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Entries in Video Games (3)

Friday
Jul102015

My first Rocket League (Multiplayer, Online) Goal...

This game is a blast.  I'll be writing (probably a lot) more about it soon and likely posting a gazillion videos, but now that the online servers are up and stable, I thought I'd share my first online goal.  Actually, this was technically my second goal, but my first was one that made the score 1-8 with my team losing and I forgot to hit the [Share] button.  This one tied the game and we went on to win, so I'm going pretend the other didn't happen. If you want to play some Rocket League with me, I'm Armchairdan on PSN (1. PSN really needs to let people change their usernames 2. Armchair Empire R.I.P.).  Add me and we will play.  I swear I rarely yell GOOAALLL!!! at the top of my lungs with the microphone on.

 

Wednesday
Feb292012

The Dark Age of Video Games

The landscape of video games is changing. It has been happening for quite a while now: slowly at first, but growing in momentum as time goes on. The shift from physical media to digital-only distribution allows for an unsurpassed level of convenience, but what are we giving up in the transition?

When I was younger a "Video Game" was a large wooden monolith that sat prominently in the lobby of the pizza parlors and arcades in my neighborhood. The colorfully painted cabinets waited there, beckoning potential players with their glowing phosphors and gulping down quarters with hungry blips and beeps. Like the movies of the same era, playing video games was a destination activity; you just couldn't get the arcade experience at home. In order to play video games you had to grab a handful of quarters, strap on your Reebok high-top sneakers, and ride your BMX bike to the corner arcade. With VCRs still mostly a luxury item and home consoles featuring painfully basic graphics, the idea of owning a movie or an arcade game wasn't really plausible at the time.

However, in a few short years both video games and movies saw a dramatic shift that changed the way people thought about media in general. The VCR's wide acceptance changed watching movies from a destination activity to an experience that people could actually buy and take home. In the same vein, video game consoles that could approximate the arcade experience found their way into the homes of a new generation - and arcades began to atrophy in direct proportion. People could now own and collect the games they loved, display them proudly on the shelves, and revisit them whenever they wanted to.

This new business model offered freedom for individuals, but became a thorn in the side for game developers and publishers. Because games could now be owned, they could also be copied - and with the advent of the internet, widely distributed. The handful of bootlegs that afflicted the industry during the arcade years were fairly small compared to the number of digital copies that could be disseminated using the power of the internet. The Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems that had attempted to thwart copying software on computers ("Don't Copy That Floppy!"), evolved and continued to be integral in the cat and mouse game between game developers, and software crackers. The original methods, which protected the software by tying it to the physical media it was printed on, evolved into protecting the data itself through advanced cryptographic systems.

As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, with information freely moving through the very air around us and harnessed by devices in our pocket that would have been science fiction 15 short years ago, people are embracing convenience over ownership. The games that are purchased through the iPhone are not tied to a physical media; they exist entirely as information - and DRMed information at that. Steam, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live all serve DRM content at the push of a button, with immediate results. Like rats in Skinner's Box, as consumers we push the download button and receive an immediate reward. As a consumer I appreciate this age of convenience, but are we trading away our children's heritage?

The period of time between the fall of the roman empire and the Renaissance is known as the "Dark Ages". The amount of literature and written history about this time is vary scarce, leaving historians in the dark about much of what occurred during these centuries. By embracing digital only content protected with DRM, are we creating our own Dark Age of Video Games?  The majority of DRMed content we buy today is tied to a particular account or device. When those devices break and the companies distributing the game shut down their servers or go out of business, what will happen to our games?

This concern is more than just personal. When my kids grow up to be my age, I want to share with them the games that have meant the most to me over the years. Will these digital-only games become no more than ghost stories passed down to younger generations; Phantoms that cannot be truly experienced because they have vanished through the unstoppable progression of technology? I will certainly be able to share the games of my own childhood. While the arcades from 30 years ago may be gone, the games live on. If I want to play Ms. Pac-Man, I can turn on the physical arcade cabinet that lives in my game room, or visit one of the arcade museums that preserve our gaming past. If I want to revisit Atari 2600 games, or my Nintendo Entertainment System games, I just place the games into my console; and if my console breaks, I can use those same games in another one. This is not the case for the new digital media. Once the devices and services that offer them are defunct, the games themselves will fade into oblivion - or in best case, be sold to us again and again by the publishers on each new electronic device that makes its debut.

I am expecting a new baby daughter in June. I want to share with her my love for games, but more importantly, I want her to be able to share her own childhood gaming experiences with her children decades from now. But, with the way game distribution is heading, I'm not sure that she will have that opportunity, which saddens me. As a game developer myself, I want my games to live on, to be experienced by future generations and proudly kept as mementos on shelves. Somehow this new crop of digital only games seems to marginalize the value of games a bit. There is nothing there to physically hold, treasure and keep on the shelves for a rainy day. Most digital-only games are bought for less than the cost of a cup of coffee - and discarded just as quickly. It pains me to think of a future where video games are as disposable as the cheap toy in a Happy Meal.

My video game collection has great value to me. It's exists, not just as a vehicle to visit the past, but as a window into our own cultural history. Regardless of your stance about whether video games are an art form, it can't be denied that they have a very real, very prominent, lasting influence on our society. As a culture, we are shocked at the thought of burning books and permanently censoring the art and information that lies within, yet by embracing digital only DRMed content, we are effectively throwing it into the fire pit to feed the flames.

