February 2009

Hall of Classics: Gauntlet

The advent of high speed Internet has breathed new life into many genres of video game. The first-person shooter has become something of an electronic sport and role playing games have blossomed into Massively Multiplayer Online experiences. But what are MMO's if not the next step in the logical progression of the classic dungeon crawler genre? Teams of fantasy warriors slashing through an endless stream of monsters to get treasure and just for the fun of it... that's a premise that's practically as old as video games themselves. Early Atari romps like 1975's Adventure proved there was a lot of potential in the genre, while more vivid later efforts like The Legend of Zelda in 1987 cemented dungeon crawlers for long-term viability. But before Nintendo gave Link his first maddening romp through the Water Temple, Atari produced an arcade game that would inspire some of the most popular titles in history. 1985's Gauntlet was revolutionary in a lot of ways. One of the most prominent was its Texas Instruments voice-producing sound chip.

WOW and Spore: Shades of Gray

When the World of Warcraft expansion pack "Wrath of the Lich King" was released last November, it was followed by a great deal of sanctimonious hand wringing in public online forums. Lich King includes a series of challenges which require you to torture a prisoner, sometimes with physical violence, and sometimes with chemicals that leave the prisoner unharmed. I made a note to revisit the issue after a few months, when people had actually had a chance to play through and develop opinions, and put things in context. This morning I checked in with a friend who plays WOW and found most of my suspicions confirmed. The torture scenarios play out within a larger context, and are part of a larger fabric of moral ambiguity and destruction. The "other people" who might misunderstand the use of torture have largely failed to appear. To date, my friend has not yet tortured anyone in real life, in the same way that he has failed to run amok with a long bow at the nearest Safeway. Having studied up on the situation, I actually feel that Spore comes up worse than World of Warcraft in this regard. After all, Warcraft is a game set in a world at war. It's right there in the name.

Hall of Classics: Worms

The 1990's were golden years for PC gaming. A lot innovative ideas sprung up to compete with the economically and often times graphically superior console market that was thriving thanks to some stiff back-and-forth between companies like Nintendo, Sega, and Sony. The PC was the home of scrappy independent games, much like the Internet is today. With simple but immersive systems, games designed by relatively small groups of highly motivated individuals kept the computer gaming business alive until processors caught up with consoles to churn out mega-hits and breathe new life into the platform with MMORPG's. One of these scrappy indie outfits was Team17. They were the very epitome of the idea. In the mid-80's they were known as 17-Bit Software, a subsidiary of a retail chain called Microbyte. They produced public domain games for the Amiga. By the time the original Worms was ready for release in late 1995, the gaming industry was in the midst of exploding thanks to advances in PC hardware and the successful launch of 32-bit console systems.

The Guild: Season 2

Today, Felicia Day's pet web series The Guild aired the finale to its bigger, more ambitious second season. Following the classic pattern of speculative fiction, the second part of this series hurtles into dark territory. With more fleshed-out characters and a noticeably bigger budget, season 2 of The Guild is a triumph. I'll be honest, I have never played World of Warcraft or any other MMORPG. I have nothing against them, they're just another category of things I've yet to experience, much like mountain climbing or successfully preparing a lobster dinner. The real appeal of The Guild is that fact that people like me can still get into it without being at all conversant on the central topic. Sure, the show is loaded with slang and inside jokes designed especially for gamers, but it's obviously much more than that.

60TB of Everquest 2 Logs Donated to Science

Scientists have spent a lot of time talking about video games, but up until now, they have primarily had to rely on "self-reported" data (i.e. obtained from surveys that players fill out themselves). Now a "collaborative group of academic researchers at a number of institutions" has obtained a data set of mind boggling size: the full set of server logs from Everquest 2. The researchers have so far managed to pull out some interesting tidbits, with many more surely on the way. They have found that female players are less likely to interact with other players (either male or female) than male players. Female players are more likely to under-report the amount of time they spend in the game, compared to male players. While men under-reported their playing time by about one hour per week, older women under-reported their time by as much as three hours per week. Players were also found to be 1.5 times more likely to interact with someone in their own time zone. And five times more likely to interact with players who live within 10 kilometers of their location.

Hall of Classics: Leisure Suit Larry

As video games have gotten more mainstream, the ever-increasing demographic of players has caused the industry to operate much like Hollywood. The games that sell today are shiny, action-packed and at best decidedly middle-brow. Because of this, that old PC mainstay, the adventure game, has gone the way of the dinosaur. Back in the 1980's and early 90's, the most impressive games had low pixel count graphics and a text parser at the bottom of the screen. They were excellent for their storylines and the sheer cleverness of their unique gameplay. There was no such thing as a predictable adventure game. Before graphics came into play, the text parser was all that distinguished a game from a short story. Companies like Sierra Games dominated the fledgling industry. Because computers were expensive and rare enough to not exactly qualify as kid-accessible toys in the early 80's, Sierra created a few adults-only games.

EVE Online Catastrophe

The balance of power in EVE Online shifted suddenly late last week, in a move dubbed the "Grand Theft Alliance Drama." The nearest real world equivalent is a little like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a little like the collapse of Enron, but mostly like neither of those things. Part of the reason the story is so engrossing is that it really has no real world equivalent - although you can see how it some day might. In a nutshell: for ages and ages, most of the gamespace in the EVE Online MMORPG has been controlled by one of two alliances: Band of Brothers (BoB) and GoonSwarm (spawned from the Something Awful forums). This situation could legitimately be called a stalemate, although many EVE players dispute the term and prefer "balance of power" instead. (See the Slashdot comments for this and many other disputes on the situation.) EVE Online runs with a structure not unlike Corporate America. Think of BoB and GoonSwarm as Coke and Pepsi. The EVE equivalent of a high-ranking executive officer with BoB essentially defected to the opposition, gutting BoB in the process.

Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Lightsaber Principle

After a spectacularly failed attempt at bringing the Star Wars universe to MMO gaming with Galaxies, Lucasarts is trying again. This time they've teamed up with legendary RPG maker Bioware for Star Wars: The Old Republic. In fact, employing Bioware is pretty much the only thing Lucasarts could have done to sell the idea of this game. Far and away the best Star Wars games to come out in the past decade have been the two in the Knights of the Old Republic series produced by Bioware. In The Old Republic players will have the ability to fight (as seems to be the case with all MMO's these days) for the ostensibly good guys or the typically bad guys. Whether players go for Jedi or Sith, the press for the game has all promised deep, involved storylines and a large, vibrant universe.

Hall of Classics: Jet Force Gemini

The mid-1990's were strange, wonderful years for gaming, especially on the console front. At the time, there were three drastically different systems on the market. The Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 were the sole survivors of a huge console melee that took place around 1995-96. High-end, expensive mutli-tasking machines like the 3DO, CD-i, and Atari Jaguar bit the dust thanks to unreasonable price tags and a lack of big name third party companies producing games for them. One of those big companies was Rare, a British game design firm that had been making hits for nearly two decades when they signed an exclusive contract with Nintendo in 1995. With classics like Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct, Rare could do no wrong. As far as many fans are concerned, they never really did. The games Rare produced for the Nintendo 64 were second only to super-classics like Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time.