All posts by Deprava

The Not So Silent Partner – The New Age of WoW, part 2

One of the reasons I try to avoid dividing my posts into multiple parts is because I always find it difficult to get my train of thought back on the rails and out of the station. When I first write about a topic, the idea is fresh and the words flow easily because my mind is hard at work organizing and refining my thoughts. When I stop and then try to begin again, the initial novelty of the topic is gone, the necessity of continuing the general theme curtails creativity, and my grasp on my Muse is much more tenuous. I feel obligated to supply the follow-up post, and obligation does not breed quality writing.

So it is with much drudgery and hand-wringing that I return to the topic of World of Warcraft and the question of the causation. In the first post I laid the groundwork by articulating the changes in WoW’s game design, and how those changes can have an effect on the WoW community. I left off my hypotheses as to the cause of these changes, both because I thought the post was running long and because I had not yet developed a satisfactory answer.

The difficulty is that, upon reflection, the interrelation between game design and community is very complex, and complexity does not lend itself to simple analysis and axiomatic declaration. The argument proposed by a fair portion of the community is, “Blizzard (and/or Activision) cares only about profits. They eschew appeasing their longtime supporters in favor of dumbing down the game in order to bring in as many players as possible to generate subscription fees.” I concede that this characterization walks a very fine line, and is about two steps to the right of a strawman argument, but a cursory search of the official forums and WoW Insider comments should provide enough evidence to show that I am not misrepresenting the argument. That is in fact what players think.

The biggest problem I have with this claim is how much it simplifies the issue. It assigns one trait to Activision Blizzard (greed), implies that the game design in 2005 was superior, and that the game design today, by virtue of appealing to a wider market, is objectively damaging to the game. In essence, the argument attempts to couch the opinion, “It’s different and I don’t like it,” in the trappings of a factual conclusion.

My observations, on the other hand, are informed by logic rather than self-serving emotion, but a side effect of complexity is the inability to distill my conclusion into a simple sentence.

First, we must do away with the concept of “good” game design versus “bad” game design as it applies to WoW. I agree that if a game is riddled with bugs, has a control scheme that renders it nearly unplayable, and uses mechanics that are obtuse to the point of interfering with gameplay, one can say it is “bad game design.” But that is not what most people are referring to when they use the term for WoW. In a discussion about WoW game design, the central points are usually 1) difficulty, 2) heroic dungeon and raid design philosophy, 3) player interaction and social activity, and 4) balance and parity between classes. Of course there are debates about mechanics and whether ability X should have Y effect, but the vast majority of forum complaints center around one of those four facets. And yet, all four are extremely subjective topics. Personal taste determines whether you prefer the current raid philosophy over the Vanilla raid philosophy; and whether you prefer the BC era closed server PVE community versus the current cross-server dungeons and focus on guild interaction. It is impossible to quantify whether one is “better” than the other, therefore one cannot argue that Blizzard is “ruining WoW” by implementing changes. The design philosophy in Vanilla was the not the Ur-philosophy of MMO design.

In fact, most of the changes that have occurred in the last six years have been in response to player feedback. In the original beta, players did not like that there was a penalty for playing for long periods (the “anti-rested” effect), so Blizzard eliminated it. One of the premiere alterations to the MMO formula at launch was that quests continued all the way to max level, rather than disappearing early on in favor of mindless grinding (a la Everquest); this breakthrough came directly from player feedback. Blizzard reduced the raid size in BC from 40 to 10/25 because a significant number of players complained that 40 was too many. Likewise in Wrath Blizzard implemented scaling 10/25 man raids when BC players complained that their guild could not cope with the transition from 10 man Kara into 25 man Gruul and Magtheridon. In later Wrath Blizzard created heroic raid difficulty in order to appease the hardcore raid crowd that wanted a challenge. From the beginning through two expansions players bemoaned the existence of group quests in leveling zones, and many players chose to skip them rather than try to create a group; so when Cataclysm launched group quests were nowhere to be found. Players begged for cross-server dungeons and a more robust instance queue system, and Blizzard delivered the Dungeon Finder. Even now players are clamoring for a cross-server Raid Finder, which would only further diminish the separation between the servers and the insular server community.

To claim that Blizzard does not listen to its players, and that they develop and change the game based on their own whims, is so patently false as to be laughable.

Even when they do make design decisions that are not directly influenced by player feedback, they still do so with an eye to provide more for the players. One of Blizzards design goals, (one that I suspect has been a cornerstone of their philosophy since day one), is to make a game that appeals to as many people as possible, provides as much content as possible to players, and can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways. At the end of BC, Blizzard found that an incredibly small number of players ever set foot in Sunwell Plateau, and similarly at the end of Vanilla very few guilds made it into the original Naxxramas. Therefore in Wrath they tuned raid difficulty down, and brought Naxx back, as a way to let a larger proportion of their player base experience raiding. They implemented the badge/emblem system so that players could obtain gear outside of raiding and jump into the current raiding tier without farming the previous tier. They spread essential buffs and abilities around to multiple classes so that players would not lose raid spots just because of a choice they made during character creation. The oft-quoted mantra “bring the player, not the class,” is the perfect distillation of Blizzard’s design philosophy in the wake of BC: if a player wants to experience X, he or she should be able to do so.

