Monday, 30 November 2009

The Modern Badass

Traditional games have often been placed in the category of adolescent male power fantasies, or as we apparently adolescent males prefer to call it, doing things which are totally awesome. Over the years many avatars have popped up to do things which are awesome, and generally the level of awesome has increased with technology levels. This is more or less because the better the animation, particle effects and shaders, the more awesome things look.

The last few years have seen the emergence or consolidation of some serious badasses in the world of gaming, who fall into three main categories: regular Joe, superhuman or total badass. The differentiation between the three categories can be seen in the following hypothetical: what happens if a rogue soviet general (video games don't have to worry about whether the cold war is over or not) threatens to launch a nuclear weapon at the badass' home town or country?

A regular Joe level badass, such as Altair from Assassin's Creed, Riddick or Batman would respond by sneaking and/or shooting their way to the missile base and disarming the device anywhere up to ten seconds before detonation. The base is guarded by anywhere up to a hundred guards plus a couple of tanks and a helicopter. The general has a machine gun and a few grenades, maybe some sniper cover.

A superhuman badass, of the Ryu Hayabusa or Master Chief type (he's in here because he can flip a goddamned tank with one hand), would respond by knocking on the front gate and then killing everything that moved with the aid of magic or crazy sci-fi and then riding the missile into the stratosphere after it is launched and destroying seconds before it explodes. The base is guarded by several hundred guards including some in mechanised suits, a few dozen tanks and helicopters and some sort of giant demon snake thing. The general is a cyborg with psychic powers and a flamethrower where his left eye should be.

A total badass, such as Kratos from God of War or Alex Mercer from Prototype, would respond by asking nearby countries to please retreat to a safe distance. The uncounted guards would form a nice red smear background to cyborg bear mechs getting ripped in half and the flying ninja robot dragon general being killed by having his nuclear missile tipped tail ripped off and shoved down his throat. The ensuing explosion would provide waves of nuclear communist mutants that the badass would have to kill in order to warm down effectively.

The first level of badassery often makes for games with more variety, challenge and nuance but I'll always have a soft spot for a game that lets me throw a tank at a helicopter.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Brutally Open

There is so much to like about Brutal Legend on face value: Tim Schafer, a heavy metal world and action/RTS hybrid gameplay. Maybe Jack Black if you swing that way. For some unfathomable reason on top of this it adds open world gameplay. Why? Tim Schafer's great strengths are good settings, good characters and genuinely funny situations and dialogue. Driving around for a few minutes to travel from mission to mission is boring, repetitive and doesn't even showcase the metal landscape. Between the mission locations, there is generic travel landscape. WoW-esque herbivores wander around low details green hills dotted with the occasional pine tree. Every so often you have to stop, look at your map, realise you've gone the wrong way and do a u-turn because there's no minimap. Monsters and enemies you get absolutely no reward for killing do their best to stop you at every opportunity. The secondary missions will make you drive a few kegs of beer to the beach party in the middle of nowhere, and then when the mission is over it makes you drive all the way back.

It's not enough to make me stop playing because everything else is good, but it feels at times as though the open world component was put it deliberately as a cheap way to extend the time it takes to play the game, which is the second greatest design crime after escort missions.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A Solid (Back)Grounding

One of the most important things for me running roleplaying games in the past was good character backgrounds. I'm lazy and good backgrounds mean that as the DM I don't have to do as much work. The group I'm currently running campaigns with are not so much into the roleplaying aspects of the game and struggle with naming a character, let alone writing a background (to be fair, when I started to whine about it they got written). There are a number of pitfalls a people fall into when writing character backgrounds, myself most definitely included, and a bad background can in fact be worse than no background at all. That said, here's a couple of rules for writing backgrounds:
  1. Your character background is not a story. Stories have a beginning, middle and, most damningly, an end. A character background needs lots of loose ends and unfulfilled goals in order to be of use to a DM. Write the start of the story, maybe even a bit of the middle, but don't spend time thinking about the end, that's why there's a DM.
  2. Your character is not the centre of the adventure. It may be tempting for you to have a character with a single minded dedication to a specific goal, often vengeance for dead friends/family/pets. While this is fine for single player games such as one might find on computers or single character focused books, a pen and paper game typically has four or five main characters most of whom have no interest in avenging the death of your pet rabbit.
  3. Your character is not Jesus. While the DM may choose to reveal at some point that one or many of the party are prophesied saviours of the world, don't write this into your character's background. Aside from the hubris of it, predestination in roleplaying games simply does not work. Ever.
  4. Your character is not already a world famous hero. Keep in mind the level of the character being created when writing a background. A level one character has probably not commanded armies, slayed dragons, or summoned greater fiends from the pits of the abyss.
  5. You have to play your character. Don't write up an inquisitive hyper-intelligent wizardly background if you know as a player you get impatient with riddles and just want to fight things. Be honest with yourself about this: playing a silver-tongued rogue can be a lot of fun but if you can't do a passable job in reality the roleplaying is going to be awkward and unbelievable.
  6. Your background isn't separate from the campaign. By the time you have finished writing a background and discussing it with the DM, you should know the answer to several questions. What kind of personality does your character have? Why would he wander into a dungeon and start killing things? How does he respond to authority? To the classic damsel in distress?
  7. Your character won't be dungeon delving forever. Often framed as "when would your character retire?" this is the question I find most helpful to defining a character's goals and motivations. Revenge based backgrounds are iffy, because chances are you will exact vengeance, at which point the character would most likely go home and live out his life farming pigs or similar. This is fine if you don't want to keep playing the character. Furthermore the generic "wants to prove his might" non-background a lot of people adopt fails to provide an answer to this question and in a world where there are creatures that could most likely kill the character accidentally, it doesn't promote longevity.
One of the best backgrounds I've had was not a particularly deep or original character, but let me play regularly for a few years without faltering in character motivation. Francois was a cocky young human noble (fighter class) whose family was killed and ancestral lands stolen by a big evil cult (one that already existed and had recently invaded the land in question within the Forgotten Realms setting) taken while he was spending a few years in a foreign court. Rather than being consumed with the need avenge his family, who he wasn't really that close to, Francois simply wanted to become a noble again and hit upon the plan of getting as much money as possible and buying a minor rank in a different country. This is where the background ended.

