Sunday, October 7, 2012

You'd Better Hope They Make It, Ain't Nothing I Can Do for You

600am wake up, shower, get dressed, check everything is packed and flight itinerary: 955am take off, 915am boarding. good to go.

700am out the door, on the way to Burlington

745am check in, go through security. security is empty, hang out with parents and sister awhile longer before going in. Checking flight updates every five minutes on the phone. Slight delay noted, due to a late flight crew. 15 minutes, should be fine. Flight path shows the aircraft hasn't left its origin yet, probably not updating properly.

820am pass through security, say final good-byes through the glass. Continuet to check flight status, no new updates. Monitor at the gate says a 10:06 takeoff time. Outside it is gray, drizzly, foggy.

930am the gate monitor has gone blank. No new phone updates

955am original departure time comes and goes. Still no plane.

1000am United staff announces the flight has only just left its origin, i.e. at least a 1.5 hour delay till we take off, meaning we will miss our flight from Newark to Beijing. She says she will begin making new flight plans for passengers in the order of their connecting flight departure time. This puts us in the second group

1100am United puts us on a new flight plan that takes us from Burlington to Newark, Newark to Chicago, and on to American Airlines from Chicago to Beijing. The woman prints our boarding passes all the way through to Beijing, except for Alexander's. "We've put the ticket transfer in, but American will have to print his ticket for you separately." Then she calls down to the ground crew to recheck our bags. "I'll get you your new baggage tags in a bit."

about 12pm the flight has arrived and its passengers have deplaned. a UVM professor strikes up a conversation when she sees Alexander. we talk for five, ten minutes. the United staff interrupts, announcing that all passengers need to board in the next 10 minutes so the plane can reach Newark before its ground stop goes into effect. The professor says to me, "oh, you should probably get going first, since you have a child." "Oh, they put us on another flight, we don't leave until later," I reply.

1215pm I call my dad to tell him of our new plans. we're talking when Lynn rushes over and says they're calling us to board now! I rip out the freshly printed itinerary and see my mistake--what I thought was a new flight that took us from Burlington to Chicago was instead from Newark to Chicago--we still had to take the flight to Newark. I shout something at my dad, hang up, grab the boarding passes and passports, eyes darting everywhere to see if we'd forgotten anything.

1220pm we're on the plane, somehow, stroller and changing table gate checked, and apparently with all of our belongings. I am breathing hard. What about the new baggage tags?

1230pm partly taxied. The captain's muffled voice crackles on the PA. "Folks, we've got a weather delay, 20-305 minutes. We'll wait it out and see if we can still make Newark before the ground stop."

1240pm "well folks," the captain's voice crackled again, "Newark's in ground stop. It'll be at least an hour before we can leave. Waiting now for flight control to tell us whether we can take you back to the gate." "The gate!" someone shouts.

100pm we're back to the gate, deplaned and waiting for further updates. our Newark - Chicago flight doesn't leave until 4pm.

130pm still waiting for updates. Alexander is, and has been, utterly peaceful.

145pm "All passengers for Newark, we are finally ready to depart. Boarding will begin in 5 minutes." As we're boarding, I ask the staff: "can we get our new baggage tags in Newark?" She nods.

200pm we're in the air.

300pm we arrive in Terminal A. Connecting flight is in Terminal C. we need to catch the shuttle.

340pm we reach our gate. I ask the staff there about our baggage. An older woman with lots of makeup named Lavona. She sighs, perhaps realizing she now has to do some actual work, listens to my story and says the baggage tags should be the same. I show them to her, she taps on some keys and looks blankly at a hidden screen. "I see it made it to Newark, but from here it's supposed to go to Beijing," she says, as if that were still possible. She taps a few more keys. "Well you'd better hope they make it, ain't nothing I can do for you." I rein in my fury at her well coiffed air of inutility because we have a flight to catch.

540pm central time now, we land in O'Hare. Our next flight doesn't leave until 750pm, so we take our time to walk the distance from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

610pm we stop at the United customer service desk to ask about our bags. no one's in line. I walk up to the lady there, a deeply obese woman lost in a catalog of some kind. she slowly looks up when I say excuse me. I explain the bag situation, and she says they have reached Chicago and she will pass on a note to AA to double check they've received them. fine, thank you. we leave.

630pm we reach our gate, where that 55-gallon drum of shit teetering on the ledge above a giant ceiling fan finally meets its demise. I go up to the counter to verify our tickets and baggage is in order. there's an Indian gentleman and a black woman working it, again not too busy. the gentleman calls me up and I hand him the boarding passes printed by United, and explain that I need my son's boarding pass as United could not issue that. he types a bit, and furrows his brow. turns to the woman. "I can't find any infant ticket in the system." she looks at what I handed him and says, "you see this is says ticket required. you need to have a ticket for your son." "I do, for United" I say. "You need the transfer printed otherwise we don't get our money. Otherwise you'll have to buy him a ticket, and that is gonna be probably much more than you even paid for your own ticket at this point." "Call United," I say. "This is not at all what they told me." "We can't do it over the phone" she said, "that's our procedure." "Jesus Christ," I say.

I don't have fucking time for this. My phone is dead, I twirl in a daze of exhaustion looking for a clock but all
I see is that 715 boarding time. Once again I grab our ever growoing number of boarding passes and passports, shout at Lynn I'm just going to run for it and see what happens.

So I run. With bad knees, chest pains, sandpaper mouth, I run. It couldn't have been more than a mile, but the last time I ran a mile was probably in 5th grade.

650pm I reach United customer service, gasping. I am not sure, but I swear a twitch of sympathy crosses that obese woman's face. I explain. She waddles down the counter and waddles back. A young man working with her takes my boarding passes and says everything should be fine, doesn't know what's wrong with AA. "But here are the receipts for the ticket transfers," he says, handing me six more boarding pass-shaped papers with the details on them. I also ask about the baggage--AA said they would have issued a new baggage tag number, but couldn't tell me anything about whether they'd received the baggage from United. The man hands me a brochure on calling about lost baggage and says, "tell them to call this number." Whatever. I take it and begin to head back.

I turn on my phone. 8% battery. 700pm. At least i don't have to run.

710pm I hand over the transfer receipts to the Indian guy and this time he says, "now we've got something to work with." Wonderful. Good news. Bad news--our original seats are taken, and he can't get us anything together that includes an aisle seat. But nice Indian guy sneaks us a free third seat by booking us the 2nd and 4th seat of the 5-seat middle section of a row, giving us the middle seat for some extra space. He wisely leaves the counter at that point to begin checking people in, as I then let loose my rage on the woman who had so flatly denied me any assistance earlier. I expounded on how poorly AA and United communicate on ticket transfers, and how narrow her attitude was that she only saw fit to blame United for its incompetence, and not instead find a way to solve the stupid problem. She herself admitted this happened all the time. This is not about me, I said. It's about your business. It's nonsense like this that is killing the airline industry. Don't blame your competitor when you're going bankrupt too!

I was drained, sweaty, stinking to hell probably and just needed to release it. I'd say that woman was a bitch and the woman at United was the stereotype of a welfare queen, but I've come to realize it is pointless to single them out when O'Hare is dominated by this kind of workforce. If someone asked me to compare airports to inanimate objects, O'Hare would be a frozen brick of shit.

At least I can say that the trip ended much better than it started. Once our AA flight took off, a flight attendant offered the guy sitting next to us a seat with more legroom, giving us four seats to ourselves. The food was surprisingly good and plentiful. Our baggage arrived. And best of all was Alexander, who did not cry once the entire trip and slept for most of the long flight back to Beijing. We could not have done it without him.

Lessons learned from this trip?

United is staffed by unpleasant flight attendants (based on previous experience) and mildly helpful yet very incompetent staff.

Passing through O'Hare is like this every time

AA was slightly better; slightly less incompetent, far more rude and unhelpful. (Flight attendants were great, however.)

And of course, don't book a connecting flight with anything less than a two-hour stopover.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Games Not Art? You've Got that Backwards

Roger Ebert is entirely responsible for this debate about whether games are art. If he hadn’t stoked the flames of gamer fanboys by saying that games can never be art, life as we know would be dramatically different today; we’d live in a world where people cared ever so slightly less whether games should be considered art. And I’d be a millionaire. Damn you, Ebert, damn you.

