Monthly Archives: October 2013

How to raise the iGeneration

My three-year-old son learned to say, “iPhone,” before “daddy”.  He was swiping through apps and snapping photos before he could utter a coherent sentence.  When we’re not paying attention, he takes the iPad to the bedroom, locks the door and plays SpongeBob Dash or Angry Bird.  He thinks, and expects, all monitors and TVs to be touch-screen and gets annoyed when they aren’t.  I thought he was a genius, but it turns out my son is typical of his generation, and makes me wonder how we’re going to keep up with him.

A recent NPR blog discusses the existence of evil marketing and research big brothers who monitor and study kids’ gaming activities.  They use the information to devise schemes to squeeze more money out of their parents.  The parents and the kids are victims.  The blog, titled, “How Video Games are Getting Inside Your Head – And Wallet,” portrays the video game industry as voyeurs hiding behind the mirror, watching for a way to exploit the weak and young.

Poor video game industry!  They get blamed for violent crimes, women’s poor self-image, and now, they are trolls under a bridge waiting for a goat to cross.  Will they ever get a break?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first instinct is to blame the “blame-everyone-but-me” culture we live in.  There is some inept parenting showcased in the blog.  One mother allows her teenage son to play Xbox for 12 hours straight.  Another parent, whose son blew lots of cash on in-game purchases, asks, “Do you really want to be spending everything on this?”  That’s like asking, “Do you really want to be eating so much chocolate?”  Don’t ask.  You are a parent.  You make a decision.  Finally, a parent at the end of the blog finally makes the right call and takes away her 10-year-old’s gaming rights.

I look at this and the first thought is, I’m not going to be like these amateurs.  I’m a good father.  But then, I think about those times when I take away the iPad from my son mid-game, and the tantrum he throws.  There are also evenings when my wife is away and I want some R&R after work.  I’m tempted to give the kid fifteen minutes of iPad, which sometimes turns into an hour.  I think about those times, and I’m not so sure how different I will be from these parents in the blog.

I’ve always loved video games.  As a kid, I’d find ways to play as often as I could.  My mom would lock the PC and hide the key (there was a physical key back then), but I would always find it, and play games when she was not home.  I still find time to play now, even though I have a full-time job and married with a young son.  I wouldn’t mind if my son enjoys playing games, but like any sensible parent, I don’t want him to be addicted to it.  I don’t want him to be addicted to anything.

Then there will be new technology, things I would never have even dreamed of, that my son would take for granted.  He will see and do things I will never be able to learn.  In Antiquity and the Renaissance, cities on the Mediterranean flourished because of their access to the world.  The entire world is now the Mediterranean, so how quickly will technology advance?  How much quicker will my son adapt to it than me?  How will I keep up with him?

If I asked for advice, the response would be that some things never change.  Technology may jump a light year ahead, but the fundamentals of parenting – love – is still the same.  That is true, I’m sure, but it would be nice if someone would write a guide on parenting in the high-tech era.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and the Quest for Imagination

The “ear scene” in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is as famous for its squeamish camera as the violence it avoids.  As Mr. Blonde leans in to slice Marvin’s ear, the camera pans left to a doorway.  We hear Marvin’s pain, we imagine it, but we don’t see it.  Later on in his films, Tarantino’s cameras are not as shy.  In the Kill Bill movies, we see every ruptured artery, every severed limb, torso, head…all in high-def detail…nothing left to the imagination.

I couldn’t help thinking about Tarantino’s films when I downloaded Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on my iPad.  The game had high sentimental value, up there with my first crush and childhood Christmases.  There were late nights at the computer, under a blanket, playing until the sun came up.  I would feign some mystery illness to miss church on Sundays, a crime punishable by a week without computer access at my household.  So when I came upon this game at the Apps store, I was ecstatic.  I started playing, and realized the memory was superior to the actual gameplay, but it was still good.  It was better than a lot of the RPG games out there today, and a significant reason is because it allows room for the imagination.

The beautiful Britannia harbor.

The beautiful Britannia harbor.

