Thursday, September 06, 2007

I've moved

Well, I haven't, but my blog has. Even though you, and it, are still here, I promise you it has. is what you'll need from now on. It's much the same, only greener, and you'll find everything there that you used to find here, and a little more besides. Blogger's been a great home, but I thought it was time to take the training wheels off. See you there.

Monday, September 03, 2007

I hope you feel bad

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We all know games are evil. They twist the minds of our youths with glamorised, consequence-free violence. They cause RSI and whitefinger. They're racist, sexist and homophobic. They're ruining the environment. But now we've sunk to a new low. We're extincting stag beetles. Yahoo Asia reports that:

A rare subspecies of stag beetle found only in the Amanos Mountains of southern Turkey is now threatened with extinction as it is being exploited for sale to beetle enthusiasts in countries like Japan, a local conservationist has warned. Nazim Sonmez, of the Amanos Environmental Protection Association, said the beetle is being over-harvested owing in part to the popularity among Japanese children of "Mushiking: The King of Beetles," an arcade game in which players engage in virtual battles between beetles from all over the world. Sonmez said some Japanese passing themselves off as researchers have come to the Amanos area of Hatay Province to catch or otherwise acquire the rare and distinct beetle, which goes by the scientific name Lucanus cervus akbesianus. Locals are also involved in exploiting them to sell to foreigners, especially Japanese, at exorbitant prices amounting to as much as 1,450 lira (some 13,000 yen). They sell for as much as 40,000 yen on Japanese Internet auction sites.

Now, while I defy anyone - particularly Sega shareholders - to resist Mushiking's gladiatorial charm, it's a sobering thought that overkeen beetle-otaku could be responsible for the downfall of an entire species. And what if Mushiking is only the beginning? What if Activision licenses snail-racing? Or squirrel-fishing? What if Rogue Galaxy's Insectron Tournament has already bred a new generation jonsing for real world arthropod face-offs? We live in troubling times.

If your conscience is pricking you, say in the manner of an understandably agitated Lucanus cervus aubesians working its way into your undies, you may wish to salve it in the following ways:

- Back One Big Game, the not-for-profit game publisher looking for specifically developed games to raise charity funds.

- Do a little early Christmas shopping, for Child's Play.

- Get a solar charger for your DS/PSP. Or a hand-crank if you're feeling energetic.

- Plant a (real) tree in Second Life.

- Make sure you're signed up for Folding@Home.

And with that, you can return to pitilessly slaying Little Sisters with a wrinkle-free forehead and a song-filled heart.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Balancing Act

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The conversation I most dread is the one that starts: 'I hope you don't mind me saying, but it's quite...unusual that you're a woman.' My smartypants answer is that is perfectly usual for me, thank you very much, but I'm sympathetic to the point being made. Women are still a minority amongst conventional gamers, and it's rarer still for those women to make gaming their job. But while I agree it's a fair point that I'm in an unusual position, I still dread the questions that follow it. I have no good explanation for what it is that drew me to gaming. I still don't know if I saw something in gaming that most women don't notice but would like if they did, or if games found something in me that most women don't have and wouldn't want if they could. I'm profoundly uncomfortable being asked to be a spokesman for 51% of the world's population, especially since the only thing we know about me for sure is that I'm an oddity.

But the commercial necessity behind better exploiting that 51% remains, so the question is going to keep coming up. And from now on, I'm going to answer it by referring people to 'Is There Anything Good About Men?', a paper given at the American Psychological Association's annual conference by Dr Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University. In it, he suggests that most cultures are equally, but differently, exploitative of men and women, leading to a situation where men are more attuned to wide, distributed networks that reward competition and specialisation, and women prize small, intimate social networks which thrive on co-operation and generalisation. You're bound to disagree with some or all of his points, but it's well worth a read - it's long, but light - and got me thinking in some new ways about game design.

