27 August, 2008

PAX 2008: Prep 3

Life. Life. Life. INT PAX. PAX. PAX. PAX.

PAX is all elbows.

(That's an interrupt programming joke that's light on details because I never programmed interrupts.)

Sacramento Area Pre-PAX Luncheon
Yesterday, I had lunch with some fellow PAX forum folk.

CaptainTapole was fun to talk to, is also playing TWEWY, also likes Final Fantasy 9 more than most people, has a cute frog backpack, and gave me a super rare button. How awesome is she?
Answer: So Awesome

VThornheart won the BioWare minion contest to be able to attend PAX. And he encouraged them to attend the dinner, which they are (and which I suck for not thanking him for in person). And he also organized the lunch (which I also suck for not thanking him for).

millislim is a focused personality, gamer, and cosplayer. If you're entering the PA game cosplay contest, "watch your freakin' back, Squeaky." She's bringin' it.

Just having lunch with these folks completely affirmed why PAX is so important to me. Talking to excited gamers is pretty much the best thing ever. That kind of enthusiasm is hard to find in humans after elementary school. And that kind of enthusiasm combined with strong intellect and complete goofiness... well, that's why I'm sunburned from standing out in a parking lot for an hour. I just couldn't tear myself away. It's also why I'm happy to shell out to go to PAX.


Packing
Imma chargin' my batteries for my camera. I feel a little silly about that. I barely used the thing last year, and didn't take any pics worth posting. I think everything else is packed.

3 homemade video game shirts
Nintendo DS
- Mario Kart
- Jam Sessons (with 1/8" -> RCA cable for audio out)
- The World Ends With You
124 Blaster Master themed button exchange buttons
boring stuff


The Air Security Shuffle
The main trick to packing is that since I'm flying and pack really light (one carry-on), I have to do some extra work to make things flow smoothly. Going through the security checkpoint means:
- put shoes in basket
- empty pockets into dish
- put bag of liquid stuff (toothpaste, shampoo, etc.) in basket
- put bag of tech stuff (camera, DS, etc.) in basket
- go through metal detector
- collect everything
- repack everything
And that's the optimal process. They may want to look through my electronics, or decide the umbrella in my backpack looks dangerous. Flying back from PAX last year, they took a money clip I'd been given by a friend for being best man at his wedding because it had a tiny utility knife in it. Flying to PAX, it was fine. :P


So why fly?
Flying is super quick, doesn't require stops for meals and rest, and is cheaper than any other form of travel I've looked at. The plane is $300, round trip. The train (which would take 20 hours each way and probably require me to buy insanely overpriced food) costs $350. Driving would take twelve hours each way, which I would have to split up, requiring an extra night in a hotel each way ($120). It would also require me to find and pay for parking in Seattle ($125), buy some food and gas ($200) and put over 1500 miles on my car ($459 if we assume .30 a mile). Unless I've overlooked some major difference, flying destroys.


New PAX Details
The schedule page already had the exhibit hall map and overall schedule. Now it also has the specific descriptions of the panels (what they're really about, who's running them). It's time to flip through and see if there were any boring sounding panels that will actually be interesting.

So far, most of them sound like the title said. There are a bunch of "break into the industry" panels. No thanks. There are a bunch of "issue" panels. Maybe if I didn't read so much about gaming already. I may hit up a movie or concert, but for the most part, I want to game and enjoy the company of gamers. Now I just need to finish prep, collapse, and rest so I can be lucid enough to enjoy it.

25 August, 2008

Challenge: Neuropsychology (Attention)

Welcome back to my attempt to define how games challenge us by looking at the areas of brain function listed on the Wikipedia entry for Neuropsychology and seeing which ones games test.

Attention
Attention is the science word for focus, the ability to separate an object or sound from other objects or sounds. The clinical model of attention (which is actually used to test for brain damage :P ) makes it a little easier to break things down into gaming tasks. (I'll be paraphrasing the Wikipedia definitions to make this flow a little better, but mostly they're just stolen, er, "homaged".)


Focused Attention: the ability to respond discretely to stimuli

At the simplest level, games like Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution simply flash instructions on the screen and the player has to perform them to score points and keep the game going. But most games have certain elements like this. When you see X, do Y. It's the most basic level of reactive gameplay.
X = "his head" Y = "hit it with the rock"

Sustained Attention: the ability to consistently respond during a repetitive activity

I think I'd call this mental endurance. In a particularly long song in Rock Band or DDR, I get fatigued. My attention wanders. Boom. My two hundred note streak is history. Stealth games with lots of repetitive sneaking and RPGs with lots of repetitive grinding will also test Sustained Attention. I hate games like that. If I'm having to use Sustained Attention, it better be because I'm doing something climactic. To put it another way, if the main challenge is boredom, the game has failed.


Selective Attention: the ability to maintain "a behavioral or cognitive set" in the face of competing stimuli.

Okay. I admit it. I'm not sure what it means. I believe it means being able to keep focus in the face of distractions. Going with that, I'll say that games really condition the heck out of players this way. We're used to having all sorts of flashing lights and gauges and noises going off. Many times I see someone who doesn't play much get completely lost trying to understand everything a game presents. But experienced gamers have often been trained in the empirical method. Hit buttons until one does what you want. The rest is nonsense. What do I need to do to win?
Game manuals are a perfect example. :)

Alternating Attention: the ability to shift between tasks with different cognitive requirements

I'm having a hard time with examples for this one. Scratch that. I've had a hard time coming up with good examples. Almost all games have changes of pace (even racing games). But few of them feel like they test context shifting specifically. Sure games will require you to fight some guys, then pick a lock, then talk someone into helping you. But none of them will stop you halfway through a conversation to make you suddenly start picking a lock again. I guess what I'm saying is that they test context shifting, but not very purely.

The Wario Ware games (a collection of random microgames where you have to figure out what your expected to do and do it within three seconds) look like they'd test this, but they really don't. They're mostly about figuring out the one motion you need to do to complete the test.

I'm not sure if any game I've played is really about switching context. Since they try to present linear experiences, context switching as a mechanic would probably feel like constant, annoying interruptions. I wonder what a game designed around context switching would look like?


Divided Attention: the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks

Anyone who's learned to simultaneously learned to move, aim, and shoot in a game has learned about divided attention. It's a pain to learn, but provides good feelings of mastery when it's accomplished.


As I reread these, I'm struck by the need to remind you that this is the narrowest slice of gaming, as each of these articles will be. This article is just about attention. Attention is reactive. Gaming is not; it's interactive. Just thought it needed to be said.

Keepalive (TWEWY, I Love Bees)

TWEWY is really not keeping me entertained. The gameplay, partly because I've been away from it, and partly because I'm really supposed to pay attention to the top screen is losing its charm. And I'm glad this is a spoiler free post so I don't have to go into the three or four different ways the story sucks.

It's about time to do final PAX prep. Packing and printing and general excitement are the order of the week.

I'm working on my next installment for the challenge article series. I thought I'd basically finished it yesterday, but having slept on it and looked at it again, it seems terribly disorganized.

For its anniversary, someone posted a tribute thread to I Love Bees on the PA forums. It had been too long since I'd listened to it. But it did eat up a frightening amount of my time. I can see the rough edges a bit more now, but it's still very good, and I'd venture to guess (based on what I have played of their games) that it's the best story that ever came out of Bungie.

Of course, it has to be. It's almost five hours of nothing but story. Most action games provide maybe two to three times that length, and most of that is just combat. Stories can be told during gameplay, but that's a lot more work than stringing together fights and cut scenes. And when most devs try, it usually involves heavy handed scripting that makes the experience feel contrived. There's definitely a lot of room for improvement here still.