Not only did this give him a reason to go treasure hunting, as well as some incidental revenge from time to time, but his position as a court trained noble combined well with the fact I have a tendency to act as party spokesman when I play. Also, when he finally got enough money, performed a few favours for the crown and got a barony, further adventure hooks were provided by the fact that he was now the sworn vassal of a country at war. I've written characters with more, well, character since then, but often their goals and motivations are a little hazy or are in no way served by going around punching goblins in the face.

When characters have strong backgrounds that give their players clear goals and motivations, being a DM is easy. They don't need to be highly nuanced individuals with complex emotional relationships and subtle personality flaws, although it's helpful if they are, they just need to know what they want to do and why they want to do it. I have run these games in the past, and when having an uninspired week I can just turn to the players and say,
"What do your characters want to do?" From there winging it is no worries. If the players can't answer this question, then their backgrounds don't amount to a hill of beans.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Play It Again, Sam

This post was originally written (by me) on March 20, 2008. The original is no longer available.

When you read a review for a game, or even just talk to someone about a game, the concept of replay value seems to crop up frequently. Normally this refers to choices made over the course of the game (as in Kotor or any other Bioware game) which can be made differently in subsequent plays through. Or it may refer to the various so-called emergent gameplay elements found in open world games like GTA. In either case it boils down to the same thing: play this game again and it will be different. I play through quite a few games, from the really short Max Payne 2 through to ridiculously long games like Final Fantasy X, and it has never occurred to me to play through a 50 hour roleplaying game again because I didn't see what happened in the alternate quests if I played evil. As with many of the systemic problems with modern games, I think the root cause of the idea that a game should be long or change on subsequent play throughs is caused by the fact that games are expensive. I don't hold to the same philosophy, but the majority of gamers seem to be of the opinion that if a game costs four or five times as much as a movie, then they should get ten or fifteen times as much entertainment out of the product. This is probably somewhat dependent on an individual's dispoable income. If somebody only has enough money to buy three or four games a year, then they will still expect the same hours of entertainment as somebody who can affor to buy a dozen or more, at which point the quantity of a game becomes at least as important as its quality.

That tangent on relative entertainment economics aside, back to my original point. The shorter games I tend to play through multiple times because most of the enjoyment I get is in the short term gameplay elements. Diving around shooting guys in slow motion in Max Payne is fun, really fun, and if I get bored after a few hours I can stop playing because I've already finished it before. Any game that lasts over 20 hours is going to contain a lot of slog, like the non-stop random encounters of a JRPG or the cross city transit in a GTA, which I'm content to play through once, but if I want to just see the alternate ending, I really don't want to play two hundred uninteresting random fights first.

I guess what I'm saying is that people rewatch movies and TV shows and they re-read books, and with the exception of choose your own adventure books, these never change. People don't reconsume media in the hope of a different experience, they do it because they want to relive the good experience of the first consumption. I would rather see a developer put all of their effort into 10 hours of brilliant game than 50 hours of pretty good game or 200 hours of mediocre game. If it's good enough, I'll play through it again because it's good, not because I wasn't allowed to see it all the first time through.

Back Behind the Screen

This post was originally written (by me) on February 5, 2008. The original is no longer available.

I've recently started running my first D&D campaign for a couple of years, and I think it's going to take a while to back into the extra time and effort that running a campaign takes compared to playing in one. I'm essentially a lazy person, and while there is something to be said for generating an incredibly detailed room-by-room, conversation-by-conversation adventure, I prefer to take a broad plot and then basically make it up as I go along. So the following advice is not for the diligent and meticulous, but rather for those who feel confident enough to wing it. My basic rule is find the balance between flexibility and rigidity, and once the parameters have been set, stick to them. I suppose a post like this should be peppered with humourous images about roleplaying, but I think Shamus over at Twenty Sided has it pretty much covered.

