Archive for the 'Gaming' Category

Boy dies over XBOX360 punishment

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

I was going to say something really callous here, but thought better of it at the last moment, so I’ll just relate the facts and let you insert the callousness in your own mind:

A boy in Canada who ran away after his parents took his XBOX360 away as a punishment has been found dead in the woods nearly a month later.

So, the question to you, dear readers, is: is an XBOX360 worth dying over?

Introducing PC Game Fun Time, my new blog focused on PC gaming

Monday, October 20th, 2008

I’ve just started up a new blog with my current housemate and former college roommate, Grokmoo. It’s something we’ve talked about doing for awhile but finally got around to. The new blog is called PC Game Fun Time, and somewhat obviously, it’s focused on PC gaming. Check out the introductory post for a look at what we’re trying to accomplish. If you or someone you know might be interested, check it out! We’re going to start it up the same way we did with Supreme Commander Talk, which is to say, a massive blitz of posting.

And if the new site looks a little bit familiar at the moment, then yes, it’s because I completely ripped off this site’s theme. We’re still thinking about a good long-term solution on that front.

The twisted relationship between game reviewers and game publishers is still going strong

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

It’s an open secret in the videogame world that game reviewers and game publishers have a twisted relationship. It’s very much “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”. The majority of game review publications’ revenue comes from advertising bought by game publishers, and the publishers get publicity (and good reviews) in exchange. Videogame reviewers are so desperate for those engines of increasing readership numbers, exclusive previews of AAA titles, that they will trade away all journalistic integrity for them and allow their previews to be ghost-written by the publishers (e.g. in the case of Metal Gear Solid 4). The same happens with game reviews — witness how the head editor of Gamespot, Jeff Gerstmann, was fired for giving the AAA title Kane & Lynch its deservedly low score after Kane & Lynch’s publisher, Eidos Interactive, purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising on the site.

There is this persistent notion in the videogame business that AAA titles (the ones that are anticipated years in advance and have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars; the closest analogues are Hollywood blockbusters) are simply too big to fail. They are the standard-bearers of the videogame world, the theory goes, and so they must be good. Even if they aren’t, the game review media will unconsciously and consciously conspire to give them uniformly good scores. And the odd reviewer out, the one who dislikes the game so much he actually considers saying so in a review, dares not go against the consensus, as that will cause all of the rabid irrational fanboys to focus their attacks on him. And that’s even without the influence of big advertising dollars.

The most recent occurrence of this phenomenon is with the game Spore. Spore, as you no doubt know by now, is the largest of the AAA titles since the release of Halo 3 last year. Hyped up for years, with a truly astronomical budget, it was finally released in the past week. And yet it simply doesn’t live up to its potential (and that’s ignoring the huge Digital Restrictions Management fiasco). It’s just not very good, and the gaming public at large recognizes it as such. Personally, I would give it a 5 to 6 out of 10. Yet what does the game review
ing community give it? An average of score 86%!, as measured by Metacritic. Go on, read the individual reviews. Many of them discuss the shortcomings of the game at length, going into great detail about how each stage of the game is repetitive, boring, simple, and more toy-like than game-like, but then the review concludes with an incongruously high review score tacked onto the end, as if to jab you in the eye with their thought process: “It’s a AAA title; we can’t give it a lower score than this.”

Aye, the game review media, who are almost all in on it, can’t give AAA titles low scores (with the very occasional outlier, of course). They value their advertising dollars, and their jobs, over integrity. But the average gamer faces no such moral hazard. That’s why Metacritic’s average user review score is 55% — that’s a 31% discrepancy between how good the big reviewers say the game is and how good it actually is. And you only see this discrepancy with AAA titles. Reviewers don’t have any qualms about reaming a smaller title that deserves it, especially if it’s published by an independent publisher. User reviews and “professional” reviews match up rather uncannily in these situations. It’s just in the case of AAA titles that these scores can wildly diverge, and when they do, it’s always in the same direction: the pros rate a title much higher than its merits dictate.