The best RPG I’ve ever played had nothing to do with video games.  I was old school.  The fellas and I at the dining table, pen, paper, a guide book and dice.  That was it.  No graphics.  No voice actors.  No award-winning soundtracks.  Just a good story-teller and our imaginations.  We turned to video games when we started playing sports, dating girls, and even studying, and couldn’t coordinate our schedules as easily.  Technology was limited, and we stared at pixels in black limbo or stick figures we imagined to be great warriors or beautiful (and usually busty) maidens.  Technology improved.  Games became more graphic, more linear, more cinematic.  Games were still enjoyable in many ways, but they left less of a stain, less of a scar…they became less memorable.

My generation and the one that followed became impatient.  Everything had to be fast.  Easy.  Quick.  Convenient.  Violence had to be graphic.  The ladies had to be sexy.  And the pathway had to be clear.  People began to write about the effects of violence in video games, but violence had always existed in video games going back to Combat on the Atari.  It definitely exists in Ultima IV, but the difference between it and Grand Theft Auto is that the blood and guts in the former is in the mind’s eye.

The orc flees, leaving a trail of blood and guts.

The orc flees, leaving a trail of blood and guts.

Then there’s the sexual representation of women.  Stanford did a study on it.  Nudity is becoming more and more common and soon it’ll be as common in games as it is in movies.  But as in the violence in Tarantino’s later films, commonality leads to the mundane.  We lose interest and when we lose interest, it goes into the oblivion.

That fair maiden, she's a hottie!

That fair maiden, she’s a hottie!

I still remember Ultima IV.  I still remember the gray, moss-covered castles, the black forests, and the sprawling cities by the sea.  There was the rosy-cheeked bar maiden, and the ragged bare-footed urchins warming at a fire as the lively bard sang of heroes and dragons.  The blood of orcs and trolls splattered at the thrust of a long-sword.  The great halls were cold, the temples bright and the caves infested.

I remember Ultima IV, and I’ll never forget it.

Beyond: Two Souls – interactive or passive?

Beyond: Two Souls looks good, and it has good acting, and it really wants to be an interactive movie, but I have a difficult time calling something a movie when it’s $60 and like ten hours long.  This is a passive game.  I want it to be more than that, but it’s not a breakthrough piece.

There are several walkthroughs and all the endings showing up on YouTube, so you could probably cut several different two-hour movies from all the footage online.  That might be a more rewarding experience than actually “playing” this game.

It doesn’t seem all bad, though.  The parts where you control Aiden – the supernatural soul of the two souls – seem pretty interesting.  Being able to possess people and make them do what you want – now, that is a good game concept.  Not sure if one already exists.

Batman: Arkham Origins trailer – Batman should not be Batman yet, but he is

Good ads market a product by hitting on its competitive edge.  And trailers, which go back centuries to minstrels atop their traveling theater wagons, are effective if they intrigue their audience.

The new trailer for Batman: Arkham Origins fails to highlight the most intriguing aspect of the game.  That is, it doesn’t say much about Batman’s “origins”.   The game, available October 25, is set five years before Batman: Arkham Asylum and features Batman as an unrefined crime fighter as he develops into what he becomes.  The exquisite TV Spot captured an essence of that.  I wanted to see more of how it translates to the gameplay as well as the storyline but the trailer doesn’t do either.

Batman in Batman: Arkham Origins trailer is already Batman

Batman in Batman: Arkham Origins trailer is already Batman

Actually, the trailer is another lame, clichéd piece we’ve seen a hundred times before.  News footage, bad guy creates problems, good guy goes to solve problem, good guy in trouble…ho hum.  Batman is Batman here.  He’s got all his stuff, his temper, his master kung-fu, gadgets and toys and everything.  Let’s see some self-doubt, more complexity to his character, some grayness.  Gadgets fail.  Explosives explode prematurely.  He kills a couple people by mistake…okay, not that far, but I do want to see Batman learning the hard way.