The problem with answering the question “can games be art?” is the question itself. Asking if games can be art assumes games are something inferior to art, that art is something we all ought to aspire to create, because art is nirvana, heaven, 72 virgins, enlightenment, ecstasy, 72 virgins, etc.

But why is art the pinnacle of creativity? As I write this keep in mind I am one of the very nose-elevated vest and monocle wearing curmudgeons I am now condescending to and pretending not to be. Believe me, the view is awesome from up here. I love art. I adore it. Specifically I love books, music and film that aspire to be art. A beautifully turned phrase, an unexpected chord progression, a closing scene that leaves all the questions you thought were important unanswered. It’s sublime.

Art is not without limits, though. However noble an endeavor it is, art is only one part of the human experience, and whatever it teaches us about life it only does so cathartically, or to be less euphemistic, it enlightens us vicariously. In art there is no direct contact with the internal workings of a piece. We form images of characters described to us on a page, we imagine their actions being carried out; we marvel at the musician’s dexterous fingers while marveling at the composer’s composition; we immerse ourselves in the visual language, color and camera work of the film auteur. But we have no say on the outcome, and beyond our emotions, nothing is at stake. Perhaps that is the beauty of art, that it guides us safely through the most harrowing, traumatic, joyful and tragic of moments without leaving any lasting damage. But often what distinguishes art from craft is that art is metaphysical, constantly looking itself in the mirror and saying out loud to no one in particular, ‘am I getting fat?’ What art is has to change constantly, as that is what art is.

Until video games, there was little risk of ever confusing games for art. Traditional games have been around as long as human civilization, and probably as long as prostitution (on the eighth day the Lord made prostitutes. It’s in the Bible. I’ve read it.) Native Americans played lacrosse, the Mayans played some sort of game in a ball court where the winning team captain was decapitated by the losing team captain (why isn’t this game around anymore??), the Romans had gladiators, the Chinese have Go and Chess. No matter how brutal some of these games were, the greatest players all had a lot more going for them than brute strength or dumb luck. When we watch someone like Michael Jordan, Gary Kasparov or pre-beard Tiger Woods do what they do, is it not as sublime as reading Joyce, listening to Chopin, or watching Bergman? The difference here, I think, is that with the exception of dance, art has been defined as primarily a mental, intellectual, or emotional experience. And even in dance the ‘art’ of it is not its physicality, it is the emotions created by the careful composition of movements and gestures, usually set to music. In a game, because we focus primarily on its physicality (chess being the exception), does that somehow rob the game of its ‘art’? Is Jordan’s seemingly superhuman ability to move a ball down the court and into a basket less meaningful because there is no narrative to it, nothing for us to latch on to other than the spontaneous emotion of witnessing the moment as it happens?

There are good reasons to consider the players both artists and the art, but the games themselves, because they are nothing without their rules, cannot be. This is all besides the point I’m trying to make, however—the question is not only a waste of time, it is the wrong question to ask. (I’m almost at my point, I swear.)

Games go Virtual

The invention of the transistor lead to tiny computers that could fit in one’s home and cost only thousands of dollars; a watershed moment in the history of games. As technology has advanced, so too has the complexity of games, and not just in terms of programming code, but in how we play them. Think about it—until, let’s say the Atari 2600, all games ever played involved sets of rules, a scoring system, and clearly defined win and loss states—i.e. the traditional game. With the advent of the home console and faster PCs, however, we began to see games that mix traditional game elements with complex themes, stories, philosophies. Now this had been going on to some degree with Dungeons and Dragons, but D&D has never been popular enough to bring the games as art question to the attention of mainstream media. In the new medium of electronic games this question was not raised either, until much more recently. And, once Roger Ebert decided to take a stab at the question, video gamers would not let the question die.

But it’s time to let the question die in peace. Ebert’s response doesn’t matter because the question doesn’t matter. The modern video game has surpassed any art medium we have today in terms of complexity, sophistication and potential. It has the potential to tell stories as rich as Lord of the Rings, fill our souls with the most transcendent music, astonish with its ever growing visual splendor. Potential I say because we haven’t got there yet; not even close. What is holding the video game back is what gives it its potential—that it gives us control. This is something no book (not even choose your own adventure), song, dance, film, painting, photograph, or sculpture can do. A video game has the power to be so much more than these things because it gives its viewer not just to power to determine the outcome, but the responsibility of accepting the results of that outcome. The question really ought to be (and this is my point), can art be a game?

At the risk of turning my nose of at myself high enough to get a nosebleed, I posit that video games, though none have come close so far, are a medium superior to art for conveying a deeper understanding of the human experience. I think we get caught up on the word ‘game’ too much. We ‘play’ games and often describe them in terms of how much ‘fun’ they are, a limitation that does not burden film/music/novels/etc. Games are considered child’s play, despite an aging demographic currently sitting somewhere in the 30s. The interactivity, as I said, is another limitation as many worry that violent games will teach their children how to commit acts of violence without understanding the consequences of said violence. This fear may or may not be unfounded—the evidence is scarce, but in some situations it has proven to be an invaluable tool for helping people get their lives back. Soldiers who have suffered PTSD, civilians as well, have benefited from reliving their traumas in the controlled virtual environment of a video game. Their stories point to a larger truth—video games, simulations, simulacra, whatever you want to call them, can create much more powerful, visceral human experiences than art does.

It is unfortunate that so few games have really tried to deliver a serious experience. I have heard LA Noire described uncritically as a ‘not fun’ experience, which interests me only so far as what it says about the state of how we evaluate games. Heavy Rain is another example, one that makes the experience both thrilling and horrifying, and seldom ‘fun’. I haven’t played LA Noire, but Heavy Rain, despite its faults, on several occasions had me reacting to situations with as much as anxiety as my character was probably feeling. Watching it as a film we might question the hero’s choices; but being him, we suddenly see we would have done exactly the same thing. Far more powerful, in my opinion, than the catharsis of seeing it happen on screen.

The video game industry, if we compare to the next youngest, film, is a baby. I am not surprised or disappointed that most games are so immature, because a lot of them are fun to play. I don’t want to detract from the value of fun, only remind that games can do so much more. So who cares if games are art? Let’s care if art is games.

Posted via email from 电玩杀瓜 - a game blog

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sony I hope you're listening


Last week on June 14th 2011, Sony began restoring online service in Hong Kong, the last two regions to be brought back online since the outage began on April 21, nearly two months ago. With the little bit of distance we have from the initial incident, I think it’s a good time to look back at what happened, and especially how Sony handled the crisis. To save you any pointless suspense, I think Sony did a pretty terrible job handling the crisis, and needs to rethink its PR strategy.

First a timeline of notable events:

April 20: PSN goes down worldwide. Sony announces that “certain functions” are down on their US blog, but no details are given.

April 21: Another post, claiming it will take 1-2 days to get services back up.

April 22: PSN blog confirms some sort of external intrusion took place

April 23: Announces further delays in bringing services back online

April 25: Acknowledgement that they know people want information, but still has none to share

April 26: Officially acknowledges personal user information was compromised, possibly including credit card information. A second post was made to explain the delay in informing people their information was compromised

April 27: Q&A posted detailing the nature of the attack, what is being done about it, and how people can protect themselves from identity theft

April 30: Sony announces phased restoration to begin this week

May 5: Final internal system testing begun

May 5: Announces offer for free AllClear ID Plus Identity Theft Protection in the US

May 5: Posts letter from Howard Stringer

May 14: Kazuo posts video announcing PSN restoration begins today for US and EU

May 27: Phased restoration of services in Asia begins

May 31: Complete restoration of services in Asia begins except in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan

June 9: Full restoration of services begins in Japan

June 14: Full restoration of services in Hong Kong begins

Now let’s start with what Sony did right. The list is short, but in fact they did do a few things pretty well.

1.       When Sony did reveal that personal information had been compromised, they did a good job explaining the measures taken to protect users’ security and why they had to shut down PSN so abruptly. Personally I am glad they didn’t try to keep the system up while figuring out what happened, despite the huge inconvenience. The official response can be found here. What’s especially good about the response is that it lists all the ways users can check their financial records for possible identity theft, and how to use them.