And it’s a shame, because videogames can’t possibly match the respect and maturity of other entertainment forms, such as movies and music, until they have a reviewing and criticism industry with integrity.

Spore fails to live up to its potential

Monday, September 8th, 2008

The long wait is finally over, and after many years of hype, Spore has finally been released. This news was immediately greeted with a huge backlash against the malfeasant Digital Restrictions Management included with the game, which limits each purchased copy of the game to three installations — ever. I’ve written about DRM multiple times in the past, so I don’t feel compelled to take this opportunity to make any statement on DRM beyond reiterating how terrible it is for the consumer. And judging by all of the negative reviews Spore’s DRM has engendered on Amazon, even Electronic Arts has to be questioning whether including such draconian DRM was worth it. As I write this, Spore has 934 one-star reviews out of 1,011 reviews total, a number that is only going to increase dramatically over the coming days.

No, what I really want to address about Spore is its failure to live up to the amazing game play that it once promised, an issue that has been mostly lost amongst all of the (justifiable) complaining over the DRM (although Ars Technica didn’t fail to take notice). What really sold me on Spore from the first times I read about it was the promise of truly being able to design a creature. I remember marveling at how all aspects of a creature were supposed to be procedurally generated based solely on the design of the creature. The characteristics of the legs you designed would affect how well the creature would be able to move — its gait, its stride, its jumping height, etc. Ditto for every other component of the animal. I was instantly fantasizing of three-legged creatures with a single exceptionally long appendage used for striking. Such a feature has never evolved naturally on Earth, either by chance or because natural selection is not conducive to creating it. The real appeal of Spore, to me, was being able to test out all sorts of bizarre intelligently designed body configurations that do not appear in the natural world to find the most effective ones. And it would be very telling if the most effective predators in the games looked curiously similar to tigers, lions, and bears.

Combine this ability to truly design your own creature with the Sporepedia, which lets you match up your creations against everyone else’s, and Spore would’ve been amazing. I could easily see myself spending days trying to tweak the ultimate predator, able to kill as many of the creatures created by other people as possible. But alas, such a thing is not possible with Spore the way it ended up, because the ability to truly design creatures was removed at some point during the development process (probably because it ended up being exceptionally difficult to do correctly). Don’t get me wrong, you still have the ability to fine tune the appearance of creatures to your heart’s content, but it is all cosmetic. The finished version of Spore, unfortunately, shipped with an ability-generation system that is all-too-familiar, not revolutionary.

In fact, the creature customization system of Spore is nearly identical to the spaceship customization system in Galactic Civilizations II. In GalCiv, ships are formed by taking a base shape, adding cosmetic shapes of various shapes and sizes on top of it, and then adding modules. Each module takes up a certain amount of space and costs a certain amount of money. GalCiv is all about min-maxing your ship designs: pack in as much firepower/defense/functionality as possible while trying to keep the costs as low as possible (since cost determines how many of them you can build). Spore is exactly the same. The capabilities of your creature are determined not by how the creature is constructed, but simply by which modules are placed on it, and you guessed it, each module costs a certain amount of “DNA points” and has specific statistics for Attack, Defense, etc., exactly like Galactic Civilizations II. It’s still an acceptable system, but it’s not the revolution that I had been hoping for.

So, in Spore, a creature with a Spikes attack module placed on its chest will perform identically well in combat as a creature with a Spikes attack module on a twenty foot appendage, even though, in real combat between such creatures, the ways in which the spikes are used would be completely different, and would offer up substantially different advantages to both creatures. This is the promise of Spore that simply wasn’t met. It’s a pity.

