Archive for the ‘ Uncategorized ’ Category

Upgrades and Changes

I’ll be updating the blog here in a few minutes to fix an ongoing issue with WordPress. Hopefully it goes smoothly and the issue is resolves. But in my experience with WordPress, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.

So this site might be FUBAR for a bit. Sorry in advance if it goes that way.

Service Will Be Restored…

Obviously this site has been kind of screwed up lately, and a lot of things aren’t back to normal. Cory “Demiurge” Banks has helped me get this much fixed, and since I’d rather hang with him and some other GWJers tonight rather than battle WordPress to the death, I’m going to do that. When I start trying to restore everything the way it was, things might get screwed up again. My apologies in advance, and I’m sure everything will be back to normal… someday.

Easy There, Tiger, That's a STRATEGY Game

Eagle-eyed Civ-aholic Troy Goodfellow spotted an odd subhead on GameSpy’s Civilization V preview that promised, “It’s not just for the hardcore anymore.” This brought Troy up a little short.

It’s not? When was it? Is Civilization a hardcore game for hardcore people? I tweeted my curiosity and was met with a nice chorus of replies from friends and colleagues. Former PC Gamer Editor in Chief Gary Whitta pointed out that Civ gives him migraines, and of course it is hardcore; anyone can pick up a shooter and know what to do. Kombo’s Tiffany Martin said that I was seeing the game from inside my strategy gamer bubble where Civ is positively user friendly compared to, say, Hearts of Iron.

Reading this, I felt a mixture of bewilderment and outrage. Because the Civilization series has always made a point of keeping the door wide open for anyone who is interested in giving it a try, and it still gets written off as a niche title because it is a strategy game.

This touches a raw nerve. I still remember a community of gamers that seemed less picky and less intimidated by genre barriers. My friends and I were thirteen year-old renaissance men, talking Civ at morning recess (my friend CJ once proposed that we discuss “Feats of the Phalanx”, because the quirky rules of Civilization sometimes led to a phalanx wiping out a modern battleship or artillery), describing TIE Fighter dogfights over lunch, and chainsawing our way through Doom by night. Mindless, savage violence comprised no more than a third – well, definitely not more than half – of our gaming lives. Strategy was just another kind of game, but not another kind of gamer.

I still don’t really accept the categorization and audience-splitting that is widely taken for granted, especially because so much of it seems arbitrary. To my way of thinking, Civilization is more accessible than a Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2, or even an Arkham Asylum. Those games all presume motor skills and intuition that have been honed by years of 3D action gaming, but good luck if you didn’t grow up playing games like that. Acquired tastes like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and any JRPG are treated like general-interest videogames.

“But those involve basic skills,” you say. Most gamers can use WASD or dual-analogue sticks to drop the crosshairs on a target, and anyone can press the buttons required to advance the story in a JRPG. True, but what does a game like Civilization really entail?  Not on the intermediate or advanced difficulties, but at its most basic.

Not a lot. No motor skills, certainly. And the game is wonderfully self-explanatory. You start in the Stone Age, you build a city, and then it asks you if you want to research The Wheel or Hunting. It doesn’t require a lot of insight to figure out what those technologies might let you do, and the game makes sure to tell you the specifics right there in the research window. And that’s pretty much how Civilization rolls. Common sense takes you 85% of the way, the game’s own tooltips and help text take you the last 15%. All you have to do is make some plans, try to think ahead, and play along.

But the moment a game, any game, asks you to do those things consciously, it gets the marginalizing treatment. Which is ridiculous, because these are no more special skills than walking or speaking. You can’t get through a day without hatching a plan or adapting to circumstances.

On Three Moves Ahead, I think there’s a good reason that Tom Chick jokingly calls every game he happens to like a strategy game. Maybe he is just trying to bother Troy by bringing up shooters, but I suspect he has a point. The games I engage with are the ones that force me to strategize and live by my wits. It doesn’t matter if they are shooters, flight sims, or wargames: if it demands planning and tactics, I probably like it.

Now you could argue that these other genres have proven to have broader appeal, either through sales or through the readership drawn by articles covering them. But I can’t help but think we’re in the presence of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. If people are constantly being bombarded with the message that a game is somehow for an elitist niche audience, they’re going to be turned off well in advance. Eventually they might decide the entire genre is for specialists, with no room for the mildly interested novice. Then we get more articles that begin from the position that a game or a genre is flawed because it is too hardcore and too demanding, and something different should be done to convince more people to give it a try.