2.       To make amends, Sony offered a fair compensation package, especially considering that PSN is free to use. PSN users with accounts created before the attack occurred received a 30-day subscription to PSN Plus, two free PS3 games and two free PSP games, as well as a free one year subscription to AllClear ID. It’s not the full subscription service to AllClear, but it’s a bit more than the free service AllClear offers. For PlayStation Home users, they also gave each user 100 free items. What was nice about this is that Sony didn’t care if you have multiple accounts, so if you had two or more PSN accounts you could pretty easily get all the games they were giving away. Also, though it should be standard practice, they don’t set PSN Plus to auto-renew when the month is up, and don’t even require you to have a credit card attached to your account to use it. Any content you buy at the reduced PSN Plus price you can continue to use after the subscription ends (free PSN Plus games require an active subscription to use, however)

And that’s about it. Now what went wrong?

1.       Most importantly, Sony waited nearly a week to reveal that user data was compromised. This is an unforgivable mistake. No matter what Sony knew at the time it turned PSN off, it should have advised users that personal data may have been compromised. Better to err on the side of caution and later discover that no data was stolen than vice-versa. In hindsight it seems that most users are safe, but there is just no way to know that in advance.

2.       While I have no inside information, it seems Sony had no communications strategy in place for handling crisis situations. The messaging Sony delivered clearly indicated an out-of-date hierarchical approach in which a single message came down from the top and everyone on the ground had to stick to that message, no matter how little it resonated with readers.

a.       Comparing the hack-related blog posts added to Sony’s PSN blogs on the US, UK and EU sites, they are identical, yet oddly are written in the first person. This is a beginner’s mistake, and only reinforces Sony’s image as a monolithic robotic beast.

b.      During the crisis period, PlayStation’s Facebook page only linked back to the US blog posts, adding the same monolithic robotic branding effect.

c.       On Twitter, all of the Sony accounts I could find also only linked to the blog posts and provided no personal feedback to PSN users other than vague “we’re working on it” statements.

d.      When Howard Stringer did finally get around to posting a written letter addressing the situation, it two weeks late, which is about one week and six days later than it should have been. Furthermore, it was a terrible response, completely tone deaf to the audience expectations and attempts, but fails, to justify why Sony waited so long to inform users their information was at risk. You can read it here, but to give one example of how tone deaf it is, Singer writes:

“In the last few months, Sony has faced a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But now we are facing a very man-made event – a criminal attack on us — and on you — and we are working with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies around the world to apprehend those responsible.”

Comparing the hack to a terrible natural disaster that struck Japan? Really Sony?

e.      Asia—Americans and Europeans might not notice, but as bad as Sony’s PR strategy is in Western countries, it is much worse in Asia. First of all, there are no Asian blogs, twitter feeds or Facebook pages, so most of Asia is in what is close to total communications blackout with Sony, and have no way to interact with the brand online. Second, the games offered to Asian PSN users were generally much less popular ones. That it took much longer to bring Asia’s PSN back online was likely not Sony’s fault, but certainly they could have been more forthcoming with information about why it took so long.

That about sums up my analysis of Sony’s poor PR response to the crisis, but I would like to comment more broadly on their very poor approach to PR in general. As others have stated, while Sony is excellent at advertising, it really doesn’t understand how to do PR.

As I mentioned up there, Sony is all about developing one centralized message and only allowing that message to be shared. What’s worse is that they try to hide this by putting real people at the frontline of their communications, people like Patrick Seybold, senior director of corporate communications and social media. Despite all the blog posts that appear in his name, they are exactly the same ones that appear on the EU and UK sites, under the names of whomever “writes” those blog posts. It’s kind of like reading some Kafka novel crossed with a bit of Camus, but with much less edifying results. I don’t fault Patrick either, because it’s clearly not his idea—someone higher up is making these decisions, and it’s unfortunate.

That said, Patrick et al should be doing a lot more to become a presence for Sony in social media. They should be making their Twitter accounts more visible, trying to attract followers, and becoming voices of influence that their followers can trust. I hate to compare to Microsoft, but Microsoft has done this very well with @majornelson, and there’s no market or industry reason why Sony should not do the same. @TheKevinButler is fun and great for promoting stuff, but you can’t use him to deal with real communications problems.

Sony’s @AskPlayStation Twitter account is one of its worst PR offenders. It’s TERRIBLE. The worse customer service account I can imagine, and one wouldn’t even need to use it to see why. Go ahead, open the page, and what do you see? “Response hours 2-5pm, Mon-Fri”. Again Sony, really? Three hours a day, and none at all on weekends? For kicks I checked out what Xbox offers in this department and found their Twitter help feed is open “Mon-Fri 6am – 12am PST, Sat-Sun 10am – 6pm PST”, they list the names of the people who respond to you, and they have tweeted over 584,000 times compared to Sony’s less than 900 times.

Oh and forget actually getting any response from @AskPlayStation, either. I tweeted them three times over three days asking them why I couldn’t connect to PSN after the US servers were back up before getting a response, which was “Sorry for the delay. We would need more information in order to help. What happens when you try to log in?” So I responded, and responded again, and again, and they just never got back to me at all. Looking through the tweets that @AskPlayStation has posted, you quickly see that it serves no purpose whatsoever other than to, you guessed it, redirect you to Sony’s official statements on stuff.

By the way I just checked how long it took @XboxSupport to respond to complaints: 1 minute. Sony, are you paying attention??

The last big failure I’ll mention today actually holds some pretty great potential for Sony. Last year Sony launched the poorly named PlayStation.Blog.Share (yet the URL is Confused?), where PSN users can submit ideas Digg or Reddit style for improving PSN that other users can then vote on. The top ideas show up on the front page. It’s a brilliant idea, a great way to see what PSN users want. So what’s wrong? Sony hasn’t implemented any of the top ideas, nor has it even acknowledged them to say ‘hey this is great but we can’t do it because of xxx’ or ‘that’s awesome! We’re actually working on something similar, hope you like how it turns out, blah blah blah’. What is the point of asking your users for their input if you aren’t going to do anything with it?

Sony you have a great product and lots of excellent games. I personally find your game selection more interesting than what Microsoft offers, especially with offbeat games like Heavy Rain, Flower and the Team ICO games, but the big blockbusters like Uncharted are better than anything Microsoft has to offer as well. I really just think you need to do more to connect with your fans, especially in the US and Asia—both markets where you have a lot of potential for different reasons. So I suggest adding one word to your slogan: Play. Create. Share. Listen.

Posted via email from 电玩杀瓜 - a game blog

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shout out for India

I had this great idea for a post about revisiting old games, and why it’s so hard to do, but then I was struck by a sudden bout of procrastination and decided instead to give a big whoop of congrats to General Manager Madhuri Sen and all my company fellows in Mumbai India on the launch of our new and first ever India office!

Press release

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Mario and Luigi

My best friend since Kindergarten lived in a two-story house with a green metal roof. The roof wasn’t always green, but what it used to be I can’t remember. We met when I moved to Montpelier in May of 1986, right at the tail end of the school year. It wasn’t the greatest time to move—with only a couple weeks left before summer vacation, how could I possibly make any friends before first grade began?

But somehow it happened. I don’t remember it at all, except a faint impression of a grinning kid who always wore a baseball cap, probably representing the Red Sox. My mom, however, remembers the start of that friendship with crystal clarity.

“I drove down to pick you up, and just when I saw you I see this kid out of nowhere screaming your name before giving you a big hug!” She likes to say. My mother has been known to wax quite eloquently, but there’s always at least a kernel of truth to her stories of my childhood. That kernel was this: Mike and I, whether the hugging and shouting actually happened, became friends fast.

All the years since elementary school have unfortunately crushed that period of my life into an amorphous time blob, from which clear blips of things I had done stand out, but I find hard to place in time. I traveled to India with my family in first or second grade; I remember playing in kick ball on the gravel playground at recess, or hiding in the huge dump truck tires, and yes, avoiding (but not really) getting cooties from disgusting (cute) girls. I also remember that until 4th grade, Mike and I had the same teachers—Mrs. Brown, Ms. Westcott (now Mrs. Rome), Mrs. Dubois. We played soccer at the Rec field, and farm league baseball on the Pirates.