WoW has changed since December 2004, of that there can be no doubt. But the reasons for its changes are not so simple as “corporate greed” and “to attract the facebook crowd.” Change has come about by way of the complex interaction of player desires/feedback and Blizzard’s over-arching design philosophy.

Once again, this has run extremely long, and I have yet to even touch on the changes in the WoW community and how the community has responded and adapted to design changes. I guess now there’s going to be a part 3. We’ll see if I can get it published in less than a week.

Single Player Mode – The New Age of WoW, part 1

Coming in patch 4.2
World of Warcraft has always been a fluid game. The WoW that currently inhabits the live servers is not the WoW that shipped in 2004, nor is it the WoW that existed the day Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King launched. The basic gameplay is largely the same, in that the player gains XP by completing quests and killing mobs, but even those mechanics have changed and been refined over the game’s six year life-span. Entire features have been integrated or deleted. Character abilities and combat formulae only vaguely resemble what they were in the days of Molten Core. If Blizzard’s development philosophy can be distilled down to one observation, it is that Blizzard is not afraid to change the game, and will do so when it believes that change is best for the game. (Whether the players think a change is for the better is a different issue, but we’ll get to that.)

So I do not think I am breaking new ground when I say that the current WoW, the game according to Cataclysm, is not the same game that we played back in the Vanilla days. As the game has changed, so too has the WoW community. The causal relationship between these two aspects (design and community) has been the topic of much discussion for the past year or so in the WoW blogoverse and tweetosphere. In the wake of Wrath and the LFG tool, much digital ink has been spilled in the documentation of the change in the WoW community. Most analysts blame the change in the community on the change in design direction. Some have said that Blizzard, because it controls the mechanics of WoW, is directly and solely responsible for the change in the community, and that the community is blameless because it cannot but react to the changes in the game.

I do not agree with that interpretation, nor do I agree with the converse. I perceive the relationship between design and community to be much more complex, such that a simple model of cause and effect is insufficient to describe it.

I do not want to lean on anecdotal evidence about what things were like back in Vanilla and BC, because anecdotal proof, while very persuasive, is not a valid basis for extrapolating the character of the WoW community. Rather I will try to stick to facts and draw logical conclusions.

During Vanilla and BC, the servers were more or less isolated from one another. The PVP Battlegroups existed, which did allow for cross-server PVP, but the majority of player activity: leveling, instances, and raiding, were server-side only. In order to form a group for an instance, the players had to form one manually by spamming a “Looking For More” message in chat, or later by placing their names in a rudimentary LFG channel, which basically just advertised to other people that they were open to run an instance. If, in an instance, a player trolled, ninja’d loot, or otherwise disrespected the other players, that player could develop a reputation on the server, which might impede his or her ability to get into other instance groups. Actions, therefore, potentially impacted a player’s reputation server wide, for good or for ill. (I do not, of course, imply that trolling did not exist, or that people never got away with trolling. Rather I am saying that the possibility of repercussions for conduct was greater than it is now.)

One of the other facets of WoW gameplay during the Vanilla days was the prevalence of group quests. As a player progressed through a leveling zone, that player was sure to encounter at least half a dozen quests that required more than one player to complete. Some might need two or three, others might need a full group of five. These quests forced player interaction and spontaneous grouping, and provided a teaching experience to prepare the player for instance group dynamics.

Now we turn to the changes in design philosophy begun in Wrath and perfected in Cataclysm. Group quests (aside from the Ring of Blood type arena chain) are almost completely removed. The leveling process in zones has become extremely linear, sending the player down a predetermined path that forwards the story of the zone. The leveling zones now resemble a single player game more than a multiplayer game. The experience is akin to God of War or Bayonetta, in which the player runs down a corridor, meets a locked door, and fights a series of enemies to unlock that door. The game has almost completely abandoned the Everquest model of “go out into the open world and kill stuff.”

With the implementation of the Dungeon Finder, the server’s PVE community lost its isolation from the rest of the player base. Now one’s instance party members can be from any server, and one may never see them again after the completion of the dungeon. The actions of a player do not attach to that player after the instance is finished. If a player ninjas or otherwise acts inappropriate, there is very little possibility that those actions will affect that player’s reputation, and such actions will never permanently impinge on that player’s ability to queue in the Dungeon Finder. The tool, in effect, grants full anonymity and full exoneration to all participants for the duration of the dungeon.

Dungeons may likewise be considered something of a single player affair. A player may queue in the Dungeon Finder, perform in the instance without interacting with the other players, and leave at once when the run is complete. From the perspective of a solo queue player in the dungeon, the four other players are equivalent to bots or henchmen, akin to the party members one acquires in Mass Effect: necessary due to game balance but not under the direct control of the main player. A couple of bloggers have talked about Blizzard implementing bots in instances, so that solo players can run them without having to deal with other players. I submit that such a thing has already happened, save that rather than use AI programming, the bots are controlled by other solo players.