And the supervillain, Black Mask, sucks.  They took him straight out of the comic book – a mob boss with a…black mask.  I admit I’m not a purist, but I do pay money for games, so please, intrigue me.

Keep the mask, lose the gangster threads

Keep the mask, lose the pinstripes

 

Comic book Black Mask.  The Asian guy might be a more intriguing villain

Comic book Black Mask. The Asian guy might be a more intriguing villain

RimWorld GrimWorld

A baby is born.  She plays barefoot in the dirt as her parents toil on the tobacco plantation.  She becomes a farmer like her parents, or goes to school, or joins the military.  She has kids of her own.  She grows older, and at the age of fifty, she suddenly dies from cancer.  Stories like these were what made Tropico such a great game.  It wasn’t about completing the missions, but tagging one child and tracking her through life’s uncertainties.

All sims are similar in this voyeuristic way.  We want to influence and then see the results of that action.  Tynan Sylvester’s RimWorld, which recently received Kickstarter love, claims to do a little bit more.  The AI Storyteller assesses a situation and “decides which event she thinks will make the best story”.  A scriptwriter in the sky decides the fate of your helpless colonists, who have crash landed on a planet and are forced to build, farm and fight pirates to survive.

There’s a tactical element to the game using a similar engine as Jagged Alliance 2.  Location of walls, buildings, corridors are as important to your survival as raising a herd of sheep.  Kill or be killed.  I recently re-watched James Cameron’s Aliens.  I wonder if the AI in the sky will unleash such horror on its RimWorld inhabitants.

To live...

To live…

Then there’s the psychological component.  Your guys can go nuts from seeing others die.  They can go Jamestown on you at any moment.  But as Sylvester says, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about watching these poor souls go through the process of winning or…dying.  It’s the fatalism, the voyeurism, and the cruelty of uncertainty.

Call of Duty: Ghosts – Sea, Air, Land and Space and Dogs!

The new trailer for Call of Duty: Ghosts brings out the kid in me. I’m 8 years old, next to my dad in the car driving home after an action flick:

“…and…and…buildings blew up, and fighter planes, and dogs, and scary wolves with sharp teeth, and sharks, and…and…space!”

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The game, which releases November 5, 2013, has a little bit of everything, even Eminem. The space scene looks cool, and of course, a space scene can’t be a space scene without the “girl slipping from your finger-tips, I’ve-got-you-no-I-don’t” moment, as in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity or Final Fantasy 8. There are destructible buildings, trees, vehicles, which all pale in comparison to the collapsing Shanghai tower of Battlefield 4.

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The most intriguing character is Riley the Dog. Everybody loves a good dog and all the stories about their heroics in battle, rescue and their loyalty on the home front. Game developers love clichés, so no doubt there will be some touching,dogmance experience. I love seeing that kind of thing. I also love seeing wardogs in action like in Total War: Rome where they unleash a whole pack of them and they kill until they are killed.

Ryse: Son of Rome – Revenge is yummy

There’s nothing better than a good revenge story, especially when the recipient of that cold-blooded vengeance is the most powerful empire on Earth.  In the story of Marius Titus of Ryse: Son of Rome, the victim is a highly-decorated warrior and the perpetrator is the corrupt imperial leadership.  I wondered if he becomes a slave, and then a gladiator, but luckily it doesn’t seem to follow Ridley Scott’s script.  Instead, it appears from the trailer, Marius sees his family dead and then goes straight to leading an army of loyal legionnaires.

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The game is scheduled to launch on November 22, the same day as Xbox One.  Is there an underlying message that this Xbox One exclusive about power, glory and revenge is paired with the release of the new gen console?

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The trailer, like most game trailers these days, plays more like an animated film than a game.  It introduces Marius and the revenge plot – his family is killed, he joins a legion and begins his quest for vengeance.  Story is filled with clichés, but there are lots of blood and epic battle scenes, which don’t really compare to Total War: Rome 2.  It looks great, though, but probably will be forgotten as more Xbox One titles hit the market.