Anyway, I'll try to get the next challenge article up tomorrow (later today). It feels valuable, and big. Like if I put it all together, then turn it around enough times, I'll be able to see the shape of my gaming experience. So many people talk about how we still don't have a common language to talk about gameplay. I don't think what I'm doing is working towards that, exactly. But it feels tangential... and important. At least to me personally. Bring on those windmills.

24 August, 2008

Challenge: Neuropsychology (Arousal)

I said I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I didn't say I'd stop biting.

Basically, this is an attempt to define how games challenge us by looking at the areas of brain function listed on the Wikipedia entry for Neuropsychology and seeing which ones games test. Be warned, you will probably learn things.

Arousal
In science terms, this just means how alert you are. It might be because your sexy sense it tingling, but it could just as easily be your fight or flight response. The latter is the one games most often challenge. The best example genre is probably horror. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law different tasks have different optimal levels of arousal. At very high levels, focus becomes narrow and difficult to control consciously. Memory and problem solving skills go out the window as moment to moment survival takes the fore. Not surprisingly, most horror games also contain puzzles with distributed clues. To be able to focus on and remember clues, the player is constantly fighting back their fear, forcing themselves to remain calm. Basically it's like doing a crossword at gunpoint.

While other examples may not be so dramatic, arousal definitely plays a big part in other games. In so-called rhythm games like Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution, the player sees "notes" scrolling towards a line. When they cross the line, the player must hit the note. For novice players (like myself) some songs overstimulate my arousal by throwing piles of notes at me. I'm physically capable of hitting all of them, but my brain is overwhelmed and locks up. (Admittedly, this has to do with attention in addition to arousal, but one thing at a time.) I fumble to try and find a few of the notes I can definitely hit in the midst of the chaos. But if I could learn to control myself better, I might be able to complete harder songs more quickly, maybe even the first time through.

This feels to me, like a worthy challenge, like I'm cultivating grace under pressure. I could easily be deluding myself, though. Only an actual crisis would be able to prove this one way or the other, and I'm not interested in that kind of experimentation. Maybe I should be, though. Maybe I could get a grant and think about gaming full time. Maybe I'm double delusional! :P

As we continue down the list, I'll also be calling out the ways some games challenge me that I don't appreciate. I'm not arguing that the mental faculties they tax aren't useful. I'm just expressing preferences. This is a blog, after all. :)

22 August, 2008

Challenge: Types

I never intended to write that last post. The idea I had was for this post. But I got into a serious thing. And then I forgot how it ended. :P

While I was waiting for the play to start tonight (last night?) I thought about the various forms of challenge TWEWY serves up and how important challenge is to games in general. And I started a list.


Reflexes
Memory
Spacial Reasoning / Awareness
Observation
Math (up through algebra at least)
Endurance (mental and physical)
Lateral Thinking
Pattern Recognition
Timing
Rhythm
Muscle Memory
Improvisation
Prioritizing
Patience
Special Techniques (controlled muscle spasms)

So there's some brainstorming. This is just the list for single player games, obviously. There's a whole pile of social skills that can come into play in multiplayer, especially in challenging cooperative or team games. But this list is already long and may well need further additions.

I thought about trying to sort the items into physical and mental piles, but so many of them live exactly on the boundary between the two. Reflexes? Timing? Rhythm? They're where mind and body meet. And they're all closely related. Are they so related that they should be collapsed? Are timing and rhythm the same thing? I'll have to think about it.

It seems like a lot of these items are related. Pattern recognition requires memory and observation. And prioritizing requires pattern recognition, I think. And pattern recognition is disturbingly broad. That could mean knowing that when an enemy pulls his arm back, it's time to duck. It could mean seeing a deep chess strategy taking form.

Crap. I've bitten off way more than I can chew, haven't I? :P

Challenge

Look at that word up there. Taunting me. #*#% you! Bring it on! (It's so gonna kick my %*@.)

Challenge is, for some of us, what makes games worth playing. Sure, flashy graphics are nice. A great story is interesting. Empowerment and fantasy are fun. But working for the reward is, again for some of us, more important than the reward itself.

But challenge is a complicated subject crossing multiple disciplines that I barely know anything about. So let's start slowly, by attempting a simple definition of the word.

From the Free Online Dictionary:
A challenge is a test of one's abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking.

That's a sweet definition for gaming. That reminds me of games that challenged me, of hard fought victories that took hours; days; weeks. That makes me hungry. Perhaps the love of challenge is linked to predatory instinct. The love of the hunt.

Push me to the edge. Push me past it. Break me. Watch me come back. Stronger. And stronger. And stronger. Until luck, or skill, or whatever is required gives me the opening I need to break you.

If you find this viewpoint alien, or even disturbing, I don't blame you. This feeling has little to do with our modern existence. Outside of high level sports or gaming or actual combat, anyone with that kind of mindset is pretty much an %*@hole. Heck, maybe we're %$@holes regardless. But we don't care.

The mountain is there. It must be climbed.

20 August, 2008

Credit Where It's Due

There's been some debate over on the MTV blog about game makers not getting enough credit. I mostly ignored it as the people being interviewed weren't ones I really wanted to hear from (known blatherers and CEOs). But then a crime occurred, and I couldn't ignore it. I probably should have, but I couldn't.

The crime was mangling some beautiful game cover art by obscuring it with giant blurbs of credits, then pointing to it and saying "If Video Game Boxes Gave Credit, They'd Look Like This". That article title was a lie, of course. They wouldn't. DVD boxes don't. The credits go on the back. But some commenters on a previous post apparently said the credits could fit on the front, and she wanted to prove them wrong. Maybe they were big jerks, deserving of the comeuppance, but defacing some beautiful box art failed to deliver any, was an abuse of power over the commenters by the blogger, and really ticked me off.

I posted a nasty note in the comments, which I immediately tried to back away from as I realized it wasn't helping (and wasn't even coherent :P ). Then I tried to come back and really address the issue, but the comment system on the MTV blog is garbage. There's no notification when someone responds, and all newlines are collapsed, so instead of nicely formatted paragraphs, it's a giant ugly blob. So now I'm writing it up here because I'm just not done with it. If you don't care about who makes your games, feel free to stop reading.

My current understanding of the situation is that it's not uncommon for there to be no credits in a game manual. The credits are often available for perusal if you boot up the game and go to the extras menu. So if you want to actually take down all the credits for the game, you have to try and write them down as they scroll by (or maybe record a video so you don't have to watch them six times to get everything). I personally don't think this is an acceptable minimum standard.

I think the developers of the game agree, as two of them (Steve Riesenberger and Mark Burroughs) commented on the MTV blog that Mark's name was misspelled on the horrible mock up for Boom Blox. It was weird though, because Steve was arguing that only things that sell the game should go on the box. If that's true, then how can it possibly matter that one man's name was misspelled on a mock up of the box that no consumer will ever use to make a purchasing decision and maybe a handfull of people on the internet will even read? :P

For me, it's just a matter of history. The horrors of the Hollywood studio system forced people who worked under it to unionize. (Often times, unions are the employees way of saying we think we'd be better treated by the mafia than management.) This forced certain standards of recognition.

The gaming industry has had some similar problems. Voice actors want percentages. The spouse of an EA employee exposed horrible working conditions there which EA had to respond to. But none of these things has come to a head, so the body that gives out the guidelines for these things (the International Game Developers Association) doesn't seem to be very driven. They're currently taking a poll about how devs want their credits so that they can put it into a standard that started development in April of 2007?

