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

11 Comments

What We Know About Halo 4- Part 1

If like me, you’re a fan of Halo then you may have found yourself in a bit of a drought of content from this particular series of sci-fi shooters recently. It’s now over a year since Halo: Reach was released and while Combat Evolved Anniversary is only about a month away, we have up to Q4 2012 to wait for the next entirely new entry in the series. I thought now seemed like an appropriate time for some summation and speculation on the contents of Halo 4. So without further ado here’s more than you’d ever need to know about where the Halo universe appears to be going next.

Gameplay

 A piece of promotional art for Halo 4 bearing the new tagline.

Right now there’s little concrete news on anything apart from story and some visuals, but from what has been said about the gameplay we know this is going to be a Halo-ass Halo game. I doubt that comes as a big surprise to anybody, but just to emphasise what I’m talking about here, Frank O’Connor, franchise developer and director at 343 Industries, said that they had “awesome” content and/or features included in earlier builds of the game which were scrapped purely because they weren’t “Halo” enough.

About a year back Nate Walpole, an employee of 343 Industries, posted a video on the internet showing animation from what was presumably an early Halo 4 concept video, where a soldier appeared to use super power-like abilities to fight two other men. Some have believed this particular video sheds some light on the cutscene if not also the gameplay content of Halo 4, but it has been confirmed that this was scrapped and considering its nature, it certainly looks like the kind of thing that might not have been “Halo” enough to make it into the final product. What’s more, I doubt Walpole would risk his job and the secrecy of the project he’s working on by posting a video that has any real relation to the contents of Halo 4.

The E3 Trailer

In terms of character design the E3 Halo 4 trailer showed us a slightly different Chief and Cortana, with the most notable change perhaps being a jetpack inexplicably now equipped to the Chief. Both he and the Cortana have also taken on a slightly different appearance, and fans have noted that the voice coming from Cortana no longer sounds like that of her previous voice actress Jen Taylor. Again though, I think it would be overly-presumptuous to assume this is all reflective of the genuine content of Halo 4.

 343's real-life replica of the new MJOLNIR armour.

Firstly, it’s been announced that the Chief design seen in the trailer will not be the final design and that 343 are on about their fourth iteration of the Chief. Secondly, while Cortana’s voice does sound somewhat unlike Taylor’s, for the majority of the trailer it is muffled and we don’t really have a good chunk of speech from her to judge by. Lastly, there have been many trailers for games before now, even non-pre-rendered ones, which have shown details which were changed in the final game and this could well be another case of such a thing. 343 have shown off an all new design for the Chief’s MJOLNIR armour though, which they say they worked with the Halo community to create.

One thing that may legitimately be a clue at what we will see in Halo 4 is the Chief’s new pistol in the trailer. Don’t expect what you see there to be the final design for sure, but it’s likely that the silencer and the way the gun reloads could be a hint towards what we can expect to see in the next Halo. I wouldn’t be that surprised if we saw the Chief sporting some kind of jet pack either, especially as we have already seen such a thing implemented in Halo: Reach.

The Onyx Theory

Moving onto story, you may remember Halo 3 ended with the conclusion of the Human-Covenant War, the destruction of the Flood via a Halo array, and while the UNSC believed Chief to be dead, he and Cortana were instead stranded upon the wreckage of the UNSC Frigate “Forward Unto Dawn”, drifting towards an unknown planet (as can be seen in that E3 trailer). Fans of the Halo canon began immediately debating where exactly Chief and Cortana had found themselves and theories began flying on the online forums, two of the more bold I saw involving the idea that they’d travelled through time or teleported into the Marathon universe.

 A UNSC complex on Onyx.

More eagled-eyed players observed that not only was the unknown planet covered with lights, suggesting it was heavily colonised or some sort of mechanical construct, but that the lights on it were forming symbols that had commonly been associated with the Forerunners throughout the series. This led to a very popular but ultimately flawed theory that the planet from the end of Halo 3 was in fact Onyx, a Forerunner construct which appeared in the novel Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. In the novel the UNSC had colonised the planet-like construct and were using it as a base to train the new line of Spartan-III super-soldiers. However, when the Covenant attacked, a group of Spartan-IIs (that’s the kind of Spartan the Master Chief is), Spartan-IIIs, Dr. Halsey (creator of the Spartans and Cortana) and an officer by the name of Mendez retreated inside the construct to find that in the centre was a slipspace rift which teleported them into a Forerunner shield world installation. Keeping up?

The shield world installations or “micro dyson spheres” are compressed bubbles of space-time which the Forerunners created to use as outer-space bomb shelters for when they fired the Halo arrays. However, the Foreunners were betrayed by an AI called 05-032 Mendicant Bias who allied with the Flood, and were forced to fire the Halos before they could retreat to the shield worlds. The plot thread involving Halsey and the Spartans trapped inside the dyson sphere was not followed up on and has been left hanging ever since. The theory that the planet at the end of Halo 3 was Onyx would have wrapped up this loose end nicely, creating a Halo 4 where Chief and Cortana would reunite with their creator and their fellow comrades in arms.

Where and When?

 Onyx, as seen from space.

The only problem with the Onyx theory was that near the end of Ghosts of Onyx, the construct actually turned out to be entirely made of Forerunner Sentinels which detached from each other causing the entire construct to disintegrate, something that a surprising number of fans managed to overlook. The theory still stood up though that the planet the Forward Unto Dawn was floating towards was at least a Forerunner world if not a Forerunner shield world, and that with Forerunner technology at their hands Chief and Cortana may could be able to rescue Halsey and co. in Halo 4.

Since most of the Halo 3 ending speculation it has in fact been revealed that the planet or construct is called Sigma 7 and it has been confirmed that it is a Forerunner world. When exactly Halo 4 will take place is still something that’s unclear though, some believed that because a Halo 4 model of the Warthog had been dubbed the “2554” model it would take place sometime after the year 2554, however this was shot down when O’Connor said the UNSC actually started distributing the 2554 model near the end of the year 2552, the time around when Halo 3 ended and the exact time-frame of the upcoming trilogy still remains a mystery. What are we more sure of about where the universe is going next? Well, that’s something for next week’s blog. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152
 
Edit: As Giant Bomb user EchoEcho has noted to me, the Onyx theory also cannot work because at the end of Halo 3 the Forward Unto Down was floating somewhere near the edge of the Milky Way, while Onyx is located elsewhere entirely, in the Zeta Doradus system.

24 Comments

Advertisements!? In My Video Games!?

