Monday, July 27, 2009

PC Game Sales vs Steals (Week 7)

Each week I present the sales charts, along with the top 10 most active PC game torrents from a popular torrent hosting site. Last week's installment can be seen here.

Direct2Drive Top Sellers (by unit, 7/19 - 7/25)

1.The Sims 3
2.ARMA 2
3.Dawn of Discovery
4.Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II
5.The Sims 3 (Mac)
6.Civilization IV: The Complete Edition
7.Supreme Commander Gold
9.Fallout 3
10.Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Steam Top Sellers (by revenue, 7/19 - 7/25)

1.Aion Collector's Edition
2.Left 4 Dead
3.The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
4.Counter-Strike: Source
5.ARMA 2
6.Tales of Monkey Island Complete Pack
7.Dawn of Discovery
8.Street Fighter IV
9.Team Fortress 2
10.Killing Floor

Most Active Torrents (7/27)

Seeds Leechers
1.Street Fighter IV14424551
2.Bionic Commando5914177
3.Viruta Tennis 20099913834
4.Grand Theft Auto IV6343733
5.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood18523185
7.Anno 14048532592
8.Fallout 316752354
10.Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare13182105

The most active PC game torrent list is presented with the number of Seeds and Leechers. Simply put, Seeds corresponds to the number of people who are uploading or sharing the game, whereas Leechers corresponds to the number of people who are downloading the game. One thing to note is that duplicates were not included in the most active torrent list. As a result, the presented number of Seeds and Leechers does not necessarily correspond to the total number of pirated game copies.

Morality Metrics in Videogames

I needed to convince the Council of Saren’s treachery, and a Quarian had the necessary evidence. Unfortunately, the Quarian had also decided to place her trust in Fist, the owner of Chora’s Den and former employee of the Shadow Broker. What she did not know was that Fist had decided to break out from under the Shadow Broker and work for Saren. The Quarian was in a lot of trouble and getting to her would not be easy.

When I headed into Chora’s Den, a number of thugs decided they did not like the way I looked. With gall that could only come from ignorance, they opened fire and I was forced to take cover. After taking a moment to collect myself, I decided to educate them on exactly who they were shooting at. In a matter of seconds they were definitely smarter, but considering their lack of movement, I did not think they appreciated my efforts.

After walking into Fist’s office and dispatching two defense turrets, it was time to extract some necessary information.

“Where’s the Quarian?” I demanded of Fist.

Cowering on the ground he responded, “She’s not here; I don’t know where she is. That’s the truth.”

“You’ve got three seconds to come clean. Then I start shooting.” I knew he was lying.

“The Quarian isn’t here, said she’d only deal with the Shadow Broker himself.” I gave Fist some room to stand. After collecting himself he continued, “Nobody meets the Shadow Broker, ever. Even I don’t know his true identity, but she didn’t know that. I told her I’d set a meeting up, but when she shows up, it’ll be Saren’s men waiting for her.”

His response did not improve my demeanor. Menacingly I ordered, “Give me the location, now!”

“Here on the Wards, back alley by the Markets, she’s supposed to meet them right now. You can make it if you hurry.”

Fist had given me some hope, but he was still corrupt and depraved. He was working for a traitor to intergalactic life, had sent an innocent into a trap, and had repeatedly tried to kill me. I had to get to the Quarian quickly, but I could not simply let Fist walk away. Even if he claimed he would go into hiding, he had already lied to the Quarian and to me. I could not risk the lives of other innocent people.

I did not like the idea of execution, but it had to be done. Reluctantly, I raised my pistol. “Too many people died here Fist, you don’t get to walk away,” I stated. Then I pulled the trigger.

Suddenly, a message popped up informing me that my Renegade ranking had increased by two points.


I had just performed a service to the galaxy. In killing Fist I had probably saved a countless number of lives, and I had set Saren back in any plans that he was constructing. Instead of being lauded for my actions, I was branded as a renegade?!

Why was Mass Effect denouncing my moral character?

In On Crimes and Punishment, eighteenth century Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria stands against the death penalty in stating, “The laws… are only the sum of the smallest portions of the private liberty of each individual, and represent the general will, which is the aggregate of that of each individual. Did anyone ever give to others the right of taking away his life?”

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, found Beccaria’s argument to be sentimental and sophomoric. “If a man has committed murder, he must die… There is no substitute that will satisfy the requirements of legal justice… There is no equality between the crime and retribution unless the criminal is judicially condemned and put to death.”

The issue of capital punishment, among many other moral and ethical issues, is one that has been debated for centuries, and will continue to be debated. Every individual is raised with differing moral codes based upon an innumerable number of influences including family, friends, environments, current events, etc. In fact, with some notable exceptions, most people make no conscious effort in shaping their moral code. Decisions, from the miniscule to the life-altering, are made according to the perceived consequences, and one’s moral code provides judgment of those consequences.

Unfortunately, videogames such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3 have a glaring tendency to completely ignore and disregard an individual’s moral code with the introduction of an arbitrary morality meter. These meters judge a player’s actions according to a hidden and often contradictory metric, and assign a numeric value ranging between the extremes of right and wrong, good and evil, or paragon and renegade.

