July 2011

Minecraft's Inherent Maleness Is Undeniable

Why Minecraft is fundamentally a dude's game.

    

Ok, I realize I've written about Minecraft on several occasions, but know that my fixation with the game has gone through iterations like that hybrid-animal-girl-thing went through genders in Splice. I'm hot and I'm cold, impressed and annoyed, invested and detached... sometimes all at the same time. Having sworn the game off and yet found myself gazing blearily at a sad recreation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame at 1 a.m., I've finally come to understand why I am so conflicted about it. Minecraft is fundamentally a male game, appealing to some of the worst (or at least more stereotypically male) aspects of my gender. I came to this conclusion after watching a stunningly visceral illustration of just what I'm talking about on YouTube. Here it is:

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BioShock Conceptual Retrospective

An old "first look" now provides a glimpse of what changed in the game's development

Sometimes games emerge as solid visions from the first concept sketch to the final rendering. Most of the time, though, many changes occur between a game's conception and its release. We're not always privy to the embryonic forms of our favorite titles. A little digging around the internet, however, can unearth some pretty interesting facts.

Or an entire game description, as in the case of the Gamespot archive on BioShock. An exclusive first look at the game reveals a thorough imagining of what was then considered merely a spiritual sequel to the developer's System Shock 2. BioShock's become such an icon on its own that I honestly didn't even remember anything the developers had put out in a similar vein. It became so much its own game that "spiritually" succeeding anything was soon forgotten about. 

Soul Calibur V Features More Lady Armor

Video game designers are rather notorious for not understanding the physics of boobs. (See http://boobsdontworkthatway.tumblr.com/ for further reading on the topic. With illustrations.) Fighter game designers seem especially oblivious to the mechanics of female anatomy. They don't stay up like that on their own, gentlemen--not ones that big with barely a nylon strap keeping them decent. This fundamental misunderstanding has always been one of the more entertaining things about playing the SoulCalibur series. The lady characters are always my favorite in terms of general aesthetic and technique, and yet watching them flail about performing impossibly athletic moves in little to no clothing is so absurd it gets hilarious. 

Plenty has been said about how unrealistic such character design is, how it implants unrealistic standards of body proportions in the heads of players of both gender. We've seen timelines of SoulCal character's inflating breasts over the years. But new screenshots from SoulCal V suggest that the developers may have taken note of all the hubbub concerning the bodies of their ladies. Compared to the previous installment, V actually grants its female fighters with some halfway decent coverup. 

I'm not one to be concerned about modesty, especially not in my virtual avatars. I'm not offended by the sight of the female form, no matter the particular shape, no matter how clothed or unclothed it is. But character armor whose sole purpose is to titillate the player seems a little silly to me. Fantasy character design gives you such an open canvas for creating new and awesome costumes. And so many of the male characters in SoulCal have really impressive designs that factor into their fighting style. Voldo's creepy, backwards crab-scuttle is complemented perfectly by his spiny armor and Wolverine claws. Nightmare gets a sweet claw, tough armor, and a doom-sword. By contrast, ladies like Sophitia run around in little white dresses. Not exactly the best protection in a duel, and it looks like any old costume pulled from your generic JRPG wardrobe. If you're designing a warrior, why not make them look like one? Why not give them solid defense and nifty weaponry? 

Why "Echo Bazaar" Works

For a couple years now, Failbetter Games has had a huge hit in its browser-based adventure title Echo Bazaar. The simple, story-driven adventure/RPG is a prime example (perhaps the best out there) of the "freemium" business model. For its first year or so, the game was more or less entirely free with completely optional purchases that, among other things, gave players more daily actions, the ability to further modify their profiles and occasionally open up special content. Earlier this year, Echo Bazaar shifted to increase revenues without really pushing free players aside. Failbetter reduced the number of daily actions for non-paying players to a still reasonable 40 "actions" per day (50 when players promote the game through social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook) while also increasing the amount of content only available to paying players. Amid worries that this might drive players away, Echo Bazaar actually saw their paying player numbers double after just a few weeks. But there's a lesson here. This particular game didn't succeed in monetizing its content just because it tried. Echo Bazaar truly earns its revenue and here's how.