To have faith that the games will persist through developers and publishers is also dangerously optimistic. I have worked for several developers where the source code to older games has been lost through the many closures, restructures, and sales that have become all to common in the industry. And even when the code is readily accessible, publishers often find a way to "add value" to games by changing or remastering them. This can be compared to the current state of the movie Star Wars. In the memorable cantina scene, Han Solo talks to the bounty hunter Greedo, and shots are fired. Even though all recent copies of the movie have Greedo shooting first, that isn't the way the movie was originally filmed. Luckily, with physical media, there is still a tangible record in the VHS tapes of old that Han Solo was a much more nuanced character than his remastered alter-ego would suggest. With games living entirely in the digital, details like this can be changed in our favorite games as well, except with no physical media, the original version will be lost to the ages and exist only in our faltering collective memories.

Now it may seem like I should be standing on the side of the road with a cardboard sign proclaiming the end of the world, but in reality I embrace the strides that a global network has made in enhancing video games. I have made a career out of utilizing the internet to allow people to interact, create communities, and explore new forms of interactivity in games; experiences that would have been impossible without an Internet. With this new medium, games are reaching people of all demographics, by bringing the video game stigma out of the basement and onto the streets. I love games, and when you love something you also worry about it. It is with these feelings that I cautiously step forward into the new digital gamescape that we are creating. It's incredibly exciting to experience such a quickly changing frontieer, but at the same time, I don't want to trade a lifetime of enjoyment for a fleeting moment of convenience.

I don't think we have to settle for one or the other, though. Developers and publishers are still working out the logistics of this shift in distribution and experimenting with different models. For example, Sony's new PlayStation Vita handheld is offering content on both physical media and through digital-only distribution, which is a great compromise for convenience and conservation. While the physical media may have copy protection built into it, the games will still be playable in the future, even when the Vita hardware is no longer supported.

Still another model is being embraced by game developer Double Fine in their recently launched Kickstarter project for "Double Fine Adventure", which will be available through DRM based digital channels, but also as a DRM free digital copy. Even with a digital-only model, the lack of DRM will allow the game to persist. As a direct result, I will not only be able to show my daughter the wonderful adventure games of my youth such as Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, but I will be able to show her the digital game released on the year of her birth, because Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert were cognizant of the importance of games without DRM and offered a distribution model that will allow their new game to sit along side their current classics for years into the future..

The industry is still in largely uncharted waters, and I expect much change in the next few years, but I hope that more developers will follow Schafer's lead and take steps to ensure that we don't blindly embrace content with a DRM time-bomb. By keeping conservation in mind and demanding content that will persist, we can avoid a Dark Age of Video Games.

Am I preaching to the choir, or completely insane? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

Thursday
Aug272009

Dragon Age: Origins Hands-On Preview

            Few video game developers have a track record like Bioware. The Canadian development house has quite a string of RPG masterpieces under its belt. Now their next original entry into the dungeon crawling, spell casting, sword swinging, stat tabulating genre is nearing completion. Dragon Age: Origins is set to continue the high production values and deep game play Bioware is famous for. I had a chance to play the XBOX360 and PC versions of the game at this year's Gencon in Indianapolis. I have to say that I'm so far impressed with the game.

            You play as a grey warden, the last of your kind. It is up to you and your comrades to bring balance back to the world of Ferelden and fight off the demonic armies who have returned to destroy the world. At the start you choose an Origin story. This is based around a certain character and class and has its own unique perspective of the events in the game. You’re every action and choice has far reaching consequences for the game world and each Origin you play will have a different feel and perspective within the story. This gives the nearly 60 hour game tons of replay value.

            On the 360 version I played with a party comprised of a human noble, his mother and a faithful, bloodthirsty hound. This being a pickup game starting in the middle of the action there was little context as to what exactly was going on other than a bunch of fools invading your castle, but the game play was my focus at the time. The controls are intuitive enough, select a target and select an action mapped to a button. Your primary attack if selected is executed over and over again until you tell your character otherwise, but you also have some more powerful skills to unleash. These actions have cool down rates like you would see in a MMO, but do more damage or even stun the enemy so you can get a couple of quick stabs in. You can take control of any character at anytime with the push of a trigger button, or pause the game entirely and select actions and targets for the whole party ala Baulder’s Gate 2. I have to say that the hectic action is impressive and engaging without the player feeling that things are out of control.

            This is a bloody game. More bloody than any other Bioware game. Graphically the game has its moments. Characters are highly detailed with blood splattered armor, unique faces and expressions and the environments are large and detailed. Granted it’s hard to judge graphics on an HD monitor when your face is eight inches away since any video image will break down at that close distance, but I think the console edition has some good graphical charm.

            I only spent a few minutes with the PC version, but I feel it may be the way to go for most gamers who enjoy this kind of game. Point and click targeting with a mouse is as intuitive as it gets. This version also features more quick slots for powers and spells that you can select with a keystroke. Graphically, the PC really shows off the game world and its characters. From mountain crags to the alternate reality of The Fade (with really cool light smearing effects) the PC version really takes advantage of added anti-aliasing and higher resolution textures. Don’t get me wrong though; being able to sit on the couch with a console controller in one hand and a bag of cheesy poofs in the other is not a bad way to spend the evening in RPG heaven.

            This is only a small preview and will be followed by a more comprehensive review after the game releases, but one thing that tells me this RPG has the deepness those fans of the genre clamor for is the menus. Tab after tab of stats, items, weapons, spell books and the like fill the screen in a way that most recent rpgs (or those games pretending to be rpgs) don’t offer. The console version doesn’t suffer from the “dumbed-downededness” since all versions have been developed together from the start. With very few offerings this year in the genre Bioware should really make fans of rpgs really giddy this holiday season. Look for this one November 3rd for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.