The only activity that still necessitates direct social interaction is raiding, which requires a player to go through the old fashioned song and dance of trawling for players in Trade chat or setting up a guild run. Raiding in Cataclysm does not materially demand greater individual skill than heroics, but does demand greater coordination among the group, because synchronizing the actions of ten or twenty-five people is more complex than doing so with five.

In the era of Cataclysm, WoW’s gameplay, outside of PVP and raiding, is comparable to The Bioware Game. The single player goes through a linear storyline, assisted by a party of NPCs when necessary, and sometimes does sidequest dungeons to collect loot. Even the crafting and auction house aspects are largely single player activities. Players with trade skills may as well be vendors that you have to track down and who charge varying prices based on your stock of raw materials.

So what do we make of this change in game design? Is it the product of greed? Is it a slow but methodical erosion of MMO gameplay in order to attract as large a player-base as possible? Is it detrimental to the game and to the genre as a whole? Can we blame Blizzard for doing this to the game?

The answer to all of those questions is No, but because I have spent so many words laying the groundwork, the actual argument will have to wait until next time.

“Clarification” and Rift Impressions

Don't look at me.  They put that in their own trailers!

I downloaded the beta for Rift back in late February after reading several gushing accounts of it from disenfranchised WoW bloggers. From the way most of them talked, I expected Rift to be something fresh, something new, something magical. Instead my character awoke in an Abbey, wherein I talked to an NPC with a floating exclamation point over his head who gave me a quest to kill 10 whatevers. I then ventured out, to find that there were several whatevers to kill, and when I killed them I could right click their corpses to loot them for vendor trash.

This is the innovative game that’s snatching people from WoW?

Let’s not bandy words: the game is WoW. The interface is the same, the mechanics are the same, the quests are the same, the factions are the same. The only difference is that you are not, in fact, in Azeroth anymore.

As for the vaunted soul system, I was likewise underwhelmed. The game has four classes: warrior, rogue, mage, and cleric (which means the game is also cribbing from First Edition Dungeons & Dragons), but each class has access to eight soul trees, which are talent trees from WoW. The “customization” comes from the fact that you can mix and match any three soul trees you wish on your character. So in theory, you can have a mage that has a fire magic tree, a demonology tree, and cleric tree with attacks attacks that also heal allies.

But this doesn’t really add anything new to the system. It just means instead of mage, warlock, elemental shaman, or boomkin, you have “caster.” The ability to cherry pick talent trees that suit your play style and have good synergy with each other is interesting, but I don’t see how this is a ground-breaking dynamic. (Plus there seems to be some overlap on trees. On my rogue character I picked two different trees, and the first two abilities unlocked from both were identical.)

In all fairness, I played the beta for about twenty minutes, and started a character with both factions. I didn’t play past twenty minutes because I saw nothing original at any point, and certainly nothing that interested me enough to keep playing. The whole package was uninspired. The gameplay felt bereft of new ideas or twists on old ideas; it just felt like old ideas. The lore is the best part, but it’s not good enough to make me want to play to uncover more of the story.

I will give it credit that it looked polished, and that the graphics and art style were pretty, but the bankruptcy of original gameplay ideas was too overwhelming. If you like WoW, but don’t want to play WoW itself, this is an acceptable stand-in, by virtue of being a carbon copy, but if you’re looking for something actually new, I’d advise you give this one a pass.

Never Again, Again: An Impression of Braid

The Midweek Madness Sale on Steam this week is Braid, which you can buy right now for less than $3.00. If you have not picked this game up and played it, I recommend that you do so. The game’s reputation for being artistic and deep is well-deserved. Braid is a unique experience; it is one of the very few games that stimulates the player intellectually, and is sophisticated enough to let the player discover the meaning and message organically, rather than spell it out in big bold letters. The interaction between gameplay mechanics and storytelling is unmatched. Whereas in most games the actual play is unrelated to the story (fighting fifty random battles in Final Fantasy really has nothing to do with the plot, does it?), in Braid the game mechanics inform the story. Without the gameplay, the player cannot fully understand the meaning of the narrative.

Warning, this will contain spoilers, because it is impossible to discuss the meaning of Braid without discussing the ending and what comes after. If you have not played the game, I suggest that you do so before you read this.

The chief gameplay mechanic of Braid is control of Time. With the press of a button, the player can rewind time in the level, reversing death, enemy movement, and certain puzzle elements. There are, of course, certain aspects of the levels that are not affected by time, and these are always integral to the puzzles. But the protagonist, Tim, is affected by the time manipulation. Due to this, the game has no extra lives or continues. If Tim dies, the player can but rewind time to before the killing stroke, and begin again. Actions carry no consequence until the level is complete.

Between levels, the player reads books upon pedestals, which seem to recount Tim’s story. It is a well-trod tale: there is a princess, and she and Tim were once together, but Tim drove her away, and now he seeks to reclaim her affection. The player gleans that someone else has taken the woman from Tim, and that he must rescue her from her captor.

As the player progresses, a strange detail emerges. The game’s progression begin at World 2, and continue through World 6, but World 1 is nowhere to be found. In the beginning, the player does not think much of this, because all of the worlds except for World 2 are locked, and one assumes that World 1 will become unlocked in time. However, World 1 does not appear until all of the other worlds are complete, and it is completely different from the others.