Lie, Cheat and Steal

The player's dice provide as much randomness as you really need in a campaign, so feel free to modify your own dice rolls as necessary. Sometimes it's just not appropriate for a monster to critical hit a player, and it's your job as DM to make sure that the player's are having fun, not too scared of dying to actually go and slay evildoers. And on the flipside, the rest of the players might start getting annoyed if the wizard starts every combat by Power Word Kill-ing the big bad. Don't be afraid to lie about what the dice say.

You will at some point in your time as a DM find yourself in a situation where things are about to get bogged down, or worse have become bogged down. There are a few key indicators that an upcoming combat is going to be slow and boring for the players. One is if the enemies have multiple spellcasters, another is if there a more than three types of enemy in a single combat, and probably if there are more than 20 monsters in a given combat. Obviously mileage may vary depending on the system you're playing with, but too many enemies, too many types of enemy or too complex enemies all require a lot more thought from you, the DM and as such too much time is spent with everyone waiting for the DM to make decisions or roll dice. In combat, the DM basically has two main jobs: tell players whose turn it is, and control the enemies. A set of cards or a small whiteboard can sort out the first one without too much trouble. When it comes to monsters, always remember that players essentially want to know who got attacked and how much damage they took. If you've got an encounter with thirty goblin archers, and they've got about a 25% chance of hitting, roll 2d6 or 2d8 to figure out how many hit, and you've saved 28 dice rolls for effectively the same result. Got three or four mid-level clerics in the encounter, and haven't assiduously written down every spell they've prepared? I generally assume they've got one spell that's perfect for the situation, two at most, and the various general purpose cleric spells, plus cure/inflict. The chances of them surviving long enough to overuse their available spells is minuscule, so don't worry about it.

Players will absolutely destroy your plot, so don't spend too much time making it too detailed at the start. Plagiarise an overarching plot from one of the uncounted fantasy movies, games or novels going around. In my experience, the individual encounters (be they violent or not) tend to stick in the players' minds much more than the reason they got into the situation in the first place. Plus, players tend to like the reassuring nature of a vaguely familiar story.

Be Honest, Fair and Original

Sometimes you need to be a slave to the dice, no matter how much it messes with the players' or your plans. If players think you won't let them die, they'll be reckless and behave even less believably than usual. The occasional player death keeps everyone on their toes. The other side is sometimes powerful enemies will fail a Will or Reflex save and suffer the effects of a death spell care of a PC. Much as it disrupts your adventure, wizards spend their entire time at early levels hiding in corners casting magic missile twice a day and hoping nobody sees them, let them enjoy themselves when the good spells start becoming available.

Players, I find, want flexibility only when it is to their advantage, and strict interpretation only when it is to their advantage. This is hardly surprising, but it can lead to tension from time to time. I find it's a good idea to play magic with as much rigidity as possible: it's magic so trying to argue what "makes sense" is an exercise in futility. The D&D rules have very specific passages about moving in combat and attacks of opportunity. Any time a player is arguing about these rules, it's because they are about to take damage and want to avoid it, so their point has probably got a flaw.

Players are in their comfort zone dealing with a dread necromancer, or being told trinket X can be found in dungeon Y, but they're likely to raise their eyebrows if you tell them they need to meltdown a powerful magic ring forged by Tauron in the fires of Mt Broom. Make sure that the story your group tells (don't ever, ever think that you'll be able to tell your story) has original characters, situations and motives. For every occasion it's useful for players to have a good idea what's going to happen next, there's three where a surprise is better for the game. And never let anybody play as a renegade drow. In fact, even suggesting the character should be considered fair grounds for immediate eviction from the game.

Unsporting Conduct

This post was originally written (by me) on December 23, 2007. The original is no longer available.

I think sports games tend to get too readily dismissed by most people who talk about game design. The attitude seems to be that these games get churned out on a yearly basis, and sell copies to the "Madden crowd." Yup, that's true. Of course they sell copies every year, year after year, and the audience is wider than you might think. I hail from Australia, and despite constant claims that we're being Americanised (not Americanized, you'll note), the NFL has little to no following. Most of the people I know who buy Madden every year have little or no interest in the NFL, and had absolutely no interest before they started playing Madden. These games are based off well-tested and refined formal rules sets (the sports in question) and the controls have undergone a degree of refinement that any game that hasn't been in development for double digit years is going to struggle to match. If you're willing to overcome whatever prejudice you may have towards sports, the big name sports franchises for the most part offer high quality gameplay.

That said, the superstar mode in this year's Madden was deeply disappointing. This is of particular interest to me because I find the idea of a sports RPG appealing, and there are no real alternatives. If you're not interested in games based on sports, imagine that I'm complaining about the warrior class in a fantasy RPG or something similar, the problems are with the design of the rules governing the mode, not the dressing. The first problem occurs at the point of character creation. You pick your player's position, archetype, personal history and looks, and then get asked to confirm it all. This process takes somewhere around five minutes, which is a fairly long lead time on character creation.