We can’t be pushing developers to make strategy games for people who don’t like strategy games, but that’s what we’re doing when we say that Civilization is somehow suffering from a major accessibility problem. Do you honestly think anyone would have run a preview where someone asked Infinity Ward, “So, some people really disliked the fact you had to control your character and shoot other characters in a modern military setting. How are you going to fix that problem with Modern Warfare 2?”

I’ve always considered convincing people to try new things to be a part of my job. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not like EU3, but when I wrote about the game, I tried to show the reasons why someone might love it, even in spite of those obstacles. Fourteen years ago, my friend CJ begged me to give Civilization a try, despite the fact that it sounded lame, because Civilization is not a name that promises action and excitement. But I tried it just so he would shut up, and that experience changed my life.

The irony of the story is that I was basically right about Civilization. It was a civilization builder with square units and cities on tiles. I built granaries and invented simple tools. There was no action, and no excitement in the sense that I usually used the word. It turns out I didn’t really know what I would like. That was my problem, not Civilization’s.

Conferences, Trade Shows, and Hype Fatigue

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t force myself to read, listen to, and follow so many sources for videogame coverage. I am over-saturated with gaming news and commentary by choice, and it makes me cranky. Still, I hate announcement season. I hate the Kremlinology that takes place in the weeks before every conference or trade show, and the endless parsing that immediately follows.

Do you think Sony is going to reveal its motion controller at GDC or hold off until E3? How will Microsoft respond? What does Nintendo have to do to maintain its lead? What games will they announce at GDC, and what will Microsoft keep under wraps for TGS? How’s that going to play in Japan?

And these conversations repeat for nearly all of spring, summer, and early fall, as publishers and manufacturers parcel out hints and teasers from week to week. Stock analysts offer running commentary to help us keep score at home.

“Oooh! It looks like Take Two’s holiday line-up is in bad shape, Peter. I really don’t know what they were thinking there.”

“I’ll tell you what they were thinking, Bob. They were thinking, ‘Boy, I wish GTA 5 would come out already!’ Hahaha! But seriously, it’s going to take a big E3 announcement to keep this from turning into a rout.”

Then there is the self-congratulation that marks so many major announcments: Hideo Kojima sneaking onto the Microsoft stage during the E3 presentation while the MGS alert sound played, Cliff Bleszinski showing up to Microsoft’s GDC press conference with a Lancer and a promise that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better, and far more badass.”

This is not to say I find announcements boring or pointless. You think I wasn’t squealing with school-girlish delight when John Davison said that the next GamePro cover was going to be Civilization V? The day Valve announce Episode 3 (or Half-Life 3 as the case may be), I will probably pour myself a celebratory cocktail and start reinstalling the entire series.

But the wheres and hows of announcements don’t interest me in the slightest, and I don’t care that much about the details, either. I’ve learned to be skeptical of preview coverage and developers’ pre-release promises, which means I’m mostly content to wait for an actual game to be released before talking about it. I dislike the way we’re all co-opted into marketing campaigns as we press for details on an upcoming release (“Tell us about your co-op campaign!” “We’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op.” “OMG, they’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op!”).

I suppose I’m also troubled by the way announcement season often seems to degenerate into a thinly-disguised form of money worship. So much of what passes for industry analysis isn’t really analysis at all, but a series of ‘attaboys for people who are releasing new entries in product lines that have already made a mint, and tsk-tsks directed at publishers and manufacturers who aren’t as flush with exploitable properties. Then, with a nod vaguely in the direction of criticism, the question is asked: “But how is it going to innovate?”

And perhaps that’s why I’m a bit snarky this morning. The idealist in me says that GDC is a time to discuss what works in games and why, and to consider possibilities for the future while revisiting lessons from the past. But we end up talking about which ideas can be copied and whether or not the copies will sell. Then, without a trace of self-awareness or irony, we demand innovative games and “new IP” from companies that are never quite so happy as when they are releasing the same game over and over. And we have turned GDC into yet another platform for them to make their sales pitch.

With the exception of Gamasutra, so much GDC coverage seems focused on the commercial side of the industry. There are far too few pieces like this one from Destructoid’s Anthony Burch, covering Soren Johnson’s discussion of theme. In fact, a glance at Johnson’s Twitter reveals that he seems to be attending a different GDC than the one I’m reading about.

If I’m wrong, if there’s a lot of exciting, thought provoking material that I’m missing, please tell me so in the comments, and feel free to throw in some links. Still, GDC is a good time to rant and air grievances, especially if you remember what GDC is supposed to be about: serious art.

Clear Sky – Things Fall Apart

Clear Sky takes place several months before the events of STALKER. This can be rather disorienting and is even poignant at times. Because the Zone as we find it in Clear Sky is not the ruin that you find in STALKER, and the future is a cloud that hangs over the entire game.

