Category Archives: Game Design

Rock Band creator Harmonix is making a new game…and you won’t believe the genre!

Harmonix is making a new game! Harmonix is making a new game!

And it’s an…FPS? A free-to-play FPS?

Anybody else get Rez flashbacks just now?

The hell?

From Rock Paper Shotgun:

It almost sounds like a joke when you first hear about it. How does Harmonix, creator of wildly far-reaching rhythm hits like Rock Band and Dance Central, go for a more “core” crowd? Why, they make a musical shooter, of course. Hoho, what a topical yet preposterous notion! Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.

Yet, here we are. And you know what? Chroma looks (and sounds, obviously) like a pretty darn cool idea. If you perform actions – from shooting to running and jumping – on song beats, you’ll do them with more aplomb. Moreover, different teams represent different musical genres, with weapons and environments creating sounds synced to a beat underlying each level. It’s a giant, rhythmically thrumming combat arena, with DNA that crisscrosses between music theory and Quake.

Put that way, it’s really exciting. One of my absolute favorite types of game is the synaesthetic one, where beat and music are incorporated into more traditional gameplay. It’s what made Rez (and it’s all-but-sequel Child of Eden) so beloved, and what makes games like Everyday Shooter so damned much fun. It’s gaming-as-dancing, true gaming-as-dancing without DDR’s often-hamfisted attempts to shoehorn quasi-dancing into a sort of gameplay.

Thing is, any decent game is already going to have a rhythm. Designing and playing games is all about loops; smaller activity loops, within larger activity loops, within larger activity loops. A well-made game will manage the pacing of those loops…and what is creating a rhythm other than managing complex, interacting sonic loops?

The free-to-play part is a bit concerning. We can only hope that they’ll take their cues from Valve instead of King, Zynga, or EA, and make the in-game transactions cosmetic and convenient instead of gruesome and annoying.  If anybody’s earned the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s Harmonix. So let’s see what happens.

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(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 


(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.


Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.


So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Falloblivion and the Weirdness of VATS

(Or, as it’s technically called, V.A.T.S.)

As I mentioned in the last piece on Fallout 3, the game really feels like a Elder Scrolls game. It feels a LOT like an Elder Scrolls game. The way you explore, the way you interact with NPCs, the way that you engage with the maps…there’s a reason I called it “Elder Scrolls 4.5”.  It really does feel like Oblivion, almost without exception.

VATS is the exception. VATS, for those of you (who are you?) who haven’t played a 3D Fallout yet, is the system where you pause the game, pick your targets, and the game shoots for you, with the success based solely on the character’s statistics, instead of your own reflexes and ability. It’s a callback to the turn-based nature of the old Fallout games, where they played more like Baldur’s Gate in that you were able to pause and give orders.

VATS is one of the main reasons I wanted to try Fallout 3. It sounded amazing. Calling your shots and watching it unfold? Awesome, right? No. Not awesome. VATS just feels weird.

First, it means that the game doesn’t really play out much like an FPS, since you don’t have the fire-and-response gameplay cycle. You can try to play it like an FPS, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have down-the-sights aiming, you don’t have aim correction (keep in mind, I’m playing on a console),  and the weapons feel like peashooters, which is a really big problem considering players have strong expectations of what assault rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers are able to do derived from thousands of hours of modern multiplayer manshoots. It’s understandable, since VATS means that the weapons would be totally unbalanced if they hit hard. But without VATS, the game’s just unpleasant.

Worse, though, is that I end up finding disconnected from the environment and what’s going on in it, because the game’s constantly pausing for these slow-mo shootouts. That sense of connection is what makes Elder Scrolls games work. You aren’t “directing”, you’re acting. You don’t tell your character “swing the sword”, you just swing the damned sword. That’s been the case going all the way back to Arena. Bethesda have been progressively learning this lesson over, and over, and over again, and each time they come out with a new Elder Scrolls, it shows they’ve understood and embraced it that much more.

