Friday, January 23, 2009

My First Foray into Gaming Accessories

As my nerd-dom continues to grow exponentially like a lizard exposed to gamma radiation I’m constantly seeking out new and interesting ways to expand on my gaming habits. So due to that and Circuit City liquidating their inventory I found myself the proud owner of my new Microsoft Sidewinder gaming mouse. I’ve never owned a PC gaming peripheral before and have been meaning to check out what all the hype is about. So once I got home I shined with delight as my new mouse’s LED lights glowed like the fires of PC hell and damnation ready to consume my foes. I now had a fearsome new gaming weapon, I would never run out of ammo, I would kill every boss, I could never die, I had an 80$ mouse.

At first I was happy that I had a “customizable” mouse in the sense that I could add or subtract small weights from an inner compartment to adjust the mouse’s weight and heft as well as replace the pads on the bottom to adjust its speed and tension as it moves over my mouse pad but after a couple of days I realized that I really genuinely do not care about those features. It’s a mouse; I will get acclimated to its heft without sending me into a frenzy over not being able to add 10 grams to it. As for the variable sliding pads I couldn’t notice any difference so I just put the black ones on since black is always your most badass option. Following the customization attempts I dug into programming its keys to suit my nerdy purposes. This may be the only time I’ll ever admit something like this but maybe I just don’t understand what the purpose of changing the left and right buttons to be anything other than left and right click? Is there really a need to have your primary button function as the space bar or some other pointless option? So I spent the better part of an hour learning how to set the macros for the only two (out of the advertised five) buttons worth programming and I have to say it’s not the best system. You set them as hotkeys for whatever other keys or commands you want and that’s it. Simple enough really except that the hotkeys that I want when I’m browsing the web are not the hotkeys I want when I’m playing game, or working on Photoshop. And while the concept of having a hotkey on my mouse that dumped my screen instantly to the desktop to hide any potential pornography in case my mother randomly decided to visit my house and lurk outside my window intrigued me, a button like that will only cause me headaches in the middle of a boss fight when suddenly I’m no longer engaging in an epic battle but am staring at my desktop art of Stargate Worlds concept art drawings. Basically what I want is programmable button groups. So I set it to group A and my two hotkeys go to the windows hotkeys, then group B is the gaming hotkeys and so forth. Now the three rapid change buttons the mouse comes with only affect the DPI setting which is nowhere near as useful as cycling between potential hotkey groupings. I change between my DPI settings in a neurotic attempt to justify owning this mouse and every time I do I quickly realize that I don’t need to adjust those settings. That’s never been an issue in the 20+ years I’ve been using computers.

So yeah, I own a “gaming mouse” now and while I have grown to enjoy the feel of it in my hand (that’s what she said) and enjoy it’s LED lights I don’t really understand the draw of “gaming” peripherals. Also, it’s LED lights don’t match the ones on my PC case… it’s embarrassing to be seen in public all mismatched like that.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

User Generated Content vs. Professional Developers

So lately I’ve talked a lot about growing trends in the gaming world such as sandbox gaming and the growing monster that is online play, so today I figured I’d take a pissy little look at another recent development: User Generated Content. Now of these three game mechanics user generated content is by far the newest, well in a mainstream sense. The truly nerdy of us were modding Doom levels back in the day after all. More developers are hopping on this recent bandwagon and to be honest, I don’t much care for it. To me, every time I come across a game whose emphasis is on user generated content I’m left feeling a little ripped off and here’s why. I’m not a professional (paid) developer in any way, in fact I’m paying them to use their game. The notion of paying someone my money for a copy of their game just to have it ask me to design the levels or characters just seems like a slap in the mouth. After all, if I went out to dinner sat down and ordered a delicious cheeseburger just to have the waiter come back to me and hand me a raw meat patty and point me in the direction of the grill I’d be severely unhappy. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to go out into the backyard and fire up the grill and start flipping burgers but sometimes I want to leave it up to the professionals and the same goes for my games.

Yes, I understand that players have been allowed to make their own game content for a long time, the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series has had park creators for a good long while and sure when that came out the bright eyed younger man that I was happily rushed to design my own skate parks and every time I finished and looked at my creation it made about as much sense as an M.C. Escher drawing and any attempt to skate it with my little virtual slacker quickly degenerated into an awkward mash up of bails and getting stuck in corners. And the reason is that I’m not a game developer. I have no training or experience in how to design a level that flows well and is fun to play. Game developers however, are trained professionals who understand these things (in theory, there are a lot of poorly designed games out there) and have people who test these things.

