The great realization

Monday, December 29, 2008
I came to a fascinating realization today. I don't really know as much about games as I thought I did.

After all this time there are a few things one would reasonably be expected to know. Chief among these is a basic knowledge of likes and dislikes. Now, I know I like shooters, strategy games, rpgs and puzzle games. That covers most of my pc and console experience, which when taken as a whole is not insignificant.

That list does not, however, cover most board and tabletop games. I've realized that this world is largely alien to me. I've played my fair share of board games, don't get me wrong, I've just never branched out from the standard trivia and Clue that much. With the console in the "shop" my eyes have been opened to a whole world of possibilities.

my most recent discovery was Arkham Horror, an HP Lovecraft themed board game. The player's goal is the stop the ancient one from unleashing its evil on the world. Sounds like it plays like most board games, until you find out it's cooperative. Each player selects an investigator to play as, each with their own abilites and stats.

Suddenly Arkham horror sounds less like a board game and more like a tabletop Rpg ala d&d. There are expansions as well that include new monsters, ancient ones, scenarios and investigators.

The website for the game says that the average game can last up to five hours, take that monopoly. A quick search on youtube turns up a wealth of videos of people playing together and having a blast.

I never knew games like this existed. Sure, I play d&d every other week but nevr have I seen those values and core functions put into a board game format. There are many many others out there and I plan on branching out to those soon. And to think. If the console hadn't broken down, I might never have found this game. Funny how things work out that way.

Holy Shit, Nintendo

Friday, December 26, 2008
Dear Nintendo:

I finally figured out your little dance, and I have to say, Nintendo, I am very disappointed in you. I saw what you're doing, today. But now you've crossed the line. You got my mother, you son of a bitch.

So, yeah, I've seen what you're doing. My mother was so excited--bright-eyed, innocent mum--to open her brand-new Wii this morning. Let me explain something: She has no idea what the fuck a Wii is.

Things I've heard her say in the past few weeks:

"Do you have to dress up like what you're doing to play the Wii?" (i.e., do you have to dress up like a Tennis Player to play Wii Tennis?)

No, mom.

"It's like virtual reality! You move your hand and it does everything you do!" Not quite, mom.

"I want a Wii so I can finally get in shape! You know it helps you do that." Well, sort of, Mom. The ten miles a day you ride your bike probably does a bit more, though.

Me: What games did you get with your Wii, Mom?
Mom: I got five games!
Me: Five? really?
Mom: yep! See! (points to the Wii Play box, which showcases the five "games" packaged with it).

Me: .../facepalm

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of the Wii. What I don't like is that their target demographic doesn't know what they're really getting because all they hear are these myths of how great that little white rhombus is. I'm not trying to jump to conclusions but everyone I know who owns a Wii plays it once every two or three weeks, max.

To me, this is like the rugby coach who learns his son wants to be an athlete. He's so proud and then his son goes and signs of for ballet. Fuck, man--he loves his son, of course, and supports him! But really? Ballet? Well, okay then. I'm just glad you're doing something.

I'm so happy to welcome my parents into the folds of gaming--why, just a few weeks ago, they were able to use their bonus AmEx points for a PS3. My stepdad is playing Oblivion and I couldn't be prouder. Now with the Wii in the house, what are they going to say when I say, "Hey, I brought Guitar Hero" or "hey, have you guys tried Bioshock yet?" (a game they purchased because they heard it was game of the year--I said "be still, my heart!") I can't wait to see them graduate to bigger and better things. But until then, it's going to be "Boxing or Tennis?" for quite some time.

So thanks, Nintendo. You succeeded in bringing everyone who doesn't play games into gaming--but at what cost? (I'd say about $249). People buy and love the Wii, and I admit, perhaps I'm not being entirely fair. But I'm no reporter, and objectivity is not obligatory. I just hate to see my hobby get thrown by the wayside because my mom wants to balance on a piece of plastic. Why should Ubisoft make Assassin's Creed 2 when they can make Unicornz 2 for a 1/10th of the price and make 10x the money? Hell, why should we get a new Rayman game when we can have a minigame compilation featuring insane rabbits? I can't blame the companies, per se--it's good business (and, actually, Raving Rabbids was a lot of fun)--but when minigames and shovelware are the norm, what happens the the Metal Gear Solids and the Bushido Blades? I love gaming and I welcome anyone into gaming--but I don't know if I'm willing to subvert gaming as I know it to do so.


All things Analog

Tuesday, December 23, 2008
As I said in my last post, my primary means of gaming is away for repair. This has left me to re-discover the games gathering dust in my house. Mostly board games, I've been drawn to the conclusion that 1) I own far too many trivia games and 2) I love Munchkin.

My wife and I just bought Munchkin Booty, the latest and most piratical (yay words!!!) version of Munchkin to date. I have to say, Munchkin Cthulhu remains my all time favorite, but who ever doubted that.

