The Future of Assassin's Creed

On Wednesday 15 February Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed III, which will be the forth Assassin’s Creed game released for home consoles in four years, or the ninth game in four years if you want to count everything they’ve put out in-browser and on handheld devices. The Assassin’s Creed brand name is still going strong, with a reported seven million copies of Revelations being shipped, but I’ve had the feeling for a while that Assassin’s Creed seems poorly suited to the yearly blockbuster model which they seem to be locking themselves into.

What the Competition Does Differently

For sequel-focused game franchises a strong multiplayer has been essential.

Perhaps this sounds like the obvious, but I think it’s worth stating; franchises from which games are released on a regular basis need to present players with the kind of games that lend themselves well to replayability. Modern action games largely do this by placing a focus on multiplayer. In single player there are a lot of specifics; it’s more scripted and fixed, so when you play through it enough times it feels like you’ve seen it all before, but when you play a multiplayer game the involvement of multiple real human beings and the focus on their actions means that an almost infinite number of different scenarios can be created, and a greater sense of variety is present in the gameplay.

The franchises which are famous for producing popular sequels are series like Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield; games which rely heavily on their multiplayer to provide the experience they do. Assassin’s Creed on the other hand has been a series for which the main draw has been the single-player and they’ve parcelled it out in no small portions. You’ll notice that games like Halo and Battlefield have a single-player mode of about moderate length, and the Call of Duty series likes to keep its single-player very brief. This can allow for a considerable amount of development time and resources to go into developing multiplayer, or for more Hollywood-style polish to be put on the single-player, and also makes sure that players aren’t all burned out on the single-player the next time a new game in that series rolls around.

Single-Player Syndrome

For Assassin’s Creed, since its second instalment, it’s been about adding more and more to the single-player, and I think that’s been a real strength of the series. I sunk countless hours into Brotherhood, running around the world, picking up flags, buying up stores, destroying all of Leonardo’s machines and more, but when I sit back after a job well done and Ubisoft tells me “Nice work, now you’ll do that again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that”, it doesn’t sound like an enticing prospect. Of course you could assume that even if people get sick of the single-player there’s still the multiplayer to enjoy, but that doesn’t seem to have been accepted as the winning point of the series.

I don’t think it’s any mistake that multiplayer was introduced to Assassin’s Creed when it was; I’m sure that Ubisoft saw the relationship between franchises with wildly successful multiplayer, and those same franchises being able to bring out game after game in a relatively short space of time. The original and innovative multiplayer mode they introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was wild and ballsy, but I believe they thought the reward for getting it right would be well worth the effort. Big name companies don’t do something this risky without some very serious potential pay-off. My worry though, is that the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed has fundamental traits which mean it can’t be popular for an audience on the scale of a lot of other sequelised action games.

The Holes in the Multiplayer

The multiplayer of Assassin's Creed has sadly not been a big hit.

The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer is largely built around patience and subtlety, and people aren’t patient or subtle. I don’t think the kind of people who buy up a new CoD every six months want a sly and subdued approach to player combat, they want to follow their instincts, face players head-on and constantly be seeing action on-screen. Things also aren’t helped by the fact that the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer does have somewhat of a learning curve. While the majority of the most popular games out there can take very long amounts of time to master, and undoubtedly reward more skilled players over less skilled ones, most of them still provide a kind of gameplay where the basics are immediately obvious to the player. Assassin’s Creed doesn’t have that; even quickly working out what character portraits correspond to what character models requires a little getting used to.

As bad as this may sound so far, even these facts seem a bit irrelevant until Ubisoft can get the multiplayer to appeal to the more “core” market. As it is the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer is host to a whole lot of flaws, just like you’d expect any new, innovative game to be. Revelations certainly improved on some of what Brotherhood presented, but there are still plenty of situations where you seem to get killed out of nowhere, plenty of times abilities seem to enable people to escape or kill you in ways that seem unfair, plenty of times you’re assigned targets only for them to be immediately killed, plenty of times you’ll go long stretches without being assigned a target, plenty of times the distribution of pursuers on you seems imbalanced, plenty of times where early success seems like a matter of how skilled or unskilled the target you’re assigned just happens to be, and perhaps worst of all plenty of times your target is running around on a rooftop and going after them would mean making yourself a huge target. In Assassin’s Creed, people playing with the action-oriented style they’d expect from other games, and would instinctively use, actually has the power to break the multiplayer.

Ubisoft and Their Audience

The theory that this would put people off may seem like baseless conjecture, but from my experience online, Assassin’s Creed certainly isn’t the most popular kid on the block. While other sequel-heavy franchises will have players still flocking to the multiplayer in large numbers right up to and even after the release of the next game in the series, for months before Revelations was released the Brotherhood multiplayer seemed like a baron wasteland. I live in the UK and use a connection which has an open NAT and a good upload and download speed, but I found unless I connected at a rather specific time I just couldn’t get enough players together for a match, and even when I could I saw the same names popping up over and over.

Right now there are certainly people playing the Revelations multiplayer, but from what I can tell there’s nowhere near the number you’d expect to see for an annually released game, and it’s only a few months after launch. There’s definitely not the kind of major online buzz for the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer that there is for other big multiplayer titles. It seems like a large part of the game, perhaps the very part of it that Ubisoft could be relying on to continue Assassin’s Creed as their huge yearly blockbuster series, is of a lower quality than franchises it’s competing against which release far less regularly, and that’s worrying.

Assassin’s Creed Going Forwards

Going forward Assasin's Creed is either going to fail or break boundaries.

Don’t mistake me, I don’t think it’s that surprising that Ubisoft are trying to make a series as successful as Assassin’s Creed into a regular thing, and this certainly isn’t a blog proclaiming that the upcoming Assassin’s Creed won’t be highly profitable. Assassin’s Creed III will have more marketing money pumped into it than any game Ubisoft has produced before, and you don’t go from seven million sales to a complete bust just like that. What I am saying though is that I wonder how long the approach they currently have to the series will be sustainable, and I certainly worry for the quality of the series as it goes ahead. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong and the new Assassin’s Creed sequels will be an uproarious critical and financial success, and great fun to play, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t watching the franchise with an air of doubt right now.

