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Archive for the ‘Submissions’ Category

The Voice of Gaming

Posted by nfinit on June 12, 2007

(submitted to The Platformers 6-11-07)

You would not be reading this if it were not for Shigeru Miyamoto.

You’d be reading a very different Platformers, perhaps instead called The Flight Sim Pilots, expounding on the genius of Microsoft Flight Simulator or some other dreadfully bland topic. No, this article and indeed this site could not exist if it were not for Miyamoto, for it is without hyperbole when I say his games saved console gaming from the Crash of ’84 and as a result rescued the industry.

Were it not for Shigeru Miyamoto’s work on Donkey Kong, Nintendo would never have entered the home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System, without the NES there would have been no recovery from the Crash of 1984, and with it likely no further videogame consoles. Console gaming, moribund and lacking Shigeru’s spark of imagination, would have slipped under the waves, videogames shackled to the personal computer, lost in a soulless pit of flight simulations and grognard-obsessed wargames.

He invented the platformer genre itself with Super Mario Brothers, the action RPG in Zelda, mentored the men who created Metroid and Pokemon, was named a Chevalier; time and again hailed as a genius by his peers. He is, if any one man can be called so, our hero.

Meanwhile, Johnathan Wendell- Fatal1ty, as he’d preferred to be called- is very good at Quake. And that’s pretty much the best you can say for him.

I mean, we know he’s good at Quake and Quake clones, he’s won something along the lines of a half million dollars doing so. He has a reputation of something of a primadonna, throwing tantrums when bested. He likes to bill himself as the world’s best-known professional video gamer, and between the money he’s won at Quake clones and his line of “gaming” mice, motherboards and other branded PC parts and accessories, he’s probably right.

Shigero Miyamoto. Savior of Console Gaming.

Johnathan Wendell. World’s Best Advertised Quake Player.

There’s about as much in common in them as John Lennon would have to Fred Durst.

Meanwhile, Time magazine in their recent Fifty Most Influential People issue, decided this connection connection, however tenuous, was enough to justify hiring Wendell to write an article on Shigeru Miyamoto’s influence on the videogame industry.

In Time’s defense, they may have intended Johnathan Wendell as Shigero Miyamoto’s spokesman for the sake of juxtaposition. In the same issue they pegged Conservative stalwart (and former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich to pen an article describing the impact of the thoroughly Liberal current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They pegged noted Intelligent Design proponent Micheal Behe to write an article on outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins; coac Lovie Smith, (the guy who coached the Chicago Bears into defeat in Super Bowl 41) to write the article on coach Tony Dungy (the man who would go on to lead the Indianapolis Colts into victory in that same game.). But truth is, we’re talking about the mainstream media here, saying that they get the idea that Newt is to Nancy what Doom Marine is to Mario is giving them entirely too much credit.

No, I think it’s far more likely that in the view of Time magazine- and by proxy the mainstream media in general- Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendell isn’t just very good at Quake. He is, in fact, representative of how the public at large view gamers and gaming. Thus, he is now our spokesman.

Not that we should be surprised. The general public- you know, the guys who insist on calling your PSP a Gameboy- still view gaming as a children’s diversion. The only real difference they’ve noticed is that somewhere in between the NES and the Xbox we stopped obsessing over toadstools and turtles and have become foul-mouthed Mountain Dew-fueled reprobates ogling the blue backsides of holographic women. They do not (and perhaps cannot) see gaming as a medium for subtle, sophisticated emotion. It’s as if someone had wiped the public memory clean of Heat, Leon, The Constant Gardner and Blade Runner and left the movie spectrum represented entirely by Chicken Little and The Fast and The Furious.

Now gamers, we know better, we know Johnathan Wendel is a bullshit fraud of a spokesman, that gaming has explored places he’s likely never touched in his six-hours-a-day practice with a railgun. He never knew the joy of rebuilding the cosmos from gumdrops. He never wept as Agro carried him to the last Colossus. He never stood and cheered as he sank the Master Sword into Ganon’s black, black, heart. He never sought his true name amid the streets of The City of Doors.