Add to this unexceptional creature creator the chorus of reports that Spore is more fun as a toy than as a game — most parts of Spore aren’t particularly deep or challenging — and you have one AAA title release that I am overwhelmingly ambivalent about. Combine that with the draconian DRM, and you have one game that I know I’m never going to purchase. It’s a pity. Spore showed such promise, but in the end, couldn’t execute.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

So, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition has been out for a little while now. Has anyone here gotten a chance to play it yet? If so, what’d you think about it?

I’ve never actually played D&D in person. It makes me feel like I’m missing out on an essential part of my geek heritage. Even worse, most people I know have played D&D, even the ones who are now considerably less geeky than me.

DRM: how things you’ve bought aren’t actually yours

Friday, May 30th, 2008

We free software folk have been trying to warn people about the dangers of Digital Restrictions Management for a while, we really have. Yet you just aren’t listening to us! Well, here are two recent all-too-obvious-in-hindsight DRM travesties by Microsoft that might have you reconsidering. If Microsoft can’t even be trusted to do DRM correctly, then who can?

First, Microsoft decided to close down their MSN Music service, presumably because it was unprofitable. Unfortunately for any customer who ever bought anything from the store, they won’t be able to play their purchased music files on any additional devices come June because Microsoft is shutting down the servers. Each audio file is actually a file encrypted with DRM, and once the servers go away, so too go any of the means of being able to decrypt the files. Ain’t it great that “pirates” will be able to play their downloaded mp3s indefinitely, but people who legitimately purchased the music will be stuck with worthless files and no refund? But that’s what you get when you willingly buy something infected with DRM.

Microsoft also uses Digital Restrictions Management on all of its Downloadable Content for the XBOX 360. All downloaded files are linked both to the user account and to the hardware. Want to change accounts? You can’t take your downloads with you. Buying another XBOX 360? Can’t take ‘em with you. Buying another XBOX 360 because your old one broke? You’re still screwed! That’s right, this poor sap’s XBOX 360 broke, taking all of the downloaded content that he bought along with it, and Microsoft’s only response was “buy all your content a second time.” It makes you wonder why they even use the word “buy”, because when you actually buy something it implies that you actually own it. If this is really the future of gaming consoles, we gamers are in big trouble. Microsoft is trying to supplant a decent product (games on DVD that can be played in any console) with an inferior one, simply because they can make a lot more money with it, what with the duplicate downloads, lower distribution costs, no need to print manuals, etc.

And why shouldn’t they? By buying all of this content that’s infected with DRM, we customers are bringing it all down upon ourselves. Unfortunately, many people will only realize too late how evil DRM is — after they’ve spent thousands of dollars on music only to have the authorization servers shut down, or after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on downloadable content only to have their XBOX 360 crap out on them. And Microsoft doesn’t care about fixing any of this. They already have your money, and they’re big enough they can just tell you to go screw yourself. Actually, I wish they were that kind, because tauntingly suggesting you pay again for everything you’ve already purchased once is worse.

So join with me and refuse to buy anything that’s infected with DRM. Support the EFF’s anti-DRM campaign. Support the Defective by Design campaign. Spread the word. Don’t be the poor sod who abruptly finds himself “owning” hundreds of dollars of worthless DRM-infected files that cannot ever be used again.

Ending a blog is heart-wrenching

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

I’m just about ready to end my former blog, Supreme Commander Talk. It focused exclusively on the PC game Supreme Commander (don’t get bent out of shape if you have never heard of it; the game didn’t become nearly as popular as we had hoped it would). I stopped updating the blog about a year ago when I stopped playing the game. Since then, I managed to get a few other players in for short writing stints, but none of them stayed very long, and the blog has now lapsed after several months of inactivity. And given the game’s gradual loss of popularity since its release, even largely unstemmed by the release of its expansion pack, I think it’s about time to end the blog.