Of course, if the Assassin’s Creed series is very profitable over its next few iterations, that will mean something important. Unless there are major changes made to the series’ formula in the near future, it will mean that a company has been able to create a successful annual franchise out of a game that doesn’t have a popular multiplayer component. It will also mean that they’ve been able to create a successful annual franchise out of an action-adventure game with a huge, expansive single-player component, and these are things we’re just not seeing on the market at the moment. Of course, how much the driving force behind the series is marketing and reputation, and how much of it is to do with the actual content of the games could well be a debate in itself. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

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What Should Be Different About the Xbox YouTube App

Perhaps this seems like a bit of a trivial subject, but the way I see it, this is by far the largest and most notable video hosting service there is, putting themselves out on one of the major pieces of video game hardware currently on the market, and yet this app is rather terrible. Now I’m happy that I can watch YouTube videos on my Xbox, and in some ways I’m genuinely appreciative of what Microsoft and YouTube have been able to do here, but this application is at least a small part of what people are paying for when they pay for Xbox LIVE Gold, and that begins to raise questions about whether this is up to scratch for a paid product. You’d also think it’d be beneficial for both parties in this situation to have an application that’s functional for end users, instead of encouraging users to give up and go back to their PCs to watch YouTube videos. So, in a perfect world here are the changes the developers would make to the YouTube app.

Better Input Functionality

Reputable groups like these should be able to make a quality product.

The Qwerty keyboard was created in the late 1800s, so you’d think that by now everyone would just kind of have the idea in their head that it was good practise to use it, or at least some variation on it, for text input. For unknown reasons the YouTube app, like other programs on the Xbox, uses a system where you have to scroll from left to right and “a” is at one end of the keypad, while “z” is at the other. Inputting text using any kind of controller is already a rather clunky experience, it doesn’t need an extra layer of clunk on top of it. What’s more the text input controls don’t have a button for space, instead they assign the Y button to close the video search, something that seems to have zero benefit for the functionality of the app. At least somewhat efficient text input has been standard on the Xbox 360 for years and should be part of the interface here. You can use the bumpers to skip along the keyboard, but the app never tells you this, and the bumpers still feel better suited for moving your cursor along the text field, something you don’t seem to be able to do in the YouTube app.

Perhaps it’s one of the bigger asks that could be made, but it would also be nice to see voice support for searching. Again, fumbling through with the D-Pad kind of sucks and using voice support in their console software is the exact kind of thing people paid £130 for when they bought their Kinect.

List the Videos Better

I’m no UI designer but it seems to be that one of the core ideas behind websites like YouTube is that when the user visits the site, they can see the latest content their signed up for immediately laid out in front of them. When the YouTube site gets this largely right, it’s kind of confusing that the YouTube app manages to get this so wrong. When visiting someone’s channel you’re shown a list of the playlists they’ve made, and have to click through to a playlist entitled “All Uploads” to see their videos in chronological order. When I visit someone’s channel I’m very rarely looking for a playlist, I want to see their new videos instantly, and yet that’s a minor issue compared to the real problem with how the app lists its videos.

The YouTube app is not the best when it comes to letting you browse content properly.

When clicking on a video category or looking at your subscriptions, the app seems content to just display all of the channels within those lists, as opposed to the latest videos from those channels. This means that when checking your subscriptions, unless you’re good at memorising video thumbnails to see when they’ve changed, you’d have to click through to every one of the channels to see whether they have new videos for you. For YouTube themselves it seems a particularly bad idea for them to do this with video categories, given the fact that the people under these categories are YouTube partners and not showcasing their content properly essentially means lost money for YouTube.

When loading one of your playlists you’re also only able to view the first 100 videos in it, and when you load someone else’s playlist, the first 50. There are a lot of channels (like the Giant Bomb channel) which have a whole ton of videos, and essentially cutting out huge chunks of YouTube from the app doesn’t really make sense. People want that content and I see no disadvantage in Microsoft and YouTube giving it to them.

Make Sure the App Works

I don’t know if anyone else has had a similar experience, but in my time of using the app I’ve had five crashes, at least one lock-up, and a day where it could not retrieve any of my channel subscriptions. This is not cool. The app also frequently fails to load videos, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s on my end. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that when things do go wrong the application doesn’t have an appropriate way to treat the situation.

User feedback from the application can often be poor.

As it is, if a list of videos fails to load you’re just left staring at the application background and the YouTube logo, or if you’re lucky the never-ending loading animation. There’s no message telling you the videos didn’t load, in fact the controls disappear entirely from the screen too. Someone who wasn’t rather familiar with computers probably wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. Clicking on a playlist before the app has finished loading in the playlist seems a pretty sure way to cause this particular error and that’s something that people are going to do a lot, you can’t have that just break the app. On some rare occasions I’ve found the program is actually loading videos, but not displaying the loading icon for some reason. This is bad.

If you’re watching a video and your connection has a hiccup you’re little better off. If the video is loading mid-play there’s actually no way to pause it, you have to wait until it’s loaded in and then hit pause, and again, if it can’t load in the video, it won’t tell you, it will just sit there with the loading icon running. People pausing videos and waiting for them to load is something they do fairly often, the program should be able to support that properly. As a side note, if the “loading” or “not loaded” image could not be a dull grey background with an ellipsis over it that’d be nice too. Oh, and when you play a video, then play one of its related videos, there’s really no reason for the app to start playing the first video again when the related video is finished.

I was going to add that the app should support liking or disliking videos in it as well, but that feature actually seems to be in there. The problem is sometimes it appears, sometimes it doesn’t, and I can’t quite work out why it appears on certain occasions and not on others. At any rate it would also be good to have the facility to favourite videos or add them to playlists when you’re watching them.

Duder, It’s Over

YouTube and Microsoft had the opportunity here to bring us an app which was a huge step forward in getting internet-based entertainment into our living rooms, but instead they’ve created what feels like a restricted and watered down version of what is actually a great website. I doubt we’ll see any major overhaul to the app at this point, but if we did I’d have some serious respect for the guys behind it.

-Gamer_152

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A Response to the Mass Effect 3 Speculation

The final instalment in the Mass Effect trilogy.