Ok, my main issue isn’t with my own limitations as a completely awful developer because those abominations are confined to my own personal gaming. My issue however comes in now that developers have realized that letting players create their own game environment is a lucrative market and use those player created designs in other gamers experiences. Let’s look at Spore, which on an unrelated note was my biggest disappointed of 2008. Now I had a great time with the creature creator pre-launch designing and constantly refining my creations and I do have to say that my ‘Frogmo’ creatures where a true work of art, but once the game launched it became painfully obvious that not every Spore player was taking the time that I was on my creatures. Ok, before anyone yells at me and leaves mean comments (but please leave comments, I’m a vain man who craves feedback) there were some truly amazing creations that players made on Spore but they were few and far between. For the most part my might Frogmos would go out into their worlds and encounter other player’s creatures which generally looked like penises. Then I’d start making buildings, and find other cities who’s user created buildings looked like penises. Then after attacking penises with spears and then airplanes my Frogmos took to the stars and encountered spaceships… shaped like penises. I think you see where I’m going with this.

Ok, those are at least only aesthetic values in the gaming experience, but what happens when the core gameplay is left up to the player’s imagination. Little Big Planet attempted to answer this and while I’m not saying that Little Big Planet isn’t an interesting game but leaving entire levels up to the players can be a dangerous road to travel. Granted again, some players can spend hours slaving away to design their opus but 99.99% of the time players hastily rush out some poorly put together level, which may or may not be conspicuously shaped like penises, and then upload it. For as much as I’m not a game developer I’m even less of a musician and that’s why I choose to leave music writing to actual musicians, so why then would I want to download a random collection of notes strung together by another user that sounds like a circus staffed by sick cats? Or maybe that’s the new Guns and Roses record that I’m thinking of? Either way, leave the developing to the professionals or limit user generated content to something that isn’t going to directly effect gameplay.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Rare Moment

Now I'm not normally one to be short and concise or blatantly praise a game but fuck it, it's my blog and I'll do what I want.

Kudos to you Clover Studios and your game Okami! I know you've been out for a while and I'm in no way relevant with this but I recently picked you up new for a paltry 25$ and I am a happy gamer. Now I know the Wii gives gamers a hard pill to swallow where it's graphics and hardware can't compete with Sony and Microsoft but your unique take on your artistic design has me entranced each time I turn the game on. Not only that but I'm currently 20 hours into the game and still haven't finished it. Now granted I'm one to explore every last bit and see a game in it's entirety but still even I rarely have that kind of play time by a game's finish. For a game without the need to grind out experience levels for hours on end, you've certainly more than given me my money's worth. And finally, the unique game mechanic of using the paint brush to draw specific characters and symbols to perform various moves is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise environment. Kudos to you my friends.

Ok, I promise my next post will be twice as pissy to make up for this.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Plight of the Lone Player

Now granted if you scroll down you’ll quickly learn that I am an avid World of Warcraft player but to be honest with you 9 out of 10 times I’m one of a rapidly dying breed; the single player. Now ok, for the most part developers still try and throw a bone to us friendless wierdos and include a single player mode. Sure sometimes they may try to hide it and call it “campaign mode” or “story mode” but we all know what it really is: “friendless loner” mode. And I’m fine with that, other people only slow me down as my bulky and often mute main characters run around their worlds shooting and bashing other species for the good of manifest destiny. But over the past few years the internet has rapidly smashed its way into all of our lives and forced us to involve it in every facet of human existence from shopping to masturbation, and so to have video games fallen to it’s mighty force. Multiplayer used to mean “four players” or the ever nerdy “lan party” but in both of those scenarios you were actually in the room with your fellow players. Now online gaming has removed even that social aspect.

As much as I love my XBox 360 and often cuddle with it to help me fall asleep, I really have XBox Live to blame for most of this. Now I was fine and happy when the house next door in my happy gaming world was sold to a friendly looking couple named “Online Mode” but soon after they moved in they started throwing cookouts that lasted until 4 a.m. and let their lawn fall into disrepair and ran all of my respectable single player neighbors out of the neighborhood. Now since I probably lost most of you with that analogy let me try to explain. Much like me and the guy who lives across the street from me these two game types can rarely co-exist and the main reason for that is disc space. There’s only so much data that can be burned onto those shiny round wonders and developers have to make a choice. You want more maps and larger teams? Well there went a single player level. You want an online ranking system? So long kick ass boss fight.