But where are my manners, some of you might not be so familiar with Munchkin. Munchkin is a card game of epic and hilarious proportions in which you do your very best to screw over your fellow players. It's an RPG at it's heart, the ultimate goal is to reach level ten (although Epic Munchkin raises the stakes to level 20).

The original munchkin is your standard high fantasy lovingly parodied. Each subsequent Munchkin set has had it's own theme. From the sci-fi Star Munchkin with it's Laser-raser-taser-maser-banana-fanna-fo-phaser, to Munchkin Cthulhu and it's Necronookiecon, every set of Munchkin decks can be mixed with another to form strange and wonderful combinations. Our most successful mixing so far has been Munchkin Bites (gothic themed) with Munchkin Cthulhu.

The best thing about Munchkin is that you can't help but have fun, no matter the mood you're in. The whole thing is so outlandish and absurd, taking it seriously or playing angry is nigh impossible.

Chances are you know some people that play Munchkin. If they're like my wife and I then they're always looking for more players. The more the merrier is the prime rule of Munchkin (I'll never forget our 7 person game at PAX this last year). You'll quickly learn the basics of the game, and the more devious little tricks will come with time.

Munchkin is fun, engaging and a great way to spend an evening with friends. Play it once and you'll never regret it. Play it more than that and you're liable to get hooked. Go on, indulge your inner miscreant.

The Death of a Friend

Saturday, December 20, 2008
Just last night I lost a very good friend. We'd been together on many adventures. We'd slain giant beasts, overthrown vile dictators and trekked through barren wastes in search of family. Through it all he'd remained a tough and stalwart friend, but when those red lights flashed on the front panel, I knew my Xbox was dead.

He's in a better place now, or so I'm told. The poor thing has been sent to the repair center in a small, plain box. For now I am without a console for the first time in nearly a decade. It's strange to sit down in my living room and not be able to play. It's even stranger to suddenly feel the distance of my friends around the country. With the console around they were only a load screen away, a comfort that's all but gone now.

Am I upset about the red ring? Not really. I've had the console a while now and I understood the risks when I bought it in the first place. Do I wish this sort of thing didn't happen? Sure, but at least there is a system in place to deal with the problem when it does. The red ring is a part of owning this console, and I'm not going to bitch and moan about it. It's happened to me before and in my experience, getting angry about it doesn't speed up the process at all.

Live support tells me I won't have the console back until after the first of the year. It could be worse I suppose. With the Xbox off to the repair center I'll be able to catch up on a lot of reading and I'll be in a better position to fully appreciate my tabletop excursions. Hell, you might even see a few posts about them here. Stay tuned, as I'll still be posting as regularly as I can.

The 2008 VGA's

Monday, December 15, 2008
I was enticed into watching the VGA's in the same way a fly is lured to a pitcher plant. Lured close by the promise of exclusive trailers and previews, I found the edges too thin with the sweet nectar. Knowing that it grew in fat droplets near the center, I wandered further in only to grow drunk and drown in the noxious pool at the heart of the VGAs.

Okay, so maybe my metaphor is a little intense, but the meaning is still the same. I was not pleased with the show in the least. Almost every aspect of my beloved hobby was reduced to a stereotype in front of the very people that make the games I love. I suppose I shouldn't expect anything too wonderful from the same network that brings us a half hour show dedicated to answering the questions of the drunken tools.

Jack Black was funny enough but he was hardly there at all. The awards themselves were sparse and disorganized, but most of all, the previews (the very reason I watched the show) were shorter than most teasers I've seen. Fifteen seconds of quick cuts is not a preview of God of War 3, and a cut scene, in-engine or not, is not gameplay footage of Uncharted 2. It's a lie perpetrated to seduce and digest me.

The musical guests were certainly less than spectacular. I don't care about 50 cent, nor does anyone in this modern world give a damn about LL Cool J. At least not since 1998. Once again, I sat through crap like the All American Rejects (whose lead singer can't seem to decide if he's Steven Tyler of Mick Jagger) so that I could see Weezer play at the end of the show, only to see their lead singer give the poorest performance of his career, jerking around the stage like a palsy victim.

I won't be watching the VGA's again. They've been paid their pound of flesh. Never again Spike TV, never again.

What's Happening to Me?

I've become a solid fan of multiplayer. Online battles over Xbox live have never really thrilled me, mostly because of the issues I have with the average gamer's grasp of language. I was enough to keep me away for years, and frustrating enough to make me throw my controller down in anger after several matches. Such was the face of Xbox Live.

Now, with the Party system in place, I don't have to listen to them anymore. They can't hear me, I can't hear them and it is bliss. Playing Halo now reminds me of playing with Bots in the original Unreal Tournament, except that these bots have a peculiar propensity to crouch repeatedly near my head after I die. Weird programming.