(Plus, the fact that hunting rifle is a better close-up weapon than a machine pistol is ridiculous, yet that’s how VATS works, since you’re near-invulnerable while you’re inside it and there’s no way for them to get “inside” your range.)

What results is something that’s neither fish nor fowl. The “direction” element of VATS that was supposed to mollify fans of the old Fallout games won’t, because this is fundamentally an Elder Scrolls RPG, not a Baldur’s Gate-style RPG, so you don’t have that tactical feel that made the turn-based gameplay of those older games compelling. Yet the game can’t fully embrace its status as a FPS or as a modern, immersive, Elder Scrolls-style RPG, because the game simultaneously near-mandates the use of immersion-breaking VATS while making the non-VATS combat surprisingly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t make it a bad game. I’m enjoying it immensely. It also doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy using VATS on occasion, though I never really find myself enjoying the non-VATS shooting. It’s just more than a bit of a surprise that something I’d looked forward to trying ended up being less of a blessing than a curse.

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Don’t listen to “Austrians” about hyperinflation in Diablo 3. Please.

Sooo…looks like the other shoe dropped on Diablo 3’s economy.

I’d written a while back about deflated prices in Diablo 3; about how the auction house reduces everything to money, and about the volume of items meant that there was rampant deflation of the value of goods. Things just weren’t worth much. There was always a flip side to that, though; as the playerbase dropped, as money from play multiplied, and as the players became savvy about which gear was good, there would be bidding wars on said useful gear that devalued gold vs. the cost of goods. Looks like that happened.

But please, PLEASE, Critical Distance readers: before you go running off to read the Mises institute’s analysis of Diablo 3’s economy, keep three things in mind:

1) These guys rant about how hyperinflation is coming thanks to “fiat currency” Real Soon Now all the time. They call Diablo 3 a Virtual Weimar because EVERYTHING is Weimar; either a Weimar that’s happening or a Weimar that’s soon to come. They’ve been predicting post-crisis American hyperinflation for so long now, and been so consistently wrong, that it’s become a bit of a joke. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

2) Austrians really have no place in modern economics. They’re seen as cranks due to their resistance of economic modelling and quantitative analysis, and this is coming from someone who used MARXIAN stuff. Pay absolutely no attention when they start pretending that they’re representative of modern economic thought. Their “laws of economics” are nothing of the sort, which the piece tacitly admits in avoiding discussion of any economic school outside their own.

3) In-game economies tell us almost nothing about real-world economies, because you don’t have “money sinks” and “faucets” and the rules of ownership of goods are completely, completely different. The extent to which the Mises guys try to pretend that “fiat” (read: floating) currencies are akin to an in-game economy just shows how screwy the whole enterprise is.

Sure, it can work the OTHER way, which is why I wrote the Diablonomics piece in the first place. But if you want to do economic analysis based on in-game economies, then you want to look at something like EVE Online, not Diablo 3.

Sure, by all means, check it out as a bit of a fun curiosity. But for heaven’s sake, don’t attach any authority to it.  Anything that includes the line “virtual gold had gone the way of all flesh and fiat currencies” really, really doesn’t warrant it. “Fiat currencies” are doing just fine, thanks.

Edit: Hah. When I wrote that, I hadn’t really plumbed that gabble at the end of the piece about “free markets” and the evils of “central planners” and the like. Folks, these guys have been going on about that sort of nonsense ever since Obama dared to try to rescue the “free market” from itself by doing a bit of stimulus spending back in 2008. Nobody with any sense believes that regulated markets are some sort of Evil Thing. The only smart ones who advocate that these days are the ones who stand to profit from deregulation.

Even if real-world economies behaved that way, games aren’t supposed to be completely free and open in the first place. Games are systems of rules and restrictions. The economies of games are about those rules and restrictions and the enjoyment that the player gets from operating within that space. The whole reason why Diablo 3’s economy was a miserable failure, and why the PS3/PS4 version of the game won’t have an auction house at all, is because Blizzard forgot that. The game’s enjoyment and engagement economy clashed with its gold-denominated faux-economy, and was destroyed in the conflict.