"We kept it gray." :P (That's a reference to the ridiculous Central Bureaucracy from Futurama.)

When I hear an industry veteran like Steve (According to MobyGames, I believe he's been making games for fifteen year, although they don't have Boom Blox or any other recent work listed, so maybe that's a different guy.) arguing for the publisher and against his self interest, it just sounds incredibly naive. But maybe that's just one guy. Sure, a veteran creative director may make less than ninety thousand a year, but a game can take a long time to develop, so maybe his average per game is right up there with a Hollywood director per movie.

Or maybe people are so happy to be working on games at all that they don't want to press their luck because they know there are hungry college grads out their willing to work for less.

Wait a minute. I thought this article was about having some credits on the back of game boxes. What happened?

What always happens happened. I start trying to follow the money. But I don't really know where it goes. (Which is it's own issue as many studios say movies cost far more to produce than they actually do to avoid paying taxes / investors. Could game publishers be doing likewise?) And then my raging paranoia takes over. Sigh.

Let's see if I can sum up my feelings without bringing up a host of new issues.

I hate MTV blogger Tracey John. :)

I suspect but can't prove that game creators as a whole aren't being treated well and won't be until they have representation.

Cut! Print! Run away!

Square One

A lot of games like to put the player back at square one. In sequels, this often happens right up front because if you started with all the weapons and abilities you finished the last game with, no one could stand against you. But many games will even reset you to zero in the middle of the game.

In the best case scenario, this is because the designer wants the player to focus on the basics, to realize that he didn't really need all that fancy stuff.

In No One Lives Forever (a campy sixties spy game) I had nothing but a coin left in my inventory, a narrow corridor to traverse, and a guard coming around a tiny U-turn in the corridor to kill me. The first time I ran into him, I died. But the second time, knowing he was there, I bounced the coin off two walls so it landed behind him, then karate chopped him when he turned to see what the noise was. I felt very clever. And it was good.

In the less good scenario, it's basically like starting the game over because the developer didn't have time to make more weapons / bigger monsters / better inventory management. This can still be good design if it's done well. Maybe the player gets the weapons back in a different order and faces the monsters in a different progression, learning new tactics along the way.

In the worst case, it's just a way to repeat the game over to inflate it's overall length. Even my beloved DooM is guilty of this design sin. And it does it twice! :O

So there you have it, the three basic varieties of mid-game Square One's. It's not a huge revelation or anything, just something I thought worth setting down in words so that when the next game does it to me, I'll have a handy metric to apply. Is this a good square one or a bad square one?

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 7)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU

So I'm still not feelin' it. But I'm playing it anyway. I've completed week one. Shiki is alive again (I assume). And I have a new partner. This sucks because almost all the clothes I bought for Shiki had special properties that only worked for her. And she was pimped out. Between her level three regeneration earrings and super defense gear, nothing but bosses could really damage us. And even the final boss I didn't really have to bother dodging. But now I have to grind for gear again.

The new partner (Joshua) has a slightly different mechanic for powering up his special attack. I don't really pay attention to it, though. It kinda works anyway, just like Shiki's did.

There are new enemies, they're a little bit more aggressive. I'm getting the second highest ranking sometimes. I still don't care. I want the hard mode loot already.

I finally broke down and went to GameFAQs to learn how to get five yen pins (which I need to trade for some special items). They don't drop off of bad guys. I have to equip one yen pins, then turn the DS off. Once they get enough powered down XP, they'll evolve into five yen pins. Even worse, some of my combat pins only evolve with mingle XP. I have no one to mingle with. I still get "pity mingle" XP, but the 300 I've gotten so far hasn't been enough to evolve any of my combat pins that are supposed to need it.

The fact that I had to go to GameFAQs at all is kind of a letdown. Once I got used to it, I loved the games approach of bombarding me with information to sift. This pin evolving mechanic is more like a crappy adventure game where I have to try combining everything with everything else until something happens to do what I wanted.

All in all, the constant stimulation of the combat is about the only thing the game has going for it at this point. :(

18 August, 2008

Not Feelin' It

No TWEWY
I'm making some changes with my sleep schedule. And Day 6 of The World Ends With You was pretty disappointing, so I'm not going to be playing today. Some days I just don't feel like playing. Plus the down side of keeping a game journal is that I have to be up for both playing the game and writing about it. This is why I will most likely never be a proper game reviewer, since if they get bored with a game, they often still have to play it through to the end as fast as possible and write a thoughtful, insightful, fair review when they're done. Forget that!

Heroes
I spent a little time checking out the Heroes game on facebook. It's definitely more engaging than Mouse Hunt, as I have to check in more than once a day to level efficiently. I'm sure it becomes a pointless grind fairly quickly. But the highest level friend on my list is level 22. I made it to level 15 in a day, so I think I'll at least pass him up before calling it quits. Also, fighting in the game sucks because kill stealing isn't just allowed, it's a preferred grinding method. Higher level characters with AoE (area of effect) attacks come into lowbie (low level) areas and kill four or five enemies with one shot. Sometimes I was lucky to get credit for one in four of the enemies I engaged in battle. What a pain. And how sad a design mistake. I always remember the quote from GDC past where someone said the social network people are learning gaming so quickly, yet here's a design failing that went out with World of Warcraft almost four years ago. And seriously, if you're not stealing from WoW, what business do you have in the MMO space? The dev log says they're working on "instanced" content for a future patch. I'm pretty sure I'll be done with the game well before then.

PAX
I'm keeping tabs on the PA boards in preparation for PAX. I kind of feel that I'm all set, though. I suppose I could pack things up super early. But that seems way too organized for me. Well, maybe that's not the word. I have a spreadsheet listing all the panels I want to attend and highlighting all the free time I can spend in the exhibition hall just to make sure I remember to cover everything. But being organized doesn't mean I enjoy packing.

I thought of getting an audio recorder to record impressions from the show floor, but unannotated audio is fail. On Gametrailers TV they have index markers so I can skip to the section I want to see. Why doesn't every single audio and video player have that feature at this point? Heck, some of the early Giant Bomb videos allowed users to add notes to specific points in the video on the fly. They were mostly just jokes, but still. Annotated audio and video are the only way to go if you want to let users get to the content they're interested in directly. And since none of these podcasts are selling ads, why wouldn't they want users to jump right to the stuff they want? Even if they were, they could just put the ads at the start of each section.

I'm not planning on hitting up the musical performances this year. I'd much rather spend my time in the console freeplay areas, socializing or checking out games I haven't gotten a chance to play because I'm so inflexible that I can't bring myself to pay more than the launch price of the PS2 for a console.

Media Consumption
I've also been exploring some other blogs and podcasts. The Brainy Gamer is definitely a standout. For the most part, though, there's only so much I can read of other people's opinions. Part of that is because I read so much news and opinion already. Part of that is because these are mostly old, closed discussions, making them feel irrelevant. Part of it is because I like the stuff I read to have a point to make and make it. Most blogs, including mine, like to give a lot of context and background and tell stories. Nuts to that! :P

And now, time for sleep.

17 August, 2008

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 6)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU

What happened? The difficulty was ramping up! I was going to have to work really hard! There was a challenge I was going to rise to!

*POOF*

My technique improved only slightly, but the opposition just melted in front of me. I did not have a single fight where I got less than the highest possible rating. How disappointing. :P

In addition to the same useless combat pin, Rare Metal pins are now falling like crazy. Many shops have "quest items" that can't be bought with yen. They must be bought with other items. Many of them require some Rare Metal. They also often require other special items, so I'm not suddenly awash in special items. I am awash in the standard cheap crap I have to buy to get shopkeepers to unlock special abilities and offer me special items I can't buy.

