Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Rockstar Fucked Up, Yo...

I've been reading a lot of forum posts talking about the Hot Coffee mod, and gamers have been speculating that Rockstar is "loving every minute of this" free publicity they are getting. It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that all this attention will translate into more sales for Rockstar (in the "any publicity is good publicity" mode of thought) but it's not as simple as that. This could have far-reaching consequences for the game industry as a whole, and a lot of my colleagues I've been talking to are pissed at Rockstar for this. Here's why:

The ESRB is responsible for assigning accurate ratings for every video game that is published, based on what they consider acceptable standards for content across multiple demographics. Therefore, publishers and developers must communicate and make available to the ratings board every byte of content in their games. Smart publishers know that they need to be upfront with the ESRB about possibly objectionable content, rather than leave their testers to stumble upon it. For example, the portrayal of blood, gore, and physical violence is a very important factor in determining whether or not a game should get a "T" or an "M" rating. The standards are detailed, and very sensitive, and have to take into account myriad factors regarding the portrayal in order to arrive at an acceptable rating. Publishers pushing for a "T" rating (the most popular rating for games, even violent ones, since "M" rated games sometimes are hard to get into more conservative-minded retailers, such as Walmart) may have to scale back portrayals of violence in order to avoid the "M." (The "AO" rating isn't even an option - it's considered on par with the NC-17 rating in the film industry - i.e. box office death.) A few examples of the kinds of things we have to manage: the amount of blood, how it sprays or flows, how long corpses last on screen, whether blood sprays on walls or pools on the floor, whether blood sprays look "cartoony" or "realistic," whether headshots are more gory than body shots. There are dozens more factors to consider. Just like Quentin Tarantino had to make some his goriest scenes in Kill Bill black and white in order to get an R rating, game developers and publishers must also, at times, tone down the blood, remove gibs, or otherwise change their content to get a "T" or "M" rating.

When publishers submit a game for ESRB review, they either have to take video footage of every level, environment, and menu of the game and submit that with a build, or give them cheat codes and access to all levels. They must also tell them about easter eggs, hidden content, unlockable content, etc. The ESRB must know, and should know everything.

Either Rockstar made the content that first emerged from the "Hot Coffee" mod available to the ESRB, and the ESRB chose to render an "M" rating with it, or Rockstar kept the content a secret from the ESRB. Maybe Rockstar kept the content a secret from Take Two's internal QA or publishing apparatus as well. (I'm not familiar with their corporate procedures.) I have a strong suspicion that, had the ESRB known about unlockable content that featured graphic simulated sex acts, they would have asked Rockstar to modify it. I know of games where the developer hid easter egg content from their publisher before. I also know of at least one situation where the developer accidentally left unused assets in the final build - assets that were objectionable - and the publisher had to scramble to remove them in order to go gold.

Regardless of where the fault lies, and although this may translate into a temporary blip in sales for GTA:SA as gamers scramble to snatch up the few remaining copies of the uncensored game, make no mistake - this is a massive PR blunder on the part of Rockstar and it could have far-reaching implications for freedom of expression in future games. At best, it will allow the morality police to feel confident in what they misguidedly believe already - that games are depraved. At worst, it will invite an unprecedented level of government scrutiny on our industry, and that's what's most worrisome.

Rockstar's primary blunder was in their initial statement regarding the Hot Coffee "mod." They made it sound like the modder violated the EULA and used all sorts of hackerish skullduggery in order to inject the game with this content. When we learned that the content was unlockable in the PS2 version, though, Rockstar was caught red-handed. The sex scenes weren't reverse-engineered, fan-created content, as Rockstar seemed to want us to believe...they were hidden, unlockable content that someone, somewhere at Rockstar took the time to create. The fact that it lay hidden is why this is such a colossal mess.