Next up you go through a series of minigames that are common to all player types, and then a specific one based on your chosen position (note that the chosen archetype is irrelevant, thus if you have chosen a scrambling quarterback you are still forced to complete passes from the pocket. Put another way, even if you chose a dagger-wielding rogue, you still get forced to do the archery training). Your superstar is then assigned stats based on your performance in these minigames, with better performance granting commensurately better stats. The common minigames are fine because they don't rely on ability with the actual game controls, but are instead totally self-contained button-mashing or timing games. Also, they are straightforward and not too difficult to get a good score in. The position specific mini-games are, however, a completely different story. These minigames are presented as practice drills, and boil down to a simplified version of match-time game mechanics. The problem with this may not be immediately apparent, but it is fundamental. If you do badly at these drills, your superstar gets a low score in the key stats for his position. Still not clear what's wrong with this? If you as a player are not very good at the game, the game compounds the problem by making your on-screen avatar intrinsically worse. Oddly enough this is a problem that rarely comes up in traditional RPGs because there is normally no relation between the skills required by a player and the skills represented by the avatar, but that's a tale for another time.

I'll return to this in a moment, but want to quickly mention a bad interface decision. You're not allowed to retry the minigames that decide your superstar's abilities, and if you don't like them your only option is to go back to the very beginning of the process and spend another five minutes filling in all your character information before you can have another attempt at the minigames. Given how profound the impact of your superstar's starting stats are on the course of the game, not being able to simply retry the minigames once viewing your stats is a very poor design choice.

Back to the character creation process. Once you've created a superstar you get drafted (although you get no say whatsoever in where you get drafted to. While players normally don't have a say, they will normally at least be approached a club before the draft to signal interest). In previous years of superstar mode, the interface for your superstar was presented as his bedroom with various objects representing menu options (computer for a lot of it, playbook for load and save options, mirror for altering personal appearance, and so on). As you progressed through your career this room would grow in size and opulence, representing your rise through the ranks of the NFL. Essentially your room fulfilled a lot of the roles of loot in any normal RPG. In Madden 08, the room is gone, replaced by the same plain menus used in every other game mode. I can only assume this was a question of time constraints rather than a conscious decision, because besides removing the visual rewards, it also diminishes the sense that your superstar is a person who plays sport, rather than #7 on the field.

Over the course of your career, you can change agents, talk smack about your coaches and teammates, and generally do a lot of the things you'd hope for in a sports RPG, albeit in a barebones kind of way. One of the options you have is to go to the Performance Institute between games, or practice between seasons, to hopefully improve your stats. This uses the same minigames as the character creation process, with the added problem that if you perform badly your statistics will get slowly worse. In the end this means if you choose to play quarterback and are mediocre at it, there is no way to improve your superstar to compensate for your personal inabilities. In addition, you always perform the same practice drill minigame. So even if you achieve the on field persona of Receiving Running Back you can never run the wide receiver drill, you must always run the running back drill.

I think the thing that I found so disappointing about these flaws in the game design is that they become so apparent so quickly. If there are balance issues that arise after ten seasons or similar, then it's excusable when the game also offers a plethora of other game types and is created on a very tight schedule. But when you're essentially looking at an RPG in which you are not only unable to improve your character, but any attempt to do so results in your character getting worse, something needs to be fixed.

Before the Horse Bolts

This post was originally written (by me) and published on November 19, 2007 here.

I was going to title this post Shortal, but decided against it, a wise decision I have ruined by mentioning the fact. Ahem. Portal is short. In fact, it's so short that short is a misleading term. Most people who read that would assume that it's 6-8 hours' worth of gameplay. In point of fact, Portal would rate more as a long movie, at give or take 3 and a half hours to play it through start to finish for the first time.

Turns out for me, the length of Portal is one of its shining lights. Not because I don't have the time any more to play long games (a common complaint), but rather because I think that a game needs to know how long it can play for. I've lost count of the number of quite good games I've got about three quarters of the way through and simply got bored and stopped playing for the same reason. Games are repetitive. They have to be, after all if you weren't doing the same thing over and over again then there would be no gameplay mechanics. What a game needs to do is realise exactly how long the repetitive actions it uses are entertaining for and then make the game about ten minutes shorter.

Even if this was an exact science, you are of course stymied by the fact that everybody has a different boredom threshold. Mine is clearly quite low, unless everybody else doesn't bother finishing games and developers are wasting their budgets on final cutscenes. Off the top of my head, the following games I rate as great have been criticised for being too short: Max Payne 2, Gears of War, Portal, Fable. I finished each of those games and at the end wished they were a little bit longer. But only a little bit, and not so much that I would have preferred to get that sinking feeling you get when you press the button to go to the third storey in the Library in Halo. A game that is too long can easily ruin your perception of it, because memories of the good parts will be overshadowed by the frustration and boredom of unnecessarily extended levels, jumping puzzles and thrice-damned escort missions.

Think of any game you've played that you've spent more than, say, 20 hours on. Chances are there was at least one section that seemed to go on for a little too long, or there was some grinding in the middle to get the appropriate level or item or whatever. Stop and think about that for a second. You were spending time doing something that you pay money voluntarily for, that you do for fun, and you were bored. Your chosen form of entertainment bored you. You can be bored for free (staring at a wall, talking to some old person on a bus), or even get paid to be bored (work), why pay for it?

