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Late Post PAX Write-up

At the end of August a friend and I hopped on a plane to Seattle for our first PAX. I’ve never had so much fun spending three days with 70,000+ people in a confined space, but sadly it seems that those number of people bring in larger numbers of diseases which is what has delayed my PAX write-up for over two weeks. So, as a first time PAXer with a delayed write-up, I thought I would approach the issue by writing about what has stuck with me most about PAX 2011 now that some time has passed. The first thing that comes to mind in remembering PAX was how the first day lineup for the keynote with David Jaffe, the Q&A with Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik the creatures of Penny Arcade, and finally the Rooster Teeth panel was amazingly worth waking up at 6:30 in the morning. After waiting in line from 7:30 until the opening at 10:00, we had made a new friend in line, got second row seats, and all three panels were very entertaining. David Jaffe (creator of God of War and Twisted Metal), who I have no great interest in as a gamer gave an entertaining keynote-turned-motivational-speech about finding and following the inner voice that drives you forward and leads you to a life you are proud of and enjoy. I think some of the audience may have found it cliché but I found it to be a positive and entertaining start to an Expo that is really all about doing what you love. The following Q&A with Jerry and Mike was truly a highlight of the show, with people from all around the world standing and asking questions that ranged from serious good questions about Penny Arcade to “could you ask Wil Wheaton, to ask Felicia Day to look at my manuscript” disasters. After that comical hour, finishing off with the Rooster Teeth panel provided a preview of their new episode of Red vs. Blue and a welcome amount of silliness.

The Firefall logo. Look familiar to anyone else?

Once we hit the show floor a few booths visually dominated the others. The Firefall booth stands out to me as the biggest over-selling of a game at the show. Their booth was huge and there were signs with the Starcraft-ripoff Firefall logo everywhere. However upon playing the game, it struck me as a fairly generic shooter that was developed primarily for 3rd person while it had no reason not to be in 1st person. The game felt felt a bit like Team Fortress meets Halo: Reach, only not as nicely tuned as either.

A quick photo I snapped of the Skyrim dragon. I want one for my lawn.

On the other hand, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim deserverd the giant dragon looming over their booth. We were able to rush to the line first thing on the last day of PAX getting far enough ahead that we only had to wait about half an hour to try Skyrim. I spent the entire 10 minute demo trying to climb as high as I could up a mountain, found and defeated some bandits, and in the end barely scratched the surface of everything I wanted to try in that world. The game is gorgeous however, and for fans of Oblivion or previous Elder Scrolls games it looks like Skyrim will provide another way to sink days and days into a video game. Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the new version of Counter Strike soon to hit most platforms, generally had about an hour wait for the short multiplayer demo, but was well worth it for the free shirt and CS:GO beta key. We ran that line multiple times to get beta key’s for friends. I’ve never been very good at CS myself, but the game seems to me to be a well done console friendly remake of the CS experience, intense firefights, weapon buying, bomb planting, and all. Most of the small or indie games at PAX had lines that tended to be 10-30 minutes, instead of 1-4 hours, and often provided excellent demos. Of these Twisted Pixel’s new Kinect game The Gunstringer was one of the most fun. My friend and I got to play co-op, pointing our right hands at the screen like a toy gun, flicking up to fire, while one of us used our left hand as if we were holding a marionette to control the movement of the character. The Gunstringer seems to be an on-rails shooter with humor only matched by its whimsy, and has largely increased my desire to own a Xbox Kinect. Also of note was Retro/Grade by 24 Caret Games. This space shooter meets music game is very difficult to explain so I suggest looking up videos online, but the basic idea is that you are playing a side-scrolling space shooter in reverse time. Best played with a plastic Rockband or Guitar Hero guitar, players press various note buttons to move the ship onto different tracks, and as time goes in reverse you must strum the guitar to absorb the shots that your ship fired in the past, and dodge the enemy shots coming from behind that your ship debatably already dodged. Like I said, it’s hard to put into words, but the gameplay matches the music and provides a take on the music/action genre crossing I hadn’t encountered before. There were more great panels to see then there was time, and I missed many that I think I would have enjoyed. Aside from the initial Q&A I’d have to say that I most enjoyed the live Weekend Confirmed podcast, and I’d like to give them a plug. I’ve tried out lots of gaming podcasts and Weekend Confirmed is the only one I never get tired of. Garnett Lee runs an excellent show. Give it a try if you haven’t. There really is too much much at PAX to mention everything that is good, but these are the games and experiences that stuck with me as the best of the best. Any gamer who can should try to get to PAX at some point, it’s a great place to not only have fun, but I came away with some new friends with similar tastes. Just a warning to anyone who flies to PAX however, bring as much empty baggage space as you can, you’ll need it with all the swag you’ll collect.