One of those elementary school years, Mike got an NES. Probably a birthday or Christmas gift. It came with the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge, and two controllers (when did two controllers go out of fashion?)

The NES was not my first gaming experience. Fleeting wisps of several others dance in my head; an Atari 5400 at the house of some kid named Brian, in New Jersey. It’s the oldest and least clear, but somehow I remember being in the basement of a nice house, turning the system on, but no memory of playing it. Later in Vermont someone, probably my older brother, found an Odyssey2 at a garage sale, and convinced the parents to get it—quite a steal at just $17. We also had an Atari 2600—the ‘slim’ model, I remember. We had a bunch of games, including the original Mario Brothers, sans Super. It was an endless single-screen platformer, bumping enemies from below before kicking them off.

But it was Mike’s Nintendo I remember most vividly. Every day after school that I went to his house, we’d run up the long staircase with the thick, rounded wooden banister, he shouting “I’m Mario!” and I shouting “I’m Luigi!”, round the corner and into his room, sit on the carpet, push the button and bask in the electron-charged glow of his 13” tv with dials while pounding buttons like they were brewskies.

How many days we repeated that ritual! And the lack of variety didn’t faze us. Maro and Luigi, fireballs and invincibility stars, Bowser and a princess, were all we needed. Mike almost certainly had other games, but the only one I remember playing at his house was Super Mario Bros.

In time my family picked up a Nintendo, almost certainly the result of parents desperate for silence. We added maybe a half dozen games to our collection, but most I think we rented from the local video store or borrowed from friends. The original Ice Hockey, with fat, medium, and skinny players; Double Dribble, Contra, GI Joe, Life Force, and so on and so on.

Years later Mike picked up a Sega Genesis, and I went with the Super Nintendo. There was no symbolism to the split, but in middle school and the early years in high school we drifted apart, mostly my fault for trying to be someone I wasn’t. But in high school, I think a shared dislike for school sports coached by douchebags brought Mike and I back together in a way. We’d grown up a bit, naturally, and were very excited about PC games, getting the latest processors and video cards, and all that.

More than twenty years later, we work, we live half way round the world from one another. I can’t say whether things would have turned out differently if we stuck to the typical boys outdoors activities we might have otherwise done.

The Nintendos are gone now.

But not forgotten.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hey good-lookin'

Hey good-lookin’. That’s right, I’m talking to you, sexy. I just saw you sitting there showing off your polygons, your lighting effects, procedural texture maps and anti-aliasing like you don’t give a damn. Maybe that’s what’s got me to come over here to talk to you—that you don’t give a damn.

What’s that? You don’t think I’m serious? When it comes to you hotstuff, I’m nothing but serious.  You’re 30 frames per second of high definition sexiness, and I just want to scream every time I think of running my hands through each and every one of your 720 lines of sweet, sweet progressive resolution.

Don’t call it pillow talk, honeybuns, it ain’t that. This is something deeper, this is real. Sometimes you look so real to me I just want to reach out and caress your pixels, if you know what I mean. It’s the truth, baby. See little Miss 3D over there, with all those zombies fawning over her like she’s some kind of revolutionary? But I know she’s just a fad, baby, coming and going like waves at sea. She’s this year’s plaything, but you, you’re a keeper. You’re the peak of video game existence.

Whoa, wait a minute. Who is that? She’s so sharp, so smooth. And that lighting—did you see her lighting? Those shadows, those curves—I can’t even see the polygons. She makes me want to upgrade my pixel shader, if you get my drift. Look how she walks, so fluid, like---could it be? 60 frames per precious second, for each and every one of those 1,080 beautiful lines?

You’re giving me that look. No of course not. She’s not ready yet, anyway. Probably won’t be for years. You’re still the one for me. For now.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

The world is a game - rule #2

Yesterday (actually two weeks ago. I’m lazy) I watched a TED video

Seth talks about bringing game mechanics to how we influence those around us. As he states, this ‘game layer’ is already under construction, and I would say it been around for a very long time.

Seth mentions four game dynamics one can use to get people to participate:

1.       Appointment – one must return at a predefined time to a give place to take a predetermined action (e.g. Happy Hour, Farmville)

2.       Influence and status – the ability of one player to modify the behavior of another’s actions through social pressure (American Psycho business cards, AMEX Black, school grades, academic titles)

3.       Progression – success is granularly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks (LinkedIn profile completion)

4.       Communal discovery – wherein an entire community is rallied to work together to solve a challenge

Sadly game mechanics to date have mostly been used to prey upon people’s weaknesses for addiction to perceived achievement.

Credit cards are the classic example of game mechanics gone evil—you get “points” for using your card. There are penalties for breaking the rules. But the points are nearly worthless, and the penalties are unforgiving. The worst part is, credit card companies are also the referees and lawmakers, who change the laws as they see fit, often without explaining those changes in easy-to-understand terms.

But this love of game mechanics is creeping into other industries, starting, ironically, with console platforms in 2005 when the Xbox 360 was launched and introduced the gaming world to achievements.  

What is an achievement? Normally, it is something that takes a respectable amount of effort to accomplish, and will give you some sort of status recognized by your peers. Now I won’t make a blanket statement like “not a single Xbox Live achievement takes any effort to attain,” but I will say that 74% of them don’t. That figure may or may not be accurate, but it is startling. My point is, a good number of Xbox Live achievements, and PSN (you’re not getting out of this you bastard) trophies, are for figuring out how to press the left trigger. Unfortunately this cheapens the point of having achievements, but even more unfortunately it succeeds at Seth’s rule #2, influence and status. The result? Jersey Shore. No, but you do get achievement whore douchebags who enjoy (are addicted to) achievement gathering more than the game itself. These are people who don’t understand why people play chess because there’s no immediate gratification, no false sense of accomplishment to kick their serotonin inhibitors into high gear.

I’m not against recognizing achievement so much as I am against achievements. An achievement should mean something. Sony and Microsoft should not allow for effort-free achievements to exist. They should all be hard and require skill, not just the inevitable progress of game play. For every chapter I get through in Uncharted 2, I get a trophy. Why? What amazing talent did I possess to complete the level, other than an astounding level of laziness that I’d rather press buttons than take a shower? Sure I could crank up the difficulty level, but that doesn’t really change things. Reserve the trophies for pulling off difficult stunts, beating a game without dying, or beating a game without killing anyone.

I’m not completely against Seth’s rule #2 in real life either. I like #2. #2 is actually quite satisfying. I do #2 every day, sometimes twice. But I want it to actually mean something.

The trick to making people actually do good things that improve the world, is helping them forget that that is what they are doing. This is where #2 comes in. By giving participants a sense of achievement, real or not, spurs them on not because they’re feeding starving kids in a shantytown somewhere, but because they GODDAMN REACHED THE FINAL BOSS AND DROVE A SHOCKOBLADE DOWN HIS THROAT.

But could such an amazing use of #2 actually exist? It seemed unfathomable, despite by best efforts to fathom. Nevertheless, fellow writer-in-arms at Waggener Edstrom Rudi pointed me toward a website of all things, that does just this. It’s called Free Rice, and it’s dastardly simple. In their own words, “For each answer you get right, we donate 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger”

Scoring system (grains of rice)? Check. Leveling up? Check. I’m so excited I’m getting ahead of myself. All the game is is you reading a word, reading four other words, see if the word’s meaning matches one of the latter four, selecting said word. That’s it. Every word you get right, 10 more grains of rice (your score) that go to feed some hungry soul. It even goes an extra step by MAKING YOU LEARN WERDS. Superman himself can’t end hunger by improving his vocabulary, so you’re kinda proving yourself to be more awesome than Superman when you play this game.

It’s not perfect, it should have some tool for sharing your score on Facebook/Twitter, but that’s an easy addition. Now I’d love to see this mechanic carried over to some indie titles on XBLA or PSN. Wouldn’t be too hard would it? Sony, Microsoft—are you listening?

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

China's online game market goes boom boom, bust?