What purpose do these arbitrary morality metrics actually serve in videogames? Advocates of such systems would argue that morality metrics add consequences and weight to player decisions; these systems allow for a player to feel he or she has more of an impact on the game world.

Is this actually the case? Does an extra tick mark in the bad karma slider actually serve as a consequence? Mass Effect’s paragon and renegade system had no discernable impact on the storyline or gameplay. Fallout 3’s karma system did nothing more impactful than provide unnecessary dialogue and ally options.

In actuality, these morality systems detract from interesting choices and actual consequences. All decisions made in life have both positive and negative consequences, and these consequences are sometimes perceived and sometimes hidden. Often, the consequences we perceived can turn out to be false, but we’re still stuck with the decision we made. Morality metrics in videogames remove all of this ambiguity, and give us the choice of being either Mother Teresa or Hitler, as asserted by James Portnow.

Such moral systems in fact nullify meaningful choice in videogames by circumventing the player’s personal moral code and replacing it with an arbitrary one. Players are, in essence, punished by being deemed a renegade or evil, not necessarily because their actions are morally unjust, but because their actions conflict with a random and obscure rule set.

Instead of attempting to provide impactful decisions through morality systems, developers need to remove any judgment from player choice and provide tangible consequences, both positive and negative, to each decision. This is of course easier said than done, but it is not without example.

Despite Mass Effect’s opaque paragon and renegade morality system, the game does provide a prime example of how to construct impactful decisions, in forcing the player to choose between two of his or her teammates towards the end of the game. Each option has both a positive and negative consequence. Option 1 allows for character “A” to live, but character “B” must die. Option 2 allows for character “B” to live, but character “A” must die. The decision has no bearing on the paragon or renegade ratings, but real consequences exist.

This decision also allows for a player’s own feelings and values to be put to use, unlike other decisions in the game. A player who enjoys combat may choose to save the character that is stronger. A player who enjoys the story may choose to save the character that he or she has interacted with more. The necessary decision is known, and the positive and negative consequences are known. Each individual player is able to make the decision based on his or her own values.

The Witcher also exemplifies a videogame that provides for real, ambiguous, consequence-oriented decision making. At one point in the game, an angry mob calls for the burning of a local witch, falsely accusing her of unleashing a hellhound on the village. The player is given the choice of handing her over or stopping the mob. The decision, however, is complicated by the fact that the witch is not a typical innocent bystander. She is known to sell poisons and partake in dark arts, possibly making her worthy of some form of punishment.

One decision saves the life of a person falsely accused, but also allows that person to continue a harmful trade. The other decision allows for the execution of an innocent, but also insures that said innocent ceases their destructive craft. Both positive and negative consequences are presented for each possible decision, even though they might not have any direct impact on the player. Further, no arbitrary morality system exists to circumvent the player’s values.

Morality in videogames is an increasingly popular topic, and is essential to the growth and legitimization of interactive entertainment. However, moral systems serve not to increase the moral impact of in-game decisions, but instead detract from the allowance of true impactful decisions. The focus on such systems in videogames needs to be removed and placed upon decisions with both positive and negative consequences. Every individual has his or her own moral code; players do not need arbitrary and inconsequential morality metrics.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nitpicking Trine

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It evokes deep-rooted and compelling feelings, and it provides a sentimental yearning for a time in which experiences were more pleasurable and intense. Few modern games have the ability to induce nostalgia more so than Trine. Every aspect of Frozenbyte’s side-scroller, from gameplay to story to graphics, provides a longing for past experiences, whether they be videogames or otherwise.

Perhaps one of the more obvious nostalgic aspects is the gameplay itself. Despite full three-dimensional rendering of playable characters, non-playable characters, and environments, Trine is simply a two-dimensional side-scroller. It is a return to a time in videogames that was absent of camera-control and collision-detection issues, due to the lack of modern technological advances. Because of that, it is immediately accessible and intuitive.

Along with the ability to only move in two dimensions is a simpler type of combat. Protagonists are not cluttered with an inordinate or a redundant number of attack abilities; nor do enemies have complex or multi-tiered behaviors. An enemy’s fighting abilities are straightforward and obvious upon first glance, as are the necessary actions to counter and defeat it.

Much like side-scrollers of old, the emphasis of gameplay is placed on movement as opposed to combat. The bulk of Trine’s gameplay is simply moving from point A to point B. This is made challenging by various obstacles and puzzles that require precise timing and thought to overcome.

However, it is in these obstacles and puzzles that Trine supplements its nostalgic gameplay. Solving puzzles often goes beyond requiring precise timing, and necessitates a modification of the environment. Players also have the ability to supplement the environment with boxes and platforms to traverse a level. Modifying and supplementing the environment incorporates realistic physics for a much more transparent and rewarding experience than would be otherwise. It provides for creativity in solving puzzles, as opposed to simply requiring the push of a button to initiate hidden mechanics.

For the most part, each level of the game builds upon this formula of straightforward combat and physics-based puzzles in a steady manner. Unfortunately this progression is broken by the last level, in which the difficulty level is excessively ramped up by the inclusion of unprecedented design elements. This break proves to be somewhat frustrating and disappointing, though not disconnecting from the game’s nostalgic nature. The last level recalls the overly difficult and frustrating side-scrollers dominant during the 8-bit era of videogames, and also recalls the sense of relief when particularly taxing obstacles were overcome.

