed his BMW into a tree in Catskill, and knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds.

If your gaming memory extends that far, you're going to love the new Wii version of Punch-Out!! But if it doesn't, don't worry. This new edition, developed for Nintendo by Next Level Games, manages to hit the sweet spot most "hardcasual" games have failed to locate.

And I must confess, I didn't see it coming. In fact, I can't remember underestimating another game so badly. As a big fan of the original, I guess I expected a spray-painted rehash with tacked on motion controls. But you know what? This new Punch-Out!! is terrific.

Punch-Out!! can be played and enjoyed by gamers of all skill levels, and it offers familiar motion controls for the Wii Sports crowd. If you've played Wii Boxing, you'll have no trouble learning how to play Punch-Out!!. Like all well designed games, Punch-Out!! teaches you how to play it and, with each step up the difficulty ladder, how to improve. As it has always been with Punch-Out!!, failure is merely a prompt to try again and solve the pattern recognition riddle each boxer represents.

But if you're itchy for a challenge, this game has a mode for you. It's called Title Defense, and at the moment it's winding me up like a cheap watch. All the boxers return, but this time they have new tricks, new defenses, and their visual cues arrive faster and offer little margin for error. King Hippo - whom veterans will remember as having a, shall we say, weak stomach - arrives in Title Defense mode wearing a manhole cover over his belly. Good luck with him and the other rematches. I'm told that if I defeat all of them a secret unlockable boxer arrives...and I swear I will meet that boxer one way or another, so help me god, I will!

Motion controls are a nice touch, but purists may opt for button/D-pad controls. There's something undeniably satisfying about turning that Wiimote sideways like an NES controller to play a brand new Punch-Out!!. The fact that these options exist is evidence that Next Level Games wants to encourage everyone to play this game...including Wii Fit owners who can use their balance board to dodge punches by shifting their weight.

I'm old-school, so I prefer to bob and weave using my trusty soon-to-be-callused-again left thumb; but Jennifer prefers the balance board and Wiimote/Nunchuck combo and won't box any other way. I have noticed, however, that when I beat her head-to-head she tends to blame the balance board. Because it couldn't possibly be related to my skill.

The new Punch-Out!! is a stylish and highly polished remake of a genuine classic. It connects with the original in the right places (controls, moves and punches, stamina, visual cues and patterns), while smartly upgrading the cosmetics (art style, animations, music) and adding welcome new elements like 2-player head-to-head boxing, scenario challenges, and advanced difficulty mode.

Online play and a few more opponents would have been nice too, but I'm not going to quibble about what's missing. Punch-Out!! exceeds all my expectations. When I remove my nostalgia glasses I can see it for what it truly is: a remake that KO's the original.

Rogue architects


A fascinating situation is unfolding in the City of Heroes universe, and I'm glued to it like a rubbernecking reality show junkie. I don't play CoH anymore (I subscribed for a few months after its release in 2004), but I think what's happening there is worth our attention because it highlights the intricate relationship a game can forge between its creators and its players.

City of Heroes (and its companion City of Villains) is a superhero comic book MMORPG published by NCSoft. 14 major updates have appeared in the 5 years since its release, and the game continues to attract a loyal fanbase drawn to its deep character creation system, lore-heavy story arcs, and teamwork-based gameplay. Reliable data is hard to come by, but CoH has roughly 100-150 thousand subscribers in the US and Europe.

Last month, CoH introduced a major update featuring a new tool called Mission Architect, which allows players to create their own original adventures and share them with other players. According to NCSoft, Mission Architect makes CoH the first MMORPG to incorporate user-created content. A crucial aspect of this new system is its impact on character progression. User-generated story arcs bestow knowledge, experience, and rewards equivalent to those available in the regular game, so players can level up their characters by completing these user-created scenarios.

