Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Not Another Games Criticism Rant!!!

September 12, 2013

For a while now I’ve been ranting about games criticism. (If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably sick of me ranting about games criticism!)

As much as I’ve ranted, I’ve found a few signs that maybe – just maybe – some writers, websites and print publications are making some progress toward legitimate games criticism. One of the signs is the increasing seriousness with which the New York Times covers game news and offers useful game reviews.

Mostly, I appreciate what the NY Times does with games (when they do anything at all). But today the Times ran a review of “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs” (no, I’m not making that up) – a review that left me shaking my head in confusion and dismay.

Here’s a link. Go to this link. Go directly to the Amnesia review. Read it and come on back.

Sounds good, right? I kinda want to play the game. I marvelled at the writer’s tantalizing hints at what the story might be. I enjoyed the author’s clear case for the game’s emotional impact and lingering resonance.

Then I noticed that there’s NOT ONE WORD ABOUT WHAT PLAYERS DO IN THE GAME in the review!

Not… one… word…

Seriously? Can anyone reading this review tell me what the game is about from a play/verbs standpoint?

That seems like a critical oversight (pun not intended but very much enjoyed). The piece reads like something an editor got hold of – an editor who knew nothing about games but had to save some column inches so he or she hacked out the bits that would have made the review make sense to a potential consumer. Honestly, I HOPE that’s the case because the alternative is far worse!

However it happened, it happened. We have here possibly the first game review I can remember that doesn’t actually discuss the game under discussion.

Look, if this review had mentioned the game’s genre (however the reviewer chose to define that word in the context of games), if he or she had talked a little about the play patterns and then wrapped up with a paragraph talking about how the play and the story work together to create the powerful, resonant emotional impact the game clearly delivers… Well, I’d be cheering.

As it is, I’m left shaking my head in confused wonderment.

If the author of the review reads this (fat chance, I know!), I’d love to know the backstory on the review. But even more, I’d like to know something about the game so I could decide whether to play it or not.

(Oh, and can we all vow right here, right now, never to make another game that starts with a player character who awakens in a strange place suffering from amnesia? Thanks. I appreciate it.)

Hero vs. Hero

September 10, 2013

I have no idea what got me thinking about this, but as I was drinking my morning coffee, it occurred to me that all the superhero movies were missing the point – or points, I guess.

First, they seem compelled to retell the origin of whatever hero or heroes they portray in each film. As if most/all viewers aren’t already familiar with who the Hulk is or where he came from? As if Superman’s origin isn’t force fed into our brains as infants? As if any human likely to see a Batman or Spiderman movie isn’t already in on the Secret Origin tm of its star?

Come on, Marvel and DC, have some conviction that you’ve done a good job taking over 21st century culture, that your creations are part of the cultural zeitgeist. And have some faith in us that we’ve been paying attention. Just get on with the story, will ya?

What else are the comics companies doing wrong when they bring their work to the screen This is what really got me worked up this morning:

Unless I miss my guess, every superhero movie has been about a Hero fighting a Villain. Sometimes, there’s a secondary plot about the Hero fighting Himself. (Someone’s been reading Joseph Campbell again…)

Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, I say, but there are other kinds of super hero stories that comic books do routinely and well.

The ones I’m most find of are the “Hero mistakenly versus Hero before realizing their mistake and THEN going after the real baddie” stories.

I get that this is just a subtle (okay, maybe even trivial) distinction vis a vis the Hero vs Hero story I was just complaining about. But subtleties matter and they can determine whether a story resonates with an audience or not.

A straitforward statement like, “How is Hero X going to defeat Villain Y” is way, way different than “When are Heroes W and X going to figure out that they should be defeating Villain Y instead of beating each other to a pulp?”

I mean, think about it. If you’re like me (at least 10 year old me though truth be told I haven’t changed much since then)… if you’re like me, your favorite stories were the classic Thing vs Hulk battles in the old Fantastic Four books… the Avengers vs X-Men tales… the Batman vs Superman stuff… the Flash and Superman racing to see who’s fastest… the original X-men vs the new X-men… the original Averngers vs the new Avengers… and others my fading memory can’t call to mind right now.