Like many industries that didn’t exist in China till no more than a dozen years ago, online PC gaming has been growing pretty darn fast. However, the 30% growth cited in that article actually represents a slower growth rate than just a few years ago, when it was at 60-70%.   One online gaming company, Changyou, saw 17% growth in its Q1 sales this year, but that’s actually one of the smallest quarterly year-on-year growths they’ve ever experienced. Considering that one such period saw 1000%+ growth, it’s not all that surprising that things have slowed down.

So investors see slowing growth, get scared, and stock prices begin to fall. I suppose it is inevitable that some investors would pull out, the ones who were only in it for the short term anyway, but still, WTF? How is 17% growth in anyway a sign that the so-called bubble is bursting on China’s online gaming market? If anything it sounds more like the market is maturing rapidly and that the industry is settling in for more stable long-term growth. Of course it will intensely competitive as any industry is in China where the number of gamers will be exponentially larger than most other markets, but that’s really only going to be good for the gamers.

The game industry as a whole will continue to grow dramatically in the next five years simply because the numbers of gamers are increasing. There’s like some 400 million people online in China nowadays, 93 million expected to be gaming by the end of this year, and 100 million more in the next few years. I am not a fan of predictions and estimates, but looking at the history of growth in China’s online population tells us that the same thing could very easily happen in gaming. So what’s all the worry about? What’s wrong with slower growth? Seems to me the business is still booming.

Posted via email from 电玩杀瓜 - a game blog

China's online game market goes boom boom, bust?

Like many industries that didn’t exist in China till no more than a dozen years ago, online PC gaming has been growing pretty darn fast. However, the 30% growth cited in that article actually represents a slower growth rate than just a few years ago, when it was at 60-70%.   One online gaming company, Changyou, saw 17% growth in its Q1 sales this year, but that’s actually one of the smallest quarterly year-on-year growths they’ve ever experienced. Considering that one such period saw 1000%+ growth, it’s not all that surprising that things have slowed down.

So investors see slowing growth, get scared, and stock prices begin to fall. I suppose it is inevitable that some investors would pull out, the ones who were only in it for the short term anyway, but still, WTF? How is 17% growth in anyway a sign that the so-called bubble is bursting on China’s online gaming market? If anything it sounds more like the market is maturing rapidly and that the industry is settling in for more stable long-term growth. Of course it will intensely competitive as any industry is in China where the number of gamers will be exponentially larger than most other markets, but that’s really only going to be good for the gamers.

The game industry as a whole will continue to grow dramatically in the next five years simply because the numbers of gamers are increasing. There’s like some 400 million people online in China nowadays, 93 million expected to be gaming by the end of this year, and 100 million more in the next few years. I am not a fan of predictions and estimates, but looking at the history of growth in China’s online population tells us that the same thing could very easily happen in gaming. So what’s all the worry about? What’s wrong with slower growth? Seems to me the business is still booming

Posted via email from 电玩杀瓜 - a game blog

China's online game market goes boom boom, bust?

Like many industries that didn’t exist in China till no more than a dozen years ago, online PC gaming has been growing pretty darn fast. However, the 30% growth cited in that article actually represents a slower growth rate than just a few years ago, when it was at 60-70%.   One online gaming company, Changyou, saw 17% growth in its Q1 sales this year, but that’s actually one of the smallest quarterly year-on-year growths they’ve ever experienced. Considering that one such period saw 1000%+ growth, it’s not all that surprising that things have slowed down.

So investors see slowing growth, get scared, and stock prices begin to fall. I suppose it is inevitable that some investors would pull out, the ones who were only in it for the short term anyway, but still, WTF? How is 17% growth in anyway a sign that the so-called bubble is bursting on China’s online gaming market? If anything it sounds more like the market is maturing rapidly and that the industry is settling in for more stable long-term growth. Of course it will intensely competitive as any industry is in China where the number of gamers will be exponentially larger than most other markets, but that’s really only going to be good for the gamers.

The game industry as a whole will continue to grow dramatically in the next five years simply because the numbers of gamers are increasing. There’s like some 400 million people online in China nowadays, 93 million expected to be gaming by the end of this year, and 100 million more in the next few years. I am not a fan of predictions and estimates, but looking at the history of growth in China’s online population tells us that the same thing could very easily happen in gaming. So what’s all the worry about? What’s wrong with slower growth? Seems to me the business is still booming

Posted via email from 电玩杀瓜 - a game blog

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How much we game, how much we pirate-aaarrrrr

According to, it seems we game quite a bit. It also tells us we pirate quite a bit, but it’s only counting games that are downloaded and not those bought on discs. Including those numbers would have a big impact considering how common the practice is in China. I’m also sure measuring that problem would prove to be nearly impossible.

Notably missing from the piracy list is the PlayStation 3, which, although apparently cracked (great spam comments on Mr. Hotz’s blog, btw), is not yet the victim of video game piracy to any serious degree. That could be a good argument for going Blu-ray and a difficult-to-code-for processor, but probably not.

Here’s there nifty visual bringing it all together—the only thing that bugs me is that it’s a simple graphic, rendering the source links unclickable. The JPEG standards group would be doing wonders if they figured out a way to get hyperlinks embedded in their image format (are they listening?).


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Thursday, April 15, 2010

A better wall than a window: the pitfalls of 3D

The other day I was walking through The Place on my way to Starbucks to meet my girlfriend, and I saw that Samsung had set up a booth in the plaza to promote their soon to be arriving to China 3D televisions. I’ve seen Avatar and Ice Age 3D in theaters, but had never experienced a 3D TV, so I stepped in to take a look.

Samsung had set up their 46” C7000s for the demonstration, which was showing a CG animated film I wasn’t familiar with. I sat down on the stool, put the requisite glasses on over my own, and prepared myself to bask in the experience of home theater TV glory.

Now I’ve read some details about these TVs, and the drawbacks inherent to the technology (dramatically reduced brightness levels due to the way the technology works, occasional flickering). But one thing I’ve yet to read any significant commentary on is shrinkage.

I’m not talking about George Costanza in the pool type shrinkage, but apparent screen shrinkage. I noticed this when I went to see Avatar back in Vermont. The theater was a nice theater, clean seats, good-sized screen, and of course 3 fuckin D. I was all set for the cinematic action-adventure of a lifetime. And it was, mostly. I mean forget the stupid story, the special effects were very little short of astonishing in their color and complexity. But why did it all look so… small?

With a normal movie, in normal 2D silver screen space, you’re looking at a wall of moving images. It appears fricken huge because the wall, generally, is in fact pretty fricken huge. Darth Vader’s head is actually five feet tall.

But 3D changes what you’re looking at. It’s no longer a wall, it’s a window. People and objects have depth now, they aren’t just smaller on the screen, they’re actually deeper into the screen. This window effect is very cool; at times I want to reach in, enter the scene. If I could get a little closer to those hot blue Na’vi, I totally would.

But the problem with a window is two-fold: it reminds you of everything you are not seeing—everything that is beyond the borders of the sill—and, because the 3D world has real depth, and it’s all contained within your field of vision, it loses the awesome vastness you get when you watch a 2D film like Star Wars. It’s easier to extend the 3D effect into the TV than it is out toward the viewer, so it doesn’t surround you anymore. It’s like peering into a little box that contains a beautiful, intricate, fully realized world. Indian in the Cupboard.

Granted I have not seen a 3D film on IMAX, so I’m sure I’m missing out. But if a 7-story screen is required to immerse me in the gorgeous depth of 3D cinema, what possibly can a 46” television do for me, or even a 65” for that matter?

Not much. No I didn’t enjoy it, not much at all. As I sat there in the Samsung booth watching allegedly gigantic creatures destroy a cartoon CG version of the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn’t help thinking how epic it was not. It was like watching miniatures battle it out in some miniature version of the real CG world they were supposed to be inhabiting. I was not impressed.

So what does this mean for gaming? It means I’m a grumpy skeptic, a curmudgeon who doesn’t have much faith in 3D gaming until people no longer understand why Frank’s 2000” TV is a funny song. If the game fails to convey a sense that it is larger than life to me, I just don’t see myself suspending whatever modicum of disbelief is necessary to enjoy the game.

