Thursday, May 31, 2012

Doing it wrong. (How my 5 year old taught me a life lesson.)

Life changing events are, possibly by their very nature, incredibly rare creatures. For one thing, they can only definitively appear once per life, else they find themselves incorrectly monikered. "Dude, I had so many life-changing events last night that I think I'm dead now." Yeah, you're not really likely to hear that any time soon, are you? (Unless you drink in some of the dives I have done in the past...) Epiphanies are so powerful purely because you don't get one per day.

When they do come along, then, it is essential to listen to them. This is the position I find myself in right now, although if I am entirely honest I am not fully sure how to deal with it.

It stems from playing a game with my son on the 360 the other night. The game in question was Dead Pixels on XBox Live Indie Games, which is 80 MS point worth of brilliance and DEFINITELY worth your money. I was pointed in its direction by Indie Gamer Chick, who, despite the atrocious site name, runs a blog that is at least noble and at times well worth reading. At the time, it sat at #1 in her Top 10, and that was what prompted me to download the trial. I have been off zombies in recent months, mainly because you can't switch a game on without encountering shambling bastards these days, so I admit that it passed me by at time of release.

Anyway, it is a very good game, being more than just the mindless wave shooter the screenshots make it out to be. There are RPG elements in there, weapon upgrades, and it has local 2-payer co-op. Any parent knows how much this adds to a game when the possibility of playing it alongside your kids exists. Sure, the subject matter may be questionable, but he's my son and I take full responsibility for the way I am bringing him up. He plays what I think he'll be able to process, and anything that I deem too much is stored out of his reach. You know, the way it should be done?

We were having a great time, except that I ran out of bullets. There were no stores to go into, and no building s to search, so I was forced to melee the zombies. This amounts to mashing the B button, doing 5 or so HP of damage, and risking getting damaged in return. Benjie saw me doing this, and decided to do the same. Despite having a shotgun full of shells, he started poking zombies in the gut and giggling about it.

To my shame, I told him not to. TO. MY. SHAME.

Here we were, my 5 year old and I, side by side against the undead hordes. Comrades in arms with a front row centre ticket to Armageddon, and what do I do? I tell him "You're doing it wrong." Which, if this were real, would be accurate. But, this wasn't real. We were playing a game.


What kind of sick maladjust am I to tell my 5 year old how to play a game properly? When nothing is riding on the outcome beyond some quality time with my own flesh-and-blood, what in the world possessed me to try to regulate his enjoyment? So he could live longer, and not turn into a zombie himself? That is reason enough, if he was also 41 and actually gave a shit about the outcome. But, he is 5. He has his own flowchart about playing games:


Bear in mind that this is the kid who spent an HOUR on the first track of Trials Evolution, simply pressing Y to bailout during the initial downhill part, laughing his head off whilst doing so. This is the kid who keeps on loading Dorito's Crash Course up, purely to squash his avatar flat, smack it at the screen, and eventually to make the chicken sound. It is his way of playing, and he loves it, and then some big bully comes along and tells him not to enjoy himself. Some big bully spoils his fun, in order to have his own version of fun.

It was a painful moment when I realised what I had been doing.

And then I think about my partner. She likes games where you get to make things, build things, design things. The Sims was a drug, and now Minecraft is. But, she cheats. If there is an infinite money code, IN IT GOES! She practically squealed with delight when I showed her the item duplication glitch in Minecraft, which means she can more or less have as much of any resource as she likes. I have, over the years, mocked her for this, accusing her of denying herself challenge and enjoyment.

You know what? Fuck me. Fuck me and my bullshit noise.

(Amusingly, in order to do the Minecraft glitch, we needed to kill spiders to get string. Which meant that we were no longer playing on Peaceful, so as to allow the required mob to actually spawn. I do enjoy the irony inherent in having to play the game "properly" to be able to cheat at it.)