Interestingly, some games do a better job than movies of recreating this sort of Hero vs Hero magic. I’m thinking of some recent beat-em-up games that allow players to pit hero agains hero. Yeah, I know, the narrative content is pretty weak. But at least games offer something like the classic battles I loved as a kid and still love today.

Now, if we could get some narrative games going that played with the “who’s the real enemy” idea, maybe we’d be onto something I’d be first in line to play a Thing vs Hulk game!

I realize there are other superhero stories to be told – the “do I save the world or pay my rent” stories… the “hero who walks away before being dragged back into the fight” stories… the ” can a hero love a villain” stories… and (another favorite of mine) “can the hero overcome his or her limitations or vulnerabilities” stories.

I’d love to see some of them dealt with in movies and games. But the Hero vs Hero stuff is my favorite and it seems underrepresented in all media other than comic books. And I’m bummed about that.

Anyway, that’s a look at the kind of silliness I think about while downing my morning coffee. What are your thoughts on this? Do you hate Hero vs Hero stories? Have I forgotten any movies or games that deal with that idea, whether badly or well? What are your favorite comic (or other stories) along these lines? What kind of superhero stories do you love or hate? I’m all ears.

Maybe someone in Marvel or DC’s film departments will listen up and try something different.

Nah! What was I thinking?!

A Blog Post That Isn’t Really About What It Seems To Be About

August 16, 2013

“Coming Soon: Weapons That Have Minds of Their Own.” – Headline on an op-ed piece in The New York Times, March 17, 2013

Recently, I came across an article in The New York Times (see headline above) about the coming era of smart weapons. We’re not just talking drones here. No, no… Drones require human input, human control to do their business.

(And, no, I’m not going to get into the morality of drone use here – well, okay, I do think that once you start killing people it doesn’t much matter how you do it… you just shouldn’t do it, okay? Let that be the extent of the political polemicizing here.)

Anyway, the thing about this article was that it talked in calm, even, rational terms about weapons that don’t require human intervention to operate. Weapons like (all together now…) The Terminator.

“I’ll Be Back” – Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator, 1984

How prophetic was that catch phrase? Here it is some 30 years later and, sure enough, smart, autonomous killing machines are back. But not in fiction. It’s looking more and more as if the fiction of the old Terminator movies is about to become our new reality.

Seriously? Are we really creating the Terminator? For the sake of argument let’s assume that we’re doing just that. Is it a good idea? Are we best served by removing people from harms way and handing the reins of combat over to machines? Can humanity handle autonomous robots of any kind, let alone destructive ones? Are the nightmarish scenarios played out in so many movies inevitable? (And what does this have to do with games?)

You may think these are silly questions – the stuff of sometimes good, sometimes bad genre movies (and TV shows, comic books, novels and games, of course). You may think it’s nuts to spend time on purely hypothetical questions or thought exercises.

But look around. It isn’t just SF writers, moviemakers or game developers talking about the rise of “smart machines,” nor is it exclusively the realm of The New York Times reporting about this stuff. Look around a bit and you’ll find mainstream folks talking about the “Terminator phenomenon.” It’s everywhere (sort of like the conspiracy stuff floating around in the ether in the pre-millennial 1990s – the stuff that led to the making of Deus Ex…).

But what exactly is “it?” What “stuff” am I talking about?

(NOTE: I’m about to assume there’s at least one non-geek reading this blog – “Hi, Mom!” – so the rest of you will have to bear with me for a minute, or go find entertainment and enlightenment somewhere else.)