But ending a blog is hard. I, along with my friend Grokmoo, put a lot of effort into that blog. We were writing substantive entries in it every day. I would find myself playing multiplayer games just for the sake of having something to write about. I checked the forums and the other fansites constantly, so that even if I missed being the first to report to report on something, I would still be far from the last. It was damn fun, and it’s a real rush to grow a community around you. Oh yes, the relative “fame” was addictive. At its peak, SupComTalk was getting thrice as many daily visits as this blog currently gets. And on the aggregate, I’ve put a lot more time into this blog as well.

Ending a blog is hard, but sometimes, necessary. I don’t want to leave those loose ends hanging around perpetually, and getting overrun with spam is always a problem on a comment-enabled site that is no longer actively moderated. Of course, I’m not simply going to take the blog offline; that would be a terrible fate for something we spent so much time on (and I do despise linkrot). The simplest amenable way to end it would be to turn off commenting across the whole site, effectively rendering it static. There must be a WordPress plugin out there somewhere to mothball a blog. I’ll have to put up one final, melancholic post, allow a few final days for comments on it, and then lock it all down permanently. “This is the blog that was.”

I will miss SupComTalk a lot; don’t think this will be easy for me. I really enjoyed the experience, and I would love to do it again with some other game. Writing that blog was the closest taste of Internet fame I’ve ever had (admittedly, just a taste; not even close to a mouthful). And there was a lesson there that I quickly learned, yet have still failed to follow: single-topic blogs that focus on specific subjects are, on the average, far more successful than personal blogs that focus on whatever smattering of topics the writer happens to be interested in. Some day yet I might finally apply that knowledge to this blog — or perhaps create a new one. I’m still thinking about it. But as I draw close to finally pulling the plug on SupComTalk, it weighs heavier and heavier still on my mind.

Writing fifty games in one semester

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Four computer science graduate students recently created fifty playable game prototypes in one semester. Each student worked alone, putting out around twelve games at a rate of one per week. And they were responsible for not only the programming, but also the graphics and sound. That is quite the Herculean effort, and their results are impressive. I’ve seen that Swarm game before (I guess it was linked on Digg or something), but I didn’t know to examine it in the context of this rapid development game project.

The idea of creating lots of simple game prototypes in rapid succession really appeals to me. Yes, not all of them will be great, but some will be good. Little enough time is invested in each one that even if only one pays off, it’s all worth it. Compare this to the traditional game development process, which takes longer to create one game than these guys could use to pump out 100, and often yields terrible results nonetheless. Yes, that’s right, some of these fifty games are already better than what professional studios spend man-decades creating.

Unfortunately, I just don’t have the free time at the moment to devote my attention full-bore to creating lots of neat games in short periods of time (what with work and all). But I do have enough free time to create a couple, so I think I shall have to try it. Flash seems like the obvious language to do this in, but I’m not experienced in it, and I am concerned by its closed, proprietary nature. I think I’ll do what I did a lot of in high school: making prototype-sized Java applets. I guess I’ll have to read up on some Free Software Java libraries, because I don’t want to have to code something as simple as sprite rotation from scratch.

And working on creating some fun little games will also give me the opportunity to try out the ultimate form of game loop which I expressed a desire to attempt a month and a half ago. Now, I just need an idea. Hrm, stats in RPGs are fun, why not try to play around with that mechanic? I’ll see what I can do.

What’s up in my world of gaming

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Though I remain an active and proud gamer, I realize it probably doesn’t come across as such on this blog because I rarely ever talk about the games that I am playing. So this post should set the record straight. Here’s what I’m currently playing.

Team Fortress 2 is a team-oriented class-based first person shooter based on Half-Life 2′s Source engine. It’s a blast to play, and I’ve been logging regular hours pretty much since The Orange Box was released. I find it to be fun, mindless entertainment. I just drop into one of the many servers that are active at any given moment and get right into the thick of things. The soldier, with his slow but deadly rockets, is my favorite class. My subconscious predictive dead reckoning skills have gotten quite good, and I can reliably take out someone from a good distance by firing rockets at where I predict they will be at the time the rocket finally reaches them. It takes a bit of skill, and even some psychology if the opponent knows you are shooting at them and is trying to dodge, but that makes it all the more fun. I would recommend TF2 to anyone who likes team-based FPSs, or anyone who liked Team Fortress Classic. It’s a great experience all-around because it is polished to near perfection.