I have long fought against the kinds of spods online that inherit the playing communities and try to police them by placing restrictions on games in the name of improving competitiveness. The single best example of this mentality I can think of is to be found in the Smash Bros. community. There exists a certain type of player who frowns upon the randomness inherent in both the items that drop onto the stages, and even some of the stages themselves. They argue that the fights should only be won by the best players, and that if the Hammer spawns next to the weaker player thus giving them an advantage that all the balance is broken. The ruleset is quite restrictive. They are joined by a very vocal group of players who want to control Pokémon, by placing all sorts of clauses onto the game that purport to eliminate luck. For example, you are not allowed to use any moves that increase your evasiveness, because ... well, to be frank, I never quite bothered to listen to their reasons. Because...

Their arguments are utter bollocks. The better players can win despite the proliferation of random bonuses. I know this because I once spent an afternoon getting my arse handed to me by a guy who knew the ins and outs of every single aspect of Smash Bros., and would beat me regardless of who I played as or what I did. I then got my own back in a couple of Pokémon battles, despite not banning anything from the matches. I have actually, despite being against clauses, built a team that is "legal" for battles against any who do, but I was happy to let my friend use whatever he liked. I was confident that my understanding and cleverness would be enough to beat him, and he was just as confident in his Smash Bros. ability.

I hate that I was telling my son to play a game "properly", even though I do realise that as a parent I have a duty to teach him things. The point is, with Benjie it isn't always easy. He is such an intelligent boy, but there are things that he just does not engage in.

Yesterday, at a hospital appointment with a specialist, we were told that he probably has some degree of Asperger's Syndrome. Whilst not necessarily being an outright diagnosis, he is on the spectrum, and we need to adjust accordingly. So, today, I find myself a little confused. Part of me feels a monstrous guilt over berating him for playing the way he does, but then another part of me feels a need to make him play things like the manual says, because I do not want him to end up unable to function in society the way other Asperger's sufferers do. (Other sufferers like the friend I played Smash Bros. and Pokémon with.) My own knowledge of the syndrome is too limited, and I need to read up about it some more.

At the end of the day, all I can really do for now is to take heart from what I did learn. Which is that he is 5 years old, and my playtime with him is something that I need to squeeze every ounce of joy that I can from. And if that means exasperatedly shooting him when he turns himself into a zombie because he would rather pokepokepoke than BOOM, then so be it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Welcome to the future, where you are more important than you realise.

"Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'".
- Bob Dylan

They really are. The marketplace in 2012 is nothing like the one in 2000. In fact, it is barely even like the one in 2010. The games industry is an ever-evolving chameleonic freak, which moves faster than your first poop at 6am following one of the more serious nights on the town. By which I do not mean that games are like kebabs, although they do tend to move through systems quite quickly.

But, let's cast our minds back to the last generation. The chances are you bought your games at a specialist retailer, maybe having read about them first in a print magazine, and you played them on a machine designed purely for the purpose. You probably didn't play online, and you certainly didn't get too many opportunities to connect with your friends whilst playing. Well, you might have shared text messages back and forth, and possibly even spoke with friends via the magic of MSN/AIM/ICQ or their ilk if you were of a particularly futuristic inclination.

What you didn't do, probably, is blog about it afterwards. You may have chatted in an online environment, possibly a forum of some sort. You could have argued with the review that was featured on your favourite website, or maybe even wrote into your print magazine of choice. But, you were limited in your options when it came to putting the world to rights when they didn't agree with you.

In a similar vein, there was a lot less in the way of options for actually buying games in the first place. You either went to the shops, or perhaps you were brave enough to trust this whole new-fangled "shopping online" idea that was clearly never going to catch on.

In 2012, that world seems somewhat quaint and old-fashioned, does it not? Can you imagine if we were to go back to it? Simply put, we never will. The world has evolved.

We no longer need to go and find the one shop on the High Street that knows what games are, or go into the other electronics stores and be overcharged. Games are available in supermarkets, in music stores, and when it comes to online they are literally everywhere. There are as many avenues to buy games in 2012 as there are atoms in the universe. For the first time ever, we can actually buy games directly on the machines on which we can play them, without needing to leave the house at all. (This was very much a dream in the last generation, incidentally.)