As for Time, (and by proxy public), how can we expect them to understand the depths of Johnathan Wendell’s duplicity? Ours is an industry fronted by space marines and malcontents with shotguns. The last thing the people in charge of our industry want is art. Art ruins the profit margins for the Madden roster updates. You can’t sell Axe body spray billboards within art. And art makes for lousy sequels. In such an industry Johnathan Wendel, Voice of Gaming doesn’t just make sense, he’s damned near tailor made for the task.

How did we get to the point where the general public honestly believes we are nothing more than a bunch of foul mouth reprobates with a fixation for high explosives and gravity-defying boobs?

I contend the fault is our own. We should have demanded better.

Not that some of us haven’t been trying. There is Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade, long a voice of advocacy within the gamer community. There is Edge magazine, one of the last brave bastions left of good game writing. There’s are select few quality gaming news and blog sites such as Four Color Rebellion, Next-Gen and The Escapist.

But for the most part, gaming press is a reflection of the public’s view of us: unprofessional, focused on hype, obsessed with sex and violence. Gaming journalism is nothing more than a tool for the industry itself, used to re-word and disseminate industry-approved PR literature. No real news is ever reported, only the information the industry wants revealed exactly when it wants revealed. Anything more would be breaking non-disclosure agreements. And we’ve seen first hand what happens when you allow the press free reign with actual reporting- a lobotomized, industry-friendly E3, free from any sort of community oversight.

There’s no attempt to raise the public discourse to something that may be worthy of Miyamto’s legacy, or of the artists and dreamers who build games we love. There’s no desire to expose the inadequacies of the industry, no journalistic fire to hold anyone involved accountable for anything that happens within it. There is no great desire, whether it be from gaming press or the retail establishment itself, to promote art over the mundane.

We have sought no voice. As a result, we’ve been assigned one.


Posted in Microsoft, Submissions, The Industry, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

Game; Stopped.

Posted by nfinit on April 17, 2007

(Submitted to The Platformers 4-17-07)

Once upon a time, there was something called the “record store”.

In that place you could find a vast collection of music, from the most pedestrian pop to the most obscure regional new age gospel reggae acts. And these stores would hire knowledgeable, (if not always exactly friendly) people, enthusiastic about music, able to steer customers in the right direction of whatever they were looking for or new stuff that the customer may have not even been aware of. Record stores would have regular customers, they were places were fans could hang out and just enjoy music, they were a credit not only to their particular community, but to the industry in general. The RIAA decided to destroy all that one day, but that’s another issue.

As gamers, we deserve something similar. Small, independent stores staffed with people who have a love for games, shelves stocked with both popular and obscure titles. These stores could, like their music store brethren, be places were gamers could hang out and learn about new games, where neophytes and casual gamers could come in, purchase games, and perhaps even expand their tastes a bit beyond EA and Tom Clancy.

Unfortunately, we have Gamestop.

I wouldn’t complain if Gamestop were a useful tool for the gamer community, a place where you could get your hands on niche titles not likely to be carried by the big box stores. But Gamestop isn’t that place. I realized this last week while trying to hunt down a copy of Puzzle Quest. I was reminded that the game exists when I saw it on the shelves of the local Best Buy, amid rows of That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana. I could have bought the game there, but I thought I’d do the responsible gamer thing and support the other billion dollar sales behemoth instead. Gamestop. I enjoy the luxury of having three Gamestops within five minutes of each other, and I felt sure one, if not all, should carry the title. After all, Puzzle Quest may be a tad niche, but if a big box store had it, surely the store dedicated to selling games would too.

I was wrong. Instead I was met with shelves full of the the exact same movie tie-in crap at Best Buy, along with rows of preteen girl shovel-ware. No Puzzle Quest to be found, or pretty much anything remotely niche for that matter, save for the used section. EA, masters of mass-market pablum, had their own dedicated stand in the middle of the store– just as large as the aisle dedicated entirely to used DVDs and strategy guides. PC games found themselves relegated to the back of a single EA-sand-sized aisle, and even that was shared with used console peripherals.

