Sunday, August 28, 2016

Guy plays girl

You've seen it. I've seen it. You've probably done it. I know I have.

A lot of people, when playing video games, pick the opposite sex/gender of what they are in real life. In some circles, this is known as "cross playing" (not to be confused with cosplaying, although cosplay can cross gender boundaries as well). The old excuse that gets trotted out when the question of why this is comes up is basically to ask "what kind of butt would you rather stare at for X hours?"

That's one answer, and likely accounts for some of the cases, but not all. Thinking about it, and why I did it, gave me a few alternate answers. Some may not like them, but they are there.

First, let's look at the whole "staring at the butt" thing. In actuality, most games offer very little, if any, body type customization. Male characters have one body type, female characters have another body type, the end. While ostensibly this saves on time creating different character models, it makes the choice basically binary.

And the thing about binary choices is that you can pick against the model you dislike, instead of the model you like. For example, in RPGs like Dragon Age, all male characters look like they've been hitting the gym...and then hitting some steroids on top of that. Which doesn't make sense if you're trying to play a bookworm mage who spent their entire life cooped up in a tower. I'd love to see statistics on how many people actually played male mages in the first game, given that. While it makes sense for certain character types...if I'm not playing those types, why would I pick something that doesn't fit, roleplay wise?

Granted, it's not any better giving female characters a model that looks like...well, a model. The sexism, born out of limited design space, cuts both ways here, despite what some people might say. But the binary choice is still there. And girls/women playing games like that may well not like having their avatar given doll-like perfect features. I can't say for sure, being a man, but it doesn't sound unreasonable to me.

However, the differences between male characters and female characters can be more different than just appearances. Mechanically, there's no guarantee that the sexes are equally balanced in terms of gameplay, and quite a few games offer special bonuses to one or the other. Video gaming will always have people who want to maximize their character's potential, and thus they will pick the "superior" gender, even if it's only better by a small amount. It could even be something as simple as more customization options (I'm looking at you, Pok√©mon X/Y).

And it can extend to the story and setting, as well. Skyrim, for example, has a number of NPCs with different comments depending on whether your character is male or female. This colors the player's perception of the game world, meaning that symbolically you can favor one gender over the other. Playing Fallout: New Vegas and going up against Caesar's Legion, with their whole treating women as cattle thing, is so much more satisfying if you're playing as a woman. (Trust me, I've been there, done that.) Again, the reverse could be true, although I can't think of any examples right now. (Which may say something about the games out there.)

Finally, it could just be for fun. Everyone loves fun, right? Sometimes, putting yourself in a different set of shoes is entertaining. I doubt anyone could seriously argue with that. (Please don't take that as an invitation to try.)

All of these things, put together, add up to men choosing to play female characters, and sometimes, women choosing to play male ones. And hey, that's fine. Whatever floats your boat, so to speak. Now, if you excuse me, I'm going back to playing some Warlords Battlecry III. (I currently have two characters, one a male minotaur chieftain, the other an Knighthood-aligned priestess.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

The fall of Amalur

Well, Curt Schilling announced his plans for a political career, with the long term goal of aiming for U.S. President for 2024.

With an opening like that, I've no doubt confused people, since commenting on politics is not what this blog claims to be about. And it's not, but Curt Schilling himself played a major role in one of the biggest video game fiascos of all time, one that, once you learn about it, may make you think twice about voting for him. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, I give you the sad saga of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
To start with, let's take a look at the small state of Rhode Island. Rhode Island had not historically had a very healthy state economy (currently ranked 45th out of the 50 states). It stands to reason that with such a weak economy, the state government was desperate to create jobs. Which, unfortunately, is what led to this mess.

Following his baseball career, Schilling sought to break into the video games industry. He started a business in Massachusetts called Green Monster Games, which he would later claim was not named after the famous wall in Fenway Park. (I personally do not buy that.) After a while, it was rebranded as 38 Studios, which was based on Schilling's baseball uniform number.

38 Studios had two projects in the works. One was a planned MMO going under the project name of Copernicus. The second was a single player action RPG, not too dissimilar from Elder Scrolls games like Oblivion. However, partway through development, they chose to retool the single-player RPG to be a tie-in to the MMO. Thus Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning came to be.

Schilling did not hold back in terms of the development of Amalur, bringing in several luminaries. Author R. A. Salvatore (of Drizzt Do'urden fame) was called on to craft the backstory of the setting (originally for the MMO, but this got carried over to Amalur), while Todd McFarlane (Spawn) contributing to the art. Obviously, bringing in these people cost money, quite a lot of it.

In order to raise money, Schilling approached the state government of Rhode Island. They worked out a deal; 38 Studios would relocate to Rhode Island, and in turn the state would grant the company a massive loan to help fund the game. In turn this would help create several hundred jobs in the state of Rhode Island.

