Fixing a broken machine with broken tools

Thursday, May 29, 2008
Most of us have our own criteria for judging a game. We know what elements we like in our games, we know what developers to trust, we know which genres and franchises we enjoy. For many others however, this instinctual system is less developed or non existent. Many of those people, especially new gamers, turn to sites like IGN and Gametrailers for the last word on games. The problem with this is the system used to review games. It's broken.

Let's break it down. Your average review is about one page to two pages in length, covering as many aspects of the game as possible in the alloted space inevitably culminating in a numeric score (1-5, 1-10, 1- 70,000,471). Of course it's a subjective system, each reviewer having their own biases, but more importantly the numeric score is an arbitrary and misleading system.

What games set the benchmark for a genre? What aspects of a games figure heavily into a review? The closest thing to an elemental review system is the one from Gametrailers. Each review is broken down into design, story, gameplay, and presentation. All this is good, but in the end, they average out the score, defeating the purpose of the segmented review entirely.

The numbers themselves are mostly arbitrary. We all know that a high number is good and a low number is bad but anything between that is more or less a mystery. What makes, for example, "Iron Man" at 5.6 a worse game than "NBA Ballers: Chosen One" at 5.7? The answer is, in all honesty the math and nothing more. The two games aren't comparable in a larger sense because they aren't the same kind of game.

What we need to see, especially as the community grows beyond it's old bounds is a system that judges games within their own genres and without any arbitrary numeric system. Write us an article. Tell us about the game, compare similar gameplay elements to other titles, break it down into categories. Feel free to tell us what you liked and didn't like, what worked and what didn't but don't quantify the experience with a number. It's useless.

Our base is growing. New demographics are playing games. The games are changing, why can't the system we use to review them? This old way of reviewing games doesn't serve the growing community the way it should. Let's get away from the comfortable methods and bring some new tools to the floor.

A Plaintive Cry for Quietude.

Sunday, May 25, 2008
Every news outlet needs something to talk about. For game sites it's always about the big new games. In recent weeks we've had GTA IV, which I've already covered at length in a previous article. Even more recently, it was Haze, the newest FPS from Goldeneye creators Free Radical. Touted by many as the ext great shooter saga, recent reviews have found it wanting. As a PS3 exclusive, the news comes as a great blow to the fighting men and women of the console war.

The console war for those unfamiliar with it's WWI era policies is the ongoing trench war between PS3, Xbox and, to a lesser extent, Wii fanatics. It is a petty and pointless fracas perpetuated to sell more machines. Mud is slung across forums and blogs day in and day out for no other reason than to assert dominance and justify the significant expenditure that comes with console ownership.

While the folks fighting this war from their basements harm their industry's credibility very little, the perpetuation of exclusive releases and content in major titles do it the most damage. "Unilateral" is a word mostly reserved for the political soap box and Sunday morning punditry but I believe it's time we add it to our industry's vocabulary. It is my firm belief that most gamers just want to play games, plain and simple. That is not to say that we don't care about our console of choice, but rather that we don't really care about the wars being fought on it's behalf.

The release of Haze is a prime example. There was no mention or claim by the makers of the game that it was the PS3 flag carrier, or that it would put the competition to rest. All the hype and coverage surrounding it's release and more importantly it's publishers decision to make it exclusive created an expectation that few games would ever have been able to live up to. Haze is not a bad game, it's an average game, especially as far as shooters go. But here, because of it's exclusive nature, average just isn't good enough.

Of course, exclusive titles aren't the only problem here. We have to look at exclusive content in the same light. GTA IV was released for the Xbox and PS3 simultaneously but Rockstar announced that Microsoft had payed an estimated $50 million for exclusive episodic content. Of course, every interview or speculatory blog was "which will sell more copies?," "Xbox to run over PS3 in GTA sales?" etc, etc.

The root of these problems lie in the gaming media and with the industry itself. A game publisher has a responsibility to sell games. More simply, businesses are in to make money. So why would a publisher limit it's audience by making it's game exclusive? Because Sony and Microsoft are willing to pay enormous sums of money to make it an exclusive in the vain hope of selling more systems. Once said deal is made, it's the job of the major gaming news outlets to report on it. So begins the hype that kills games and cheapens our already threatened industry.

We can't allow ourselves to be drawn into this power struggle. If this industry hopes to thrive as it once did, we must be prepared to abandon the ramparts and shake hands in the no-mans land. We can have multiple consoles and still have a unilateral approach to gaming. Game mechanics can differ from platform to platform as long as the game itself remains one cohesive whole. Games released unilaterally have by default a much larger audience and both Sony and Microsoft benefit from the sales. Mind you, the profit margins in the short term aren't as large as they might be for an exclusive title, but given some time profits will even out.