The game industry must hold itself to a higher standard for self-regulation than the music or movie industries. Why? Because movies are immutable, static content, and the venues by which consumers access this content (theaters, DVDs) do not allow for modification. However, computer games are dynamic content, and can be modified at any time, either through official means (patches, map packs) or unofficial means (mods). Though this is only true for PC games at the moment (i.e. console games are unmoddable like movies), it will become true for the next generation of consoles, which will have more established online support and near ubiquitous hard drive support, which will give publishers and developers the possibility of adding or modifying content through patches, add-ons, etc. (Yes, all you smug console jockeys who snort at the PC gamers and their patch woes...you will soon know their pain, too. I do not foresee publishers allowing console-based mods with the next generation of hardware, but it could happen down the road, as set-top consoles become more and more like PCs.)

It is the responsibility of game publishers and developers to insure that the content they deliver - even hidden, unlockable, officially downloadable, or unused/innactive content - undergoes the full scrutiny of the ESRB. I firmly believe the ESRB is a diligent, professional organization committed to the best interests of both the industry that creates games, and the public that consumes them. They will no doubt take the most heat from this debacle, but part of their job is to run the gauntlet on behalf of publishers and developers everywhere who entrust them with the task of rating our games. If the ESRB's ratings system holds no meaning for people, then it must be revised, so that our customers can have faith in us again (even if the mounting evidence that parents either don't know about game ratings or deliberately ignore them is true).

America has weathered the constant presence of reactionary moralists pervading government and society over the course of its history, and there is no evidence to suggest that these kind of people are going to go away. We must not, as an industry, be so cavalier with our ratings system as Rockstar appears to have been with GTA:SA, because it will only give the moralists the fuel their histrionic fires of outrage demand. They would like nothing better than to clamp down on our expression, if not shut us down entirely. (I'm thinking of US Senator Joe Lieberman, California State Assemblyman Leland Yee, and, most recently, US Senator Hillary Freakin' Clinton). There will always be people who don't want to see sex or violence in ANY media, regardless of its rating, intended audience, or distribution medium. If we as an industry have our ducks in a row, maintain our own vigilance against depravity and comply with the ESRB's rules, we can calmly point to our own checks and balances and ask the moralists to calm down (they won't but that's neither here nor there). But when the system breaks down, there is little we can do as an industry to counter their attacks. Because, at some level, whether it was at Rockstar, Take Two, the ESRB, or all three organizations, it appears that the system may have broken down.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Battlefield 2

Dear DICE and EA,

Thanks for shipping Battlefield 2 with a almost completely broken server browser. Neat! I never know WHAT is going to work and what isn't. Now that's non-linear gameplay!

Refreshes take forever. When I type text in the columns to sort by that text (say, to sort for 16 player games only, or for servers that have UK in the title...sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Yay!

And the server filters...work when they want to. The "Not Full" one just DOES NOT WORK. I've tested it. It does not remove full servers. Well, maybe it does, because the reporting is so terrible that, if you're not getting server pings of 999 or 0, you're getting a list of full servers (many of which aren't full at all).

I'm surprised Gamespy didn't pull their logo from the product. The BF2 browser is the worst GS implementation I think I've ever seen.

Here's how I get in a game:
- Refresh the list of ranked servers.
- Sort by ping, lowest at the top
- Watch the string of "0" ping servers show up, then wait 5-10 seconds for them to actually REPORT their ACTUAL ping, which is sometimes an integer far in excess of 0.
- Start double-clicking server names, in order of lowest ping first, regardless of whether they say full or not. After doing this for about 5 minutes or so, I usually find a server that has a slot open.

When I actually DO get onto a server, the game is fun. However, getting to that server is to run a harrowing gauntlet of terrible design and broken features.

Thanks again! Love you madly!

Sincerely yours,
The Entire Gaming Community

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

WoW Battlegrounds

I've played a helluva lot of Battlegrounds since the patch, and I have to say, my interest in WoW has now reached a fever pitch. I cannot get enough of Warsong Gulch, and my few experiences in Alterac Valley are really interesting. I think that the Alterac Valley map has some...well not FLAWS, necessarily, but liabilities, and here they are:

- Pretty much, if you're not on voice chat with the entire raid group, you're at a major disadvantage. The raid I was in just was not talking to anyone in text chat. The only people text chatting were noobs saying "what is going on?" over and over again.