There are more machines to play games on, too. It is no longer just our PlayStation or whatever Nintendo have out. There are 4 distinct Nintendo machines, 4 different PlayStations, and the XBox 360. But, even more astonishingly, mobile phones are a genuine platform now, not to mention browser-based games and social platforms like Facebook. "Gamification" is a genuinely accepted term. There are more games on the market now than any human could ever hope to play in three lifetimes.

You know what hasn't evolved so much, though? The games press. The media. And, for large parts, the whole machinery that we refer to as The Games Industry. They are still quite stuck in pre-2010 ways of thinking, with huge sectors seemingly unable to move with the times. The map is much bigger than it once was, with new ways to cross it, but they still think that the old ways are the best ways, somewhat like back when you used to think that you would never get a mobile phone.

10 years ago, a game like Minecraft would never have seen the light of day. It only exists in the format it does now because people paid for it while it was still being developed. Take the concept to one of the big publishers, and they would almost certainly have insisted on the addition of aliens, guns, and big-titted women. They would have called it Miner 2049'r, marketed it exclusively to the teenage boys that bought the magazines, and been happy if it scraped a half a million sales at a £39.99 RRP. That is nothing like what happened, when the title was released onto XBox Live Arcade to the tune of over a million downloads on the first day. It made profit in an HOUR, at an RRP of 1600 MS points, or about £15 in real money. It is of course important to realise that well over a million people had already bought it on the PC, otherwise MS would have been in absolutely no hurry to put it on their service.

Games creation has been democratised. They are all over Kickstarter, and various other Alphafunding and Crowdsourcing initiatives. Chances are, if you have an idea for a game, then you don't need a publisher to pitch it to.

Games purchasing is slowly but surely going the same way. Digital distribution is a powerful tool, mainly because it allows for dynamic pricing. Right now, the Because We May promotion is taking place, where independent developers are sticking their middle fingers up at publishers and stores who refuse to move with the times. All they want is to be able to set their own prices when they want to. It is insanity to think that they shouldn't be allowed to. Do yourself a massive favour and check it out, basically every independent hit of the last couple of years is involved.

Games writing is being democratised, too. Everyone and their dog has a blog. The problem here is that the mainstream sites seem to think that they are still more special, and somehow superior to the common voice, but the simple truth is that they are not. Nope, YOU, dear reader, are as important to this industry as any named games journalist you could care to mention. Don't allow them to let you think otherwise, either. Your blog may be as tiny as mine, although the chances are you get more readers, but your voice is infinitely more important than the publishers want you to think it is. Metacritic actually dares to remove user reviews that it thinks are harmful. Well, no disrespect is meant here, but when 4,000 people give a game an average of 4.1 against 51 giving it an average of 89%, I think I know which group SHOULD carry the most weight.

ActiVision, as an example, have recently signed a contract with Bungie for their next IP. And the details that have been leaked are staggering. The deal is for 4 games, one every two years, with expansions in the interim years. If Bungie can pull off an average of 90% or above on, then they get a $2.5 million bonus. But, if the first game sells less than 5 million copies, then Acti can terminate the contract immediately.

WHY have Bungie signed into this? They are now beholden to two remnants of a bygone age. A publisher that they don't actually need, and a rating system that is increasingly irrelevant. Yes, paid journalists, I called you irrelevant. Your sites exist entirely on the publishers terms, these same publishers who are no longer needed. They play the tune, you dance, and you are scared to rock the boat. Whereas, little Nobby Bloggocks with his Wordpress magnum opus can say what he wants when he wants and there is not a damn thing the publishers can do about it. He isn't getting free copies and expenses paid trips to visit games in exactly the conditions the publishers want them to be displayed in, so when he has a complaint IT IS MORE VALID THAN YOURS.

Diablo III has revealed to us all the differing states of our worlds. Professional critics rate it high, customers who feel they have been treated badly rate it less high. But, which is the number that draws the headlines? Which is the number the advertising money will go to? Which is the one that decides who gets their bonuses? The journalists, who have been fluffed for months prior to the games release and are now just SO eager to please? Or the little guy who has genuine anger but is being told to stop crying about it because he is nothing but an entitled brat?