When adverts in video games are done poorly it’s at best mildly irksome, but at its worst it’s downright offensive. In fact with the fuss that has been kicked up over issues like DRM, online passes and over-priced DLC I’m surprised that in-game advertising hasn’t received at least a little more flack from gamers. Granted, it doesn’t have anywhere near the effect on the experience bad DRM or online passes do, but when we’re paying around $60/£40 for a video game to begin with, it doesn’t seem exactly unjustified to pick a bone with the publishers who then insist on going one step further to make money on the side, at the expense of their customers and the quality of the product they’re selling.

Where It Came From

It should be noted that sticking brand names in video games is not a practise invented in recent years. It looks like the earliest instance of a brand name appearing in a game was in the 1973 title Lunar Lander, later versions of which included a McDonald’s restaurant that players could find. However, the first use of in-game advertisement specifically appears to have been when 1978’s fantasy text adventure game Adventureland featured an advert for the developer’s upcoming game, Pirate Adventure. 1982’s Pole Position is also remembered as a very early example of in-game advertising and although not the first, it is certainly one of the most notable.

 A Dig Dug billboard appearing in Pole Position.

While the argument has been made that video games and advertising are accomplices which date back a long while, it seems in the times of yore the games industry was far more concerned with advertising through advergames like Pepsi Invaders and Yo! Noid, while now the industry has its attention more firmly set on mainstream video games playing host to the adverts of big-name companies. This only makes sense, as the original child gamers have grown up and become more discerning in their tastes, and information on what games are good and what games aren’t exists in much greater amounts, with much greater accessibility.

It would be arguably impossible to get people to pay anything near full-price for an advergame these days and even when given away free they’re usually seen as little more than a joke by gaming audiences, but in-game ads or no in-game ads, people are going to buy up great numbers of games from established high budget franchises and they’re going to pay a lot of attention to the content within. Most advergames may have been horrifically bad but at least they kept advertisement somewhat separate from mainstream video games, as product placement bleeds into genuinely high quality games, advertisements in our medium are becoming less and less avoidable.

Laying Down the Issue

I’ll admit it, I’m probably more sensitive to in-game advertising than most, but I just don’t agree with many of the justifications given for in-game adverts these days. The usual defence of in-game advertising is that introducing elements from the real world into a game world can improve the realism of the game or at very least alter the experience for the worse very little, providing that products and adverts appear in the game in the same vague ways you’d see them appear in real-life. We all know that practises like disrupting gameplay to present a video advertisement are intrusive and annoying, but what’s wrong with neon signs advertising deodorant in Splinter Cell: Conviction? Or posters for men’s magazines appearing in the shopping centre of Dead Rising 2? It all mixes into the experience well and provides the people making games with more cash, right? The problem is this view is built on a false notion of how realism in games actually works.

 Rock Band's iconic Fender controller.

As I stated in a blog I posted a few weeks back, immersing the player in an experience and giving them a world which feels believable and natural (at very least for the duration of their play time) has little to do with the game mirroring the real world and just about everything to do with the game presenting a consistent and high quality experience. Let me present two examples of brand name advertising, one that I thought worked in the game’s favour and one I thought detracted from the game experience. Anyone who has played the Rock Band games has undoubtedly noticed the brand names on the instruments in the game, perhaps most notably that of Fender who even had the guitar controller modelled around their famous Stratocaster guitar. This I like. In Burnout Paradise there are a number of billboards around the game which in the UK version of the game usually bare a Burger King logo and a large real-world picture of a burger. This I don’t like.

Focus

The overall experience you have with a video game is not just defined by the kind of world it’s presenting (medieval fantasy, an approximation of the real-world, futuristic space ship) but also by where the focus of the game lays. The focus of the Rock Band games is on playing instruments and acting as though you’re in a band, so when the game does its advertising through featuring real world instruments it mixes into the experience smoothly because focus is not shifted away from the normal experience you’d be having. The same is also true of any racing or driving game that uses real world cars or any sports game which includes real world players and teams.

The focus of Burnout Paradise is of course on driving like a crazy maniac in a world specifically designed for you to do so, under a set of delightfully impossible physics. This has little to do with burger outlets, so when you’re drifting around a canyon road at break-neck speed and the game shifts your focus briefly from “You’re driving this car like a fucking madman” to “Hey, wanna grab a flame-grilled whopper right now?” it feels out of place. After being jarred out of the experience in this way we usually recognise that disruptive aspect of the world for what it is, an advertisement, we register it as a very precise component of the real world, leaving it as an irksome reminder that the game world isn’t the real world. We may even be reminded that the advertisement was simply designed and placed there by a team of game developers, further ruining the illusion. For me personally knowing it’s an advertisement, an attempt to make money off of my fun, gives it an almost dirty cheapness.

Yet More Problems

 An Obama campaign ad in the US version of Burnout Paradise.

The more recognisable the brand, the more it stands out as a reminder of the real world and potentially ruins the experience, but like many other adverts in games, the billboards in Burnout Paradise carry a few more problems with the way they’re used. Firstly, at very least one of the billboards in that game (it’s on the canyon road I mentioned) is strategically placed so you can’t help but look at it, the very way it’s integrated into the game does not seem to be done so in an effort to blend in with the world, but to be deliberately invasive to your experience to the point where even if it was a billboard advertising a fictional product it would still seem a little odd that it’s presented in that way. People who seem to give the thumbs up to billboards, banners, screens, etc. in games being used for advertisements don’t usually consider that there’s a large gulf between developers using these advertisement methods in a subtle manner and them jamming them down your throat.

Another problem with Paradise’s billboards is that they, like the advertisements in a number of other games, insist on advertising their product through real world photographs. Having this contrast of real world imagery against the computer-generated imagery of the game, again, serves as an unwelcome reminder that the game world isn’t real.

Lastly, the fact that Burger King and perhaps a handful of other names are the only brands in the game doesn’t help create an environment that seems realistic. This might sound odd, am I really saying more brand names would be better for the game? But let me put it this way; a game with no real world brand names is consistent, a game where everything is branded much like it is in the real world would be consistent, a game where the world has no real world brand names except for a small number is remarkably inconsistent. If this is a world where real brands exist, where are all the other billboard advertisements?

Duder, It’s Over

 Beware, the adverts are coming.

I think you see my point. This is a somewhat speculative statement but I can’t help but wonder whether people who approve of the kind of in-game advertising I find frustrating and off-putting do so not because they really feel it’s that realistic, but because they either currently like the novelty of recognising something from real-life in a video game, think it looks good in theory, can’t find a justification for not liking it, or some combination of these elements. Of course the real problem is that there’s probably going to be nothing but encouragement for developers and publishers to keep using product placement in games and if the ESA have any clear idea about the situation we’re going to see a lot more of it very soon. I have to confess, as frustrating as I might find it when it’s done poorly, developers and publishers would have to go to some serious lengths to use advertising in a way that would stop me from buying a game I otherwise really wanted, and I’m sure the same applies to many other people.