I didn’t want to post this directly to the forums because I think the boards have enough Mass Effect 3 discussion as it is, but I wanted to say something about this situation in particular that wasn’t just another post in a thread somewhere. For some time now the internet has been positively crawling with speculation over the idea that Mass Effect 3 will be a bad game.

If you’ve not heard it by now the theory goes that because Mass Effect 2 was simplified in terms of gameplay, Dragon Age II (and possibly Mass Effect 2) was considered to be a drop in quality from its predecessor, and because of the involvement of EA who increasingly seem to care less and less about not screwing the customer over, that Mass Effect 3 has the possibility of being a very disappointing title. Some have even gone a few steps further to proclaim that Mass Effect 3 will be a bad game and have already started raining down their hate on EA and Bioware for the hypothetically terrible game that will apparently be released.

Guys, this has gotten out of hand. My aim isn’t to offend anyone here, but Mass Effect 3 isn’t even out yet and the idea that’s it’s guaranteed to be a complete flop doesn’t seem that sensible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the last person who wants to see the Mass Effect franchise take a turn for the worse, and I do think there may be something to the theories that it’s going to be a game that’s lacking in comparison to its predecessors, but the degree of certainty to which some people believe Mass Effect is going to be a poor game seems a little premature, so let’s step back and break down the speculation over this whole business.

Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II seems to be a popular piece of evidence brought forth for why there is or will be a decline in the quality of Bioware products. Firstly, I think some people seem to be a little hysterical when it comes to judging the quality of Dragon Age II itself. I’m sure there are a bunch of people out there who think Dragon Age II is a bad game and have perfectly valid reasons for thinking so, but I do wonder if for some Dragon Age II’s crime was not so much being a bad game, but rather being a game that wasn’t as good as its predecessor.

If you look at the reviews out there, at least among professional writers, Dragon Age II was never regarded as a badly-made game; it averaged a pretty consistent 8/10 across the board. But okay, for the sake of argument let’s say that Dragon Age II was a bad or at least very disappointing title. Dragon Age II is still just one game, and to take that one product and treat it as being reflective of all future Bioware titles doesn’t seem fair. But okay, let’s say for the sake of argument Dragon Age II could certainly help us divine the future of Bioware titles.

The Dev Process and Mass Effect 2

I don't think the recent titles Bioware has put out are the guarantee of a bad ME3 some people think they are.

The problem is, the theories behind why Dragon Age II was the way it was largely seem to revolve round the idea that it was interference from EA and a sell-out attitude on Bioware’s part that ruined the game. From what I can see we just don’t know enough about the development of the game to say that, but one rather obvious development problem that Bioware most likely faced is that the quality of Dragon Age II was hurt because it was rushed.

Between the U.S. releases of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II there were sixteen months, whereas between the announcement and release of the original Dragon Age there were roughly five years. Of course we have no solid numbers for development time here, but what we do have suggests a significantly longer development period for Dragon Age: Origins compared to Dragon Age II. Mass Effect doesn’t seem to have this problem, with the Mass Effect games probably not only needing less assets and design work, but with them also having a twenty-six month gap between the release of Mass Effect 2 and 3, the same amount of time that there was between 1 and 2. Of course I’m not saying that that this means there weren’t other factors that affected the quality of Dragon Age II, but I think this helps disprove the idea that the exact same problems that threatened Dragon Age II are certainly going to ruin Mass Effect 3.

Some of you may be thinking at this point that Dragon Age II wasn’t the only recent disappointment though, but that Mass Effect 2 was also indicative of a decline in quality from Bioware games. However, surely if you didn’t like Mass Effect 2 it should be a given that you’re unlikely to enjoy Mass Effect 3. The idea that if you didn’t like a video game, that you won’t like the sequel to that game, shouldn’t be a major revelation. I have seen some speculate that because 2 was simpler than 1, that this indicates 3 will be simpler than 2, but again, I just don’t think this is how it works. Just because one game in the series was simplified, doesn’t mean the next will be.

EA and Bioware

As for the theory that EA’s involvement in Mass Effect 3 will run it into the ground, perhaps, but this seems like rather baseless speculation. We really know very little about the internal relationship between EA and Bioware on this one and there are plenty of games EA could have ruined in the past and just haven’t. The closest thing we even have to proof that EA may have had their hands in Bioware’s work is the fact that we know Mass Effect 3 will have online multiplayer, almost certainly as a means to flog more online pass codes for EA. This, however, says nothing about the quality of the single-player or even multiplayer game.

We’ve already been told that the multiplayer content is largely separate and optional, just because they’ve developed this multiplayer content doesn’t mean they’ve cut down the development team working on the single-player game (this doesn’t seem like the title EA would choose to skimp out on resources for), and just look at Dead Space 2. That was a recent EA-published product with multiplayer that felt crow-barred in but that didn’t stop anyone from loving the hell out of the single-player. EA aren’t exactly my favourite publisher either, but they’re still showing that good games can be made under them.

The Chobot Reveal

I'm a little surprised this became such a serious issue, but whatever.

Lastly, there’s been the recent reveal of one character being modelled on and voiced by Jessica Chobot which seems to have ruffled a lot of feathers, even from people who barely know who Chobot is. Now, to me the level of hate that’s come down on Chobot seems way over the top, but if seeing a video game journalist you don’t like appear in a game significantly puts you off the game as a whole then fine, that’s how you feel and you’ve got every right to feel however you want. But if your point is that including a pretty gamer chick with a low-cut top is pandering to nerds I see where you’re coming from, but there’s plenty of things that the Mass Effect franchise has done before now that could have been called “pandering”.

The obvious example is the female lead of the show Chuck becoming a main character in Mass Effect 2 and walking around throughout the game dressed in a skintight catsuit, but this goes back way further than that. Even very early on in the original Mass Effect, you were exploring a gentlemen’s club where provocatively dressed blue alien ladies could be seen lap dancing. I personally don’t have any problem with this, I’m just saying Jessica Chobot in a low-cut tank top doesn’t seem that wildly distant from what the series has presented before.

