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Supreme Court Hearing

Here is the transcript of today’s arguments.  It’s an interesting read, if you like reading arguments.  The ruling should come down in February.

Schwarzenegger v. EMA/ESA

The briefs are filed, and oral arguments start soon on the most important video-game-related lawsuit in history.  Both sides are drumming up plenty of paranoia about the consequences of this ruling, and there seem to be a lot of misconceptions.  As I follow this case with a lot of interest, I see a few themes that crop up a lot from the average game-player that are based on some false notions.

First, if you don’t know the background, you should look it up.  The really, really short version is that California is trying to pass a law that would restrict the sale of violent video games to minors.  Various judges have struck the law down many times over the years, but the Supreme Court has never agreed to hear the case.  Until this year.  But really, you should look this case up because the specifics are important (I suggest reading this, this, and this).

Misconceptions:

1.  MPAA (movie) ratings are enforced by law.

Some people think that this law would make the games industry no different from movies.  We’ve all be raised knowing that you can’t get in to an R-rated film unless you’re 17.  Except you can.  Theaters aren’t punished for selling a ticket to minors, except perhaps by their union.  It’s not a rule enforced by the government, and there aren’t legal penalties.  In fact, studies have shown (and are cited by the EMA/ESA — if you want the reference, it’s in one of those links at the top of this article) that it’s harder for a minor to get a rated-M game than it is for them to get into or purchase a rated-R movie.  Cigarettes and alcohol restrictions are enforced by law.

2.  The law won’t effect people who live in other countries.

Sorry, that’s not necessarily true.  There are other states waiting to see how this case plays out before attempting their own versions on California’s law, and it could spread over the whole country.  If the Court decides to include “offensive video game violence” under “obscenity”, it could even lead to a federal law.  Anyone that doesn’t pass it will be allowing children to access obscene entertainment, and that would look really bad.  The US is the biggest market (and producer, once you exclude Japan, who makes something fairly different) for video games.  AAA titles are expensive, and if sales actually decrease, you would find more high-budget games being watered-down for the T rating.  And, given the definition California is looking at for “offensively violent”, you might see more watering-down than you’d expect.  It’s not hard to imagine EA (or other publisher) telling a studio that in order to get the game made, it needs to have less violence.

3.  Stores won’t stock the restricted games.

I’ve seen claims from “experts” that this could happen.  It won’t.  Gas stations still stock cigarettes even though they face possible fines for selling them to gamers, and restaurants that don’t sell alcohol mostly do it because of the expense of a liquor license, not fear of the potential fine.  At worst, you’d see less games that would be restricted getting made.

As a side note: I just compared games to cigarettes and alcohol.  Pornography would also have been an appropriate analogy to make — in many ways a more appropriate analogy.  The California law treats violent video games in the same way we treat these other substances, and even makes references to regulations on pornography.  Because you’re reading this, I assume you enjoy games.  It is likely even a hobby you have.  Do you really want your hobby to be in the same category as tobacco, alcohol, and porn?  Especially just when gaming is really becoming socially-accepted?  I didn’t think so.

New update schedule

I’m restarting the blog.  I’ve decided the problem was that I was updating too often.  So, this time around, I’m going to do bimonthly updates.  At the moment, I’m planning on 2nd and 4th Fridays.  See you next week.

It’s very hard to decide to pay money for a tower defense game when there’s so many really good ones on free sites.  However, if you’re a fan of tower defense and are willing to put up $10, you should check out Defense Grid: The Awakening.

The most striking difference between this game and something flash-based is the graphics.  The graphics are stunning.  The developers clearly knew that was their first selling point, because each map as 3 zoom levels you can play on, the closest putting you up-close-and-personal with the baddies.  It’s not practical for playing, but it’s very satisfying to zoom in on that final boss and watch him suffer.

The game also has more game modes, maps, and map variety than a flash game.  Some maps will feature a lot of open space along the bad guy’s path for you to build your turrets (routing the aliens into a  longer path), and some only have turrets along the edges.  Turrets themselves take on just about every form you’ve seen in a tower defense, including slowing time, revealing stealthed enemies, and electric discharge.

It’s a simple game, but a must-have for any true tower defense fan.  The graphics alone make it worth the price tag, but there’s also a lot of game that stays just varied enough to still be interesting.  If that isn’t enough, 8 new maps are being released this month as DLC, each with a special angle intended to challenge players.