As it is in-game advertising could be a lot worse right now and I for one am thankful that it hasn’t got too over-the-top yet, even if I would like to see a crack-down on badly done advertisements in games. For me the real tragedy of the situation is that most of us, on some level, use video games as a form of escapism from the real world, so seeing the people funding games trying to ensure that more of the real world bleeds into video games in a potentially negative way is a little saddening, but I guess it’s just something we’ll have to learn to live with. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

8 Comments

Video Games vs. Other Entertainment Mediums- Part 2

 

Note: This blog is a continuation of Video Games vs. Other Entertainment Mediums- Part 1.

The Real Effect of the Debate

Obviously, for some, clear reasoning over whether games are art wasn’t ever going to happen, because while there have been people contributing to the “are games art?” debate with intellectual and thought-provoking points, there have also been many who wanted games to be accepted as an art form so that they could feel more grown-up and validated in enjoying their favoured pastime, and try and feel as though their medium was more part of the mainstream. Personally, I think even if you’re looking for wide-spread validation of your love of video games, working out whether they are or can be art might help you feel more secure in your own opinion, but it’s never going to change the opinion of the masses.

 Recognition as art doesn't mean the mainstream would like it any more.

If hypothetically, a consensus on this debate was reached in favour of video games being art, it might bump up their social standing among some circles, but most people wouldn’t even be aware of the debate or care if video games were art. The majority of people out there aren’t seeking out art specifically to entertain themselves; they’re just after whatever they enjoy. Most people don’t care that much if the television they watch or the music they listen to is art, they just consume whatever gives them personally, the most pleasure. In fact, in some cases something being labelled as art can make it seem less accessible to people than it otherwise would have been, and the last thing video games need is more barriers between them and the general public.

This kind of debate is never going to lead to some overnight revolution in the place of video games in peoples’ daily lives. Of course that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the games as art debate entirely. When taken on in the right way for the right reasons it’s a legitimately interesting topic and one that’s very relevant to the video game entertainment medium. I see a lot of people bashing the games as art debates and while I can understand people being tired of endless repetitive discussions on it that don’t really go anywhere, there’s no need to put down people who are genuinely engaged in the topic. If you don’t want to discuss it just leave the “games as art” forum threads alone and move on.

Bad Examples and Bad Arguments Against Games

Unfortunately, on the other side of the argument from “Games are absolutely art and should be treated as such so my opinion can be validated” is the view that anyone treating games with the slightest modicum of seriousness, or saying that they can measure up to other entertainment mediums is being ridiculous. There are a lot of people who say that because games haven’t tackled complex social, political or personal issues in the way that other entertainment mediums have, that they just can’t be taken seriously. Personally I think the question of how well video games can speak to us about major human issues and how well they’re doing so right now is an even more important and interesting question than whether they are art, but the way the argument over this is often handled carries its own set of problems.

 If we are to anaylse a medium we have to look at all works within it.

I think some fail to acknowledge that while there are many works in movies, books, music, etc. that deal with deep introspection, analysis or delivering a message, there are countless examples of works in these mediums that are largely for or entirely for the simple purpose of entertaining people. Just as those over-zealously championing video games as a perfect medium hold up Bioshock and Heavy Rain as if they were the norm in video games, so many seem to ignore the enormous body of television shows, movies , books, etc. which come out every year with no greater purpose than to provide a pleasurable short-term experience.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with any entertainment that does this, we just have to acknowledge its existence. Not every video game may be hammering home a highly intellectual, thought-provoking story but they’re certainly not alone in that regard. Whatever games are doing with story now also doesn’t reflect their potential ability for how well they may do in the future. To repeat the old games discussion trope, this is a medium still in its infancy.

Where Games Really Fall Short

Many seem to make the point that because video games cannot deliver on narrative as strongly as other mediums such as movies or books, that they are therefore inferior. I think this argument begins to challenge a very real issue, but I think the people making this argument often don’t understand why narrative is important for games specifically. Narrative should not and does not exist for its own sake, narrative is simply a means to an end and that end is evoking emotion in the person consuming the entertainment. Works like paintings and music often have little to no narrative, but this isn’t a problem because they find other ways to evoke emotion in people. Similarly, when video games can evoke emotion through means other than narrative, they should receive just as much praise and respect as any other medium doing the same, but as I see it video games have two major problems in this regard.

 One of the reasons narrative is important is that it helps provide games with a wider emotional spectrum.

Gameplay is of course, is the crux of the medium, it’s the core of a game, and everything else is built around it, and gameplay is very good at evoking certain emotions such as fun, competitiveness, triumph, satisfaction, productivity, etc. but gameplay alone can’t evoke the kind of emotional range the elements from movies, books, music etc. do, and so games need narrative among other things to attain this emotional range. Games are also often reliant on narrative to justify the mix of gameplay and thematic content the player is presented with and as mentioned earlier, if games are to get across meaningful messages and explore serious issues in an intelligent manner they’re probably going to be much better equipped to do so with a strong narrative backing them up.

The fact that some games exist with little to no narrative is not a problem, these works can be appreciated for what they are, just like music or pictures can. The fact that very few games in the medium as a whole are able to use narrative effectively is a problem, because it means the medium as a whole lacks emotional range and the ability to deliver deeper human experiences. What may be an even bigger problem though is that not only does the medium carry inherent properties that make it difficult to craft a high-quality narrative around its other components, but the industry also lacks motivation to move forward in terms of narrative with their main target demographic for story-based games being 18-35 males who are fairly contented with lacking action-movie style storylines. Raising the bar for narrative in video games may not sound like that big a deal, but it’s an issue that deals with uncharted territory and the only way around it would be to take risks which could not only end poorly for the people financing games but also for the people developing games.

Using the Right Measuring Stick

 When comparing games to other mediums we can't just focus on story.

To make one last slight defence in favour of video games; despite the big problem they have with narrative in general, I occasionally see people comparing individual games to other story-based mediums and proclaiming that the individual game is inferior to the other medium in terms of quality because its narrative isn’t as good. This is not fair; movies, books and television rely on narrative to deliver a positive experience to a much greater extent than games do. While general statements about the shortcomings of games in regards to narrative are entirely valid, a video game thrives on gameplay, we know this, and just because a video game cannot measure up narratively, if it still holds up in terms of gameplay and sometimes other elements such as graphics, audio, etc. then there’s it can still be a work of some considerable quality.

 In fact in some cases it seems like people feel they have to appreciate video games in a solely tongue in-cheek way because of their relative shortfalls and their frequently over-the-top narrative and thematic content. I think this is perfectly sensible to some degree, but when it comes to gameplay, music, environments, and things games can pull off well, even in comparison to other mediums, there’s nothing wrong with standing up and saying “I like this video game on a serious level”.