Okay, here’s the scenario: Technologists (those dreaded scientists in their white lab coats or, worse, their “Bazinga” t-shirts) create robots capable of independent thought. The AI is sufficient to recognize “bad guys” (i.e., anyone who isn’t on our side of whatever ideological line we choose). The machines are smarter, faster, better able to make tough decisions than the meat bags that created them. And they’re equipped with weapons to deal with perceived threats. Warfare becomes a clean, unemotional means of conflict resolution rather than a deadly, ugly slog through blood and gore – much of it previously spilled by our boys (and now, our girls). But then Something Goes Wrong…

I’m really not going to get into the obvious ways this can go wrong – the odds are pretty good that you’ve seen at least one movie or read one book or comic book that outlines the “something that goes wrong.” And if this goes right – if machines really are better at fighting than people are, rendering war either bloodless or obsolete – well, that’s peachy. Not gonna talk about that, either.

What I do want to talk about is how we think about the (potential) right and (potential) wrong of the aforementioned Terminator Phenomenon.

See, I feel pretty strongly that op-ed pieces and sensational movies and TV shows (in every sense of the word “sensational”) aren’t the best way for normal humans (as opposed to policy wonks, technologists and military types) to explore the potential effectiveness of autonomous, combat-ready machines. Nor do I think traditional modes of discourse are the best ways to explore the ways in which this Metal Men experiment might go wrong.

Books, movies, TV shows, comic books and newspaper articles can inform and “sell” an idea, but that’s all they can do. And in the case of an irreversible and potentially disastrous decision to use technology in a specific way, to achieve specific goals, it seems critical to me that we explore the problems – practical and ethical – that such a decision is likely to produce.

And how can we best do this? How can we best experience something that doesn’t exist or hasn’t yet happened?

You got it – games…

What do games do that other media can’t and don’t? I’d argue that the one sentence summary of our uniqueness is this: We allow people to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see things from a perspective and act from a position that is not our own.

If you give me a second sentence to describe what sets the medium apart, I go to this: We offer people an unparalleled ability to play “what if,” to try out behaviors that we may not want them trying out in the real world.

In the context of an examination of the possible impact of smart drones, you could just create a tactical and/or skill-based game that takes a clear, singular stand on the issue. But, to be clear, I’m not proposing the creation of games that drive players to a particular conclusion about the viability and desirability of smart drones. That would do games and players a disservice.

I’m saying that the public discourse around the topic could be expanded and enhanced by allowing player to make the decisions about whether and when to unleash autonomous fighting machines. Games, while not free of the ideological biases of their creators can show the consequences of decisions – even those with which the game’s creators disagree.

It is this power of games to offer not just a description of different viewpoints but the opportunity to act on different viewpoints and deal with the aftershocks – to show, as much as possible, consequence without having some politico or creative type sitting in judgment – that most differentiates us from other media and other art forms. That is true whether we’re striving to create “pure entertainment” (which, just to be upfront about one of my own biases, I’d argue doesn’t and cannot exist), or for socially conscious and provocative works.

Letting people experience, virtually and vicariously what happens when drones are used successfully or the ramifications of what happens when things go terribly wrong, could inform and even substantively change the public discourse around the use of such devices.

I truly believe games – mainstream games, not just so-called “serious games” – can and should be part of our cultural dialogue. Games that offer meaningful choices about serious issues, with logical, believable consequences that follow from those choices, are more than “just” entertainment. They can help us see potential and pitfalls in the decisions we make in real life.

This seems self-evident in the context of a game about smart drones or other autonomous weapons. But if this were just an issue of asking “What might happen if we use battling bots,” it would hardly be worth talking about.

Luckily, I believe the capability of exploring choice and consequence in games is generalizable – applicable to a host of social issues. Mainstream interactive entertainment – non-didactic, adrenaline-inducing games with proven appeal – can be brought to bear on any unsettled or controversial social problem.

Are games the perfect vehicle for exploring technological and social changes with potentially enormous historical and personal impact? Obviously not. But are games the best vehicle we have today for exploring such issues? I’d argue they’re just that – the best we have.

Some of you are probably thinking I’m taking games way too seriously – isn’t it okay just to have fun for a while? Well, sure, of course. But I think we think far too much about fun (without actually thinking what the word means – a topic for another time…). And we definitely think too little about our potential role in the discussion around social issues. I guess what I’m saying that we have to stop putting boundaries around what we can and can’t do in games, what we can’t or shouldn’t talk about through our work.