Beyond its gameplay, Trine’s story adds to its nostalgic value, though not necessarily towards videogames of the past. Ultimately simplistic in design, the story follows the familiar archetype of “evil threatens land, heroes band together, heroes defeat evil, everyone lives happily-ever-after.” The game does not fight this overly used archetype, nor does it attempt to hide it beneath intricacies and details. Instead, Frozenbyte embraces the simplistic narrative through its character design and presentation, in an effort that is indicative of childhood fairy tales.

Three protagonists are featured in the game, each with their own unique background and personality. First introduced is the thief, a cynical female whose main concerns revolve around extracting herself and any possible profit from the principal predicament. Introduced second is the wizard, a student still learning the arcane arts, and somewhat knowledgeable of aspects related to the predominant threat. Last is the knight, a man noble in intention, overpowering in strength, and unburdened by high-level thought.

Each of the protagonists is well created with the inclusions of both character strengths and weaknesses. They are all instantly recognizable and relatable, and their occasional banter serves to endear them even further.

However, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Trine is the absence of any sort of character development. Despite strongly established starting characteristics, which include obvious foibles, none of the protagonists evolve throughout the game. Their starting traits are essentially the same at the conclusion of the game. Granted, the happily-ever-after ending sees them all in various satisfying and amusing situations that add to the game’s overall nostalgic value. It is, however, unfortunate that none of their well developed foibles are ever addressed, despite obvious opportunities to do so.

Perhaps more contributory to Trine’s nostalgic fairy tale nature is the narration. Instead of allowing the story to unfold through cut-scenes or gameplay, Frozenbyte created Trine as a pseudo-frame story, with an independent and omniscient narrator reciting the three protagonists’ tale between levels. It harkens back to being tucked into bed at night and read to by a loving parent. At the least, it’s just as familiar and comfortable.

The overall experience of Trine is enhanced by stunning environments and art design. Fitting the fairy tale story, environments range from forests to caverns to dungeons. Colors are vibrant throughout with the inclusion of gorgeous detail such as giant fluorescent flowers and mushrooms, tiny glowing insects that swarm around lamps, and molten lava that heats and distorts the air. A pause in gameplay is required to appreciate all of the striking minutiae placed in each scene of the game.

Trine is a joy to experience. It is not action-packed, fast-paced, or adrenaline-pumping as so many games strive to be today. Instead, in its nostalgic nature, it aspires to be thoughtful, familiar, and ultimately comfortable. Comfort is not a metric typically used to evaluate videogames, but Trine achieves the maximum comfort level possible, and as a result, provides for a memorable experience.

Monday, July 20, 2009

PC Game Sales vs Steals (Week 6)

Each week I present the sales charts, along with the top 10 most active PC game torrents from a popular torrent hosting site. Last week's installment can be seen here.

Steam Top Sellers (by revenue, 7/12 - 7/18)

1.The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
2.Left 4 Dead
3.Aion Collector's Edition
4.ARMA 2
5.Street Fighter IV
6.Counter-Strike: Source
7.Dawn of Discovery
8.Brothers in Arms Pack
10.Team Fortress 2

Most Active Torrents (7/13)

Seeds Leechers
1.Street Fighter IV13174745
2.Virtua Tennis 20098853804
4.Grand Theft Auto IV5313563
5.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood16572919
6.Fallout 316542496
7.Bionic Commando852445
8.The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition17692237
9.Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare11082060
10.Empire: Total War Special Forces6531953

The most active PC game torrent list is presented with the number of Seeds and Leechers. Simply put, Seeds corresponds to the number of people who are uploading or sharing the game, whereas Leechers corresponds to the number of people who are downloading the game. One thing to note is that duplicates were not included in the most active torrent list. As a result, the presented number of Seeds and Leechers does not necessarily correspond to the total number of pirated game copies.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nitpicking Dawn of Discovery

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

The traitor to the crown had secured a beachhead on the island, and his spies had infiltrated the city. I created military encampments in the hopes of fighting off the advancement, but for every unit of his I destroyed, the traitor laid waste to three of mine. In the hopes of prolonging my defeat, I increased military provisions. Unfortunately, this decreased the amount of food and clothing available to the city, and the nobles were unsympathetic towards my effort. Regardless of any effort I made, the traitor continued to advance; loss of the city was inevitable.

Fortunately, at the eleventh-hour, aid arrived from an ally. It was not in the form of reinforcements however, only in the form of a ship to carry refugees to safety. I was forced to abandon the cause, and relegated to the role of spectator as the city was laid to waste.

The traitor had won and was closer than ever to toppling the crown. Despite my defeat, all was not lost. With my refugees safely transported to another island, I could rebuild. I could create another city, increase its inhabitants, gather more allies to the cause, and ultimately strike back.

This building of cities and its inhabitants exemplifies the experience that is Dawn of Discovery, or Anno 1404 as it is known in most of the world. In order to support military campaigns, vast amounts of resources are necessary. To collect and produce those resources, both finances and labor are necessary. To secure finances and labor, cities and trade networks are necessary.

