Previous month:
July 2010
Next month:
September 2010

August 2010

iPad got game

Duct-tape-ipad Last year I wrote about my disillusionment with the iPhone as a gaming platform. Since then, I've tried dozens more games, and my impression of the device hasn't changed much. I continue to find using my finger as an input device problematic at best, and I continue to find holding the iPhone uncomfortable after 15 minutes or so of gaming.  

With notable exceptions like Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, most iPhone games leave me cold after a period of fleeting enchantment. If I can't enjoy a game as perfectly wonderful as Plants vs. Zombies on my iPhone, then something is wrong with me or the hardware I'm playing it on. Since it can't possibly be me, it's got to be the iPhone. :-)

Okay, I know what you're thinking, iPhone game aficionado. I'm stubbornly dismissing the iPhone as a gaming platform because it doesn't match my personal gaming preferences. Well, yes I am. I can't get past the fact that its primary input device (my finger attached to my hand) obscures the game I'm trying to hold and control. Lots of people have no problem with that, but I do. Can't help it.

But here's the thing. It's not really a matter of user input; it's a matter of size. A week ago I was prepared to dismiss games on a touchscreen device with no external controls, but that was before a shiny new overpriced Apple toy entered my gaming life. Hello super-sized iPhone gaming device. Hello device I never thought I'd want (see photo above). Hello iPad.

Two iPad games have put my doubts to rest. The new iPad version of Pac-Man, and the iPad edition of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

Pac-Man on the iPad isn't perfect. Its virtual joystick makes the game virtually unplayable, but its swipe input option more than makes up for it. Simply swipe up, down, right, or left anywhere on the screen, and your little pill addict chomps in that direction. It works flawlessly, and the size of the screen makes it possible to experience the game in all its old-school arcade glory. 

I wouldn't cite a Pac-Man port for the iPad as a shining example of the platform's potential, but as an example of a control scheme well-suited to the hardware's capabilities, it shines far brighter than Namco's iPhone version of the game.

Spider-iPad If you admired the hand-drawn art in Spider: TSBM on the iPhone, you owe it to yourself to check out the iPad version. It's still arresting, but on the iPad's big bright screen Spider's sumptuous visuals have room to breathe. 

This matters because Spider tells its story primarily through its environments. The player explores the visual aftermath of events that occurred long ago, and the enhanced HD visuals in this version make that detective work even more satisfying. The iPad version adds a co-op 'Sidekick mode' for two players and additional 'Director's Cut' levels.

I'm making my way through a slew of other iPad games that make especially good use of the hardware (Osmos, Little Things, Shot Shot Shoot), and I'm enjoying some terrific titles for kids with my daughter. I'll report on those in my next post. Also, David Carlton at Malvasia Bianca recently alerted me to the iPad version of Frotz, so Planetfall, here I come!

If you have other iPad games you'd like to recommend, let me know. If you'd like to counter my "iPhone = bad gaming device" contention, by all means fire away. Given the number of iPhone games sold on Apple's app store, I have a feeling my opinion is a minority one.

Vintage Game Club - Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

256px-Sands_of_time_cover Back in 2001, Jordan Mechner teamed up with Ubisoft to resurrect his Prince of Persia series, which first appeared on the Apple II in 1989. 

Lots of us had doubts about how that game would withstand a "next-gen" treatment, but Mechner proved doubters wrong with the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, widely considered one of the best action adventure games of all time.

PoP: Sands of Time is the next game up for the Vintage Game Club. If you've never played this game, now is your chance to correct that glaring omission in your gaming vita. If you've already played it, you're welcome to join our conversation and give the game another look.

As I've mentioned before, we use the term "vintage" purposely because its primary definition: "characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal" strikes us as just the right way to describe the games we play together. As far as we're concerned a vintage game can be 20 years old or 2 years old. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter.

We all have busy lives, so the VGC is a no-pressure environment. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, 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. All are welcome!

The Vintage Game Club

The world is flat

Super-mario-galaxy-2   New-super-mario-bros-wii-screenshot

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a consensus triumph. It's a "veritable creativity bomb" (Wired); "one of the most refined and fulfilling videogame experiences of this generation" (IGN); and "astonishing" (Edge).

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the highest rated Wii game ever and, despite the game media's penchant for hyperbole, I can't begrudge SMG2 even a single decimal of its 97 Metacritic score. It's a great game (probably my favorite Mario game of all time, depending on when you ask me), and one of these days I'll try to wrestle a blog post out of all my affectionate thoughts on Mario's latest planet leaping adventure.