The sight that greeted me after a long night of killing

In the Cordon you meet a visionary stalker leader, Father Valerian, who has launched an uprising against the Army and the bandits. Sidorovich dismisses him and his followers as men who are playing at Robin Hood and His Merry Men. You find them set up on a farm north of the railroad embankment, and Valerian speaks of his plans for the future. More stalkers show up every day to join his forces. He has already forced the army out of the Cordon and collected some insurance against their retaking it. Everyone you meet is inspired by Valerian’s rallying cry: the Zone for the stalkers. Soon, he promises, they will begin expanding their control and make the Zone a safe place for honest stalkers.

But we know that when we come to the Cordon in STALKER, the army has a chokehold on the territory and Father Valerian’s fortress-farm is a decaying ruin overrun by wild animals. There will be no traces and no memories of Valerian’s rebellion.

Later, when you come to the Agroprom Research Institute, you find that the Duty faction has made the rambling Soviet structure into a powerful and efficient fortress. The motor pool is full of armored personnel carriers, and a Hind attack helicopter is fueled and ready on the helipad. On the other side of the Zone, in the Dark Valley, the rival Freedom faction has occupied an old maintenance center. Both are running massive, paramilitary operations out of secured strongholds. In STALKER, both these strongholds have become terrifying hell-holes. Agroprom is stripped bare and overrun with mutants when it isn’t being occupied by passing bandit gangs or Special Forces detachments. The Dark Valley is completely hostile, Freedom’s old base fallen into ruin and occupied by a bandit army. The rest of the territory is awash in mutants.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

The Zone in Clear Sky is hardly an Eden, but it is nonetheless headed for a Fall. Everywhere you look you see tomorrow’s ruins. The Clear Sky faction is working feverishly to head off some impending catastrophe. The Duty faction is slowly but surely being ground down by deadly mutant attacks, and Freedom has been ravaged by the work of a traitor in their midst. Valerian is treading close to hubris. Rumors abound of an elite stalker faction that has suddenly vanished. Clear Sky is deliciously full of portent.

Yet its thematic success works against the setting. In the original game, the Zone is a lonely and forbidding land. There are small pockets of relative safety. The rest of the world would prefer to shoot you or eat you. From the time you leave the Stalker village in Cordon until you reach the Duty outpost on the northern end of the garbage dump, you are in mortal danger with every step.

Clear Sky, by contrast, seems crowded, small, and noisy. Everywhere you go, there is a base full of friendly stalkers. Sometimes a base and a couple outposts. You can’t go ten feet without stumbling over a friendly patrol. The dissonance overwhelms the game. In the Dark Valley, you are given a dangerous mission to go kill a pseudodog that has been terrorizing the Freedom base. You go out the back entrance to the base, you walk about one hundred fifty yards, and you’re attacked by the pseudodog. If you turn around, you can still see the guards at the entrance, just standing there chatting while you’re flinging hand grenades and blasting away at spectral wolverines.

When you come down to it, the Zone was never really that big. STALKER seemed expansive because it made you feel small and alone. If safety is a kilometer away and there’s a dozen mortal threats between you and it, that kilometer will seem like the distance between here and the moon. But when GSC packed the Zone full of friendly NPCs in Clear Sky, they called attention to fact that you are playing on a relatively small stage.

To some extent it was inevitable that a second trip to the Zone would begin to feel a bit confined, especially as GSC re-purposed assets from the first game for use in this one. To explore the themes they wanted to in this game, and there are several interesting ones, they had to provide more opportunities to meet other characters and spend time soaking up the different vibes of friendly encampments. There simply are not that many places in this world where you could plausibly have those encounters, and I very much doubt GSC had the resources to create a lot of new, convincing spaces to explore. The Zone is their studio backlot, and sometimes it shows.

On the other hand, there is a lot of tedium in these early encounters. The entire Freedom section should have been scrapped. It brings the game to a screeching halt while the Freedom faction sends you on missions that are the STALKER equivalent of “Run into the gas station and get me some cigarettes.” The encounter with the pseudodog is startling, but everything else is just marking time. The early scenes in Garbage are likewise a waste. It’s not until you reach Agroprom that things start picking up.

Clear Sky has an absolute mess of an opening. The introduction is mishandled and, with the exception of the fighting in the Swamps, it never approaches STALKER for excitement and atmosphere. It seems like Clear Sky doesn’t really care whether or not you keep playing.

But it has a card up its sleeve: Lake Yantar, and a totally unexpected and utterly brilliant zombie apocalypse.

A New Column and Addenda

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.

With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.

One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.

EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.

I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.

A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.

Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.

Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.