World 1 has four “levels,” but there is something unnerving about them. In the rest of the game, time flows forward, and Tim can reverse it. In World 1, time natively flows backwards. Enemies begin dead, then return to life and walk backward. Everything plays out as if it has already happened, and that Tim is traveling backwards. Finally, the player enters the last level, titled simply “Braid.” It begins with an expected sight: Tim’s beloved, in the arms of her kidnapper, about to be taken away. But Tim is stuck in a cave system beneath them; he can only watch what happens. Luckily, Tim’s beloved escapes her malefactor, and she flees from both Tim and his rival. As she is running, she triggers several switches that help Tim progress and keep pace with her underground. She arrives at her home and her room, and Tim emerges beneath her windowsill.

At this point the game provides no instruction. The player, and Tim, are left at that balcony, without explanation or guidance. Eventually, for lack of something to do, the player presses the button that rewinds time. But instead of reversing time back to the beginning of the level, something else happens: time starts. The princess begins running, running away from Tim. Tim gives chase, and now when she flips the switches they are to block Tim’s progress, but are never successful. At the end of the road, Tim’s rival reappears, and the woman leaps into his arms to make good their escape.

The player’s entire perception of the story is turned on its head. The story is not about lost love and the quest to rescue the damsel. The story is of a man coveting what he cannot have, and chasing something he has no right to possess. He thinks himself the hero, but in fact he is the dangerous element. It is unlikely that Tim and the princess were ever together, and that their prior “relationship” was the product of her friendship and Tim’s imagination. The player, conditioned to play protagonists with altruistic motives, is left standing there, in control of a character who is driven by obsession, who is the hero only in his mind.

This revelation alters how we understand the timeline of the entire game. These events, after all, occur in World 1, which means that all of the player’s actions have taken place afterward. We have played out a man’s delusions, and we must admit that our constant manipulations of time have been to aid those delusions. We have reversed and changed time in the pursuit of a goal that we now know to be distasteful.

But this is not the end of Braid’s narrative double-crosses. After the game is complete, the player guides Tim through a series of rooms with more pedestals and books. Each passage adds more to our understanding of Tim and the game’s narrative, but one passage ends with a quote.

“Now we are all sons of bitches.”

The game does not draw attention to this, nor does it attribute the quote to its original speaker. The player must know the origin, or must investigate independently. The player who does so learns that Kenneth Brainbridge said that line to J. Robert Oppenheimer, moments after the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb.

With this one phrase, the game gains another layer of complexity and depth. What does the atom bomb have to do with the events of Braid? How does a man’s pursuit of an unobtainable woman correlate to a weapon? Therein lies the true beauty of Braid: it does not tell you. You as the player are left standing there, alone, staring at a reference to the atom bomb in the middle of a game about damsels in distress and time manipulation. What you make of that juxtapostion is up to you.

Some players have argued for an allegorical interpretation. The princess Tim seeks is the atom bomb, and Tim represents the scientists striving to perfect the bomb, obsessing over creating the weapon without considering the ramifications of what they are doing.

Rather than see it as direct allegory, I interpret the different layers as conveying the larger message that we, in the real world, are held fast in time, unable to alter or reverse our actions. On that day in 1945, a group of men succeeded in creating one of the most devastating weapons in human history. And it can never be undone. We can never again live in a world without the atom bomb, just as we can never again live in a world without internal combustion, or steam power, or gunpowder. We cannot change the course of events , as we can for Tim in the game. Tim seeks to manipulate time in order to pursue his obsession; we pursue our obsessions with that same single-mindedness, but we do not have the power to turn back the clock. The game asks of us the question: what if we achieve our goals, but it turns out those goals do us harm? Unlike Tim, we cannot go back and correct a misplaced jump or a thrown switch. What we make, we cannot unmake.

The strength of Braid is that my interpretation is not the only interpretation. The game provides many layers, many different puzzle pieces, and asks the player to decide how to fit them together. It is one of the very few games that demands that the reader think and interpret. Braid offers no easy answers, and that is why it is so beautiful.

Podcast Episode 32 “Millions of Peach Children”

The rivers overflow with them

Subscribe in iTunes
Or Subscribe to the RSS feed on the right next to “The Podcast.”

Opening Song: X-Men: The Animated Series theme song.
Closing Song: “Reach Out to the Truth (instrumental version)” – Persona 4 OST

Links for this episode:

Ubisoft’s “We Dare” to ruin parties for PS3/Wii owners, via Joystiq. Link
Atlus: “No Plans” to bring Catherine West, via The Escapist. Link
First Details on Sony’s Weird Playstation Tablet, via Kotaku Austraila. Link
X-Men: First Class – Official Trailer, via YouTube. Link

“Godfather Death,” via Grimm Stories. Link
“The Robber Bridegroom,” via Grimm Stories. Link
“Mr. Fox (An English Tale),” via SurLaLune. Link

Ghosts of Ascalon, by Matt Forbeck and Jeff Grub, via Guildwars2.com. Link
Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, via Amazon. Link
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, via Amazon. Link

Four Suggestions to Improve Your Anti-Videogame Article

On Thursday my local newspaper (The Tennessean) ran a half-page editorial about violent videogames and their effect on children.[1] It focused on the ad campaign for Dead Space 2, in which the developers filmed older women reacting in horror/disgust to the game, cut those reaction shots into a commercial, and put on the end, “Your Mom Hates This Game.” The “point” of this, I suppose, is to tap into that old standby of teenagers wanting to act out against their parents, but I really can’t be sure.