What's particularly interesting to me is that the gender imbalance he describes is evident even in the way that very conversation tends to go: women who ask me about how I got started in games follow up with small-scale social questions - how have I been treated, do I encounter prejudice, am I self-conscious when playing in front of a male audience. The men get very rapidly side-tracked on to specialist, general-scale questions. If I mention Dungeon Master as being the first moment when games took over my life, women ask me how my parents felt about my new hobby, or if it brought me greater acceptance among male friends. Men, on hearing this news, are more likely to move on to wondering whatever happened to FTL, or whether or not I'd ever tried completing it with only one character.

So allowing that I find the root of Baumeister's argument plausible, what does it mean for the great Girls In Games debate? In asking why more women don't play games, we worried a lot, initially, about surface things - boy-games were too violent, too lasers-and-robots. What we needed was girl-games about shopping, horses and make-up! Now, thankfully, we've moved a little past that (despite the fact that games about shopping, horses and make-up do seem to be proving particularly successful with young female consumers, particularly on the DS), and are looking at important external factors. So we've noted that for games to be attractive to women they need to be available on hardware they feel comfortable with, and offer play-patterns that are compatible with busy, often fragmented lives.

But what Baumeister's paper makes me think about is whether or not we're neglecting an examination of more basic gameplay issues. Does his thesis suggest that women would be more comfortable with a game which had a small cast of characters than either none or many? Does his theory that women see less advantage in specialisation mean that they'll be alienated by the common RPG mechanic where levelling-up in one field disables your potential in another? Should risk-reward ratios be normalised - smaller risks for smaller rewards - for games aimed at girls rather than boys? By which I mean, could you produce a functionally identical game - same visuals, same interface, same goals, same structures - but tune it to appeal more to one gender or another?

And, actually, Dungeon Master might not be a bad place to start. Would women prefer it if the initial character choice was smaller? Would they enjoy exploring more if the mazes were more compact, but contained more hidden detail? Would they warm more to a levelling-up system that was fuelled by the characters' interactions (rather like Disgaea 2's spell-learning system, where characters can learn magic by osmosis, simply by standing near their spell-casting father-figures). Would they (oh, the hate-mail) like it better if it was easier?

Actually, in a transparent attempt to divert you from your poison pen, I'm going to point you to Return To Chaos, a Windows port of Dungeon Master, for those too impatient to find it for Steem, or those too lazy to unearth their ST from the attic. Don't hesitiate to play it if you haven't before, and if you have, don't worry about whether your fond memories of it will survive having their rose-tinted spectacles ripped off. It hasn't aged a button.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vibri is the magic number

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Having done the find-purge-sort process that is moving house twice so far this year, I'm discovering all sort of odd traits amongst my remaining game collection. What I noticed today was that the only complete series I own is Vib Ribbon. You'll probably remember Vibri - the angular rabbit that did rhythm gymnastics to your CD collection. You probably won't remember Mojibri - the big-trousered gent who did rapping calligraphy in Mojib Ribbon, or Vibri's elastic return when she bounced all over your digital photos in Vip Ripple.

It's not really what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I think that Vibri might be the perfect game trilogy. Making sequels is a thankless task, always open to accusations of being too similar or too different. 'More an expansion pack' sneer the reviews, or, alternatively whine that things have been needlessly changed. But NanaOn-Sha, under the direction of Masaya Matsuura, broke all the rules. The three games look completely different - from the brutalist monochrome of the first, to the ink-painting organics of the second, to the day-glo sticker-kitsch of the third. And they play completely differently, from Vib Ribbon's taxing button combos, to Mojib's hypnotic stick flicks, to the trampoline-powered platforming vibe of Vib Ripple.

So are they a trilogy at all? Or just three unrelated games from someone too lazy to think up a new naming convention? Absolutely. What Matsuura does is use the familiar to make the unfamiliar more palatable. The common mechanics - the ability of the main character to evolve up or down, rather than having lives - and the common interface design - the circling characters that denote how close you are to evolving upwards - help give you your bearings in an experience which would otherwise be a bit too close to baffling. The same guiding principle underpins all three - that games should interconnect with the rest of your cultural life (so Vib Ribbon can make levels out of your CD collection, Mojib out of the words you write, and Ribbon out of the photos you take). And they each complement the others: Ribbon is by far the most convincing game, Mojib the greatest visual achievement, and Ripple the best implementation of user-generated content.