What happened next is where things get murky, and I wish I could track down more precise info on the fiasco. In February 2012, the game was released, to mostly positive reviews. For the release, even more big names were brought in for promotion, including people like Felicia Day. It apparently worked, as the game sold over three hundred thousand copies in them month following release, and Schilling later claimed that after three months, well over a million copies sold.

However, 38 Studios defaulted on one of the payments for the loan. While they were eventually able to pay, apparently they did so by skipping payroll that week. At that point, several company executives bailed, and a few months later 38 Studios filed for bankruptcy. The governor of Rhode Island went on to claim that for the game to break-even, it would have to sell over three million units, and that Amalur was a "failure".

Criminal investigations were launched, but ultimately failed to find evidence of wrong-doing. The IP reverted to the control of Rhode Island, who own it to this day. They also filed a civil lawsuit, which is still ongoing as well. It will likely be a few more years before the full fallout of all this is finally settled.

While the exact details behind the finances have not been released, it's not hard to guess at what happened. On its own, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning probably was reasonably profitable - selling over a million units in three months is something that would look good for all but the most exorbitantly expensive AAA titles. Even after the IP reverted to Rhode Island, it came out they were still making some money off the game; not a huge amount, but it was something.

However, there was also the Copernicus project - and that is probably where the problem was. An MMO is a much more expansive and complex project than a single-player game, after all. Thus, development costs would have been significantly higher - and even with the sales of Amalur, they couldn't continue development. 38 Studios, along with Curt Schilling, had simply bit off more than they can chew, running both projects simultaneously.

The accounts of the whole thing that I've seen tend towards being a little overly vindictive of Schilling. And while there are probably a number of valid reasons to detest the man - which I'm not going into, because we're still not here to talk politics - blaming him for being over-ambitious about making video games is pointless. There have been worse mistakes in the industry, by people who have been involved it far longer. (Don't get me started on Peter Molyneux.)

It's a shame, but if you really feel bad about it...just buy a copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, for yourself or for a friend. Rhode Island will at least get something out of it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The legacy of D&D, part 2

 Let's talk some more about the original RPG.

In the first part, I went over a sample of the games that resulted from D&D's influence. But, as I said before, that's only half the picture. The other half is the people who jumped from playing D&D to playing video games, the players themselves. This is where it gets a bit more grim, a bit more murky, and much more controversial.

To begin with, let's rewind a bit back to the playstyle of the early player. D&D has always been to a large degree focused on violent confrontation - travel around, slay the evil monsters, collect the loot, everyone levels up, rinse, repeat. Originally, Gygax designed the earliest versions of the game to encourage caution - the point was getting the loot, and combat was to be avoided when possible through stealth and cunning.

Of course, stealth and cunning were not the approach many D&D players preferred. D&D was gradually retooled into being much more combat-heavy, which catered nicely to the players who preferred that style of gameplay. While talking and stealth had their place, combat was the primary fixture of the game, and has remained so to this day.

When many of these D&D players made the leap to being video game players (and a few designers, too), they carried that with them. It's well documented, for example, that the early id software (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake) were mostly avid D&D players - and we all know the kind of games they produced. Coupled with the fact that early technology made meaningful non-combat systems hard to implement as well, it was just easier to make combat the main form of interaction.

Since then, video games have never really shaken the importance of combat. Part of it is that so many games have done it, it's still relatively easy to implement a decent system for fighting. The other half is that dialogue has come down to picking options from a menu (to be fair, I don't see a better way of doing it unless you script every NPC with a better version of Cleverbot). Not many people like that, so here we are.

It is something the original creators, particularly Dave Arneson, were not happy with back in the day. Back in an 1988 interview, he noted was not happy with how "hack and slash" video game RPGs were, lamenting things like Ultima being outliers instead of the standard. While things have improved somewhat (mostly thanks to Bioware), I feel there's still room for RPGs and games in general to grow.

Culturally, early D&D gamers brought over their views on playing their game to video games. At the time, D&D was still at the tail end of a decade-long fight against moral outrage, with people claiming the game was satanic or harmful to minors. Thus, when people like Jack Thompson launched crusades against the more extreme cases of video game violence like Doom and Mortal Kombat, it did not go over well.

On one hand, this was just what gaming needed, in order to establish itself as being something that could appeal to everyone, not just "toys" for children. However, this also instilled a resistance to "outside" pressure, something that has made it a lot harder to address real problems in gaming culture, like social equality. (Although may people mistake the nature of the problem - it's something I'll have to cover in a later blog post.)