Duder, It’s Over

All in all I’m not saying Mass Effect 3 will be a good game or a bad game, and I think it’s wise to retain some scepticism, but I think people have gotten somewhat hysterical on this one. I think Mass Effect 3 still has plenty of opportunity to be a great game and that we’re far from a time where we can pass a final verdict on its quality. Thanks for reading.

-Gamer_152

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My Most Anticipated Games of 2012

I’m not going to lie, there’s still quite a lot of 2011 games that I haven’t played through, but from what I have got my hands on I can say 2011 was a great year for video games, and hopefully 2012 can prove itself as a fine year too. I know this may be a little way into the year to post this but come on, it was January, what have I missed? So, for those who have not already clicked away in horror at this self-centred display of video game enjoyment, here are my most anticipated titles of 2012.

Bioshock Infinite

Evil sky America awaits.

A lot of people seemed to look down on Bioshock 2 in a way I didn’t. I suspect it was partly that I was just more into the gameplay and atmosphere, and partly because Bioshock 1 set the bar so high, but like most other people I think Bioshock Infinite looks to be a true return to form for the games, and from what has been shown Irrational seem to be displaying a remarkable ability to take the spirit of the original Bioshock and transplant in an ambitious new world, characters, and story. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised to finish 2012 calling Bioshock Infinite my game of the year. I only hope it can live up to the expectations set by what they’ve shown us so far.

Borderlands 2

For me Borderlands was far from a perfect game. I found the shooting felt better in most other FPS games, the attempts at story seemed tacked-on and unpleasant, and the environments never really caught my eye. That being said, Gearbox still did an admirable job of building a genuinely fun loot-driven FPS/RPG. There was a weird sense of fulfilment watching the numbers fly out of enemy’s heads, especially when you got to try out various new kick-ass weapons you’d acquired recently or when you dropped down a turret and watched it lay waste to your foes. If Gearbox could make another Borderlands up to the standard of the first one, that’d be pretty good, but if Gearbox could build a better Borderlands which fixes the parts of the original game that didn’t work so well, that would be awesome.

Halo 4

Make us proud Chief.

We have next to no information on this game and yet somehow that doesn’t stop me from keeping a close eye on it. I’ve been a diehard fan of the Halo franchise, and after Bungie left the series with Halo: Reach I’ve been crossing my fingers tightly and praying that 343 Industries don’t mess this up. It doesn’t sound like Halo 4 will be a particularly original entry in the series, but they still have every opportunity to prove themselves as skilled developers on this one and deliver another excellent Halo game.

Luigi’s Mansion 2

I’ve heard it said that we all remember Luigi’s Mansion being better that it actually was and in a way that’s probably true, but that fact still doesn’t dampen my interest in Luigi’s Mansion 2. I can’t even guarantee that I’ll get a 3DS at this point but if I do this game will be a must-have for me. While series like Mario and Zelda still stand up well today, I find myself somewhat weary of Nintendo’s repeated rehashing of the same games, but Luigi’s Mansion not only presents something unique as far as Nintendo games go, but also as far as video games go as a whole. With Luigi’s Mansion 2 Nintendo have my sense of nostalgia tightly gripped in their hands and they’re not letting go.

Mass Effect 3

It's like Sci-Fi: The Video Game.

Some seem to already be proclaiming a considerable amount of worry over Mass Effect 3, anxious that elements like the co-op mission and the seemingly heavy involvement of EA are indicators of a potentially disappointing last instalment to the Mass Effect trilogy. I think this is a possibility, but let’s not lose our heads. Bioware have proven repeatedly their ability to develop high quality video games, and Mass Effect 3 could well be finale the series deserves. I really liked Mass Effect, I probably enjoyed Mass Effect 2 even more, and if Bioware can bring us a Mass Effect 3 that does justice to the compelling world and characters laid out in those games, I’ll be a very happy man.

Duder, It’s Over

Of course, these are just the games I’m most fixated on, I’m sure the year will bring us plenty more interesting titles, and I’ve found that some of the best games of previous years have been those which I’ve not been particularly expectant for, but have come out of the blue and been such a big hit with everyone else I had to get them. I hope you’re looking forward to everything the rest of this year has to offer, and feel free to share the games you’re most looking forward to in the comments. Thanks for reading.

-Gamer_152

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Ode to Claude

Gently he brings us to the corner of confection,
Hoping that we might partake of the fruits from beyond the blackened windows.
Spam? Speed? Fuck you.

Moving photographs placed within, slotted lovingly into ourselves.
Questions without answers. Headwear floats above the station of space.
One hand is for stake, the other for gleaming white wand.

He dreams, Wii twist the images of him.
He writes, we merely believe.
He makes the art we are so desperate to label.

The oldest of scrolls and well learned trolls,
What of mods and community love?
Is it all just whispers in our heads?
But somehow we know, with beard, with scattered syllables,
We’ve been Clauded.

Words drip softly from a grey background, changing us all, telling us who we are.
May he sing so we might learn.

Ode to life,
Ode to us,
Ode to Claude.

-Gamer_152

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A Look Back at the 2011 VGAs

When the Spike TV VGAs rolled around last year I hadn’t seen the show before and was eager to see what they had to present, little did I know about an hour and a half later I’d be sitting with my head in my hands begging that for the love of all that is good Neil Patrick Harris would stop telling dick jokes. Needless to say my expectations for this year’s awards were low and yet somehow Spike still managed to undercut them. Maybe I’d just forgotten how abysmal things were last year, maybe this year really was that much poorer, but somehow the VGAs seemed just as grating as last year if not worse. Once again these awards weren’t just bad, they were outright offensive to us and to the games industry.

This Year

 Oh good, another one of these.

I don’t think I need any elaborate explanation to convey what was wrong with what we saw. From instance after instance of coma-inducingly poor humour to the depressing parade of B-list celebrities pretending to be interested in video games, the proceedings just felt like one big slap in the face. As Jeff pointed out, the more they try to big someone up as a “huge gamer” the more suspicious you become about why they feel the need to emphasise that so much, and when you’re seeing an actress being described as a “video game superfan” before announcing an award with no impression that they give the slightest fuck about video games, it does more than just raise a few eyebrows.