Blizzard’s success with World of Warcraft has everything to do with that game’s careful balance of time and skill vs. reward and chance. And, yes, that’s an economy, since it skillfully and carefully balances scarce resources against each other. It’s just not the sort of economy that these Mises guys understand in the slightest.

If they understood game economies at all, this article wouldn’t have devolved into reciting doctrinaire cant at the end.

Edit: There’s a far better analysis of what the AH did to Diablo 3 here at Joystiq. Yes, it mirrors my own, but it’s still from someone who understands how games work, instead of reciting Austrian Scripture, zombie-like, at the invocation of the word “economy”.

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Dan Cook and the value of academics

There’s a good piece in Gamasutra by Dan Cook talking about older game designers and the “rebellion” against them that seems to be going on among younger and/or indie designers. I’d recommend you read it.

That said, I was a bit disappointed by the comments. I feel like some people have missed the point. (Or maybe I have?)

It doesn’t seem like Daniel’s trying to argue that the schools are terrible, though he’s certainly making a backhanded case for certification. It seems to be more that there’s a tendency to treat older designers like Cook and Koster as a sort of Authority handing down Law About Games.

Koster’s “Not-A-Game” tendencies aside, that isn’t really how they see things. They’re a generation of tinkerers and wonderers, trying to feel things out, who made some mistakes, had some triumphs, and developed some ideas. They don’t believe that they have all the answers, nor that they’re Authorities to be obeyed or rebelled against…they just have insights and beliefs that come from a long history of design.

(And, as Cook said, the biggest failing of absolutely everybody involved in gaming is that they’re completely blind to history.)

Where I part ways with Cook is on the question of academics. He came across as dismissive. Yes, academic analysis can be dry and jargon-ish. It’s still valuable. Academics worth the name specialize in turning experience, data, and cases into theory. Sure, they may not be game designers, but that isn’t their job, any more than it’s the job of a military historian to strap on a broadsword and go carve up some knights.

I know I keep on banging on about the guy, but that’s one of the reasons I find Grant Tavinor’s work interesting. Yes, he’s an academic. Very much so. But because he’s an academic, his work does a good and careful job developing theories that seem to elude off-the-cuff designers. The reason why his definition of video games is so good…

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.

…is because he employed the theory of disjunctive definitions (where two things can be sufficient yet neither are necessary) in order to solve the knotty problem of whether games need to be systems-focused.

This definition doesn’t come from vacuum. It’s the culmination of a long and fairly dry essay about the nature of video games. It’s an end-point of a lot of careful, slow thought, instead of some sort of blinding insight. That’s why it works so well. Sometimes you have to take it slow and work it out.

Yes, it has jargon. Yes, it’s kinda tough going. Yes, the linked essay and Tavinor’s excellent book Art of Videogames can reveal the sort of reservations and cautions that you see in all good academic analysis. And, yes, reading Tadhg Kelly bang on in bite-sized bloggy chunks about characters-as-dolls and about how the Zinesters don’t get how tabletop proves that players only really care about systems is a lot easier.

But it’s  worth it.

Academics have their place. And, if the job’s done right, they don’t pretend to have all the answers. There’s room for rebels and discontent; in fact, the best academic writers and thinkers practically BEG for rebellion and discontent. They practically feed off it. Something to think about.

(Oh…and they love talking about history.)

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STOP IT. Stop with the formalism thing. Stop it right now.

A very simple response comes to mind:

“Tadhg Kelly, please stop trying to tell me ‘what games are’. To be extremely blunt, judging by both your site and your CV, I don’t think you’ve earned the right.”

Granted, I haven’t earned the right to tell anybody what they should think is or isn’t a game either. But I’m not trying to claim it

You know who HAS earned that right, though? Anna Anthropy. Remember her? The woman who’s supposed to be at the vanguard of the “zinesters”? Her output has been excellent. Lurid title or no, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars demonstrated a clear mastery of simple, elegant, oldschool game design, and she went into no small amount of detail in explaining exactly how she employed that mastery. She’s done that over, and over, and over. She’s a good critic and a great designer.

