A Matter of Perception?

New EdenI’ve never been very big on playing PC games outside of MMORPGs because, as silly as it sounds, the experience just never seemed as appealing as plopping-down on the couch or as stable as gaming on a dedicated console. Why? Probably because the majority of my offline computer gaming is based entirely on the C:/run era of Mega Man X and such celebrated gems as Skunny the Squirrel.

But what does computer gaming have over consoles, anyway? It’s not like the graphics are THAT much different better! At least, that’s what I thought before this morning.

A few months ago, my girlfriend surprised me with a copy of BioShock Infinite because she’s cool like that. We were both completely enchanted by the original and there’s something about dystopian fiction that demands my attention. But when we fired it up and took our first few steps through the lighthouse, we couldn’t believe how ugly it looked! Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the art direction or style! The textures were terrible and it seemed as though we kept finding worse and worse immersion-murdering examples at every turn. If someone told us that Infinite was released before the BioShock, we would have believed them.

It was the technical limitation of the console that was holding the visuals back as I’m sure 2K had to make some sacrifices to balance resources between eye candy, framrate and all of the other backstage magic required to render an entire floating city. I understood completely, but I just couldn’t get interested in the setting or the story, stellar though I’m sure they are. And so BioShock Infinite sat unplayed, ceding playtime to The Last of Us and, oddly enough considering the circumstances, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

LighthouseA couple of weeks ago, I came home with a brand new Radeon HD 7950 because I wasn’t happy with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn running just fine. The GPU came with three free games: Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and you guessed it – BioShock Inifinite! But I didn’t install or play it until this morning, and when I did, I was blown away.

The differences between the console and PC versions are night and day. Columbia is gorgeous, the framerate is seamless, and suddenly that familiar sense of wonder that Rapture burst with is spilling out onto the streets.

I’ve always been a firm believer that graphics don’t make a game – mechanically, Infinite would be every bit as fun in either iteration – but they certainly enhance the experience. However, I don’t think the enhancement is intrinsic to the quality of graphics; I think it has very much to do with player perception of the game’s theme, setting, characters, etc. As I mentioned before, I have no problem playing (a slightly upscaled thanks to Wii U) Skyward Sword whatsoever, and in fact, I think the graphics a great! They fit so well with everything about Skyward Sword that in a way, I often forget they’re even there.

In Infinite’s case, my understanding and perception of the game left me disappointed that it did not meet my own visual expectations. You may have had a completely different experience.

Until now, of course. Which has me rethinking my attitude toward PC gaming entirely.

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The Secret World: Free to Play

secret-worldFUNCOM announced this morning that The Secret World is pay once, play forever effective immediately.

I’m not sure how I feel about the news just yet. To be honest, it took me by surprise. The inclusion of a cash shop at launch made it obvious that they would switch to this model eventually, but I thought they’d last much longer than five months.

I’ve been playing since closed beta, and I bought the lifetime subscription (aka the Grand Master Pack) as soon as the game went live. Apparently, Grand Masters will receive all of the same benefits that people who choose to continue paying a monthly subscription will enjoy, but we’ll get an extra 10% discount in the shop and $10 worth of FUNCOM points instead of $5. But it looks like we’ll still have to pay for new Issues, The Secret World’s major game updates, and I’m not too crazy about that.

I can’t help but feel a little burned.

At the same time, I’m excited to see the game slammed with players and receiving the recognition and publicity it deserves. More players means more PvP opportunities, shorter waits for dungeon groups and raids, and a gigantic pool of new recruits for our cabal, Occultus Curo. There’s also the tremendous influx of money coming FUNCOM’s way, and with it, the potential for better and more frequent content updates.

It’s silly, but I realize I only have reservations about this new business model because I felt like I was part of an exclusive club that has now flung its doors wide open to accept anyone on the street who cares to walk in. And that’s ignorant and bitter.

In the end, this is a brilliant play on FUNCOM’s part, and the future of The Secret World has never looked brighter. Or darker.

Either way, it’s good.

Classifying the Gamer

I stopped over at Wiiublog.com last night to see if a date had been set for the upcoming Miiverse-focused Nintendo Direct and found myself reading through the comments – always a treat.

That’s where I came across the term “Bro Gamer”. I thought I’d heard all of the seemingly countless classifications gamers apparently fall into, but this one was new to me.

So a quick google search lead me to Urban Dictionary.

The “Bro Gamer” is the player who is only interested in the latest Call of Duty or similar shooter, is fiercely loyal to (and only owns) Xbox 360, has an aversion to any game that isn’t a photorealistic powerhouse, and who claims to have had numerous intimate encounters with your mother.

People were quick to denounce the branded commenter, puffing out their chests, proudly proclaiming that they are “real gamers” who defy classification, and implying that they are above all others.