Defense Grid: The Awakening is available on PC and Xbox LIVE Arcade

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is, expectedly, Super Mario Galaxy 1, but with Yoshi.  Gameplay-wise, there isn’t really much different unless you’re player 2, but I’ll get to that later.  The new hats and items are fun, and pretty easy to get the hang of early on, but it seems there’s plenty of room for challenges with them later.

The biggest change is one I don’t like — the new overworld/map system.  You have a spaceship that looks like Mario’s head that you can walk around and talk to people like galaxy’s overworld.  Instead of observatories, you step up to the wheel to get access to the map, which resembles every other world map in a Mario game.  It makes the game feel a lot more linear, and less like you’re shooting all over the universe.  Oh, and Rosalina’s been replaced by a fat purple luma who reminds me of the host from the last Mario Party.  He’s kinda annoying.

Player 2 gets the biggest change from the first game.  Previously, P2 just grabbed star bits, stunned enemies with star bits, and could hold enemies in place.  They’ve added an attack to P2, which means Mario can focus on staying out of danger while P2 kills everything.  P2 can also grab certain items (1-up and life mushrooms, coins, and bubbles underwater) and hand them to Mario.

I can understand giving P2 an attack.  Being the second player in the last game wasn’t all that much fun, and this game seems to have cut down on star bits off in the distance to grab.  I have a bit of a problem with the 1-up mushrooms though.  They used to be (and still are, if you don’t have a second player) located mostly in out-of-the-way places that took some extra skill to reach.  It was something small that people who weren’t great at the game wouldn’t have to worry about, but skilled platformers could challenge themselves.  But now, there’s no reason to risk the extra jump over the lava pit when P2 can jjust float over and grab it for Mario.  It’s a reward not for risk, but for having 2 wiimotes and a friend.

To be fair to the game, P2 doesn’t have to be quite THAT overpowered.  There are several enemies that need Mario’s special touch to defeat, and if P2 just doesn’t do as much as they could, the challenges are still there for Mario.  If you’re playing the game with a friend, just make sure they know what you do and don’t want them to do for you.  And for people who aren’t as good at Mario games, they can just bring a friend along to help.

Suicidal Ninja Robots

In an effort to get myself to post more regularly, I’m going to attempt to start Indie Thursday, where I highlight some really good indie game.  The first indie game is Plain Sight.

Really the title of this post says it all.  You play as a small robot with a katana.  Every time you kill a fellow robot, you get energy.  As your energy increases you get bigger, and you change in color from blue to red.  In order to get points, you have to bank your energy with a meltdown, which means you detonate your self-destruct sequence.  The more energy you have at meltdown, the bigger the explosion.  The more robots you take down with you, the more points you get.  Of course, the longer you store up energy, the better target you become, and if you get killed before you detonate you don’t get any points.  As you bank points, you also gain experience which lets you upgrade your robot.  Upgrades follow 3 trees — defense (shield), offence (better attacks), and maneuverability.  Each tree caps in a “Mega Upgrade” that’s unlocked when you’ve purchased every other upgrade in the tree.

The concept is simple, the controls are intuitive, and the art is pretty.  The levels, on the other hand, are beautiful.  Each surface works about the same way as a planetoid in Super Mario Galaxy.  They have their own gravity, and you can walk clear around them.  If you can jump and dash hard enough, you can leave the gravitational field of one platform to land on another.  Combined with the rapidly changing camera angles (controlled by the mouse) and the danger of standing still, the game keeps up a really good pace.

The gameplay is all multiplayer brawling, but there’s 5 different modes — the standard Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Lighten Up, and Ninja, Ninja, Botzilla.  Lighten Up is a king-of-the-hill type mode where you get points for having the biggest meltdown in a particular area.  Botzilla (my personal favorite) puts one player in a Godzilla suit with all the powerups and a handful of lives.  He must kill players to get points (which must be banked with a meltdown), while the others work together to take the botzilla down.  Botzilla rotates players upon death so everyone gets a chance to score.

Overall, this is a great game.  It’s both a great way to kill a few minutes, or for longer-term online play.  You can pick up Plain Sight from pretty much any digital distributor.

The Many Levels of Pokemon

As I play through Pokemon Heart Gold, I am constantly impressed at what a great game it is.  The wonderful thing about Pokemon is that once you start to really look into it, you discover that there’s a lot of mechanics going on under the surface that the game doesn’t really tell you about.  And all these mechanics can be manipulated to make your Pokemon stronger.  Or not.

