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.

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.

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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We do what we must, because we can (a retrospective on Portal)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Portal screenshot
Portal, a game that is part of the Orange Box collection by Valve Software for the PC, XBOX 360, and PlayStation 3, is the most fun game I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a long, long time. It’s not just me saying that; Ars Technica and Games Radar also love it, and so does pretty much everyone else who I haven’t bothered to link to. Just a warning: this post contains heavy spoilers. If you haven’t played it yet but are planning to, don’t read any further. Otherwise, read on to hear what all of the fuss is about. Even if you’re a non-gamer, Portal contains many elements of note worth hearing about.

Portal takes a single new game mechanic and runs with it, blowing the entire genre wide open. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and It Is Awesome. The mechanic is this: you have a portal gun that can make a portal in nearly any type of surface of the game (floors, walls, ceilings, and angled joints included). You can place two portals at once. Other games have had features like this, but in them, you touch one portal and you are instantly teleported to the other portal. Not so in Portal. The portals aren’t mere warp points; they are warps in time and space.

Look through one and you see everything on the other side. Line them up correctly and you can see yourself, or if you have just the right line of sight, you can see yourself many times over, kind of like a barbershop mirror effect. Place the portals near each other on two faces of a corner and amuse yourself for minutes by continually chasing your figurative tail. I did. Make a portal in the ceiling and one in the floor directly below it and fall forever. And if you have any speed going into a portal, you keep it coming out of the portal, allowing you to translate vertical momentum from, say, falling into a floor portal, into horizontal momentum upon exiting a wall portal. Launching out of 45 degree-angled portals is the best. And you can better believe that the game’s puzzles take full advantage of these features.

Enemies see through the portals too. I got myself killed once by accident when I opened up a portal right in front of a turret while the other portal was behind me. The turret’s targeting laser went through the portal and right onto my back, and the turret proceeded to riddle me with bullets. And the puzzle with the rocket turret, where you have to backtrack in the level to get the turret to shoot a rocket at you and travel through the portal to blow up a glass barricade far away, is sheer genius.

Portal is amazingly fun to play. There’s never been anything like it. And the designers enjoy teasingly rubbing it in your face. There are several puzzles in the game that appear to be platformer problems, with an intricate series of moving objects that seem like they could be traversed in the normal platformer fashion (but can’t). Of course, the solution is actually just being observant enough to notice the one portal-able surface at the other end of the set of obstacles and simply skipping over the entire trap. After you figure out these puzzles, you can’t help but admire what a different kind of gaming experience Portal is.

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World of no-regret-craft

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

World of WarcraftIt has been two years and two months since I quit playing World of Warcraft. I wasn’t really into it “that” badly as I “only” had 23 days of combined play time across all of my characters when I quit. 23 days of play time doesn’t seem like a huge figure, so let me put it into perspective: that’s 552 hours. Doesn’t seem so tiny now, huh. And remember, 23 days of play time is a pittance compared to the people who are really into the game and have been playing it for nearly three years now. Some players have exceeded an entire year of play time across all their characters. That’s a scary figure.

It’s not that I still obsess over World of Warcraft. It’s usually not on my mind at all. But I bring it up because two of the people at work are quite into it. One of my coworkers has 50 days of combined play time. They were discussing the game and I was able to join in, despite not having played in so long. That’s a testament to how much I played it (and thus how much I reinforced my knowledge about it), as well as a testament to how little the core game has really changed. They were looking at player stats online and checking out their realms’ forums, so I had the sudden urge to see what was going on at the forum for the realm I used to play on, Cenarion Circle.

Here’s the scary thing: I recognize a lot of the names of the characters that are posting on that forum. And that doesn’t even include the unfamiliar names of new characters created since I stopped playing by the people I played with. The number of people who have been playing for all of these past two and a half years is quite astounding. I gave up on World of Warcraft and went on to do much more useful things: for instance, I completed my college degree and got into serious writing. Others haven’t been so lucky. If I was still playing World of Warcraft now at the same rate I was then, my play time would easily be over 100 days. Imagine all of that time, completely wasted. And as I look on at my fellow players who never did quit and kept wasting their time, I feel very saddened.