I don’t have to do much research to learn what a “real gamer” is. Based on the example conversations with a “Bro Gamer” on Urban Dictionary and the comments in the Wii U article, it’s not a stretch to assume that self-proclaimed “real gamers” are just snobs; they’re the same calibur of snob you’ll find in interest areas such as music, movies or books.

Some people prefer shooters.

Some people don’t care for racing games.

We all have different tastes and opinions, and none of them make us better or more enlightened than anyone else.

The Greatest Series I’ll Never Play

I’m cursed.

Years ago, I was following the upcoming release of Mass Effect with intense interest. I was on a deployment when the prequel novel, Mass Effect: Revelation, was published, but I still managed to get my hands on a copy and finish it two days later.

When Mass Effect finally launched, I just didn’t have the time to devote to it. So I put the controller down and vowed that I would return for a full playthrough when I could. But each time I picked it back up, I never seemed to make it very far beyond the initial Citadel visit. At first, I had numerous obligations and distractions to blame. Eventually, I started to get burned-out.

Then Mass Effect 2 came out.

Then Mass Effect 3.

With each release, friends and critics raved. “The first Mass Effect kinda sucks,” they’d confess, “Just start with Mass Effect 2! It has a comic that catches you up to speed and let’s you make the important decisions!” That would be the logical thing to do, right?

But I can’t. Why? Because I want to experience everything firsthand. Call me crazy, but I just can’t get over the feeling that blasting through a condensed version might cheapen the experience. How could the story still be as impactful? How would I make those critical decisions without getting to know the people and places that I’d be sending into danger? I have to finish Mass Effect first!

But I can’t. Why? Because the thought of playing through The Citadel for a sixth time makes my stomach turn. It takes hours to get through that first chunk of content, and I refuse skip a single side story or mission.

And so I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll probably never play through the Mass Effect series.

Also, that I may be a snobby perfectionist.

Wii U and Achievements

I still can’t decide how I feel about the fact that Nintendo has no plans for an overarching achievement system on Wii U.

I don’t consider myself to be an achievement hunter. You won’t find me playing UNO or experiencing the latest Hannah Montana epic to boost my gamerscore or trophy count with low-hanging fruit – not that I have a problem with people who do this! But if I come across a title that I really enjoy, achievements are icing on the cake.

I was enthralled by Batman: Arkham Asylum, and the platinum trophy I earned is proof. When I finished that final challenge, I was able to step away from the game and reflect on the experience with pride.

Which is a nice way of saying that I dropped the controller, thrust my hands into the air and proclaimed, “I’m f*cking BATMAN”.

I was also completely in love with Super Mario Galaxy, but when I filled my pockets with every star in the game, I felt as though I had nothing to show for it. It didn’t diminish the fun I’d had throughout, yet the victory felt comparably hollow.

fig. 1-1: No big deal.

For better or worse, achievements and trophies have had an impact on the social aspects of gaming. Sure, they’re great for bragging rights (fig. 1-1), but it goes beyond that. Even in single-player games, their inclusion can make you feel as though you’re still connected because they show your friends what you’ve been playing and how far along you are.

In the past, Nintendo has caught a lot of flak for their unwillingness to incorporate the online flexibility that many consider to be a linchpin in modern gaming, but they’re beginning to come around. The 3DS is definitely much more progressive in that regard, and Reggie Fils-Aime has mentioned that Wii U’s mysterious Miiverse will bring new features to the table that PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 haven’t yet touched on.

I’m sure it’ll be charming, delightful and very uniquely Nintendo as always, but I can’t help but feel that as we move into the next generation of consoles, where the coming evolution of their competitors’ flagship consoles will only become more social and connected, Nintendo is dropping the ball by refusing to meet what could arguably be the standard gamers expect in an online suite.

But there’s still a lot we don’t know about Wii U, and I’m confident that Nintendo yet has some surprises up their collective sleeve.

An Answer to: “Videogames or Life?”

This morning, I stumbled upon the blog of a future educator lambasting gamers:

“Why after all of these years do people depend on videogames?”

“These so called “gamers“, do not have a real social life.”

“The only interaction they get with people is between a headset.”

There’s plenty more, and you can read it for yourself here. I wrote a response that I’d like to share, because the comment I left is awaiting moderation, and likely won’t be approved.

I’ve been playing video games since I was five years old, starting with the Atari 2600. On the weekends, if I was lucky, my parents would rent a video game for me. I would always look through the art in the instruction booklets on the ride home, and it got me started with drawing.

In middle school and high school, I was in art classes. I was considered for several art programs throughout, and I graduated my senior year in an advanced placement course.