Imagine if more series were allowed the same latitude. Imagine if Namco had said to Takahashi, 'We don't want Katamari 2, we want something that complements it'. Imagine if the follow-up to The Sands Of Time hadn't been based on the feedback-loop of focus-group complaints (more blood! more rock!), but on the idea that maybe this team which had just done something fresh and wonderful might be capable of, y'know, doing something fresh and wonderful. Because, as the manual scans of Mojib Ribbon below show, when you do that, beautiful things can happen.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Killing time

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I've had a bumper - well, maybe bumpy rather than bumper - postbag in response to my BBC column earlier in the week about the impact violent games have on our minds. The letters raised some interesting points, so I thought I'd give an airing to them here. One questioned whether we were concerning ourselves with the right kind of violence, asking if the dangerous driving rewarded in so many racing games wasn't having a more pernicious influence than the gun games that are normally in the firing line. It's an issue which came to the fore with the BSM research released earlier in the year, and neatly summarises the problems facing a games industry which claims that violent games have no adverse impact, but that educational games are uniquely potent teaching tools.

Another took the firm line that gamers and parents need to exercise more control over extreme playing habits, which raises the interesting question of how much responsibility the games industry should be taking for its customers. Are the play time controls available in Windows XP and World Of WarCraft standard bearers in a new era of developer responsibility? Or are they the needless interference of nannying companies ever sensitive to the risk of lawsuits? Another correspondent quite rightly took me to task for being so quick to claim that all attacks on violent games were unfounded, and then raised the ongoing question of whether the interactive nature of games means their standards for violence should be tighter than for media like film or TV.

Thinking about these issues has made me want to post a couple of the points I didn't want to try to shoehorn in to the column, but which I do find troubling and interesting. The first is to wonder why, when we talk about games causing violent behaviour, we always seem to automatically be talking about copycat violence. The great spectre than hangs over gaming always seems to be the idea that beating prostitutes to death with a giant dildo in a game will make you more likely to do it in real life. And so the debate gets bogged down in questions of whether or not games are murder simulators, teaching firearms skills and advanced thuggery to a nation of eager students. That theory may be self-evident nonsense, but what about the games that do make you violent or abusive? Games can be overwhelmingly, infuriatingly, unbearably frustrating, and I know that they've caused me in the past to be (at best) sulky and petulant, and (at worst) prone to very uncharacteristic bouts of shoe-throwing and swear-word screaming. It is for these reasons that multiplayer Puzzle Bobble was once banned in my house and that I came to the conclusion that I might part from Jet Force Gemini on better terms if I didn't continue my final battles with Mizar. The latest, and most tragic, story along these lines is this one, of a man who stands accused of shaking a 4-month old baby to death after becoming enraged after playing a game. Is the Manhunt hysteria distracting us from a much lower-key, but more worrying issue? Here's the key question: has gaming frustration ever driven you to a more extreme form of behaviour than other annoyances in your life? And what are the implications if it has?

The other issue is that we might have the shoe on the wrong foot. Most of the violence-in-games debate is concerned with the worry that gamers may transpose the morals and activities of the game world into the real world. There's a growing body of research that shows that they won't - that people of all ages have a pretty robust grasp of what's real and what isn't. But what if the gap starts to close from the other direction? What if the real world starts to look and behave more and more like a videogame? It's not easy to read about weapons platforms like SWORD - which provides joystick-and-screen remote control over a machine-gun emplacement, and has recently been deployed by the US Army in Iraq - and not recall with unease the opening of something like Climax's Black Hawk Down, which had you merrily slicing through hordes of anonymous enemies courtesy of a thumbstick-and-screen remote control machine-gun emplacement. It's a sinister enough thought before you add in the findings of something like Stanley Milgram's controversial electric shock experiments, which found that subjects were more willing to inflict pain on innocent victims the more remote they were from them. So do I worry about an epidemic of prostitute dildocides? No. But do I worry about what happens when you add videogame controls to a weapon of mass-murder and put it in the hands of a generation raised on Counter-Strike? Sure I do. Don't you?