Duder, It’s Over

Overall, when we compare video games with other entertainment mediums I think we need a wider, more thorough, and more realistic analysis of both sides involved. As hard as it may be to face up to some of the shortfalls or the lack of popularity of video games, trying to hide them and pretend they’re not there, or pretend that video games are more successful than they are only makes you look bad and says that you don’t like video games, you like some idealised alternate version of video games that you’ve created in your head. Arguing unrealistically in favour of video games won’t make them any more popular and if the medium is to come into its own it won’t do so overnight.

On the other side of the argument though, we should not scrutinise games as if they were other forms of entertainment and it’s okay to give love and respect to video games. As always, thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

33 Comments

Video Games vs. Other Entertainment Mediums- Part 1

For countless years now it seems that people have had an obsession with comparing video games to other entertainment mediums. How well video games hold up in comparison to other forms of entertainment has often been taken to be a measurement of how well video games are doing as a medium, but these kind of comparisons often come about with a myriad of problems behind them. So let’s take a look at where the video games vs. other entertainment mediums analyses too often fall apart.

Why Always Movies?

Far too often we end up only comparing video games to one other medium.

When video games do get compared to other entertainment mediums it seems that movies are the top candidate. In fact, unless we’re talking about the common games as art debates, it seems that almost every time, the entertainment medium which video games get compared to is movies. In one way it’s not that surprising to see this kind of comparison going on, after all they’re two of the world’s biggest entertainment industries, but it’s interesting just how rare it is to see video games compared to mediums apart from movies in the average discussion space.

People often pick movies as the material for their comparisons not just because movies are very popular, but also because it’s the easiest comparison to make; both games and movies use visuals, incorporate music, and often tell stories in at least a somewhat similar fashion, especially now that we’re increasingly seeing developers and publishers making the effort to make video games more like movies. The similarity between the two mediums is also only exacerbated for people who have a limited understanding of game mechanics.

This focus on comparing games against one other entertainment medium instead of all entertainment mediums is a very narrow-sighted way of trying to determine the relative success of video games, but this narrow-sightedness reflects the bigger problem of why many people make this kind of comparison to begin with. If you’ve seen games vs. movies debates on the internet before then you’re no doubt familiar with the fact that a lot of these debates are fuelled by people who just want to see their own opinion on which is the greatest entertainment medium validated by society as a whole. The logic is that if video games are the biggest medium or most popular medium, this means they’re the best medium.

Duelling Sales Figures

Financial comparisons between these two things are often unfortunately misled.

One common tactic to try and prove that video games come out on top in terms of entertainment, has been comparing profits or units/tickets sold of movies against those of games; however this usually leads to lots of misleading figures being presented. Sometimes when weighing the two up people will directly compare total money made from box office sales of a movie with the total money made from sales of a game. It must first be remembered in these instances that game prices can range from those of a simple iPhone game right up to those of AAA blockbusters. Of course in these comparisons AAA blockbusters are usually used, but this is far from fair when the price of a big-name game these days is many times that of a movie ticket. Comparing profits of movies against profits of games is also not a sensible means of comparison, as it is not only carries the flaw that looking at the total money made through sales does, but carries the extra glitch that it’s dependent on how much it cost to make the game or movie in the first place.

Even if you’re just talking about the number of tickets sold vs. the number of games sold the comparison still isn’t entirely apt though, as this does not account for sales of Blu-Rays, DVDs, or the streaming of movies. Even if you did include these figures, there’d be no telling how many people who bought the movie on-disc or streamed it were seeing it for the first time and how many had already seen it in cinemas. Add in the confusion that used sales, renting, and similar things bring to the mix and it becomes obvious that it’s a bit of a nightmare to actually work out which video games and which movies are doing better than each other financially.

Of course even if we can prove that video game sales measure up well against the competition, that’s far from the end of the story. Ignoring the ridiculous idea that if lots of people like video games that means they’re good (I think we can all agree that there’s a lot of popular things out there with a serious lack of quality), even if video games are collectively selling well that doesn’t tell us much about how the public perceive them, how much time they’re putting into their games or what kinds of games are selling. Obviously the reality of the situation is that video games have neither the status nor the audience that other big entertainment mediums have right now, and staring at sales figures has little to do with judging the general perception of video games.

Getting All Artsy

It's pretty for sure, but does it really represent games?

Sales figures or no sales figures, another big problem when it comes to these debates has been that people seem to gravitate towards taking one video game or a handful of games and one or a few works from another entertainment medium, and claiming that they are all representative of the mediums that they come from. In fact back during the whole Roger Ebert “games as art” debate many were holding up games like Braid and Flower, and saying “This is why games are art”. In reality that particular debate was never about whether games are art to begin with, it was about whether games can be art, but if you are going after an argument that treats the medium as a whole you can’t just focus on your Braids and your Flowers, you also have to work out where games like Gears of War and Dead or Alive fit into the mix (not that there’s anything wrong with Gears of War or Dead or Alive), just like if movies are art, movie buffs have to figure out how films like Jackass and Troll 2 are to be treated (not that there’s anything wrong with Jackass). There is no one or two works in any medium which can be taken to represent the medium as a whole.

Not that I want to go too far down this rabbit hole but while I’m on the subject of games as art, one thing that seems to repeatedly go wrong in these discussions is people using the word “art” without ever explaining what they mean by it. Back when Ebert made his original post on the matter he rightfully wrote that a big hurdle in this discussion is finding an agreeable definition of the word art to begin with, and yet I’ve seen people arguing until they’re blue in the face about whether games are art, all the while never making it quite clear what they think art is.

Duder, It’s Over

Once again, thank you for reading, part 2 is coming next week and I look forward to reading your comments.

-Gamer_152

35 Comments

Honesty and Inclusion

When it comes to the presence of games development studios on the web, they generally throw up a flashy website and that’s the end of it. Communication between the people in the studios and the fans is often very limited and it’s usually considered professional and beneficial to keep a fairly large divide between the two. When studios do try to talk to fans directly, it’s usually in a way that’s controlled heavily by PR and there’s rarely a feeling of complete openness in what they’re doing. Even with most games journalism sites, especially the more mainstream ones, it’s considered in journalists best interests to present a glossy, airbrushed image of themselves, instead of a down-to-earth and more realistic presentation of who they are and what they’re doing. Of course this is far from something that originated solely in the world of video games, but on the whole, I’d like to see at least some changes to how prevalent this attitude is.