This is only some of what I came home with.

Bungie Celebrates a Final Halo Bungie Day

Bungie, known as the creators of the Halo franchise, have long held a fascination with the number 7, and as such on every July 7th they celebrate Bungie Day with their community. To make things more exciting they are simultaneously celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. After creating their final Halo game Bungie is using this Bungie Day to say farewell to the franchise by playing with the public. Today only, there is a Bungie Day matchmaking playlist in which Bungie employees are playing. Those who are lucky enough to get matched against one of their teams can attempt to earn a steaktacular (by beating the Bungie team by 20 points or more) and earn real steak. Bungie has said that, while supplies last, they will send out a pair of steaks to every player on teams that successfully beat them by that margin. This seems like a great way to thank the community, and from the time I've spent on the playlist everyone seems to be having a good time. So here's to Bungie! Thanks for making great games, supporting your community so generously, and preventing hunger with steak! Happy Bungie Day and Happy Anniversary!  

Do Endless Games Trade Satisfaction for Replayability?

As online multiplayer has increased in popularity and variety, and as small flash and mobile games have become easily accessible, endless games seem to have become quite common. First I should clarify my meaning of “endless.” Though some games are truly endless, like MMO’s in that you could play them forever and the game never ends, I’m more specifically referring to games that do end, but don’t have an ending. These are games where the only way out is to fail, die, or quit, otherwise the game would go forever. Some of the popular multiplayer examples of this class of games I’m referring to as endless are Call of Duty’s Zombie mode, Halo ODST’s Firefight mode, and other so-called “Horde” modes. On the flash game and mobile game end there are many games that are arguably endless; any auto-run games such as Canabalt where the player helps a character avoid obstacles while running non-stop and jumping games like Doodle Jump all continue until the user fails, quits, or the time runs out (if applicable). All these endless games tend to have great replayability but often seem to provide far less satisfaction than games that end. I find that a large part of feeling accomplished at anything is completion, whether it’s a part or the whole of a project. Endless games subject players to a lack of the great feeling of completing a game. There may be minor feelings of accomplishments after beating certain levels, getting certain scores, or surviving certain challenges, but never that feeling of being truly done. Variety in games is certainly not a bad thing, so I wouldn’t say endless games shouldn’t be made. I’ve had my own share of fun with a variety of endless games. But I worry that they are becoming to popular and people are forgetting (or never learning) how good it feels to complete a “beatable” game. I would like to propose to game developers that while optional endless modes are great for a change of pace, the core of games should be beatable and completable when we desire them to be, so we aren’t infinitely stuck with that feeling of “I could have done better.”  

Puzzling Friends is a Great Experience

Watching someone else play a video game can be surprisingly fun. Watching my dad play our old Atari 2600 when I was less than six years old introduced me to games, and when my dad got a Sega Genesis I watched when I felt too unskilled to play. As I have improved as a gamer, and games have improved, I’ve never lost interest in watching games in the right context. Watching high-level play of competitive multiplayer games is like watching sports; seeing what the best of the best can accomplish is quite impressive. Watching or taking turns playing an adventure game or RPG can be a fun social experience, and sharing the tough or disappointing parts of a game can make it much less frustrating. However, my new-found favorite type of games to watch are puzzle games. I don’t mean games like Tetris or Bejeweled, but games with environmental puzzles and platforming like Portal or Limbo, games that give you “Ah hah!” moments when you finally figure something out. If you have ever played a game that had situation after situation that took contemplation and thought to figure out, puzzles to solve and/or enemies to outsmart, give this a try: Find a friend or family member who you know is a capable enough gamer to handle the game without getting frustrated, and sit them down to play as you sit back and watch in silence. As you watch someone new to a game play through puzzles that you have already solved you can almost hear the gears turn in their head as they play. Some puzzles which you found difficult they will breeze through in seconds, and others that you solved quickly may stump them. With someone else’s brain fumbling through puzzles you’ve solved, they will reveal ideas of solutions that you never thought of. Often they will not work, but sometimes a new solution will work revealing a gameplay option that may not have occurred to you. I recently introduced a friend the XBLA game Limbo which was released last summer, and watched them play in near silence. (I did give them a couple hints and answer a couple questions when they were needed and wouldn’t hinder the experience. I also did plenty of chuckling at the repeated deaths following incorrect solutions.) We were both having a great time, them playing a wonderful game with moral support from me when they got stuck or frustrated, and I got to experience the game through their eyes. Seeing someone else experience those “Ah hah!” moments is great in itself, and better when you remember having that same moment yourself. To anyone interested in psychology, puzzle solving, and games, I recommend sharing your puzzling game experiences with everyone you can. Watching someone solve problems and comparing their process to yours is enlightening about both how similar and how different every person’s brain is from each other’s.  