Honestly, I don't expect this war to end anytime soon. Both sides are well entrenched and the system has been in place for years. All anyone can do is place themselves squarely out of the way of it and shout from the sidelines. Consider this my loudest shout yet. But if even one person from the industry hears it, then I'll be happy.

Everyone else is talking about it...

Thursday, May 8, 2008
I wanted to talk for a moment about GTA IV. Everyone else has said it already so I won't go into how great it is. I do want to say a few things about the level of detail in the game. Not detail in the graphical sense, even though the game looks fantastic, but detail in the little things. I've been playing this game for over a week now and I'm still finding new things to try and places to explore.

I've called games immersive in the past. Assassin's Creed was immersive because your character and NPCs reacted to every object in the game. Mass Effect was immersive in the number of reactions and natural flow of dialogue and story progression. But GTA IV does something I've never seen before. It makes me think about that game world in the same terms as I think about the real world.

I'm not saying that it's a perfect recreation of real life. The GTA series' world has always been a satirical caricature of real life. Within that world though you have almost limitless opportunity to do whatever you think you might be able to do in this world. If you and a friend get in an accident, you don't go wandering around looking for food or prostitutes to heal your wounds, you call an ambulance. And so it is in GTA.

Rockstar has always approached their series with an "if you can think it you can do it" attitude, but they've reached a new level with this latest installment. They've created a dynamic character in an intricately detailed world. Playing just the other day, I just stood on a corner for fifteen minutes watching the game world live and breathe around me. People walked by going about their daily routine, talking on cell phones, buying newspapers from the vending machine. Cars hurried through the intersection. Everything was normal. Then the police showed up, sirens blaring. A guy on the street dropped his coffee and took off running with two cops in hot pursuit. The guy was caught and escorted to the squad car where he was put inside and taken away. My character had no part in that action. It just happened. Just for good measure, I walked over and picked up the guy's discarded coffee.

This level of interaction is something I think we'll see a lot more of in years to come. Gamers are always clamoring for more open worlds, more choices, more freedom. Game companies are responding to this with games like Spore and Little Big Planet. This kind of gaming is where I think the real future of this industry lies. We've seen genres beginning to break down in the games we play. The most popular first person shooter today has elements taken straight out of classic RPGs. This is where we're headed folks. It's not about graphical power or iconic characters. It's about how the players and the characters interact with the game world. That is what will bring us together as players. That is what will show the doubting crowds of people that this is a real art.

"Where's the proof?" I know. Take a look at the record sales of the Wii in 2007 despite a price drop for the PS3 and it's Bluray player, the release of Halo 3 for the 360, not to mention a ton of great games that weren't even released for Nintendo's little console. The Wii gets people involved in their games, it got grandparents, kids, everyone to want to play. Not enough? Then how about Rock Band bringing entire families into one room to start a band and play or sing songs they've never even heard. I have been trying to get my parents and siblings to play games with me for years, and Rock band was the first game that really got us all together. If you're still not convinced, take a look at the release of GTA IV. Every major GTA release has been spiked with controversy over it's content. There has been next to nothing about in the news as I've seen it. Add to that that the major presidential candidates have barely mentioned it and you have to admit we're seeing something different. Again, that formula of immersion and interactivity has proven golden and garnered GTA IV an even wider fan base than before.

The face of the games we play is changing. The audience is growing with the content. People are being drawn into games like never before. Let's all hope this is the start of something good.

Welcome, won't you?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Hello all you ambiguous readers and welcome to Somnambulant Gamer, the gaming blog providing you with almost nothing you can't get anywhere else. This being my first blog, I know very few people will be reading this. As a matter of fact if you are reading this, chances are you are part of my immediate family or small network of friends. So thanks, friend or relative, for taking the time to wade through my drivel.

Enough pandering, let's talk about why I'm here. I hope to express in this blog my views on gaming and it's effect on the world we know. I'm not referring solely to video games, I'll also be discussing tabletop games, board games, anything one could consider gaming will be discussed at some point, you can be sure. I will discuss the games I have played and am playing, my views on the industry and it's future, as well as more mercurial issues such as why we play games in the first place.

That said, I want to be clear that I will be writing purely from my own experience (limited as it is) and my best guesses as to the future of the industry. I will not be party to any petty console war discussion. It's ridiculous, irrelevant and juvenile. I only own one console, not out of preference but because I am a man of limited financial abilities. I am a consumer, not a member of the industry I aim to discuss. I am not your first choice in gaming news, I am one man with too much free time and the ego to believe people want to read what I have to say.
Again, welcome and thank you for reading this far. You can stop now.