The internet is a place that lends itself well to people taking a more personal approach in what they make. It has given individuals who don’t have the means for technically high quality productions, a place to freely distribute their content to a large number of people. This has allowed a huge number of individuals to show that even with little to no budget, content that revolves around the honest views of one person or a small number of people can still receive a passionate audience, but it’s not surprising that the mainstream games journalism sites and developers have been reluctant to take on an angle that would seem too personal. However I think those who have been able to do so have done themselves a great service.

Penny Arcade

Krahulik and Holkins speaking to fans at PAX East.

Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade said that one of the things they were most surprised by when they first started hosting PAX East, was that multiple people approached them at the convention and complimented them on their honesty. By presenting themselves as a focal point of their comic (albeit accidentally to begin with), making an effort to regularly appear in front of fans, and later through allowing cameras into their offices to film the Penny Arcade: The Series, they were able to not only let fans feel closer to the people behind the work, but also to present work and a company which felt friendly and human. I think this episode of their show is a great indicator of what their attitude towards their fans has been able to achieve, but they’re not the only company who’ve been able to benefit from interacting on such a personal level.

The Devs

For all the PR work that goes on, I never feel as endeared towards a game developer as I do when they make a personal effort to stay close to the people who enjoy their games. Bungie are one developer who has done a great job at this. Not only do they provide a surprisingly well-written post for their fans every week, but throughout the lifespan of Halo 3 and Halo: Reach they were committed to updating the news feed on their site every day with fan-made content, eventually spreading the word about thousands of fan projects based around the Halo universe. More uniquely though, Bungie have been only too willing to share their office in-jokes with the community and show fans a great deal of the rich internal culture of their company. Because of this, they were able to cultivate a community of loyal and enthusiastic people who not only loved Halo, but were ready to stick by Bungie, whatever their next project might be.

Valve are one of the top studios out there when it comes to openly interacting with fans.

Arguably the greatest games developer when it comes to connecting with fans is Valve. Not only have they been unafraid to let fans and journalists into their studio, ensured their games are rich with developer commentary, and made efforts to present a public image of their company's internal practises, but they’ve gone out of their way to find even more unconventional and amazing ways to engage with the people who play their games. They’ve held two elaborate ARGs for Portal 2 and in the second one included the most prominent players as central figures in the game, allowed player content to become part of Team Fortress 2, handed out two of their most successful games for free, encouraged the modding of their games and distributed tools to help people do so, and not only goes Gabe Newell encourage people to send him emails, he also claims to personally read all of them. This is amazing stuff, and we haven’t even talked about their games here. With this kind of approach it’s easy to see why there are so many Valve fans and why they are so enamoured with the developer.

Of course Valve and Bungie aren’t the only ones participating in fan interaction, they’re just a couple of the best examples. Bioware has shown a particular eagerness recently to listen to fan feedback on their games, for a long time after the release of Burnout Paradise Criterion Games produced a weekly podcast on the game, many indie developers have been eager to show off the inner workings of their development process, the list goes on. In fact one excellent thing that indie developers highlight is that by showing there are genuine people behind your company, it can make the end product more impressive for fans. We’re used to the concept of huge companies being able to create high quality games and games journalism, but when people realise all of that is coming from actual human beings, just like them, it can have a major impact. In some cases, especially with development studios, you don’t even have to present a host of particularly interesting personalities, you just have to show the fans the people creating the content.

Journalists and Openness

To the games journalist concerned with reviewing games and focused on providing their opinion on the quality of games, this openness provides another benefit. While a journalist can write about or speak about a game in a way that provides the public with the kind of information they want to know, they can never provide one opinion on a game which everyone will agree with. However, what they can do is make their personal taste in games open and accessible to the people consuming the content they create. This way, readers, watchers and listeners can match their own tastes against the tastes of the journalists and get a better idea of how much they personally would enjoy a game, based on what the journalist thought of it.

Duder, It's Over

Here's a little bit of why I think Whiskey Media works.

For me the openness and honestly of Giant Bomb and Whiskey Media is a large part of what makes it work. Their content is informative, entertaining and well-presented, but importantly, it also feels like it was all crafted by real, interesting people who want to stay in touch with their fans. Furthermore, they’re not afraid of letting cameras into their personal space, talking directly to their audience on live shows, or any similar interaction. It’s something you rarely see in the world of mainstream games journalism and I think more games journalism outlets could benefit from it.

As for the games development studios, the business people funding them are probably less eager about the idea of the people behind the games representing them, and more eager about the idea of PR people being the link between games studios and the public, or at least keeping a very tight leash on what devs can say. This is a poor substitute for real interaction, openness and honesty between development studios and people. Wherever we can, I believe we should support games critics and games developers alike being as open, honest and inclusive with the public as possible, and I certainly hope we can see more of it in the future. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

3 Comments

Realism and Simulation

This week I’m here to talk about realism in games and games as simulations. As was the case with a couple of my previous blogs some of the points here may be a little on the obvious side, but I think it’s always good to reaffirm this stuff and believe me there is an eventual point to all of this. Before we get into the meat of this particular post though, I’d like to thank Sweep for making this part of the Giant Bomb Blog Initiative. On the off-chance you’ve not yet heard of it, the Blog Initiative is an effort to reinvigorate the blogging scene on Giant Bomb by getting the most notable of Giant Bomb’s bloggers to collectively produce 30 consecutive days of blog posts. So, if you’ve thought about blogging yourself, now is a great time to start and a great time to give some encouragement to your fellow bloggers in the Giant Bomb community.

The Misunderstanding

There seems to be an interesting correlation between how much people know about video games and how much they think the point of a video game is for it to act as a simulation. It’s been a long-held misbelief of people outside of video games that the fun of games comes entirely from them being a simulation of a certain activity, and the idea of gameplay as a source of enjoyment is often forgotten. Surprisingly though, it also appears that even many who do play video games still mistakenly believe that games are primarily simulations and that realism by default makes a game better.

Products like the Wii have revealed that some hold a big misconception about video games.

Perhaps one the most prominent misunderstandings of how realism affected games was when the Wii was first shown. It had been a recurring trope of science fiction that motion control gaming would be the way of the future and for some the potentially more realistic input that the Wii would provide seemed like a revolution in games controls. In a way, it was, but not in the way that motion control was going to supersede traditional control schemes. A slightly similar effect can be observed now with the way that some people seem to be assuming that 3D entertainment and by extension 3D gaming are the future, simply because things popping out of the screen is “more realistic” to some.

In fact pretty consistently there have been a certain group people turning their noses up at the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises and the people who play them, because they involve people “pretending” to play real instruments. Never mind it being an accessible approximation of playing an instrument with more immediate, precise and frequent feedback and reward than playing an instrument, all they see was that it was a simulation of an activity they enjoy and started scoffing.