Once again the running theme seemed to be a vague overtone of video games not being interesting enough by themselves and needing to be propped up by the supposedly superior industries like television and music. During moments like watching Hulk Hogan nodding his head to a Black Keys performance or Charlie Sheen coming out and asking everyone “Where are the chicks?” this video game awards show seemed unnervingly detached from the world of video games.

Excuses

I’ve heard plenty of explanations for why the VGAs are the way they are; TV personalities play better on TV than games industry ones do, they’re trying to appeal to the mainstream, not enough people know many prolific people from the games industry, we shouldn’t be surprised because Spike TV are generally terrible, TV awards shows in general are terrible, the VGAs are just a marketing tool, and so on. I think these are all important things to keep in mind, but I don’t think any of them should be presented as excuses for the way the VGAs are.

Firstly, even for a TV awards show I feel that the VGAs are bad and as I said earlier, even for a Spike TV production I was surprised by how mercilessly terrible it was. I recently saw one discussion of the show that basically came down to the question of whether it was better or worse than the MTV Awards. If that’s where the bar is being set we’re pretty fucked. The natural reaction to the point that all awards shows are lacking in quality seems to be one of relaxing criticism towards the VGAs, but when presented with the fact that “Hey, this isn’t just a video game problem, look at these other entertainment industries with bad awards ceremonies too”, my reaction is “Well that’s much worse!”. 

The Target Audience

" Well the nerds hated us every year before but if we just throw in enough Felicia Day everything will be fine, right?"

Secondly, does this as a whole really appeal to the mainstream? I can see how a lot of elements of it might have played better for a mainstream crowd and I’ll come back to that in a minute, but one of the things that confused me most about the show was seeing about three separate appearances of Felicia Day. Who is well-entrenched enough in nerd culture to appreciate three different Felicia Day appearances (two of them considerably long) and yet is also clamouring for Zachary Levi drinking a “ health potion” and saying “Mmm uriney”? Who is overjoyed to see the (actually genuinely respectful) tribute to Shigeru Miyamoto and yet also wants to see speeches that go on too long being dealt with by an army soldier pulling developers down to the floor and making a teabagging motion over them? Who loves seeing Wheatley make a nomination speech for the best character award and yet also wants to see the cast of Workaholics laugh about how the name Hitchcock has the word “cock” in it?

Perhaps this was genuinely Spike’s effort to try and please everyone at once but it seemed to fall rather flat. As for whether the endless deluge of pitiable humour and pseudo-celebrity appearances does actually appeal to a wide audience of gamers I can’t say, but if it does, well, that’s just depressing. I can’t see the show improving that drastically but my hope is that Spike TV are to some extent misjudging things and the legions of thick-headed brosephs fist-pumping along enthusiastically to the VGAs exist only within the minds of the Spike TV execs.

People Who Aren't Dedicated Gamers

Thirdly, do non-video games industry personalities play better than video game industry people in these shows? Yeah, they do and this is an issue I actually sympathise with Spike on, but I still feel they handled it poorly. It’s debatable that video games having so few notable figureheads is a fundamental problem with the industry, but would someone like Cliffy B really have been that poor a replacement as host? Regardless, if they’re strategy is going to be to throw up recognisable faces from TV, film and music and try to deceive us into thinking they’re passionate about our hobby when they really couldn’t care much less that’s a little insulting.

Of course, even if Spike do have the most notable video game award show this isn’t the end of the world for gaming, by now most of us have forgotten the VGAs and are back to more regular chatter of what we’re working through in our gaming backlog, but I don’t think this has reflected well on us. The night of the VGAs, Twitter was swamped with trending topics full of people who actually seemed to be respecting what Spike TV had to say, who actually seemed to be treating it as a genuine award show. Tens of thousands of people were talking about that show and there are a hell of a lot of people out there who won’t know any better than to treat Spike as a reflection of the games industry and the people who play games. When negative stigma means less people playing games and a more narrow audience of people playing games, and when the audience an entertainment industry has directly affects what they produce, I think it’s worth pondering whether the VGAs could be at least a very small hindrance for the medium.

Spike, the Industry and Us

 Remember, Spike TV aren't the only ones who make this possible.

Whether intentional or not the message from them seemed to be clear; they don’t give a fuck about video games, the industry is lame, and if you play video games you’re ripe for exploitation. We can understand how Spike TV arrived at this result but the fact that the games industry is supporting such an insult to itself and its audience is perhaps the thing that I find most worrying about the VGAs. I don’t genuinely think that people like Miyamoto and Kojima were there under the impression that they were participating in anything insulting to viewers or to their industry, but I think everyone in the industry should have some level of awareness about what they’re participating in.

Are the VGAs just a marketing tool? To a large extent yes, but they’re not masquerading as such. The VGAs come to us every year telling us that they’re a genuine award show, a ceremony interested primarily if not solely in celebrating the best games of the year and when they have no intention of doing so, it feels like they’re lying to the public for their own gain. If they consider the best way of getting people to watch their trailers almost tricking them into doing it, that doesn’t say anything good about anyone involved. However, beyond the people putting games out and Spike TV themselves there is still one last driving force behind this to blame; us.

We can write about what a disgrace the VGAs are, we can moan about the jokes, and we can furrow our brows at some of the award presentations, but an awards show needs an audience, and while I think the criticism of it is entirely merited it seems rather hypocritical when we are part of what makes it possible for the VGAs to go on year after year. It’s often said that the only worth in the VGAs is in their trailers. Can we really not wait the 24 or so hours it would take for these trailers to be put up elsewhere on the net? Are we that short-sighted and impatient? I’m not saying don’t watch the VGAs, but if you are planning to, remember that you’re contributing in some small part to something you probably claim to dislike. Personally I made sure to watch a Justin TV stream of the VGAs as opposed to getting it directly from the source, and I refrained from saying anything praise-worthy about it around the time it went out, but perhaps I’m still part of the problem. Thanks for reading.

-Gamer_152

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Blog on Hiatus

So, this is something that has been coming for a while. My university work has been piling up, a good deal of my time on the site is now spent just moderating content, and in the sometimes small periods of time I have left I’d like to take at least some time to myself to keep me from going crazy. To be honest I’m a little surprised I’ve managed to keep delivering new blog posts almost every week this long into my current university term, but it’s gotten to the point where I think I’m going to have to put this thing on hiatus, or semi-hiatus at least. I’ll probably be able to produce some blog posts over the coming months but I highly doubt I’ll be able to do so every week and it’s likely that some posts may be shorter than what I’ve provided previously.