The gear side of the game in general feels like a drain. It's just slow and dull. I go into a store. I buy everything. I click on it all again to see if the clerk will tell me what it does. I repeat until broke. The gear is a further burden after I leave the store. Every time I change zones I check my map to see if I need to changes clothes / pins, save my game, kill everything, go to next zone, repeat. At least that cycle has killing in it. :P

The shopping might not feel so lame if it wasn't mostly for clothes. There aren't many pins to buy, and the ones available are super expensive, have no brands (which means no extra damage in areas they're strong in), and can't evolve. It mostly feels pointless.

I haven't had any pins evolve in a while. I keep fighting in areas they're strong in, but it may be that since I got them to max level already, maybe they won't evolve. They kick enough butt already though. There was one cool pin I bought. It lets me throw cars around.

All in all, the game failed by not unlocking Hard Difficulty on Day 6.

The story also didn't move much. It turns out the thing Shiki lost to be in The Reaper Game was herself. She looks like her best friend Eri, who she was jealous of. It's all very meh. Hopefully things will pick up tomorrow.

16 August, 2008

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 5)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU









SERIOUSLY. I WAS REALLY NICE ABOUT STORY SPOILERS LAST TIME, BUT I WON'T BE ANYMORE.



oKAY. lET'S...

Sorry. Caps Lock. :P

Okay. Let's get started.

Combat's getting harder. That's partly my fault because I always chain as many fights as possible and refuse to raise my level above one. So I'm basically in day five of the game fighting leveled up enemies, who get progressively more powerful through each fight I chain, while I'm still at level one. And I'm mostly kicking their %$*ses. But I can feel the tide turning. They're starting to attack a lot more. Super Spam Offense is beginning to fail. Now I'm picking my battles a bit more on the lower screen. I'll jump in, spam hand to hand attacks, then jump away and spam ranged attacks. So there's still spam, but it's tactical spam. Tactical Spam Offense.

The top screen is becoming a problem, though. I'm paying enough attention to it to realize that I really don't pay any attention to it. To clarify, I'm finally paying enough attention to it to notice that I'm often jamming on the D-pad in the wrong direction. So even my offense on the top screen sucks, and things are getting difficult enough that I need to develop the facility to use both offense and defense up there. This is going to require a lot of practice. I mean, I play a lot of Jam Sessions on the DS. I have five songs I've learned (some better than others) and practice them almost every day. I sing, and I play. It's hard when the rhythms don't match up. Learning to fully manage combat in TWEWY is kind of the same thing. It's like trying to learn an instrument and sing. Except the instrument is trying to kill you.

Long story short, I have a lot of work to do to kick as much %*@ as I want to kick. I could just turn up my level, but where's the fun in that? This combat system is crazy complicated, but somehow I have this intuition that tells me I can learn it. It can be mastered. And when it is, I'll be one more kind of awesome. This is not a chain of reasoning I expect lay persons to understand. :)

The plus side of such difficult combat is that I'm gathering great XP. I'm routinely pulling down the highest possible ranks, which garner three or sometimes even four times the base pin XP. I haven't broken the three digit barrier yet, but I'm very close. Just to put this in perspective, I only get 144 pin XP if I leave the DS off for twenty four hours, so grinding is something like ten thousand percent more efficient than just leaving the DS off. It was an interesting concept. Too bad it was only relevant for six hours or so of the game. :P

Also, I'm finally fighting foes cool enough to drop combat pins. So far, this isn't really so great as it's the same pin (Marasume) over and over, it doesn't sell for very much, and it fills up my inventory. Oh yes, and unlike money pins, where you can sell them all at once, I have to drag each and every one to the sell icon manually. After a few dozen, this loses it's charm.

Unfortunately, the heavier fighting is making some of the problems in the touch screen combat system more frustrating. Dodges are still hard to pull off. And with all the new pins I'm getting, some of the attacks are as well. Some attacks use the same gesture. Some attacks that seem to use different gestures don't work predictably. The designers seemed to understand this and attempted to provide a workaround. The game allows for making certain pins only work when one of the shoulder buttons on the DS is held. But trying to attack on the touch screen, hold a shoulder button, and jam on the D-pad at the same time is just not practical, so the effort is mostly worthless. Also, one pin which required me to draw a circle to activate only seemed to work about a third of the time.

On the plus side, it turns out food isn't as much of a pain as I thought. I can still chain fights even if I don't have the food for all the fights. I don't know what happened yesterday. I'm thinking it may be because I held down the stylus. Maybe they must be tagged then released to actually chain. Regardless, it's working now. The problem is finding places to buy food. Every day puts me in a different part of Shibuya, so I'm learning to stock up on whatever food I can find, in case the food in the new area sucks. This also gives me better standing with the food merchants. But all the items that unlocks require quest items I just don't have access to yet.

The shops in general seem like a waste, currently. At first I thought clothes were like pins, able to be twice as effective in their favored districts. But I really didn't notice much difference even when I was wearing complete outfits for the district I was in. It sucked. And even more annoying is the special ability unlocking mechanic. By wasting a lot of money at a store, the clerk becomes your friend. The number of items the clerk can unlock for you increases. But they don't know about all the items from their own shop, and they do know about items from other shops. Today was the first time a clerk unlocked an ability from some other shop for me. It turns out I have to wear all my unidentified items into every shop to unlock their powers. And with many of them having powers that make them less effective in combat, this whole exercise feels like a trap for OCD gamers.


That's about it for the gameplay. Now we spoil the first major twist in the story.

The Reaper Game is some weird kind of stage between life and death. All the players are dead already. Supposedly they can live again by winning, but by the end of day four, only Neku and Shiki are still in the game. Rhyme died saving Beat, who is assumed to be in Mr. H's protective custody. (Mr. H has a full name. I just don't remember it.) I believe a dozen players started the week. So that's nine deaths, two alive, and one in some sort of limbo. And we're only a little past halfway done. And I accidentally read that there's at least one more week after this one. Brutal.

Anyway, the other main twist in the story is that Shiki has some dark secret related to her friend Eri. Eri designs clothes. Shiki sews them. To join The Reaper Game, contestants must give up what matters most to them. The boss Reaper for Day 5 said Shiki was jealous of her friend, which explains her penalty. I don't know what that means. I made some guesses and then shot them all down. We'll see.

A running theme in the game, that Noise (the invisible monsters) are attracted by "bad feelings" was made explicit near the end of Day 5. The supernatural therapy puzzles still feel pretty contrived. But they're quick, so who cares?

15 August, 2008

State of the Sales Numbers (July NPDs)

The NPDs are out. (The software ones, too.)

So here are the basics of how the gaming market in the US (minus online sales / subscriptions and WalMart and whatever else the NPDs don't cover) is looking.

Overall, it was a good month for the industry with sales of over one billion dollars.

Hardware
Nintendo still dominates. The DS sold over 600k. The Wii sold over 550k. Yes, over a million Nintendo hardware platforms shipped (yet again).

Sony's Metal Gear Solid 4 bubble seems to have burst with sales of over 220k PS3s (down from over 400k last month). Even though I call the Blu-Ray victory and Metal Gear Solid 4 events "bubbles", it does seem that the PS3 may finally be able to sustain some momentum. It has an over six million unit install base gap to make up in the US, but as long as it continues to dominate Japan and keep a firm lead in Europe, I don't think Sony will be too upset.

The PSP also moved over 220k.

And the 360 came in at over 200k. If the rumored price cuts go through next month, the low end 360 will cost less than the Wii, so Microsoft's probably not too concerned about being in last place.

