Thursday, March 29, 2012

Are Higher Production Values Making Games Seem More Limited?

E.D. Kain, who's been doing some good work over at Forbes, has a post up considering the differences in storytelling between Dark Souls and Skyrim. Kain agrees with Tom Bissell's criticism of Skyrim, arguing that the game relies on poor writing, weak dialogue, and an excess of lore to transmit its story, and suffers as a result.

Now, I haven't played Skyrim yet. I have spent countless hours on other Bethesda offerings like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, and I can say that the parts of those games that I found most interesting rarely had to do with the story or other NPCs. The best part of those games was walking around this incredibly detailed world, finding some lost dungeon or ruin, and exploring it while letting your imagination fill in the gaps. What is this place doing here? Why is it filled with ghosts? Why are a dead body and a magical sword lying on this sacrificial slab? The story and quests in these games tended to leave me a bit cold. On a similar level, I've felt somewhat restricted by a lot of games in this generation. Take Mass Effect 2, for example. It was a great game and I really loved it (and continue to love it; played through it three times so far!), but for some reason, it felt a little limiting to me. I think the reason for this might be because of the full voice acting, cutscenes, the somewhat linear design, or the general cinematic design of the game overall.

In contrast, Dark Souls tells its story through minimal dialogue and really impressive, evocative locations, both of which give your imagination a little room to breathe. One of my favorite games of all time, Baldur's Gate II, had plenty of story, but limited voice acting, great writing, and no cutscenes. This approach also gave your imagination a little more room to stretch, and as a result, I connected with the characters in that game more than I did in any other once since. I guess what I'm wondering is: Are higher production values and a more cinematic approach to making games restricting our imaginations and making games seem a little less compelling and enthralling? While I think the answer might be yes, that doesn't mean I want the cinematic approach to go away... I just hope that more developers take some inspiration from Dark Souls and try a more minimalist approach.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Good Riddance Microsoft Points

Saw this article on GamesBeat today. Quote:

Microsoft is expected to phase out its proprietary virtual currency system, Microsoft Points, by the end of the year, according Inside Mobile Apps.

I wrote about this a week ago, but had no idea I'd hear about it so soon. It makes sense. If Microsoft wants to integrate Xbox Live more into its new Windows Phones, it's got to get rid of this clunky, ugly system and get more in line with the competition. I'm quite sure that some internal analysis over at Redmond indicated that money was being left on the table because of the extra step necessary to buy content from Xbox Live.

I'll say it again, content providers. Make it easy for us to give you money for the stuff we want. It's that simple.

Maybe now I'll finally buy some DLC or a downloadable game. Iron Brigade sounds pretty cool...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Microsoft Points Still Don't Make Any Sense

Ever since my little brother convinced me to try out Steam back around 2008, my consumption of PC games has increased dramatically. Steam is such an incredibly convenient service; it only takes a handful of clicks to buy something, and their occasional super sales allow you to pick up some great stuff at good prices. It should be no surprise that Valve has reported 100% growth for the platform in 2011.

All the money I've spent on Steam has made me wonder why I've hardly spend any money downloading games or videos from Xbox live. I've owned my 360 since the fall of 2005; through that whole time, I think I've bought one movie rental, two TV episodes, and one game (Dead Rising: Case Zero). In contrast, I own at least twenty games on Steam.

I think the reason that I've been so hesitant to spend money on Xbox Live downloads is because of Microsoft's ridiculous insistence on pushing Microsoft Points as a means of currency. You can buy Microsoft points in 400 ($4.99), 800 ($9.99), 1600 ($19.99), 4000 ($49.99), and 6000 ($74.99) increments. Games and rentals on Xbox Live seem to run around $15, so customers tend to be forced to purchase larger increments of points, with the remaining point balance just sitting uselessly on one's account. I suppose Microsoft thinks that it can make more money by connecting content to their make believe currency (and now that I think of it, I suppose it simplifies things across the global market), but for me it's another step in the process and makes me less likely to want to purchase anything. Steam tells me exactly the price of a game, in real US currency, and in a few clicks I can purchase what I want. Microsoft throws an extra step into the mix by forcing me to figure out how many points I'd need, and then add them to my account before I can buy what I want. I think Steam's success (and iTunes success in the music and video rental marketplace) proves that it's important to make it as easy as possible for customers to pay for the exact content they want. Any extra step, like Microsoft forcing customers to buy its abstract currency, is an added step that could force a lot of people away. I really think they could make more money off their digital downloads if they just charged for the cost of the content in local currency, rather than forcing people to buy their points. Of course, I have no actual research to back this up, simply my own personal experience. I'd be really interested to see if Microsoft carries along the points system to the new console they're working on. I'm sure they're always looking for ways to maximize their revenue stream: if they wind up ditching the Microsoft points system, then I suppose I wasn't the only one with an aversion to buying from Xbox Live.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Brutal Appeal of Dark Souls

A copy of From Software's Dark Souls landed in my 360 over the holiday season. Yes, I know it came out about three and a half months ago, but I do things at my own pace.

A few years ago, I heard a lot about Demon Souls, and even played about fifteen confusing minutes of it on my cousin's PS3, but that was it. Nothing I had heard about the game or saw in my brief playthrough interested me all that much, and on top of that, I didn't (and still don't) have a PS3. Similarly, Dark Souls flew under my radar for a while, but its 360 release, and several positive comments I'd heard from some trusted reviewers, convinced me to at least try it.