Great Expectations

When i get a new game, my excitement ranges from “cool, this should be fun” to “holy ****, I can’t wait to play, get me home to play and leave me alone for 24 hours or I’ll snap!” The latter has become rarer as I’ve aged and developed that thing called patience, but I still know what its like to be absolutely dying to play a game. And sadly, as I’m sure most gamer’s have, I’ve been burned by my expectations. Sometimes a “holy ****” game, that you’ve counted down the days for, that looks like the coolest new idea you’ve ever seen, or perhaps the best sequel to your favorite series, just doesn’t live up to personal hype. I pop the game in, shaking with excitement as it starts and I begin the game, maybe the story starts with a bang and for a brief moment everything is right with the world, and then suddenly or not, the game lets me down. Other times, I hear briefly of a game from a friend, or read about a game online but don’t get caught in the hype, and then I buy it late, perhaps on sale, and my mind gets blown. It’s become apparent that my personal expectations and excitement for a game can drastically effect my experience and enjoyment when playing. In 1991 the original Sonic the Hedgehog was release for the Sega Genesis. It was loved by many, including myself, and became a commercial success. Over the three years following Sega released Sonic 2, Sonic CD, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, all of them generally well received. When 3D games became the norm Sega brought Sonic to 3D on the Dreamcast with relative success in Sonic Adventure and it’s sequel. Fans of Sonic games (like me) could trust Sega to bring them great high speed experiences through Sonic games. And this is where gamers got burned. Not to say that every Sonic game since the Dreamcast has been a failure, many of them hit or miss with various gamers and some have been generally accepted. But after the Dreamcast the average quality of sonic games took a downturn, and the series has become a symbol for what happens when a good character is badly taken care of. When I first played Sonic the Hedgehog, the 2006 want-to-be-reboot for the Xbox 360, I had fallen for the advertisements and hoped that the experience would be at least on par with Sonic Adventure. The game started well, and in the end I don’t regret playing it, but I felt like a kid who was told he was going to Disney Land, but instead was taken to a county fair. It is a far more positive experience to be surprised by a game I haven’t heard much about. In November 2001 Halo: Combat Evolved, the first of the Halo series, was released for the original Xbox. I had minimal interest in the Xbox at the time, and had never been a huge fan of first person shooters so I ignored Halo. Aside from hearing some recommendations from friends and playing a very short stint at a party the game stayed out of my reach until my parents purchased an Xbox sometime in late 2002. From word of mouth I had reached the “cool, this should be fun” stage of expectation for Halo, but nothing more. Long story short, I’ve since become not only a Halo fan, but an avid FPS player. Another memory: In 2001 I was in a Target store’s games section and they had a PS2 demo kiosk running some game I’d never heard of. I hopped on and played around for 5 minutes, expecting nothing special as it was just a kiosk game, and I got hooked. When I later bought a Playstation 2 I bought myself a copy as soon as I could. That game was Ico. When I played through it, having only played 5 minutes, I was excited, but still hesitant to expect too much from it since I didn’t know anyone who had played it. Again, my expectations were blown out of the water and I had one of my most memorable gaming experiences. I don’t think anyone can completely forget what they think they know about a game when they play it, but perhaps we, as gamers, should try to temper our preconceived excitement. It would be bad to go into a game with a negative outlook, but perhaps for the sake of the game we shouldn’t allow ourselves to have unattainable expectations. Or, for the sake of improving games as a media, should we always go into games with the highest expectations, and allow ourselves to nit-pick about the smallest flaws? I propose that all gamers should begin a new game with only the expectation of a fun experience and allow the game to provide the rest. If we can simplify our expectations to this point as much as possible, hopefully we can objectively view a game for its strengths and weaknesses regardless of what we thought the game was before we played it. Holding on to objectivity is always a challenge, but if we are self-aware about our expectations, it may allow us to enjoy games for what they are, not what we wish them to be.  