The space dedicated to console games wasn’t in much better shape. Sure, you could find a variety of titles in the used section, but the new sales area was the domain of Ubisoft, EA and more damned games based on children’s movies. Indeed, looking around the three stores I felt that I wasn’t in a dedicated games store as much as a Wal-Mart games section crammed alongside a yardsale and stuffed into a mall cubbyhole. And if that’s the case, how is Gamestop any more useful to the community than Wal-Mart or Best Buy? How is it that the only dedicated games store left in America has abandoned the hardcore base in favor of soccer moms looking to sate Little Timmy’s desire for the latest Madden roster update? In the age where virtually any videogame currently made is but an Amazon listing away, is Gamestop necessary anymore? Indeed, I believe that if we look more closely at Gamestop’s corporate model, we may see that the chain is, in fact, harmful.

Sure, Gamestop sells us used games at a discount, but isn’t this practice hurting the industry? Consider. Gamestop pulled in 5.3 billion dollars in revenue last year. Analysts believe up to 25% of Gamestop’s revenue comes directly from used sales. That’s 1.3 billion dollars Gamestop pulled in last year that was never seen by the gaming industry, at least not after that initial new sale that lead to the cascade of used sales that followed, and there’s no real way of being sure that the new game was purchased at Gamestop to begin with. Admittedly, not all of this money would have found it’s way back to the publisher, there are cuts on top of what they pull in, but it’s still 1.3 billion dollars directly into Gamestop’s coffers that have been pulled out of the regular distribution channels. All of this made off the backs of the people who make our games, at a time when the average game developer salary is falling. Can Gamestop justify it’s existence when it’s very corporate model depends on money stolen from the industry?

I could perhaps overlook this if it were not for Gamestop’s abominable customer service. Whether it’s the incessant pleas for pre-orders and trade-ins, the practice of selling gutted games as new, the actual act of shopping in a Gamestop is a repulsive, degrading experience, and that’s not counting the outright larceny involved in the paltry trade-in values compared to how much the used games are then sold for. It’s rare to find knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff at a Gamestop. Indeed it would seem that knowledge and enthusiasm about gaming is a detriment to employment, no true hardcore gamer is going to suggest with a straight face that a parent should purchase a copy of Kim Possible over a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. Gamestop managers don’t want enthusiastic gamers working under them, they’d rather have someone enthusiastic about selling Driver 3 pre-orders. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Gamestop experience actively discourages casual gamers from the hobby.

Gamestop relies on the conceit that they are providing the gamer community a valuable service despite the horrid customer service, outright fraud and the money syphoned directly from developer’s pockets. But the truth is, that service is not there. There is nothing that Gamestop provides that cannot be found via other avenues, whether that be Wal-Mart, Ebay, or even direct download. It is time we admit that not only do we not need Gamestop, but we’d be better off without them.

Posted in Gamestop, Op-ed, Submissions, The Industry, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

Of Good Intentions

Posted by nfinit on April 12, 2007

(submitted to The Platformers 4-11-07)

It has come to my attention that there exists a number of otherwise perfectly intelligent individuals who, for whatever reason, wish to destroy the gaming industry.

I don’t speak of Senators Clinton or Lieberman, or of software pirates. Nor do I speak of the infamous Jack Thompson- after all, I did say intelligent.

I don’t mean politicians seeking votes and attention on the backs of of legislation and censorship, nor those who flood the market with hundreds of thousands of copies of black-market Nintendo DS games. I speak of game developers who desire a standardized gaming platform. In the words of the most vociferous of these madmen, Denis Dyack, CEO and founder of Silicon Knights:

“I think in the long term, honestly, [I’d like] one hardware platform to rule them all. It’s what happened in the movie industry. I think we’re moving towards a homogeneous platform whether people like it or not. At the end of the day, I think it’s in everyone’s best interest that there be one hardware console, whether it be Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo or whether all three of them got together and said, “Ok we’re going to agree upon a standard for everyone to make.” In the movie industry it helped tremendously because as a content creator, all we want to do is make games and entertain people. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hardware platforms, like the Sony platform and I think the Wii’s got some really unique things and Microsoft’s platform we obviously love a lot. However, we’d rather spend time making the games than worrying about the hardware. And if everyone had the same hardware and when you made a game you knew you got 100% penetration because anyone who plays this game had to buy this hardware platform just like a DVD or whatever standard media format’s going to be. I think that would ultimately be much better for gamers.”

