Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Point and Click

Mass Effect is beginning to bore me.

I realized that yesterday afternoon as I tore through yet another series of missions, blowing away Geth troopers that were unable to so much as pierce my party’s shields. Shepard and her squad have not been in peril since the earliest segments of the Noveria mission. Now we’re in the sky-towers of Feros, single-handedly exterminating a Geth invasion force. If it weren’t for my interest in Mass Effect 2, I think I might have pulled the plug on this by now.

What’s getting to me is the bogus inventory management I have to do and the fact that I have absolutely no meaningful choices in combat. It’s too fiddly and generic to satisfy on the same level as, say, a hack-and-slash loot-fest like Diablo or Torchlight, but it’s too idiot-proofed to match something like Deus Ex’s or System Shock 2′s balance of RPG / shooter mechanics.

Every character has the full complement of weapons: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Now most character are good with one, maybe two of these weapons. They will never use anything else, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to try. On the other hand, none of these weapons have any real disadvantages. Not when you have a squad of three people helping each other out. So the sniper rifle might be slow-firing, but a trained sniper only needs one or two shots to kill a healthy target. The shotgun is slow-firing and short ranged, but it is also a one-hit kill weapon at times. The assault rifle is kind of inaccurate, but it shoots so fast and puts out such high damage that it doesn’t need to hit reliably. It wears its targets down. The pistol… well, it’s not too good but the characters who rely on the pistol tend to have other powers to make up for it.

And since engagement ranges always tend toward short or intermediate, every single weapon I named above manages to be useful in every situation. Under attack from snipers? Run twenty feet and murder them with your shotgun. Is a big space lizard charging you? Step aside and tag him with the sniper rifle as he comes. Just make sure to max out your chosen weapon, and you’ll never need another.

That doesn’t mean I wont have to go into my inventory and tediously upgrade from one gun to the next. It won’t change anything, since all the weapons look the same and shoot essentially the same, but I have to do it to make sure I’m doing all the damage I can. It provides a nice little illusion of progress. But I have never really noticed much change.

Boxes. Identical weapons. People standing in the open and shooting. Back in the day, this could have given Doom a real run for its money.

What Bioware missed, I think, is that good shooters are really about improvisation and opportunity. Having the right tools can make a job boring. It’s more fun to take down a squad of enemies when the right weapon is down to its last dozen rounds, and the only other thing you’ve got on hand is a pistol and a couple hand grenades, than it is to simply machine-gun them. Those are the moments that let us invent strategies on the fly and play efficiently with inefficient tools.

Opportunity comes during what Lange calls “Fuck Yeah Levels”, when the game gives you a period of super-empowered grace and the incentives to enjoy it.  The amazing weapons for which ammo has been scarce in previous levels are suddenly stocked. The most interesting enemies in the game are present in droves. The level design keeps the action fast and dynamic. It’s the lobby scene in The Matrix. Think of the climactic sequences in every act of a Max Payne title, or the street battle in Japan in Kane and Lynch, the church in Uncharted, or the scene where Sander Cohen tries to kill you in Bioshock.

In the same way a story uses the dramatic structure to vary the tension as it builds toward the climax, a shooter must vary encounter structure. If it doesn’t, the tension ultimately flatlines no matter the intensity of action. Whether I’m fighting three guys or 300 won’t really matter if my actions never change. That’s where I’m at with Mass Effect. Approximately 1/3 of the game fluctuates between dull and pointless.

Quick Hits from Mass Effect

The Paragon / Renegade meters drive me crazy. It’s not that I object to the game’s binary choice moments, since Bioware did a decent job of making either option credible for Commander Shepard. I just wish the game did not turn this aspect of character into an overt scoring system. I really wanted to create a consistent, believable Shepard, but any time a stat appears in a game, I start trying to manipulate it.

So when I face choices in handling a confrontation, I’m as likely to be thinking about my P / R scores as I am about what Shepard would do. The other evening I had to rescue some official from biotic terrorists and I made my decision on the grounds that the game was starting to think I was a goody two-shoes. “I’ve been too nice lately. Better throw in some renegade.”

Besides which, the whole dialogue tree (more of a dialogue-T) seems to be irrelevant. Whether or nor Shepard plays it tough or plays it like a counselor, my antagonists seem equally moved: “I guess you’re right.” I want something more like the tense, timed negotiations of Heavy Rain, where you’d navigate a series of conversation options and use a combination of cajolery and firmness to get what you wanted. Consequences did not directly flow from a single choice, but the steady accretion of small decisions.