I have no doubt that one day Diablo III will indeed be a brilliant game. But that day isn't here yet. Somehow, though, the games press have given it a free pass, which is what they also did with Skyrim before it, and doubtless what they will also do again before the year is through. Games that are unfinished, full of bugs, that simply don't work; these are not games that deserve 9 and 10 reviews. At the other end of the scale are games like Resident Evil Operation Raccoon City, Ridge Racer Unbounded, and Dragon's Dogma. Games that divide the critics because, and this only ever becomes clear if you read multiple reviews, THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY WERE PLAYING.

Gentlemen, there is a clear message hidden beneath my anger. Your critics are out of touch. They sneer at you, proclaiming themselves more informed and more relevant. They don't even entertain some of that which you enjoy the most. Do you play anything on Facebook? You are scum, according to these self-aggrandising tossers, completely forgetting that in the current relationship it is actually you who hold the power. Stop clicking on every titbit they dripfeed to you, and they will once again have to start working for a living. We are in an age where the hype machine is now so well oiled that we have countdown clocks for trailers. We have bonus content locked away because you didn't pre-order at the right retailer. We have huge websites read by thousands where the reviewer has no clue what to do in a game that doesn't explicitly tell them every single thing.

And we also have the opportunity to cast it all behind us, and to reclaim the power we once held. More and more people are turning their back on traditional reviews, and instead basing their opinion upon the views of the collective. 90+ on Metacritic means nothing these days, it is no longer any kind of guarantee of success. And neither does a score in the 70's automatically mean a game is doomed to only sell a couple of months down the line when everyone drops the price because they bought too many copies in. Major websites seem to be playing a guessing game in which they are giving a score based purely on how well they think a game will sell. But the evidence is that people aren't actually reading reviews to make their decision. Nobody I know goes to one website and only one website as their news source.

The blogosphere is already a crowded area, but to be frank, there aren't enough people putting their opinion out there. The crowd has power. Your voice may not seem like much to you, but as part of a chorus it gains meaning. 10,000 people all saying "We don't like this game" means a lot more than 1 reviewer raving about it. Especially when those 10,000 paid for it and are playing it in real world conditions, rather than being plied with freebies and cooed over and told exactly what to do under the exact conditions that the publisher wants them to see it in. Faults can be more easily overlooked when they didn't set you back £30, and magic can be bypassed when you are working to a deadline.

So, don't allow them to dictate to you. Don't just take their word for it. DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE! Get your voice out there. Get loud. GET ANGRY! We are not the little people, and we are just as valid as the IGN's of this world. (Many would say more so!) We don't get the presents, we don't get the freebies, but we do get the power of veto with our wallets. If some dickhead decides, as frequently happens, that the game he is playing compares unfavourably to something else (even when it isn't meant to be anything like Game #1) and scores it down accordingly, then this is disingenuous. Conversely, scoring a game lower because it is too much like another game is also a mistake, because some people want the same gameplay in a slightly different setting.

Crap, this is turning into a thesis!

Short version! Read more. Talk more. Utilise the nature of Web 2.0. Things are changing, and the big boys need to adapt along with it or they will find themselves as small boys. The web is a great democratiser, a leveller, an equaliser.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Error #2,000,000: Diablo III, 'Unable To Play At All' Edition

You are scum.

Yes, you, dear reader. You are scum. A criminal, just waiting for your chance to take advantage of those poor hardworking videogames publishers. Be it by obtaining goods without first paying for them, or worse, playing a game the way you want to as opposed to the way you are told to. Basically, anything short of handing your money directly over to the publishers and then periodically giving them more is abberant behaviour in their eyes, and they will do whatever they can to stop you.

Their measures to retain absolute control in a world where they are increasingly irrelevant are manifold. They include such things as "Online passes", to try and stop those who sell our games to other people once we have finished with them from doing so. (Personally, I don't mind this, as I buy exclusively new copies and never trade in, so from my Ivory Tower all I ever get to see is bonus content for the same price that I was planning to pay anyway.) These take the form of codes that allow access to the multiplayer, or other aspects if the game has no multiplayer.