To a narrative nut like me, Mission Architect is exciting stuff. Within obvious game-world and game-engine limitations, Mission Architect enables players to create stories, dialogue, and original characters from scratch, as well as define mission objectives and test/iterate before publishing. Other players rate these adventures from 1-5, and devs scour user-created content and highlight the cream of the crop. Mission Architect's takeaway message is clear: Anyone can be a storyteller with an audience in City of Heroes.

Early reports on Mission Architect were enthusiastically positive. The Escapist called it "hugely impressive," and Wired's Game|Life described it as "intensely successful." NCSoft's GDC presentation on the new system was thorough, illustrating the developer's careful plan for implementing such an ambitious update to their game.

But when Mission Architect was released on April 8, things went bad quickly. Within hours, players had created hundreds of exploit missions delivering huge rewards for very little effort. Soon the rating system was undermined by the emergence of '5-star badge cartels': players banding together to assign '5' scores to the most exploitative content and lower scores to all others. Loud outcry from other players forced the devs to respond, and they acted quickly. The lead designer posted a message in the CoH forum titled "Abusing Mission Architect":

When we created Mission Architect, the goal was to have an outlet for players to craft cool stories, using our assets, that other players could play and participate in. Other players could rate those stories and the best-of-the best would rise to the top.

While we have accomplished some of those goals with the initial launch of Mission Architect, some have found ways to abuse the system we put in place. We are not blind to this happening, nor did we not expect it. However, it is time to take action regarding it, so please be aware that we are about to implement a zero-tolerance stance on the extreme abuse we are seeing in the system...

7,480 comments to this message were posted in two days. Vitriol and reason battled with no apparent winner before the thread was finally closed.

I find this situation intriguing and noteworthy for several reasons.

  • The developers appear to have been blindsided. After five years of chasing down one exploit after another, it's hard to imagine how they could have missed this oncoming freight train, but they did. At GDC they indicated they would automatically scan for violations (inappropriate language or content) before allowing user-created content to reach the live servers, but they apparently had no system in place for catching content designed solely for power-leveling.

  • Mission Architect is a reminder that players define "play" and "fun" in a variety of ways. When I first heard about the CoH update (courtesy of the Gamers With Jobs podcast) my initial reaction was "Great! I can tell stories!"; but plenty of other people clearly thought "Great! I can min-max the system!" While I'm sympathetic to the devs' desire to maintain a level playing field in their MMO, gaming the system and figuring out its loopholes is a game with a certain seductiveness all its own. Players are drawn to exploits like moths to flames.

  • Games that employ story, characters, and lore are nearly always built on the framework of a rule-based system with rewards and win/lose conditions. Mission Architect is a story-building tool, but it cannot function separately from CoH's game elements. So while the devs may see it as a tool to encourage players to be creative with narrative, many players see it as a tool to be creative with the game's underlying system. One use of the tool may be approved over the other, but the tool requires both properties to be functional.

    We might also characterize both behaviors as essentially creative. Perhaps the difference is that one is constructive, while the other may be seen as destructive...and how games both proscribe and encourage 'destructive' behavior is probably another bullet point. Or another post.

Got more bullet points? Send them my way.

OMG, girls in trouble!


I talk to a lot of parents about video games, and many of them continue to worry about the negative effects of games on their kids. If you dig a little deeper in these conversations, you quickly discover their concerns have little to do with their daughters. It's the boys they're worried about. When I say "video game" they hear "violent killing game," and they fear the messages these games send to their impressionable sons.

They should worry more about their daughters.

Most video games for girls send a steady flow of narrow images and self-limiting notions about how to succeed in today's culture. They reinforce all the worn-out essentialist tropes: be beautiful, be fashionable, be popular. If parents want to worry about the messages kids receive from video games, they should pay more attention to these. The "dangerous" M-rated games that provoke all the parental hand-wringing are intended for adults. A game like Drama Queens (Majesco) is targeted and marketed directly to young teenage girls.