I doubt anyone out there is devastated by this news but if anyone was wondering exactly what happened to my blog, well, here’s your answer. Anyway, thank you to all who have read this blog at any time, enjoy your video games, and above all don’t be a dick.

-Gamer_152

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Sexism in Video Games- Part 2

Note: This blog is a continuation of Sexism in Video Games- Part 1, although at this point I believe “Depiction of Women in Video Games” would have been a more appropriate title. Still, there’s nothing that can be done about that now.

In Defence

 This doesn't have to be the extent to which games explore sexuality.

There are a considerable number of people who seem to find certain depictions of women in games off-putting or offensive but I believe there’s nothing wrong with creating works which some people may find offensive or uncomfortable, as long as you’re getting peoples consent before they experience the potentially offending content. I’d honestly feel rather uncomfortable around a game that repeatedly and heavily sexualised men, but people have a right to make such content and it’s not something that we should be aiming to completely eradicate.

It must also be remembered that a character expressing their sexuality or acting in a sexual manner doesn’t have to be something shallow or something which objectifies that character. Sexuality is a very core human component and can be dealt with on a level which isn’t all chainmail bikinis and ridiculous breast physics. What’s more, even when a character is particularly overtly sexual, we must remember that promiscuity and deeper character traits are not mutually exclusive. Over time I’ve seen a lot of people acting like once a female character is heavily sexualised that they are somehow ruined, or deeming all sexualised characters to be by default sex objects, as though because they were sexually overt and/or had a sexually pleasing appearance, that they couldn’t have a personality beyond that. This is rubbish.

Generalisation

When it comes to the topic of whether women might find a character empowering or not I’ve often seen far too wide a brush been painted of women’s opinions. Back when the whole debate about the sexualisation of Bayonetta was going on, it seemed like a worrying number of gamers were speaking about whether she was empowering to women or not as though it was a question with a binary answer. There was little regard for the idea that different women might have different opinions, some people were just waiting for a straight “yes” or “no”. Not all women are going to feel that the same characters are empowering or relatable or cool, everyone has their own personal likes and dislikes. Additionally, as with everyone, there are going to be some aspects of characters that women like and some that they don’t. In the Bayonetta debate many female gamers took the position they have traditionally done with video game heroines, that they liked the fact that she was powerful but didn’t like her sexualisation. Despite this, when looking at individuals within the female gaming demographic most people were again, just looking for an overly-simplified “yes” or “no” on whether they were okay with Bayonetta.

The Issue

 Eye-catching? Yes. But sometimes I want more.

Of course, for as many holes as can be poked in these arguments, we have to face up to the fact that video games as a medium do have a problem in depicting females, to the extent that the way they do it has in some cases become an unintentional self-parody. Some industry figures even seem to be preventing games from having female protagonists with the belief that just having a female lead is enough to damage sales of the game.

The way women are depicted in games feeds into the wider societal problem of emphasis being put on the looks and sexuality of women, and I think it’s also very arguable that as video games do have a sizeable female audience, developers and publishers have a responsibility to provide them with at least some games where the majority of them are not completely off-putting or offensive in the way they depict female characters. I certainly doubt that the way video games often depict women now helps games look more approachable to a new and wider audience. Even if you don’t agree with this though, I think we can agree that deeper and more human female characters would certainly be an improvement in terms of entertainment value.

By Men, For Men?

When asked why video games depict women in the way they do the answer that I seem to see coming back surprisingly frequently, even from male gamers, is “They’re made by men for men”. As a generalisation this is of course true, but I think some use it as a more literal statement than it should be and I find that somewhat insulting. The safest bet when pandering to the interests of the traditional video game demographic is certainly to feature women who are sex objects and little more, but I find the idea that because I’m a man, that by default that’s all I want, a little ridiculous. Yes, pretty women in my video games are very nice but I don’t think I’m part of an entire sex who only wants their female characters to be subjects for them to gormlessly drool over.

What I find worse though is the implication that despite the abilities of professional developers when it comes to design, artistry, writing, etc. that because they are men they are inherently doomed to this dull-witted tendency of creating bland hyper-sexualised female stereotypes. I believe that given the chance character designers, 3D artists and writers could do a much better job when it comes to female characters and just because they’re men doesn’t mean that the female cast in their games all have to be large-breasted, revealingly-clothed women with all the character depth of a cardboard box. Video games deserve much better than this.

Solving the Problem

 More female protagonists and more sidekick characters like Vance would be great to see.

So, how is the industry meant to solve this one? In general I just couldn’t begin to offer a complete answer at this point. It’s that old issue of cracking the problem with the games we play being confined to solely pleasing the young male demographic, and there are people with a much better understanding of the situation than I who don’t seem to have the first clue about how we do that. What’s more, the problem of females’ appearances being far more focused on than those of males, and females being more often treated as sex objects than males is part of a societal problem way bigger than video games, one that it could take a long time to overcome.

None the less, we still do have a small handful of games coming out each year which are genuinely interested in advancing video games as an entertainment medium and/or providing interesting new experiences, and for them one of the many challenges ready to be tackled is creating good female characters. That being said I think the phrase “good female character” is somewhat misleading. Specifically creating characters that appeal to the majority of women gamers out there right now or working out how to portray the average female in games is one thing, but in general I think the future is looking at good characters that happen to be female, as opposed to “good female characters”.

Depicting Females in An Interesting Way

If males and females are truly equal then a female character can be given any traits a good male character would have. This means that making good female characters is more about the industry working out how to make good characters full stop, which is in turn part of the industry better learning how to pull off narrative in games.

However, if a game is setting itself in a realistic world then one thing it can do with females characters (just as it can with minorities), is accurately reflect the way the world treats females. No matter if your female character is strong, weak, smart, dumb, pretty or ugly, the world as a whole is going to have certain expectations of them and certain assumptions about them purely because they are female. Here I think there’s also a lot to be explored. For games that are not trying to depict realistic worlds, there’s really the opportunity for developers to fit female characters into their games in any way they like. In worlds where characters can fight dragons and shoot beams of ice from their hands or display super-human reflexes and skills with a gun, is it really that ridiculous of a leap to have females occasionally assume a different social position in this world?