Farmville on the Decline

Zynga games losing players by the millions

 

 

Looks like people are figuring out that they don't actually need to water digital crops on the clock like an automaton. The notoriously addictive Facebook game Farmville has been on a decline in their user numbers. In just one month the game lost over a million players. People are slinking off the ranches, perhaps even to enjoy real life activity.

Shadow Cities: Revolutionary MMORPG for Your iPhone

A location-based MMORPG that uses GPS and iPhone maps to make your neighborhood a mage-infested battleground.

    

The capabilities of smartphones, in particular the innovations of the iPhone brand, are so new and underdeveloped that people really aren't sure what the machines are really capable of or what people are capable of doing with them. Truem, developers and users have developed hundreds of thousands of apps for these phones and continue to push boundaries but there's plenty of repetition in that field. However, the Finnish Company 'Grey Area' has developed something truly innovative and unique; a locations-based game that uses the GPS and Maps functions on the iPhone as the basis for a Massively-Multiplayer Online RPG. Shadow Cities, released in Finland on November 10th of last year, became the top-selling app in Finnish app stores in a single day. Now, in North America and 13 other European countries, it's poised to take over the mobile game market world-wide.

     In Shadow Cities each player is a mage, a member of one of two factions, the Animators and the Architects, or a kind of free agent. In the Shadow City narrative, magic has returned to the world after having disappeared for millenia, and mages are now a kind of secretive force within the world. Players must defend their territories (i.e. their neighborhood) from mages of the other faction or just other mages that want to conquer your area. The GPS constantly updates your position within your city in real-time, broadcasting that to other mages once they "find" you. You battle with spells on your iPhone (which is characterized as a kind of magical totem in the game) by drawing the mystical runes on the touchscreen. Attack, defend, and buffer using the runes you draw on your phone to protect your territory in the 'shadow city' from other Mages, or to conquer more neighborhoods. You can complete missions, as with many MMORPG's, to gain XP and level your character; becoming more powerful with a broader range of spells at your command. In addition you can either work to collect mana in-game, or you can buy it. Each faction attempts to dominate the entire city. Patrol your territory in real-time, fight NPC's (wandering spirits that serve as a kind of random encounter to build XP), and fight other players. Even band together with your allies via in-game chat and work together to conquer your city neighborhood-by-beighborhood. Battles may be waged on your street, in a park a few blocks over, or in the shopping mall on the other side of the city.

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New Trailer for The Secret World

First look at horror MMO's monsters

Why don't we see more genres in MMOs? Looking at the most popular multiplayer networks, they tend to be confined to either the "swords and sorcery" realm or they feature a lot of flying around in space. Sometimes you get a hybrid edition, as in The Old Republic (lightsabers and force powers). With Funcom upcoming MMORPG, it seems as though horror games will finally see their day in the multiplayer sun. 

The Secret World has been in development for four years now, and nears a probable 2012 release. It seeks to improve upon standard MMORPG mechanics by emphasizing individual skills over levels and classes (which it leaves out entirely), focusing more on story arcs, and offering more entertaining combat. As someone who's never been impressed by the standard World of Warcraft mouse-mashing battles, I'm especially intrigued by that last bullet point. All this info comes from an interview with principal designer Ragnar Tørnquist, who may or may not be an ancient god. By my calculations, the probability of games designed by people named Ragnar Tørnquist not being awesome is ridiculously close to zero.

The Gamification of America: Part Six- RPG School

The evolution of social systems can basically be boiled down to modern people thinking of something better than a previous generation's bad idea. Consider the medieval concept of rushes. During the Dark Ages in Europe, it was customary for people to lay down a layer of dried leaves from the Juncaceae plant on their floors to capture various kinds of boot soil and even food waste to be swept up and replaced periodically. This method went on for a long time before social conventions and simple antiseptics took their place. Soap, in a primitive form, definitely existed in the Middle Ages and the technology was certainly there for simple concepts like waste baskets, but for centuries people stuck with rushes because apparently no one had a better idea. The American education system is like that. Our method of educating young people hasn't evolved much past the idea of cramming an entire community's children into a room and talking at them for a predetermined length of time. There's a better way and it's called roleplaying advancement.