And the good old PS2 is still in it with over 150k sales.

Software
We generally only get NPD data for the top ten sellers. So there's obviously a lot of missing information here.

Proving that I should probably shut my dumb mouth and stop calling the Wii a Wii Sports machine, Wii games take positions 2, 4, 7, and 8 on the top ten with total sales of over 990k. Of course over 280k of those were Wii Play which is a $10 pack in with additional controllers, so that number is a little deceptive.

Rock Band was the only third party Wii game to crack the top ten (at number 8 with over 160k sales). This is why third parties still don't like the Wii. :P Plus, if Wii Music is turned into a fun experience by the time it ships, even third party successes like Guitar Hero 3 and Rock Band may find themselves shoved completely out of the top ten.

360 titles continue to outsell PS3 versions, but not nearly by as much as the install bases would suggest they ought to. NCAA Football 09 sold 1.6 to 1. SoulCalibur 4 sold 1.4 to 1. My understanding is that the 360 still has a better than 2 to 1 install base lead in the US. But if they've got 20% of those units in for repairs, that could account for the discrepancy. :P

14 August, 2008

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 4)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU

There were plenty of new gameplay elements unlocked, but most of them didn't feel very important.

A monster database opened up. I'll use it to check on monster vulnerabilities and maybe item drops. But I can't see me spending much time with it in the long term. It did show me that I still have two more difficulty levels to unlock. Since I'm winning fights with very high rankings, I'm looking forward to turning up the difficulty for the greater rewards I'm sure it will bring.

There was a wrinkle in the food mechanic. Since I still had a few bites undigested from a day and a half ago, I didn't get my full 24 slots to use today. Ideally, I'd spend extra time fighting to use up all my hunger slots before shutting the game down. Meh.

One of my pins evolved, becoming more powerful. I'm not entirely sure how. It may have something to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time fighting where it's brand was strong. Yes. Some pins have brands, just like clothes. My money pins say then can evolve, too. But they are unbranded, so I have no idea how I might get them to evolve, or what they would turn into. Hopefully, they'd get more valuable, but who knows?

A mini-game called Tin Pin is now unlocked. Two pins are on a table. Flick your pin into the other pin to knock it off. Apparently it's the game's multiplayer mode. It seemed pretty simplistic.

Less simplistic was the mingling mode I unlocked. Basically, I can leave the DS on in mingle mode, and it will pay attention to other DS wifi traffic. If it detects wifi traffic from other games, I get some kind of bonus. If someone else has TWEWY and is in mingle mode, we become "friends". We trade "cards". And we can buy things from each other's "stores". That's a lot of quotes. That's because I have no idea what most of those things really mean. Besides, while I'm mingling, I'm not getting free pin XP, so unless there's a lot of DS multiplayer going on in my apartment complex that I don't know about, I'm better off leaving my DS powered down.

Shiki's counterattack ability was unlocked. It used to be that if she was attacking in one direction and the enemy behind her attacked, she was boned. Now she can interrupt her forward attack to perform a counter to any attacking opponent behind her. I'm not paying enough attention to the top screen to make that pay.

I love me some counterattacks, though. It just feels awesome to let an attack whoosh by and follow up with some precision pain. I'll probably start to spend a little more time observing the top screen. Some of Neku's projectiles knock foes back. If I can space my shots out to keep the bottom screen opponents off balance, that should let me make better use of the top screen.

The one new mechanic that is truly awesome is fight chaining. Instead of having to scan, pick an enemy group to fight, fight, wait for the post fight screen, and then start over, I can select up to four enemy groups to fight consecutively. It's a little more dangerous, because I don't automatically heal between fights. But I'm kicking enough butt at this point that it doesn't really matter. Plus adding more consecutive fights increases my XP multiplier, so where I was earning seven or nine points for a single fight before, I can now string four fights together and be walking out with sixty odd XP or more. In a way, it makes the game go by too fast. Day 4 was much shorter than Day 3, so much shorter that I just wanted to dive into Day 5 immediately. Also, four fights at a time lets me start to get my action groove on. I'll be keeping an eye out for opportunities to increase my chaining limit. I'd love to be able to just take on all the enemies in a territory in one long chain. Of course, I'd have to eat a lot to be able to do that.

When I had only two bites to digest, the game only let me chain two fights. That seems really arbitrary and annoying. Ice cream takes five bites to digest. That means I have to eat, do a real fight, then do a waste of time fight before I can eat again. I like the bonus bravery ice cream gives because Neku is a wuss and is going to need a lot more bravery to wear cool clothes. But I don't know if I'll mess with it if it slows down the combat too much. I asked for a four chain fight. I'll take the sync penalty in exchange for the extra loot and XP. Please let me make my own choices. :P

On the story side, I've been watching a lot of Reapers talking. Reapers are the human enemies. They don't actually fight though. They just summon Noise (the animal like monsters) for the characters to fight. In the opening for Day 4 the Reapers are all in shadow. One of the Reapers looks and talks like the main character of the game, who just happens to be suffering from amnesia and blackouts. Fight Club anyone? But that's just speculation.

REALLY BIG STORY SPOILER
DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT (OR MIGHT NOT) WANT IT SPOILED


At the end of Day 4, Rhyme dies. It's not for sure that people who die in the game die in real life, so they may bring her back, but it's supposed to be a big deal. Neku doesn't react externally, causing Shiki to accuse him of being as empty and evil as the Reapers (which may be the case if the game is pulling a Fight Club).

END REALLY BIG STORY SPOILER

So there is plot and character development and a few funny bits of dialog. I'm still mostly a Neku hater, but it's not getting in the way of the gameplay, so who cares? Oh, and we discover that Shiki makes her own clothes in this episode. I can't decide if that makes it more or less baffling that her skirt is so loose fitting and rides so low. Regardless, it's completely inappropriate. Shiki and Neku and Rhyme's medically troubling lankiness is also an element of the art design that doesn't sit well, but these are the kinds of things one learns to overlook in gaming, like all these children running around Shibuya being white. :P

13 August, 2008

Keepalive and Articles That Didn't Make It

I decided to take a break from TWEWY today. With just over two weeks to PAX, I knew I needed to put up or shut up on my art projects. Thanks to some gentle encouragement, I decided to have the Bully shirt made. Considering the 360 and PS3 versions came out this year, this is probably the last PAX it will be at all relevant for. I also spent some time pulling together assets for a Blaster Master shirt but ultimately had to concede that there wasn't time to make something I'd be happy with. That kind of sucks as it's Blaster Master's 20th birthday this year. Ah well.

There's a notepad full of article ideas I never get around to developing. Every time I pick up the pages and try to think about the subjects more in depth, nothing new comes of it. It makes me feel stupid for having no new thoughts and guilty for never letting the ideas see the light of day. So here they are.

Location. Location. Location.
It matters in real estate. It matters in games. (Although technically I'm talking more about atmosphere than just setting.) A cheerful and vacuous game is easier to get into than an unpleasant and rewarding one. The poster children for this phenomenon are Just Cause and BioShock. Just Cause is not a good game. But the tropical vistas and feeling of freedom make it easy to pop back in and just wander. BioShock, a far superior game, is set in a place that I never want to return to. I've tried to pick it up and get into it again, trying different tactics and weapons than I used before, but it feels like returning to a murder scene. In the real world, I've been to Auschwitz. It's horrifying. But the violence there is over now. Every time I go back to Rapture, it starts happening again, and I just want to get out. Is it just that nostalgia and horror don't mix?