This doesn't really stop anybody, to be fair, and it hasn't really made the retailers drop the prices for secondhand games either. All it has done is ... effectively annoyed people who don't like paying the inflated RRPs that most games go at.

But, this hasn't stopped the publishers from plugging on with hare-brained schemes designed to make sure that NOBODY PLAYS WITHOUT PAYING! Enter the single most ludicrous of the publishers tools; Digital Rights Management (DRM) in the form of an always-online connection Take Diablo III, as the most recent example to pursue this method. Customers buy the game, take it home and install it, sit through a mandatory dlownload of additional files to update before attempting to log in, which requires an account at Battle Net, and then ....

Well, apparently, not a lot. It seems that the servers are struggling to cope with the weight of expectation of people who have patiently waited 12 yeards for the game, been good little boys and girls and ponied up the money upfront, and are now sat looking at a screen somewhat like this one:

Looks lovely, doesn't it?

See, Diablo III requires the player to be logged in before they can play. Any mode. Even single player. (It would be more accurate to say that there actually is no singleplayer mode, and that all you can actually do is play your multiplayer character with nobody else present.) The server handles mob spawns and loot drops, and therefore there is no way to play the game without connecting to the server.

The game you paid for. The game that sits on your HDD. You can't play it without going online. Which you can't do, because everybody else is trying to get online at the same time. Somewhere in the region of 2 MILLION of you, so at least you're amongst company.

This is so sickening that one has no choice but to burst into laughter about it. The pointless paranoia over the proliference of piracy has now reached its inevitable zenith. GENUINE PAYING CUSTOMERS are being denied the opportunity to play the game, whereas the pirates are ... far too busy not even giving a shit about Diablo III. It isn't on their radar, at all, since they know they need to always be online to play it and that is something that pirates don't actually like.

Well done, ActiBlizz. You shot yourself in the foot so specatacularly that it rebounded into your face, and now you should be the ones wearing eyepatches. DRM is stupid. Always-online DRM is even more stupid. And, the sheer amount of bad publicity this is generating is something you will have to fight against for any and all future releases. I can't see too many of your loyal customers racing to pre-order whatever expansion/DLC you release at this rate, and you are probably going have to give the first package away instead of charging for it just to get them back on your side.

DRM has never once been proven to lead to additional sales. Combatting piracy has never conclusively shown to be of benefit to ANYBODY. At best, it slows them down for a little while. At worst, it is Diablo III, and the only people who suffer are the loyal fans who were even willing to pay before the product existed. Good luck retaining them this time, ActiBlizz.

What SHOULD have happened is that the game be made in online and offline modes. Maintain them as two entirely seperate entities. Sure, some would have gotten it for nothing, and been playing it right now without piling a ton of hassle on the Battle Net servers. But, those who paid would get the service they DESERVE.

What do you do about this, then? Well, SCUM, you do as you're told. You already proved you are capable of that when you shelled out for the game in advance, despite knowing that this was likely to happen. And you moan on Twitter, where there are a million corporate shills just dying to tell you that it is only a game and you can't expect everything to be smooth. Welcome to games in 2012, and expect more of this bollocks in the future.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

WON: Minecraft XBox Edition

EDIT: COMPETION NOW CLOSED! TheAnthraxBunny drew the Golden Ticket.

Previously, I have written about the enjoyment I have found in Minecraft, particularly since it made its way to the XBox 360.  Mainly, the entire system of crafting has been made simpler, and this allows the game to truly shine. On the PC version, I may never have worked out how to make a pickaxe. On the 360 version? I have built some magnificent buildings!

I made 2 castles!

I'm not alone. It looks very much like the entire rest of the world is buying it. Current figures indicate that it is the fastest-selling title in Live Arcade history, breaking the day one sales record that Trials Evo had held for all of two weeks.