When I was in the fifth grade, I was pulled out of class to take a test. The proctor had a flip book of words and a stopwatch. She would turn the page, and I had to read the word aloud as quickly and as accurately as I could. The results of the test indicated that I was reading at the level of a high school junior, despite the fact that my parents always struggled to get me to read anything at all.

In my junior year, I tied for highest score in the school in our statewide writing examination.

I’ve had a tremendous imagination all my life. I can find stories, humor, and adventure in even the most mundane tasks. I’m rarely ever bored, and I find myself constantly dreaming up new worlds, characters and situations.

I have an insatiable hunger for learning. I often look into something that has piqued my interest and find myself in an entirely different subject hours later.

I’ve never been in a romantic relationship that didn’t last at least three years, and the friends I made during my formative years are still the very best I could ever ask for.

Now I’m an Intelligence Specialist in the United States Navy and working at the Pentagon.

You look at video games, and all you can see is noise and guns. What you don’t see is creative problem solving, critical thinking, moral choices, conflict resolution, relationship building, cause and effect, drama, comedy, tragedy, learning opportunities, fantastic stories, the rewards of overcoming adversity, attention to detail, music appreciation, understanding different perspectives, and more concepts and situations that run the gamut of all human experiences.

The fact that video games are played in front of a TV makes them no less impactful than literature, film, or any other medium.

Anything in excess is bad for you, and if you’re not putting these kinds of things into context for your children, then you are an example of bad parenting. That’s true of everything; not just video games.

If you don’t understand “so-called ‘gamers’” or video games in general, that’s fine. But passing judgement on the people who do is completely ignorant and unbecoming of someone looking to make a career of shaping young minds.

If I were in your shoes, I’d educate myself on video games to understand why they’re so appealing and how I could use them to relate to my students and enhance their learning.

But what do I know? I’m just a gamer.

A Question of Value

Yesterday, I was forced to make a critical decision.

With the transition from active duty military service to civilian college life looming on the horizon, money is tight. As a spoiled gamer used to having the latest and greatest on release date, it’s a grim and sobering reminder that money sucks and that we live in a cold and bitter world.

Life is hard.

That’s why I was ecstatic to find that I was sitting on $50-worth of Best Buy certificates. A new game! A fix! But which one? I’d played both the Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure and the Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance demos via the 3DS eShop, but I only played KH3D once whereas I found myself replaying the Rhythm Thief demo and loving it every time.

So that choice was clear! …At first. On my way to Best Buy, I realized that this may be the only game I get for some time. If Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy was any indication, I’d blast through Rhythm Thief in a single afternoon. Kingdom Hearts would probably last considerably longer.

I posted my seemingly insurmountable problem on Facebook before leaving.

It would turn out that I really didn’t have a choice, because my local Best Buy wasn’t carrying Rhythm Thief anyway. So, still conflicted and a bit disappointed, I grabbed a copy of Kingdom Hearts. My girlfriend fired-up a demo for Mario Tennis on the gigantic 3DS XL that I don’t need but still want for no valid reason while I wandered off in the games section for the hell of it. That’s when I noticed Little Big Planet Vita.

I hadn’t even considered it! I closed my eyes for a moment and dreamed of a time when I could have walked out of the store with all three games, back when the world made sense and the sun seemed brighter. I realized that LPB’s online features meant an endless supply of interesting levels to jump and swing through, but I still felt as though I would get more out of a story-driven RPG, and so I left with Kingdom Hearts. Also, because my girlfriend flipped a coin.

A few Facebook friends raised some great points on that post I left. “Rhythm Thief will sell out and not be reprinted,” one predicted, “KH3D will probably stick around long enough to see a price drop.”

He’s probably right about Rhythm Thief. Based on the comparatively low number of player reviews on the eShop, it’s probably a safe bet that copies aren’t flying off the shelves. Is that a testament to the quality of the game? Of course not. It does, after all, have five-out-of-five stars. But if the average consumer is in the same position I found myself in yesterday, it starts to become clear why niche genres and new IPs alike tend to struggle. Hell, Best Buy didn’t even bother to stock Rhythm Thief.

I always feel frustrated when a low-profile or niche game doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves, and I would write it off as the result of gamers who were too “cool” or closed-minded to give it a chance. Of course, that’s a completely ignorant and elitist way to look at it; there’s a myriad of factors involved.

For me, and probably for many gamers, it was a question of value: The biggest bang for my buck.

I’ve heard the staffers on IGN’s Game Scoop podcast say “vote with your dollars” many times, implying that your purchases tell the industry what you want more or less of, but what happens when you can’t afford to vote more than once?

A Numbers Game

I run a casual 24-member Illuminati cabal in The Secret World, and there has been a noticable drop in member activity since Guild Wars 2 went live. That’s just the nature of the MMORPG beast. But a long-time member voiced some concerns last night that got me wondering. We’ll call him Bancroft.