If she’s calling stuff like Dys4ia a game, I’m going to be very reluctant to disagree with her, because she’s actually really good at making and judging the things.

The funny thing is that I’m not actually a gigantic fan of the anti-mainstream backlash. I get it, but I think that there’s more mastery and craft in mainstream than the “zinesters” are necessarily always willing to admit.  I also  don’t root my disagreement with Kelly in the political and identity elements of games as Anna does. (Though I do respect those responses.)

I’m simply not impressed by these attempts to turn games into empty systems of rules, and to straitjacket criticism by forcing critics to engage them solely as systems of rules. If that was EVER the case, it’s long over. It’s over in board games, it’s over in card games (CCGs are far more than their rules), and you’d best believe it’s over in video games.

If you want to know “what games are”, you don’t need Kelly. Go read Grant Tavinor for the definition of games:

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.


This problem is solved. This discussion is OVER. Grant Tavinor solved it back in 2008. Now go do something productive.

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Diablo 3 Auction House was “a mistake”. (Guess who WASN’T mistaken?)

So here’s Blizzard talking about the auction house on Joystiq:

[Diablo 3 Director Jay] Wilson said that before Blizzard launched the game, the company had a few assumptions about how the Auction Houses would work: He thought they would help reduce fraud, that they’d provide a wanted service to players, that only a small percentage of players would use it and that the price of items would limit how many were listed and sold.

But he said that once the game went live, Blizzard realized it was completely wrong about those last two points. It turns out that nearly every one of the game’s players (of which there are still about 1 million per day, and about 3 million per month, according to Wilson) made use of either house, and that over 50 percent of players used it regularly. That, said Wilson, made money a much higher motivator than the game’s original motivation to simply kill Diablo, and “damaged item rewards” in the game. While a lot of the buzz around the game attacked the real money Auction House, “gold does much more damage than the other one does,” according to Wilson, because more players use it and prices fluctuate much more.

A “mistake”, you say. “Everybody uses it”, you say. “made money a much higher motivator than killing Diablo”, you say. “Gold does much more damage”, you say.

What’s that phrase?




[D3 is a] CASH economy. In previous RPGs, you’d generally trade time and a little luck for your gear and capabilities. In a game like World of Warcraft, for example, there were stark limits on what you could buy; most high-level gear needed to be earned through gameplay. Not in Diablo 3. Everything can be legitimately bought and sold in Diablo 3, whether on the Auction House or just between players. Absolutely everything.

Gear? Just buy it with gold. Enhancements (gems, in this case?) Gold. Weapons? Gold. It doesn’t matter whether it’s early-game magic gear or end-game legendary weapons dripping with power, all of it can be yours if you have enough gold. And, sure, there’s also the real-money auction house, but that’s only one small part of it. Gold and real money are interconvertible currencies as well; gold in Diablo 3 is a currency as much as any other, albeit one that’s backed by a game-maker instead of a state.

That changes things a lot. It makes the game’s economics ultimately much like the real world’s economics, where the value of things are usually reducible to cash. Your time, your luck, your skill in acquiring gear—it really just determines your gold-earning power…

…Look a little closer, and you’ll see why these things are contributing to the sense of ennui and dissatisfaction that is plaguing the game, and have been plaguing it since the game was launched. It’s why people are complaining that they just don’t find it “fun” like they did Diablo 2—and it might just be why the reviews seem not to capture these issues.

Unseemly to gloat? Maybe. Don’t care.

You all better recognize.

(Yes, yes, h/t to Ben Kuchera, who needs to get over it and unblock me on Twitter already.)

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What makes something art? Copyright law!

This has to be the most elaborate troll of the gaming community I’ve seen since Jack Thompson. “games aren’t art because they’re code, and that’s proven by how they’re copyrighted”? Glorious.

