Monday, December 7, 2009

Video Game Awards

Well, it’s the end of the year so we’re starting to see a variety of award events across the internet (and TV if you count Spike’s VGA show). The problem that I have with these ceremonies is their tendency to be the same when it comes to award categories; Best [PS3/Xbox360/Wii] Game, Best Graphics, Best Music, Game of the Year. They all have it and it isn't terribly original. So, why not come up with a few new categories? Let me present to you ten award categories that I would like to see:
  • Avantgarde Award: The game with the most original or downright bizarre concepts.
  • Backlash Award: The game that received the harshest criticism.
  • Brutality Award: The game which offers the greatest challenge at the highest difficult setting.
  • Canvas Award: The game which makes the best use of colors other than grey and brown.
  • Ecology Award: The game with the most recycled content and cliché themes.
  • “Engrish” Award: The game that gets the most creative with the English language.
  • Esoteric Award: The game with the longest and steepest learning curve.
  • Lemon Award: The game with the most glitches and bugs yet is still considered playable.
  • Testosterone Award: The game with the most gore, profanity and nudity.
  • Underdog Award: The game which is low on marketing hype, but high on quality.
Of course some of these awards are rather dubious, but a list such as the one I’ve presented here might actually be informative to the viewer instead of just giving out pointless bragging rights. And when you get down to it most gamers have already decided what their favorites are so why not throw a curve ball and give people something different?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

One Game to Rule Them All

Having the biggest launch in entertainment history, I think it's safe to say Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sits atop the coveted throne of video games. One might note that this seat previously belonged to the Grand Theft Auto series and perhaps Final Fantasy before that. But rather than debating the details, I have to ask the question "Is it really a good thing that one video game title (or series) becomes so popular it dominates the market? Is it really good for gaming as a whole?"

The problem (as I see it) with having the industry dominated by one massively successful game is many developers inevitably gravitate to that game's genre. Thus, at your local retail store it becomes increasingly common to find inferior clones in that genre. This is a major loss in that many of these development teams could have been pouring their time and resources into something original or new.

By keeping the industry diverse it's possible to create some real gems. Particular instances of cross pollination have produced interesting results over the last couple of years. Titles such as shooter/RPG hybrid Mass Effect or Puzzle/flight-sim hybrid Flower are excellent examples of this. But despite the relative success of these games they pale in comparison to the juggernaut which is Modern Warfare 2, and that makes me sad.

I think the end result of having the industry dominated by a handful of titles is that it stifles innovation and encourages formulaic game design. So, if your reading this blog do your fellow gamers a favor and try some games outside the genre (or genres) you normal play. And don't be afraid to play a game just because it didn't get a high review score. For the record most of my favorite games tend to land in the 7.0 to 8.5 review score range.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

PC Gaming

I think it’s safe to say that PC gaming is in a state of decline. Not a particularly shocking revelation, but what never fails to surprise me is how many people have an oversimplified view on the matter. Probably the most common reason I hear for the slow death of gaming on the PC is “Pirates (Yarr!).” While there is some validity to this point there are a significant number of other reasons. Allow me to present six other causes, and please note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list:

#1 DRM. I know what your probably thinking. Isn’t DRM the result of piracy? Well…yes and no. It’s true that DRM is a means in which to fight piracy but it does a lot more to hurt PC gaming that you might initially think. I won’t bother talking about how DRM schemes tend to screw with your computer or the fact that they’re (in some cases) a violation of consumer privacy. Instead let’s just break this down into three key points; trade, borrow, resell. Say I buy a game for the PS3. If I want I can lend it to a friend, or trade games with said friend. Plus, I can resell the game and recoup some of the cost of my initial purchase. All of these things would be very difficult, or down right impossible to do, if I had bought the same title for the PC thanks to DRM.

#2 Non-standard Hardware and Software. I’ll lump these two together simply because they’re kind of the same problem. PC’s can come with a variety of motherboards, CPUs, graphics cards, hard drives, etc. all of which have their own operating specs. Trying to make a game on the PC that is compatible with all these types of hardware configurations is a real pain for game developers. It’s also a headache for people who play because every time they install a game on their computer and try to run it they have to cross their fingers and hope that it doesn’t crash right back to the desktop because of some incompatibility. Couple this with having to hunt around on-line for troubleshooting guides or driver updates. Then top it off with the fact that operating systems ranging anywhere from Linux to Windows 95 all the way up to Windows 7 (not to mention all the versions of Mac OS) and you got yourself some serious range to cover.

#3 Higher Cost. At the time I’m writing this article the PS3 and Xbox360 are going for $300 a unit. I think it’s safe to say that an up to date gaming PC is going to cost two to three times that amount. Granted PCs can do more, but I think not unreasonable to point out that a lot of people don’t feel the need use their computer for anything more than Facebook and Email.