Now here’s how I typically play a game: 1: Go to store and spend 60$
2: Go home and beat game
3: Decide if game deserves multiple playings
4: Go back to store and trade it in for 10$

Ok back to why I brought up disc space. When I get a copy of “Jacked Up Guy With Big Guns #5: The Re-Gunning” I’m more interested in the single player mode. The mode that makes an attempt at a plot, and a linear narrative, and some sort of emotional conflict, not the online mode which is there to essentially take carefully crafted levels, dump them full of crates and boxes and give players the chance to anonymously swear at and teabag their fallen opponents. But more and more lately the single player mode is cut short and left feeling uneventful due to having to make room for their drunken neighbor, the online mode. Let’s pause and look at the Rainbow Six: Vegas games. Now I don’t normally go in for that whole tactical group based scenario but I thought, well the demo is fun and it’s raining out so let’s give it a shot. About three hours later the credits started rolling and I watched every second of them because I was convinced that this was a trick and that there had to be more gameplay coming. But just like my 12th birthday party I was left disappointed and sat on my couch alone wanting more. I was confused and the inquisitive part of me went searching for clues as to where the rest of my game went. I checked to see if the game was actually just a larger demo, I checked for a second disc, I even checked out back in the shed (I’m still not sure why but things tend to end up there from time to time) and still couldn’t turn up anything. Oh wait, found it, an intricate online leveling and ranking system with maps that were way more fun and elaborate than the single player ones. I’m also going to recall a conversation with a fellow gaming friend of mine after seeing that he had more achievement points than me in the first Gears of War. I inquired how he felt about the game and we both shared that we enjoyed it but then like a screaming howler monkey across the face, he struck me with the fact that he hadn’t (and still to this day hasn’t) played the single player campaign. My mind was sufficiently blown and I spent about four hours picking up the pieces I could find scattered around my house.

Now granted all is not lost just yet, Dead Space and games like that offer rays of light and hope in my darkened bedroom and offer up only a well written story mode and nothing else. But sadly I know that like the dinosaurs the time has come for my people and we’ll have to grudgingly step aside and make room for games of capture the flag and deathmatches where snipers exploit bugs to kill me every time I spawn.

Although, I did play Call of Duty 4’s online mode an absurd amount but not until after finishing the story mode and giving it the respect I’d give any senile old soldier marching on in the parade.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The 800 Pound Pikachu in the Room

Redd over at has written a really interesting article on Nintendo and their approach to game development. Definitely head over and check that.

Also, sorry Redd for not simply reposting this like I said I would, there was a whole video game session thing last night that derailed any attempts at working on stuff.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Lich King: Casual vs. Hardcore Gaming

Granted everyone who talks about video games is talking about World of Warcraft’s new expansion pack Wrath of the Lich King but I was finally able to sit down last night and bang out some end game content for the first time since hitting level 80 and it got me thinking to myself. I said “Hey self, didn’t this game used to be a lot harder?” I pondered that question while talking on AIM and browsing the web on my trusty laptop at the same time as I was engaging in a 25 man raid on my desktop PC. As I pondered that question to myself I realized that the fact that I was able to multitask like that in the first place while running this 25 man raid for the first time meant that yes, this game has gotten a lot easier. Now here’s when old jaded Ryan goes tells you about the good ol’ days and how you kids today don’t know what it was like.

So let me tell all you spoiled brats about the good ol’ days. I remember back when me and my trusty tank would bang our heads against Molten Core and BWL bosses until the sun came up (quite literally despite having a job that at the time started at 6 a.m.) and dag nabbit we liked it! So then after a two year hiatus I came back and jumped into the long since released BC expansion pack and found it about the same. By the time I came back most of the raid dungeons were released and I found that the difficulty curve was about the same as I was used but with the welcomed exceptions of the raids taking less time and not having to organize 40 people. Heroics were also a welcome addition and even my raid savvy guild could still spin our wheels on ever-frustrating heroic boss encounters. So let’s cut to Lich King end game shall we? First off, getting to the new level cap was surprisingly simple. I remember the slow crawl from 60-70 in the BC era and the even slower crawl to 60 in the original game that made reaching it come with an actual sense of, dare I say it, accomplishment. Leveling to 80 was reminiscent of being a kid and needed to do simple chores around the house before I was allowed to go outside and have fun. So after making my bed and doing the dishes in Northrend I was ready to bring Fuzzycakes the priest into a new era of wintery raiding.

Heroic 5-Mans: Aren’t these supposed to be more difficult than the regular versions? Now granted I’m happy to not spend 2 hours in a single dungeon anymore but aren’t there supposed to be more than 3 trash mobs between bosses? And didn’t the word “heroic” use to mean that it was “hard” and not just a scaled version of the dungeon with level 80 gear. Of all the heroics I’ve run so far, which is honestly only about half of them, I can honestly say that not one single boss fight has challenged me. Ok well Blizzard put in achievements for boss fights to go “hey look over here, it’s a mini-game to hide how easy it is” but even those barely add any real depth to the fight. Also, I’m not saying that every boss fight needs to be as complicated and intricate as the crossword puzzle in the New Yorker but I think we can handle a little more than the standard ‘tank and spank’ especially on the last bosses.