I did face one dilemma that left me a bit conflicted. When given the choice between releasing or killing the last Rachni queen, a race that had terrorized the galaxy millennia earlier, I was completely at a loss. My Shepard is generally a tough, unsentimental martinet and ordinarily would have incinerated the thing without a second thought. But I’ve read Ender’s Game, and the situation was too similar. The fact is that the first war ended in a genocide and no communication ever took place with the Rachni, but now I was speaking to a Rachni queen who seemed regretful and even tragic. Morally, she was not culpable for the actions of her race, nor did I feel Shepard was bound by the genocidal decisions made earlier. Shepard might be one of the galactic Council’s special enforcers, but I did not feel that she was obligated to support some of its most heavy-handed decisions.

The benevolent Citadel Council: where the right solution is always the Final Solution.

So I let it go and for the first time had an action roundly condemned by my officers and the Council. It was an isolating moment. For once, nobody said, “I think you handled this right.” The most I got was, “I’m not sure that was our decision.”  But I must also say that Mass Effect did not make the Rachni seem like a real threat. According the game’s lore the Rachni were terrifying and dangerous in their day, but my experience ran counter to that. They were large pests that were easy enough to mow down once you expected them. It seemed unlikely that this race would ever pose much of a threat. The gravity of decision was not real to me.

But perhaps that’s just clever evocation of the game’s theme. Humanity is a young and brash actor on the galactic stage, while the older races seem exhausted under the weight of historical experience. Shepard is a young hero, and her experience has taught her that almost anything is possible and there is no problem that she can’t solve. So she’ll do as she damn well pleases, certain that she can always handle the consequences if it comes to that.

Tango On

This is a trite observation, but I am amazed by how much easier life is with friends around. Thursday night a WordPress update and a server error combined to sink this blog like the Lusitania and I was locked in a downward spiral by midday Friday. I couldn’t get the blog straightened out, I wasn’t getting anything else done, and I was falling behind on every front as I entered the weekend.

Then Cory Banks gave me a phone call out of the blue. He was here on some business and stuck in Boston with nothing to do. He had a place to stay in Arlington, but he didn’t want to go sit by himself in the burbs for four hours while working himself. So he got my number from Julian Murdoch, and I invited him over.

In no time, we’d discarded the whole idea that he’d be staying in Arlington. He would crash at my place throughout the visit, and I gave up on meeting any of my goals. But as we sat around drinking, he started fiddling with my blog until he had quietly fixed the problems and gotten it 95% restored. We were also half in the bag from supplementing the air conditioning with cocktails. That meant it was time to go have dinner with Julian and Jess, Dave Lennon and his wife, and Ken Levine and his wife.

I will pause for a moment here and simply observe that my life has changed a great deal in the last year. For me, people like Ken Levine and Julian Murdoch both existed in another world, providing entertainment and intellectual companionship through ice-blue Wisconsin winters. I treasured dispatches from people who cared passionately about the things I cared about, and did the kind of work I wanted to do. Sitting at dinner on Friday, it dawned on me that by some miracle, I find myself living in the world I chose.

The nine of us passed the evening arguing about the best squares along the Red Line, the dubious merits of Quincy, and the best way to dispose of old electronic equipment. Lennon’s company had the best solution: one of their employees takes old CRT monitors and server stacks out to a shooting range and proceeds to unload on them until they turn into modern art. After dinner was over, Julian and Jessica took us out for ice cream in Harvard Square, before leaving the MK, Cory, and myself to go bar hopping around Cambridge.

The plan for the next day was that the three of us would grab crepes and then meet with Julian at a games store in Central Square, but Julian and his family decided to go to a fair in New Hampshire. Cory adores the entire Murdoch clan, and while I didn’t really want to go hang out at a fairground, I figured, what the hell, it might be fun.

Which it was, because fun has a way of following Julian. The three of us barreled out of Boston after a late brunch, and an hour later we were being led from arcade to arcade by Julian and his son. I had my first funnel cake, heard about Julian’s life as a medieval battle re-enactor (is use the term loosely), and stole a few licks off MK’s soft-serve ice cream cone. Peter played air hockey against MK and they fought each other to a draw, but he didn’t have as much luck with me in skee ball.

Julian also made a point to introduce me to some truly superb pinball machines, like Stern’s excellent Pirates of the Caribbean.  There was a point where Julian, Cory, MK, and myself were all lined up at different machines, hunched over the flippers while we juked and twisted in a futile effort to control the ball through psychic energy. I also came away with a new appreciation for pinball: there’s a lot to be said for the tangible thrill of launching the ball into a nest of bumpers and watching the score counter go berserk while the machine shudders beneath your fingertips with the clicks and snaps of the machinery.