I'll let Majesco's marketing speak for itself:

  • Chelsi stole my boyfriend but Hayden is totally crushing on me - must be because of the little black dress I bought after landing a promotion at Fashion Boutique. Step aside, ladies!
  • Play a fierce cat fight to see who is the most popular queen diva.
  • Play in four environments from the shopping mall to the fashion runway.
  • Show up to three friends that you're most popular in two multiplayer modes. 

Search for games designed for girls, and you'll discover that Drama Queens isn't exactly operating on the outer fringe. Style Up for Wedding; Style Up for Prom; Hair Stylin Salon; Bratz Makeover Game; Sue Hairdresser; Lovely in Pink; Bride and Groom; Nail Art Salon...they're mostly online games, and they go on and on and on just like this. Sure, there's probably a place for such games, but in the "games for girls" market, it's pretty much the only place.

If a boy gets his hands on Gears of War 2 or Call of Duty 4, he'll see things his parents may not want him to see; but he may also be exposed to a series of messages expressing ambivalence about violence and pondering the devastation of war. I'm not suggesting 12-year-olds play these games, nor do I think these games function as anti-war treatises. But they at least reflect, if only cursorily, on some thought-provoking themes. Ironically, the game genre parents find most troubling is the very genre most likely to contain thematically subtle content these days (see also Far Cry 2).

It's hard to find anything subtle in the little pink games made for girls by mostly male developers. Drama Queens and dozens of other similar games for girls are gameplay renderings of self-absorbed consumerism. As a parent of a small girl, I think I'd rather let her play Far Cry 2 when she's 13 (and discuss it with me) than to de-program her from the cultural brainwashing of a game like Drama Queens.

Note: You may be tempted, as I was, to interpret the promo video as a tongue-in-cheek critique, suggesting the game may be intended for older players. Majesco's online and print promotion of the game, including ads in teen-focused mags, suggests otherwise.

What it means to be "in the game"


In my previous post I lamented the lack of critical writing about sports games. While it's easy to find review-oriented coverage of sports games (ratings, evaluations of features, comparisons to previous editions, etc), genuine criticism of sports titles is hard to find. Perhaps these games don't lend themselves to such analysis, but I think they do. Here's my shot at proving it, focusing on the narrative role-playing dimension of MLB 09 The Show.

05/08/09 1:45 AM ET

CHICAGO -- With a 2-run lead in 9th inning, the Cubs thought they would avoid a three-game sweep against the Cardinals late Thursday night. Albert Pujols had other ideas. With two outs and two men on, Pujols strode to the plate to face rookie ace reliever Michael Abbott, recently called up from Iowa. In 6 previous appearances, Abbott had proven himself virtually unhittable, mowing down batters with a devastating slider and posting a league-leading 0.43 ERA.

Pujols was 0-4 when he assumed his trademark wide stance, elbows high, bat looming quietly above his head. Spoiling one good pitch after another, he worked the count full. Finally, on the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Abbott hung a slider and baseball's best player made him pay for it, blasting a shot high over the left-field wall onto Waveland Avenue. The stunned Cubs never recovered, and the Cardinals completed the sweep, 6-5.

Welcome to the majors, Mr. Abbott.

The most overlooked aspect of sports video games - and the single most compelling element of MLB 09's design - is their capacity for melding the virtual and real-world into an experience that resonates in both domains. The scene described above occured only hours after a similar real-world incident in which a late-inning home run by Ryan Braun lifted the Brewers over the same hapless Cubs, 3-2. Having watched that "real" game earlier in the same evening and having experienced that disappointment (yes, I'm a long-suffering Cubs there any other kind?), the Pujols moment took on added significance and drama. "I will not let this happen again," I swore to myself, and I chose to face Pujols with first base open.

If you're not a baseball fan, you may not appreciate the folly of this decision. I challenged the best hitter in baseball when I could have avoided that situation altogether. I should have intentionally walked Pujols and faced a much weaker hitter instead. Why didn't I? Because Ryan Braun clouded my judgment. Because I wanted to make things right. Because striking out virtual Albert Pujols in MLB 09 The Show would have helped remove the sting of losing to real Ryan Braun in the MLB. Because two worlds collided.