But as much as we enjoy blasting 3D Mario into space and navigating him around 3D orbs, a quick glance at sales figures makes one thing clear. We like Mario best when his world is flat. We still, apparently, prefer running from left to right.

The most recent NPD numbers for July tell a fascinating tale. Sitting in the #4 spot, SMG2 sold 193 thousand copies in North America. That brings its total sales to approximately 1.7 million here (3.5 million worldwide). Impressive figures, to be sure, but less than half of the original Super Mario Galaxy's sales (4.6 NA, 8.8 worldwide). 

It's an unfair comparison, of course, because SMG2 has only been on the shelves for 12 weeks. But if you study its sales trajectory, it seems likely at this point that SMG2 will fall well short of its predecessor's numbers. I hope I'm wrong. Economics ain't my strong suit, so take my prognostications with a big grain of salt.

A quick glance down the NPD list reminds us that, when it comes to Mario flagship titles, 2D Mario still rules. In the #9 spot - 37 weeks after its release - sits New Super Mario Bros. Wii. A few spots lower at #12 - 220 weeks after its release - sits New Super Mario Bros. for the DS.

Consider the numbers this way:

  • Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 combined total sales: 12.3 million
  • New Super Mario Wii total sales: 15.5 million
  • New Super Mario DS total sales: 22.4 million

I don't typically spend much time thinking about NPD data, but I do find these numbers interesting, and I'm not sure what to make of them. Do they suggest that we still primarily see Super Mario games as 2D side-scrollers? Despite the extraordinarily high quality of the Galaxy games - and the powerful impact of Mario 64 on 3D game design - is Mario still in his natural element in 2D? Do most Wii owners perceive the Galaxy games as too difficult (ironic, if they bought NSMB Wii)? Too different? Too reliant on motion conntrols? Not "canon"? 

I don't lose sleep over Nintendo's sales data (although Link's Crossbow Training outselling Twilight Princess does make me go cross-eyed). Nevertheless, I do wish more players embraced the Galaxy games, if only because they demonstrate the pure imagination and skillful design that Nintendo EAD still does better than anyone else. These sales numbers don't make me sad or angry; they just make me curious to understand them.

Portal on the booklist


This year, for the first time, a video game will appear on the syllabus of a course required for all students at Wabash College, where I teach. For me - and for a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1832 - this is a big deal. 

Alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle's Politics, John Donne's poetry, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, freshmen at Wabash will also encounter a video game called Portal. If you're curious to know how it happened, read on.

Last spring Wabash faculty approved a new all-college course and charged a small committee to design it over the following summer and fall semester. I was elected to the committee as a representative of the Humanities. 

We titled the new course "Enduring Questions," and we agreed on this description:

Enduring Questions is a required freshman seminar offered during the spring semester. It is devoted to engaging students with fundamental questions of humanity from multiple perspectives and fostering a sense of community. Each section of the course includes a small group (approximately 15) of students who consider together classic and contemporary works from multiple disciplines. In so doing, students confront what it means to be human and how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

The daily activity of the course most often involves discussion, and students complete multiple writing assignments for the course. As such, assessment of student performance emphasizes written and oral expression of ideas.

Students may not withdraw from the course. All students must pass the course to graduate from Wabash.

Our charge from the faculty made it clear that we should apply a broad definition to "readings," and I believe my special purpose on the committee was to help identify films, music, art, and other 'non-textual' sources to challenge our students to think hard about the questions raised in the course. 

And so, as you might expect, a little light went off in my head. What about a game? Why not? Which one? Will they bite on this? Who knows? Let's try.

My very first thought was Portal. Accessible, smart, cross-platform, relatively short, full of big ideas worth exploring. I played it again to be sure my impressions still held. No problem there. If anything, I admire the game more now than when it first appeared. A beautiful design. 

I recalled reading Daniel Johnson's recent essay on the game and its strong connections to Erving Goffman's seminal Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. One of the central questions of our new course, "Who am I?" is the focus of Goffman's study. He contends we strive to control how we're perceived by others, and he uses the metaphor of an actor performing on a stage to illustrate his ideas. Johnson describes it this way:

…we're acting out a role that requires constant management…of the interaction. The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, it contains the truth of our obstruction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience - it simply spoils the illusion of where we're placing ourself in the interaction.