Duder, It’s Over

Sadly I think we’re far from this kind of deep exploration or seeing the wide-scale inclusion of more interesting characters in games. Like a lot of other major issues in video games, bad depiction of female characters is one we’re likely to be saddled with for a long time to come. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing more examples of great characters in video games, be they male or female. Once again I'm not saying that all games should have deep characters or characters which are just sexualised, but I think collectively we could all benefit from greater variety in the way females are depicted in games. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

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Sexism in Video Games- Part 1

This is a blog that I’ve been holding off on for a while because it’s on a topic that seems to incite a lot of... Well, let’s call it “heated discussion”. None the less, this is something I think deserves to be addressed and I believe we are capable of having a civil discussion about. Sexism in video games is something that’s been observed for a long time, but recently we seem to have seen the debate over it grow rather rapidly, with many of those speaking out against the way women are portrayed in games identifying themselves with the feminist movement. Sadly the debates over sexism in video games are regularly fraught with mistakes, misinterpretations and miscommunications from both sides. All too often it seems that those defending video games against accusations of sexism come away thinking that feminists are all anti-masculine, hyper-politically correct sexists, while those criticising games come away thinking that the gaming community are largely immature, irresponsible douchebags. In both cases each party also has the tendency to come off to the other as stereotypical, ignorant and overly-defensive.

Feminism

 Stereotypes suck.

As many people seem to be viewing the debate at least in part as “feminism vs. video games”, I feel the most important point to address before I say anything else is the definition of feminism. Many people seem to be under the impression that feminism is a movement concerned with aggressively fighting for women’s rights at any costs and that it holds an inherent hostility towards men. Most definitions of feminism actually state that it is simply a movement in favour of women’s rights and/or women’s equality. That’s quite a broad definition and indeed there do seem to be some very loud, delusional, misinformed and downright sexist individuals within it, but I think we can all agree that the gaming audience has more than its fair share of those too.

Neither gamers, nor feminists should be defined by their most extreme or outspoken members. I think we, as reasonable people, can agree though that the idea of women’s equality at its root is something we can all get behind. Of course I’m sure if more of us entered debates with an open mind and an air of calmness, and if the mass media stopped perpetuating tired stereotypes of both groups we’d also be far better off.

I believe the next most important point is that gamers and feminists are not two entirely separate groups. Some seem to see the criticism of sexism in video games as always or very often being some sort of external attack, when a significant amount of it is actually coming from people within the gaming audience. This kind of criticism can often be heard from women and men to whom the issues matter because they’re the very people consuming this entertainment to begin with. In fact, if you’re making a point about cutting down on sexism in video games then you’re basically adopting a feminist position on it. None the less I think too many vague and invalid points get made in these arguments, so let me start from the top.

Empty Criticism

 Just throwing words around doesn't really help us.

I find the criticism that a game is sexist alone to be a rather shallow one. “Sexism” is a word which encompasses a lot of different behaviours which affect different groups of people, in different ways, to different degrees. Hypothetically, when someone says a game is sexist that could mean anything from the game overtly and clearly telling people to oppress and abuse a sex, right down to female characters not being able to equip a certain item that males can. “Sexist” has become one of those words with an understandably strong negative stigma attached to it, but this seems to have lead to some people waving the word around expecting the same appalled reaction for everything from the greatest to the most minor differences between the ways the sexes are treated in games. While calling something “sexist” is a good descriptor of the kind of argument you’re levelling against it, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether that thing is legitimately worth worrying about, in what way it’s supposedly damaging, how damaging it is, or how we can begin to fix the problem if there is one. People also aren’t going to be won over by an argument unless you clearly and openly explain the exact problem you’re talking about.

Another rather reactionary word which seems to get thrown around a lot is objectification. While there seem to be people out there with a very different mindset, I don’t think objectification of individual characters is by default the big evil demon it’s set up to be. Plenty of characters in video games are objectified and it’s just not a problem. When we encounter an enemy in an FPS or an NPC in RPG we treat them as objects; they’re just targets, quest-givers, or means to get the items we need. We don’t think about them as human beings with thoughts, emotions, beliefs and views, and yet despite how packed games are with examples of people being treated more or less as objects, it seems it’s only when the sexualisation of female characters comes into play that we hear the term “objectification”. Again, objectification is something that can happen on different scales, to different degrees and to different people.

The blanket use of terms like “sexism” and “objectification” when it comes to video games also ignore that discriminating against real people and doing the same to fictional characters are two very different things. I find it hard to believe this is something that has to be contested, but it seems that some are even under the delusion that the portrayal of mistreatment or inequality of women in a video game is by default to be taken as a general statement about women, or how it is acceptable to treat women. I’ve seen people argue this about games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Batman: Arkham City and others, and I’m amazed it’s a point that some people have ever considered valid.

The Real Problem

 I don't think this alone is the problem.
Despite what some people might tell you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the existence of certain video games or other entertainment in which a character or characters belonging to a specific group (be they a sex, race, or people of a certain sexual orientation) are mistreated, objectified, disempowered or fit a stereotype. The problem is that it isn’t a handful of female characters in video games it’s happening too, the problem is that it’s happening to the large majority of them.
 

There are some out there who seem to believe it is the upmost atrocity that characters like Ivy Valentine or Princess Peach exist and that there would be some sort of ultimate justice in a future where the entertainment industry is entirely devoid of these types of characters, but this is of course complete nonsense and in the case of sexualised female characters I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying their appearance or behaviour on a sexual level. Yes, it’s a simple and short-term thrill but many great things in life and games are.

What’s Wrong With It?

Even back before discussion about sexualised game characters was as big as it is now, I was hearing people giving the rather perplexing argument of “Why put sexualised girls in video games when you can see them elsewhere, like on the internet?”, but why combine any one enjoyable thing with any other enjoyable thing? It creates a more enjoyable end product. I get the feeling that the people making this argument actually have some sort of other gripe that they’re hiding behind this question.