How Achievements Changed My Gaming Habits

Last night I signed into Xbox Live to wait for a friend so we could play some multi-player games. I figured I had a while to wait, so I decided to play a game. What did I play? Bejeweled 2. There is nothing wrong with Bejeweled; I enjoyed playing it again. But I had to ask myself, why, out of all the games I have, some with stories I haven’t finished, lots that I generally prefer to Bejeweled, did I play Bejeweled 2? The short answer: Achievements. I don’t consider myself an “achievement whore.” I don’t drive myself crazy going for achievements when I’m not having fun, nor do I buy games just to get easy achievements as I have heard some people do. However, achievements have definitely changed how I play games. More specifically, they change that time at which I consider a game completed. When I was growing up, playing games on my Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, or even until the first Xbox and Playstation 2, I considered a game “complete” when I had beaten the story. After that I would play multiplayer, replay the single player, or try to complete optional extras only if I really liked a game more than others I had at the time. Back in the 16 bit era when most games could be completed in one day, I might replay Genesis games that I hadn’t played in a while, but in general, I tended to play a few favorites such as Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Cool Spot, or Aladdin over and over again. Then in late 2006 I received my first Xbox 360 and things started to change. As I got used to having achievements on all my games, I started checking them more often. To this day I follow a personal rule that I can’t look at achievements when I first play a game, because I want the experience to be unspoiled, and achievements to be a surprise. But once I finish a games single-player mode, or get far enough in that I have a a good feel for the game, I’ll look through the achievements. Once I do, if I see achievements that look fun to complete, I’ll replay the game just for them. And now I have a new meaning for a “completed” game. Where I used to consider any game I’ve beaten complete, I now consider complete to mean that I both finished the single-player element of the game and I have 100% of the achievements. (This applies to trophy’s, badges, or whatever else a console or interface calls achievements as well.) So, when I was looking for a game to play last night, instead of thinking “What do a want to play?” and picking a favorite game, I hit my Xbox 360 guide button, and browsed games that I hadn’t gotten all of the achievements for. Bejeweled 2 has some tough achievements that I haven’t been able to get, and I hadn’t played in a while, so I made my decision. When I think about how much influence achievements have on my game playing it seems rather silly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who couldn’t care less and think I’m ridiculous for trying to obtain digital recognition for completing random video game tasks. But in the end, as long as I remember that games are supposed to be fun and I don’t start hunting achievements that aren’t fun, I like what achievements have added to gaming. Before achievements I could get extra replay value out of a game by convincing myself to race for a certain time, complete certain goals, or finish a level without attacking enemies. I can still do that, but many of those things are also recommended by achievements, and I can more easily share them with my friends. Achievements even give me ideas for gaming goals I never would have thought of myself, like Halo: Reach’s If They Came To Hear Me Beg achievement. Hunting achievements also prompts me to play a wider variety of my games, or return to ones I wouldn’t normally remember I had, like Bejeweled 2. What has the introduction of achievements done to your gaming habits? Oh, one final note...

Can Games Be Art?

Below: Some of my favorite games that I would consider to be artistic visually and otherwise.