Finally, the three of us went out for an evening of food and drink. If you’re ever feeling a little low, I can only suggest you attempt to get a dinner date with Cory. Over burgers and beer he spent two hours finding alternately stroking my ego and demanding that I go get the work and career my talents deserve. By the end of the meal I was ready to call it a night and spend the rest of it writing pitches and taking on the whole Empire myself.

Today, Cory and I were too wiped to do anything more than stay inside playing Summoner Wars, hitting the Steam sale, and watching The West Wing, which he and I have a habit of quoting at one another. He and I wrapped up the weekend with pizza, a stiff cocktail, and the opening episodes of Season Two. It wasn’t really the weekend I wanted or planned. It was quite a bit better than that: just a series of delightful surprises from great friends.

Us Surrender? Aw, Nuts!

Some people like to be buried before they are dead. A friend of mine started calling himself an “old man” at fraternity events within fifteen minutes of graduating. He’s younger than I am, but that doesn’t stop him from taking stock of his diminishing powers and and freedoms every time we meet for drinks. I fear he’s willing his youth away by constantly telling himself that it’s leaving him.

Wargamers and hardcore PC gamers can be like that. Like Elves they talk in weary, faraway voices about the world that was before the age of metal, steam, and consoles. They lament the vanished kingdoms of SSI, Dynamix, and TalonSoft while constructing the ships that will bear them to Grey Havens. The industry has changed. It has evolved. Things will never again be as they were. We understand.

Julian Murdoch observed on a recent Three Moves Ahead that most people like to be on the bandwagon, on the winning team. But strategy gamers and wargamers always seem defeated, evangelizing with all the charisma and conviction of Eeyore. “You probably won’t care. I couldn’t blame you. But Scourge of War: Gettysburg is out. It’s pret-ty good. It’d probably bore you. You probably just want to play Red Dead.

Sometimes we are guilty of this on TMA, but on balance we spend far more time celebrating strategy and wargames and checking out under-the-radar projects like Gettysburg and AI War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we make strategy gaming sound cool (in what universe are Bruce, Julian, Tom, Troy, and me at the “cool kids’ table”?). At least you can tell we’re having a lot of fun, and you’re invited.

Grognards, seen here fending off an aggressive probe by mainstream gamers.

On the other hand, when Alex Macris, the publisher of The Escapist, writes something like this, I get a little frustrated. I am in complete agreement with him on most of his points. Like him, I sometimes feel alienated from gaming’s mainstream. Like him, I have been a harsh critic of the industry’s drift toward the blockbuster business model, and I’ve expressed that opinion at The Escapist.

What bothers me is the fact that Alex Macris laments the slow death of the type of gaming that he loves, but he of all people is in a pretty good position to champion it. Yet you would never guess, from looking at The Escapist, that the publisher is an old-school PC gamer and a dyed-in-the-wool grognard.

It’s not that The Escapist caters solely to mainstream interests. If you look at the features and columns they run, to say nothing of their video series, you’ll find quite a lot of diverse content. They review all the major AAA game releases, but you’re also likely to find some reviews for manga  and the odd indie puzzler. Just about the only things The Escapist ignores, in fact, are strategy and wargaming.

So when Macris writes:

I don’t blame Creative Assembly or Matrix for adapting to the new ecological realities. They needed to in order to survive. I’m the one who hasn’t evolved.

So at E3 this year, I’ll be prowling around like some sort of saber-toothed tiger of videogaming. My food supply has grown scarce; my days as an apex consumer are limited. I’m rated E for Endangered.

I can’t help but think, “Well I wonder why.”

Is there no room in The Escapist for a grognards’ corner among the science column, the tabletop RPG column, the game design column, the movie column, etc.? Is the publisher of The Escapist so resigned to going extinct that he won’t use his platform to try and reproduce? Surely, if he is still buying games from Matrix he could take space to review one or two of them.

More grognards, deploying for an attack on the marketplace of ideas.

Admittedly, it’s easy for me to say this. The only thing I publish is this here blog, and I’m my only employee. I know my readers by name, and I pay my hosting fees with change I find underneath the futon. Nor am I responsible for churning out the volume of content that The Escapist editorial staff have to manage. And I will absolutely confess to feeling proprietary toward The Escapist, a combination of pride that I’m a part of it and frustration with the fact that it is not always the exact site I would have it be if I ruled the internet.

Still, it’s disconcerting to see the publisher of a major games site acting as if he has no agency when it comes to the decline and disappearance of his favorite types of games. The least he could do is tell readers what he likes. Maybe a few of them would decide they like it to.

I know a few of mine do.