As the number and contentment of inhabitants that occupy a city increase, so does the amount of taxes the player is able to collect. Unfortunately, the number and variety of provisions inhabitants consume also increase, and collecting those provisions removes from a city’s income.

A small city may start off including only peasants as its inhabitants. As the city prospers, those peasants do as well, and evolve in status to citizens, patricians, and ultimately noblemen. Peasants that were once satisfied with simple fish on their plates and cider in their glasses eventually want spices to season the fish, bread to complement the meal, and beer to fill their stomachs. Where fishermen’s huts and cider farms were once satisfactory, spice farms, wheat fields, herb fields, mills, bakeries, and breweries become necessary.

Balancing the cost of all these services with the income a city produces as it grows can be overwhelming and frustrating, to say the least. Doing so successfully though, produces a sense of pride rarely felt in videogames. Dawn of Discovery is a constructive game in an industry that relies on destructive formulas. Whether zooming out to view how much a city has grown, or zooming in to watch euphoric citizens frolic together outside of a tavern, pride is felt in all that has been accomplished; pride that perhaps is analogous to what a sculptor might feel in completing a work of art, albeit to a lesser extent.

Tying the city-building and strategy elements of Dawn of Discovery together is a historical tale of war, treachery, and political intrigue that spans continents. Former allies become enemies and former enemies become allies in a narrative that sets the game apart from others in its genre.

The plot provides motivation for varied in-game scenarios and objectives that keep gameplay from becoming repetitive and stale. It also provides motivation for the player to continue interacting with the game. Much like a suspenseful page-turning novel, Dawn of Discovery ends many of its scenarios in cliff-hanger fashion, forcing extended playtime. For better or worse, this is balanced by an immersion-breaking message from the developers, notifying the player that he or she has been playing for two continuous hours and might want to take a break. I heard this message way too often in my time with the game, and almost never heeded it.

Dawn of Discovery will be a familiar game to those with city-building experience. However, well-constructed scenarios and objectives, in conjunction with an immersive narrative, serve to make this game a sometimes exciting and always pleasing experience. It is definitely worth partaking in for those both familiar and unfamiliar with the genre.

Monday, July 13, 2009

PC Game Sales vs Steals (Week 5)

As explained last week, each week I will present the sales charts, along with the top 10 most active PC game torrents from a popular torrent hosting site.

Direct2Drive Top Sellers (by unit, 7/05 - 7/11)

1.ARMA 2
2.The Sims 3
3.Aion: Tower of Eternity
4.Street Fighter IV
5.The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion Deluxe Game of the Year Edition
6.The Sims 3 (Mac)
7.Dawn of Discovery
8.Civilization 4: Complete Edition
9.Tales of Monkey Island
10.Fallout 3

Steam Top Sellers (by revenue, 7/05 - 7/11)

1.Tales of Monkey Island Complete Pack
2.Street Fighter IV
3.Fallout 3
4.ARMA 2
5.Left 4 Dead
6.Dawn of Discovery
7.Counter-Strike: Source
9.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

Most Active Torrents (7/13)

Seeds Leechers
1.Street Fighter IV14167127
2.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood21325222
3.Virtua Tennis 20099155081
5.Grand Theft Auto IV5583853
7.Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare13172629
8.Empire: Total War Special Forces5442310
9.Fallout 316102280
10.ARMA 23172249

The most active PC game torrent list is presented with the number of Seeds and Leechers. Simply put, Seeds corresponds to the number of people who are uploading or sharing the game, whereas Leechers corresponds to the number of people who are downloading the game. One thing to note is that duplicates were not included in the most active torrent list. As a result, the presented number of Seeds and Leechers does not necessarily correspond to the total number of pirated game copies.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nitpicking Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

There is no question that popular culture is self-propagating. Comic books are adapted into films, films are adapted into videogames, videogames are adapted into novels, novels are adapted into films, films are adapted into toys, toys are adapted into cartoons, et cetera.

As videogaming became increasingly popular in the 1980s, science fiction and fantasy ruled entertainment media. A global empire was spawned from the early Star Wars trilogy, Orson Scott Card released Ender's Game, Dungeons & Dragons sales soared, and Star Trek returned to television. I suppose that’s why the science fiction and fantasy genres are so prevalent in videogaming today. In addition to the war genre, almost all modern first-person shooters can be categorized under the labels of science fiction or fantasy.

Despite the existence of some excellent first-person shooters in these categories, the dominance of science fiction and fantasy is unfortunate due to the negligence of a genre that is absolutely perfect for first-person shooters, the western. It is, however, not wholly unexpected given the diminished popularity of John Wayne films, Louis L’Amour novels, and television series such as Gunsmoke.

Every aspect of the western provides for an engaging first-person shooter experience. Men in the Wild West were tough, remorseless, and unyielding. They pursued their desires without regard to the consequences, and they protected what was theirs, be it family or property, with their lives. Compromise was a foreign concept, and diplomacy was achieved through the barrel of a gun. At least that’s how I perceive, and desire, the Wild West.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood exemplifies everything that makes a good western, and consequently is one of the most satisfying shooter experiences in recent memory. Despite its engaging characters, decently developed story, and wonderful setting, the game’s strongest aspect is the actual shooter experience.

