Friday, July 31, 2009
Wet, the new shooter from Bethesda of all developers looks and sounds like an old Grindhouse film. The visual style is as much over the top 70's B movie as it is Frank Miller graphic novel. Some parts of the game turn into a stark red-black-white tri-tonal grain, while most of the game maintains the same gritty, smokey look of Kill Bill.

Even more along those same lines, the game has acquired the same dark humor as the best of Tarantino's work. This little trailer is the best example of that humor so far. It's not a gameplay trailer so much as an ad for the game. Those of you hungry for the gameplay footage can find it on the same site under the media section.

I encourage you to check it out if for nothing else than the visual aesthetic.

How Long do MMO's Have?

Friday, July 24, 2009
The MMO is a powerful force in this industry. People are able to identify with this genre on a level that seems to overpower any other genre out there. New MMO's are hitting store shelves every day and established MMO's like World of Warcraft lay claim to over 11 million subscribers. It would seem the genre has found a permanent place in the industry but how long can it keep this head of steam?

Theree are some major flaws in the genre's design that have existed since the beginning. Flaws that could spell disaster for even the most well established MMO. First, there is the issue of cost. There have been a few games out there experimenting with the way they recoup the costs of their servers and development. The long established method is a monthly subscription cost (usually about $15.00) though games like Guild Wars have opted for simple point-of-purchase profits rather than monthly dues.

To recoup the losses from this decision, NC soft has relased the game as episodes (although the game has seen one official expansion), each one carrying a 30.00 price tag. While attractive to the penny pinching gamer such as myself, this method of payment leaves the developers with less revenue to create new content with. As a consequence, the game feels sparse and barren too often.

SOE's latest offering, Free Realms offers a multi-faceted marketing campaign and in-game microtransacions to it's players. The game is free to download and play and instead focuses on charging real world money for in game items. Free Realms also uses a card game that exists both in and out of the game to generate revenue. While Free Realms has seen great success, many players feel its microtransactions could potentially nickel and dime them to the point of quitting the game.

More than the problem of pricing schemes, new MO's face the issue of establishing themselves in the face of long standing games like WOW. The fight for subscribers has led many to shut down their servers barely before the left the gate. With games like WOW existing as more than just games but a cultural phenomenons, people looking to expand into MMO's are far more likely to settle into the more well known games than a newer title, and those already playing MMO's often have invested so much time and energy into their characters that starting from scratch with a new game is less enticing than nightmarish.

Most of all though, I fear that every MMO, no matter how the developers price the game or how much of the market it carves out for itself, is doomed to become passe. WOW can issue as many updates as they can, develop as many expansions as they can afford but the players will at some point grow bored of the game. When that day comes, Blizzard faces a difficult choice. They can either shut down the servers or try to redesign the game. Anyone who played Star Wars Galaxies knows the horror the latter can cause.

A complete redesign, like the Combat Upgrade and NGE from Galaxies can ruin the game for many players by changing their character's stats, breaking the game's complexity down,changing the way the game is played, etc. Every successful MMO will come to these crossroads eventually. With luck, most won't make the same mistake that Galaxies did.

All this is of course a long ways off. We all need to understand that the games industry work fundamentally on "fadism." Developers will always develop games for money and like any smart business person they'll aim for the most successful market. MMO's may one day die out for a time, just like the adventure genre before it. It will re-emerge eventually but make no mistake, every game stops being fun at some point. All it takes is time.

Where Have all the God Modes Gone or, Little Changes, part one.

Monday, July 20, 2009
The video games of our youth were cold and unforgiving opponents. Like vindictive fathers, any game we set out to play against them was met with stiff rules. If you died, that's it, game over, no cumulative score, you suck, go to your room and cry into your socks. Fired off the last of your rocket ammo and you still haven't killed that big nasty monster? Sure you can kill it with your SMG, but I hope you have all night.

Nowadays with all the checkpoints and unlimited continues, cheats have seen a steady decline. We've all noticed the differences but no one has bothered to really ask why. That's where we come in. This is the first part of a larger series (as always) on the changing face of our industry. What will set this apart from the countless articles regarding this subject matter is that our focus will remain on those elements that don't get the same kind of press as things like narrative and graphics.