The article takes umbrage at these commercials because “they target children,” and that the publisher is intentionally breaking the rules of the ESRB because it is trying to appeal to young children even though the game has an M rating.

After I read this article, I found myself awash with annoyance and contempt. The article itself is the same fear-mongering, “save the children from the evils of society” rhetoric that old people have been bandying about for thousands of years. (Yes, thousands. See the multiple Roman Senate resolutions that banned theaters because they corrupt society.) But what really irritated me was the slipshod framework of the argument.

Now, I disagree with the claim that violent videogames are dangerous and detrimental to society, but I am willing to engage in that argument. I refuse, however, to come to the table if my opponents aren’t going to muster well-reasoned and supported arguments against me. One cannot carry on a worthwhile debate with someone whose entire logic is “because that’s just what I believe.” So I offer this list, from an aspiring editor and professional arguer, as points where the “anti-videogame” lobby can improve and refine its presentation.

I do not publish this article in jest, or as satire. I absolutely want to elevate the entire dialogue of “society vs. videogames,” because I enjoy intellectual debate and want to foster it. If one side offers a well-reasoned, logically supported argument, then it can effectively be countered by a better-reasoned, better-supported argument. If both sides predicate their claims on facts and conclusions, that creates a genuine debate that can be won. Whereas if one side simply attacks the other without support or logic, and couches its attack in the nebulous language of “protecting the children” and “saving society,” then the other side cannot effectively respond.

Therefore I proffer these suggestions to you, anti-videogame lobbyists, as four places where you can improve your rhetoric and refine your attacks into presentable topics for debate.

Suggestion 1. Cite to sources.

Too often I see anti-videogame articles that refer to “studies” and “research” that “has shown” that violent videogames cause injury to children. I do not know if this is lazy draftsmanship or self-proving reference (“It’s well known and accepted that violent games cause violence in children, so there is no need to cite to specific examples.” This logic appeared recently in the statements of Carole Lieberman, who said that violent videogames cause rape, and claimed that she failed to cite any actual studies because “everyone knows this, it’s common knowledge” [2]). In either case, this simply will not due.

If you are going to make a claim as to the detrimental effect of media on a child, you need expert sources to prove that. A journalist’s naked assertion that games are psychologically harmful is as legitimate as a chef’s assertion that string theory is unsupported by the physics. Not only do citations show that your claim is legitimate and not just opinion couched in the language of fact, but it lends the whole argument a sense of scientific credibility.

Frankly I’m always amazed when I don’t see citations in anti-gaming articles. There are innumerable focus groups and scientific studies who are willing to say whatever you pay them to say, so I don’t understand why you would not use them as much as possible.

Other studies will disagree with yours, but that’s just how it works in the field of bought-and-paid-for science. The point is that you need citations to give your argument actual meat, and if you provide such studies, that gives the other side the chance to counter with their own studies, instead of forcing the other side into the impossible task of trying to counter morality-based accusations.

Suggestion 2. Confirm the thing that’s getting your panties in a knot is actually in the game.

This is another point that baffles me when I see it: lobbyists referring to scenes or actions in a videogame without seeing it for themselves. I always assumed it was poor journalism to render an opinion on something you haven’t personally seen and to rely on undocumented hearsay, but such practices permeate the anti-gaming arguments. We all witnessed this in the Mass Effect controversy, where the anti-gaming lobbyists cried foul that your character could have sex with another character. Wild claims of full nudity and graphic sexual acts were the order of the day.[3] And then, of course, the game came out and people saw how innocuous the whole thing was. The once vocal detractors had to admit that they never even saw the scene.[4] They just heard “sex in a videogame” and conjured their interpretations from thin air.

This point really hurts the anti-gaming argument, because it reveals that the lobbyists don’t actually know what they are talking about. It makes you look like a terrible journalist when your source for information about a game is “someone told me about it.” Worse still, it’s easy to avoid this trap. Any juicy or controversial scene in a videogame is going to end up on the Internet, so a quick Google search will bring up the content in question. Five minutes will save you from looking like an idiot, preaching fire and brimstone about something that doesn’t exist.

Suggestion 3. Know what the ESRB does and what the Ratings mean.

When an anti-gaming lobbyist refers to the ESRB, it’s usually to use the Board as a strawman to show that games are not regulated and that the supposed regulations don’t actually do anything. Or the Board is characterized as some sort of moral police, tasked with keeping sex and violence out of videogames and out of the hands of children (which, according to the lobbyists, it invariably fails to do).