- After having played Battlefield 2 for a few days, I think AV needs some serious command and control infrastructure. BF2 lets you appoint a general, who takes a birds-eye view of the field, can scan for enemies, drop artillery, supplies, etc. In WoW, that would be cool, but perhaps unrealistic (unless you had goblin zeps and gnomish flying machines dropping bombs and such, that's apparently in the works)...but having one person be the commander who can give orders to squads of players...that NEEDS to be there.

- The learning curve for AV is insane. I got in, had no idea where to go, what to do, what was going on, how I could contribute, whether quests were important or not...it was nuts. I eventually ended up finding the front lines (there were multiple battle fronts, which was cool) and just fighting and fighting and fighting. We had the big rock golem dude on our side kicking a lot of ass, which was nice. But we kept trying to take a graveyard and we always got zerged not by players but by these goddamn NPCS. I couldn't figure out where they were coming from. I think it had to do with gathering supplies from the mines or something, but again, no one would explain it, and no one was taking charge and saying "we need a group to go to the mines so we can get some NPC support."

I got bored (after 250 or so kills in about an hour) and wandered, looking for quests. Found a lot of them. Did a few of them once just to get the quest rewards (usually cash) but that got boring too, and I didn't know, you know, how many stupid wolves I had to muzzle in order to make a difference in the battle.

- There are thorium and truesilver veins all over AV, as well as herb nodes. If someone were a bit unscrupulous, they could just farm for hours while battle raged elsewhere, with little problem, since there are no hostile mobs guarding the nodes. I saw a guy farming ore the entire time I was there. Which I think is exceedingly lame.

Conclusions so far:
Alterac Valley is useful if you want to get a ton of kills in a short amount of time. If you pick your targets well, you can get some serious contribution points. But Warsong Gulch is a lot more fun (right now) because it's simple, short, and fun. Blizz recently posted an update and talked about all these happy improvements they're going to make to Alterac Valley. I can't wait.

But I am left with a question: Who wants to join up for an epic battle and not be at the front lines swinging an axe into people's faces? Who wants to run bone chips and armor parts back to town, or run around in a stupid mine clicking on boxes for supplies? How is the player rewarded for the behind-the-lines support roles, other than with faction rewards from quests?

Why wouldn't I just want to ride to the killing fields and hack night elf hunters to pieces all night long, or experience the thrill of pushing the alliance back, sending them fleeing behind their stupid NPCs Champions and Sentinels while we rape their horses and ride off on their women?

...and as soon as I asked that, a guildie mentioned in a similar conversation that the reason to do all those stupid quests is faction. Getting more faction with the Frostwolf Clan means they give you cool shit.

So, I'm gonna keep playing. I don't play WoW nearly enough to have any hope of reaching the officer ranks. I was a scout two weeks ago, and now I'm a grunt. If I hit First Sergeant at some point, I'll be happy. Anything above that just seems impossible, given my 2-4 hours of gaming every other night. But I don't like how you have to keep fighting to maintain your rank...of all the things to do to the game, making the PVP system overwhelmingly favor the power gamer is not the best move. But I digress...

If it ain't borked...

The Battlefield 2 demo is a strange portent. The core gameplay is marvelously, gloriously, refreshingly untouched. After configuring your controls with the maddeningly annoying (and also untouched - grrrr) Battlefield interface (don't forget to hit "apply" or you'll waste precious minutes of your life!), as soon as you get in, choose your class, and your spawn point, it's like being home again. No trying to figure out new controls, or run speeds, or anything...it all feels like classic BF. Which is terrific.

DICE also seem to have retained the ever-charming aspect of Battlefield called "I fucking die a lot from assholes in planes" which is what turned me off from the Desert Combat mod and ultimately had me wander elsewhere in search of FPS goodness. Haters will just say, "aww, it's cuz you suck" and that may be true (I am man enough to admit that I am not the 1337357 FPS player in the universe. There are plenty of guys in the cubicles next to me who regularly kick my ass.) but there is a unique feeling of frustration loading up a game for the first time and getting killed six or seven times in a row by cluster bombs artfully deposited into your face by some otaku in the Su-34. Anyway.