Today we examine the slow death of cheat codes. Cheats began as tools tor the developers during testing, These proto-cheats could only be activated by changing the code for the games, This of course meant that most people were unable to use said cheats. The technologically gifted were the masters of this domain. Back then, being a cheater was almost a mark of pride. Proof that you were savvy enough to break the code and put yourself in the same shoes as the developers.

Eventually, games began incorporating more accessible cheat codes. Thank god they did too, or most of us would never have beaten Contra. This new breed of cheats were often intentionally left by the dev teams for players to discover and use should the game get a little too difficult for them. Remember, many of the games from those days didn't aspire to some higher narrative or particularly involved story. I know some of you will argue this with me, but I have yet to meet anyone that can make Doom make any damn sense.

Often, the games that employed these cheats had loose stories to begin with, so a cheat that gave you every item wasn't a big deal because no crucial plotpoints would be skipped. Most recreational gamers would almost expect you to use cheats, while the more serious, hardcore crowd regularly frowned on them.

There were other ways to cheat of course. The Game Genie and it's derivatives ruled the console market, bringing unlimited lives and ammo to Super Metroid and the like. Most of these little cheat machines died out before during the last generation of consoles but the Gameshark soldiered on. Though it's now meant more for backing up game saves and other media it STOL maintains an illustrious cheat disk history.

Cheats today are rare. Sure, EA regularly includes cheats for their games (if you call paid for game breaking items cheats) but by and large cheats have disappeared from the games we play. It may not seem like a terribly big deal to some of you, but you have to ask yourself; How did we not see this happen?

It seems like it just happened overnight. One night I was playing Empire Earth, happily nuking neolithic societies and the next I was slogging through Rapture, fearing every alien noise. I think I know how it happened but I can't put my finger on when.

When the last generation of consoles was new, there was a movement to make games appeal to a wider audience. Some would say that with that swing came a distinct loss of difficulty in games. This could well account for the loss of the cheat code. Easier games wouldn't need cheats to help the player through. Simple, right? Not quite.

While the idea that games got easier to accommodate people other than the hardcore geek crowd is quaint, it's ultimately flawed and selfish. People seem to forget that the industry turned it's focus from arcade cabinets fairly recently in the grand scheme of things. The old ways of numbered lives and final game overs were more a marketing tool than anything. Those things were a way to get you to spend all of yours and/or your parents money. With a move towards a home-based model, that strategy doesn't make sense. Have you found a coin slot on your 360?

I'd say that with the move to the checkpoint/vita-chamber method of gameplay, the cheat has simply been outmoded. It isn't necessary anymore because the games we play have more or less perfected the checkpoint system. The old cheats from Doom were a product of an imperfect system.

More than anything though, games have ditched the cheat code as they adopted more multiplayer options. The point of codes was always to get a one up on the computer, not on another person. In an industry dominated by mutiplayer titles, the old ways just don't fit. Most developers with serious multiplayer titles employ equally serious anti-cheating tools to ban cheaters from the game, sometimes even the platform.

The cheat as we knew it is nearly dead. It will not be killed or kidnapped but die of natural causes. There will always be a way to cheat, but the days of dev teams sowing the seeds of immortality in their games are swiftly drawing to a close.


Saturday, July 18, 2009
Hey there dear readers. Just wanted to stop for a minute and apologize about the scarcity of posts recently. We've been undergoing some major (and very exciting ) changes recently and as such have not bee able to write as often as we normally would. I encourage you to look through our past articles until this next week, when regular posting should resume.

Most of you have probably noticed by now, but we are officially a .com now. Finally, we are www.somnambulantgamer.com. Still a mouthful of a name, I know but at least now you can cut out the blogspot bit out.

We are currently working on getting interviews set up for future articles and finalizing plans for the podcasts. We've come a long way in just a year, and it's all thanks to you. Thanks for your patience.