This tension between backstage machination and onstage performance is precisely what Portal depicts so perfectly - and, no small detail, so interactively. Goffman would have found a perfect test subject in GLaDOS. Bingo! Assign students Goffman's Presentation of Self and follow it up with a collective playthrough of Portal.

I pitched the idea to my colleagues on the committee (decidedly not a collection of gamers), and they agreed to try Portal and read selections from Goffman's book. After plowing through some installation issues ("What does this Steam do? Will it expose me to viruses?"), we enjoyed the first meaningful discussion about a video game I've ever had with a group of colleagues across disciplines. They got it. They made the connections, and they enjoyed the game. Most importantly, they saw how Portal could provoke thoughtful reflection and vigorous conversation on questions germane to the course.

And so we're playing Portal at Wabash College. 

Could I have chosen a game to stand by itself, with no accompanying text assignment? Maybe. I thought about Bioshock. I thought about Planescape: Torment. In the end, I chose Portal because I thought it would make a good start. A good first impression. A lead-off hitter, if you will.

Deploying a game for an entire cohort to play at the same time requires more problem-solving than you might expect. We ultimately decided that hardware, installation, and licensing issues were complex enough to dissuade us from teaching Portal in all sections of the course this year; so I and a group of eager colleagues will play the game in our sections to work out the kinks. I don't want our first college-wide experience with a game to be plagued with problems.

I also need time to help acclimate some of my colleagues to "reading" a modern game. They're less resistant than you might think, but they need more than my speechifying. They need sound pedagogy. They need to taste it for themselves. We'll get there. I'll let you know how it goes.

Open the toy box


Toy Story 3, the video game, is what happens when a design team channels its love for a movie into a clever stand-alone game concept, translating the spirit of their source into the playful language of games. Avalanche Software deftly sidesteps the sinkhole that's devoured innumerable movie tie-in games, and they do it by situating their game at the center of the Toy Story universe: Andy's imagination.

Toy Story 3 contains two modes: Story and Toy Box. Reviewers have praised both, but have mostly dismissed Story mode as derivative platforming and puzzle-solving. That's fair, I suppose, but if you or your kids have enjoyed the Toy Story trilogy, I think you'll get a big kick out of the campaign, which can be played in its entirety in splitscreen co-op. (More on co-op, which is terrific, in a moment.) 

Pixar gave Avalanche the freedom to build a game inspired by the film, but not tied down to game-ifying its narrative. So Toy Story 3 contains bits and pieces, locations and characters from the film that lend themselves to gameplay. If, like me, you saw the film and found yourself translating the train chase scene into a game level as it unfolded, Avalanche delivers the goods.

If you care about such things, cross-media influences/homages run rampant in that train scene, which clearly pays tribute to classic Western films like The Great Train Robbery. Not coincidentally, a new Duplo/Lego set, called The Great Train Chase, lets kids re-enact the scene from the film. So your kids can play Lego-ized versions of toy versions of TV characters based on movies characters...originally taken from dime-story novels. We might toss Mario in there too if we wanted to account for gameplay genre, but let's jump off this train before it rolls off the tracks. Heh.

Toy Box mode - a free-roam, open world designed for imaginative play - is where things get interesting in Toy Story 3. Players can take on missions, alter the environment, redesign buildings, meet new characters and other simple-fun, no-pressure tasks. Having recently played Red Dead Redemption, I was frequently startled by the similarities between the two experiences, wandering around a Western landscape looking for things to do. Don't get me wrong; these are two very different games, but as open world designs go, you may be surprised by Toy Story 3's depth.

The genius of Toy Box mode is that it functions exactly like...well, a toy box. The game immerses you in a world of play straight out of Andy's imagination. If you've ever watched kids play with toys, you quickly discover they rarely play with them as they were "meant to be played with." Toy Story 3 captures this beautifully, offering players a wide range of toys from Andy's room (and some new ones invented by Avalanche), and their functionality is rarely limited to their obvious purpose.

My very most favoritest thing about Toy Story 3, however, (wow, channeling my daughter now) is its co-op. The whole game - Story mode and Toy Box mode alike - can be played and completed in splitscreen co-op. In story mode, this can lead to fun working together, accomplishing tasks that are easier and more fun with a helper. 