#4 Lack of Support. Let’s face it. Up until very recently Apple has done their best to not support gaming on the Mac and since the arrival of the Xbox360 Microsoft has done their best to kill gaming on the PC in an attempt to sell more consoles. Maybe that will change when Google releases their new OS, but for now the big two providers of computer operating systems are basically against gaming on the PC. Oh well…we still got Flash Media games to count on…I guess.

#5 Laptops. Let me start by saying that I don’t have anything personally against laptops. I use one regularly and I can see why many people would consider their compact and portable design a key factor in purchasing one over a desktop. That said they’re not a very good platform when it comes to gaming. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I am entirely sure that a lot of PC owners out there have a laptop and not a desktop.

#6 On-Line Gaming. This used to be a PC exclusive. If you wanted to play on-line games you had to do it on your PC. But since the introduction of services such as Xbox Live and PSN it has become possible to enjoy on-line gaming on non-PC platforms. Hence PC gaming has lost one of its big advantages over the competition. One wonders what would happen if they introduced keyboard and mouse support to the PS3 and Xbox360.

All the points I have mentioned above interrelate to some degree. In fact I would go so far as to say they interweave to create a tapestry enveloping and slowly smothering PC gaming to death. Some cling to the hope that digital distribution will somehow save PC gaming industry (which I might add pioneered the kinds of games we enjoy today). Frankly though, I don’t see it. As long as the trend of “pay more, get less” continues it will just be one nail in the coffin after another.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Multiplayer Overkill

I used to indulge in online multiplayer back when it was the hot new thing for PC gaming. Bizzard Studio's had just become available providing free service to anyone with a legit copy of Starcraft. It was fun...for awhile.

The basic problem was once I played a few games I came to the realization that most people were even less capable than AI opponents. Ironically, computer controlled units tend to have better situational awareness than your average human. Worse yet basic tactics seemed to escape most gamers. This problem was especially apparent in titles like Homeworld, Shogun: Total War and Myth: The Fallen Lords. Time and time again I won against far larger and more powerful opponents by using simple feigns, traps and ambushes.

About the time I earned a crown rank in Myth and my Starcraft record had reached 255 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss, I had come to the conclusion that this whole multiplayer thing wasn't much to get excited about. Sure I got my butt kicked every once and a while by someone in Counterstrike, but then again cheaters are not uncommon in FPS team death matches. Even then I was always in the top single digit percentile rankings. And the secret to my online success was nothing more than the fact that I didn't use World War 1 tactics.

I haven't really played much online since those days. Can't really see the point of getting on Xbox-Live just to kill and endless supply of verbally abusive underachievers. I guess a lot of developers use multipayer as a way to increase replay value. Unfortunately, I think this trend has gone a bit too far and has reached the point where single player gaming is being neglected in favor of cramming in mindless online frag-fests just to pad things out. Or worse yet to make up for some underdeveloped single player experience which really needed more attention during the early development stages. Maybe when people start realizing short and fun beats long and boring things will get better. Until then I'll stick with splitscreen co-op when I want to play with someone else.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pessimistic About On-Live

It's an interesting idea to have cloud based services provided to your living room allowing you to play the games you want with out the necessity of having to upgrade hardware on you PC or purchasing an XBox360 and PS3. In truth I want to get behind idea of On-Live, if only because it would save us gamers and game developers a lot of headache. But lets look more closely, shale we?

First thing that popped into my mind when I read about On-Live is where are they going to get the bandwidth for all this? During a busy night with lots of people using On-Live the servers are going to have to be transferring huge amounts of data incredibly quickly in order for anyone to play. Just to put that into perspective if On-Live used waterworks instead of internet bandwidth there would have to be a Niagara Falls in everyone's living room! At least in order for it to work the way they say it's supposed to work. Maybe they should have done a pilot program in South Korea beforehand where %90 of the homes have access to cheap broadband internet.

For those of you who read my Steam isn't the Answer article much of what's in there also applies here. Questions like "What if your internet goes down?" or "What if On-Live goes out of business?" have answers which I think are less than reassuring. Then of course there's my favorite question "What if you want to lend a game you bought on On-Live to another friend with On-Live?"

Let's move on though. How about price? You'll save a lot of cash because you don't have to upgrade anymore, right? Well...even if we assume you already have a display screen your happy with there's the matter of monthly costs. Of course you got to pay your broadband internet provider so there's $50 to $100 at least. Then you got to pay the On-Live subscription fee which I can't imagine costing less than premium cable TV. Then you got to buy the games at retail price (or at least the price they deiced on). No used games here, I'm afraid. So, as you can imagine this is adding up rather quickly.

Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe they have some kind of reasonable pricing strategy in mind even though they're using some kind of super video compression technology. Regardless, I'm pretty sure this system is going to have a lot of bugs early on and it will be interesting to see if they can build up a decent library of titles. Because as you know it really comes down to the games and the people who play them.

Steam isn't the Answer

Don't take this the wrong way, I actually think Steam is trying to innovate the game industry. If nothing else making digital distribution quick and easy is a big help to all the little developers out there. My problem is that when you look closely Steam isn't much of a solution in the grand scheme of things.

First off Steam doesn't stop piracy because hackers know ways to "un-steam" games and put them up on torrent sites. Plus, if Valve (the owner of Steam) decides they don't like you for some reason they can ban your account at which point all the games you've purchased and downloaded no longer work. Not to mention steam requires you to install intrusive DRM software on your computer which leads to another bunch of potential problems which I won't bother going into right now.

Then of course we have the big question of what happens if Steam goes out of business? And there are a significant number people out there that don't have access to broadband internet especially in rural areas....

So, take a step back and look at what we have here. Steam does a lot to protect publisher profits but what about the consumer? No trading games with your friends or selling used games is great for developers, but what about people who buy the games? Back before the days of Half-Life 2 you could lend some game that you weren't playing anymore to a friend living down the street. You can't do that with games purchased through Steam. Thus, what your left with is a system that is constantly trying to find new ways to weasel gamers out of there money. Naturally, a lot of consumers feel like there getting swindled so they increasingly turn to piracy as a way of retaliating against what they see as less than fair business practices.

What we need is a system that shrinks the gap between consumers and the industry. There has become too much hostility between these two groups and until both sides step down and start considering diplomatic solutions the conflict will just get more and more messy. Steam doesn't provide a negotiation table or even a bridge between these bitter rivals, rather it's a barbwire fence with a gate for those willing to agree to Valve's demands.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Ransoming System (Revised V1.0)

The Ransoming System - A Possible Solution to Internet Piracy
Proposed by
Casey Goddard

In this modern era of P2P file sharing, DRM schemes and the slow death of PC gaming it has become apparent to me that a radical new method of game distribution is necessary for designers, publishers and players to truly enjoy all that can be offered by video games as a medium of entertainment.
Therefore I submit to you a proposed revenue system whereby games can be distributed; The Ransoming System. Rather than the traditional method of charging individuals a set price for a copy of a particular game, consumers would instead “ransom” the game by giving money to the publisher until a target amount of revenue has been reached. Once this amount has been obtained (sort of like a donation fund drive) the game will become freely available to the general public. A possible example of this method might have several ransom donation levels which consumers can choose from. The premium level might include extra goodies such as an art book, collectible figurine, a “special thanks to….” entry in the credits and so on. Think of it like an airplane. Regardless if it's economy or first class seating everyone gets to fly (play the game). It's just some people get to do it with extra service.
Donations to the ransom system can be made via credit card, pay-pall over the internet, or even at a physical location such as a video game store in the form of electronic cash transfer (along similar lines of cash card or pre-order). If customers have no broadband connection physical copies of the game can be made available at game stores for acquisition once the ransom has been accumulated or mailed directly to a given address. Ideally people who pay more for the product would be the first to receive the game.
Of course companies would be required to be very public about who donated to the ransom and how much they gave in order to prevent fraud. Marketing would also remain crucial in order to raise awareness of up-coming games. Downloadable video trailers, demos, promotional events and general advertising must be carried out efficiently in order to generate enough consumer demand to ransom the game. Consistency from developers is also a must to help ensure the ransom of additional content and future games.
In order for The Ransoming System to work as an effective method of gathering revenue the way games are developed must also be changed somewhat. Games would probably have to be shorter and cheaper than what is considered the current norm. Episodic content, expansions or DLC implementing feedback from the consumers is very important to maximize revenue. Of course new content would be ransomed as well. Community would also be essential since fans are more likely raise awareness and contribute to the ransom than newcomers.

So, in conclusion allow me to summarize the advantages of The Ransoming System:

  • Neutralizes the threat of Internet piracy
  • Eliminates the need for any kind of DRM software
  • Utilizes exiting techniques employ in sales and distribution
  • Reduces production costs
  • Encourages growth of gaming communities

There are a few potential disadvantages however:
  • Profits for games will be somewhat normalized
  • Games will be shorter, with room made for additional content
  • MMOs or games which gather revenue based on subscription fees would not benefit from using the ransom system

I’d like to note that The Ransoming System has already been employed successfully on a limited scale for a number of PDF supplements to the table-top RPG Reign. I believe that the system can also be applied effectively to the video game industry provided major developers are willing to give it a try on popular existing franchises.