I’m sure I’m wrong though. In fact I think true 3D gaming has more potential than their cinematic counterparts do, simply because people will enjoy interacting in a 3D space more than they do watching others interact in a 3D space. But I don’t see first person shooters benefiting from 3D tech—where will my gun appear? In the screen? Does that Mean I have to sit two feet away to enjoy it? (Not to mention the problems of wearing the 3D glasses over my regular glasses).

If 3D gaming is the sea change event of the next console generation, I hope it is not the kind that requires a 3DTV, but rather the kind demonstrated in this video:

The window effect? This technology eliminates that. You can actually look beyond the frame by moving your head, giving a much more immersive illusion than standard 3D technology does.

Sadly it would only work for one person, so it’s not likely to ever catch on. Until that problem is solved I suppose I’ll have to keep muttering to myself while others enjoy their newfound love with the 3D revolution.

Bah humbug.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

The Loneliest Game You'll Ever Play Together - Demon's Souls

Looking warily down the dark passageway, my barbarian throws down a Blue Eye Stone, bathing the cobbled floor in a flowing, iridescent blue light. He knows what lays ahead in that darkness; he’s been down that road before, paying dearly for it with his life. His hands shuffle through a pouch, falling on one of the few remaining Stones of Ephemeral Eyes, short cuts to regaining body form; death has been his teacher, teaching him that above all else, he fights alone.

The Blue Eye Stone glows azure, and he senses a change in the world. The stone flashes and rising from the glow a shape emerges. A soul, connected to my barbarian by little more than a shared misery, and sacrifice. How many times must we die, alone, together, to save this desolate world, the barbarian mutters, staring at the soul, now fully formed. A woman, a magic user by the looks of her ragged cloak and grizzled staff. She's young, naive; with a bow she introduces herself. 

The faint bluish glow surrounding her being reminds the barbarian she is not of his world, and never will be.He wants to speak--oh if only they could speak. The barbarian has not been with a woman for... but that was before, so long before. The worldly boundaries prevent her from hearing his words, and he from hearing hers. There is nothing to do here but move forward, working together to defeat the demons that have plagued his world, just he knows they have plagued hers. 

A blast of electric light surges from the young mage's fingers, and the barbargian remembers why he is here. Screaming in rage and fear, the barbarian feels his purpose consume him. Broadsword raised high, he charges forward with his silent companion into the darkness. 

They battle bravely, side by side, her magical powers, though limited, complement his tired strength against the enemy. Then, he feels it again, the world shifting. A dark force is breaking through. The barbarian's eyes lock on to his wizard companion's, a sense of recognition passes between them. A soul, ravaged by madness and lust, has come for him. He has faced many such lunatics, but the fear is his wizard companion's eyes tell him that she has not. With a grimace he lifts his sword out of the crumpled demon at his feet and turns to start the long journey back to the Arch Stone, the entry point to this world. That is where the lunatic will be coming from, and there is nowhere to run. 

The wizard follows him closely, hesitant and meek where once she was brash and bold. Death, even in soul form, casts of heavy weight on the consciousness. The barbarian remembers his first death at the hands of the lunatic, and knows he must protect her.

The soul, sheathed in red flame, runs at them quickly from a dark shadow, almost catching them off guard. The wizard strikes first, catching him with a magic arrow in the chest. He's only briefly stunned, and immediately charges her. The barbarian's blood surges to his head, and time seems to freeze. The lunatic's head, attached to a body. The broadsword sweeps down in a brutal arc, shattering the lunatic's shield. The wizard recovers from her fear and launches another magic arrow, smashing the crazy soul's nose. Blood explodes over his beard and eyes, blinding him. The barbarian switches to his sabre, slashing across the man's exposed face. The soul shudders, the red flame disappears. The barbarian shouts silently, mouthing the words WHY. The dying soul sees nothing, hears nothing, speaks nothing. A flame erupts, consuming the dead soul, and the world is back to as it was. The wizard is breathing heavily, tears streaking down her cheeks. The barbarian wishes he could touch them, brush away the sadness.

She will be stronger now, and more cautious. The barbarian smiles. She will be okay, for now. And for he, well, it's a lonely quest, but at least he is not alone.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The other war against censorship

I’ve had zero time to update for the past month or so, but here’s an interesting commentary on the state of gaming in China today:

A little context: China hates video games for some reason. It believes they are the devil, if a devil could exist in a godless country. Or whatever the Communist equivalent would be—Chang Kaishek, perhaps. So, China wants to harmonize the gaming industry, and this means taking out everything about games that make them fun, like stealing people’s crops, and other things that are a little more difficult to understand, like skeletons.

I know, I know. “Skeletons are scary as shit and would cause a second cultural revolution!” you’re saying. I agree this is a distinct possibility. Farmers and other 土包子 would sign up for a WOW account and upon signing in would immediately become apoplectic at the sight of the fleshless walking monsters, and with no outlet for their bottomless pit of rage, would mass together and terrorize government offices in demand for compensation because now their daughters would no longer be marriage material. Yes, this is a distinct possibility. So in writing this post I’ve convinced myself that in fact the government is right. The Internet, and games especially, must be harmonized at all costs. At all costs.

Discovered at

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Rules of the Game [Demon's Souls]

Earlier I wrote down some thoughts on Demon’s Souls having played through only about ¼ of the way. One of my main complaints was that it seemed to be getting too easy, but now I must seriously retract that opinion. Up to the second stage of the first world, yes it was. But since then it has become pretty #$@ difficult once again! And I am glad.

On to today’s topic—game. Demon’s Souls has game, and lots of it. While it is an RPG with a story, most of that story has faded away (I’m still not that far so I could be putting my foot in my mouth again) and what’s left is an adventure that follows many very old-school game rules. Please note that this is no way makes the game boring or dull—in fact I argue that the clear and consistent adherence to said rules is a large factor of this game’s success.

Rule #1 Consistent enemy engagements makes learning fun

Harking back to the days of insanely difficult Nintendo games, encounters with Demon’s Souls enemies are totally predictable, as they always appear in the same place and attack using the same strategy. Sorry, I mean predictable after you’ve fought them half a dozen times. The first time you encounter an enemy, it may very well scare the shit out of you if you’re playing in the dark on a big screen with a nice surround sound system. After it slices you to shreds, the second time you approach that fateful corner of the dark, well-trodden tunnel, you won’t be as shocked, but will still probably die. But then you’ll also start thinking about why you died. You were using a long axe, but it clangs off the narrow walls—a smaller weapon is needed. He pauses after shooting fire, so if you block first and quickly counterattack, that may wear him down. And so on. Eventually you’ll die enough times that you see what the enemy is doing, and learn when to attack, when to block, when to dodge, and when to run. It may still be a difficult battle, but the consistency of the experience is what teaches you—repetition is nature’s greatest instructor.

Rule #2 The world is a tightly confined space

In addition to enemies reappearing exactly as they were every time you re-enter a world, each world, as is true of almost any game today, sets clear limits on where you can and cannot go. This is accomplished either with bottomless cliffs, insurmountable rock ledges and walls that for seemingly arbitrary reasons you cannot climb over. But the reason for these limitations is not arbitrary—where you cannot go, there is no reason for you to go. So when the game does suddenly let you jump over one wall ledge, but not another that’s exactly the same height, it’s telling you there’s something there you need to do. Because you can pretty easily see when there are areas you need to go to, finding those secret places where you can jump the wall is not really a problem.

Rule #3 Simple controller configuration, wide range of attack strategies

Controller simplicity was a necessity for Nintendo games, where pressing A was almost always attack and B jump (For games that reversed this—why??). Battletoads was the game that perfected the two-button controller dance, building a control scheme that offered a surprising number of entertaining attacks.

Created for a system that gives gamers 14 buttons and two joysticks, Demon’s Souls manages to stay pretty simple despite putting all those buttons to use. Press R1 to attack. R2 for a heavy attack. L1 to block, L2 to parry. There are also buttons for switching weapons, using items and magic, and dodging and rolling, but you can accomplish quite a lot with just those attack buttons and some fancy footwork. The really important factor in most conflicts will end up being your stamina and blocking—the attack is just the icing on the cake.