Realism in Gameplay

In terms of gameplay the goal of the designer if of course to create a set of rules that make the game as enjoyable as possible and the rules of the real-world often don’t make a good fit to this. Compared to the kinds of rules we usually see in video games, the real-world is imbalanced, restrictive and full of lots of obligatory but rather boring tasks. That’s not to say that realism can’t be of benefit to a game, most games are after all trying to be simulations to some degree, but more realism alone does not make a game more fun.

Some games try to veer further towards realistic elements than others, but generally games are more widely accepted not when they’re realistic but when they deliver information more openly and clearly than the real-world does, when they’re much simpler than the real-world is, when on a relative scale players can get much larger rewards than they would in the real-world and when players can have a much larger impact on the game world than they would on the real-world. Having players die more quickly from fire in FPS games may be a realistic addition that works within the style of the game design the developers are going for, but in itself it doesn’t make that FPS game better than other FPS game, just like it wouldn’t make Mario any better than other platformers if you gave him a more realistic jump height.

Of course you could argue that there is one genre of game that is purely devoted to realism and that’s the simulators. I think to a certain extent this is a valid statement, but many of the simulators out there can’t really be described as games. They often have no or few goals, rewards or otherwise game-like structures and even if we do accept them as games they are part of a very niche market.

Realism Elsewhere

Often, lack of realism can be turned greatly in favour of a game.

An argument is often made that more realistic graphics make a game better and realistic graphics work if you’re trying to make your game look like the real world, but realistic graphics do not by any means work to the benefit of all games. Many art styles in and outside of the world of video games thrive on artistic liberties being taken with how things look in reality, or downright abstraction being used. For games like Team Fortress 2 and Kirby’s Epic Yarn it’s the specific brand of “unrealism” in their graphics which makes them brilliant.

As for narrative content, few fictional works like to conform too close to reality, but video games may be the frontrunners at using unrealistic and sometimes downright insane plots and world-building to bring us experiences that are genuinely enjoyable. From Bioshock to Katamari Damacy, video games have shown that when done right, bending and circumventing the rules of the real-world either in major or minor ways can have a huge positive impact on the narrative and/or premise of your games.

The Reality of the Situation

What really makes a creative work good isn’t realism, a lack of realism or even a balance between the two, it’s realism or the lack of it being used well. The whole idea that realism improves something seems to stem from the idea that if something closely mimics the real-world it is more believable and so more immersive.

In actuality works do not need realism to immerse the person enjoying them, and what’s more important to keeping the player/viewer/reader (etc.) engaged is not realism but consistency in how realistic the work is trying to be. A work which is trying to be surreal can’t have random moments of seriousness injected into it and likewise many games, movies, etc. have been damaged by trying to present a serious world, but where moments of ludicrousness are thrown into the mix. This is actually where the person consuming the game/movie/book/whatever is jarred out of their normal state and realises something is wrong.

The Problem

There are significant barriers preventing people from understanding video games as a medium.

People outside of video games mistaking the medium for being simulations more than games may seem at most like a moderate annoyance to us, but I believe it actually represents a big problem for video games as an entertainment medium. When people outside of the gaming world look at a video games, they often don’t see a twitch-based FPS, an open-world action-adventure game or a deep and complex RTS, they see a game about shooting people, a game about killing zombies, a game about commanding an alien army, and yes this is a good chunk of what our games are about, but when first impressions show the narrative and aesthetic of our medium but not the gameplay, people don’t just miss a big part of what makes video games enjoyable, they miss the unique and fundamental component that no other entertainment medium apart from video games has.

I’m not saying that we’ll ever see or even that we should see a time where people gravitate towards games for the gameplay no matter what aesthetics they have, but the public is very unfamiliar with gameplay as entertainment (or at least the specific kind of gameplay video games tend to use) and so the exact charm of the video game is often lost. Hopefully this is starting to be rectified now that motion control games, Facebook games and iPad/iPhone games are all the rage, and this misconception over simulation is by no means the only thing that has made video games less popular in the general public than other entertainment mediums, but I think we have a long way to go before people really understand gameplay and how it presents itself as part of an entertainment experience. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

22 Comments

Tales of an MMO: Tibia- Part 2

This is a continuation of Tales of an MMO: Tibia- Part 1 and is about my experience with my first MMO. Reading part 1 is not essential for understanding this blog but may help add some context.

NPCs, Spells and Houses

Interacting with the NPCs in Tibia was a rather unique experience. In a style that was archaic even considering when Tibia was created, you’d actually have to type out series of commands like an old text adventure game. “Hi”, “Sell 5 maces”, “Yes”, “Bye”. As only one player was able to talk to an NPC at a time people could sometimes be seen queuing up in shops impatiently telling the person in front of them to hurry up. A long time later the game was patched to make it more menu-based and so that players could each have their own private chat with an NPC. This admittedly got rid of a couple of fairly big problems, but I still preferred seeing people happily selling off their loot to talkative blacksmiths. In fact even the spells required you to speak an incantation, fortunately you could map dialogue to hotkeys to perform them quickly, but actually having to have your character speak the spell out loud was another little part of what made that game very individual.

Some houses in the current version.

The majority of buildings in the games weren’t shops though and to this day the feature I saw in Tibia that I’d most like to see elsewhere is that every building in that world had an interior and that almost every one of the rooms within was in some fashion functioning or accessible. You had buildings which offered goods and services, you had buildings which existed to create a better sense of a real world like the castle or beer hall, but all the houses in the game were actually someone’s house. Bidding for houses was fierce and rightly so, it was the opportunity to literally own a little portion of the world. Much to my disappointment though, people usually never decorated their houses, at least not in the traditional sense of decorating. For most people they functioned primarily as galleries to show off their most prized items and so houses were almost all a mess of valuable trinkets and rare armour scattered across every spare floor tile of the house.

The Community

While I was happy with most things in the world of Tibia and even surprised myself with how much progress I was able to make, not everything went as I would have planned it. Certainly the harshest lesson that Tibia taught me was that many people in MMOs and on the internet in general aren’t friendly and can’t be trusted. In fact one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in a game involved another player tricking a naive young me, using an exploit in the game which I didn’t know existed to steal all the equipment I’d spent hours acquiring. I learned from that mistake though, and made sure nothing like that would happen again. Eventually I got new, better armour and was amused at a lot of the subsequent downright stupid attempts that people came up with to try and trick me into giving them my hard-earned items. One particular trick that a tragic number of people succumbed to was people telling them that they possessed a hack which could clone items in their inventory and so fooled others into handing over their valuables.

An in-game cathedral.