But co-op shines most brightly in Toy Box mode, where each player is free to do whatever she likes, anywhere in the sizable world of "Woody's Roundup." This can lead to constructive play, silly play, explorative play, mission-based play - all forms of self-directed play that kids (okay, kids of all ages) will find fun, with enough content variety to remain engaged for a long time. Toy Story 3 borrows from the entire Toy Story universe, so there's a lot of familiar stuff to keep you busy, especially if you're a fan of the movies.

Avalanche has captured the essence of Pixar's art style beautifully. The controls feel a little loose, especially in platforming sequences, and a few of the story levels are less than inspired, but overall this is a wonderful game that thoroughly refutes the good movie / bad game formula we've come to expect. If you're looking for a low-key but smartly designed game to play with someone you love - your kids, your spouse, your significant other - I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by Toy Story 3.

Fun Factor Catalog

Fun_catalog If you've been following my recent posts, you already know about my Fun Factor project. I'm trying to account for the many ways games provoke us to play them. A few days ago I asked you to help me 'catalog the fun' delivered by some of your favorite games, and you came through big time. Thanks again for that.

I've sorted through your responses and added some of my own. The result is below: a collection of fun factors and a list of games that exemplify them. Before you dive in, a couple of caveats:

  • This is very much a work in progress. My catalog reflects a vigorous, but brief conversation that I hope will continue. You're likely to find holes, oversights, and redundancies. If so, be sure to let me know.

  • A quick note on my use of the word "fun." I rely on it as a convenient, if imprecise, marker for the impactful aspect of playing a particular game. "Fun" probably doesn't aptly describe what many people found compelling about Today I Die, for example. Whatever word we use for it, I'm interested in the playful hook that makes a particular game grab you. Usually that's something akin to fun, but not always.

  • Quotes in the catalog are taken from your responses to my original post and suggestions I received via email.

And away we go!