Perfection
I love games that give me the chance to strive for perfection, to keep it just out of my grasp but close enough that I know I could reach it. I played AudioSurf and Crimson Sea 2 on easy settings, not because I didn't want a challenge, but because I wanted that challenge to be perfection, not survival. It's a lucky thing when I find a game that gives me that opportunity. So many games add in cheap hits to give the impression of challenge instead of tough but fair gameplay.


Tough But Fair
Fairness in games is largely about feedback. Did I have enough information to choose? In a fighting game, that usually means moves have a wind up phase. In strategy games, it's more about how data is presented. Regardless, fairness is about putting enough information and control in the players' hands that they feel their choices make the difference between success and failure. It's really easy to screw up.

12 August, 2008

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 3)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU

It's weird. Last session I was apprehensive about the fighting going in and was immediately getting it done (even if the quality of my wins was shaky). This time I went in thinking I was going to dominate and quickly had to start saving after every fight. And then I hit my stride again and started racking up the well graded kills.

The only real change I can see is that I had to learn a little about fighting bears and bats. Bears are priority targets as they do heavy damage. They move slowly though, so they can be avoided on the bottom screen. The character on the top screen can't move, though. During this session (which was basically playing through Day 3 in the game), she finally got the jump ability, which I assume is intended as a dodge move. I'm generally too busy to use it. And the guy on the bottom screen is usually the one in trouble.

Shiki also gained her card ability. When she attacks, there are three input patterns. Each one has a different symbol at the end. There are three cards at the top of the screen. When she completes a pattern and the card at the end of the pattern matches the next card in the sequence, it flips over. Once all three cards at the top flip over, all enemies take some damage and the players are healed a bit. It was yet another waste of attention I soon learned to ignore. Super Spam Offense still rules.

So what abilities do I have attention for? It's still pretty much the pattern I outlined two posts ago. I check the top to see which direction to attack then jam on the D-pad in that direction as I try to manage the fight on the lower screen. I couldn't help paying attention to the puck. (It's so shiny.) The damage multiplier it gives can be crucial against larger opponents (like bears). In fact, when I killed the final boss of Day 3 I got a bonus for passing the puck ten times during the fight. That's a boatload of extra damage, and I don't want to think about how hard that fight would have been without it. Also, I didn't have to increase my health at all, like I did with the Day 2 boss fight. So I'm feeling pretty good about that.

The sync mechanic has been officially introduced and doesn't work like I thought it did. It's linked to food for some reason. I can finally eat food in the game. It's a mechanic that requires a large amount of suspension of disbelief. First of all, you only get 24 slots of "hunger" you can use per day. And this isn't about game days. At midnight the DS resets your hunger. But you digest your food not by hours in the day but by fighting. For example, say I eat a hamburger. It will give me a sync bonus immediately, but if I want the other bonus it provides (+8 to my maximum health), I have to spend eight fights digesting it. Anyway, I was disappointed to see that being in sync had nothing to do with the story or relationships between the characters.

No matter how much I eat, I always reset to six hunger. This is probably a good thing. It lets me keep my sync up (although I still don't know what sync does) and lets me keep grinding my stats a little bit at a time. It also lets me get in tight with the shopkeepers. The more you buy at any shop, the more the shopkeeper likes you. In the case of food shops, that means getting access to special menu items.

The noodle shop lets me trade 100 yen pins (the most worthless pins I've got) for a six hunger noodle dish. It doesn't have any stat bonus, but it's gangbusters for keeping sync high. Of course I still prefer to shell out the 230 yen for ice cream. It's five hunger and increases my bravery stat so I can wear better clothes. Yes, you heard that correctly. Eating ice cream makes the characters brave. I didn't write the game. I'm just playing it.

The clothing mechanic finally reared its ugly head as well. First off there are clothing bonuses that are location dependent. Wearing sporty clothes in the upscale district will make you do half damage. But wearing fancy clothes there will increase your damage. And the clothes themselves have special abilities. But you can't use them or even know what they are until you're friendly with the shopkeepers. The problem is, many clothes have special abilities that make them virtually worthless, so I was actually better off not unlocking them. It's frustrating.

And finally, I am now able to "imprint". From the start of the game I could scan. Scanning let me find monsters to fight, and it also let me hear people's thoughts. Now I can acquire key words from their thoughts and put them in other people's heads. It's mostly just a puzzle technique so far. One guy forgot what he needed to get at the store, so I go find the guy who sent him, get the word out of his head and put it in the shopper's head. I've acquired a few other words from random people, so maybe this mechanic will be used to obtain bonus items in addition to solving simple puzzles.

All I know is that there are always new things to do and acquire and new ways to do and acquire them. The sheer diversity is impressive. And I still haven't unlocked most of the functionality of my magical cell phone, so I know there's plenty more to come. In terms of raw amounts of stuff to fool with and explore, the game is shaping up to be every bit the equal of BioShock or Deus Ex, or any other game in that lineage.

I'm a little confused about how TWEWY did in the marketplace. There's a much repeated rumor that the president of Square Enix threatened to axe developers who were "making games only they wanted to play". Most people point to TWEWY specifically as the type of title this applies to. But the sales numbers on Wikipedia don't seem to reflect that. Perhaps compared with Final Fantasy numbers they suck. I don't know.

11 August, 2008

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 2)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU

I know. You don't care. But someone else might.

I'm still getting a grip on the combat. There's a mechanic in the game called "the puck". When one character does a combo, a green light floats to the other character. When that character does a combo, it floats back. As it goes back and forth, it builds a multiplier which adds damage to the last strike of any combo. This can allow pretty devastating attacks, but waiting for the puck to move back and forth gives the bad guys an opening to attack. So I take the bonus when it's convenient, but I gave up on wasting my attention on it pretty quickly.

I guess that's the recurring theme in the game. It always gives me too much to absorb, so I'm always exploring the various mechanics to see which ones really matter. Of course, Super Spam Offense is still the best strategy. It's so good that I've turned down my hit points to what they were at level one to get more XP and money from enemies. I've also turned off automated partner attacks for a small XP bonus. I turned my hit points back up to level three to beat the Day 2 boss. But I'm back to level one hit points to clean out the Day 3 trash enemies. I primarily use XP to increase the rate at which I gain XP. It feels uncomfortably circular.

The story is starting to grate. Neku (the main character) is willing to kill his partner (Shiki) to escape the game. He's also told that he'll be killed if he doesn't do it. Even still, he doesn't hesitate much, and the game plays the same cliffhanger sequence three times before finally giving up that he doesn't (but only because someone intervenes). There was no suspense and no real surprise. This game desperately needs a skip cut scene feature. I'll go a dozen fights between saving because I don't mind repeating a dozen fights, but I'm starting to save after every cut scene for fear I might have to watch one twice. :P

The last cut scene I watched introduced the sync concept. The more in sync Neku and Shiki are, the better they'll perform in combat. (The exact benefit wasn't said.) This makes two game mechanics (sync and bravery) encouraging Neku to come out of his shell and be less of an %#&hole. So now on top of being so cold that he'd sacrifice his partner, he's going to pretend to be nice just to up his stats. I'm beginning to feel dirty for helping him succeed. Meh. Just ignore the story and play the game.

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Session 1)

Wow. This game is dense with mechanics to learn. And in contrast to many games, the mechanics aren't things you discover. You basically get pages and pages of help files to pore over. Every other page will have something on it that looks really important and worth remembering, but I'm already twenty pages in and there's no way I'll remember it all. So as opposed to other games, where secret techniques are slowly acquired, TWEWY shoves it all at me at once and dares me to learn it as fast as I can. It's daunting.