Rule #3 The game is never deliberately unfair

I say deliberately because there are times when the controls or at times wonky camera lead to your demise, but I don’t  think this was intentional. What I mean is that the world of Demon’s Souls is not designed to trick you into dying. Even if other players couldn’t leave you hints, which appear as pinkish blobs of mist on the floor and provide extremely useful info, the game still gives you ample warning. The underlying message is very simple, actually: proceed with caution. Doing so will save you from the clutches of yet another death probably 85% of the time. The only situations where the game sets you up to die is when it’s boss fighting time, but even then you have plenty of warning that you’re about to enter the boss arena, and could easily turn back if your testicles (or ovaries, as you can play as a female character) have suddenly shrunk. There are many areas where you can fall off an edge or get ambushed from behind, but most if not all such situations can be avoided or handled successfully by not running around everywhere with abandon.

The danger of lust, importance of caution (a side note)

And this lesson in caution, despite being so simple, is often the hardest to follow. It’s understandable. You venture deep into the bowels of the earth, rack up enough souls to level up at least twice or thrice, and then a demon knight pops out and impales you on his massive blade, sending your soul back to the beginning of the stage, and leaving all those souls in a pool of blood that you only have one chance to recollect. If you die again, all is lost. The first journey took an hour to achieve; it’s late, you’re tired, you should sleep. But you want to get those souls back, feel some measure of progress has been achieved before your head hits the pillow. That lust is your mistake.

Your exhaustion fills you with urgency, and you rush back in to collect your lost souls, and it’s not the demon knight that kills you, or even the peons near the beginning. It was that stupid ledge, the one you forgot lay there in the darkness waiting for the reckless. Normally you’re aware, carefully examining the floor as your step forward tentatively, but then it’s there, and there’s your hero, now a fool, falling, falling.

And all your hours spent that night are for naught. In Demon’s Souls, lust kills, caution saves.

Is the game too ruly?

The criticism I see coming is that the game relies too heavily on “game” rules and not enough on the rules of reality. To this I say, meh. Part of the joy of Demon’s Souls is discovering the rules and finding ways to take advantage of the limitations those rules create. Demon’s Souls has its own reality, a reality that succeeds because it is consistent. A consistent, fairly obvious game world rules result in a game that teaches you how to play as you go—very little tutoring is needed beyond what buttons to press—and teaches you not just how to defeat enemies, but the value of patience and cooperation as well. Cooperation? Yeah I didn’t talk about that here, but it’s coming in my next post, where I talk about the game’s most fascinating element—multiplayer. This isn’t an ordinary multiplayer game by any means, so stay tuned.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sony, MacArthur Foundation kick off socially responsible gaming competition

As much as I enjoy getting online to riddle my opponents full of bullets from my virtual high powered rifle, I often find myself wondering, is this really all there is? Can video games accomplish anything more than an overload of hyper real violence and mayhem—that is, can they be anything more than just totally awesome fun? Do they need to be?

Yes, I think they do. They need to do more, and I’m not talking about the lame “is it art” debate. I mean they need to be more connected with the larger community of which they are a part, they need to start becoming something that can change lives, not just allowing us to escape from them.

Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have taken a few baby steps toward increasing interaction between the game world and the internet, but I am skeptical about what benefits gamers or the internet will see from letting people autopost their game progress or game purchases on Facebook and Twitter. I will keep them in mind, however, if I ever need to get myself unfriended as quickly as possible.

What caught my eye this morning was an announcement of video game support by the US President. The MacArthur Foundation is teaming up with Sony to hold the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition: Reimagining Learning ,with US$2 million in prizes up for grabs. The competition has two parts, 21st Century Learning Lab Designers, and Game Changers, in which contestants can receive awards for creative new games or additions for Sony’s LittleBigPlanet, a popular and award-winning PlayStation 3 game that includes a comprehensive level creation tool. Sony’s supporting the event by donating “a significant number” (I’m guessing -4?) of PlayStation 3s and LittleBigPlanet copies to community-based organizations and libraries in low-income communities.

This sounds like a step in the right direction—merging game play with social action. And LittleBigPlanet, with all the social interactivity built into it, is a great place to start. I do wonder, though, how the people Sony is giving a chance to create levels will ever get to play their levels later—the game is PS3 only, and other than watching YouTube clips, the levels are downloadable only through Sony’s PlayStation Network. I’m also not really sure how it will relate to “Reimagining Learning”, but when you see the astounding variety of levels created in LittleBigPlanet, like


I feel optimistic contestants will come up with some pretty good ideas.

I discovered this story at, and here’s the contest homepage.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Naughty Dog Plays Nice

Uncharted 2 developer Naughty Dog has not only made an amazingly beautiful game, but have also proved not to be so naughty after all— reports via that Naughty Dog is developing tools that it shares with other 1st and 3rd party developers, giving others a shot to get their graphics looking as good as Uncharted 2’s.

In the game’s end credits, several other developers are thanked, including Bungie, Xbox developer of the famous Halo series that put Microsoft on the map. It’s great to see developers so willing to share their ideas like that, and I’m glad Naughty Dog is so supportive of collaboration at the tool level. In the end the difference between games should be in their artistic elements—style, mood, tone, music, dialog—and not so much the engine driving these.

Uncharted 2: the beauty

I spent at least 15 minutes wandering around this Tibetan village in Uncharted 2, but this video doesn’t come close to doing the scene justice. One of the great things about Uncharted 2’s visuals is that the draw distance pretty much goes to the horizon in some areas, meaning 3d rendered objects are visible a long ways off. Most games limit the draw distance to ensure the frame rate doesn’t drop, but doing this creates a very artificial fog of war that can cause game play problems, especially in multiplayer.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Demons have stolen my Soul, with reservations [Demon's Souls]


Lately I admit I’ve been lazing about in front of the ol’ plasma a bit too much, staring at magically rendered universes of fantasy and adventure. Part of it is that I’m slowly recovering from a cold. It’s probably H1N1. If it’s fatal, I might die playing video games. Would my soul be revived in the Nexus? Somehow I doubt it. I’m no hero, I’m just a dude.

Apart from the fantastically beautiful Uncharted 2, a much lower profile game from the studios of Sony Japan has captivated my attention for a good twenty plus hours over the past few week. That game is Demon’s Souls, an action RPG that has won at least one claim to fame—it’s very hard to win. Yes, that’s one marketing angle they’ve taken deliberately, not one you often see on a game box, because, for some reason, game developers think that would be a turn off.

I’ll avoid going off on a tangent about how miserably easy most games have become these days, but suffice it to say, Demon’s Souls makes a solid effort at living up to its claim, but where I’m at in the game now, the difficulty seems to be fading to irrelevance.

The story is some throwaway about a demon that has ravaged the world and you’re the hero designated to defeat it. The problem is, you’re not all that much of a hero, not at first—more like a 98lb weakling. I like this, a lot. Probably because I’m a 150lb weakling and it gives me hope.

The game trains you in the basic mechanics of game play and then quickly kicks your ass by making you fight an impossibly difficult demon, and then the game really begins with your soul awakening in the Nexus, a sort of Void where you end up when you die. To progress through the game you warp to different worlds where you kill the baddies and collect their souls. Souls are like money, used for everything from equipment purchases to stat upgrades. Along the way you kill boss demons that give you a whole bunch of souls, and the added bonus of getting your human form back.

What makes the game difficult is that you start off very weak, and if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you will die. You will die fast. Add to that that every time you die, you lose ALL of your souls. The only way to get them back is to get back to where you died and reclaim your soul stain that was left behind, which is not always easy since all the monsters come back to life in your ever so brief absence. Unfortunately if you die again, the souls are gone and you have to start collecting them all over again. So yeah, it’s hard and it only gets harder the more you let your frustration replace your patience.

The game no doubt pisses the crap out of me on many occasions, but I love that they really wanted to make the game a challenge. The problem lies in the inherent nature of almost any RPG, plus a couple level design flaws I wish they avoided.

The inherent nature of which I speak is the leveling up of your character. Every RPG has this. In Demon’s Souls you use the souls you gain to improve your stats, and inevitably this means you can take and inflict more damage. This also means that monsters in the earlier levels become much easier, making them easy to defeat for quick soul farming. This takes away from the difficulty of any RPG, not just this one.