Back to Portal. Over the course of the game, the creators go through every fun puzzle they can come up with involving the portal gun, and then they stop. There's not seven or eight moving platform over lava puzzles, there's one. Now obviously, there are a lot more factors that make Portal a gem of a game, but if it lasted another three hours, I think you'd see a lot of reviews saying "original idea, but feels overplayed by the end." Now, Portal has the advantage of being a part of a package that is frankly ridiculously good value, and barring a fairly large shift in the way AAA titles are priced and marketed, I don't think 3 hour games are going to become the norm. Nevertheless, it's worth thinking about whether a game you thought was too short was in fact exactly the right length.

Unprintable: The Gentle Art of Talking Smack

This post was originally written (by me) and published on May 28, 2007 here.

The game is delicately poised, with Mario just managing to edge out Bowser as the racers come into the last straight. Some distance away in third, Yoshi watches helplessly until he suddenly notices a blue shell go flying past. A second or two passes, there's the dull thump of an explosion, nearby two players begin screaming and cursing, and Yoshi crosses the line first. Pop quiz: which of the following is the appropriate response of the player controlling Yoshi?
a) Say nothing, and just enjoy the win
b) Talk to the other players and admit that without the luck of the guy who was coming last getting a blue, he never would have won the race
c) calmly point out that Mario and/or Browser are still winning the overall Grand Prix.
d) Stand up, start doing pelvic thrusts, throwing the horns and shouting "that's what you get! In your face. In. Your. Face"
If you're in my group of gaming friends, the answer is d. Smacktalk is one of the most important parts of multiplayer gaming when everybody is in the same room. Now, obviously it's important that there's no actual malice behind the smacktalking because otherwise you end up with a geekfight, and nobody wants that. Besides that, it's no holds barred. Originally I was only going to talk about the justification for smacktalk, but I've decided to summarize that in a few sentences and then give some useful advice on identifying, creating and responding to smacktalk (sidenote: I normally refer to it a talking **** but in an effort to do my part to alleviate the world asterisk shortage I'm going to use smacktalk instead).

So, justification. What possible reason do you have to call a good friend a retarded monkey who might do better in a poop flinging contest than in a game of Soul Calibur? Well, basically three reasons. Firstly, it's entirely possible that me and my friends are not very nice people, and gaming just exacerbates the problem. Secondly, I like to think that my defeat is something my opponents value, and something they want to celebrate. Don't give me that "gracious in victory" crap, when you beat someone who normally beats you, the first thing you want to do is rub their face in it, admit it. Go on, you'll feel better if you do. See, wasn't that fun? Thirdly, I personally prefer people who jump up and down and continually replay the KO in a game of Fight Night than someone who smirks quietly. It's like they feel bad about feeling good about winning (that sentence could possibly be better constructed I suppose). I bet they play light side characters in Kotor as well.

Core Smacktalk Moves
As with the use of the word smacktalk, I'll be substituting words like crap, rubbish, trash and awful for words that normally get printed in comics using the shift and number keys in combination. Feel free to replace such words with your preferred profanity.

The Judgement Call
The Judgement Call is really the bread and butter of the smacktalk world. When you can't think of anything more amusing or original, a simple "Sweet baby Jesus, I am awesome." or "Wow, you are trash at this game." can go a long way. I especially like to use the Judgment Call when it is completely unjustifiable, say when you've just snapped a ten match losing streak in a given game.
Optional extra: This can always be reframed as a question, hence making it more likely to get a rise from the target by changing it to "Wow, how is possible to be so trash at this game?"

The Feigned Surprise
The key element of this move is to ask a leading question, which you then answer yourself, being shocked that the answer is the best possible outcome for yourself or the worst for the butt of the smacktalk. For example, when playing Unreal Tournament you might say "Who just got that running riot?" Brief pause, "Oh, was that ME?".
Optional extra: You may choose to rub the Feigned Surprise in a little more with a simple Judgement Call like so: "Who ran over that banana skin? Oh, it was you? I guess that's because you're crap."

Scoreboard
This is a smacktalk that really has its roots in the world of professional sport, but can be used in almost any context. When someone pulls a Judgement Call or similar when they get one win after you've just beaten them ten times in a row, the time is ripe for a Scoreboard. The traditional execution of this move is to put on your voice that best mimics the sound of fifty thousand drunk football fans and start chanting "Score - Board. Score - Board" Obviously this works best in team based games, but it can still be used effectively by a single person if you really commit. Variations on the scoreboard include the Dismissal ("Oh, were you taking that round seriously? I thought we stopped caring at 25-0") and the ever dependable Diminution ("I never really noticed how much bigger twenty was than three, but when they put it up on the screen like that, it really puts it in perspective").

The Obscenity
I normally reserve this for when I lose in the most unbelievable and frustrating ways: rockets fired ten seconds ago in Halo, ring-outs when I was going to get a perfect in Soul Calibur, that kind of thing. The obscenity is probably the only kind of smacktalk that I normally feel bad about using shortly afterwards, and normally involves various perversions, people's mothers, inappropriate activities involving small mammals, that kind of thing. The less said about it, the better, I think.