Saturday, August 11, 2007


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He is in a maze of twisty passageways, all alike. No, he really is. In the new issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (a new peer-review, open access journal clear-headed enough to admit that it doesn't yet know what Digital Humanities actually are), Dennis G. Jerz goes spelunking for the origin of adventure games.

It's over thirty years ago now, that the idea that a game could be an adventure was invented. Before that time, we'd been used to parlour games, combat games, sports games, racing games - tasks that required fast reactions and not much more. Nothing atmospheric, certainly. Nothing that required lateral thinking. And then along came Adventure. Released almost by accident by its original author William Crowther, it soon developed a life of its own, leading directly to the creation of Warren Robinett's 2600 Adventure as well as the Zork games, and establishing a bloodline that today brings us Zeldas and Bioshocks and Fables.

And so Jerz digs deep, going back to the original caves which inspired Crowther, and the original source code which establishes his status as the father of the genre. The whole article is a wonderful read, even if you skim the academic bits, just to remind yourself of a time when an innovative game was something which introduced something as radical as the idea that objects could be picked up and dropped, rather than one which introduces a new kind of gun. But it's the photos that are the real draw. Proponents of the text adventure have always said that words could do more than a thousand polys, and here's the proof, in true, photo-realistic techicolour. If you love games because they make you feel that you've been places, done stuff, and seen things no-one else has, you owe yourself a visit to where it all started.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What if it isn't Sony's fault?

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Bear with me.

So, we know where we are. Sony have done everything they could wrong, with their enemy-crab-infested, triple-delayed, masturbation-sanctioning, Spider-Man-branded, over-priced, loss-generating, truth-economising, cathedral-desecrating super-console.

And Microsoft have done everything right. They launched first, with a well-priced, good-looking machine, a top-notch online service, a steady stream of decent games, smart branding, likable PR, and a nice clutch of exclusives to look forward to. So, apart from the tiny matter of every single console so far sold being fundamentally unreliable, they could hardly have handled it better.

And so we have a situation where the 360 is selling double the PS3 in the US, the Wii is outselling it five to ten times over most weeks in Japan, and around the world the PS2 remains many times over the more popular of Sony's home consoles. Stupid, stupid Sony.

And for Microsoft, there must be a double dose of schadenfreude, because it wasn't too long ago that they were the ones doing everything wrong. Their initial arrival into the games industry was treated with hostility and skepticism. Their console was amazingly ugly. Their print adverts were close-up pictures of pubic hair, and their TV adverts were banned. Their controllers were too big for normal people's hands (are you saying I'm not normal?). They arrived late into a battle which Sony had already won. And so this time, having done everything right and watched their competitors do everything wrong, they must be reaping their rewards.

In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft sold 9.4 million Xboxes.
In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft shipped 11.6 million 360s.

That's an increase of 23%. Not a bad uplift. But, as ever, the trick is in that little word shipped. Microsoft also announced that it cut shipments from 1.8 million in the last quarter of last year, to 700,000 in the first quarter of this year. What that means is that retail channels are already well-stocked with 360s, which means that it's certain the number of 360s sold is considerably lower than 11.6 million. And considerably lower than 11.6 million is in the region of 10 million, which is in the region of what they managed to sell last time.

I am the only one perplexed by this? The first Xbox was all about establishing the brand and learning the ropes. It's a policy that seemed to have worked, and yet here Microsoft are, reaching no more people now than they were first time out.

Who could explain that? Well, Satoru Iwata could. He's been telling everyone who'll listen for the past two years that the stagnant, collapsing conditions which hit the Japanese market a few years ago would wash out across the world before long. And maybe, distracted as we all are by Sony's continued foot-swallowing, we're allowing ourselves to overlook the fact that the Western mainstream games market also seems to be at saturation point. So while Sony still has a lot of explaining to do (rough figures: it's taken PS3 eight months to sell around four million. It took PS2 twelve months to sell ten million), they could well be facing tougher market conditions than we've yet realised. Think about it: is there really anyone left in the developed world that wants to play videogames who isn't already?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Me Me Eff Cee

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Re-reading this old post (it's not vanity, it's self-improvement) reminded me that the researchers from the BBFC were also on the receiving end of my Syriana rant, which made it in to their report on why gamers like games. If you want to see just how much more rambling and garbled I am in speech rather than on paper, you can compare and contrast on p83. The rest of it is much more worthy of a read.