The game does not provide players with silenced or laser-based weapons. Thousands of rounds of ammunition are not afforded or necessary in order to break through energy-based shields or armor. Pulling the trigger does not expend a mythical and dainty string of light meant to merely incapacitate an enemy.

Each weapon in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is real and carries weight. Pulling the trigger creates a gunpowder-based explosion in the barrel of your gun, propelling a small piece of metal meant to rip through an enemy’s organs. The kickback of the gun after every shot, the guttural cry each enemy makes as he falls to the ground, and the meticulous reloading of each individual bullet all serve to create this fantastic illusion of gunplay. I am hard-pressed to recall a first-person shooter in which clicking my left mouse button provided a more gratifying experience.

The rewarding shooter experience is extended with “concentration” events that offer the player the opportunity to easily dispatch multiple enemies. Essentially, once the player kills a certain number of enemies, he or she has the ability to kill even more enemies through an unnatural talent. Engaging in a concentration event slows time, allowing players to choose multiple targets that are very quickly and automatically dispatched. While there are several variations of concentration events in the game, the end result is always the same; where there were previously numerous opponents all bent on ending your life, only lifeless corpses remain. It is a very satisfying reward for engaging in an already satisfying shooter experience.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood’s strength as a shooter does not of course end with the shooting. Techland’s decision to make this a mostly cooperative game, providing the player with the option to choose between brothers Ray and Thomas McCall while affording the rejected brother as a computer-controlled partner, is brilliant.

Past first-person shooters that have forced a non-playable partner onto the player have usually failed in the endeavor, simply providing frustrating sequences due to poor AI. Computer-controlled partners have traditionally been prone to several immersion breaking characteristics, such as dying to enemies extremely quickly and easily, not knowing how to move past menial obstacles, and establishing themselves as obstacles that the player cannot travel past.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood provides none of these problems with its AI partner. For the most part, the computer-controlled character will remain in cover during combat, allowing the player to accrue most of the kills. Only occasionally did I see my in-game brother get a kill, though most of the time it was necessary to ensure my safety.

There also exist certain obstacles that only one of the brothers can get past. When playing as Ray McCall, the player is dependent on Thomas to help him get to higher areas or platforms. When playing as Thomas McCall, the player is dependent on Ray to kick down doors. Other such examples exist that all contribute to an experience in which the computer-controlled brother is established as an asset, as opposed to a hindrance.

Furthermore, the cooperative system really adds to the game as a whole with the simple brotherly bantering. Throughout combat the two brothers trade insults in an effort to establish themselves as the better gunslinger.

“You sure are wasting a lot of bullets,” Ray proclaimed when I emptied a full revolver clip into a single opponent.

“The fastest thing on you is your mouth,” declared Thomas during one engaging firefight.

Playing as Ray, my character responded with, “at least I hit what I’m aiming at.”

The playful bickering served to further immerse me in the game, adding substance to each of the characters and enforcing the setting. The overall dialogue and superb voice-acting established the McCall brothers as the type of men that I imagine thrived in the Wild West; those men that pursued their desires with their lives, uncaring and uncompromising towards those who stood in their way.

I even found myself attempting to improve my aim and speed throughout the game, due to the friendly competition established by the brotherly mocking.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a well executed first-person shooter, in a setting seemingly created for first-person shooters. Every design aspect serves to immerse and satisfy the player in a visceral and memorable experience. I only wish it had lasted longer, though the promise of downloadable content heartens me.

“Nice job brother,” states Thomas.

Ray replies, “No one messes with the McCalls.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Game Objectives vs. Social Behavior

The work of Loyola University Professor David Myers in studying online game interaction has been a recent and popular topic of discussion. In a paper published last year, “Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt,” Myers describes his attempts at Garfinkeling (the act of disrupting social rules in order to better understand them) City of Heroes/Villians with his in-game hero, Twixt.

Almost two years after the release of the original game, a player vs. player (pvp) zone was introduced to City of Heroes/Villians. The purpose of the pvp zone was to provide high level heroes and villains the opportunity to compete in performing objectives that ultimately led to control of the zone. Due to the previously cooperative nature of the game, the new pvp zone ran counter to established social norms and behavior. As Myers puts it, “the designers of CoH/V had Garfinkeled their game.”

Instead of pursuing the objectives of the pvp zone, veteran players utilized the zone for other more established social activities, such as farming. In his attempt to Garfinkel the game, Myers adhered to three behaviors in the zone that ran counter to the prevalent social etiquette, yet allowed him to pursue the game objectives. These three behaviors included “rigidly competitive pvp tactics,” “steadfastly uncooperative social play outside the game context,” and “steadfastly uncooperative social play within the game context.”

Myers’ actions were not well received. He was verbally abused, banned from an in-game clan, and even received a death threat. Despite his general ostracization from the community, Myers was most astounded by the lack of adherence to developer and game established rules. As he states, “the most surprising result of Twixt’s play within [the pvp zone] was not merely the severity of the online community’s negative reactions to his behavior, but the degree to which game rules played such an insignificant role in those reactions.”