Ridiculous Comparison
This is a type of smacktalk that either needs fast thinking or planning. I prefer the fast thinking, because I'm not willing to put in the pre-game effort that planning requires, but if you need to think about it beforehand, feel free to do so. Also be sure to take into account the areas of knowledge and depth of knowledge of the group, otherwise your brilliant "I could have proved the Riemann Hypothesis in less time than it took you to finish that lap" call might go unappreciated. The Ridiculous Comparison is the most likely to result in someone saying "Woah, not cool," but also the most likely to cause genuine laughter. Best left to the experts, but don't be afraid to give it a try. This is different to the Obscenity in that it could potentially be used in polite company and relies on the unexpectedness of the comparison rather than on the shock value of being obscene.

The Cough
Everybody knows this, finds it annoying, but nevertheless occasionally uses it. It's not really a method of smacktalk so much as it is a method in which most types of other smack can be delivered. In it's simplest form the cough consists of raising the fist to the mouth a coughing while saying something quick and derogatory like "cough tool cough".

Curse With The Lot
Best used in a game like Counterstrike or Capture the Flag where there is a long wait between respawns, the Curse With the Lot is normally directed at the world in general rather than a specific person, and requires you to basically use as many socially unacceptable words as possible in a five to ten second period. Bonus points are awarded if you manage to string the words together in some meaningful (if obscene or physiologically unlikely) way.

The Expletive-Noun
This is not really a recognized technique, but rather the kind of thing that gets said in the heat of a fast-paced game when the brain doesn't have sufficient time to come up with something long-winded, witty, or indeed sensible. It works like this: say the first expletive that comes into your head (probably an f or s based word) and follow it immediately with the first noun that you can think of (if you're having trouble coming up with a noun, just glance quickly around the room and say the first thing you see). If you're somewhere it's safe to, practice this technique out loud a few times a day, just to get into the groove. That way you won't find yourself spluttering inarticulately when an opportunity presents itself. This method has spawned the well-known expletives like asshat, but has also created more bizarre phrases like "you are a total s***-carpet." or "damn, I am a total f***-table."

I'm sure I've missed a couple, but there's enough listed above to let you get involved in some proper smacktalking with your friends, and get the neighbours to complain about the noise and foul language at least once. And remember, gaming is always more fun when everybody's shouting at the top of their lungs. If they're swearing, even better.

One final note: I don't behave like this when playing online unless I know everybody on the server. Being a total douchebag around a group of people who regard it as the expected form of behaviour and an integral part of an enjoyable game is entirely different to being a total douchebag to strangers (Live users, I'm looking at you).

A Much Abbreviated Post

This post was originally written (by me) and published on April 18, 2007 here.

I had originally intended to write a lengthy discussion on the exact reasons why I don't enjoy Final Fantasy XII, deconstructing the story, characters, game mechanics and the disconnect between gameplay and cutscenes. It was, however, ridiculously long and can be summarised with the following:

On the back of the case in all capitals the top of the blurb is "Challenge an empire. Liberate a nation. Change the world." Sounds pretty awe-inspiring. Opening cutscene sets the context of the story and the tutorial section provides some more backstory. Now I have control of the main character, let's go be a hero. I've got to go kill a couple of rats for bounties? Ok, maybe. He's a street urchin, he has to make money somehow. Scene set, let's got onto that whole empire thing. Go kill a monster? I guess so, heroes slay dragons and so forth. What is this monster that's stopping merchants making it into the town? Rogue Tomato. Rogue. Tomato. Maybe it's just got a silly name, but it's actually really scary ... nope, turns out to be a midget in purple pyjamas with an enormous tomato instead of a head.

If you want to suggest that your game is a sweeping epic of drama and blah, blah, blah, I would suggest not using dancing cacti and vegetable-headed midgets as monsters to set the tone.

Verisimilitude

This post was originally written (by me) and published on March 23, 2007 here.

One of the most annoying things about cutscenes is the fact that you don't have control of your avatar while they take place. More annoying than this, though, is the fact that your avatar inevitably behaves like a total moron during the time you don't have control of them. So, why the long word? Well, for those that don't know, verisimilitude is a word bandied around quite a lot in the pen and paper RPG world that basically refers to how believable the world is, and it's something that I think a lot of games ignore to expedite the plot. A lot has been said over the years about how game writing needs believable characters and compelling plots.

Never mind compelling, let's just start with rational. I think the majority of the most frustrating sections of gaming I have experienced come not just from the fact that I keep dying over and over again, but also from the fact that there is a far easier solution that simply doesn't work. I have recently finished Gears of War on insane, and about the tenth time I died fighting General Raam, I started getting incredibly annoyed at Cole and Baird who were sitting nearby in an enormous gunship with a dazzling array of enormous weaponry, not firing a single damn shot at the enormous bad guy. While the gunship's role reveals itself later, unless Baird and Cole just want Marcus dead there is no good reason not to at least join in.