You want it, don't you? You should. It is definitely deserving of a place in your collection.

So, here's your chance.

I have a spare redeemable code up for grabs. All you need to do to get it is to tell me in the comments below why YOU deserve it. You have 24 hours. Put your gamertag, so I know where to send it, and then explain with as many or as few words as you like, and I will choose my favourite. If I find it impossible to choose, I will select from however many favourites I get using some kind of random number generator. Or maybe even my kittens. I JUST DON'T KNOW!

So, recap: Tell me your gamertag, and why you need it. This time tomorrow, someone wins.

Good luck all!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

On Minecraft 360: It's GUD!

When I spent some time in Minecraft last year, my biggest overriding feeling was one of bewilderment. Whilst I truly loved the idea of it, the need to have an Oracle on hand did not gel with me particularly. I have nothing against the idea of guides, but I have always felt that games should do something to preculde the need to even read the manual. Obviously, tutorials have their uses, but sometimes they get in the way. What is needed is some kind of a guide system that slowly introduces concepts to the player. Minecraft on PC has nothing. You find yourself in the world, it gets dark, and you probably die.

Learning by your mistakes is one thing, but not even allowing people to know that mistakes are a possibility is something completely different. When I first saw a green thing walk towards me, I knew it didn't mean well. What I did not know was that it would explode and kill me. To be totally fair, it was early enough in the game that all I lost was a bit of wood and dirt, because at this point I hadn't crafted anything meaningful. But, this does lead to the important question of WHY had I not crafted anything?

Because I didn't have the first concept of HOW to craft anything! My entire experience up to the first appearance of the exploding bastard had consisted of finding out what I could punch to pieces, and placing said pieces on top of other pieces. I didn't know that I needed to make planks in order to make a table in order to make an axe in order to mine stone. None of this was explained to me in any way whatsoever. I wasn't even given clues. I was just thrown into the deepest of all ends, and left to inevitably die.

This problem has been completely fixed in the XBox 360 version, which is released today. (And can be downloaded right here.) In two ways, as it happens. The first one is the inclusion of a comprehensive tutorial world, which disables the passing of time until you have built sufficient shelter, and literally holds your hand every step of the way. Then, this world expands, and gives you a hint of the possibilities open to you.

The second way is by including tips that tell you exactly what you are looking at the first time you encounter it. That slightly different pattern in the cobblestone? That's coal, or iron, or maybe something even more delightful. The point is, you don't need to mine it to find out. It also includes recipes for all the games creatable items, which does somewhat take away from the exploration and experimentation part that is actually quite enjoyable, but removes 100% of the head-scracthing.

For anyone who is on the fence, this in-game help is reason enough to investigate. But the main reason to dive in? That would be the inclusion of local cop-op play. If you have anybody in your house who might play with you, then you are in for an absolute treat. I spent several hours building Castle Flaps with my girlfriend, and it was just so enjoyable. Approaching a common goal from our own directions, sabotaging each other for the lulz, and just generally hanging out together without some of the restrictions other games place on us. (Be close at all times, work together, do THIS, DO THAT!) There were times when I went off looking for Iron Ore, and was at the other end of the world to her. It was almost like incidental co-operation, with the slightest hint of competition. Part of me is tempted to log in today and fill her house with dirt, but that would be much funnier if I could sneakily do it while she is playing alongside me.

It makes me wonder. Why is the XBox 360 game so much more accessible than the PC one? Do the publishers really think that things need to be dumbed-down for the consoles? Or, do PC developers care more about their own vision than user-friendliness? PC gaming is, at times, a despicable act of player hatred. Developers shower us with contempt, expecting us to jump through multiple hoops and download patches or drivers, and often entire content delivery systems, just to play their sodding games. "Want joypad support? FUCK YOU!"

But, that is all discussion for another day. Another entry. I have been beating my head against this particular wall for too long, and don't really want to start it again today. For now, just know that Minecraft on the XBox 360 is every bit as wonderful as you hoped it would be, and if you purchase it and want someone to come and dig holes in the ground with you, you know how to find me.