Fun Factors Game Examples
The joy of exploration; roaming and discovering exotic places; feeling rewarded for exploring; freedom; "enveloping tourism"
Fallout 3, Legend of Zelda series, Red Dead Redemption; Assassin's Creed, Endless Ocean
Power fantasy; wielding impossibly powerful weapons, general feeling of virtual mayhem and destruction
Prototype, Crackdown, InFamous, God Hand, DOOM, Red Faction: Guerrila
Making the player feel clever, smartPortal, Braid, Disgaea, Phoenix Wright
Tactile control of avatar; feeling that game is extension of player's hands Super Mario series, Trine, Pilotwings
Puzzle solving; unlocking; overcoming; testing hypotheses, mental tinkering; "tickling my cortex"
Grim Fandango, Legend of Zelda series, Professor Layton, Portal
Heroically navigating a virtual architectural playground ("Parkour power fantasy," "Silly gymnastics")
Mirror's Edge, Mario Galaxy, Assassin's Creed, Crackdown
Virtually interacting with familiar real-world places
Gran Turismo series, GTA series, Assassin's Creed 2
Sense of danger and surprise
Demon's Souls, Silent Hill, Friday the 13th (NES)
"Zen mindlessness," "In the zone" play
Rez, Rock Band, FlOw, AudioSurf
"Cog in the machine," Intricate tasks requiring cooperation among players accomplishing their roles
World of Warcraft, EVE Online
Commanding a ship, squad, fleet, etc.; assuming responsibility for its survival and success; "being in the combat groove"
Mass Effect 2, Gears of War, Halo
Unique perspective experienced via non-human avatar
Chibi Robo, Okami, Deadly Creatures
Fluid, responsive movement of character or vehicle. (jumping, drifting, etc.)
Crackdown, Prince of Persia: SoT, Burnout, Super Mario series
Hyperkinetic play that incentivizes skill development and infinite replay for higher scores
Geometry Wars, Super Stardust HD, Ikaruga
Simple mechanics, simple rulesets that incentivize complete mastery
Rogue, Pac-Man, Canabalt, Super Mario series
"The hard teacher"; immense challenge that tests player skill and concentration; learning from mistakes enables eventual success; "fair failure"; "skills, not swag"
Demon's Souls, Ikaruga, Battletoads, Super Mario series
Taking a team, civilization, settlement from the lowest rung on the ladder to ultimate success; "molding them according to MY strategies, MY principles, MY ideas of how they should be run." "I succeed, not because of my reflexes, but because of my ideas."
Football Manager series, Civilization series, Dawn of Discovery, Out of the Park Baseball
Humor; understanding the in-joke; playing with the fourth-wall
Monkey Island series, Portal, DeathSpank, No More Heroes
Advance preparation enabling player success
World of Warcraft, Out of the Park Baseball
Exhilaration; dizzying speed, color, movement; sensory stimulation; rollercoaster ride
Sonic the Hedgehog, Mirror's Edge, Rez, Beat Hazard
Shared experience; playing together to find solutions, overcome enemies; shared victory
Legend of Zelda (NES), Diablo 2, Zack and Wiki, Portal
Building and customizing; exploiting a space and claiming it as your own; creating the ultimate X
Dwarf Fortress, Civilization series, SimCity, The Sims, Front Mission 3
Competition; beating human opponents; playing games with a vocal audience looking on; team sports camaraderie and atmosphere 
Super Smash Bros., Call of Duty, Street Fighter, Madden series, Team Fortress 2
Beating the clock; pressure to make good choices on-the fly enhancing immersion; chrono connection between virtual and real worlds
Total Annihilation, StarCraft, Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Exploring and building relationships in a virtual or simulated world
Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Shenmue, The Sims
Creating characters; building diverse casts of characters; taking custom-made characters "into amazing scenarios and doing cool things"
Rock Band 2, Elder Scrolls series, Soul Calibur 4, Star Control 2
Casual play based on familiar real-world analogs, accessible to all ages; family fun
Wii Music, Wii Sports, Boom Blox
Interactively experiencing a good story
Grim Fandango, Planescape:Torment, Bioshock
"Drinking in the atmosphere"; distinctive sense of place; rich sound and visuals; player's aesthetic connection to a game's environments
Brutal Legend, Heavy Rain, Far Cry 2, Flower, Red Dead Redemption
Striving for the 'perfect run.'
Trials HD, Stuntman Ignition, Super Mario series, Mirror's Edge
"Battle of wits"; modifying tactics to respond to enemy tactical modifications; refinement of trusted success patterns; assimilation of enemy success patterns
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, StarCraft, Team Fortress 2
Learning nuances, developing expertise in out-of-reach, real-world activities; "learning to throw a curveball or to play an instrument."
Rock Band, MLB: The Show
Technological wonder; experiencing a new type of gameplay or mechanic enabled by technology; "the thrill of the shiny new"
Metal Gear Solid, Midwinter, Wii Sports, Super Mario 64
Deep familiarity with a game series over time; "Each entry was a checkpoint in my life"; tracking the evolution of a franchise
Metal Gear series; Final Fantasy Series, Ultima series; Legend of Zelda series, Super Mario series
Understanding the creator's work; feeling connected to the developer's design; craftsmanship; "Little flourishes that make me pause and say 'Damn. You guys are good.'"
Grim Fandango, Little King's Story, Portal, Far Cry 2
Playing with physics; game as a toy; "Crashing your bike into an oncoming car and watching Niko somersault down a street before cracking his head on a fire hydrant never gets old."
GTA IV, World of Goo, Half-Life 2, Portal, Burnout
Hunting, collecting, and unlocking; the insatiable appetite for new gear; finding everything the designers put in the game; grinding
Diablo 2, Pokémon, Monster Hunter, Animal Crossing
Admiring and experiencing beauty Okami, Flower, Odin Sphere, Ico
Social opportunities outside the game; learning skills valued by the community; "It's fun to feel recognition from other people."World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead
Breaking the system; exploiting the glitches; behaving 'inappropriately'Tony Hawk, The Sims, Deadly Premonition, Red Dead Redemption

Fun Factor goes boom

Fight-idea A hearty thanks to all of you who offered your thoughts and observations for my Fun Factor project. I'm thrilled by the response and most grateful for your help. You are fab.

I'm working on an easy-to-read document that compiles all the responses I've received, which I hope to finish later today. When it's ready, I'll post it here for review and feedback. It will undoubtedly contain some holes, but as a first swing at building a 'catalog of fun' for video games, it's pretty illuminating.

In the meantime, please feel free to continue offering suggestions for entries. I realize the comments section gets a little unwieldy when it grows past a single page, but I read every one and include each citation in the catalog. If you don't have time to plow through all the comments, no worries. Post your response, and I'll sort through any duplicated entries.

Thanks again for your help. More soon!

The Fun Factor project


Our approach to making games is to find the fun first and then use the technology to enhance the fun. --Sid Meier

Everybody loves some fun, back-breaking manual labor! --Animal Crossing: Wild World

I'm launching a little project called "The Fun Factor" (it must be serious because I put quotes around it), and I'm eager for your help. But first a little context.