The ESRB (http://www.esrb.org) is a ratings board that reviews all videogames to be released in North America and assigns each one a rating. The ratings are designed to alert potential consumers as to the content of the game and what demographic it is meant for. These ratings are particularly aimed at parents, so that they can understand at a glance if a game is appropriate for their children. If a game is Rated M for Mature, it is not appropriate for a child under the age of 17. While the Board does not have legal authority to impose sanctions on retailers who sell Mature rated games to minors, it does work closely with the retail market to train employees and raise awareness about enforcing the ratings.

The ESRB occupies a position similar to the MPAA in the film industry. Both provide ratings for their respective media, and both seek to warn consumers of potential mature content. Neither have the legal authority to enforce their ratings; it is up to retailers and consumers to follow them. It is not the responsibility of the MPAA if a parent decides to take a child to see an R rated movie, just as it is not the burden of the ESRB to stop a parent from buying an M rated game for a child. It is on the parents to understand the ratings system and to protect their children as they see fit. If a parent is so neglectful and disinterested as to not at least learn the ratings, and simply buys whatever videogame the child wants without checking its content, I fail to see how that is the fault of the ESRB.

The next time you start to write an anti-gaming article, and you want to attack the ESRB for letting a violent videogame get into the hands of a child, please don’t. The Board is not the morality police, nor is it a surrogate for parental control of a child’s entertainment. Oh, and if you’re going to fault them for not imposing sanctions or enforcing their rules, do be so diligent as to learn what their rules[5] actually are to see if there was a violation that merits citation.

Suggestion 4. Try not to fabricate evidence, or in the alternative, try not to get caught fabricating evidence.

Along with Suggestion 2, I assumed this was self-evident. I recognize that sensational journalism exaggerates information and twists minor incidents into full-scale crises, but I always (naively) thought that such reporters would not outright invent evidence. After all, if you get caught making up the controversy you’re talking about, it destroys whatever modicum of credibility you have.[6]

My advice, obviously, is to avoid fabricating facts, but if you simply must do it, try to not be so bad at it.

As someone who genuinely wants legitimate argument, I feel I must tell you that you cannot hope to hold a tenable position when you offer as proof facts that you (obviously) pulled out of thin air. It leaves gamers unable to respond, and leaves you looking unethical and dishonest. If you are willing to be unethical and dishonest in your crusade against videogames, at least do a better job of trying to hide it. You’re not helping your position by brazenly creating controversy. Stick to real facts surrounding a real controversy, and your arguments will carry a lot more weight.

As I have said, I offer these criticisms as constructive advice as to how to refine and improve your anti-gaming arguments in order to elevate the disagreement into a genuine debate. Logic cannot prevail over emotion, just as emotion cannot refute logic, and at the moment the anti-gaming argument consists mostly of emotion with a light sprinkling of science. If this debate is going to get anywhere, it is necessary that both sides rely on the same methodologies and evidentiary rules. If you follow these tips, we may yet achieve some parallel in argumentative style, and we can finally begin having a real and productive argument as to the desire for artistic freedom versus the necessity of maintaining societal well-being.

  1. [1] Tate, Deborah Taylor. (Feb. 24, 2011). Violent games marketed to kids. The Tennessean. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011 from http://www.tennessean.com/article/20110224/OPINION03/102240361/Violent-games-marketed-kids.
  2. [2]Chalk, Andy. (Feb. 14, 2011). “Games Cause Rape” Psychiatrist Defends Her Position. The Escapist. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011 at http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/107764-Games-Cause-Rape-Psychiatrist-Defends-Her-Position.
  3. [3]Fox News Smears Mass Effect. (Jan. 22, 2008). GamePolitics.com. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011 from http://gamepolitics.com/2008/01/22/1993
  4. [4]Alam, Junaid. (Jan. 29, 2008). Fox News Commentator Apologizes for Mass Effect Comments Following Blowback. The Escapist. Retrieved on Feb. 25, 2011 from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/81009-Fox-News-Commentator-Apologizes-for-Mass-Effect-Comments-Following-Blowback.
  5. [5]Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices. (n.d.). Entertainment Software Rating Board. Retrieved on Feb. 25, 2011 at http://www.esrb.org/ratings/principles_guidelines.jsp
  6. [6]Fahey, Mike. (Sep. 25, 2008). Jack Thompson Disbarred. Kotaku. Retrieved on Feb 25, 2011 at http://kotaku.com/#!5054772/jack-thompson-disbarred

Art Drop: Eva 2.0 Asuka Sketch

Asuka Langley Shikinami

I enjoyed Neon Genesis Evangelion, but I found it to be very slow in places and the original TV ending was abysmal. One day while perusing Amazon I saw the blu-ray for Eva 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone, and picked it up on a whim. Basically, it’s amazing. They took the best parts of Eva, stripped out the slow bits, and updated the art.

In anticipation of the March release of the second movie, You Can (Not) Advance, I did this sketch of Asuka, who is my favorite character in the series because she doesn’t mope around the entire time. I’m working on coloring it in Photoshop, but for now enjoy the pencils.