But it's more complicated than that. When Pujols came to the plate in the top of the 9th, the announcers warned me that he rarely goes hitless in a game. They said he was due. They told me he thrives in these pressure situations. As I stood there on the mound and watched him perform his pre-at-bat ritual, I had an uneasy feeling. I was eager to face him and nervous about his power to beat me, his sagacity as a hitter, and his capacity for heroics. I had worked hard to reach this point in the game, so much was at stake. This was a boss battle better than any I've faced in a long time.

I briefly considered walking Pujols, but when he assumed that signature crouch at the plate, something happened which sealed my fate: my controller began to vibrate like a heartbeat. Once again, the real and the virtual worlds converged as I realized I was nervous both inside and outside the game. At that moment I resolved that I would not be driven by fear. I would face Pujols, partly because of Braun earlier, but mostly because the exhilaration was simply too seductive to bypass. By the fifth pitch, the pauses between the hearbeats were gone, and my controller was rumbling in a steady continuous hum. No way was I going to walk away from that.

Yet another layer of complexity exists here, and it has to do with the pivotal "I". The pitcher facing Mr. Pujols is an avatar with my name on his back. The game's commentators and public address announcer say my name, and my avatar looks enough like me to give my wife the shivers. MLB 09's "Road to the Show" mode enabled me to create "Michael Abbott" and shepherd him through a minor-league career that eventually led to a call-up in the Bigs. RTTS functions as a surprisingly deep and sophisticated skill-based RPG, and by the time you've earned your way onto a major league team, your investment in that character is likely to be strong and rather personal. 

RTTS isn't perfect. It prioritizes your personal performance over the success of your team, and it fails to provide an adequate sense of actually playing games. Moving from one achievement challenge to the next can be fun, but it often doesn't feel like baseball. Nevertheless, if you want to create a player modeled after yourself (or Micky Mantle or your next-door neighbor), you can do so and track that player's career, season after season, all the way to retirement. Few games convey what it's like to deal with slowly diminishing skills. This game gives you a taste of it.

From where I sit, there's a story in all this. The convergence of two worlds - one real, one virtual - provokes a fairly sophisticated narrative role-playing experience unique to sports games. Other types of games like The Sims (which, unlike sports games, has received plenty of critical and scholarly attention) offer life-simulation gameplay that encourages role-playing and imaginative "what-if" scenarios, but their "game" elements function very differently.

MLB 09 (and FIFA 09 too) fuses deep on-field and off-field strategy, customizable role-playing, franchise-level simulation, on-field skill-based gameplay...all wrapped in a package that retains a lively and persistent responsiveness to its real-world counterpart. In my view, that's a pretty fancy trick with important implications about sports games and the players who play them.

The sports game ghetto


Why don't we talk about sports games? Why do we assume they fall outside the domain of game criticism? Why have we relegated them to the game ghetto inhabited by the latest iterations of DDR, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Barbie? Why, at the most recent Game Developer's Conference, was there not a single session, panel, or roundtable devoted to a sports game? Are they really that dismissable?

It's not hard to find specialty sites like Operation Sports devoted to all things Madden, FIFA, and Tiger; and while such sites occasionally produce thoughtful essays, most of the content skews toward previews, sneak-peak screenshots, and reviews of the latest sports game releases. At Operation Sports, these reviews are generally comprehensive and well written, tailored to readers hungry for feature-list roundups, gameplay evaluation, and comparisons to prevous-year interations. If you want the lowdown on the latest Madden, it's a great place to visit, with a friendly and knowledgeable fanbase supporting it.

But the burgeoning community of game critics has mostly ignored sports games, and I think that's a big oversight. A game like MLB 09 The Show - which is one of the best games of any genre released this year - offers many useful lessons in gameplay and user interface design, as well as brilliant integration of tactile mechanics, responsive player controls, and variable on-screen outcomes. Designers who want to understand how a game can grab a player, invest him in its systems, provide deep customization and near-infinite replayability with faithful but unpredictable results - such a designer would do well to study a game like MLB 09 The Show.