It's especially daunting when the enemies are kicking my butt. The controls in the game are pretty awful. I'm supposed to be able to drag the character around and make him dodge. But half the time I just end up drawing a line on the screen. I'm also supposed to be able to tap on enemies to attack them with certain buttons. But the targeting isn't very accurate, especially when the enemies are moving. Normally control this bad is a cardinal sin, but I'm not giving up on TWEWY just yet. That's partly because of how much praise the game has received, but also because I think I can work around it. Some pins don't require precision. And I'm learning to use both screens.

Currently I peek at the top screen to see whether there are enemies to the left or right. Then I spam that direction on the directional pad (D-pad for short) while attacking like crazy on the bottom screen. I don't much like this berserker style of play. It feels crude and brainless. But it works better. Hopefully the combat will get more strategic fast. I'm not up for a whole RPG's worth of button mashing.

As for the story, it's essentially as advertised. The main character is a jerk. It's interesting how his personality may be related to game mechanics. At his current level, he has a very low bravery stat. In the cut scenes he's very self involved, keeps his own counsel, and is mistrustful of others. It will be interesting to see if he opens up more as his bravery increases.

The actual plot of the game involves some sort of supernatural monster bloodsport. It happens in the middle of the city, but no one seems to notice. All the hero did was pick up a pin, and suddenly he's a combatant. It's pretty surreal. Someone will be giving away said pin at the Penny Arcade Expo button exchange. So if I suddenly disappear, you'll know what happened.

Overall my impression is that TWEWY is a game with a lot of mechanics to explore. I don't know if I'd call it deep so much as complicated, though. Truth be told, I'm not really sure what deep even means. I just know people use it a lot to describe games they continue to discover new techniques in. Regardless, I'm still interested to continue exploring the game. There's a promise that I'll eventually be able to learn cool combos and optimize my food intake and do all sorts of ridiculous things in my quest for ultimate power (and some sort of clich├ęd life lesson in the main story, I suppose).

Game Journal: The World Ends With You (Preconceptions)

The Worlds Ends With You (2008, Square) is already on many people's short list for game of the year. It's pretty surprising considering it's a DS game. I figured I'd pick it up, ostensibly for PAX. Writing impressions of Grimm as I played it felt good. Games are a dialog between players and creators, and simply writing a one page review at the end of the process kind of feels wrong now.

The dialog with a game (for me anyway) starts long before I ever get my hands on it. I'm not going to put down money on a game that isn't well regarded by someone who's opinion I respect. As part of tracking those opinions I hear a fair amount about the game and develop an idea of the experience it provides. These are the preconceptions I had about The World Ends With You.


  • It's an action RPG.

  • You fight on both the bottom and top screens of the DS.

  • Trying to manage both screens is a huge pain.

  • You have pins that give you powers in battle.

  • You level up your pins to make them more effective.

  • Your pins can even gain XP (experience points) while the DS is off.

  • They can also gain XP while other DSes are nearby.

  • The game is set in Tokyo's Shibuya district, known for its fashion obsessed youth culture.

  • Wearing stylish clothes improves combat abilities.

  • Your character must have a certain amount of bravery points to wear certain clothes.

  • At some level the game is a critique of shallow youth culture. There will be a moral.

10 August, 2008

PAX 2008: Prep 2 (Long)

Okay, it's a little hard to keep up. I'm overloaded and it's still over three weeks away. Perhaps being on the forums this much wasn't the best idea. :P

I spent some time learning some geek songs in Jam Sessions. Technically I learned a Jonathan Coulton song, but it would be sacrilege to sing it at a convention where he's performing. I also learned The Role Play Tournament and the end credits song from You Have To Burn The Rope. Basically, I tried to think, "what song would it be totally awesome if I heard someone singing it" and learn that. I think I'm done though. There are too many other projects to work on.

My buttons are ordered. I'm a little concerned that they're not exactly what I wanted, but they're Blaster Master buttons, so it's only a question of how awesome they'll be. I'm playing through the game again, also, so if anyone wants to talk about it, I'll be current.

I keep going back and forth about making a shirt. My Bully shirt would be one of the greatest things ever, but who would care besides me? A Blaster Master montage shirt could be super rad if I put in the time to come up with an awesome design, but again, maybe me and three other people would enjoy it. It's still tempting though. They call to me. "We are awesome. Make us real!"

But I've got so much planning to do now. The schedule of events was just posted. It's tentative, but that didn't stop me from cranking out a spreadsheet with everything I must attend on it. Some of the panels had names that didn't grab my attention, but when the fuller schedule comes out and gives more specifics on what they're about and who's doing them, I may have to make some hard choices.

As it stands now, I'll have three and a half hours on day one to hit the exhibition hall (where all the game makers are showing off their new / unreleased games). Then I'll have two and a half hours more on Sunday. Have you seen the exhibition hall?

Look!


See how there's kind of a left wing, right wing, and a tall middle part? That right wing wasn't there last year. That's how much bigger the exhibition is this year. It was freaking huge last year. I kept thinking I must have missed something important. And I probably did. This year I'll be very much sticking to the rule of hitting up nothing but playable demos. If I can't take the controls, I don't want to know. This means I'll be skipping demos of Dragon Age, Prince of Persia, Far Cry 2, and Spore, among others. But I'm not at PAX to watch demos from PR folks, or even from developers.

I go to PAX to play games with gamers, listen (and maybe speak) to people I respect in the enthusiast press, and touch the future of gaming. That's my mission statement.

There's a panel entitled "Make The World Notice Your Gaming Blog". I looked at the words, like a monkey looks at a piece of modern art and thought, "At some level, I should probably care about that." But seriously, $&@^ that. That's when Gabe and Tycho (the Penny Arcade guys) sign autographs. I have no interest in getting said autographs, but I get to wait in line for a half hour to stand before them and say "Here are a couple of my favorite things you did this year." It's pretty meaningless, I know. They can't do much but nod politely. But that doesn't make it any less important.

I basically already know what I'll blather meaninglessly about: Tycho's completely surreal experience at the Westgate Bar and Gabe's art in the mega ultra epic Paint The Line 2. Mega ultra epic is the genre of the piece, just in case my phrasing wasn't clear. It is the only ultra mega epic known to exist. There may never be another.

And Gabe and Tycho aren't the only ones I want to see. Cheapy D of Cheap Ass Gamer will be there. He has specifically requested to be adored and worshipped in front of his wife and parents who will be there with him. Who doesn't want to make a nice guy like Cheapy feel like a king?

Many of the 1UP folks will be there. Ryan O'Donnell mentioned his love for Blaster Master on the last 1UP show, so I'll be happy to present him with his choice of buttons. They'll be having two meet ups, one for all fans, and one for older fans (at a bar, presumably).

Folks from Evil Avatar Radio are planning a meet up as well. You may remember my last blog post, where I wanted to hear someone actually talk about how different Diablo 3 is from it's prequels. One of them actually sent me a nice email saying I did have a point, and they always appreciate suggestions for improving the show. That's some dedication, right there. They should be fun to hang out with.

There are probably more enthusiast press folks I'm missing. And there are dozens of Penny Arcade forum folks I'll be interested to meet (or see again).

But man, I still need to cover that exhibition floor. I mean, if I go to PAX and don't have anything to write about besides how awesome it was to hang out and play games, I'm going to feel like a failure. I need to get organized.

07 August, 2008

The Outside (Diablo 3)

Yeah, I used a Staind song for a blog post title. It fits on multiple levels. Cope.