This conflict between developer created objectives and socially acceptable behavior seems to be prevalent in online games of all types. Developers will create and release multiplayer games with specific objectives for winning, and the online community will establish a social etiquette that tends to run counter to accomplishing those objectives.

In Team Fortress 2, as in most online first-person shooters, spawn-camping can be a very useful means for successfully completing a round. A smart player utilizing the demoman class can place sticky traps on the spawn-room door of the opposing team, gaining kills each time an opponent leaves the spawn-room. Doing so allows other members of his team to easily capture the necessary control points, therefore winning the round.

Despite being strategically sound, spawn-camping is generally frowned upon. Attempting the tactic can result in verbal abuse from the opposing team, and can sometimes get the player kicked or banned from a server.

Despite being prevalent across a wide variety of online games, all socially accepted rules seem to have a few traits in common. One trait, as stated before, is that socially established canon is counterproductive to in-game objectives. This is fairly intuitive as the external establishment of etiquette that corresponds to a game’s objectives is redundant. Every game creates such etiquette implicitly.

A second trait is that these socially accepted rules are meant to increase the videogame’s entertainment value for the majority. In the case of City of Heroes/Villians, prior to the release of the pvp zone, the majority of players had experienced a mostly cooperative game which called for players to battle computer-controlled enemies or non-playable characters. With the introduction of the new pvp zone, players began utilizing the zone to farm, which involved heroes teaming with villains to increase their levels quickly. This allowed players to continue the cooperative play against non-playable enemies that they had previously enjoyed, as opposed to engaging in a new type of gameplay.

In the case of Team Fortress 2, and other first-person shooters, spawn-camping can create a great deal of frustration for those that it is inflicted upon. Even those on the winning team may not enjoy a win accomplished through spawn-camping, given the lack of challenging gameplay. As such, in order to maximize the satisfaction of the majority, spawn-camping is established as a “cheap” tactic.

The dichotomy between in-game objectives and social etiquette is in and of itself contradictory when evaluating its resulting reactions. The enforcement of social etiquette can be extremely off-putting and hostile, and can create an elitist environment. Paradoxically, the institution of in-game social etiquette exists to maximize the enjoyment for the majority.

Social development is often lauded as one of the redeeming qualities of online games. Given how socially accepted behavior is created for the satisfaction of the majority, this is seemingly evident. However, the extreme ostracization of those who don’t follow the social norm educes the society presented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Do we want to participate in an environment that rejects all deviations from the norm with hostility? Do developers want to create games that allow for such environments?

Perhaps a more appropriate question is how can developers unify in-game objectives with emergent social behavior? If such a unification were possible, social ostracization theoretically could not occur, at least the type of ostracization discussed. Any online social environment will have some form of exclusion.

Personally, I enjoy games that have very specific and identifiable objectives. I enjoy identifying methods through which I can achieve goals, and completing those objectives provides me with a sense of accomplishment. It’s because of the lack of such interesting and diverse objectives, and the existing social environment, that I tend not to play MMORPGs. My view seems to run counter to the norm however, given the popularity of the genre, along with other sandbox and open-ended games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and The Sims.

Monday, July 6, 2009

PC Game Sales vs Steals (Week 4)

As explained last week, each week I will present the sales charts, along with the top 10 most active PC game torrents from a popular torrent hosting site.

Direct2Drive Top Sellers (by unit, 6/28 - 7/04)

1.ARMA 2
2.Aion: Tower of Eternity
3.The Sims 3
4.The Sims 3 (Mac)
5.Dawn of Discovery
6.Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
7.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
8.Overlord II
9.Civilization 4: Complete Edition
10.Fallout 3

Steam Top Sellers (by revenue, 6/28 - 7/04)

1.Fallout 3
2.ARMA 2
3.Dawn of Discovery
5.Street Fighter IV
6.Left 4 Dead
7.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
8.Overlord II
10.Counter-Strike: Source

Most Active Torrents (7/06)

Seeds Leechers
1.Street Fighter IV12569462
2.Virtua Tennis 20097079225
3.Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood20367431
5.Grand Theft Auto IV4803384
7.Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare13672996
8.ARMA 22812861
9.Anno 14044592761
10.Fallout 315962503

The most active PC game torrent list is presented with the number of Seeds and Leechers. Simply put, Seeds corresponds to the number of people who are uploading or sharing the game, whereas Leechers corresponds to the number of people who are downloading the game. One thing to note is that duplicates were not included in the most active torrent list. As a result, the presented number of Seeds and Leechers does not necessarily correspond to the total number of pirated game copies.

Last week finally saw the decline of Prototype in the Most Active Torrents list, with the debut of Street Fighter IV, Virtua Tennis 2009, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, and FUEL. Anno 1404 (Dawn of Discovery) also makes its debut on the Most Active Torrents list, despite being released in the previous week.

On the Steam side, two debut titles make an appearance, but promotions have much more of an impact with Fallout 3 available for 50% over the weekend and 2K releasing twenty games in its 2K HUGE GAMES PACK. One thing to note is that Steam's top 10 list is ranked by revenue. Despite being 50% off Fallout 3 still net Bethesda Softworks more than fully-priced debut titles.