The Gamification of America: Part Five- Art and Apps

There's a term that's being thrown around a lot lately, especially in the tech market and among Transhumanist philosophy circles: Augmented Reality. AR, put simply, is the phenomenon of experiencing the world differently through technology. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it's really not so esoteric as that. In the broadest sense, eyeglasses provide Augmented Reality by granting someone the experience of 20/20 vision even though they're not naturally gifted with it. For something a little more high tech, look no further than apps, those special tools we add to our mobile digital devices. A great example is Shazam, the Android app that can identify a song just by listening to it in an ambient setting. The app provides the user with knowledge he or she would otherwise have to obtain through slower and often less accurate means. The user has more access to information than he or she would otherwise. This is the aim of education in general-- To give people information as quickly and efficiently as possible. But why stop with pop culture? Why not encourage people to use apps to learn about other things in the world?

Half Life in 60 Seconds

Gordon Freeman!

Who knew that you could turn the story of not one but two of the most influential video games in history into one 60 second little ditty? Some guy in Germany, that's who knew. He made this animation. It features pretty much the whole plot of Half Life and Half Life 2. It's just one minute long. If you've played either or both of the Half Life games--and if you haven't, you need to hit force quit on this business and get to it--you'll appreciate the conciseness of this gentleman's storytelling style. He even had time to fit some Bee Gees action in. What a guy.

 

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Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy

Concert series performs RPG soundtracks live

The music of Nobuo Uematsu doesn't exactly draw your typical crowd at the symphony. Or at least it's not what I imagined the typical crowd to look like. I don't find myself going to the symphony terribly often, but there I was at the downtown Chicago Symphony Orchestra hall, waiting outside in a line of other young nerds to be let in to see Distant Worlds.

We weren't all young, but the average age of the audience was a fair notch lower, I'd guess, than the typical fare for Rachmaninoff. Putting music from a video game soundtrack on the symphony stage was bound to attract gamers above music aficionados, after all; I doubt anyone in the audience had never played Final Fantasy and came solely for the music. So we had a gaggle of gamers, some of them approximating the expectations of symphony attire, some seemingly oblivious to them. There were a lot of skinny guys with very long hair. There were a lot of people who had probably never been to the CSO before.

The Gamification of America: Part Four- There IS Money in Educational Gaming

We are living on the cusp of an educational golden age. No, really. The big caveat here is that the revolution isn't happening in schools (at least not yet) and the boom is hardly sufficient to make up for problems in our core education system. The great "thing" in modern education is mobile digital devices. Our gadgets, believe it or not, are our best bet in making us a smarter, better-informed society. Web-based news feeds have given people access to current events with unprecedented speed, e-readers like the Kindle have proven the viability of literature in the digital age and the success of educational titles like those in the Brain Age series have shown that there's a market for games that aim to make players smarter. This is all well and good, but there's still a lot of work to be done before we have a comprehensive infrastructure for the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture through digital devices. Once again, we need to look to the concepts of modern game design to steer us in the right direction.

The Gamification of America: Part Three- The Pokemon Method

Nintendo's unkillable super-hit Pokemon is, believe it or not, one of the finest examples of human investment theory ever published. It promotes an ethic of fostering potential to create expertise and engender loyalty between an institution and its employees. The premise is simple: The player acquires a Pokemon in its state of least aptitude, a low-level employee who is adept at nothing from the start. By investing time and resources to the hands-on education of the Pokemon (overworld battles), the player ensures that the Pokemon will evolve into a more advanced, capable version of itself. Then, with a selection of trained specialist Pokemon, the player applies the skills of these educated employees to address problems and obstacles to which each one is especially suited. Furthermore, a Pokemon fostered and trained from its most basic state is more loyal to the player than a powerful, expert Pokemon acquired from another player. A very similar model can and should be applied to the way we educate and employ individuals in our own society.