“In everyone’s best interest” applying to appropriately narrow definitions of the word “everyone”. In this case “everyone” would read as “the company with the monopoly”. For everyone else Denis Dyack desires nothing less than utter disaster.

Dyack forgets that we’ve already had a standardized console platform. Twice, actually. First time, back in the bad old days of joysticks with number pads, the 2600 enjoyed effective market monopolization. We know where that lead us– a flood of low quality games culminating in a concrete covered tomb somewhere in the New Mexico desert filled to the brim with crushed ET carts. After the Crash sorted things out again, we marched right into a second de facto standard, the Nintendo NES. That worked out well until it came to light that the entire time Nintendo restricted games from third party companies in favor of their own in-house brands. As far as industry-approved standardized platforms go, they’ve tried that as well. It was called the 3d0.

You’ll notice no one really pays all that much attention to Trip Hawkins anymore.

Assured doom aside, there are practical problems that would doom any attempt at a standardized gaming platform. Even if the stars aligned and everyone at Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all drank the same LSD-laced kool-aide and we woke up one fine morn to find one platform to rule them all, it’d last about six hours before some middle management schlump at Samsung remembered that videogames games push more money out the door per year than the motion picture industry and that he could retire at 40. There is simply too much money in the games industry for any growth-hungry corporation to allow to flow around untouched. This logic served as the entire justification for the Xbox. And even if you could control the money, you could never control the talent. It would take all of one talented team to give the system the bird and develop elsewhere to irreparably wreck the faith behind standardized platform.

Which brings us to the biggest problem in Dyack’s ill-conceived fantasy. No matter how iron-clad a supposed industry standard platform may be, it cannot hope to cover all possible places games can and will trickle down to. How does the standardized platform deal with handheld consoles or games on PDAs? What of cell phones? Sure, the majority of cell games out today are Popcap-licensed novelties, but processor power only increases with time; at some point the cell phone will become a viable platform, worth far more money than any single home console could ever hope to pull in. Indeed, the fracturing of the gaming industry is only likely to get worse, provided Apple ever gets around to pushing games for the Mac, iPod and iPhone platforms. Then there’s the PC, already in every one’s home, full of development resources of varying degrees of accessibility and cost. Even worse for Dyack’s whiskey-and-cocaine fueled utopia, the PC has several existing digital distribution services in place, allowing independent development teams to bypass the publisher-driven retail model entirely. All the tools are already in place to kill any viability or justification for the standardized gaming console.

You can hardly blame Dyack and others like him for saying things though, what with game development in excess of eighteen months. Developers can only guess if the console they start production for will still be viable when the game actually reaches completion. One might imagine this represents a particularly sore spot for Dyack and Silicon Knights, who’s magnum opus Too Human began development before Kid Rock was irrelevant. We are on the cusp of a brand new hardware cycle, which only serves to complicate predictions, especially with Sony’s woeful PS3 performance and the extraordinary sales of Nintendo’s Wii. Dyack says a homogeneous platform would prevent developers from chasing after nonviable platforms, but that rings hollow when you consider Silicon Knights has already committed to a single platform, Microsoft’s 360. If the fortunes of the 360 worry him, why not just develop for the PC? If total install base among consoles is what concerns Dyack, Sony would be more than happy to sell him a Playstation 2 development license– Hell, there’s probably already some Too Human PS2 assets amid the Too Human N64 and 360 discs.

So should gamers concern themselves with such insane rumblings from industry luminaries? Probably not, the standardized platform simply cannot work. But you can’t like to hear this sort of talk from our developers. Even as someone who identifies himself as a “360 guy”, I understand that there will be games and themes present on both the Wii and the next Playstation that I’ll never see on my favored console, and due to this I fully expect t own all three before the next cycle starts, as I expect most other hardcore gamers ultimately will. This is a diversity we would not enjoy under the umbrella of a standardized gaming console. Meanwhile, casual gamers simply do not care, they just buy whatever system we tell them they’d have the most fun with and don’t think much about what appears on other systems. The fantasy of a standardized console is the fever dream of people who simply ought to know better.

Sort of like Communism.

Or sex with goths.