I also set up a new deviantArt account for archiving my work, which can be found at http://deprava.deviantart.com. I had an account there from way back, but it’s under a different name and DA won’t let you change your name ever for any reason, so I made a new one. A permanent link is on the right in the blogroll, and I’ll leave a note here if I post anything over there.

Dragon Age II Demo Impressions

So Bioware released the demo for Dragon Age II on Tuesday, which I guess people have been waiting for. I’ve been rather removed from all the Dragon Age II hype. I saw the announcement trailer, laughed at the ridiculous weapon designs, and then promptly forgot about the game altogether. Which in turn meant that when I heard the demo was out I thought, “Oh, cool, I’ll check that out,” as opposed to “Thank god! I’ve been waiting forever for this thing.” Apathy to the rescue from breathless anticipation, I suppose.

I played the first Dragon Age about two-thirds of the way through, and I thought it was a decent iteration of The Bioware Game. You see, even though everyone seems to willfully ignore it and go out of their way not to mention it, the fact is that Bioware only makes one video game. Sure, they put different textures on it and place it in different settings, but every single game they have ever released (aside from MDK2 and the baffling Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood) has been exactly the same in its mechanics, combat, characters, and other pertinent features. I refer to this Ur design as The Bioware Game, because Bioware is the only company who makes this game and it’s likewise the only game Bioware makes. They just slap a new skin on it every now and then; e.g. Bioware Game + Star Wars, Bioware Game + Wushu, Bioware Game + D&D, Bioware Game + Space Opera, Bioware Game + High Fantasy. (The lone exception to this formula is Mass Effect 2, which is Gears of War + Mass Effect characters.)

Now, I’m not saying that The Bioware Game is a bad game. In fact one of the hallmarks of The Bioware Game is excellent writing (again, Mass Effect 2 excepted), complex and engaging characters, and exhaustive world building. Bioware is extraordinarily good at doing what it does – which is to be expected, because it keeps refining the same formula – so when I say that there is a singular Bioware Game, I do not say that as a criticism or a denigration, but rather a simple statement of fact.

That was a long and rambling digression to say that I played the first Dragon Age and that I thought it was a decent iteration of The Bioware Game. I did not love it, but by no means did I think it was substandard. I thought some of the nomenclature was silly (“darkspawn” being the prime offender), but that comes with the Fantasy territory. Given that impression I’ve only been casually interested in Dragon Age II, as I said way back in paragraph one. I haven’t been yearning to play it, but I have been fairly certain that I do want to play it when it comes out. So when I discovered the demo was out I downloaded it without a moment’s hesitation, and played through it twice as a warrior and a mage.

How is it? Turns out, underwhelming. And that’s being kind.

Now to be less kind.

Presentation

For clarification, this category is more about aesthetics and art direction as opposed to strictly graphical quality. Nevertheless, graphics are a factor, especially in this case because the demo is butt ugly. When I first loaded the game and got into the story, I was so shocked by how dull and muddy it looked that I actually exited out and brought up the setup menu to make sure that I wasn’t running it on Apple II resolution or something. But no, the game really is just hideous.

The demo begins in a blasted wasteland that is composed of about three colors, all of which are some hue of ruddy brown. The ground is flat and mostly uniform, and the mounds of “debris” that box the player into the linear path look like they are built with no more than three polygons each.

The wasteland also boasts no distinguishing features or any detail at all. The limited color palette spreads out to the horizon like a sea of dirty clay. In a wide open game like Fallout 3 or Oblivion I can forgive a little simplicity in terrain design, because the art department has to render several square miles of landscape and they simply cannot create unique elements for every inch of real estate. But in a game that shuffles you down a linear path, as the demo does, there is absolutely no excuse not to polish the hell out of the railroad tracks. Half-Life 2 is as linear as they come, and that game is so full of minor set details that you need a Wiki page to find them all. This could have been a perfect setting for world building and storytelling without dialogue. There could be structures and remnants that show how beautiful this land was before the Blight and the coming of the darkspawn. Instead, we get a Motocross dirt track that looks like it was rendered in MS Paint.

The next breakthrough in graphics technology. Coming Summer 1998

The characters don’t fair any better. The darkspawn, which in the original were highly detailed and looked like a cross between Swamp Thing, a zombie, and an orc, now look like Skeletor if he had a bad back. Their model looks crude and unfinished. I can’t even say they look like zombies because the zombies in Resident Evil 2 had more polygons and colors. As for the human characters, well, they get their own section at the end.

Apologists may try to deflect these criticisms by saying that it’s part of Dragon Age II’s new art direction. If I recall correctly, Bioware has said that they wanted a new style for DAII, something stylized and artistic. That’s all well and good, and I love when games try to do something more than brown colored realism, but there is a significant difference between “hand drawn, painted look” and “Super Mario 64 graphics.” Simplified, stylized art direction can look beautiful; look at Team Fortress 2 or Braid. This demo looks like it was built in the Unreal Engine 1.3, and I saw nothing during my playthroughs that justified such a bland aesthetic.

Story

The Bioware Game.

You need more? Come on. Big Threat. The Hero. Party with diverse talents and backstories. “Moral” choices.

Seriously, The Bioware Game.

