Not completely unpopular

Category: Games (page 2 of 3)

Kickin’ It Sorta Old School

This last weekend I had the pleasure to meet some old friends at a lake cabin.  This was something I was really, really looking forward to do.  We would get to indulge in the kindness of my friends and for the second time this summer, just do some old fashioned relaxing at a lake.  There would be beer, there would be good times on the water.

But there was something else planned that weekend, something wonderful and magical, something I haven’t done in over a decade.  I broke out the dice, bought a couple of books and played a game of Dungeons and Dragons with my friends.

My Old Dice

My Old Dice

Oh yes.  It had been so long since the last time I played, I cannot honestly say that I remember it.  But this was something I really yearned for.  It’s weird as 2010 continues to be my geeky renaissance and one thing I miss from my old geek days was sitting down amongst friends, rolling some dice, drinking some cheap beer and getting our game on.

Not pictured: a bag of Doritos, classic Mountain Dew and young adult angst

Not pictured: a bag of Doritos, classic Mountain Dew and young adult angst

When my friend Eric mentioned we were going to run a couple of rooms in a dungeon crawl, I completely geeked out.  I “found” myself at a games store and just happened to find myself  *cough* *cough* at the D&D display rack which just happened to have a sale on a couple of books.  I studied up, drew up a character (an Eladrin Wizard with a bit of a detective background) and dug out my dice from one of the packed boxes.  It was just the matter of a wait for the actual weekend to game with some friends.

My Character in Page Form

My Character in Page Form

We gamed on the first night there and took about twenty minutes for everyone to settle in and get rolling, but once we did, gaming goodness abounded.  To make the visualizing easier, they bought game grids to help you picture where you are in relation to the enemies and also where you can move in any given turn.  This was really a simple dungeon crawl and we only managed to clear a couple of rooms, but the experience was better than I remembered.

Many traditional players have been quite vocal about the 4th edition D&D rules being too much like World of Warcraft in that you’ve separated the classes into essentially four categories and simplified too much of the combat.  It’s true that the rules seem to be easier, but really roleplaying is what you make it.

When we played, I pushed the bounds of what the rule book said what some of my spells were able to do, but because the idea was so intriguing to Eric who was running the game, he allowed it.  Fortunately, I rolled exceedingly well and made a couple of unexpected things happen.  Things like that are fun, and that’s what the game is really all about.  I really can’t wait for the next time for us to play again and maybe, just maybe can finagle a monthly game.

My personal geek reinvention continues.

Not Dead Yet

I came across this article on Ars Technica about how the recent release of Starcraft II dominated the month in video games sales.  Three interesting things about this.  First, this is only box sales, not digital download sales which are playing an increasing share on the PC market.  This is important because with Starcraft II essentially dominating this sales measure, outselling all other games on the console and not even counting all of it’s sales…it’s telling.

Secondly, this is a single platform release, only for PC.  The next best selling game was released on two platforms and was still beat by over 30,000 units.

And here’s the coup de grace.  These sales are only for the last four days in July whereas all the other games had a good measure of the month to sell.  The August numbers should be very interesting to see.

I’ve seen many a post on many a tech forum saying that PC gaming is dead, that the console is now king.  These numbers seem to fly right in the face of such perceptions.  Starcraft definitely is not being ported to console.  Can you imagine how fast some console player would get their ass-kicked by even a mediocre PC player who knows a couple keyboard shortcuts?

What Gets My Gaming Dollar

A curious thing appeared in my inbox today.  It was an email from Star Trek Online letting me know about their “Welcome Back Weekend” where people who used to play STO and have already cancelled get to play for free for a couple of days.  This isn’t unusual, per se, as many MMO games have these promotions to convince former players to sign back up.  What’s unusual about the one for STO is that this is the second time they’ve had a welcome back weekend within months of launch.  The first time I wrote about STO was back in late January and it is utterly shocking to me that they have their second attempt to get back players within seven months of launch.  Did I say shocking?  I meant laughable.

Unfortunately, this is the trend I see happening lately more and more in the game-space and in particular with MMO games.  Another game I almost bought but held off doing so was APB, which was meant to be much like the Grand Theft Auto of the MMO world.  Reviews for APB have been scathing and I’m very glad I saved the $50 by avoiding purchasing the game at all.  What have been the main complaints?  Buggy play, limited mission types, repetitive action, unbalanced play.  Sound familiar?  It’s because these were many of the complaints I had against STO as well.

It is just a part of a distressing trend of foisting a poor product onto an eager fan base and then attempting to fix it through new releases and content as they go along.  Companies often talk about how “they are listening to the fans” and about how much their fan support means to them.  The problem is that if they would have actually cared about their fan base, they might have attempted to put out a decent game first.  Let me share two examples of companies that I believe actually care about their fans and do right by them.

First of all, again Bioware did the right thing by putting off the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic until next year.  The more and more I see from this game, the more I’m expecting it to be great.  This is from a company who put out two top notch games this year (Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2) which is a lot to do for any one company.  It could be argued that many of their games seem the same, and that would be a valid complaint.  However, this one minor con is entirely outweighed by everything they have done right and the improving quality of their games.

The other company is Blizzard with their recent release of Starcraft II.  This was twelve years in the making.  Twelve YEARS.  What did they get for their waiting so long?  Oh, pretty much universal acclaim from critics and fans for a well beloved franchise.  Not that there hasn’t been some nitpicking and valid complaints as well (let’s face it, every game does have a wart or two), but everything people loved about the original is still there with an engaging single player mode and fantastic multiplayer.