I think we operate on a set of flawed assumptions about sports games:

  • They iterate on the same game year after year, merely updating rosters and tweaking graphics.
  • They require less imaginative design than other genres because they simulate sports that never change. In terms of gameplay, it's 3 strikes and you're out this year, last year, and next year.
  • Sports gamers are less discerning than "hardcore gamers," and they mindlessly consume whatever mediocre Madden EA annually doles out. Consequently, sports games don't need to be good to sell.
  • Sports games are glorified stat-based sims with mo-capped player animations. They aren't really video games like Call of Duty, Super Mario, or Half-Life are video games.

One hour (or better yet, a week or month) spent playing MLB 09 dispels such assumptions, but more on that in my next post.

I suspect we've assigned 2nd-class status to sports games because too often over the years they have deserved that designation. Too many Maddens with too little to offer, too many basketball games with broken controls have poisoned the water for sports games, and paying $60 for a game that's inferior to its $50 precessesor is infuriating.

I'm also guessing we ignore sports games because relatively few of us critic-types play them; and those of us who do, rarely write about them, despite their incredible popularity. It's worth noting that FIFA 09 has sold 9 million copies worldwide. That's more than Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, and Fable II combined.

It's also worth noting that FIFA 09 is an exceptionally fine game. But in my circle of writers, sports games are rarely mentioned, and I can't think of a single critical analysis of a sports game that any of us have written, re-tweeted, cross-linked, or otherwise called to anyone's attention. Aside from a standard review, is there nothing to say about how and why FIFA or MLB 09 function so effectively as games? Or have we simply decided that we don't do sports games?

In my next post I'll take a stab at offering a critical perspective on MLB 09 as a video game that pushes the medium in some interesting and useful ways. As a sports game nut, I look forward to the challenge, aware that I'm working outside my normal element. As always, your comments and feedback are most welcome.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 23

Seggerman    Mary Flanagan

This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast focuses on games that can make a difference. It features interviews with two people in the vanguard of innovative game design for social change: Suzanne Seggerman (pictured left) president and co-founder of Games for Change; and Mary Flanagan (pictured right), founder of the Tiltfactor Lab and Values at Play initiative. We discuss a wide range of topics, and we gear up for the G4C Festival in New York City later this month.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
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Vintage Game Club: Game 6 + Zelda news


The Vintage Game Club is preparing for its next collective playthrough, and we've narrowed our list to the following games:

  • Ico + Shadow of the Colossus
  • System Shock 2
  • Alpha Centauri
  • Ultima VII

You're welcome to join us and help us choose.

A couple of notes, then a Hyrulian announcement:

  1. Ico + Shadow of the Colossus is a proposed 2-game playthrough. We think it would be interesting to play these games sequentially, as companion pieces, and discuss them as such. Both games are short enough to allow for this approach.

  2. Use this thread to discuss the finalists, lobby for your favorite, berate the moderators...but do not use it to cast your vote. This thread will remain open until Thursday May 7 at 10pm EDT (-4 GMT), at which point voting will begin in earnest. Note: you must join the VGC before you can post comments or cast a vote. It's free, requires only an email address, and you will receive no spam.
Now for the Zelda news. Various Legend of Zelda titles have been suggested since we began the VGC, but we haven't chosen any of them yet, partly because we've been waiting for the arrival of Majora's Mask on the Virtual Console. Now that it's available in Europe and Japan (and apparently on the way for North America) we think it's time for the VGC to play a Zelda game.

And so, we will devote Game 7 to The Legend of Zelda, and you will decide which one we play. We look forward to the ensuing discussion/debate/firestorm/brouhaha, and we thought you might appreciate knowing where we're headed in advance. If, for some insane reason, Majora's Mask still hasn't been released in NA when we're ready for Game 7, we'll hold off until Game 8...or 9...or 10...or...???

Happy gaming!