In other words, are there problems that are or should be beyond the reach of games and game developers? Hell, no!

As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that there’s a Serious Games movement out there, delivering games whose primary goal is to inform and affect public discourse (while still providing some amount of familiar interactive fun). But does this leave commercial developers off the hook when it comes to getting people to think?

I don’t believe it does. As happy as I am that there’s a serious games scene, I don’t see that scene affecting the culture at large in the way commercial games could. There’s all sorts of amazing stuff bubbling away beneath the surface of the commercial games world – amazing AI work… Indie art projects… games for education… But just as non-combat AI programmers have trouble being heard in a world where combat is the only consideration… just as indie game developers do amazing things that are ignored by non-indie, triple-A devs and publishers… just as edu-games leave less of a mark on kids than Mario or Master Chief do… so too are the serious games sort of out there, doing cool stuff, being ignored by most normal people. (Sorry. If you think I’m wrong, make the case!)

Commercial games developers could and should do more thinking about the ramifications of the fictions they deliver and the potentials of the medium in which they work. They could and should force players to think about what they’re doing in-game and why they’re doing it – whether they’re asking us to pull a virtual trigger, save a patient in a virtual ER, get two young lovers together (I wish…) or deploy a smart drone to take out a group of supposed terrorists.

I’d like to see games play a role in the evolving thought around drones, smart weapons, law enforcement, the political process, how we deal with freakin’ aliens – everything that other media already do. Growing up as a medium doesn’t just mean prettier pictures or better stories or tons of money generated by a bigger, more diverse audience. Growing up means engaging in adult conversation.

Conversation. I’d argue that the control developers should exert is the topic up for discussion. But the dialogue has to be two-way or it’s not really a dialogue at all. Too many games, fun as they may be, revert to monologue, in emulation of other media.

Conversation. Yeah. That’s what we do better than New York Times articles or Terminator movies. Whether we like it, hate it, or fail to recognize it at all, what we do is engage players in a dialogue about something. That’s an idea many developers choose to ignore – they’re going to tell their story, damn it… they’re going to relieve players of all responsibility for what they do while they’re playing. But we can still deliver a visceral – and, yes, fun – experience without encouraging or forcing players to shut their brains down.

If we shut our brains down at the same time machines are being given brains to turn on, we could very well be in a world of trouble. So developers, players – let’s get in the game and start helping people think about and experience the serious side of a Terminator world of tomorrow. Let’s get in the game of allowing people to engage with and experience what other media can only tell us about.

Okay, enough from me. What do you think about any or all of this?

If anyone wants to talk about smart weapons and Terminator phenomena and all, that’s cool. But given how little any of us know about that stuff, and how Internet flame-ready ethical dilemmas tend to be, I’m more interested in whether and how games can contribute to public discourse than I am in the specific issue that got me thinking about the question. But I’ve said my piece – the floor is now yours. Drone on…

Do games make money?

August 5, 2013

If you’re looking for an answer to this question, or a full-treatment of the question itself, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere – for now.

I’m thinking about writing a full blog post or writing a Games industry column tangentially related to this and it’d be useful to have some… what are they called?… oh yeah – facts!

Here;s where I could use some help. Over the years there’s been a truism in gaming that 80% of games lose money. That idea was and is so widely accepted as fact that I never think to question it.

So, two questions for you before I start pontificating on the subject with nothing but my gut and received wisdom to go on:

–Was it ever true? Did/do only 20% of games make money?

–Is it still true today?

(Oh, and one bonus question: Does the success rate differ from platform to platform and/or genre to genre?)

I’d sure appreciate some help with this.

Another legend gone.