This is what it is all about and really, what gets me to purchase one game over another.  A company like Cryptic (makers of STO) is not getting another dime from me as they do not have the player’s interests in mind but rather their bottom dollar.  Bioware and Blizzard?  Both of them put out great games and their decisions are made to focus on the quality of the game rather than a purely financial motive.  Let me throw Valve in there too as a company that sticks to this mantra and also produces top notch games.  They get it and because of that, they get my money.

Games As Art

Perhaps you’ve seen the presentation from Kellee Santiago at TED about how games should be considered art or maybe the response from Roger Ebert about how video games cannot by their definition be art.  The folks over at Slashdot responded predictably, fuming with nerd-rage at how a movie critic could be so wrong.  Near the end of Ebert’s post, he asks probably the most important question overlooked in the conversation; why is it so important that video games be recognized as art?  It’s a valid question.  I’d like to go one step further.

Why do we, as a geek culture, need any further validation?  Secondly, isn’t Ebert right?

Maybe it’s our lot in life, to always seek some sort of honest approval of others.  More than ever, it seems that as geeks, our time is here, that life itself has validated the geek culture and there’s some level of acceptance on a cosmic level.  Computers are rife in society and those who have the skills are often called upon to display their wizardry to those not as gifted.  Comic book movies get occasionally considered for prestigious awards.  We have a President who not only has greeted people with the Vulcan salute, but has been photographed brandishing a toy lightsaber.  Surely, our time has come.

But video games as art?  Ebert is right.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any games that could be considered art.  The video game Braid was mentioned in the Santiago presentation and while there is an interesting story and subplot running through the game, it’s difficult to argue that it elevates itself enough so it is considered art.  Perhaps Bioshock could be considered as it’s an interesting exploration of the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, but 90% of the game is spent as a first-person shooter.

Arguments could be made that there is a lot of art in a game already, from the music to the artwork, each of them put together as a whole could constitute a work of art.  To me, it’s a lot like pro sporting events where you have an arena with architectural design with the music they play at the game, but in the end, it all surrounds the game which is attempting to achieve an objective.  I believe once you have an objective, it qualifies as a game and excludes it as art.  This is not a bad thing, but let’s not redefine art just because we want it to be so.

Ebert makes the point that someday video games might be art…but not in our lifetimes.  He’s likely right on this point as well.  Video games have some of the pieces to be a work of art, but none has entered into the sublime yet.  In my opinion, none have even gotten close.  That’s not to say a game cannot make you think or have hidden meaning, but it just doesn’t have the impact of what we consider to be art today.

We shouldn’t strive to make video games art anyway.  It’s hard enough now finding a game that’s actually fun to play, how about we solve that problem first and then we can move on to creating art.  But if we continue on trying to make games that serve some sort of artful aesthetic, why are we making video games in the first place?  Then we’ve somehow moved on to some sort of digital artist and have removed audience enjoyment as a part of the equation.  People creating games should not start from “how can we make this beautiful or evocative” or “what societal issues should we take on”, but rather with the simple statement, “let’s make it fun first” and keep a game tooled to what it was meant to do…entertain.

Star Trek Online Follow-up

I had the intention of taking a positive note about the game and that it did look like it was going to improve over time, that some (not all) of my fears had been addressed.

Of course that was all before this game started to treat the Head Start like another round of beta.  First of all, we should set something straight.  Many apologist will come forward and say something like “it’s going to be this way for the first month” or something along those lines, somehow justifying that extensive downtime should be expected during launch.  Their rallying cry will be “even WoW had a horrible launch”.  Thing is, WoW launched five years ago and in tech terms, that’s a lifetime.  Point two here is that Cryptic is not a newcomer to the MMO field.  This is their third launch and should be well aware of the pitfalls of game development.  Again, understanding that there will be issues in the first month is one thing.  Multiple server maintenance windows (one lasting five hours) within the first couple days before the official launch is another.

It pretty much reinforces my earlier assessment that the game simply isn’t ready.  Not only that, Cryptic/Atari aren’t ready as well.  Surely someone at some point during one of their meetings must have said “this is a 40+ year old franchise that will likely have a lot of interest in the Trek community.  My God, they even have conventions that have thousands upon thousands of people attend with frightening regularity.  Maybe we should plan to accommodate the influx of people that will storm the server.”  Obviously, this conversation never happened and I’m guessing they will attempt to grow their way through the server troubles.

The problem is that we’ve become too accustomed to mediocrity and too patient with developers who put out a shoddy product.  We now have Windows 7 because Vista was a disaster and Win 7 just feels like Vista SP2.  In that same vein, it’s sad to see that MMO games have the type of attitude that they should be able to fix everything on the fly with paying customers as their willing guinea pigs.  STO has so many problems, I’m not sure where to start.  They still need to deal with missing Klingon content, graphical issues, main game content, player progression issues that will vex possible expansions (how much higher can you go than Admiral?) and many more that I’d address but do not want to get all wound up (again) over a game.  But they are not working on those issues now, they are addressing login and database issues.  I cannot believe that it bodes well for STO that these particular problems which should have been nailed down during the open beta (or marketing beta) still need to be fixed.

My advice hasn’t changed much, just that it has a broader audience now.  Even fans, I think, will be disappointed about the state of the game so far.  Wait to see how it shakes out and maybe it will improve.  But, man…it’s got a long way to go.

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