The general public looks at Pokemon as a game for younger audiences.  Which it is.  A kid can easily pick up the game and know enough to play it well.  The most complicated mechanic you need to understand is type-effectiveness, which is both intuitive and well-explained in the game.  The games’ theme is also clearly geared to kids — all the talk of friendship and getting along with everyone is so cheesy only a kid could enjoy it.

Game Freak has also ensured that the older crowd has something to enjoy.  Things like natures, EVs, and IVs can be manipulated to make your pokemon stronger, but you don’t have to understand them to play the game.  Most competitive players meticulously track all of these.  I personally have started to pay attention to natures, but that’s it.  It’s optional stuff that deepens the gameplay without complicating it.

Part 3: Crafting is King

Finally, the most important part of the MMO — the crafting system.  Everything would be a crafting component, and anything could be used to craft anything.  It wouldn’t always have a purpose — a frog-eye set in the hilt of your sword is just cosmetic, and in the blade it would make the sword break easily.

Forget this idea of “recipes” or “schematics”.  Toss together anything you have on you, and as much of it as you want.  Don’t have enough steel to make a normal shotgun?  That’s fine, it just comes out a little shorter.  Which also ruins accuracy and range.  Have way more metal than you know what to do with?  Why not add more barrels to your gun?  Of course, it’ll chew up ammo faster and be really hard (or impossible) to lift.

The text(ish)-based game Kingdom Of Loathing sort of does this.  You take a lump of meat paste and attempt to stick absolutely any two things together.  Usually you just end up with something so worthless that the game tells you it doesn’t work, but sometimes you discover something interesting.  I didn’t really expect anything to happen the first time I stuck a shrunken head onto the end of a large stick, but it was actually an item.  And it was a better weapon than what I had been using.

Of course, I hate getting the “That doesn’t make anything interesting” message.  Of course it’s interesting.  Maybe not useful, but interesting.  Which brings up 2 problems.  You’d have to have stats for any possible combination of items in the game, and a model for it.  And you’d have to make sure the game was still balanced.  That would take near-infinite amount of code, art, and testing.

Unless you had a formula to create the stats on-the-fly based off of what materials were used, and generally grouped ranges of stats to a single model.  For example, I want to make a gun.  I know that I need metal, and presumably I have the resources to smith the metal into the shapes I need.   I don’t have much scrap metal, but I’ve got some knives I’m not using.  If I can shape scrap metal as needed, then I can also melt down a blade.  So the knife would have to store how much raw metal can be pulled out of it.  The more metal I have, the more options.  I can make my gun stronger by reinforcing the barrel (too thin, and it just breaks), I can make the barrel longer, the trigger system more advanced, or even a scope.  On the other hand, there isn’t much difference between 1lb metal and 1.3lbs metal, and the gun would probably at least look the same.

In order for this to work, you’d need to make the crafting very detailed.  I wouldn’t sit down to make a gun, I’d make its parts.  X steel on the action to make it fire quickly, X more on the barrel for accuracy and durability, and so on.  That part of it would look a lot like Kingdom of Loathing and Fallen Earth, whose ATV-building quest is almost identical to KoL’s Meatcar, where you have to put together the Sweet Rims and Old Tires to make Bitchin’ Wheels which are added to a Meat Engine made from springs, sprockets, cogs, and a full Meat Tank.

Difficult?  Yes.  But it would also have deeper immersion than other MMOGs.  The point is to create an online world with its own communities, and a place for players to be something they can’t be in the real world, be it a Mage, Warrior, or Fleet Captain.  The more full and realistic the world is, the stronger the game ultimately is.  Player freedom is the core of this, and every time a player thinks “Well, if this were real I’d do this, but the game won’t let me” the game has lost a chance to make the world real.

As a side note, when it comes to crafting, Fallen Earth is the closest I’ve seen, mostly because they really put a lot of effort into the crafting system.  In fact, the endgame is mostly crafting.  And it is awesome.

Part 2: Where’s My House?

It seems there’s some discussion about whether or not WoW’s Cataclysm update is a good idea.  Some people seem to think that changing stuff and removing it from existence is a bad idea.  The perfect MMORPG goes against this entirely.