Now many people will have qualms with that assessment; “Who are you to say they’re wasting their time?”, they might ask. Well, I’m someone who’s been there and done that. I can look back at the things I’ve done in my life and identify the ones that were useful and the ones that were not. For instance, every second I put into my education was worth it. And I use an extremely broad definition of education here — it includes everything I did that enhanced my academic, as well as technical, skills. Yes, that even includes blogging, which has helped to make me a better writer. I can look back at the archive on this blog and say to myself, “That was worth it”. This will be especially true when I look back on it decades from now as a detailed description of my life.

But World of Warcraft simply wasn’t worth it. I got nothing out of it. It’s a black hole of vanished time in my life. Yes, I made all sorts of “friends” while playing the game, but the simple nature of the beast is, as soon as you stop playing, you lose the main communications medium that was keeping you in touch with said friends. A WoW addict isn’t going to find a lot of time to talk with you in instant messenger; his time is better spent chatting with his friends in-game, who he can still play with. I’ve seen this same story repeated across the blogosphere. Oftentimes, people don’t even find the game fun anymore, but they keep playing it just because most of their social circle resides inside the game.

My one regret about World of Warcraft is that I didn’t quit playing it sooner. I really feel sad for all of those people who are still pouring double-digit percentages of their ongoing life into it. Imagine the realization they will come to a year after quitting (and quitting is inevitable for all players, eventually), when they realize that it was all just a huge waste of time and that they didn’t get anything out of it besides an ephemeral satisfaction of addiction. Let me repeat something I said after I quit WoW that I have kept my word on: I will never, ever, play another MMORPG.

FPS nirvana approacheth

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

These next few months are going to be great for FPS (first person shooter) fans. First up on our plates we have the recently released BioShock, a suspense/horror FPS for Windows and XBOX360. I’ve been slowly playing my way through the Windows version, and I am impressed. The theme, mood, and ambiance are all stellar, and miles above the typical FPS.

The only qualm I have with BioShock, and this is a big one, is the combat. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it isn’t precise, it’s sloppy. It’s hard to accurately aim weapons and get good hits on enemies. The targeting reticles for plasmid attacks are way too large and do not allow for satisfying aiming. Battles devolve into manic rounds of mouse-clicking with enemies that are jumping all over the place and much too hard to hit with the inaccurate weapons. BioShock’s console lineage is plain as day. If you’re looking for ultra-precise FPS combat like you might find in a Quake, Doom, or Unreal game, you’re going to be disappointed, because BioShock doesn’t have it.

That’s why I don’t really understand how BioShock scored a 96% score at Game Rankings (a review aggregation site for games like Rotten Tomatoes is for films). I would score it an 85%, tops, mainly because of its lack of good combat. And BioShock doesn’t even have a multiplayer mode, which is what I usually end up spending the majority of my time playing. I find it more fun to play against fellow humans anyway.

Thankfully, true multiplayer FPS nirvana is on the horizon. Team Fortress 2, the long-awaited sequel to Team Fortress Classic (a Half-Life mod) will come out in a month. TFC is a ridiculously fun game and every indication is that TF2 will deliver. TF2 is also being released simultaneously with Half-Life 2: Episode Two, a single player expansion for Half-Life 2, as well as Portal. Both Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One were excellent, and Episode Two should be too. Portal is a single player FPS based on the Half-Life 2 engine that I haven’t heard much about. It’s more of a puzzle game than a shoot-em-up, but that’s fine; I like puzzle games, and hopefully this one will be good. We can always use some puzzling to break up the monotony of killing hundreds of enemies, right?