The example of poor reality that sticks in my mind most was in The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. After having sneaked, shanked, and shot my way through a score of guards plus a few sentry guns, and engaged in a close quarters battle with Xzibit during which I got shot a dozen times or so, the game went to a cutscene. Two guards walked through the door and Riddick (notice the change to third person) meekly capitulated and headed down to the mines. Now, if I had been in control of Riddick during that cutscene, you can rest assured that the guards would quickly have been reduced to groaning piles on the floor, and I would have flown out of Butcher's Bay without looking back. The fact that Riddick got sent to the mines led to some awesome gameplay, but the method by which he/I was forced there absolutely sucked.

Another classic is Star Wars games, where your character invariably ends up with a lightsabre. For some reason, said lightsabre doesn't have the ability to cut through almost everything like they do in the movies. Is this a sacrifice made for the sake of the game? Yes. But, then again, the developers did choose to set their game in the Star Wars universe, so they should step up and make sure that the game fits within the established rules of Star Wars.

Now as a general rule, I care more about the gameplay than the story, so why do I care about this verisimilitude stuff? Because this kind of bizarre cutscene reality over which the player has no control reefs you wholesale out of the game and introduces totally unnecessary frustrations. When a game gives me control of a character, especially a character who is a total badass, I expect the character to at all times behave at least as badass as he does when being controlled by me. If a game doesn't present me with a story at all, but instead just a disconnected series of awesome missions, that's fine. But if a game is going to have a story, it better make sure that the story makes sense and operates within the rules of the universe in which the game is set.

I'm sure everyone has screamed, or at least thought loudly at, a situation or an NPC, or even their own character in a cutscene "Why won't you just do something sensibly, you half-witted moron?" I look forward to playing a storied game in which all of the characters' actions make some sort of sense.

Is Football Art? Wait, What?

This post was originally written (by me) and published on March 18, 2007 here.

Tens of millions of people around the world watched, on the edge of their seats. Fabio Grosso stepped up, placed the ball on the spot, took a deep breath and slotted the ball into the French goal. All over the world people cheered or cried as Italy won their 4th FIFA World Cup title. In dozens of languages, commentators did their best not to swear as they tried to convey the elation of the Italians, and the despair of the French. And do you know what phrase was not uttered in any language by any commentator around the world? "Yes, but is it art?"

Nobody bats an eyelid that I'm going to spend the better part of fifteen or twenty hours a week watching football (Australian Rules, not soccer, just to be clear) once the season starts. Not playing, mind you, just watching it and associated post game analysis. There aren't people lobbying the government to have sport banned because it promotes violence and prejudice (just ask a Man U supporter how long he's been a gunners fan, preferably from in a reinforced bunker of some description). There aren't debates raging across the internet about whether or not sport should be considered art, but there's no question that sport can elicit powerful emotions that run pretty much the entire gamut of human feeling. Sport isn't art, it's sport, and it holds its own important place in the modern world as a form of entertainment.

So, why does the computer games industry permanently have this debate? Why do they even want to? I specifically put in the word "computer", because the creators of other kinds of games don't care. Chess isn't art, Go isn't art, nobody thinks they are, everybody thinks they're games. I don't know about the pen and paper RPG industry, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't call what they do art, they after all give themselves titles like "game designer" and "playtester" and you don't test art. Board games aren't art, they're games, and they've been around for thousands of years.

Why, then, does a medium that is in many ways the combination of sports, board games and pen and paper gaming get caught up in the issue of meaning and relevance? I'm almost certain Tom Brady didn't sit back after winning his third Superbowl and think "You're entertaining millions Tom, but is it art? Does what you do really matter?" Maybe it's the developers themselves who wallow in the throes of artistic ennui because they fear that what they create has no "real" meaning, whatever that is supposed to mean anyway. I'd just like to say that I value games far more for their entertainment value that for any perceived cultural relevance. If academics look down their nose at my preferred form of entertainment because they can't write 100,000 word theses on the use of magic realism, I don't care. Similarly, if they can, I don't care.

In a world where more people watch Big Brother than read the Pulitzer Prize winner's book, and the combined wages of players on a football team exceeds the GDP of entire countries, I think the demand for computer games to justify their existence in terms of artistic expression is not only totally unwarranted and unfair, it also demeans the value of entertainment. I don't know about you, but I like being entertained.

The name of the gamer

This post was originally written (by me) and published on February 10, 2007 here.

This post was originally going to be about flamethrowers, but it got me thinking about something else, so that'll have to wait. What it got me thinking about was the various different types of names (or nicks, or tags, or whatever you want to call them) you see people using online, in both games and on sites like Gamespot.

Some people use the same name all the time, while others change it every time they log onto a new game or site. Sometimes this is just because they don't attach any importance to their online name, sometimes it's because they are someone who is annoying or stupid enough that they can't afford to let anyone know who they are.

There seems to be five main name types, although probably not all names fall into one of these categories.

The first is the totally made up, like Faitron (I just made that up then), which has the advantage of probably being unique which means you won't have to stick numbers or random characters at the end of your name to avoid conflicts online. I'd also include the almost totally made up name (like metagnome) in this category, where you take a prefix or suffix and jam it on a word that doesn't normally use it.