Raids: Now don’t get me wrong I think the option to run a raid dungeon as either a 10 or 25 man encounter is brilliant and wonderful. And so far I’ve only run a single 25 man and that’s it but even that took little time and effort. My rag tag band of jumpy, twirly avatars dropped the bosses like they were trash mobs and the trash mobs like they were well… something easier than trash mobs. I thought it was an issue of being over geared, which I certainly knew wasn’t the case on my part so I checked the other members and nope, they were all about the same as me. All in all I was left confused and bitter.

So here’s my question: Casual vs. hardcore fans, which is more important and which am I? There was a time I’d call myself a hardcore raider but that was a long time ago and now I make more of an effort to eat and sleep and leave my desk. I suppose it’s one of those issues where Blizzard is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. On the one hand if they make end game easier to accommodate the more casual raider then they piss off the hardcore elite. If they keep it difficult and keep upping the bar to give new challenges then they’ll risk further alienating their casual players. Maybe someday in magical fairy land game developers will be able to strike a balance in gameplay without caving in to either a difficulty level of Machiavellian proportions or running around bludgeoning their poor game to death with a Nerf Bat.

Friday, January 2, 2009

How to Generate Hate Email 101: Disliking Fallout 3

Ok that title may be slightly misleading, I didn’t actually “hate” Fallout 3 but I’m rapidly learning to due to all of the fanboy-esque hype it’s receiving. Now I’m trying to imagine the arguments that I’ll be presented with and will do my best to counter them so please read on before you bite my head off via scathing emails.

Ok, “hate” is a strong word and it may not be how I describe my feelings towards Fallout 3. I’d be better off using words like: repetitive, uneventful, mediocre and predictable. Yes I played Elder Scrolls, yes I really enjoyed it, yes I logged far too many hours in it. No I did not go into this game thinking “Oblivion with guns” but by the end of the game that phrase kept nagging away at my brain which was frantically trying to find another source of stimulus. For me the game peaked very early on and then slowly crawled lower and lower on the graphical representation of the fun I was having. The game looks and feels exactly like Oblivion which is fine because it’s the same engine I know but at least try to make it a separate game. I couldn’t help but having thief guild flashbacks every time I pulled up the map screen. So a big part of why people bludgeon their poor friends over the head with their special lunchbox edition of opinions on this game is that the second you leave good ol’ Vault 101 you’re in an open world where you can go anywhere, do anything, drink any puddle and stink palm any infant. Now I feel like I’m constantly bitching about the drooling legions of sandbox game loving cultists so I’ll try to turn over a new leaf in 2009 and lay off a little but as worlds get bigger and players are given more freedom the gaming experience will end up feeling disjointed and poorly structured. Now maybe I’m getting old and lazy but Fallout never gave me that feeling of excitement of exploring the bleak earth-toned landscape and going “ooo look an abandoned town” or “ooo look an abandoned train station” or even “ooo look another abandoned town.” Yes Oblivion and practically every other RPG in existence suffers this problem but every new location I discovered in Fallout felt and looked exactly like the last location that I discovered but instead of mutant scorpions it was mutant crabs.

Ok, let’s talk about the V.A.T.S. system for a bit. This combat system was a lot of fun in the first 30 minutes of the game where ammo was in short supply and my guy was inept at every weapon but shortly after that it just served as a means to slow down the already sluggish gameplay and make sure that I took every opponents head off by stopping time and not letting them get a shot off. Ok maybe if I leveled and built my character into someone that wasn’t a head erupting juggernaut with extreme firepower and range the game and V.A.T.S. might have been a bit more challenging but why wouldn’t I build a character that’s good at the core gameplay mechanic? By the end of the game I was dreading any kind of combat because it meant that I had to essentially pause the game, go into a glowing green menu where I constantly selected the same option, fired two rounds and moved on. After a while I completely abandoned V.A.T.S. and just played the game as a twitch based shooter and had a lot more fun.

As for the story, it was interesting but not very engaging. I never felt compelled to find out what would happen next but rather just fed my OCD desire to keep my quest log clean. Also, the fact that while pursuing a side quest I “discovered” a location which caused the main storyline to skip a fairly sizeable chunk left a bitter taste in my mouth. Now granted I play MMO’s so I’m certainly no stranger to gathering or “hey go kill so and so” quests but Fallout certainly didn’t make any attempt to change the formula. I got tired of the main quest’s “hey go over there and get that” repetition of quests so I picked up a good chunk of side quests which were also more or less “go into those same abandoned places and get stuff and I’ll give you camps.” By the time I finally wrapped up the game’s main story I was happy to pick the certain non-spoiler giving away ending that let me feel safe in the fact that I wouldn’t have the chance to continue playing and could go trade in Fallout for Left 4 Dead. A game of infinite depth.