You've come a long way, newbie (or: We haven't come far enough. And don't call me newbie)

Saturday, July 11, 2009
I have a bone to pick with the video game industry. Even though I am satisfied with some new developments that I have been waiting years for (hello, Tales of Monkey Island!) I can't rest with a single issue that has vexed me for a long long time. That is how under represented women are in games. I am quite frankly *ahem* tired of the joystick-fest that characterizes video games today.

I was surprised to find while researching this article that way back in '06 the Consumer Electronics Association did a study that concluded women gamers (25-34) actually out number men. This can't be right, I thought, I know very few women gamers. I read further and found that the study found casual games (games such as Tetris or Solitaire) to be the most popular among women and that men still outnumber women in console games. That makes more sense, I thought. Then it occurred to me, why? Why is it the common school of thought that women are not gamers? We are just as fond of make believe and adventure as men, more so I could argue. We women obviously like to spend time playing games, but why these casual games? Why are we mostly secluded to what is a small corner of a large successful industry? I think I know a large part of the problem.

The CEA stated in it's '06 study that they didn't ask why women prefer these games. They speculated that casual games are "nonviolent, and are not necessarily supercompetitive against other players." I can see that deterring a few women from the arena of console games, but I wouldn't go so far as to assume we are all so damn squeamish. I personally think it is because the protagonists in the majority of video games are male and the few women featured tend to be hypersexualized figures meant to appeal to men, and in turn nauseate a lot of women.

We are largely left without characters we can relate to, and so we have no desire to carry out their story. I am not saying that a woman cannot find a male character compelling, but after so many they appear to be cast from the same generic male mold.

It is understandable that a production team consisting mostly of men would gravitate toward what they know and naturally create a male character. I am not suggesting that this exclusion of women in video games is malicious, but it is a problem. Women are missing out on a very satisfying lifestyle, and the video game industry is missing out on a lucrative demographic. All because of what is essentially a myth. One that very few people seem interested in dispelling.

I could go on about this subject till I am blue in the face, but the issue breaks down to this. Women need to expand their presence within video games, get more interested in the makings of games and work more visibly in the industry (a programming equivalent of the Fragdolls). We need to exert a female influence into games so they will attract more women. I am not suggesting that we take over, just make our presence known. If we don't get more involved soon I'm afraid it will be that much harder to do so in the future. Video games could become a Boy's Club that women have little or no interest in being involved in.

It makes me sad that my gender numbers so few in what I think is an amazing industry full of incredible potential. Is it so wrong that we should want a little more attention?

The Age of Reclamation

Friday, July 10, 2009
By now you've probably heard that Lucasarts has begun releasing a number of their older games through Steam. Perhaps you've even downloaded some (although, if you'd taken my advice a few weeks ago you might already have a few of said games. Lucasarts has said on their Twitter site that this is only the beginning. Thank God.

Why might Lucasarts suddenly be taking an interest in their old library? What's compelled them to start brushing the dust off of titles like Loom and the Dig? Could it be that they're out of ideas for Star Wars titles? Could it be that they just forgot they had these games sitting on their shelves? Could it even be that Hiro and I are responsible for bringing these game to their attention once more? Okay, so the last one isn't very likely, but a guy can dream can't he?

I think Lucasarts has been testing the waters for a little while. Their games of late haven't met with the kind of acclaim and excitement they'd like, to be sure and their sales seem to have dipped a bit since the Force Unleashed. Let's face it, Lucasasrts hasn't been preforming the way they'd like to (Fracture anyone?). But they have a plan.

It's been said that when economies falter, people get back to basics. This is as true of video games as it is of anything else. The recent resurgence of older franchises should be evidence enough of this. The latest Mega Man, Street Fighter 4, the remake of marvel Vs Capcom 2, the new Mechwarrior title, the new Bionic Commando are all revitalization's of classic older games. On top of that, all of them have sold very well with the exception of Marvel VS Capcom 2 and the as yet unofficial Mechwarrior game as they have yet to be released.