Second and probably among the most common names are those where people use their name or initials all but unchanged. These names make it easier for people who know you to find you online, are easy to come up with, and quite sensible. The downside is if your name is something like Tim, you might have to start adding all sorts of crazy appendices to your name so it doesn't conflict, and end up as Tim13H4.

Thirdly is the random word or phrase, such as Tachyon or NuclearHamster. The advantage of these names is that there are some awesome sounding words out there, and other people will be able to pronounce it if you're playing games with voice chat. The downside is that you're more likely to have to rename yourself with something like Tachyon384 to make sure nobody else is using your name.

Fourthly is the eponym, where the person uses an existing character from a film, book, or game, for their character name. This is different from the random word for two reasons. Firstly, you're almost guaranteed to have a name clash with someone else at some point. Just think of all of the people you've seen online called DarthVader or MasterChief. The second downside is that your setting yourself up for fanboy attack. Try taking a name like Samus64 and jump into an onlilne game of Halo 2. It'll be hilarious if you enjoy listening to Xbox fanboys scream profanities about Nintendo and Metroid for an hour.

Finally, there's the "hardcore" gamer names. These are names like KillDeathMaster2000 or FragLord. For some reason, 2000 is the most common number to see after these names. The advantage of these names is that, um, if you are in fact really good at a game you don't come across as a tool? The downside should be obvious; every time you don't win a game, your very name itself sets you up to be mercilessly mocked.

I've been using metagnome consistently for about eight or nine years, and probably will use it for the forseeable future. Basically at the time I had an interest in gnomes (no, I don't know why, and yes I know it sounds odd) and thought metagnome sounded kind of cool. I have since discovered two problems with metagnome as a name. Firstly, I discovered a couple of years ago that it's a word used by French psychics to describe a psychic medium. This is only a problem because I thought I'd made the word up up, and it might make people think I have any interest whatsoever in psychics. The second problem is a more immediate one: a lot of games, especially older ones, limit character names to eight letters, and metagnome is nine. As a result, I've had to adopt meta as a secondary name.

I guess this isn't really about anything in particular, I was more just wondering how people came up with their online names, whether or not they use the same name in all games or on all sites, that kind of thing. Feel free to add a comment about yours.

Won't someone think of the gamers

This post was originally written (by me) and published on January 31, 2007 here.

I'm sick of hearing about things done for "protecting the children". Children shouldn't be playing games made for adults, their parents shouldn't buy them and as I'm sure you've heard from a hundred other people, I wish the politicians would wake up to the fact that games are not just for kids, in fact very few of them are for kids.
"True," you say, "but what brought on this outpouring of vitriol?"
It's been a week or so since it happened, but I've now reached a sufficiently high level of rage to complain about Australia's wonderful OFLC banning Blitz: The League because it promotes the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport. From the official media release:
While the game-player can choose not to use the drugs, in the Board’s view there is an incentive to use them. By using them judiciously, the player can improve the performance of their football team (while managing the negative effects) and have a better chance of winning games, thereby winning bets and climbing the league table.
The following rules are used to see if a game should be refused classification:
(a) depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or
(b) describe or depict in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in sexual activity or not); or
(c) promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence; or
(d) are unsuitable for a minor to see or play
The problem here of course is that you would be hard pressed to find a AAA quality game that doesn't "promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence". So the question that should really be asked here is whether the implication that illicit performance enhancing drugs enhance performance is worse than something like, I don't know, shooting people in the face. According to the OFLC, the answer is yes. Of note, films have the same classification code, and I think everybody can think of a film or two that promotes violence or crime (if you want a movie along the lines of Blitz I suggest watching Any Given Sunday).

Now, Australia also saw the banning of Mark Ecko's Getting Up again on the grounds that it promoted crime (in this case vandalism in the form of graffiti). I know that somebody complained to their local politician who then raised the matter in state parliament which put pressure on the OFLC to have it banned. I haven't heard anything yet to suggest the same thing happened with Blitz, but my guess is that a single complaint was received and the OFLC went for the knee jerk reaction again.

The problem in Australia is primarily that games don't have an R18 rating in the way movies do, so if a game isn't suitable for a MA15 rating, then nobody gets to play it.

Maybe I should go and write an angry letter to my local politician, see if he'll take a stand for consistency in games classification, the fact that the average gamer in Australia is over 18, and ... oh, who am I kidding? What sort of attention is a politician going to get supporting liberalism?

Click to Continue

I spend a fair amount of my spare time playing and talking about games, so I figured I'd write some of my opinions down. Why not put them in my regular blog? Well, because a lot of the people who read my regular blog are friends and family who don't care one iota about games, and theoretically people may want to read about games who don't care one iota about me.

This is something I've done before on occasion in various places, so I'm going to reprint (reblog?) the ones I still think are worthwhile here. I say this for two reasons: firstly to explain why some of the posts seem to talk about some fairly out of date games, and secondly to establish that a dozen posts a day will not be the normal level of output.