In my previous post I discussed a text sim called Out of the Park Baseball, and Nels Anderson (frequent podcast guest and gameplay progammer at Hothead Games) posted a comment which included this statement: "Michael, I will never understand your affection for these things." That little remark, and the ensuing conversation, got my wheels spinning.

Explaining why I enjoy this particular game requires me to think about what, specifically, I find fun about it; and I believe this sort of reflective examination is worth doing. It's a question that can't be answered simply, in a single way or by a single person.

In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play. --Friedrich Nietzsche 

My short answer for OOTP is that it offers me deep micro-management of both game and game engine, enabling me to build a multi-season franchise and test my management theories with customizable tools and tons of real-world statistical data. In other words, it feeds my fantasy of running a major league baseball franchise by offering a simulation that produces outcomes that accurately reflect the real thing. 

Put even more simply, it lets me go back to 1978 and try to stop the Yankees. It lets me field a team of losers and try, over time, to make them winners. It lets me decide the terms of my own success or failure. In other games I might hate that, but in this game I love it.

When I think about other games I admire - say, Uncharted 2 or Cave Story - almost none of the same criteria for fun apply. They're completely different games, of course, but they also plug into an entirely different set of fun factors. Or at least they seem to.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. --Plato

This is where you come in, I hope. The Fun Factor project is an effort to account for the many ways video games provoke us (reward us, engage us, challenge name it) to play them. I'm interested in generating a conversation in which we collectively attempt to catalog...well, fun. Here's how I propose we do it:

  • Name a game you especially enjoy and, as succinctly as possible, try to account for why it's fun. Let Nels' voice ring in your ears: "I will never understand your affection for these things," and try to respond as helpfully as you can. 

  • Bring new fun factors to the table. If you see one missing, add a game that exhibits it. For example, I like co-op play when it's cleverly balanced with competition. Zelda: Four Swords Adventures gets this right by requiring careful cooperation to proceed, but periodically throwing four players into a free-for-all that quickly turns friends into enemies. It's a terrific example of why, sometimes, local multiplayer is an unbeatable gaming experience.

  • Don't worry too much about analyzing mechanics or complex design elements. We're simply trying to catalog the many ways games provoke fun for players, and these are inherently subjective responses. Jesper Juul, Ian Bogost and others do valuable work exploring games from systemic, rhetorical, and other perspectives beyond the scope of this modest effort.

So that's the Fun Factor project. Simple, but ambitious, I think. Post your thoughts below, and  I'll collect your responses and create a document that organizes them in an easy-to-read format, to be posted and updated here. I greatly appreciate your willingness to pitch in. Let's have fun!

Of course the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you--if you don't play, you can't win. --Robert Heinlein

Al Simmons: Superhero

Note: Every few months I do my best to drive away readers with my baseball sim obsession. Here I go again.

Al Simmons is my idea of a superhero. No, not that Al Simmons. I'm talking about the man, born Aloisius Szymanski in 1902, who accumulated 2,000 hits in only 1,390 games - the fewest games needed to attain that mark in major league history. I'm talking about the man who made only 94 errors in 21 years.

I'm talking about the man who blasted a 425-ft. grand slam in the top of the 9th-inning last night to cap a come-from-behind victory against the Seattle Mariners. The guy who gave me my biggest thrill as a gamer - I'm talking fist-pumping, jig-dancing, "Honey, you'll wake up Zoe" glee - in quite some time. Yeah, that Al Simmons.

But as sweet as that homerun tasted, my joy wasn't derived from a single moment of victory. As most sim fans will attest, the road you build to get there is what it's all about. To some, such a construction project may look like a lot of tedious work; but to a sports sim nut, hours spent methodically building a franchise, customizing it to suit your preferences, and (importantly) modding the game itself to make it look and behave like you want it to - well, that's the whole ballgame. 

Playing out each game is fun too, of course, but mainly as a test of my theories and team-building prowess. Prior to last night's game, I moved Al Simmons into the 6-hole, hoping to give Reggie Jackson better pitches to see. In the 9th-inning Reggie loaded the bases, and Ol' Al made me look like a genius.

So what does all that fiddling, tweaking, and modding look like? Well, in my case it mostly involves relying on an incredibly helpful and generous community that produces historical databases and player photographs dating back to the 19th-century, ballpark data and images, league templates, and all sorts of other useful and customizable tools. 