Another of the more interesting problems that the less likeable players of the game caused was that they would surround players who were away from their keyboards with large quantities of furniture, making it impossible for them to move or push any of the furniture aside. In this position all a player could do was log out and wait for the furniture to reappear at its original position after the daily server reset. This trapping actually became such a big problem that after years of this happening, the developers patched the game so that furniture could be destroyed, leaving piles of broken wood behind. Much to my disappointment this meant that for a long while, most of the accessible buildings were no longer filled with tables, chairs and other little details which endeared me to the world to begin with, but were now littered with piles upon piles of ugly broken wood.

Sometimes it seemed as though the whole game was populated with people exactly my age only a lot angrier, but that’s the internet for you. As always there were good people among them though, I was happy to find a guild and even happier when we claimed a guild hall. I was never that deeply involved in hunting or trading with them but none the less the sense of community shone through. Another time when large groups of people seemed to be willing to co-operate were the raids, only “raid” meant something rather different in the world of Tibia than it’s come to mean in most MMOs. In most MMOs the players conduct raids against the monsters, in Tibia monsters conducted raids against us. Like destructible furniture this was one of the later features added to the game, long after my glory days with it, and raids were an uncommon occurrence, but when they happened they were a sight to behold. The cities in the game could come under attack from legions of orcs, pirates, undead or other insidious armies sweeping through the streets. It turned the idea of the cities being the safe place in the game on its head.

Change

A player massacre.

At least cities were usually safe from players on my server. I preferred to play non-PvP, but the game had PvP servers and even PvPE servers, realms where killing other players was actually encouraged. In my experience this led to many players levelling up and reaching the mainland, only to be unable to even exit the temple of the first town they entered, as they would instantly be killed on sight by much higher level players. Well, it was worth a try, right?

Changes didn’t just come in the form of new features, the game world also expanded drastically. I was always amazed with how much new content there was, even if updates only came about once every six months. The game continued expanding long after I stopped playing as well. Here’s how the world map looked when I joined, and here’s how it looks now. Unfortunately access to almost all of those continents apart from the central mainland requires a premium membership.

Paying For Content

Quite a few privileges were only reserved for premium members to begin with; the ability to buy houses, the ability to found or be vice leaders in guilds, the ability to learn the premium spells, promotion to a special second tier of their class, access to boats (the closest thing the game had to fast travel), access to the premium quests and more. Now premium accounts not only give you access to most areas of the game map but also the ability to use mounts and a special EXP bonus. It’d be easy to say perhaps the developers just became more and more focused on money-grabbing for their own profits and maybe that’s part of it, but I’m willing to bet that as more advanced WoW-like MMOs entered the market, the people behind Tibia had to put more pressure for cash on the people playing their game just to keep things running.

Duder, It’s Over

I could go on talking about the game for a while longer; describe in detail the various different cities, talk about how my guild almost disbanded, write about the simple mini-game the community created or tell you about the in-game weddings, but I think this is enough for now. Tibia represents something special for me. When I was younger and had much less experience of video games I could look at a game like it and it didn’t matter that it had all those flaws, I didn’t even see them as problems with the game. Despite the mess of grinding and clunky interaction that defined Tibia I just looked at it and saw the good in it, at its best it was something immeasurably fun for me. While I think I’m much better off with more knowledge and experience about video games there’s still a little bit of me that misses the kind of experience I had with that game. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

14 Comments

Tales of an MMO: Tibia- Part 1

These days I usually dedicate my blog to writing about general issues in games, like games development, trends in game mechanics, or at very least commenting on what people are saying about games. In the past I’ve created sizeable blogs about what games I’ve been playing at the time, but one thing I don’t think I’ve ever done is look back on a game that was important to me when I was younger, and so I thought I’d try out this little experiment. This is the story of my first MMORPG.

As I remember it I started playing Tibia not too long after my family had gotten internet access in our house. It was an amazing prospect to have that massive network of thousands of pages of content at my finger tips and yet when faced with access to this huge web of information and entertainment, my knowledge failed me, I actually had no idea of what websites there were out there I might like. I had all that opportunity and no idea what to do with it, thus Tibia was one of my first genuinely entertaining uses of the internet. After some cajoling from my friends I made my account in late November 2003, downloaded the client, booted up the game, and created a character, I was twelve at the time.

The Newbie

The game as it looked after launch in 1997.

Upon entering the newbie island of Rookgaard and for a ridiculously long time after, I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled from place to place, killing only the weakest of enemies, collecting measly handfuls of gold coins and where possible stocking up on food to try and keep me alive, and yet this underperformance didn’t matter to me. Just observing the same few sections of this world over and over seemed endlessly fascinating. I wasn’t just playing a multiplayer game (which would have been cool enough given my lack of experience with them); I was part of a real virtual world.

I could know that when I saw another person walk down the street in that game I really was seeing another person walk down the street. That when I turned off the PC the game didn’t freeze in place, but it continued buzzing away without me. Two of my favourite things about the game to this day are the top-down perspective and the rather old-fashioned sprites of the game which made that world. Even in its time such graphics were a little outdated, but they seemed to make the whole game glow with a unique charm.

Reaching the Mainland

Progress in Rookgaard was predictably slow for me. There was a time that even wolves seemed like imposing enough enemies, let alone bears, and God help you if you got stuck down a cave without a rope, the only way you’d be getting back up would be to find some way of dying and respawning, getting a friend to help you out, or else paying a passing spelunker to pull you up and hoping they wouldn’t just run off with your hard-earned money. To get to the fabled mainland of the game you had to reach level 8 and be teleported there by an NPC in Rookgaard’s academy. In Tibia levelling was slower than in most games, but I eventually reached level 8 and after some considerable reluctance bid one last goodbye to Rookgaard.

By the standards of the modern MMO, the mainland in Tibia would probably seem small, it would certainly be dwarfed by Azeroth, but at the time the scale of it all seemed positively vast. There were cities packed with houses upon houses, dungeons that seemed to stretch on and on forever and huge plains sparsely populated with various animals. Many of my early hunts in the mainland consisted of me trekking down to a cave of trolls, taking them out one by one and gleefully hauling a bag full of gold and valuable weaponry back to my home city of Thais. In retrospect a lot of the hunting and indeed other activities in Tibia were one big grind, although having played plenty of Pokémon I was not unfamiliar with the concept of the grind. Even for me though, there was one act in the game which was just too much of a grind for my tastes, “training”.

Fun with Grinding

A player under attack from Amazons (notice the change in graphics from the last picture).

Characters in the game had eight skills; axe fighting, sword fighting, club fighting, fist fighting, shielding, distance fighting, magic level and fishing. Those first four skills were levelled up simply by successfully hitting enemies. This meant that the most effective way to train these skills was for people to get a low level weapon (so as to kill targets as slowly as possible), lure over some enemies and stand on the spot repeatedly hitting them for as long as possible. Keep in mind that the game didn’t even have an attack button, melee fighting simply consisted of selecting the attack option on an enemy and standing next to them. Training shielding consisted of a similar practise but involved taking hits instead of doling them out. I’d have none of that boring business though, I wasn’t a knight, I was a sorcerer, and had found my own mundane activity to grind.