Lucasarts understands this philosophy and plans to capitalize on it. With a wealth of fantastic back catalog games at their disposal, Lucasarts stands to make a great deal of money off of this venture. The ball really started rolling in 2005 with the release of the episodic Sam & Max from Telltale, the company made up of many ex-lucasarts adventure games veterans. It wasn't part of any great scheme at that point, Lucas arts probably figured it would be a profitable way to get the angry Sam & Max fans off their backs in the face of Freelance Police's cancellation.

What Lucasarts probably didn't expect was that the series would meet with great success at the hands of it's new-old masters. Now, years later, Lucasarts is testing the waters by releasing the Monkey Island series, without question the flagship of it's adventure games, into the hands of Telltale Games. The announcement was met, as we all know with great enthusiasm.

With that, I theorize that the recent re-releases of Lucasart's old games signal more than a back to basics approach to games, but perhaps an unofficial survey. A sort of "where should we go from here?" sort of thing. I think that in the face of dwindling sales, Lucasarts has finally realized that it's future lies deeply entrenched in it's past.

More and more I think it's likely we'll see the sequel to Loom find a release. I firmly believe that there are more trips to be made to Maniac Mansion. Perhaps we'll even see Ben fuel up his chopper for another adventure.

Could Lucasarts bring back the adventure genre? Absolutely, as long as they play their cards right. Put them on major consoles as downloadable content and release the damn things for the DS and iPhone. These are perfect environments for adventure games to thrive. It should provide a wide base of players many of whom have played these games before, or grew up on them like me.

I think Lucasarts may even make an offer to buy Telltale Games in the near future. Who better to head a new adventure games division than the very people that gave us these games in the first place.

Am I wrong? Who knows really. I want to be right, of course. These are the games I grew up with, the ones I learned about the importance of story from. This is a genre long overdue for an overhaul and I think Lucasarts are just the ones to do it. Now if only they'd make a proper successor to X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Sigh...

Alan Wake News - Still Sandboxy

Responding to some vocal minorities in the gaming community, Thomas Puha, Creative Director for Finnish magazine Peelaja, has corrected and jokingly attacked some of the translation issues from a recent interview Puha had with Remedy, creators of the forthcoming Alan Wake for the Xbox 360. And to keep this update from completely reading like a newsshard, here's a picture of a happy cow.

Good. Now that that's out of the way, we can get to the real meat. Alan Wake will still be quote-unquote Open World; but Remedy, like the realists they are, know that a game cannot be truly open and also tell a good narrative. Look at Grand Theft Auto IV, which is essentially open world with a very polished, focused story that guides the main action of the game. Compare that, now, with Crackdown -- perhaps a pure Open World game -- where there is no real story to speak of. It appears that Alan Wake will be more like the former than the latter, keeping separate the moments of open world exploration from the moments of narrative. Puha writes on Brightfalls.net:

"I wrote the majority of the article with our staff and I’m not happy to see it being mistranslated. There is still an open world, but due to the story the action is more directed to tell the story better as you’d expect from Remedy. You can still go explore the world between missions, talk to npc’s, but the story and the missions are the key things, not open world roaming in the woods."

In other words: it's sandboxy, just not during "missions" or story-driven moments.

I'm glad this was clarified, as the lack of sandbox had me a bit queasy. I'm cool with just narrative from Remedy, as they're talented storytellers, but the news that the game was just story didn't really jive with my fantasy of what the game would turn out to be. Fantasy verified. I got a chance to see the initial build (running on 360 hardware) back at the 2004 E3, and was impressed. At the time, they were billing it as a completely open world game with a seamless storyline. Perhaps reality caught up with them?

Phasing out the Gamer: The Death of our Great Pastime

Friday, July 3, 2009
The current generation of consoles is dominated by Nintendo. No secrets there, this is common knowledge stuff. The Wii is immensely popular, especially with people that don't usually play games. It's exciting at first blush, but beneath that veneer is an ugly ugly truth. Nintendo is killing our industry and warping consumer's expectations of it.

