Monday, December 21, 2009

Crash Course: Top Five Games to Increase Your Gamer Literacy

Are you on the fringes of gaming? Do you want to get in deeper, but find yourself unsure where to start? Do conversations with experienced gamers leave you feeling lost? Is "sorry, but our princess is in another castle" your freshest gaming joke? When it comes to gamer culture, are you on the outside looking in?



Have no fear: Doctor Professor is here!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Buy Before You Try: The Problem With Pre-Orders

Pre-ordering a videogame is, on the face of it, a pretty dumb thing to do most of the time. You're agreeing, before you can possibly know if the game is any good, to buy it for the most it will ever cost - and most videogames depreciate pretty quickly. Before pre-order bonuses, the only real tack game-sellers could take to try to convince you to do this was to point out that it would guarantee you'd get a copy on launch day, even if the game sold out completely - but that almost never actually happens.

For the other parties in the transaction, however, it's a great deal. It ensures a certain minimum number of sales, and allows demand to be gauged and thus indicates how large production runs should be. And if there are enough pre-orders, this fact can be used in the game's marketing and drive sales up even higher. So it's not too surprising that incentives would start appearing to make pre-ordering more appealing for consumers.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I'm Not Evil, I Just Play That Way: Player Motivations and Character Goals

Recently we took a look at the technique of option restriction, which is when a game presents the player with only one path forward, thus eliminating choice while maintaining agency. If it's handled well, it allows for close management of narrative progression while still letting the player feel that they are in control. So what is it that determines whether it's handled well? What allows the player's sense of control to be maintained even with a lack of choice?

"Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesn't necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. It's possible for players to feel in control even if they don't actually have the ability to choose, as long as the what the game asks and what the player wants aligns. A good narrative should foster this."
—Andrew Vanden Bossche, Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will

Monday, November 30, 2009

I Told Him to Do That: Option Restriction, Choice, and Agency in Bioshock

Have you ever trapped a spider under a glass? Maybe you saw one on your kitchen floor and decided to humanely release it outdoors. So you took a drinking glass and put it down over the spider. Then perhaps you took a sheet of paper and laid it on the floor. As the spider scurried about in its prison, you gradually slid the glass onto the paper, which you could now pick up and take outside.

By doing this, you managed to move the spider where you wanted it to go - all without touching it or influencing it directly. As the spider aimlessly explored its limited circle of freedom, you advanced the walls, closing off space behind it and opening up space in front of it, in the direction you had selected. By choosing to move at all, the spider chose to move onto the paper - to the goal that you had chosen, and of which the spider was not even aware.

This is exactly how many videogames work.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Awesome By Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement

When I was old enough to care whether I won or lost at games, but still too young to be any good at them, I decided RPGs were better than action games. After all, I could play Contra for hours and still be terrible at it - while if I played Dragon Warrior III for the same amount of time, my characters would gain levels and be much more capable of standing up to whatever threats they encountered. To progress in an action game, the player has to improve, which is by no means guaranteed - but to progress in an RPG, the characters have to improve, which is inevitable.

As I grew older, this conclusion lay dormant and unexamined in my mind. RPGs continued to be my favorite genre. I relished the opportunity to watch interesting, lovable characters develop and interact in epic storylines. (Comparatively interesting and lovable, anyway - say what you will about Cecil, but his quest for redemption revealed a lot more depth than Mega Man's quest to shoot up some robots.) And I loved feeling like a hero. I saved the world in Final Fantasy IV, again in Lufia II, then again in Chrono Trigger.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of Easy: Lowering the Barrier to Entry

Easy Button


The challenge/punishment confusion is a major source of disagreement about videogame difficulty, but it's not the only one. Even when we have set punishment aside and are very clearly discussing only challenge, we run into trouble. Let's take a look at the question of how much "easy" there should be in games:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Test Skills, Not Patience: Challenge, Punishment, and Learning

You and your friends are dead. Game Over.


Difficulty in games is a popular and thorny subject. Are games easier than they used to be? Does easier mean worse? Are games being "dumbed down"? And how do the dreaded "casual players" fit in?

The problem with these questions is that it is not productive to discuss difficulty as a single quantity. The term "difficulty" as it is commonly used encompasses two almost completely separate phenomena, with profoundly different effects on the player:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Play Me A Story, Part Two: What Makes A Metanarrative?

Part One is here.

Whether you're watching a DVD or playing a videogame, you have control over the progression of the experience. You may hold a remote or you may hold a controller, but the action on the screen will start, stop, pause, and continue, in response to the buttons you press.

The fundamental difference is the degree of choice you hold. With a movie, you can only choose whether to proceed. With a game, you choose how to proceed. Even subtle or trivial decisions, such as on what path to move your character, or which weapon to use on enemies, or where to position the camera, engage you in the creation of your own experience.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Play Me A Story, Part One: Metal Gear Solid and the Cinematic Game

Recently I've been watching my friend Iceman play through the Metal Gear Solid games. It's been both entertaining and edifying. My own much-delayed foray into the series ended shortly after tossing grenades into a tank in the first game, and it seems that for every hour I watch Iceman play, I suddenly understand another previously-baffling joke or reference I've encountered somewhere.

As we watched the credits roll on the third installment, Snake Eater, Iceman turned to me and sadly confessed that he was starting to doubt the ability of videogames, as a medium, to tell stories.

It's a surprising thing to hear after watching the videogame ending that holds the record for producing manly tears. But I knew exactly what he meant, and why he'd said it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spoiled Treasures and Guilty Pleasures: The Bad Good Game and the Good Bad Game

Reviewing games is harder than it looks. Particularly when the reviewer is tasked with summing up a twenty, forty, or even eighty hour experience into a single number.

The problem is that games are multidimensional. Rarely is a game simply good or bad – most are more complicated than that. An RPG might have a weak plot, but excellent characterization. A platformer might have ugly graphics, but compelling gameplay.

Every so often you'll encounter a game that stubbornly straddles the line and defies binary judgment. It has solid reasons to be considered both good and bad. Reviews of such games tend not to score them very well, but of course that only tells part of the story. Depending on which side of the fence they fall on, they may be a Bad Good Game or a Good Bad Game.