I'm still astounded by the staying power of older popular games such as Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. To some extent Fallout 3's maintained popularity can be attributed to quality downloadable content. Grand Theft Auto IV is a single-player open-world game that can provide a great deal of play-time. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is slightly confusing, especially on the Most Active Torrents list, given its strong multiplayer component. Does an illegally obtained copy still provide the same online experience?

Nitpicking Overlord II

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

The original Overlord was an intriguing game. It provided unique gameplay, combining action role-playing and real-time strategy elements not seen outside of perhaps Nintendo’s Pikmin series. Overlord separated itself with its lighthearted humor and the opportunity to play as an “evil” character, creating havoc as opposed to order.

Despite providing a distinct experience, the original Overlord lacked depth, which was compounded by that lighthearted humor. The sum of all its parts afforded me with a game that left me completely indifferent.

The recently released sequel to Triumph Studios’ third-person action-adventure game provides more of the same, and unfortunately, garners the same reaction.

Overlord II does a number of things well, such as providing satisfying customization options for both the Overlord and his dark tower, and presenting the player with enjoyable albeit shallow puzzles. One of my favorite sequences in the game occurred when I was forced to transform the Overlord into a green minion, an underling that has the ability to become invisible and backstab enemies. As a green minion I led others of the same ilk in a covert mission to recover the green hive, an object which would allow the Overlord to generate green minions at will. Instead of directly engaging enemies, an action that would surely have resulted in my demise, I was given the opportunity to distract those enemies by releasing gnomes. While distracted, I could sneak past or use the green minion’s backstab ability.

Unfortunately those game design aspects that Overlord II performs well are too few and brief to provide a memorable experience. In fact, there exist two main aspects of the game that stand out in establishing Overlord II as mediocre, the humor and the lack of depth.

Ironically, the satirical, slapstick, and overall lighthearted humor in Overlord II serves not to increase my emotional response to the game, but in fact distances me from the experience.

One question that has been repeatedly asked throughout the videogame industry has been, “can a videogame make you cry?” Perhaps a more pertinent and difficult question would be “can a videogame make you laugh?”

I believe good comedy is much more subjective than good drama, action, or tragedy. The view on what is humorous can vary depending on one’s upbringing, culture, social status, and age, among many other things. Drama and action, on the other hand seem to be much more universal concepts. A look at the 2008 worldwide box office supports this. An action/drama film, The Dark Knight, tops the chart with a worldwide gross of over one billion USD. The most popular domestic comedies of the year are ranked at twenty-six and twenty-seven, with Get Smart and Yes Man grossing slightly over 230 million and 220 million worldwide, respectively.

In asking members of the American population “what movie made you cry?” a ubiquitous and well accepted answer seems to be Brian’s Song. No such ubiquitous answer seems to exist for “what movie made you laugh?”

Of course the video game industry is not the film industry, despite numerous similarities. Analogous to storytelling, various methods exist for presenting humor in a videogame. The more traditional and film-like method is apparent, one in which the game developers simply present a joke or punch-line to the player through aural and/or visual presentation. Multiple examples of this can be seen in the Monkey Island adventure game series. A second and more emergent method is one in which the game developer provides players with tools and environments that allow for the player to create humor. Garry’s Mod is a prime example of an experience that provides such emergent comedy, though whether or not anything funny has been produced from the game is questionable.

The attempted humor in Overlord II is a result of the more traditional method. Flamboyant environmentally-active elves provide obstacles for the Overlord as they attempt to protect all that is cute and fluffy. Minions watch and dance as the Overlord partakes in “recreational activities” with his mistresses. Even more slapstick humor is attempted with a janitor minion’s attempt at killing a rat.

Perhaps it is my particular sense of humor, or lack thereof, but Overlord II’s attempts at being comical simply resulted in a desire to skip cut-scenes. Instead of drawing me into the game and making me laugh, the attempted humor proved to be off-putting, removing any immersion that had developed.

I wish I could elaborate on why this occurred, but to do so I would have to understand my own sense of humor more than I do. As stated, comedy can be very subjective, but beyond that it can also be polarizing. What one may think of as funny can be repellent to another, or simply provide a third with a feeling of indifference.

Despite my very subjective opinion on Overlord II’s humor, I believe its lack of depth is very objective. For a videogame to provide a player with a sense of satisfaction, it must be challenging. If a game isn’t challenging, the player will not feel as if he or she has accomplished anything. Overlord II’s unchallenging and therefore unsatisfying nature is a direct result of its failure to fulfill its potential.

The player is presented with four types of minions, each with varying strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to pass minion-specific barriers. While playing the game I could envision various puzzles and boss battles that would require heavy thought and very specific use of all four minion types. Instead, the game’s puzzles and boss battles are rudimentary and obvious at best.

No more than two types of minions are required at a time to progress through the missions. For example, acquiring an item during one of the missions required me to use blue minions to nullify a magic environment, and then use red minions to move past fire to retrieve the object. With more thought on the developer’s part, simple puzzles like these could have been strengthened and expanded.

Solutions to some puzzles are even blatantly presented to the player. Hoping for an engaging battle with the final boss of the game, I was greatly disappointed when the game presented me with the solution. At each stage of the boss battle I was informed of exactly which minions I needed to use, what weak-points I needed to target, and which spell to utilize. What started as a potentially thought-provoking battle was reduced to a basic task.