Sins of a Solar Empire is a real-time 4X strategy game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate). If you’ve ever played Master of Orion, it’s similar to that, but real-time. I still haven’t quite figured out if I like Sins, though I have played it a fair bit. It has its moments of sheer brilliance, but thanks to the real-time nature of it, it also has its moments of sheer boredom. Sins lack the mercy of an “End Turn” button (since it has no turns), one of the features of Civilization that helps speed up the early game in which not much happens.

The midgame of Sins is the sheer brilliance part. When you’re marshaling your fleets and attempting to take enemy territory while simultaneously fending off other civilizations and pirates on your other fronts, it’s pure hectic fun. But alas, the midgame ends quickly enough, and if you don’t suck, you’re soon on your way to slowly but inexorably conquering the rest of the galaxy. Once you have a decent advantage, there’s no way for anyone to stop you, and it becomes a slog as you slowly capture planet after planet (planetary bombardment takes awhile). The outcome is never in doubt, and thus, it’s not exciting.

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Game designer Chris Taylor pushes “secure computing” as solution to piracy

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Adopted with modifications from my other blog, Supreme Commander Talk

Chris Taylor, the game designer who brought us Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege, and Supreme Commander, believes that “secure computing” is the future of the PC gaming world, which is getting absolutely killed by software piracy. Now he’s not so naive as to think that DRM is the answer (because SecuROM, pretty much the best in the breed, is about as airtight as a shot-up sponge). His version of secure computing involves playing games from a central server rather than on individual desktops.

Now there are all sorts of ways to interpret what he’s talking about, because the description given in the article is pretty vague, but I think what he wants is for essential parts of the game not to ship with the client. The only way you’d be able to play is while in constant communication with the server. Think World of Warcraft: anyone can make copies the client, but to be able to play the game, you need to be able to log in to one of the servers. To do that, you need to pay the monthly $15 fee for an active account. Only Blizzard has access to the World of Warcraft server software, so no one can run their own pirate servers (and although attempts have been made to reverse-engineer the communications occurring between real servers and clients, knock-off server software doesn’t achieve the full feature set of the real deal). World of Warcraft is thus effectively “secure computing” according to Chris Taylor’s concept.

Sure, it works for MMORPGs, because a central server is necessitated by the nature of the game, and users accept and understand it. But for other games, especially single player games? Are consumers really going to put up with an unnecessary net connection required for no other reason than anti-piracy? That would ruin the experience on laptops, which many people use in situations where net access is not available (think airplanes, buses, and trains).

And this brings up another problem: the gaming company now has to run and maintain an unnecessary server farm to service all of the requests from people playing single player. Keep in mind that these servers won’t merely be doing verification or validation; if they were, you could either spoof a verification server that would always send back “Valid”, or simply remove the verification code step from the client executable. No, these servers need to be constantly running a critical part of the game that the client doesn’t have so there is no way the server can be excised from the loop. That’s not insignificant. And of course, access to the servers will be controlled by some means of a serial number that comes only with legitimate purchases (the key space would have to be sufficiently large enough such that trying random combinations to find one that works would be fruitless).

The nice thing about computer games as they are now is you can pretty much play them indefinitely, so long as you keep your compatible hardware in operating condition. Not too long ago I went back and dug out my old copy of Dune II and played through the campaign for old time’s sake. Now imagine if that game had been programmed using the “secure computing” paradigm; what are the odds that, after all these years, those servers would still be running? Very slim! With this form of secure computing, the PC game purchasing experience isn’t like buying a game in the traditional sense; rather, it’s more like purchasing a license of the game that expires whenever the game’s publisher decides it no longer feels like running the server, or goes under.

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