I also hear people saying that it’s just plain weird to derive pleasure from what is basically a collection of pixels on a screen and if that’s your opinion then you’re perfectly entitled to it, but I would like to point out that “weird” is a relative thing. Even when you’re “looking at” someone in real-life what you’re actually seeing is the light emanated by any nearby light source bouncing off of them and the light not absorbed by them reaching your eye, triggering electrical processes in your brain. If you think about anything long enough it all seems a bit weird.

Duder, It’s Over

Anyway, that’s it for this week. As always I’d love to hear your feedback on anything here and thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

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What We Know About Halo 4- Part 2

Note: This blog is a continuation of What We Know About Halo 4- Part 1

The Forerunner

Looking at the narrative of Halo 4, perhaps one of the most important details to note is that 343 already have their overall story-arc planned out for the entirety of the upcoming Halo trilogy, which they’ve dubbed the “Reclaimer Trilogy”. A reclaimer in the Halo fiction seems to be someone who reactivates or reclaims a Forerunner installation, so this fits nicely seeing as 343 have been very strongly implying that the Forerunner are probably going to factor even more heavily into Halo 4 and possibly the upcoming trilogy as a whole than they have in the previous Halo games. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is even set to include new terminals (like the ones found in Halo 3) which will contain texts that tie into the upcoming trilogy.

 One of several pieces of Halo 4 concept art shown to the public.

Interestingly, Frank O’Connor has said that as the UNSC were no longer at war after the end of Halo 3, they were able to put their time and resources into researching Forerunner technology and that we’ll see the fruits of this research in Halo 4. It might just be me but I get the sense O’Connor is hinting at the inclusion of new UNSC-Forerunner hybrid weapons and possibly vehicles in the coming games. The fact that it would have taken some significant amount of time to perform this research and development is what makes me suspect there may be a significant gap of months or even years between Halo 3 and at least the majority of the events in Halo 4. It’s also been said that we’re going to see more Forerunner technology in a state where it’s “not inert and dead”.

A surprising amount can be gleaned from the concept art released thus far for the game. Much of it seems to include rather picturesque Forerunner environments, although one particular image that has piqued interests is of an as yet known world. It could be a better lit Sigma 7, an all new planet Chief will visit in the game, or some other kind of new construct. Other concept art seems to show brand-new ships, although it’s not quite clear which factions of the Halo world they belong too, I’ll let you decide for yourself. One piece of the artwork also appears to contain Pelicans moving towards some of the mysterious new ships, just in case you needed more confirmation that the UNSC were returning.

The Chief and Cortana

 The Chief and Cortana in Halo 3 concept art.

As far as characters go, 343 seem determined to keep under wraps who will and who won’t be returning from previous games, but it has been said that not only will the upcoming trilogy deal with the “fate” of Chief and Cortana, but that they wish to use it as an opportunity to further develop Chief as a character and the Chief-Cortana relationship. Take that as you will. O’Connor has also said that Cortana’s deteriorating mental state may also be addressed in the upcoming game or games.

In case you’re unaware of Cortana’s predicament, let me explain. In the Halo universe there are two kinds of artificial intelligence, smart AI and dumb AI, the difference between the two being that smart AI can learn new information, while dumb AI cannot. Cortana is of course the former, however the problem with smart AI is that as they learn new information and their mental maps begin to interconnect and create endless feedback loops, it takes more and more effort for them to process information, until they are unable to operate properly and enter a state known as “rampancy” where they become highly emotionally unstable and must be permanently shut down. For most AI this happens after about seven years and while Cortana was first activated in late 2549, about three years before Halo 3, how far into the future it is in Halo 4 will have a significant impact on her. It was hinted at in Halo 3 that she may already be developing rampancy and some think that her rampancy was somehow created or sped up by her interaction with the Gravemind.

The New Enemy

Finally, I think one of the biggest questions has been who the new enemy is going to be in the coming Halo trilogy. The Gravemind and a considerable portion of the Flood were eradicated at the end of Halo 3 and while some think the Gravemind is capable of surviving the death of even his physical body and that there may be mindless Flood lurking on other Forerunner installations, bringing them back as the main enemy immediately would seem like a huge cop-out, as would bringing back the Covenant who were basically defeated when Master Chief and the Arbiter killed the Prophet of Truth and the last of their leaders fell. That’s not to say we won’t see the Flood or surviving Covenant Loyalists return, just that they’re unlikely to be the primary threat. As time has gone on though I’ve become more and more convinced that the main enemy in Halo 4 are a lesser-known race of the fiction called the Precursors.

 Some familiar Forerunner architecture in a new environment.

The Precursors are a race whose history in the Halo universe dates back before even that of the Forerunners. They had more advanced technology than the Forerunners and were capable of both intergalactic travel and the acceleration of the evolution of life. It seems that humans are likely their direct descendents and the “mantle”, which was the philosophical code of the Forerunners, may also have come from the Precursors. All but one of the Precursors was thought to have been wiped out in a war between their species and the Forerunners, however even if the Precursors do not return as a collective threat, it may be that this single Precursor is to become Halo’s new bad guy.

Why am I so sure the Precursors (or Precursor) are the new adversary to Chief and the UNSC? Well, as explained earlier Halo has basically no other enemies left to bring out, the Halo 4 web page Microsoft put up around the time of E3 described an “ancient evil”, the new Halo novel Halo: Cryptum has gone to some efforts to further include the Precursors, the Precursors have strong connections with the Forerunners who seem to be a much more prominent part of the upcoming trilogy, O’Connor has said that something in Halo 4 has the universe in chaos, and the creature shown at the end of the Halo Fest concept art video could also well be one of the aforementioned beings.

Duder, It’s Over

So there’s more than you could possibly need to know about Halo 4. Personally, I think the people at 343 seem genuinely passionate about the property they’re creating and I expect that they’ll create a game of some quality in Halo 4. 343 seem to have been very good about bring together a group of rather talented people from the games industry for this one, I’m just worried that by iterating on the same basic formula repeatedly they’re setting themselves up for a trilogy of games that might not be everything they have the capability to be. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

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