Overlord II conceptually is a remarkable game. It traverses multiple genres in its design and provides a fresh perspective thematically. Unfortunately it fails to be engaging or satisfying with its inclusion of slapstick and satirical humor, and its lack of challenging and stimulating gameplay. Because of the polarization Overlord II evokes when comparing its concept with its execution, I can only hope that Triumph Studios continues to develop and improve upon games in the Overlord series.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Videogame Marketing Dichotomy

When The Sims 3 was released in early June, it established Electronic Arts’ biggest PC game launch to date, with more than 1.4 million units sold. This of course was in no small part due to the marketing campaign surrounding the title.

As part of a mini-series of features marking the release of The Sims 3, conducted an interview with EA Play’s senior marketing director John Buchanan, in which he discussed the PC game’s extensive campaign. In addition to relying on traditional media, such as television and print, EA established the biggest online and social network promotions for a Sims game. In terms of media hubs, EA partnered with multiple sites including YouTube and MTV in an effort to provide audio and visual content, and leverage viral functionality. In terms of social networking, EA established the first official Facebook page and first official Twitter feed for a Sims game. At launch, the Facebook page had almost 240,000 fans, while the Twitter feed had over 12,500 followers.

In order to maximize its use of social networking, while exciting current fans of the series and bringing in a new audience, EA created various forms of trial content. One such trial experience is SimFriend, which allows users to choose from 120 different Sims and engage in an email relationship with that Sim. Depending on the personality traits of the chosen Sim, varying responses can be garnered from questions and answers.

A second trial experience is SimSideKick, which allows users to choose a Sim that then follows the user around the internet. Different responses can be garnered from the Sim, depending on both the website and the Sim’s personality traits. For example, if the Sim is a fan of sports, it will cheer when the user navigates to ESPN.

Outside of The Sims 3, viral and guerilla marketing has become more and more popular in recent years. The I Love Bees alternate reality game proved to be lucrative for Halo 2, with over three million visitors to the website in the course of three months. A staged assassination attempt on a Russian scientist by clandestine organization MIR-12 has been used to promote Activision’s Singularity. To endorse EA’s upcoming action platformer Dante’s Inferno, the mock Christian group S.A.V.E.D. staged a protest and even claim to have been victimized by EA security.

Despite increasingly innovative methods of marketing, I do not believe any publisher-produced marketing campaign has ever affected my decision to purchase or not purchase a videogame. In fact, I typically don’t discover these viral campaigns until they have completed their course and are heavily reported on. Regardless, in forming an opinion of a game pre-release, I tend to rely more on journalistic and developer related content.

Not having the ability to test videogames myself, I enjoy reading previews provided by journalists who have had the opportunity to play the game, either through visiting a developer or a conference. However, videogames are of course an audio and visual medium. Written words can be inadequate in relaying game design and innovation.

In that regard, teasers and trailers can prove fruitful in increasing my interest in a game. Such promotions can provide information on almost all aspects of the game, while maintaining a sense of awe and excitement through clever editing. Teasers however, can also be off-putting, especially when they are uninformative and irrelevant to the design of the game itself.

One form of promotion however stands out as almost always increasing my interest in a game, and that is the developer walkthrough or demo. These videos typically provide unadulterated gameplay in order to inform the viewer on various aspects of the game design. The video is also typically augmented with commentary provided by a developer. A good commentary will not simply discuss what is occurring, but elaborate on developer goals and obstacles. A good developer walkthrough will convey passion, and passionate developers are those that usually make the most enjoyable and memorable games.

Of course everything mentioned above is part of the marketing campaign for a videogame, including articles produced by journalists. Simply put, marketing that exists to provide information on the game itself, as opposed to just generating hype, is what I tend to use in order to form an opinion on whether or not I should purchase a game.

This seeming dichotomy between marketing types is perhaps similar to a dichotomy discussed by Leigh Alexander in a Kotaku article entitled I, Gamer. In it she presents a gap between gamers, separating the category into ‘fan’ and ‘cultist’ subcategories. Those in the fan subcategory “do not read reviews. They do not post on forums, they have never been motivated to leave Amazon feedback just to ‘send a message,’ they do not blog. They do not know which publishers have poor reputations and which ones have good ones. They do not know the names of famous Japanese game designers; they might have Mario Kart Wii at home, but they do not know who Miyamoto is.”

As Alexander puts it, fans “probably [don’t] read game reviews for the same reason I don't read music reviews; they would have told him all about the controls, the environment, the vibe and the themes, would have listed for him a raft of minor criticisms he'd never even notice, but wouldn't have told him anything about whether or not he'd like the game.”

I am curious to see if this dichotomy extends to videogame marketing. In general, do fans rely more on publisher produced advertising, while cultists rely more on developer and journalistic produced advertising? Or is there enough overlap that no such dichotomy exists from a marketing perspective?

I realize I am addressing a limited and perhaps biased audience, but I am curious to discover if my point of view is shared. Has marketing for a game ever affected your opinion of it, either positively or negatively? Are these two types of advertising, hype-driven and information-driven, mutually exclusive in their ability to affect consumers?