The point is, I've rediscovered my single greatest talent in most multiplayer shooters. I've always been a great driver. One recent team slayer match would seem to confirm it, seeing as I was never killed, nor did my warthog ever get destroyed. It was a hell of a match, enough to get me looking at clan membership.

Joining or starting a Clan is a big step towards playing online. Usually it means late nights in front of the TV perfecting your technique. Certain clans will assign you specific roles based on your skill and require you to keep them honed. Of course I've been looking at clans that focus on vehicle usage but more importantly, I'm looking at clans that don't take themselves too seriously. It's a crucial part of the multiplayer game for me to be able to laugh at what I'm playing.

I'm no professional player, but I have enough interest in the matchmaking scene to invest some time in a clan. Whether it develops into anything more is something I'm not prepared to answer. All I want is to have some fun with some people that share my love of the game.

Games as Therapy

Tuesday, December 9, 2008
No, it's not a hair brained scheme, it's a possibility. I'm sure most of you know the feeling of unwinding after a hard day at work with a nice frag session. It feels good to let out your aggression, and it's more than just an escape as so many under appreciative psychologists have stated. Games are more than that, we all know it. They help us through difficult times, breakups, deaths, loneliness, etc. We've used them for years to help us better understand the world we are a part of, so isn't it time that the professional world start taking notice? I think so.

The issue has been burning at the back of my brain for months, but it wasn't until recently that circumstance really brought it to the forefront. A close friend, a therapist (not mine), approached me for advice on a treatment plan for a client. My friend (who for the sake of confidentiality will remain nameless) was considering adding a certain amount of game time to the treatment plan.

As my friend says"Studies have shown that people with disorders such as ADD are helped to focus by the use of video games. Games are also helpful in developing cognitive reasoning and problem solving skills as well as helping people who may, in the real world, have trouble relating to each other, connect in the context of the game."

Play therapy has been used in children and adolescents and is an accepted therapeutic technique. "It makes sense to explore the possibilities of some video games' therapeutic capacities," says my friend. My friend isn't sure of many specific games that could be used but I have recommended Rock Band and Shadow of the Colossus to grieving or depressed friends before, to resounding success.

So what makes games so helpful? "As a distraction from negative thinking patterns, games are a wonderful tool." Just as someone with an addiction might try to find a replacement activity when they feel a craving or urge, one could easily use games to the same effect. Distracting the brain from negative thinking patterns is a staple of cognitive therapy, as they engender feelings which influence behavior. Surely we've all had similar patterns in our own lives, some of us may have already used games to similar ends. I know I have.

It certainly isn't that far fetched an idea when you look at the success of play therapy and replacement strategies. Games are perfect candidates for use in therapy, they're just a new and less understood method of treatment. Hopefully my friend will meet with success in her treatment plans and others may take notice of said success. Who wouldn't want to see a treatment plan demanding three hours of Rock Band twice a week?

Parental Guidance

Friday, December 5, 2008
This holiday season the Timothy Plan, in investment company providing advice on what they call the moral integrity of companies and products has released a four page chart of video games rated by their content. The list includes 140 video games from Age of Conan to Wii Play. It's meant to give parents an objective view of the content in the games their children play, breaking down content into categories like sex, violence, language, etc and giving each game a score of 1, 2 or 3 based on the intensity of the content.

The intent is not to malign video games (at least not overtly) or to call for a ban on them. I believe the Timothy Plan really wants to help parents better understand the games their children play. The problem wit their approach is that the score card is largely ineffective at really detailing the content present in most games. On top of that, much of a game's content is meaningless when not observe in the context of the game world. Most of all, the people that created this list don't play games.

The best way to understand something has never been from the outside looking in, but rather to understand it form the perspective of the people involved in it. The best place for parents to go when deciding what games to get their children are other gamers. It's not like gamers are hard to find these days, with over 60% of households in the US owning a major console. Concerned parents need look no further than their own neighbors for real advice.

The kind of information people really need involves more than a score card. People need to understand what the game is about, what the real goal of the game is. Talk with some local gamers and really dig deep into the game.

Experience has taught me that many people don't understand the depth of meaning in many modern games. Describing the plots of games like Bioshock or Half-Life to non-gamers, the most common response I've ever heard was "I had no idea it was that deep." When confronted with a context for the content, many games cease to seem so menacing. Grand Theft Auto IV isn't about shooting hookers and cops, instead is more about the fable of the American dream and the expectations it brings.

All you gamers reading this, make yourselves available to answer the questions of the puzzled parents out shopping this season. All you non-gamers, take the time to really listen to your gaming friends about the games your children, friend or significant other want to play. I know for a fact you'll learn a lot more about the content of the games from one of us than you ever will from a half-researched, incomplete, moral score card. The lessons these games teach your kids might be more valuable than you've been lead to believe.