Re-reading its conclusions (summarised here) makes an interesting backdrop for the more recent Manhunt 2 fuss, which the board refused classification, effectively preventing its sale in the UK.

Here's BBFC's director David Cooke's response to the research:

People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be. This firm grasp on reality seems to extend to younger players, but this is no reason to allow them access to adult rated games, as they themselves often admit that they find the violence in games like Manhunt very upsetting.

And here's his response, two month later, to Manhunt 2:

Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing... There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game... Although the difference should not be exaggerated the fact of the game’s unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission from the original Manhunt game.
Against this background, the Board’s carefully considered view is that to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors, within the terms of the Video Recordings Act, and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.

The disparity between those two stances makes me angry, but thinking about why it makes me angry has made me happy. I'm angry because the reasoning for the rejection is the kind of paternalistic, interventionalist patter which always gets me hot under the collar. But that means what makes me frustrated about this decision is not videogames being scapegoated, misunderstood or persecuted, but the usual, unresolvable objections to censorship in general. Cooke isn't saying that Manhunt is especially dangerous because it's a game, he's just saying - as he is called upon to do with all the material the BBFC examines - that he thinks we'd all be better off without it. And he could well be right. From what I've seen of Manhunt 2 (which isn't much, but might be more than the BBFC's 34mins 43s), it's lost the sharp moral focus that made the original so compellingly uncomfortable, and that means that all you're left with is the shlock.

But does rejecting it on those terms mean we're still left with a double standard between what's judged acceptable for game violence and film violence? Absolutely. But for all my free speech posturing, I can't help but wish we'd drawn the line for film somewhere before we hit Hostel II, on whose relentlessly nasty 8462 feet (and 12 frames) the BBFC didn't inflict a single cut. How much will we really lose by calling a halt to gaming's love affair with mindless (rather than mindful, a distinction the BBFC has shown itself well able to make) violence here?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ex Corde Gravitas

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I've moved house five times in the last five years. The thing I seem most prone to losing, which you may consider more carelessness than misfortune, is washing machines. But alongside the more major traumas of slipped discs, dropped vases and abandoned trampettes, it's the little things that cause the most hassle.

And tonight, as I try to reconstruct once again my gaming kit, that hassle is the discovery that I no longer own a single figure-of-eight power cord. How is it possible for any modern human being not to own a single figure-of-eight power cord? You get one free with every single thing you buy - consoles, battery chargers, printers, shoes, lottery tickets. If you're me, you hoard them, and label the plugs with white insulating tape and black marker pen, so your plug-boards read like shouty manifestos: CHARGE PS2 SPEAK TV PRINT CUBE! Words to live by, indeed.

But now I have none, which means buying one, which is an amazingly odd proposition. They're not products in their own right, surely. They're things that only come as adjuncts, like those white paper ties that come with sandwich bags. And isn't it immoral to be producing extra, retail cables when everyone (or everyone who hasn't moved five times in five years) has an abundance of them? They should have amnesty drop-boxes on street corners, where you can take them or leave them as your needs ebb and flow, like those smart new Parisian bikes. But they don't, and I don't, and so several thousand pounds worth of kit, hundreds of bits of processing power, and a few square feet of screen are currently nothing more than junk.

And as I sit here, with sweaty armpits and dusty knees, I swear to myself - as I have before, five times in five years - that I'll never do this again. That surely one day, eventually, I'll escape the Sisyphean tyranny of poking cables up the back of desks so that they can fall back down with a neat clunk as I emerge from under to try to catch them. I'll outgrow the anti-yoga of propping the bookcase up with one foot while hooking a crucial wire round the airborne corner with the other. I'll finally sleep the sound sleep of someone who doesn't have an eight-way plugged into a six way plugged into a splitter that doesn't have the right fuse now that I think about it.

And then I remember what a figure-of-eight cable looks like when you turn it on its side, and realise there is no end to this. Not ever.