Bancroft and another member were discussing how excited they are for the upcoming 10-man New York raid due out this fall when Bancroft added, “If we can even get 10 people online at the same time”. He explained that he’s noticed less and less people online during weekday evenings and that Guild Wars 2 was the reason. He’s right: Five of our members play, and four more have shown an interest in joining them.

He went on to lament that he’d been looking through Chronicle, The Secret World’s stat-tracking service which takes a page from World of WarCraft’s Armory, and found that almost every cabal he came across only had 20 – 30 members. Bancroft’s point was that he feels too few people play The Secret World. He’s considering making the jump to Guild Wars 2.

Bancroft’s perception is that numbers are dropping, and it’s probably a product of the recent stream of bad news surrounding FUNCOM. The Secret World didn’t sell as well as they’d hoped it would, and there have been some significant layoffs to include lead designer Matt Bruusgaard. As a result of the shake-up, Issue #2, the latest content update, has been pushed back. Does this affect the morale of the players? Most definitely.

But why is it that the enjoyment players get out of MMORPGs seems to scale with the number of people playing? I can understand how potential players might use this as a basis to judge the value and quality of a title, but for someone who has been playing since closed beta and who sang its praises all the while to lose interest? Why?

Not to mention that groups in The Secret World are capped at five players. I run Nightmare dungeons, the game’s challenging end-game content, for hours every weekend with cabal members. Even now, it’s very rare that we need a pick-up player to fill a spot. If there were only 20 players in the entire game, what would that matter if you always found four others to group with? And if a game has 20 million players, would that matter when you can only play with four of them at a time?

The MMORPG: Recycle, Repeat

I’m tired of the tried-and-true formula World of WarCraft seems to have established, but I understand the logic behind it. Because of staggering costs and lengthy development cycles, MMORPGs are a gamble; it makes sense to go with what is proven to work and to take as few risks as possible.

Build on the foundation, streamline some processes, inject it with its own flavor, and you should have a hit, right?

Not necessarily. There’s such a thing as playing it too safe, and it’s my opinion that Star Wars: The Old Republic is the most recent example. The problem is that MMORPGs like SWTOR build an (arguably) very similar experience, but don’t have the years of content updates and expansions that mainstays like WoW do. For the players that jump ship, they’re working their way up from level one through the same gameplay mechanics, finishing the content within a month after release, and then finding themselves with nothing to do. Their free month expires, and they decide not to pay for the subscription until more content is added. In the meantime, they’re back to their old stomping grounds.

That rationale makes perfect sense, but as evidenced by SWTOR’s recent free-to-play announcement, it takes a heavy toll on developers.

The solution to this trend sounds simple enough: Change the formula and make the new standard about quality rather than method. But generally speaking, gamers don’t want that. People say they’re waiting for a “WoW-killer”, but what they really want is WoW+. That’s why community forums are often rife with harsh and unfair comparisons. If a game deviates too drastically from what they know or takes too much effort and time to acclimate to, players won’t stick around.

I tried to introduce a friend whose first MMO was World of WarCraft to Final Fantasy XI and City of Heroes a few years ago. He gave up on FFXI after a few minutes, citing that the menus weren’t user-friendly, and even though he admitted having more fun playing CoH for a few hours than he had had playing WoW in some time, he explained that he wasn’t interested in starting a game from scratch and learning the new mechanics.

No one game is going to change this paradigm. It’ll take a very slow (and painful for some) evolution. For now, the free-to-play model appears to be a potential catalyst in getting players outside of their comfort zone, but once that model becomes the standard, will we be right back in the same rut?

Vita’s Vitals

I recently read an article concerning PlayStation Vita sales that led to an interesting discussion with friends.

The Vita is a sleek piece of hardware, and one friend commented that despite its gorgeous graphics and sharp interface, he was far more enamored by Nintendo’s 3DS. It’s no secret that Sony’s latest handheld has pulled-down some relatively lackluster numbers since launch, and the blame is typically placed squarely on the lack of worthwhile titles. But I think there’s more to it than that.

Sony appears determined to bring big console experiences to the handheld screen. The recently announced Cross Buy feature, with which players can buy a PlayStation 3 game and get the Vita version for free, demonstrates their opinion that gamers want to be able to play on one system and effortlessly transition to another. That’s a nice feature, but in my opinion, this makes the Vita feel more like a companion gadget living in the PS3’s shadow. Which brings us to what I believe is the heart of the problem: The PlayStation Vita doesn’t have its own identity.

Titles such as Killzone and Call of Duty will move units, but the Vita needs titles and experiences that are exclusive to the system. Media Molecule’s Tearaway is a step in the right direction that will hopefully build enough momentum to attract more developers to explore the real potential of the Vita. The sales will follow.