Posted in Dyak, Op-ed, Submissions, The Industry, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

Graphics vs Gameplay

Posted by nfinit on February 12, 2007

(Originally submitted to The Platformers)

There are a great many acts of mental deception console fanboys subject themselves to, and few fascinate me more than that of “graphics vs gameplay.”

Simply put, proponents believe superior graphics inhibit gameplay; that through some arcane process developers without access to transparency filters or Mode Seven or 1080p resolution add Extra Gameplay Magic, making their games superior to games appearing on the most powerful system. They deride graphics as nothing more than “eye candy”. You’d almost wonder why these people don’t toss out their current hardware and live a life of perfect zen gameplay mastery with a Vectrix. Of course, spending much of my gaming life as a Sega fanboy, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to using the argument myself, Blast Processing be damned. And of course, there is a bit of merit to these concerns, what with Castlevania’s dalliances in the 3d realm being forgotten, and poor Sonic’s not been the same since he moved to the Dreamcast.

But there is no need for graphics to get in the way of good gameplay. Indeed I think it can be shown that advancements in technology only serve to enhance gameplay and open up new gameplay genres. A walk through the past 25 years of graphical progress between hardware cycles illustrates this.

Consider the move from the 2600 to the NES- before, the most complex platformer was Pitfall, we had not seen scrolling platform games anywhere near as complex as Mario. These games were confined to a handful of sprites on screen, making shooters such as R-Type impossible. The most compelling story the 2600 ever told was that of a humble dot endlessly pursued by a vicious, key-hating duck. We’d have to wait on new hardware before we would see stories on the level of Dragon Warrior and Phantasy Star.

The move to 16-bit hardware presented a refinement of existing genres, but new gameplay avenues were still opened. Games like Pilotwings would have been impossible without the smooth scaling at the SNES’s disposal. Eight-bit systems gave us compelling RPGs, but one can hardly argue Final Fantasy 6 would have been the same without the SNES color pallet. Similarly, Lunar: Silver Star Story would not have been the same without full-motion video. And while the NES could approximate Street Fighter II, it’s hard to imagine that anyone not heavy into psychotropic drugs would prefer it over the SNES version.

The PS1 era marked the latest great graphical leap between hardware generations, and gameplay took a leap as well. Finally we could see truly cinematic experiences on consoles, expressed in Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil. Indeed, the entire Survival Horror genre relies on atmosphere that would have been impossible on previous hardware. The racing genre, long confined to crude 2D sprites, finally flourished. After years of playing second fiddle to the arcade, consoles saw arcade ports that looked and played better at home, contributing to the marginalization of the arcade industry. True 3D FPS games on the consoles became possible, and we even saw first-glass FPG games appearing exclusively on consoles.

The following cycle gave us no revolutionary leap in the way graphics were presented, but the new hardware still allowed for larger worlds, giving rise to the sandbox genre made popular by GTA3. For the first time devs had the ability to do some truly remarkable work in terms of the scale in which worlds were presented, best seen in Shadow of the Colossus. Dynamic lighting not only made games look better, but it made stealth games such as Splinter Cell possible. Existing genres could be presented as a more compelling gaming experience. Sure, it may have been feasible to play God of War on the N64, but would you have really wanted to?

It could be argued that the current console generation exhibits only another cursory polish, but I don’t think that’s fair. We haven’t seen what the PS3 is capable of, and already the 360 boasts Dead Rising, a game that could at best be approximated on the Xbox 1. Meanwhile, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved would not be the same without its riot of particle effects and screen-warping explosions.

The false dichotomy of graphics over gameplay isn’t just a flawed argument, it is indeed a total and complete falsehood, if anything, the direct opposite is true. Every new advancement in graphics have opened up more freedom of design, more possibilities, even more size in each subsequent generation of games. There will always be disappointing games, even games with multi million dollar CGI budgets, but their being bad games is not the fault of the system they’re presented on. Graphics are more than eye candy. The progression in graphics have pushed gameplay farther than new controllers and online multiplayer gaming could ever hope.

Sadly, just as crappy games will never go away, neither will Graphics vs Gameplay. But hey, if anyone wants, I’m willing to trade my Genesis for your Wii.

Posted in Op-ed, Submissions, The Platformers | 2 Comments »