Battlefield 2's chief contribution to the world of large-scale-but-not- massively-multiplayer (If I make that into an acronym, it is LSBNMMO, which reads like "Lesbian MMO." I can only imagine a Lesbian MMO would involve a lot of Home Depot trips in Subaru Foresters...) games is it's command and control interface. The system for applying for commander, the ease with which you can join a squad or create your own squad, all of that is awesome. The commander's panel is sublime and wonderful, although it is not without its faults. I love being the commander almost as much as I love being Special Forces.

BF2 will have lasting appeal for a lot of people, and I can't wait to see the other maps. The dynamic scaling of the map based on client limit is also a nice touch.

Monday, June 20, 2005

So many games

Wow, I got busy, so there is much blogslack. But, then again, no one is reading this so, does it matter?

Will be posting a bunch of impressions of various games soon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Half Life 2

Approximately 2 minutes into playing Half Life 2, I was already in a bad mood. As part of my job, I spend so much time evaluating games, picking them apart, critiquing them, ridiculing the bad stuff, admiring the good stuff (and then trying to figure out how they did it), that it is rare for a game to reach beyond that analytical filter and actually suck me in. Suck my MIND in. I'm not immersing myself in it, it's enveloping my psyche.

It becomes my context.


And so here I am, grappling with this conversation in my head. I'm not "playing" the game, per se, but the following is a transcript of my thoughts as I walk around this dingy, depressing train station. A small, flying, electronic sentry-like thingie flies by as the doors to my train car open. At the last second, it turns to me, flies over, and peers into my face.

What is that? Why is that thing in my face?

FLASH. I'm momentarily blinded by light.


Ow! Did it just take my picture? What the hell?

The thing hovers above me as I regain my sight, hovers with me a while as I cautiously move forward, and then floats away.

But I...I didn't do anything.

I'm on edge.

A white-bearded, intellectual type is talking down to me - both literally and figuratively - from a huge monitor on the wall.

Who is this talking? Dude on the monitor...god, I already hate him. Wait, what did he just say? "Our...benefactors?" What is this, 1984? Jesus.

As I listen to his speech, my skin begins to crawl. He's got this expression...his eyes seem to say that he feels my pain, sorta like a post-apocalyptic Clinton, but I can tell he's full of shit. Smug bastard.

I'll just keep walking. I'll follow that guy, he seems to know where he's going.

A guard violently pushes the guy I'm following, smacking him into a cart full of moldering suitcases.

Jesus. What's up, martial law? Stormtroopers have more compassion than this thug.

The guard walks towards me. I don't move. He pushes me and mutters something. I can't understand him...his voice is distorted and short, like a CB transmission in another language.

That motherfucker pushed me.

Without thinking, I walk over to him. He whirls around and pushes me again. This time, he turns on some sort of stick weapon, which crackles with electricity.

OK OK OK OK...you're the boss. Jesus.

I walk away and through a gate. A desperate looking woman asks me if there was anyone else on the train. She glances at me nervously, then looks beyond me again. She'll be looking for a long time.

There's no one else, sister.

Wow, I can actually feel my natural propensity to give a shit about other people draining out of me.


As I meander through the train station, I encounter muttering fools, conspiracy-theory-spewing old men, and other assorted layabouts. One guy sits at a bench. His arms are crossed. He seems to be hugging himself, like a child waiting to be swept up in the arms of maternal comfort. "They can't get away with this for much longer." he spits bitterly. I have a feeling he's wrong. Very, very wrong.

Beyond chain link fences, I see more of those horrible looking guards, and what is clearly a checkpoint.

This place sucks.

That is all that's going through my mind right now.

I stop for a second. I look around. I stare at the ceiling.

Oh, fucking hell that TV asshole has started his spiel again!! Christ, I gotta get out of here. Post haste. I...well...I, just gotta go...over there. Where they're going to search me.