Team ICO Games Coming Out in HD

 

Two of the most beautiful games ever made are getting renovated for the PlayStation 3.

When Team ICO released the titles that began to define the art game genre, they did so with a vision beyond what the technology of the day could offer. The stunning, dreamy adventure game ICO came out in 2001, back when the PlayStation 2 was still considered a solid machine with great graphics. Ten years later, things look a little different. Game consoles have the capacity to render much more lifelike characters, and environments can be living and immersive in ways beyond what most people imagined at the beginning of the millennium. The medium has made huge, fast strides and continues to accelerate its progress. Team ICO has decided to re-release both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus in high definition as a package for the PlayStation 3. 

The Gamification of America: Part Two- Leaving The University

To understand the nature and value of gamification as a social philosophy, it's vital to perceive it as more than just "making a game" of traditionally non-game activities. It's not a science of distracting people from their responsibilities or tricking them into being more productive. Rather, it's a methodology for using what we know about what motivates people to get them to not only be better at what they do, but actually find the experience more fulfilling. At the core of this idea is incentive. In our current system of education and employment, incentive is either generic (re: money) or too abstract (grades). There's little sense of accomplishment and practically no incentive for the completion of short-term goals in school or at work for most Americans. The same can't be said for the way we game. Concepts such as achievements, upgrades, leveling up and other such ideas, both for the individual and in multiplayer situations, drive mechanisms of incredible social complexity. If only our schools and corporations worked with as much efficiency and enthusiasm as a guild in World of Warcraft. The biggest problem we have on the society-wide level is a lack of clear "leveling", if you will. Take, for example, the rocky transition between school and the work force.

The Gamification of America: Part One- An Introduction

The state of education in America is growing more dire each year. The most troubling aspect of our current system of education is its long term effect on our economy. In the space of a single generation, a college degree has essentially become a requirement for any salaried, non-labor job (aka "white collar" work). In a society that is moving ever more toward a service-based model, this is untenable. During our current economic recession, people under the age of 35 regardless of level of education have been hit the hardest in terms of unemployment. In the national average of 9-10% unemployment, roughly a quarter of the unemployed have been people in their 20's who have been actively searching for work. The market is oversaturated with college graduates who, despite their degrees, have no real experience and are thus less attractive to employers. Even those few graduates who manage to get jobs are saddled with an enormous amount of student debt, meaning that they will both pay back their loans to banks and the government more slowly and make investments later in life, slowing the economy on multiple levels. One part of the answer to this crisis is simple: Remove the requirement of a university education wherever possible. But this would have a negative cultural impact on future generations as the knowledge of things like art, literature and psychology become overall less common. For this, we need only turn to the concept of gamification.

The Steam Summer Camp Sale

The Best Value for PC Gamers Available

   

Every summer Steam offers deep discounts on tons of PC games. Starting yesterday and running through July 10th, each day they offer a number of games at major discounts. A quick check today shows Call of Duty: Black Ops at 33% off, Braid, Just Cause 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Might and Magic Heroes V , and every Grand Theft Auto Classic, all for an astounding 75% off. In addition they offer special publisher packs available through July 10th from Valve, THQ, Rockstar Studios, and 2K and others for large discounts (kinda like buying in bulk).

     For more info on the deals, what's available, and to start buying: click here.

Video Gaming Goes the Way of Other Big-Business Dominated Industries

How the video game industry seems to be going the way of others dominated by a few massive companies.

    

In 2010 the video game industry made $10.3 billion, the vast majority of which (about 99%) was in the purchase of console video games, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). By all accounts the industry continues to grow as gaming finds new platforms in mobile technology and continues to find broader audiences. However, much of the market is dominated by a few multinational companies; Nintendo (Wii), Microsoft (Xbox360), and Sony (Playstation2). In addition, a few publishing companies reign supreme in the console world; namely Activision and Electronic Arts (EA). The result of these oligopolies forming are that gamers have fewer choices, a standardized culture, and a decline in trust within the gamer community.