Okami

Picture 1 of 5

This last Saturday the 21st, I ran into this post on Kotaku. The posted video shows a brief debate on Fox News about whether video game creators deserve to be included in federal funding for the arts. The video itself is disheartening, Brian Ambrozy, the lone man chosen to argue for why video games should be considered for such funding, is given only a brief moment to explain that the expensive commercial games that get the most exposure are not the games that would be getting these grants, but instead it would be the “indie developers who develop educational and artistic games.” On the other side of the debate they place Neal Asbury, credited only as a Radio Talk Show Host in the video, but who, according to his website’s bio, is “an entrepreneur involved in global business” and is “chief executive of The Legacy Companies.” Assuming Asbury has as much knowledge and experience with business and the economy as his bio implies, I would hope he would add to the debate by discussing why Indie game developers should or shouldn’t get art funding from an economic standpoint. Instead, he begins by comparing video game creators to ping pong players, and then moves on to attack the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) saying they “had lofty goals when they began” but “they have become a perversion for what they were once intended to be.” It’s clear that Asbury has a problem with the idea of federal funding for organizations like the NEA, and that is his opinion to have, but it does not address the issue that should have been discussed: Assuming the arts are still going to receive federal funding, should video games be considered? The entire video is laced with clips of Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto is referenced by the news anchor, displaying just how much this “news” feature is trying to convince people that game developers should not be funded. If they wanted to take an unbiased stand they should have shown artistic Indie games that could actually be getting funding. Regardless of the frustration Fox News has caused me with their propaganda-like dismissal of video games, the actual question at the heart of the issue is “Are video games art?” It’s clear that many people, such as Neal Asbury, only think of video games purely as a game, like ping pong. (Though some say that ping pong is not only a game, but a sport. Can the same be said of some video games?) In contrast to this opinion, the Smithsonian American Art Museum seems to have recognized that at the very least, video games contain art. From March 16th, 2012 to September 30th 2012 the Smithsonian is holding an exhibition titled The Art of Video Games. According to the official site, “The Art of Video Games is one of the first exhibitions to explore the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.” I’m very happy to see a national museum take on video games as an excepted art medium, and I hope this will broaden people’s acceptance of games as an art. But the wording the Smithsonian has chosen, “The Art of Video Games,” leaves some room for argument that video games are not art, they simply contain art. I’d like to form my own argument on the topic. To start, let’s look at a couple of definitions of art, as it’s a term that is used in too many different ways. My computer’s dictionary provides three definitions: art |ärt| noun • the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power : the art of the Renaissance | great art is concerned with moral imperfections | she studied art in Paris. • works produced by such skill and imagination : his collection of modern art | an exhibition of Tibetan art | [as adj. ] an art critic. • creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture : she's good at art. The last of these definitions clearly can only be used to discuss the art contained in video games, as most games were at least painted or drawn in a digital sense, and you might say that 3D models for environments and textures in 3D games are “sculpted” though the process is very different from classical sculpture. The first two definitions however provide us some meat to work with. Both suggest that art requires creative skill and imagination, and the first goes further to explain that art works “are to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Working with this as a basis, I pose the question again, are video games art?

I think it would be hard to find someone who is an experienced gamer who would say that they have never played a game that was created with skill and imagination. I would say that game creators have always had to work with imagination on their side, as when game design first began the players often just controlled a few pixels. It takes imagination to see the pixels on the screen of Space Invaders as a fleet of alien ships assaulting a planet defended by a lone defense vehicle. And as a programmer myself I can’t take for granted the skill it takes to create games.

Without imagination how could a game developer see this as an alien invasion?

We come, then, to the second half of the definition, the goal of being appreciated for beauty and emotional power. I think that if game developers were going to list the goals they had for their game, number one on their list would often be that the game is fun, but it is also easy to find developers who discuss the beauty and emotion of their games. Even violent commercial games are not afraid to attempt an emotional interaction with the player; Gears of War 2’s story contains a romantic tragedy regarding the wife of one of the heroes. (See a clip here. Warning: Spoilers!) Though reviews I read of Gears of War 2 call that plot point flat and emotionless, and I can't help but agree that the delivery doesn't live up to the sadness of the story, not all art is accepted as being the emotional piece its creators meant it to be. Other games, such as Ico for the Playstation 2, receive positive credit for the bond the player feels to the characters. Just like all other forms of art, some works fall flat, or only hit emotionally with certain people, but based upon the definition, I can’t see any way to argue that video games are not an art form. I hope that in the coming years, as gaming continues to permeate our entertainment culture, video games will be seen on par with movies, as an art form, made of many art forms. In games, visuals, sound, characters, and writing come together much like they do in movies, only instead of being bound by the experience of passively watching, they are bound by the experience of playing and controlling. Finally, looking back at the Fox News clip’s discussion of funding video games as art, I have to say I’m all for it. I don’t have the knowledge to say that funding any art is economically feasible during a recession, but if federal funding is continuing to go to movies, theatre, or any other business that is considered an entertainment art, then I think video games, which as an industry have shown no signs of failing economically, should have an equal chance of receiving monetary support.