April 11, 2009

I just heard from a friend that Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. Damn. I eulogized, if I can call it that, Gary Gygax a while back, and now Dave…

Dave never really got a fair shake, or appropriate credit, or his due as one of the creators of roleplaying, but he never let that get him down, at least not around me. He was one of the sweetest, kindest, humblest guys I ever met. And, man, did he loves games. He was an ace designer, by all reports a creative player (though I was never lucky enough to play with him), a dedicated teacher and a mentor to scads of up-and-coming game developers. He always had time to chat, was always interested in what others were doing, how they were doing, what they were playing….

It’s unlikely the mainstream press will report Dave’s passing the way they noted Gary Gygax’s, which is a real shame. Those who knew him, and those who know the facts behind the legend, will remember Dave with equal, maybe greater, affection. He was one of the Good Guys, an all-around fine fellow, as my wife would say, and he’ll be missed. More important, he’ll be remembered as long as people roll those funny dice and create characters and tell stories together in a way they might never have been able to if Dave hadn’t arrived on the scene.

Dave changed things, but was never changed by them. I can’t think of a better epitaph than that.

I’ve joined a cult – the iPhone cult

April 6, 2009

My AT&T Tilt gave up the ghost last week (you should see the screen — it looks like something Jasper Johns might have painted) so I decided to take the plunge and replace it with an iPhone.

The decision was pretty straightforward, really. If this year’s SXSW and GDC did nothing else, they convinced me that the iPhone’s a legit gaming platform and, to keep current, I need to know what’s going on in that space. Plus, everyone I know is joining the iPhone club and I’ve been feeling a little left out.

So I’m now in Day 4 of cult membership and, I have to say, though the experience has been largely positive, I have mixed feelings about my new digital pal.

One the plus side, as a phone it’s really pretty rockin’. The call quality is terrific and I seem to get better signal strength than I used to, even though I’m using the same provider and going to all the same places.

As an internet device it’s amazing. I feel like I’m really web-surfing for the first time ever on a phone.

As a game platform, it’s swell. I already have more than a screen of games of high enough quality that, if I were Nintendo, I might be a little bit concerned. And the ease with which I’ve been able to acquire those games (along with a bunch of cool apps) is astonishing — the App Store is everything online commerce should be and usually isn’t. If I’m not careful, I’ll go broke — a buck here, a buck there adds up quickly.

As an entertainment device, the iPhone is as cool as everyone says it is. That screen! It’s beautiful (at least it was for the first three hours I had it, before it got all thumbprinty). Movies look great. Pictures look great. Music sounds great. Books — hm, nice, but I’m spoiled by the Kindle.

(A brief aside — anyone who thinks the iPhone is a great ebook reader hasn’t played with a non-backlit e-ink device. There’s simply no comparison and people should just stop talking about how the iPhone’s going to make the Kindle and devices like it obsolete. This Will Not Happen.)

E-book lameness aside, the iPhone is really remarkable, if what you’re after is seamless connectivity and constant distraction.

However, as a “smart phone,” at least as I use smart phones, the iPhone actually seems kind of dumb.

For the longest time, I was a Treo guy. If not for a falling out with my service provider which doesn’t warrant discussion here, I’d STILL be a Treo guy. After that, I became a Tilt and Blackberry guy. And I’ll tell you right here and now, no virtual keyboard can match real buttons. The iPhone comes as close as anything I’ve tried and it’s not remotely comparable.

The iPhone’s inability to sync with Outlook Notes and Tasks is deadly. I use Outlook’s Notes and Tasks functions as brain-extenders and have a hard time living without them (especially Notes).

The fact that I can’t create and edit Office documents is causing me amazing grief already. The fact that I can’t seem to just get a list of documents I have stored on my device is totally weird. And I’m really having a tough time to adjusting to what seems to be a complete lack of menus that allow me to do things like Select All from a list of emails or documents and such like. I mean, I get that Apple and Microsoft are enemies, but hurry up and get iPhone OS 3.0 out there so people can start making some real productivity apps for this thing!