I found something strangely calming about the act of fishing. A task carried about by repeatedly ctrl-clicking my fishing rod, and then clicking on a square of water. If there was a fish in the square I clicked and I passed a hidden skill-check, I’d get the fish and it would count towards my fishing level, otherwise, nothing. After that I either saved the fish up to be used as my own food supply or sold them on in their hundreds to people who needed large supplies of food for big hunts. You know, the kind of people who spent their time levelling up instead of standing around catching fish all day. Despite the dent it put in the time I could have otherwise spent improving my character, fishing still felt good. It was a simple activity with clearly marked progression, which seemed to level up faster than anything else and didn’t come with the many frustrations of hunting, like death.

Death

Death was one thing the game certainly didn’t take lightly. As I remember it dying would remove a pretty considerable chunk of your experience, cause you to lose your entire inventory (fortunately there were depots in the game to store your items), and there was also a risk of losing any of the weaponry or armour you were currently carrying. The only way to retrieve your lost items would be to respawn and get back to your dead body before someone else did. This penalty was ultimately unfair, but it did make Tibia one of the few games where it really felt like it meant something for a character to die. Death had a genuine impact and became all the more fearsome for it. It was certainly the bane of this poor sorcerer.

Sorcery

Players mana sitting in the current version of the game.

Actually, considering I was a sorcerer it was surprising how little sorcery I did. I couldn’t just start breaking out the magic runes and throwing fireballs anytime I wanted, they were far too valuable to be used in such a carefree manner. Substantial quantities of runes took a fair while to make and so they were best used either for more major hunts or for selling on to other players. I spent most of my fights, battling with a melee weapon in hand and as I remember it this was very common for a sorcerer in Tibia, again though, I didn’t mind, that was just how it was and I never felt hugely underequipped in combat. Now the sorcerers all have these fancy shmancy wands to kill their opposition with. We didn’t have those in my day.

The actual process of making magic runes was again, all about the grind. You’d buy up a large collection of blank runes from an NPC, collect together some food, pick out a spot in town, usually one where you could watch people walking by on their daily business, and proceed to the relaxing (or monotonous, depending on how you saw it) act of “mana sitting”. Mana was regained very slowly in the game and thus making runes meant the player had to periodically eat food and wait for long periods of time to restore enough mana to make a magic rune. When a player’s mana was high enough it was time for them to turn a blank rune into a magic rune, sapping a large portion of their mana bar and starting the process all over again.

In another game rune creation might have been carried out with the aid of mana potions, however in Tibia potions were expensive enough that using them for your mana sitting probably would have cost more money than you’d make from selling your runes anyway, or at very least considerably curb your profit. Still, I went on eating food and making runes, acting as a sort of one-man magic factory.

Duder, It’s Over

Once again I’m going to make this a two part blog, as there’s quite a bit more to come. Thank you for reading and I’d be interested on hearing your feedback.

-Gamer_152

10 Comments

An Obvious Blog About the Games Industry- Part 2

So, last week we took a quick reminder of why the industry enjoys rehashing ideas, how resources limit game developers and why “corporate greed” is a redundant term. This week it’s time for a slightly shorter collection of things everyone should be keeping in mind when talking about the games industry.

Accountability

 People aren't any more or less accountable for their actions because they're part of a business.

To kick things off, there is a rather extreme position which many people take when it comes to debates about games publishers, which I can’t say I agree with. People often claim that because businesses are businesses, that they somehow have less accountability than other people when they do something wrong, or which customers or other companies don’t like. It must be remembered that there are people behind these companies, and that when a company makes a decision what that really means is that certain higher-ups within the company are making decisions. Companies may default to “greed” and “capitalism” mode, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their own actions.

That being said, companies should also be able to do what they want as long as what they do is not harming anybody. All too often it seems people find it hard to differentiate between companies doing something wrong and companies doing something that they don’t like, and this leads me onto my next point.

Entitlement

One of the most obnoxious traits of the gaming community has consistently been its sense of entitlement. On a regular basis I still see people claiming that companies “owe” them sequels to games (Half-Life 2: Episode Three seems to be predictably the biggest victim of this one), or that they were somehow betrayed because a developer took a new direction with a series of games they previously enjoyed. Another common problem seems to be people being fully aware that a game contains certain features that they dislike, such as online passes or DRM, agreeing to buy the product, and then claiming that they were somehow screwed over by being sold a game with these objectionable features. We have every right to complain about these kinds of features and I in fact encourage complaint about these kinds of systems, but in these scenarios “screwed over” we are not.

 Your sense of entitlement saddens Mr. Newell.

Often claims by games consumers that they have been cheated are made without any kind of justification to back them up, but when people do try to justify this demand for companies to act in a way they want, consumers usually claim it’s because they “made the company what it is” by buying their products and that the companies should do what they want because they’re dependent on their money.

Yes, we fund the companies, but the companies have already given us something in exchange for our cash: the product that we bought. The entirety of the transaction of us purchasing a game involves us giving our money to a retailer and them giving us the game we’re purchasing. Any concept of the developer, publisher or retailer owing us something beyond that is a figment of our imaginations. It’s not abnormal to develop an attachment to a company or a franchise and I know that it’s very frustrating when things in the industry don’t go the way we want, or companies start acting in a way we don’t like, but the people who make games are in no way indebted to us and can do whatever they like with their own intellectual property. Pretending this is not the case makes us look like spoiled children.

Duder, It’s Over

Of course all of this (or at least most of this) is what you knew already, and in a better world everyone interested in video games would be aware of what I’ve talked about here, but we’re still far from this being the case and video games are by no means the only industry that deals with these kinds of misunderstandings and misconceptions. It’s easy to be very pessimistic about the way the games industry is and we do have a lot of problems, but I don’t think we should see the business influence in the world of games entirely as an enemy. If it wasn’t for big business we wouldn’t have our countless stores full of video games, our hundreds of games to choose from, our gaming consoles or our big budget titles, and for this we should be thankful.

If there’s anything else I’d like people to take away from this though, it’s that old idiom “vote with your wallet”. I really can’t repeat this enough, the companies are reliant on our money and while we often see the big corporations as the one with the iron grip on the world of video games, ultimately we as consumers have full control over the kinds of games that the industry makes. I still see people every day complaining profusely about the very games they keep buying, but if the video games industry is to further devolve into a world of micro-transactions, poor remakes of popular games and brown-grey graphics and we’re still the ones buying the games which use those components, we have to accept at least some responsibility. Thanks for reading.

-Gamer_152

32 Comments