If you'd like to see an impressive example of such a community effort underway, check this out. 277 forum pages (and counting) of uploaded photos provided by volunteers, filling in database gaps with old players, many long-forgotten.

Out of the Park Baseball doesn't have a Major League Baseball license, so you won't find team logos, ballpark photos, or real-life players in the game. And, believe it or not, that's actually a very good thing. The work of producing accurate historical data - Sean Lahman's baseball archive is the prime example - is being done by teams of volunteers (aka, my nerd heroes), and nearly all this work is freely available and open to peer review. 

These databases (and modified versions folks have created to account for statistical variables produced by the 'deadball era,' for example) are far more detailed and generate more accurate results than commercial graphical baseball games. In the case of a game like OOTP, the community steps up to provide the assets the MLB witholds, and the developers are free to do things like incorporate Negro League players and teams - something MLB 10: The Show and MLB 2K10 seem unwilling or unable to do.

And so, in the many hours that led up to Al Simmons' grand slam, I built my Cooperstown League of all-time franchise greats based on a template I downloaded from this invaluable hub for baseball sims. I found a slick logo collection and an archive of ready-to-use ballpark photos dating back to the '20s. I relied on the photo database I mentioned above, and I found a season schedule archive that looked good to me. Installing all these resources wasn't easy (OOTP is getting better in this regard, though it still has a ways to go), but I found lots of helpful advice in the game's online forums. 

Once I had the assets I needed, I devoted myself to building a team to win. I assembled an Oakland Athletics (formerly Philadelphia Athletics) franchise all-star team and began studying each player's attributes. OOTP produces a nearly overwhelming array of analysis tools, and if you take the time to learn how to use them, you will make informed choices. 

I built my lefty-righty lineups, my depth chart, my pitching rotation, and I moved several players on and off the active roster. I adjusted AI settings for games I would let the computer sim for me, and I played through the pre-season to get familiar with my players. I made a few more roster changes, and finally I was ready. Five games into the season, Al Simmons capped a 9th-inning comeback with that grand slam. Booyah!

It's early, but I'm in first-place. Ricky Henderson is burning up the basepaths, Mickey Cochrane is pounding the ball, and I've got my eye on the pennant. There is joy in Mudville.

Click to enlarge boxscore:
Screen shot 2010-08-05 at 12.29.52 PM 

Raggedy play

Curious_george I've spent most of my career teaching adults to be 3-year-olds. In other words, I try to help them recover the playful, uninhibited selves they lost somewhere along the way. This is an especially tall mountain to climb for young men, most of whom have been taught that playing make-believe is akin to surrendering their manhood. 

It's something we outgrow when we leave boyhood behind (they think), so when I ask them to dive into an imaginary situation, they typically freeze up or make a half-hearted effort, signaling to their classmates they're only doing this to indulge the teacher. 

Inhibition takes over, and in my business, inhibition kills. It kills imagination, spontaneity, and creativity. It makes theater impossible; but worse, it squelches play and makes us feel silly or guilty. Even after all these years, I always find that a little heartbreaking. 

When I reflect on why I find video games so interesting, I think it has something to do with the way they intercept this self-limiting process. Video games - especially the ones I'm most interested in (narrative, role-playing, performative) - liberate us from our inhibitions and encourage us to play make-believe in an electronic private garden. They make it possible for us play, free from judgment or self-consciousness. 

This private imaginative space is vital. It's a happy outcome of dimming the lights in the theater or cinema. We create a temporary environment where we can feel isolated, even when we're inches away from the person sitting next to us. It's the place where my tough-guy dad can shed a tear watching Toy Story 3, wipe it away during the credits, and no one's the wiser. Or so he thinks.

But video games offer more than privacy. They foster something akin to the playfulness I observe when I watch my 2-and-a-half year old daughter put her stuffed animals down for a nap. She is utterly present in the moment, completely focused on her task, oblivious to people and events disconnected from her play world. She endows objects with meaning and significance beyond their intrinsic value. A tiny blanket is a baby's crib. An empty salt shaker is medicine.

When I wonder how a jaggy blob of pixels can pass for a warrior, I remember this. We can believe it. In my daughter's playful world, the lifelike doll who wets and cries 'real tears' is no match for the floppy cloth doll with the triangle nose. The raggedy doll is the one she carries with her in the car; the one she sleeps with; the one she believes in.

I hope video games never stop summoning our hearty imaginations. We're prepared to go anywhere. Take us to a special place and unleash our fabulous child.