It’s like the iPhone is working so hard to be my friend it’s incapable of being my co-worker. It’s all fun and games when, at times, I want it to be serious. Still, there’s enough to like that I’m trying to stay calm and make do. Until 3.0 comes along and MS Office or Documents to Go or QuickOffice or something becomes available, I’m messing around with Evernote and a couple of other note-taking apps that seem promising. And I’m experimenting with Google Office for document, spreadsheet and presentation work. It’s too early to say if this’ll work, but I’m trying — really trying — to embrace the iPhone.

Right now, the device is feeling a little “emperor’s new clothes-ish” to me — amusing but not necessarily what you want in a ruler, and everyone’s too afraid of looking un-cool to say anything. I hope I’m wrong and come to love my iPhone as unreservedly as the rest of my fellow cult members. I hope it’s just too early in this relationship to be reaching any conclusions.

I hope that’s the case. For now, if you can help me learn to love the iPhone (as opposed to just liking it pretty well), lend a hand. If you’ve found games you absolutely love or apps you can’t live without, feel free to comment and let me know about ’em! And if ANY of you have found ANY way to get an iPhone to sync with MS Outlook Notes and Tasks, PLEASE let me know — that’s just killing me.

Yes, that’s me on page 55 of Time Magazine!

March 5, 2008

Okay. I’ve received enough emails about “the guy who looks like me” in Time Magazine, the issue with Obama on the cover (not that that narrows it down much these days!) that I figuerd I should offer up an explanation, in an attempt to slow the flood…

First off, yes, it’s me. Second, I was as surprised to see me in the magazine as some of you were.

See, I did a photo shoot for Wired magazine a couple of years ago with a freelance photographer who had me sign a model release that, to my everlasting regret, gave her the right to sell my image to anybody she wants, any time, for any purpose. Without my permission. It sucks, but legally there’s nothing I can do about it. (Lesson learned: Always read contracts before signing them!)

Those of you who were paying an unhealthy amount of attention may have noticed that my picture (no name or attribution or anything) showed up last year in a Microsoft web ad for some enterprise software I don’t know anything about, with a made-up quote and everything! Same deal as this Time Magazine thing. Advertising a product I don’t use was bad enough, but it REALLY sucks that I’m being used now to illustrate an article about the lengths to which old people will go to maintain a semblance of youth and remain viable in the marketplace. Heck, I was always (if I may say so) a bit of a wunderkind — the youngest person in most of my personal and professional circles. Quite a change to be the “before” shot, as it were, in an article about old people trying to look young, I can tell you!

Oh, and as a note, I’ve had NONE of the procedures and done none of the stuff the article talks about. I mean, I work out two or three times a week, but as you can tell by looking at the photos, I was between trainers when the Time photo was taken! 😉

I guess it’s cool, in some sense of the word “cool” to be part of a stock image library. Immortality is mine at last (sort of)!

My how time flies

August 19, 2007

Well, so much for posting weekly. It’s been almost a month since I managed to update the ol’ blog…

The whole acquisition thing has kept me a little busy. And then there was that side trip to Siggraph where I gave one of the keynotes at the Sandbox event the weekend before Siggraph proper. (Gotta post about Siggraph and Sandbox soon…).

And right now I’m prepping for… let me see…

— A September 4th fund-raising event for the University of Texas Center for American History’s new Videogame Archive. I’ll really have to post about the archive some time soon, but for now you can find more information about the event at Video Game Archive Fundraiser. Click on the About the Archive link at the top of the page for more about the archive itself. It’s a very cool deal…

— A course I’m co-teaching at the University of Texas this fall (Master Class in Video Games and Digital Media).

— And there’s a big presentation coming up at work that I’d love to tell you about but that’d just get us all in hot water!

I haven’t even had time to respond to all the great comments you folks have been leaving to my earlier posts. Gotta get around to that some time, too!

You know, when I decided to do this blog thing, friends and colleagues warned it was going to be tough to stick to a regular schedule. I had no idea just how right they were. It never occurred to me this would so quickly turn into a “meta-blog”–more about the act of blogging than about games or anything else.

I still hope to turn this around before you all abandon me and go back to Raph Koster’s blog and Clint Hocking’s and all the rest of my more reliable compadres!

Thanks for your patience.