And if all of that wasn’t enough, be on the look-out for Unreal Tournament 3, the next installment in the excellent long-running Unreal Tournament series. Not only is UT a great game, but it tends to engender extremely good mods as well; I remember playing the mods Alien Swarm and Red Orchestra for UT2003 more than I played the base game!

So if you are an FPS fan, these next few months are going to be pure gold. Great single player as well as multiplayer games are being released, leaving something for everyone. And unlike BioShock, the combat in Half-Life 2 and Unreal Tournament has always been PC-precise, not console-sloppy. I’m really looking forward to them.

Old games have cool names

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

Old games have cool names — names like Pong, Rogue, Hack, Adventure, Spacewar!, Defender, etc. The names are short, simple, and accurately describe what the game is about. Modern games, unfortunately, aren’t named in such a fashion. The advent of marketing departments has pretty much killed off any name that can’t marketed and defended as a trademark, resulting in such game titles as Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard’s Throne and Cabela’s Big Game Hunter 2006 Trophy Season. Another problem is that whereas Shooter used to be a perfectly good name for a game, now it describes multiple genres of games: first person shooters, third person shooters, space shooters, schmups, etc. All of the good simple names are either taken, shot down by pointy-hairs, or too ambiguous.

I miss the game names of old. They harken back to a bygone era when videogames were first being made. The creators didn’t have the “benefit” of decades of videogaming naming conventions. The names they chose are charming for their simplicity. Homemade non-commercial games such as Rogue, Hack, Adventure, Spacewar!, and others don’t suffer from marketing hype. They have an easygoing air about them. There’s a modern roguelike named Dwarf Fortress; the name perfectly describes what the game is about. I can’t imagine how badly it’d have turned out if a marketing “guru” was allowed to choose the name.

As for why I’m bringing this up, it’s because of the excellent article, Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky, which was just published in Digital Humanities Quarterly by Dennis G. Jerz. Jerz managed to track down the original source code to Adventure, the first text-based adventure game that invented such now-commonplace concepts in videogames as items and inventories, as well as the adventure genre itself. Not only that, but Adventure was based on the real world Colossal Cave in Kentucky, and Jerz traced back through the cave verifying the accuracy of the text descriptions in Adventure. This is definitely the best scholarly paper on historical videogames that I’ve read recently.

And by the way, the original Fortran sources have been modified slightly by Matthew T. Russotto so that they compile with the modern GNU G77. I downloaded them and they compiled just fine on the first try, and I was up and playing original Adventure, now three decades old, in seconds flat. Talk about a great archaeogaming find.

The MMORPG makers are onto me

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

The MMORPG makers are after me with a vengeance. After my recent post questioning whether MMORPG makers were screwing up by making their games too addicting (and thus reducing the likelihood that someone who finally stopped playing one would go on to play another), I got hit with not one but two MMORPG ads on this very site through Google AdSense:

MMORPGs being advertised on Cyde Weys Musings

But this isn’t even the worst. Two weeks ago, I received in the mail a ten day free trial DVD of World of WarCraft: The Burning Crusade. After a full two years of not playing the game, my address was still in their system and they tried to offer me a free hit (almost like a drug dealer) to get me back as a regular paying customer. I must admit, it is tempting. I am kind of wondering what things are like on the old server I used to play on, and if anyone I knew is still playing.

From what I understand, characters aren’t deleted when accounts expired, so my old character should still be around. Logging in and running around with him in the game would be funny. He’d be a living relic, terribly underpowered because all of his gear is two years old. It’s not that weapons and armor deteriorate over time, it’s just that they are hit with a serious power creep over time. The quality of equipment I used to go on many-hour dungeon raids for is now crap, worse than random common items that now drop off monsters in the higher level zones. I wonder if I charge admission to have people look at my now-crappy equipment and reminisce back to the good old days, when the game was just starting?

But I shall resist. I have no intention of going back. But I do find it interesting how badly they are going after former customers. I guess they figure the best way to get more customers is to just rope in old ones, kind of like cigarette manufacturers marketing towards people who have quit.