9/16/06

 An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

September 16, 2006

You're Not God: A Proposal For Limiting In-Game Power

Back when Stev and I used to spend our free time shooting each other in the head, after we had gone through the various scenarios of players vs. bots and players vs. players vs. bots, we'd get bored and, like so many college students, we'd start experimenting. No, not like that. What we would do is set the multiplayer game to slow motion, turn on one-hit-kills, pack the spawning areas with sniper rifles and bots, and then go through a ten minute action highlight reel: Headshots, sniping bad guys as they came around corners, stalking them on our radar, double kills, trick shots. We'd also do variations on our variations. Only timed mines. Only grenades. Only crossbows. My favorite set-up was slow-mo with all knives save for one pistol. In that one, when trying to "frag" someone with your knife, you could actually see it tumbling through the air as it flew towards you, which was an amusing form of terror if you couldn't get out of the way in time. These limits we imposed on ourselves, to me at least, actually made that game much more fun. Besides being a break from the usual run and gun/pick up ammo/respawn sort of games, it made us change how we played. Instead of just emptying our clips in our opponents' general directions, we learned that hitting someone with a thrown knife actually requires you to stand still for just long enough to get a steady bead on a target, leaving you vulnerable as you let the blade fly. There was a lot of shouting "AHH! Move! Move!" as we tried desperately to avoid the an ugly edge spinning towards our faces. And of course, the one who found the pistol was God.

If given the choice between Perfect Dark and Halo, I think I'd choose the former more often than the latter. Not to knock Halo, but I feel much too powerful when I'm playing. Aside from the radar telling me exactly where everyone is moving, I also know precisely how long until my shield refills, and I know that one pistol whip to the head and they go down. I can bunny hop out of the way constantly, I can move with lightning speed. But your abilities in the multiplayer aspect are tame compared to the power you have if you're alone. Playing the story mode is a kind of near omnipotence. Checkpoints abound to the point where you can be almost careless with Master Chief's life. One can waste ammo and futz around the battlefield knowing that any death will set you back a minimal distance at the most. Perhaps this overabundance of power creates the kind of arrogance which leads X-Box Live players to be such dicks.

It didn't surprise me when the complaints about a game like Chromehounds were the very aspects that somehow made the game challenging and fun. Perhaps those who derided the game were no longer used to having to deal with limits to the characters or mechas they controlled. Lamented in Chromehounds was the incomplete radar, the inability to tell friend from foe, the difficulties of communication, the fact (the rather unsurprising fact) that those huge, awkward, multi-ton beasts didn't really move that fast. Not that Chromehounds is exacty a simularcrum of actual combat, but isn't that what war is like? I don't remember enemies in any real war wearing brightly colored body armor to erase any doubts about who was on which side. Perhaps critics didn't think to seperate the limits of the game's premise with limits of the game's play. By most accounts, the game plays just fine, it's merely that you're playing these huge robots that have trouble communicating that causes problems. Players, being savvy, can recognize that the game play is solid and work around the limits of the premise in a way that keeps play fun. They can flash their lights to tell friend from foe. They can work out communications tricks to keep up with the battle. They can plan their long range missle attacks around the fact that their target can't bunny hop off like some, uh, bunny. These limits make players think about how to get around them, and thinking players are, naturally, more engaged and more creative in how they intend to, well, shoot each other in the head. Compared to the downright twitchy, almost purely reactive nature of something like Halo multiplayer, Chromehounds multiplayer seems downright cerebral.

Consider another game, Dead Rising, criticized for what some considered an almost fatal limit; the save system. I'm not saying the game got it right, but to say, ever so eloquently, that it is "borked" seems too harsh a judgement. The save system is limited, both technically (you can only save one game per memory card) and spatially (there are few save spots in the game) but that just means, god forbid, a player would have to think ahead and plan. And if you miss an event in Dead Rising, you miss it, and you may have to start the plot over. You mean if you mess up, you have to deal with the consequences? Hm . . . yeah, that kinda sucks, and the game should probably have found a way to soften that blow, but again, that sounds a lot like real life. And it also means mistakes in the game actually carry weight, not just having to wait thirty second while a level reloads. I don't wish to compare Halo and Dead Rising too much, as they are two very different games, and Halo's checkpoint system is appropriate for an FPS, but that save system takes a lot of thought out of the gameplay equation. I can remember thinking about things like conserving my health or ammo, or planning a strategy for defeating the next group of enemies only rarely when I've played Halo, because I knew if I was caught with an empty gun, or riddled by enemy fire, I'd be back in the same spot in no time.

If you will indulge me: Human beings are problem solving creatures. When met with an obstacle or difficulty, our first instinct is often immediately to find the solution. However, many video games do their best to remove as many seemingly natural obstacles as possible from the gameplay. This may be in an effort to streamline things, so the player doesn't have to deal with searching endlessly for the enemy (hence radar) or restarting a whole level because they got fragged (checkpoints), but it would be nice to have games challenge a player to figure out something outside of a minor maze or simple physics puzzle. We're a smart bunch, and we've been playing game for a while now, so we could use the challenge.

September 18, 2006

Dude! You're getting a Dell:
Why I ditched PC gaming for a console 

Astute readers may realize that I rarely mention SNES games. While Aaron fondly reminisces about the original StarFox and the middle Final Fantasies, I can only sit and provide an audience. Why? Because when my NES became passé, I got wrapped up in PC gaming. Yes, those halcyon days of downloading Wolfenstein 3D in three parts from the local BBS and saving grass-cutting money for the Wing Commander II Speech Pack were quite influential, laying the groundwork for the nerd you see today. From my experience in PC gaming, I learned at an early age the difference between my hard drive and my RAM (at $50 a mb!), and I can say I was on the Internet back when we still called it, “The World Wide Web”. Come college, however, I became disenchanted with PC gaming and opted to join the hundreds of people on my floor playing Goldeneye – the N64 FPS that created heroes out of Rare and became the standard for the genre up until the premiere of Halo.