Steam Squad chugs its way to kickstarter funding

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It was a close one, but I’m pretty darn excited to see Steam Squad meet its Kickstarter goal of $50K.  I just love the art direction on this game.  I’m not sure exactly how to describe it.  Sort of a comic book, Russian-style?  It’s very soft, pastel-ish?  I need to brush up on my art history, but it looks great.

Turn-based squad games have been my thing for years now.  Started with Soldiers At War, which I think could have followed Fallout to bigger things, but it disappeared.  That was a fun game.  You take a GI squad of about six men, which was historically-inaccurate integrated (my favorite squad leader was African American), and progress through several WW2 missions.  It was highly tactical: set up fire-lanes, flank, maneuver, ambush.  The best part wasn’t the action, but looting dead Wehrmacht corpses.  You end up with a lot of potato mashers and eventually, the biggest prize: a German assault rifle!

There was the original Fallout, which was a bit RPG and bit turn-based.  The main thing I remember about the game is you can temporarily increase your stamina or dexterity by sleeping with prostitutes.

And the best turn-based game ever: Jagged Alliance 2.  You hire an oddball group of mercenaries to free a fictional island nation from a crazy dictatoress.  Each mercenary has unique skills and personalities.  Some guys refuse to work with others, some become better if they work with a guy they enjoy working with, some guys just want to be alone.  Game has tons of cool weapons, some unexpected sci-fi, but most of all, it’s funny as hell.  Check out some of these great lines from the game.  JA also had a prostitute component, but instead of increasing your traits at climax, you get a happy face that winks at you.

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Steam Squad looks great, the concept is interesting, don’t think it’ll have prostitutes, but can’t wait to see it launch.

Warface – to pay or not to pay

Free-to-play games is like free food at Costco. I stuff my face until I get sick of it, or the lady behind the counter gives me dirty looks, whichever happens first, and then I head over to the next table of samples.

There’s a problem with the FTP, or freemium, model for games. Freemium businesses may work if there’s a B2B component: normal Joe might use Survey Monkey’s free service to get feedback on where to go to lunch, but it’s the businesses that purchase the premium options. For the normal Joe to purchase the premium options of a game, the game has to be stellar, but if the game is stellar, there wouldn’t be a need to make it free. Battlefield, Halo, COD do not need to give out free samples.

I have dished out cash on an FTP before. TowerMadness was the first iPhone game I got and I didn’t know better. I got sucked into the pay-to-win scheme: you need $.99 for the flamethrower which is the only way to beat several maps. That one moment of weakness aside, I have resisted upgrading or purchasing extra stars, coins, hearts, etc, because I know I will have serious buyer’s remorse.

Warface PC launches on October 21. This game has buyer’s remorse written all over it. The graphics are ho-hum, the character movements are just a tad better than GoldenEye 1997, and the gameplay is like ten years ago. Compare this to Battlefield 4 – you’ve got an entire building collapsing on you – I’d pay for that.

I’ll try the Warface sample, maybe go back for second or thirds, but it won’t disprove my theory on FTP games.

Cabela’s African Adventure 2013 – Duck Hunt gone wild!

Trapping beetles and pouring hot wax on them is the most hunting I’ve ever done. I was ten years old and yes, I regret doing it, and yes, I have had beetle-related nightmares. These days, I can’t even hurt a squirrel and squirrels in Mountain View are vicious little suckers. So when a game like Cabela’s African Adventure comes along, my first reaction is, “Bambi!”

And perhaps the marketing folks who produced the trailer figured there were softies like me. There is no actual killing of animals in the trailer. Shots are fired, but none of God’s creation is hurt. In fact, the animals fight back. The hunter, who I will call Pierce because he kind of resembles Pierce Brosnan, looks like he’s about to get worked pretty bad. He’s nearly gored by an elephant, trampled by a herd of water buffalo, sliced open by a rhino, snacked on by a pack of hyenas, and slashed by an alpha lion…all in one trailer!

Run, Pierce, run!

Run, Pierce, run!

The animals look beautiful, though. And the African landscape is exquisite. I might buy this game just for the Hemingway experience.