The problem then is that Demon’s Souls has monsters that are too easy to defeat but still give you quite a few souls, letting you soul farm quickly, which in turn makes future levels easier than they probably should be. I think what they could have done instead is follow the Diablo method, where killing easier monsters gives fewer souls than they did before, maybe to the point that they give almost none. This would mean the player either has to take a long time soul farming, or press on fighting their way through the harder levels. Another option would be to make the monsters you kill give you more souls the first time you kill them, increasing the risk of dying. Granted I’ve not made it more than a quarter of the way through the game, so I may find my critique is totally misguided soon.

The second problem may be a spoiler, so don’t read further if you care about this game.

The boss demons I have battled so far are waaaaaaaaaaaaay too easy. The problem is that the bow is overpowered and there’s no limit to the number of arrows you can carry, so basically I just enter the boss battle with 200 arrows and blast them from a safe distance. After defeating the big guardian night in the second part of the first world with arrows without having to move at all, I knew something was amiss. Again, perhaps this becomes an impossible trick against later demons, but so far I’m a little disappointed with the boss battles.

More to come on Demon’s Souls in the next couple posts. I want to look more carefully at the ludic (read: game) elements and later at the multiplayer features, which are pretty awesome for what’s a mostly single-player adventure.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Comment riposte: Tools are not enough



A few days ago I posted a comment on Kotaku to  this article, which discusses a bit of a PR fiasco game developer Infinity Ward has found itself in after announcing that it’s new FPS Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would no longer support dedicated servers for PC gamers. The comment was lengthy enough that I’ve decided to repost it here, but first some context. (note: original comment appears near the end)

Call of Duty is a multi-million dollar franchise published by Activision and developed by Infinity Ward (IW) and Treyarch, each developer taking turns to put out a new game every year. Originally Call of Duty was a WWII first-person shooter, and was an instant hit when it launched. To freshen up the brand, IW released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007, which went on to be one of the biggest sellers in gaming history. That game put IW on the map, and a sequel was inevitable. Because the game is multi-platform, however, it had to appeal to two very different audiences—console owners and PC gamers. The main difference between the two is that PC gamers tend to be more hardcore and expect greater freedom and control over the gameplay, while console gamers range from hardcore to casual with plenty in between.

COD: MW was loved by PC gamers because it allows them to host their own dedicated servers to run matches. It also lets them to modify what options are enabled in ranked public matches, up to 64-player support (only 18 on consoles), the ability to lean, and most fun of all map creation and game modding, which lets the gamers change the game rules and graphics in almost any way they want.

an AWESOME Star Wars mod

The buzz for COD: MW2 was huge the moment it was announced, and honestly that’s no surprise. Robert Bowling, former community manager and current creative strategist for IW, was leading the communications charge in what started out with great promise.   He was already on Twitter and was writing his own blog, and MW2 had its own Twitter and news site as well. They had even set up a twitter site tracking #MW2 comments, and posted questions for fans to respond to. The latter had some problems, like tracking any #MW2 comments and not ones related to the questions being posed, but it let users vote up the best comments in an attempt to keep them relevant.

All in all, a great start.


So what went wrong?

On October 17, 2009, with less than a month before the 11.10.09 launch date arrived, Bowling announced during a webcast (around the 1:39:00 mark) that IWNet would be implemented as a match-making service for PC gamers—and the end of dedicated server support. He called this making multiplayer more accessible to the PC community, but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t see the serious backlash from the hardcore PC gamers coming.

This was not the end of the announcements, either. Soon after PC gamers discovered that everything that made the PC version unique was being taken away from them—no more leaning, no more modding or mapping. No more console for granular control over game settings, and perhaps worst of all, no more 64, or 32, player matches, meaning larger game clans, essentially the sports teams of gaming world would have to split up if they wanted to play. And, without dedicated servers, they will face greater lag issues and greater difficulty connecting with only the players they want to play with, since IWNet will do the matchmaking for them.

At this point IW and Bowling had already made one big mistake in their PR campaign—they didn’t engage the small but passionate demographic of their gaming community early enough. Fine, everyone makes mistakes. The problem then is how they continued to ignore the PC gamer audience. During an open online QA hosted by Best Buy—good idea, by the way, gives direct access to the game developers—IW game designer Mackey McCandlish and weapons artist Ryan Lastimosa deliberately and arrogantly snubbed the PC gamers participating in the event with unfortunately classic examples of terrible PR responses. For example:

Q: Is there a console in the PC version of the game, so we can change our field of view from the Xbox’s default 65 FOV to 80 also can we tweaks the weapon damage for each gun, removes perks, graphical debris, breathing sway, also thru console like we where [sic] able to before or is this all gone?

Vince-IW: We would like you to play the game the way we designed and balanced it.

And even worse:

Moriarte: Ignoring, is the PC version a direct port of the console version?

Mackey-IW: No, PC has custom stuff like mouse control, text chat in game, and graphics settings.

To suggest that “mouse control, in-game text chat, and adjustable graphics settings” somehow makes the game more than just a port of the console version is not the best choice of words.

Bowling, meanwhile, wasn’t doing much better, suggesting that the number of hardcore PC gamers was so small as to be meaningless when it came to game design decisions. He also called MW2 “their most feature-rich PC gamer yet,” despite all of the features that had been removed, and called the hardcore PC gamers “a very vocal community [that is] all online.” Ouch.

The great and tragically ironic climax to all of this is that Bowling himself declared just a few days later that he doesn’t think “any developer should not have control of how their game is presented or marketed or communicated… and they should take control of that a lot, lot more.” I might agree with you, Mr. Bowling, but I would add that whomever is handling it be someone with some level of competence.

IW has the tools, but they don’t have the skills, the experience or the wisdom to engage with its community in a way that respects the many, many opinions they’ve received.


What should they have done? What should they be doing right now?

I’ll let my original Kotaku comment answer the first question:

The problem, and the great irony here, is not that IW has jacked the PC version--it's their total arrogance in going about it.

I'm not condoning the jacking, but they really needed to at least try to make their audience understand their reasons for doing so, and in this they've failed completely. I find it ironic because IW was JUST saying how important it is for developers to handle their own marketing, and so far they're doing a terrible job of it! They seem to be totally clueless--Bowling especially--about the importance of showing a little humility to their fans, especially when they make changes that they KNOW will piss people off.

No, the end-user is not always right, as some are saying here. But that doesn't mean you ignore them! Just because IW doesn't need to worry about the money they make on PC game sales doesn't mean you dismiss those gamers voices--in essence IW has told PC gamers they are 2nd class to console gamers, their opinions are insignificant. There's almost no faster way to destroy your brand.

If I were IW here's what I would have done:

1. Pay special attention to those who are complaining--show them you're listening and understand their feelings.

2. Make sure I'm engaging them on public platforms, Twitter, Facebook, developer blogs, whatever.

3. Explain the reasons for jacking the game, and BE SPECIFIC. None of this "game balance" crap, that is PR nonsense designed to deflect, condescend, and offend. Your real reasons might not make the complainers happy, but at a deeper level they'll appreciate your honesty AS LONG AS YOU ARE BEING RESPECTFUL. You're worried about piracy? Ok, say so! You've actually received a lot of feedback from other PC gamers who find the game too hard to play because of cheating? Say that too, but HAVE PROOF to back yourselves up.

4. Make it clear you are flexible--let people know you're monitoring the community and are searching for ways to let people enjoy at least some of the things that made PC gaming special, like mapping and modding.

5. Finally, take a page out of Valve's book on L4D2--they handled their PR crisis beautifully, and look at what happened: complainers came away more than satisfied, and sales are up 4x over the original game! Seriously they won on all counts and still managed to make the game they wanted to make.

I find it so effin funny that IW thinks they know how to communicate with their audience, when they clearly have no idea. Sorry, I mean when they clearly don't care. Methinks they've been watching one too many episodes of Madmen. Get a clue, IW--MW2 might sell like hotcakes, but your reputation has suffered tremendously. I was looking forward to getting this for PS3, but maybe I'll wait awhile.

And as far as what they should be doing now is making it very clear that a lot of the details about how IWNet will operate are not finalized and that there is room for change and that they are listening to user feedback from everyone, whether it’s hardcore or casual gamers. And drop the arrogant holier-than-though attitude, be apologetic and promise you’ll do better in the future.

You screwed up on this one, IW, not the gamers.

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