I have nothing on me...nothing to hide...

So why am I so afraid to go through?

This place sucks.

I move towards the guards. I know what I need to do. Yeah, this place sucks, boo hoo. But I remember something. I'm Gordon Freeman. Gordon Fucking Freeman!

"They can't get away with this for much longer."

That dude's right. They can't. And they won't. Because I, Gordon Freeman, have arrived at City 17. They won't get away with this much longer. They don't scare me. These guards, these little cowardly fascist puppets...

I know something bad's going to happen to me as soon as I approach that checkpoint. But on the other side of it, I have a feeling I am going to kick a tremendous amount of ass.

So I walk through the maze of chain link fences, and my whole world turns upside down.

So starts Half Life 2. The beginning of what some some people call the greatest game ever made. Even though I am prone to such hyperbolic pronouncements myself, I don't think it matters whether it's the greatest game EVER...but it's certainly got top honors for so swiftly sucking me in. Few games do it so successfully. There's what game journalists and marketing people like to call "immersion." And then there's what I call "becoming my context." HL2 achieves the latter, so much so that I didn't even notice until I had been playing for hours and hours and it was time to go home.

The first Half Life's introductory sequence was a landmark in game design...a slow tram ride into the heart of a mysterious high tech facility. Ostensibly, it was a credits sequence, but what it really did was slowly ease you into the world you were to inhabit for the duration of the game. Rather than force the player to figure out the who, what, where, and why while they were busy learning the how to move, shoot, jump, etc., the tram ride helped you get your bearings. Scientists walking on a platform, a maintenance worker twisting a wrench, a freakish looking mechanical robot lumber below you. By the time you reached your destination, you had at least an initial notion of where you were, who you were, what you were doing, and why you were there.

Half Life 2's introduction banks on the fact that you have played the first one, and assumes that you know that you are Gordon Freeman, MIT-scientist-turned-hero. And that the world is not a great place to be right now, even after what you managed to accomplish in the first game. (For anyone who hasn't played the first Half Life, please, just run out and get the damn game, you're missing out on that which all first person shooters that came after it have been judged.) But whereas Half Life's laconic tram ride helped immerse the player slowly, Half Life 2's arrival at the train station in City 17 doesn't waste any time, plunking you smack dab in the middle of a fascist police state. Everything you see and hear contributes to the feeling of tension, anger, despair. And fear. A guy sits down and taps his foot nervously, looking towards the checkpoint. He tells you he's "working up the nerve" to approach. One man scoffs at the bearded Big Brother on screen and another tells him to be quiet.

If you linger a bit and explore the world, you find that you can pick things up, throw them, smash them. But throw something at a person, and they'll curse at you. Throw something at a guard, and he'll beat you senseless. Kinda like real life. So many games are only as interactive as the designers are able to make it given the constraints of technology, time, and budget, that you can almost always intellectually detach yourself from your character in the game. In real life, if you walk up to a chair, you should be able to pick it up. In most games, the chair is just a thing to look at...you can't even move it, and in the cheapest games, sometimes you can walk right through it. With Half Life 2, you can interact with nearly everything you see. Walk into a chair and it'll bump out of the way. Pick up a box and throw it and it'll bounce off the wall and tumble over other objects. Throw it enough times and it'll shatter.

Everything that follows the raw, emotional verisimilitude of Half Life 2's introductory sequence is consistent with the quality of that first sequence. Every interaction in the game is top-notch. You meet a lot of people on your journey. And, in a refreshing departure from most first person shooters, you don't simply kill all of them. In fact, it is, at time, staggering just how many friendly faces you see as you make your way through City 17 and beyond. Old friends greet you warmly. Unexpected allies emerge and foist their help upon you. Admirers fawn over you as words of praise catch in their throats. As the game progresses, you realize that you, Gordon Freeman, are a living legend. A folk hero. It's fun to be on the receiving end of so much admiration. But it's not all warm fuzzies. You are, after all, within a matter of minutes, the most wanted man in City 17. A lot of people are out to get you. Most of them guards.