The idea behind the Wii, back when it was still the Revolution is genuine and admirable. Provide a console experience accessible to all. I'm all for it. For Christ sakes, I've tried unsuccessfully for years to get my Dad into gaming so I could have someone to play with. He's tried, bless his heart, but the controllers are a bit overwhelming for him at times. Don't roll your eyes yet, wee gaming readers, consider the following. The 360 and PS3 controllers each have 13 buttons, 2 analog sticks and 1 D-pad. The wiimote has 8 buttons, 1 analog sick and 1 D-pad. It's a ton simpler to wrangle if you've never approached a console before.

So there's appeal even before you lay out the motion control features. So of course the Wii is attracting people that don't usually play games. They can identify with their actions easier and can usually pick up and play the thing without taking an hour to figure out the controls. If you've ever swung a golf club, you can play Tiger Woods 09 on Wii.

Here though, we run into the first of many snags. The Wii wants to be able to do anything you'd ever want to do. Unfortunately, since the controller is designed with the hand and arms in mind, they had to start making peripherals so it could fill other rolls. The balance board is now almost a must for most games and the nunchuck, though still sold separately, is as important as a power cord for the console itself. Then of course there's the Wheel, the Zapper, the WiiMotion Plus, the Classic Controller and, oh yes, the Vitality Sensor. Assuming you bought a Wii and grabbed only one of each of the peripherals mentioned above, you'd be spending over $450 and you'd still only have one controller. Add in a second controller with all the fixings (that's a Nunchuk, Classic Controller and WiiMotion Plus) and you're above $580. All before you even buy a game that isn't bundled with the peripheral.

Nintendo makes a boatload of cash with the peripheral sales, but it's the games that make the console, right? If so, then the Wii is a stinking landfill of horrible garbage-ware titles. There are a few outstanding first party titles out there, but they're so few and far between they get lost in a sea of crap.

Yet, despite the awful titles and expensive peripherals, the Wii is still going strong. It outsells the 360 and PS3 every month and is often sold out in many stores. But, do the people that buy the Wii play it as often? No. I know many people who own Wii's and from what I've gathered, they are rarely used. I have a friend that hasn't used his Wii since Smash Brothers came out.

So if they don't ever use the thing, why are so many people buying the Wii. Because the Wii has moved the console into the same category as the ab-roller, the kitschy fridge magnet and the infomercial purchase. It's become just another disposable retail buy, mostly because Nintendo does a shit job of explaining the damn thing to their core buyers.

Their commercials and advertising space are creative and often nauseatingly cute. But they're still aimed at the average 20-something Gamer. We know what the Wii is and we know there isn't going to be another really great game released for it within the year. We don't give a shit about the Wii. The average senior or non gaming type doesn't know what they're looking for in a gaming experience. To them, the Wii is strange and alien. They don't have any idea of what to expect, so of course, once the mystery/novelty has worn off, they're much less likely to use it.

So how is the Wii destroying this industry? By inundating the Wii with sub-par games, the new market is made to expect this sort of thing from the other consoles. The PS3 and 360 are already being forced to duplicate the motion control to keep up in the new market. Albeit, these controllers have yet to hit store shelves. Already though, the same buzz that surrounded the Wii in the months before it's release has hit the PS3 motion controller and project Natal.

I fear this is an all too familiar road. I worry that with the advent of these new controllers, the 360 and PS3 will inevitably follow in the footsteps of the Wii. The games will become more and more dumbed down, the content will evaporate and we'll end up with maybe two titles in a year to look forward to.

You may say that it isn't likely to happen. That Sony and Microsoft are too entrenched within the core gamer niche to alter their design. I'd say that you're right, Sony and Microsoft will continue to make games as they have, I have no doubt. It's other developers that I'm worried about. I worry that Ubisoft, EA, Activision, Etc. will abandon their current principles (make a lot of crap to pay for a bit of gold) in favor of vacuous cash crops.

I still believe in the principles set forth in the days of Revolution. I still believe that gaming can be enjoyed by all. I still believe in bringing families together with games. I just don't think we need to sacrifice content and depth of story to do it. Games are, or at least can be incredibly sophisticated story-telling engines. Why don't we use that to really move the whole industry forward? Many say that the Wii has made the controller obsolete. I worry it's made the gamer obsolete.