Odd Pairings

Tuesday, December 2, 2008
There is an adage that states, "Don't judge a book by its cover", but because the message it conveys is so universal, it could really just be reduced to "Don't judge x by y".

For the purposes of this article, we'll call x a "a game" and we'll call y "the fact that they've combined DC comic book characters with Mortal Kombat, one of if not the most disparate and random combinations of intellectual properties in the history of video games".

You know. For the sake of example.

And I'm not judging! I've learned my lesson when it comes to this sort of thing. I remember the first time I heard that Squaresoft and--get this--Disney--were making a video game together. Yeah! Final Fantasy characters and Disney characters, together at last! I remember shaking my head in disbelief. I remember crying silently in the cold moonlight.

Well, not that last part.

I also remember the first time I saw the trailer for "Kingdom Hearts". (You can still see that trailer HERE. Click on the icon for the first KH game) and thinking


Or something equally enthused. I was sold.

I've yet to play Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, but reviewers so far have found the title lacking in some areas. While Kingdom Hearts has been wildly successful (we're about to see the release of the fourth and fifth games), this is due in large part to the mastermind writers and programmers at Square(Enix) and the huge amount of obsessive fans of both Final Fantasy and Disney. Mortal Kombat and DC comics have the same, but substantially less so.

What I want to know is:

How in the hell did they come up with putting these two things together? Did they put random IP's into a big black top hat and draw? Did they write it on the wall and throw darts?

I mean, obviously the Squaresoft and Disney guys all got drunk together and said "Hey, you know how we could make a fuckload--and I mean a fuckload of money?" I'm thinking the drinking thing must have happened with the Midway and DC guys but...the dialogue was probably more along the lines of "Hey, you know what would confuse the fuck out of people?"

I think we need to see more of this kind of thing.

Disney vs. DC!
Squaresoft vs. Mortal Kombat!
Marvel vs. Cap--oh wait.

Just sayin'. Where do they come up with this stuff?

Contentious Affairs

Monday, December 1, 2008
Downloadable content. This generation of consoles is well acquainted with the concept. Additional maps, weapons, vehicles, missions, songs, stories, costumes, what have you. The games that survive the test of time in this generation are the ones with regular downloadable content be it in the form of microtransactions, episodic gaming or just regular updates and fixes from the developers.

When you look at the past couple years, you should notice this easily enough. Halo 3 was released more than a year ago, and with the regular updates and maps Bungie has provided the fans, they've managed to keep their game fresh. Harmonix releases new songs for Rock Band every Tuesday. Even Ace Combat 6, though the multiplayer is now inhabited only by the most terrifying of pilots, releases fairly regular updates and even new missions for download.

Gamers get bored easily, it's no secret. Our attention spans are so short that most games don't last more than six months in our homes before they're passed on for the next title. Sure, some old stalwart classics remain, but how often does the average gamer play them? I think we've already been over that. With downloadable content, developers can trick us (just a little) into thinking we're playing something entirely different, just by adding, tweaking or upgrading.

It's a simple tactic, one used for years in the PC market with expansion packs. You'd drag your parents to the mall and explain that yes you already have that game but this box has new things to add on to that game. Now, with high speed Internet a symbiotic partner of gaming, it's easier than ever for the average player to get new content. A couple clicks here and there and you've got yourself a shiny new gun, mission, blah blah blah.

What's next in this trend though? Already players are getting bored of new maps and guns. We've been complaining on forums and blogs for years now about how much better stuff we could make. In that incessant whining lies our future. More and more, developers are handing the reigns to the players, allowing us to make the things we've always wanted. We the public have been turned into unwitting developers.

Map making has been around for a while, as have developer crafted Modding tools for games. Valve is famous for releasing comprehensive development software for their Half-Life engine, resulting in Counter Strike, Team Fortress and a slough of other titles. Bungie released map making tools for Myth and Myth II back in the day. The one problem with these tools was the steep learning curve for novices like me.

Today, even console games have powerful modding tools at their disposal. Surely most of you immediately think of Little Big Planet, and you are right to do so, but don't forget Halo 3's Forge tools, and most of all the extremely versatile map maker for Far Cry 2. With this tool, even a complete novice like me can make large, detailed maps. There is very little you can't accomplish with this editor and the community is growing by leaps and bounds every day.

Will we become the sole creators of additional content? No, but we are becoming a larger and more important part of our games' survival. Will we have to sift through miles of crap to find just a little really good content? No, most games with community created content have systems in place to let the cream rise to the top. Ratings and reviews allow other users to see what's working and what needs a few more hours of tweaking.

The future of downloadable content is in our hands whether we choose to accept it or not. When developers make it easier than ever to make your own content, why not play around with it. After all, we are all here to play, right?