Last time, I said that it should be possible to do just about anything.  Which would include building the Death Star.  The Death Star should also destroy planets.  For good.

You balance it out by making the Death Star really ridiculously hard to get and near-impossible to operate, and there’s always that simple little ventilation shaft that destroys the whole thing.  Yeah, your game might lose a planet and piss some people off (there’s no real way around losing real estate), but it also creates a great narrative in-game.  The players see this massive threat that they don’t like, so they band together to get rid of it.

There’s also ways to work around the losses players would take to have full and permanent destruction of in-game things.  Have some content on the backburner to add when something gets destroyed, set up an “Alderaan refugee fund” in-game to help the toons who lost stuff.  And on a smaller scale (we can’t all be large space games where a Death Star is plausible), I’d love to ransack and destroy the Blood Elf capital city.  And then it stays in ruins (It’d be a great way to mirror how all of the Horde has pretty much migrated to Ogrimmar anyway).

PvE also falls into this category.  There is nothing to prevent a handful of world bosses that can only be killed and looted once.  It’s one thing to be one of the maybe 3 guys on the server with both warglaives (I haven’t played WoW since The Burning Crusade), but you look so much more badass if you’re the only guy on the server who can have them, because you have them all.  For fairness’ sake, I would make them a lootable item — if you’re killed by another player while the weapon is equipped, they can take it from you.  Which would be really badass of the other player.  It also creates more good story in the game.  Imagine when that guy quits playing — “I’m giving my blades to you.  They are powerful, but that power comes with a price.  Others will try to take the power from you.  Many men have died trying to hold onto this weapon.”

I had a discussion a while ago about what the ideal MMOG would look like.  The final product was rather EVE-like, mostly because we were both playing it at the time.  The things we emphasized were freedom to do anything, consequences for actions, and a very detailed crafting system.

Freedom should be the backbone of an MMORPG.  The idea, really, is to make a tabletop game into a video game.  The strength of the tabletop is that you can do any silly thing you can think of, as long as it’s allowed by the DM and your stats/rolls.  That’s very difficult to program into a game because players have an uncanny ability to come up with the one thing the DM didn’t plan for, and you can’t re-program a shipped game on the fly.  That’s fine.  But some things are obvious possibilities that are barred.

For example, if you can build a weapon big enough to destroy something, the weapon should be able to destroy it.  We were thinking along the lines of the Death Star vaporizing planets, but it would be just as fun to blow up some jerk quest-giver’s cottage in WoW.  Or less destructive ideas like using rope to swing over a gorge or climb down a cliff — the simple things that a common dungeon crawler would do without a second thought.

You should also be able to play the game however you want.  For the most part, MMOs have this figured out.  People who want to PvP can PvP, nobody else has to (WoW, I hear, is still working on this).  If you want to run around raiding, go for it, but you won’t be gimped in PvP if you don’t.  If you want to become an Auction House merchant, you can spend time getting supplies and selling them or making them into something more useful.  And if you want to buy yourself a shop, why not?  In most MMOs, the NPCs have a monopoly on store space (the only exception that comes to mind right now is EVE, which doesn’t have NPC sellers at all).  If you want to play an intrepid young man who will do the dirty work of harvesting pelts, then you should also be able to play him as the type of guy who would buy some real estate in the big city.

While we’re at it, maybe you don’t want to play the guy who will do the dirty work.  Maybe you’re the type to hire others.  Or you need 20 of some material you are less able to get.  NPCs handle this by hiring adventurers.  Why can’t we also do it?  Of course, letting players build their own quests would require some tight controls — probably something like a limit to how many quests you can make in a time frame.  And I would never ask anyone to handle giving and accepting quests themselves — you’d have to just stand there, logged in, waiting for your adventurer’s return.  That’s boring.  A job board, on the other hand . . . .

In some ways, this system already exists.  I go out with my herbalism character, harvest herbs, and put them up for auction.  You need herbs, go to the Auction House, and buy them from me.  The end result isn’t really any different.  You get herbs, I get money.  But it just seems more interesting when the process is  “You need herbs and put up a notice for help.  I accept the job (and I get a handy little quest tracker for it), go out, gather the herbs, and turn them in for cash.”  Or experience.  The game would dictate how it all works, with a fee for posting a quest based on difficulty, and a reward that matches in some way.

In short, players should be allowed to get away with doing just about anything.  Next time: why players won’t want to do really crazy stuff.

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