Kudos, Liel Lebovitz. Not only for writing something so ridiculous that it defies Poe’s Law. Not only for artfully avoiding both the fact that code is copyrighted all the time and the fact that language itself is quite literally a code. Sneaking in the implication that books and musical notation aren’t art, though? Opening the door to arguing that ANY digitized medium isn’t art, since digital media is nothing more than elaborate computer code?


If only we all didn’t have better things to do.

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I’ve Had an Extraordinarily Bad Day

…but this isn’t the place to talk about it.

(If you’re THAT curious, email me. Who knows? You might even be able to help. Yes, you. You, in the sweater.)

(That’ll put Gmail’s spam filter through its paces.)

Instead, I’m going to relay a really brilliant comment I read about SimCity on RPS.

Excellent question. Sure, you might have just been trolling, but it is important to ask, “why are people so concerned about this game?”

Pull up the chair, and let ol’ Granpa tell you a story. When I was a but a child, I went to a Community College and had a job. My job was playing computer games in a small office, back when “software testing” was something you not only could do while going to Community College, you could get paid for.

Remember when companies paid people for things?

Moving on…

We were an independent contracting house. Most of the games were the shovelware crap of the day — I have my share of war stories.

One day, we were asked to do final external testing on this Mac game from some small company out in Orinda. Yes, it was SimCity, and yes, it was an amazing game.

But it was more than an amazing game, it was amazing code. I remember we only encountered one showstopper bug. You could move around the city, but the city itself was frozen in time.

On the phone to Maxis, the reply (probably from Jeff Braun) was straightforward, “Yeah, that just means the simulation crashed; the interface will keep running.”

I know this sounds like basic game coding 101, but between the games I worked on and the ones we had in office for “research”, I was seeing between a half-dozen and a dozen games a week, on all platforms, and I’d never seen a game that was so well behaved as to have the simulation hang without bringing down the whole thing. And the stability was right up there with the titles from the PCEngine that we were certifying for the US market: frankly, there weren’t very many bugs, and those that we found were so minor as to be inconsequential. This was clean code.

The original was a rare thing: one of the few perfect games. Flawless code, easily readable, immediately accessible, SimCity gave birth to a genre while it marked a fond spot in the memories of a generation.

So it hurts to see it become the predictable result of groupthink mediocrity, a vision darkened by the urge to monetize and blinded by the buzzword-laden venom spat out by suit-wearing asps whose MBAs give them the right to override common sense and computer science.

For those managers who think the blasphemy of SimCity can all be attributed to teething problems, let me state clearly in your terms the problem: As long as you treat games as having a retail channel, you will be following a marketing model that flogs week 1 sales. DRM necessarily affects the core functionality of a game and necessarily changes continuously (out-of-date DRM might as well not be used). If you attach DRM to such a game, you will then increase significantly the chances that a significant percentage of your customers will not be able to play the game; that is, you will increase the number of dud products you sell. If you require internet-connected DRM, then you increase those odds by several orders of magnitude.

Always-on, Server-client games require a “Games as Service” business model. That business model is simply incompatible with a Week-1 spike in sales. A blockbuster movie has people waiting in line to see it. A video game with a long queue only generates hostility.

Your job is only safe until someone comes up with a metric to show how many millions you’ve wasted. Until then, enjoy laying off the people who actually contributed positively to the project.

So in short, what was a revolutionary title built on solid code, is now a “me-too” adaptation to the Social Network of 2008 with code that evokes comparisons to WWIIOL at launch.

I can’t add much to that…except that the story that it was linked to is one where a Maxis insider confirmed that SimCity doesn’t actually need the servers at all. Ayup. Doing a single-player version of SimCity isn’t just possible, this insider confirmed that it would be trivial. The only parts that wouldn’t work would be the “region” stuff, and while I’m sure that that sort of thing is neat, it clearly isn’t justifying this debacle.

I find it hard to care. People in the sorts of situation I’m in have trouble caring about stuff as abstract as digital rights management, which is one of the reasons why they can get away with that sort of thing in these dire-as-hell days.Yet it’s good to know regardless. It could have been different. It could have been better. And it WAS BETTER.

Just remember that.

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Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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