Still, it was a risk. While I've always enjoyed video games, I've never considered myself particularly good at them (left in the wake of my gaming career is a handful of broken controllers from my childhood, and maybe one or two from my earlier twenties as well) so playing a game with a reputation literally built on punishing difficulty could have been a disaster.

So far, though, it hasn't been. While I'm only about fifteen hours in, Dark Souls has been one of the most tense, interesting gaming experiences I've had in a while. The game is very hard, and often frustrating. Watching as your character is chopped to ribbons a fifth time in a row by some higher level monster or boss and realizing, as your undead avatar rises back into unlife at the last save point, that you have to very carefully slash your way through hordes of enemies back to the site of your death to collect your precious cache of souls, only to be hacked to pieces again a sixth time, can cause some serious anxiety. The psychic agony is even worse if you die along the way and lose all the souls you were trying to recover. But I feel that, even if I'm not gaining any experience, I'm learning how to play the game along the way.

Many modern games are so frenetic that you blow past a lot of content before you can really appreciate or even notice it, and a lot of modern gameplay has been largely reduced to squeezing a trigger, with a few optional but not necessary actions available on the side. Dark Souls, on the other hand, slows down the pace of gameplay and forces you to pay attention--to your movements, to the actions your character can perform, to the layout of the level, to your enemies movements and patterns--in order to survive. As I've learned from experience, if you rush through an area you might as well be signing your own death warrant. It's an elaborate game of pattern recognition on every level, and I love it. My heart pounds every time I enter a new area that I lack a mental map for, because I know that death awaits me around literally every corner.

The very deliberate pace of the game also helps you appreciate its visual beauty. The bizarre, purgatorial world that you're trapped in contains some really wonderfully designed gothic chapels, crumbling towers, gloomy forests, and bone-strewn catacombs. Everything is touched by entropy; it's all extremely atmospheric, and really helps drive home the sense that you're struggling through some eternally decaying world stuck somewhere between life and death, like a nightmare version of Plato's world of forms. The character designs, particularly of the higher level monsters and massive bosses, are great; they're familiar enough to be recognizable in Western medieval/fantasy canon, but tinted with enough of a demonic edge to make them weird and alien at the same time.

It's great fun, and a great game. Yes, some of its systems and stats are not explained and appear baffling at first, but there are plenty of guides online that will help you wrap your head around them. Once you start to understand how the game operates, you can really appreciate a combination of gameplay and atmosphere unlike anything else on the market right now. Play it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Indie Music Bundle: 10 albums for $1

The Indie Music Bundle has now been extended until Monday November 28. Grab 10 indie-game soundtracks for $1 and 17 total soundtracks if you donate more than $10. Albums range from Minecraft and Super Meat Boy to ARES and Wind-up Knight.

If you want to get down to your game music on your own time, make sure to check it out!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gamers vs the Machine?

Let's face it, people love to play games. People will ignore work, going to class, maintaining a relationship, even feeding your baby, when faced with an addicting game. But what if we were able to harness that energy by wrapping real 'productive' contributions to society in a fun and digestible format. Imagine if WoW was feeding starving children in Africa! Imagine if for every kill you made in Call of Duty, a disadvantaged child got a toy?

Those with a PS3 might know folding@home, a program which allowed them to use their PS3's idle time to assist with scientific research (protein folding) at Stanford. Folding algorithms take a long time to process, but with folding@home and sourced to the crowd, the total time is dramatically cut down. But science and gaming never worked together. The more you played Uncharted, the less you actually contributed. Might as well not play anything if you wanted to really help out!

Enter FoldIt. Instead of utilizing the collective power  of computers, FoldIt utilizes the collective power of of human ingenuity.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Rare Negative Review for Skyward Sword...and I love it

I'll come right out and say it. I've been off the Nintendo bandwagon for so long that I have started to actively root against anything the company puts out. I'm not exactly sure why; I have so many wonderful gaming memories from Nintendo franchises in the 8, 16, and 64-bit era. At heart, though, I've always been a PC gamer, and now that Western developers have flooded consoles with their PC influenced games, I've found my tolerance for Japanese style games has dropped through the floor. Add to this the nearly fanatical, Apple-like devotion that some hold for Nintendo products, and I find myself actively disliking a company that projects an image of superiority and arrogance. After all the hype I've been hearing about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, I found it gratifying to come across a review that excoriates this latest recycle job for a myriad of disastrous design decisions. A taste:
The more I played Skyward Sword the less I liked it. Like many Nintendo games or even consoles, there are some core features and gimmicks that can be entertaining under very specific circumstances, yet they’re utterly bogged down by obsolete conventions, repetitious filler, and undeniable proof that the Wiimote flat-out doesn’t work as a viable replacement for a standard controller...Even when the many flaws or ineffective controls aren’t getting in the way, it’s all just so familiar. Skyward Sword imitates not only other, better role-playing games and past Mario/Zelda titles, but it also copies and pastes massive chunks of content from within itself as well. I know that fans and Wii loyalists will rabidly delight in this game, but until Nintendo learns some new tricks or, at the very least, can keep up with other modern day developers, I think I’ve finally, reluctantly, outgrown the Zelda series.
 Head over to Gamesbeat to read the rest.