I didn't much care for Diablo. Every single time I think of the game, I paraphrase a quote from Cecil Adams. That game did for point and plick what Stonehenge did for rocks. The game looked kinda cool with it's pre-rendered graphics and 2D lighting effects. But it was super dull. (Did I mention I have an exceptionally low tolerance for grinding?) I didn't even bother with the demo for the sequel until a few days ago, and then only for research for this post. As a Diablo outsider, here is my opinion on the current kerfluffle.

What the kerfluffle is.

Blizzard released gameplay footage from the still in development Diablo 3 at an event they held in Paris a few weeks ago. The fans went nuts. They went nuts with joy. They also went nuts with anger. Based on what was shown, D3's art direction is a lot cleaner, prettier, and more colorful than the older games. The usual internet petition was started (and got over 50k signatures). Game journos and bloggers derided it. And I was glad to see it go away.

But it didn't stay away, largely thanks to Tracey John continuing to stir the pot with this interview with D3 lead designer, Jay Wilson. Suddenly everyone was talking about it again, which was bad enough. But on top of that, none of the podcasters seemed to be saying what I was feeling. The fans are complaining because they don't feel that the new Diablo captures the feel of the old ones. The developers are explaining that they tried to do something closer to the old games, but it didn't work for them. And the enthusiast press are aghast at presumptuous fans trying to tell one of the planet's most respected developers how to do their job. But it seems to me that there are legitimate questions that aren't being addressed. And what do I do when no one understands me? I blog to myself. :P

My questions:

Why does the enthusiast press still overreact when fanboys overreact? That's what fanboys do. And yet, there were enthusiast press rants which were just as vitriolic, rambling, and overgeneralized as the fanboy rants. (Evil Avatar Radio, I'm looking at you.)

Why is no one admitting that the fanboys have a point? What we've seen of D3 so far looks more like paintings of Titan Quest than D1 or D2. It's beautiful, but it doesn't feel like Diablo. This is understandable. The people who worked on the old games mostly left Blizzard, and the new folks don't have the same vision. So is their vision different enough that this isn't exactly a sequel? Is it more of a reinvention or reimagining (or some other PR friendly term)?

To me, these seem like valid questions to ask, and maybe small changes in terminology that could let a few thousand people adjust their expectations and stop being upset. But there are so many fears and accusations, it may take a while for people to calm down enough to address them.

And now that D3's art director has left Blizzard, maybe we've gone too far for a real reconciliation.

04 August, 2008

PAX 2008: Prep

The Penny Arcade Expo is coming, and I'm getting ready. Mostly I've been using GIMP to work on art projects.

Last year I made what I hoped would be a conversation piece, a shirt with lots of gaming stuff to talk about on it.



It failed. A couple people I was talking to already would ask about it. But there was way too much interesting stuff at PAX for anyone to be bored enough to start checking out t-shirts. Plus there was no focal point. If I want to meet people via a shirt, the design must focus on exactly one element of quintessential awesome that will make the kind of people I want to talk to run up for high fives.

I'm actually not sure if I want to make a t-shirt at all this year. I mean, it would be fun, but would it really serve a purpose? After all, this year it's all about the buttons.

- PA (Penny Arcade) forum icon (Jason from Blaster Master)
- Van Gogh (cause I kinda look like him with my hair short)
- as a mandelbrot fractal
- PA Adventures character

These are the options I'm currently considering. I've generated (or stolen and reformatted in the case of the game art) more images, but many were for t-shirts I will probably never make. One idea was to do a shirt for Bully, one of my favorite games I've played since PAX 07. I don't remember exactly when I thought of this shirt, but I think it may have been as the words were coming out of Russell's mouth. It was just perfect.





Classic.


And I also noticed that the picture with me and Van Gogh looked a little bit like the loading screen from a fighting game, so I decided to take that a step further.



Here's a closer view (and you can click through for a super detailed view) of the main event.


I'm working on shirts (even if I'll probably never make them). I'm working on buttons. I'm active on the forums. And I've even been modifying a song by PAX favorite Jonathan Coulton for play on my virtual guitar (Jam Sessions on the DS). PAX is dominating my gaming life. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

03 August, 2008

No News Is Good News (Rage)

I've been working on some art projects for PAX. Today I decided I should stop and catch up on some news. QuakeCon (the convention id Software throws for its die hard fans) is going on, and Carmack's keynote is getting a lot of coverage. Most years, he's talking completely over the heads of the people listening, so they just point readers to a transcript and ignore him. This year he said some things people understood.

Microsoft's charging a "per disc" licensing fee. So if you want to do a giant, detailed game world (like id Software's own game "Rage" is trying to do), you can either ship the 360 version with low resolution textures or pay Microsoft tons of extra money. And according to this Kotaku interview with id's Todd Hollenshead, Microsoft requires developers to put more than two gigs of "information" (What?) on the disc, so they don't even get a full DVD's worth of room. According to my "sit on my butt" sleuthing, this means developers have something under 6.5 gigs to play with, since according to Wikipedia's DVD capacity chart the most a single single sided DVD can hold is 8.54 GB.

This isn't too surprising. The 360 will soon be three years old, and it seems highly likely that Microsoft just wanted HD DVD to stall Blu-Ray long enough to get online video distribution working (and largely succeeded). Heck even without NetFlix, one third of Xbox Live purchases were video. And it's even rumored that they're taking another step at getting the 360's price down to mass market viability. So good on them.

But penalizing developers for trying to make their games the best they can be is pretty messed up. Maybe id can release the game on DVD and have free downloadable content with the high res textures available. It'd be a pain, but it'd be something. Besides, as long as it doesn't take much longer to download than the install process on the PS3 version, the fanboys won't have much to argue about, not that they need much. :)

You know what else isn't surprising? Carmack said the PS3 is a pain to code for. Developers were complaining to game journalists about this since 2006. Kotaku actually wrote a story about Carmack dissing the PS3 (with footage from G4) on May 16 2006. But for some reason, when Carmack said it in 2008 it was news, at least to some sites. *shrug*

Unfortunately, the real news will be if Rage can return id to it's former glory as an industry leader instead of a company that makes cool but not terribly user friendly engines and pretty good games in an overcrowded genre. id may have an uphill battle in convincing people to use their engine if an important selling point (ridiculous amounts of detail) doesn't really work on the 360.

Oh, and watch this video showing off some Rage editing from a year ago. (Thanks to Telemachus on the PA forums for the link.) It's pretty cool.

02 August, 2008

Wii Motion Plus Skepticism

There's a YouTube video of a Wii Motion Plus demo on Kotaku. I'll still reserve judgment until I get my hands on it at PAX, but I'm currently of the mindset that this peripheral will still only be for casual games.



Watch the bit where he's swinging the sword (about two minutes in). Look at the picture in picture which shows the user and the screen at the same time. Notice the lag? Sure, it's fine for swiping at slow moving beach balls, but I like my games with some actual speed. Even worse is the motion recognition segment (about four minutes in). He has to fully complete the motion before the Wii recognizes it, which means your character won't start to do the move until you've completely finished it.

I need to cut a swath as a blur of steel and fury. I need to parry madly to hold off attacks from two or three opponents at once. I need to reflect blaster fire. A good design around the lag could compensate. Maybe the player is a slightly ponderous giant. (I'm still waiting for my first person giant monster with eye lasers game.) Maybe the player's character has a heavy sword. Maybe the game takes place under water. But good design teams aren't working on the Wii, for the most part. But now I'm drifting off topic. Let's get back to the point.

In a demo with no AI and paltry amounts of sound, physics, and graphics processing to do, the controller lags. I still want to futz with it at PAX, but I'm expecting to be able to tell in the first ten seconds that it won't really change anything for the Wii.