Design / Mechanics

The Bioware Game.

I’ve read other demo write-ups that say combat feels more fast paced and hack-and-slashy. This is not actually the case, but rather is a product of Bioware’s clever animation and sound direction. The nuts and bolts of combat are the old reliable: click on an enemy, your character auto-attacks that enemy, press a hotkey to use a special attack or magic spell. It’s the classic formula, with the dice rolls and number crunching going on behind the scenes. The feeling of more active combat is because every auto-attack has an exaggerated animation and is accompanied by a loud sound effect. This gives the impression that the attacks have serious weight behind them, and coupled with the fact that auto-attacks are now continuous as opposed to every couple of seconds it all combines to definitely feel more hectic. But it’s not like, say, Bayonetta or The Witcher, where the player manually inputs every attack. It’s still the combat of The Bioware Game.

And again, I do not say that as a negative criticism. I like the Bioware combat system and the other mechanics, such as the “RPG lite” leveling and progression. It’s just the right amount of customization for you to match your character to your play style, but no so much to bog you down with tedious min-maxing and stat allocation. I also really like the ability to pause the game in combat and issue orders to all of the party members. I do pine for the ability to queue up multiple orders for each character like in KOTOR, but I can live without that.

One note about the conversation trees. In this game there is a circle in the middle of the dialogue tree, and when you hover over the different options a picture appears in the circle that reflects the tone of that choice. This is pretty cool, but it has the side effect of highlighting the fact that every dialogue tree has the same three options: good, neutral, and jerkass.

Fun Factor

I dislike giving a definitive opinion on this aspect, because fun is subjective and people have widely varying tastes. I will say that I was not particularly engaged in either playthrough of the demo. The whole thing just felt “same old, same old” to me. I’ve played KOTOR, and Mass Effect, and the first Dragon Age. I’ve done all this before, and this demo adds nothing new to the formula. Perhaps the lack of novelty in the setting hurts the demo more than it should. The world in the first Dragon Age was new, and I enjoyed learning about the lore and the cultures and the world itself. That explorative drive carried me in the game for a long time, (but couldn’t carry me all the way, since I lost interest before the end). This demo has nothing new. It’s set in a featureless wasteland, and involves people running away from an event from the first game. They are saved by a deus ex machina that is both blatant and stupid, and then you’re off to another part of the game, now helping a character with something or other for some reason or other.

One glimmer of hope is the framing device for the story. The setup is that Varric, one of the party members you acquire in the game, has been detained by the Chantry (a fanatical law enforcement organization that regulates magic use and polices sorcerers), and is being interrogated by a Chantry official. The officer demands that Varric tell her what he knows about the “Champion,” and the actual “meat” of the game is the narrative he spins for her about his former exploits with the party. So the whole game is something of a flashback, expressed through an unreliable narrator.

Given that premise, the game has amazing potential. Imagine a game with the narrative freedom to inflate or exaggerate the action at any time. A small skirmish all of a sudden escalates into a full scale battle with a Dragon God followed by a daring escape. With a simple turn of phrase a simple night at an inn could become an encounter with feisty wenches, grizzled adventurers, and shadowy sorcerers. Entire plot points could contradict each other and later be dismissed as narrator insertions. The player’s perception of the game’s events would be a mix of half-truths and invented memories, filtered through the eyes and imagination of a snarky dwarf with only a passing interest in accuracy.

Alas, I have a feeling that the game will not make full use of that potential. I fear the idea will be used to provide an introduction, and after that will only appear as a bridge when the story jumps ahead in the timeline. A pity; if the game embraced the unreliable narrator trope, it could really be something special.

Addendum: Character Design

I could try to explain it, but it’s better to just show you these.

That armor must be enchanted with Push Up +2
Well, we know that she passed a few things along to her daughter.
This is a dragon, who moonlights as a witch, who works at Hooters.
The daggers on her back actually act as an effective counter-weight.

I’m not really sure what to say to all this. “God damn…” comes to mind. I know that DDs are a staple of the fantasy genre, but this… Gratuitous isn’t really strong enough. Frankly, I’m surprised the male characters aren’t sporting sweater kittens straining to escape chainmail wonder bras.

Podcast Episode 29: “In Theoretical Perfect World”

Episode 29 of the Impetuous Windmills Podcast is now available for download at the normal places.

We welcome back perennial guest host Sethrakles, now recently married, and devote the whole show to video games. First we discuss the effect cross-platform development has had on PC titles and PC development in general, and then we take up the question of whether it is right to copy another games mechanics and release more or less the same game under a different title. Major conclusion: don’t beta test your game by allowing the entire Internet to have access to it.

Enjoy.

Podcast Episode 27: “Sherpent.”

The latest episode of the Impetuous Windmills Podcast is now live. Feel free to get it at the usual places: here on our RSS, on iTunes (search Impetuous Windmills), or direct link here.

In this episode, we give 2010 a proper send-off by listing our top video games, movies, books, and music of the year. We also briefly discuss television, disturbing Japanese girl bands and their societal implications, and get sappy and sentimental for a moment. So enjoy that, and be prepared for bigger and better things in 2011.