Overall, Gygax and Arneson would likely have mixed feelings if they could see where video gaming was today as a result of their creation. It's not like they intended for any of this to happen. All they wanted to do was give a more personal touch to tabletop strategy games, which had existed for decades before they came along. They did succeed - but no one could predict the technology that took their ideas and put them on a screen, or the people who were willing to sit down in front of that screen.

Either way, for better or for worse, here we are. So let's look forward to the next step. Just remember that, directly or indirectly, odds are it will trace back to two guys who reinvented gaming.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The legacy of D&D, part 1

Let's talk about the original RPG.

For the two of you living under rocks, it was the pair of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who helped give birth to the cultural juggernaut that is Dungeons & Dragons. D&D itself was primarily inspired by two major set of novels. The first, obviously, was Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, but the second is the slightly more obscure Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series of fantasy novels by Fritz Leiber.

Of course, this is mainly a video game blog, so why bring this up? Well, because video games have been drawing on D&D for influence from the very beginning.

It starts with Wizardry, the classic series of computer RPGs. The first came out in 1981, and proved to be a fair success...but in Japan, calling it that would be an understatement. It was huge, and all of the JRPG genre resulted from game producers over there trying to copy what Wizardry. This led to the birth of the hugely popular Dragon Quest series.

Another such attempt came at the hands of a company on the verge of bankruptcy, who decided to give it an appropriate title for their final product. In doing so, Squaresoft blatantly ignored copyright laws and ripped every idea they could from D&D to create their Final Fantasy. (Even the trio of mage classes - White Mage, Red Mage, Black Mage - came from the D&D Dragonlance setting.) Which, of course, saved the company, and now you can look up news about the impending release of Final Fantasy XV.

Meanwhile, the western sphere was both producing new RPG series like Ultima and Might & Magic, as well as official licensed D&D games, referred to as the Gold Box games because of boxes. (We're real imaginative, can you tell?) These were followed up by the Eye of the Beholder trilogy (some call these Silver Box games, but I just ignore that) and their spinoff Dungeon Hack.

Meanwhile meanwhile, other people had been busy creating their own tabletop systems, including Steve Jackson's GURPS. A company named Black Isle attempted to acquire the rights to use GURPS for their own post-apocalyptic video game, but that fell through. As a result, they developed their own SPECIAL system...and the result was the romp known as Fallout.

While RPGs waned in popularity in the later 90s, a new company, founded by a pair of medical doctors, acquired the rights to make a new D&D game. Black Isle (sounds familiar?) agreed to publish this game. The result was Baldur's Gate, and the company Bioware has become a fixture of RPG making since.

I could keep going, but you get the point. D&D's fingerprints are all over video games, to the point where studying their history without acknowledging the work of Gygax and Arneson is basically pointless. I don't want people to buy into historical inaccuracies, we are.

Of course, there's another side to this, the cultural legacy that extends from D&D. And unfortunately, this isn't quite as pretty as just a list of games that wouldn't exist without it. But since this blog post is a little long as is, come back next week for the second part, where I'll dig into that matter...and the problems that came with it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Looking back: System Shock 2

Well, number 3 is coming out, and the first game is getting a remake, but what about the game that sits in between the two?

System Shock 2 was released in 1999, which put it up against the original Half-Life. While critics praised it, it was heavily overshadowed by this other FPS, leading to it never escalating beyond cult hit status during its normal sales run. However, its influence goes well beyond that.

This game has been wide touted as one of the scariest games ever made. The thing to realize here is that it relies on a different brand of scariness than modern horror games, which make heavy use of jumpscares and extremely limited lighting to freak the player out at specific points.

2 leans more on a sense of overall tension; while the enemies aren't that scary (at least, not unless you stop and think about what they are), the music, atmosphere, and limited resources put players constantly on edge, with limited breathing room. Of course, the reason this isn't popular is that it's too easy (by some views) to paint yourself into a corner by using too much ammo or healing items. The difficulty (which was fairly hard, even by standards back then) did not help matters.

While it took years for an official sequel, many games were influenced by it. The Bioshock series began as a direct spiritual sequel to the game, and circumstantial evidence indicates that the first Dead Space game may have started development as a sequel. More directly, it helped blend the FPS and RPG genres, in a way that would be echoed (although not copied) by later series like Borderlands.

Oh, and SHODAN. Many, many video game AIs have taken cues from SHODAN and her brand of insanity. From Halo's Cortana to Portal's GLaDOS (note the use of capital letters) to Angel from the aforementioned Borderlands, female AIs have become surprisingly standard since this game's release. A trope, if you will, that goes back to "L-l-look at you, hacker..."

The final coda is the legal rights snafu that was the main reason it took so long for ''3'' to come out, due to the rights being divided among several different companies. Trying to sum up just how those rights were divided over the years would be very complicated, so I'll settle for just saying that the sequel rights, the distribution rights, and the trademark rights have changed hands multiple times. (At least it's in a better position than No One Lives Forever...)