While PCs and Macs are largely ubiquitous in the United States, with 75% of adults saying they use the internet and 42% of people having a computer at home, PC gaming is in trouble (Mac owners are too busy organizing their messy desktops to game. Honestly, have you ever seen a Mac with an organized desktop?). This article warns of sluggish sales, and Microsoft has been on a marketing blitz that includes the name change of Ziff Davis’ Computer Gaming World. There are a few theories that have attempted to explain this downturn in PC gaming, and I’d like to add my own to the mix.

Theory 1: “Wow, no one is buying games. WoW, indeed.”

This theory, as put forth by Brian Sullivan of Time Quest (and Age of Empires), suggests that World of Warcraft and other “time-sink” games are slowing down PC gaming development and sales. People are so happy playing WoW for months and months – goes the idea – they aren’t interested in purchasing any other games. With an MMO online experience that, seemingly, can’t be beat and new content being released on a regular basis - pulling completists back in - it’s a powerful idea. 

But Oblivion recently topped it in sales, and we’ve seen other games become popular only to fall to something else. Also, The Sims is still selling strong, and internet gaming is approaching juggernaut status (shockwave.com, yahoo pool, pokerstar.net, etc.) This excuse, coming from non-MMO developers, sounds like sour-grapes to me. Something else must be operating…

Theory 2: “Innovation lives on the console.”

This theory, put forth in a recent interview with Todd Howard (executive producer on Oblivion) by the guys at Escapist Radio, suggests that all interesting innovation is happening on consoles, while PC gamers continue to left-click on orcs for hours. When asked about the above Theory 1, Howard was quick to dismiss it. No, he said, all the most interesting stuff is happening on consoles nowadays, and that’s where players want to be.

But in Pixels and Progress’s recent survey, we found that innovation is pretty low on the list of what makes people want a console. In fact, “Tuck me in at night” and “favor me sexually” ranked higher than “innovative”. The #1 thing people wanted was, “good games”, which suggests to me that, if you build a good game, people will follow.

Also, has Todd Howard played a console lately? Can he tell me what, exactly, is innovative? Sure, the Wii – which isn’t out yet. But what else? On-line play? That’s been done on the computers for years. Downloadable content? Computers did it first. Controllers? Not with people developing mouse / keyboard interfaces for console-based FPSes. Better graphics? Compare Half-Life 2 on a PC and an Xbox 360. It’s a wash. If anything, consoles haven’t gained innovation – PCs are losing it.

Theory 3: “PC gaming is freaking expensive.”

This theory is my own, and you won’t hear it from the writers of CGW or any PC developers because they mortgage their houses for top-of-the-line PCs without thinking twice, and earn lots of money, respectively. For these people, the price of PC gaming doesn’t enter in to their lives. It’s a constant. A stable force that is always there. In this equation, to them, the price cancels out, leaving them to debate the merits of WoW and innovation on the consoles. But to the rest of game-playing America, PC-gaming is prohibitively expensive, and always has been.

On the side of every PC game are the requirements. When I was shopping for games, I’d look to this side panel more often than the back of the box; if I can’t play it on my machine, it’s no use getting excited about the pictures on the back. For a game like Oblivion, the system recommendations are: a 3 Ghz Intel Pentium 4 or equivalent processor, 1 GB System RAM, and a ATI X800 series, Nvidia GeForce 6800 series, or higher, video card. Not to mention you gonna want to play it on a nice, widescreen monitor. To build a computer with these specs? Price: $1413.77.

And what happens in three years when you go out to buy a game? You’ll be lucky if your $1413.77 machine will meet the “minimum requirements.” This is what happened to me in college: I walked into Best Buy and realized that I couldn’t play games anymore on my machine. Spend over $1000 upgrading a computer that still checks email, writes papers, scans images, and downloads music just to play the new version of B-17 Flying Fortress, or get a $200 console? So I left for the N64, where I can buy any N64 game I want and not have to worry about it working. This new-found freedom lifted me from the shackles of my dorm room to the Goldeneye tournaments of the common area.

Of course, developers like Valve, have made their games playable on mid-level machines, but it may “detract from the overall experience”. Why would I want that to deal with the niggling feeling in the back of my head saying, “Sure. It looks okay. But it probably looks sweet as hell on that other computer!”? We all paid $40 for this game - why am I punished because of my hardware? Especially when I could get a console and get the same experience everyone else is having – for less money; there’s no digital divide when it comes to a console. Wilmer Valderrama and I have the same PS2. 

Extra price might have been worthwhile when PC gaming had innovative features beyond the consoles, but outside minor graphical capabilities (only available with a $400 video card), everything seems to be relatively tied up. Especially in a time when the best games are on both the PC and the major consoles.

So, could it be the price of PC gaming keeping people away? Could it be that WoW is popular because it continues to work on a less-powerful system? Could Flash and Java-based games be gaining in popularity because they don’t need a Dual-Core Pentium 4 to work? Are people tired of rolling pennies for RAM whenever they want to buy the latest blockbuster? I think so.

Developers: You need to look at the computer like a console, because they’re all on equal footing now. Would you support a $1413.77 Playstation that had a three-year life cycle? No, you wouldn’t. And neither are your customers.

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