But you forget that they are "AI." AI is the bane of the computer game's existence, usually. Experienced gamers can recall with dread the countless times they've seen computer-controlled AI doing stupid, implausible, impossible, or otherwise erroneous things on screen. From soldiers who rapidly jitter between two stances, to squads that run at you with the tactical skill of special-ed students, to the most frustrating of all - ├╝bermensch AI that can shoot with pinpoint accuracy across the whole map and kill you in a cruelly swift volley of unfairness - AI can ruin a game. It has ruined some games that otherwise rank among the finest of their craft. Not so with HL2. (Now, I'm not going to lie to you. They're still AI. You can still exploit their weaknesses. You can still see them occasionally do stupid things. Until there is processor power sufficient to execute complex AI systems and still keep the game running at acceptable performance levels AND deliver all the ridiculously detailed graphically hoo-haa you degenerate ingrates demand, AI will continue to get the short end of the development stick. That being said, HL2's AI is pretty goddamn good.) Soldiers do some pretty smart stuff. They attack in groups. They use suppress-and-flank tactics. They use grenades. If you try a frontal assault, they execute you with breathtaking speed. And that's just the guys on the ground. The assholes in the helicopters and other assorted flying machines...those guys will ruin your day in no time at all. You will have to think tactically. Plan your approach. Keep your head down. It reminded me a bit of the Call of Duty games, where you always have to consider WHERE you're going to get shot at from, and take cover accordingly. But the cover is there...almost always. There are a few times where you are almost totally exposed. But as soon as you get into a groove - taking cover, maintaining situational awareness, practicing good fire control (especially at higher difficulty levels, where your weapons are less effective) - you can bring the ass-kicking to the people. You become a world class expert in the art of ass-kicking. If ass-kicking were an Olympic sport, you'd be the coach! Get the picture? And all the weapons are just brilliant.

I could spend ages talking about every little magic thing in this game, but I'm only going to mention one for now.

It's is a very subtle and unexpected little bit of sound design. When fighting the black-armor-clad stormtrooper-lookin' guards - who are clearly human, but also devoid of humanity - you can always hear their radio chatter. It bounces off the walls and echoes through the halls, staccato clips of unintelligible chatter - like listening to a Martian police scanner. You get used to the chatter, and start to recognize it as a sign that the bad guys are nearby, which is cool, but it's not the really cool part. Whenever you kill one of these motherfuckers, there's this high pitched, whiny drone - sort of like a flatline alarm from the heart monitors they use in hospital dramas - that broadcasts over the radio chatter for a few seconds. Oh my fucking GOD, I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to hear this sound. It elicits a Pavlovian response in me...especially since I'm the kind of guy who takes cover and tries to suss out enemies I can't see with grenades and such. I'm behind a wall, broken glass my feet, heart pounding like a jackhammer, and there's...two? Did I see three? Guards around the corner. I can hear them chattering. I get up the nerve, switch to 'nades, rise, toss one, it banks off the wall...tink, tink, tinktinktink...the clipped chatter suddenly becomes a little more frantic and then BOOOOOOOM! The glorious chorus of 3 redlines chiming in over the radio. Scratch three bad guys. On one hand, it's just fun to hear. On the other hand, if I hear no more chatter, I know I got the job done. They're dead. Gordon Freeman is not. I grin without even thinking about it. I've gotten my little hit of aural crack...that little sound validating my efforts, comforting me, congratulating me. But it also pushes me...urges me to move on...I gotta make that sound some more.

I gotta make more of that music.

Silence the chatter.

Turn up the whine.

Symphony No. 3 in Badass Minor.


Every game developer and publisher everywhere should sit down and really look at Half Life 2. And learn from it. Not so they can be cheesy dorks and steal stuff to put in their shooters, but to take in the totality of the experience, the attention to detail on ALL fronts. The layers of subtlety and nuance that build upon each other to create one of the greatest games of all time. Anyone who dismisses this game does at their own peril.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Play

This is a place about play. All kinds of play.