Update: Irony

A couple days after writing the above, I dropped by The Escapist and noticed a new column, “The Game Stash”, by Steve Butts. This is exciting for a couple reasons. First, Steve Butts was the only person I ever made a point to read regularly at IGN, and I’m glad to see such a good writer showing up with a column at The Escapist.

Butts is also a great wargame and strategy reviewer. He kept reviewing them at IGN and was one of the few people I could trust when I came to gnarly, hardcore wargames and strategy games. I remember that the guys at the Wargamer forums used to go batshit when he teed-off on a Matrix game, screeching that he was being unfair to wargames and IGN wasn’t fit to review anything deeper than Peggle… but what really drove them nuts was how fucking right he so often was. Butts didn’t slap wargames around for the hell of it: he knew that they were mired in outdated production values and design philosophies, and that the standards for videogames had gotten tougher in a lot of areas. He was unwilling to grant the “well, it’s a wargame” absolution that so many grognards dispense.

I don’t know whether his column will be focusing on strategy and wargames, nor do I know what types of games he will be reviewing for The Escapist. But from his past record, I can only believe that Butts’ arrival at The Escapist will go a long way to plugging the gaps I mentioned above.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the space.

A Stack of Previews

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I have a trio of previews up at GameShark right now, and there are actually a couple more on the way. This is the harvest from a press event I attended at the start of the month in San Francisco. These are also the first previews I’ve written, so again, constructive criticism welcome.

1C  games are hard to get a handle on, especially in the constraints of an overbooked presser. Interface and intuitive controls are not the hallmarks of the brand, so the demo experience is a lot of , “Okay, what the hell do I do now?”

However, you have to check out my Captain Blood preview. You may never heard of Captain Blood or maybe you just don’t care about it, but it was hands-down the most fun game to preview. I have no idea whether all the ridiculousness on display will add up to being a good game. But writing about it was surreal.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Death to Spies 3, which had kind of a neat Three Days of the Condor vibe going. You could be churlish and say it’s derivative, but who really cares if its derived from good predecessors?

Go take a look over at GameShark, and while you’re over there, take a gander at the terrifying tsunami of GameShark E3 coverage that’s hurtling toward you as we speak. And keep an eye on my Work page, as more stuff is going up soon.

Seriously, though. Read the Captain Blood preview.

Pat on the Head, Kick in the Ass

If you cruise on over to The Escapist this week you’ll find that my latest piece, “The Player and the Pusher-Man“, has been reprinted in the “Best of” issue this week. I’m pretty certain this is because The Escapist editorial staff absolutely cannot get enough of my work, and when they don’t have anything new to publish, they like to roll around like Scrooge McDuck in piles of drafts I’ve submitted in the past. I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact they were all at E3 last week and probably too busy to put together an issue. It’s all about me.

It’s flattering to have a piece singled out as one of the best, but it’s also strange when the piece selected is one for which I have complicated feelings. You always find things you could have improved, that’s the nature of writing and having deadlines that force you to relinquish control. That’s every piece I’ve ever written. But with this one, I never quite got within hailing distance of the article I originally envisioned, and I know why that is.

When reread this piece, I see the many, many interviews that didn’t come through, and know that I should have been more aggressive with getting some of my subjects to commit to a time and place to chat. When I read my section on ZT Online and the rise of the free-to-play business model, I get frustrated because I spent so much space rehashing observations that Soren Johnson had already made, and with greater insight. When I find that I have a brilliant behavioral economist explaining Skinner’s conditioning experiments, I know that I failed to cover all my bases during background research, and I didn’t develop my story quickly enough to delve into more advanced subjects before I ran out of space.

On the other hand, there were some great experiences writing this piece. Soren Johnson confirmed my assessment of him as one of the nicest guys in the games industry… and maybe on Earth. He raised some very good points in our conversations and pointed me to some excellent resources that I might not otherwise have found, in addition to putting me in touch with some of his contacts.

One of those contacts was Jon Blow, who spent a lot of time discussing rewards systems and what designers should be trying to provide to players. It was one of those interviews where you just want to paste the entire thing into your article, because every other exchange has something provocative and perceptive. I also appreciated that Jon was so forthcoming, despite the fact that he seemed like someone who is used to getting calls from reporters who are looking for a bomb-throwing quote, and patient with me when I had trouble finding the right phrasing for a question.

So it’s not that I’m particularly unhappy with this article, but I saw a lot of things during the writing process that sent me into a period of rather harsh self-criticism. Now that it’s been republished, it’s time to stop fixating on what went wrong. The big challenge now is addressing some of the shortcomings I’ve spotted in my work habits.

You can read it here. Comments and criticism are welcome, even more so than usual.