Either way, it's another piece of gaming history that deserves to be highlighted. SHODAN's glory may not quite be what she wants, but in terms of being the center of a memorable game, she's earned a fair amount of respect, right?


Oh, no one asked you, Goggles.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Japan vs. the world

Let's be honest, video games would not be where they are now if it weren't for the Japanese companies who made them. Nintendo alone basically ensured that gaming would not be PC only (we'd be in a very different world if the NES hadn't happened).

Well, as usual, you have to know the "but" lurks in there. The fact is, Japanese companies in the past few years have kind of fallen off the wagon here. Everyone knows how Konami kind of just turned into a laughingstock, Nintendo made us all cringe with their "explanation" of how Link can't be female, and so on. But enough bashing companies.

What we're looking at here is actually Japanese business culture becoming more conservative, which isn't surprising, given that's an overall trend in AAA game development the world over. The big studios don't want to take any chances, and that mentality means they will play it safe, as unfortunate as it is for us gamers.

The twist here is that Japanese culture makes a huge point about distinguishing itself from...well, everyone else. Getting into the specifics of how and why this is would take too long, but it's an attitude that colors everything from tourism to politics to creating fiction, including video games. So what happens when these factors come together?

You get a scenario where games are made mainly for the Japanese market, with few (if any) considerations for international audiences. Which, outside the giant mobile market in Japan, is the biggest audience they can reach. The failure of these companies to keep doing so is pretty clear evidence that reaching these people is not high on their priority list.

Obviously, there are exceptions, like Square Enix, which has the advantage of specifically buying out Western companies and their IPs, like Tomb Raider and Deus Ex. Nintendo still has its fans, and at least they are trying some new things with their mobile push...oh wait, no, that's still Japan-based. Well, at the very least Zelda is going to be open-world, so...whee?

No one from Japan is probably going to read this blog post, let alone take it into consideration. After all, thousands of fans have clamored and argued against what has happened over the past few years, but it hasn't accomplished much. Japanese gaming will continue to focus on developing for their home market first - and fall into irrelevance elsewhere.

It's kind of sad really. So, I propose a toast - to the great games that came out of Japan in the past. While a few more may still come, it will never be the same. So crank them up - that old Final Fantasy, that classic Castlevania, that amazing Mega Man - one more time, for memories' sake. Because while there may be other games of their ilk...most won't be made by Japanese companies. (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night possibly being the one exception I'm aware of.)


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Upgrading expectations

Well, my first blog post typed out on my new computer. I'm still getting used to the keyboard...

It has been about seven years since I got my last computer, so I was overdue for an upgrade...right? I mean, trying to run Skyrim at single-digit framerates isn't exactly appealing. It was old, it was tired, it was creaky, and now it's sitting off to the side gathering dust.

So, yes, I did need an upgrade. And I hope that this new PC lasts just as long, if not longer. As a matter of fact, it should. Not in the sense that I'm going to take special care of it to make it live long, but in the understanding that all gaming platforms should have that kind of longevity.

This is where I toss out a term that so many critics misuse and misunderstand - consumer friendliness. Consumer friendliness is about maximizing the value of consumer purchases, which really should be self evident. So if someone buys a PC or a game console, someone who advocates for consumer friendliness should be advocating for it to have as long a usage life as possible, with all that comes with it.

Of course, people want to know about graphical upgrades, but here's the thing. We've reached a point where graphics are great. Even indie titles can use the cheap Unity engine, and with the proper art direction they can look fantastic by almost any standard. The race for better graphics should be a null issue; no one should care.

People still do, because people cling to what they know. And there was a time when the push for improved graphics was necessary, because what could be done was relatively crude. I know, I was there. These days, there's not much room for graphical upgrades. Textures and definition are reaching the point where most people honestly will never notice the change from one console generation to the next.

And yet, the gaming market, as enforced by AAA titles, keeps pushing the graphical envelope even when there's not a lot of point. Upgrades that aren't strictly necessary, because the games could be made without them. And consoles and PCs would still wear out and need replacing, so there's no reason why things need to keep being upgraded.

That is not consumer friendly. And the longer it goes on, the less consumer friendly it becomes. I want to see advances in gameplay and story, mechanics and presentation. This does not need new hardware. It may have once, but not any more. And anyone - anyone - who says otherwise doesn't understand the current state of gaming. (Or, for the more cynical, they are just trying to fleece money out of you.)

Either way, I will enjoy my new PC. Here's to another seven years of gaming, writing, blogging, and whatever else I do on it. And I sincerely hope you get the same out of your gaming machine, whatever it is.