rant

BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka's advanced the possibility that someday gamers would play games on one ubiquitous console. There are "valid reasons," he says, why the market would trend that direction, with the exception of "Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo maybe having some issues with that [as] they might want to continue their platforms."

You think?

This has come up before, and I'm pretty sure that it was Muzyka behind those earlier remarks also. I find it hard to consider the idea anything but the most fanciful of wishful thinking. Bioware makes great games with huge amounts of content, and their efforts would be greatly simplified on a number of levels if they could target a single ubiquitous platform.

The problem is that the benefits for such a scheme are asymmetric, and skewed sharply in the direction of the content producer, offering little or no benefit to platform owners or gamers. If BioWare makes its games for several different platforms-- say, Xbox 360, Windows, and the Sony PlayStation 3, it means that gamers have a reasonable amount of choice for gaming platform and can still assure themselves of access to BioWare games. Reducing the number of platforms BioWare has to target might make developing their games less expensive, but it seems extremely unlikely that this savings would be passed on to gamers in terms of lower title prices. After all, with only a single ubiquitous console platform, there is no longer any choice-- if you want to play a BioWare game you'd have to use that platform. If you don't want to, tough luck. If anything, standardizing on a single platform would likely increase prices (although the higher prices rose, the greater an opportunity there would be for someone to enter the market and therefore blow your "single platform" market right out of the water by undercutting you.

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Jonathan Blow, One man creator of the oh-so-pretty Braid platformer, as amazing for its interesting gameplay as its surreal visuals, says, essentially, that videogame stories are bad and probably wouldn't get much better with better writers since trying to tell a story in a game is a bad idea. One might wonder whether he's paraphrasing film director John Huston, who famously remarked, when asked about the "message" in one of his movies, that if one wanted to send a message, one should use Western Union.

One similarly might imagine that if you were to ask Blow about the story in his games, he'd say that if you want to tell a story, you should make a film. Or, perhaps, write a book. Seeing at what some triple-A titles have become-- long cutscenes with repetitive gameplay inserted instertitially-- one can't help but admit to at least some truth in the idea that there's something suboptimal about the way narration and gameplay are currently being combined. The flaws of the method get a pass when the separate elements are well executed in otherwise popular products. When either or both is weak, the combination itself makes the whole enterprise seem foul. In some games, one so dominates over the other that it is a wonder that anyone bothers; I tried the demos of a couple of JRPGs over the holiday break, the first ones I've ever played, and was amazed to find that the first hour or so of each of them consisted of scripted, in-engine cutscenes with no choices and player interaction limited to pressing the green button to advance to the next scene. Where's the game, I wondered.

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The gaming and tech press are all aflutter with the news that videogames beat DVDs... except they don't, at least, not in all the areas that matter.

The data that lead to the "games beats movies" conclusion, much like the one-day comparisons of game blockbusters like Halo 3 to the one-day takes of top films like Dark Knight, are revenue, rather than unit sales figures. They've taken the 2008 revenue for "packaged media" that includes games and DVD movies (including HD on Blu-Ray) and divided it into "games" and "DVD/Blu-Ray".

While the total increased, the share of DVD/Blu-Ray declined and the figure for games increased.

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This remark from Valve's Jason Holtman is the analysis of game piracy that I've been waiting to hear someone utter for years: the idea that copyright infringement needs to be analyzed from economic rather than purely legal or moral standpoints. It is, essentially, the market telling producers that something is wrong, and that smart producers should respond in a more productive way, rather than seeking legal redress or technological methods of copy protection.

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Normally I avoid even commenting on the intersections between violent real-world crime and fantasy videogame violence. There's really little point. There's not much more than can be said on the matter than what is already out there.

However, the remarks of Judge James Burge following his conviction of Daniel Petric are simply so ridiculous that I can't let them pass. From story coverage at, of all places, a PS3 website:

The boy was finally convicted of the crime earlier today, but Judge James Burge wasn't happy with the sentencing. He told the press that he blamed the video game developers more than Daniel for the crime committed. Burge accused Halo 3 developer Bungie of creating a "delusional environment" where the normal rules of reality didn't apply. "[In Halo 3] you can shoot these aliens, and they're there again the next day. You have to shoot them again, and I firmly believe that Daniel Petric had no idea, at the time he hatched this plot, that if he killed his parents they would be dead forever," Burge explained.

It's really hard to take that seriously. It's also really hard to swallow the idea that this is a person who is a judge-- who is in a position of education and authority. That's frightening. What is surprising is that despite blaming the videogame more than the perpetrator, he still found the latter guilty, which I suppose is also encouraging.

However, let's play reductio ad absurdum a bit with this. It won't be hard; there's not to much reducting to do before things get pretty damn absurdum.

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HBO and the HBO forum have both provided links to an editorial by "William Usher" at Cinema Blend about how Halo is killing console gaming.

So now that this specious attempt to nab page hits has worked, there can be little further damage that I can do except to examine the author's premise and see if it holds any merit. For the most part, it doesn't.

When you have to start off your article by saying "this isn't Halo bashing" it's not a good sign. Not because Halo doesn't deserve thoughtful criticism. It does. It is not a perfect edifice placed on Earth by some deity for the entertainment of humanity.

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When the rumors about "Halo Blue" and an ODST-focused Halo game first appeared, I began to think that from an intellectual perspective this might be a good game for Bungie, or someone, to make.

Part of Halo's appeal, as well as one of its weaknesses, I think, is the special status of the Master Chief as a near-invincible, supercompetent soldier. Ultimately the only challenge the game offers him is near-insurmountable odds.

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So the teaser that Bungie wanted to tease us with this past E3 is now out for download on Bungie.net in the usual flavors of QuickTime and Windows Media.

Luke Smith's post on Bungie.net calls this a "CG-teaser" and the front page refers to it as being for "one of our current projects".

My general impression is that this teaser is for a campaign expansion to Halo 3 that takes place sometime between the departure of Regret's ship from the Mombasa area and the Master Chief's return to Earth at the start of Halo 3. As such the main character or characters may be other human forces, perhaps marines or ODSTs, and the plot may focus on improvising city guerilla warfare against the Covenant forces in the city.

The most noticeable point of this trailer is that unlike nearly every Bungie game trailer produced to date, it is completely without music.

Without further ado, let's peruse the details the trailer offers.

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What started as another one of those rumors within the span of a day became a confirmed truth: following the release of the upcoming Halo Wars RTS game for the Xbox 360 console, Ensemble Studios, known for the Age of Empires RTS series of games for Windows, will be shuttered. A new studio, like Ensemble part of Microsoft Games Studios, will be formed to support Halo Wars. Employees releated to Halo Wars will be offered spots in the new studio; those currently working on the project have been offered extra incentives to continue working on it through release.

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So a couple days ago I wrote a bit on how Bungie got the rug pulled out from under them at E3.

As near as the Intertubes can piece it together, a few days before E3, Microsoft let Bungie know they wouldn't be included in the press conference. Bungie then enacted contingency plans for their own announcement, which is what precipitated the countdown on Bungie.net.

On Tuesday Microsoft told Bungie they wouldn't be allowed to do that, either, and since Microsoft is Bungie's publisher for Halo games, and Microsoft owns the Halo intellectual property, and the announcement concerned Halo, Bungie had to do what Microsoft says, prompting Bungie president Harold Ryan's apology to the fans, which can also be interpreted as a nice polite way of flipping the bird to the publisher.

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Now, I'm not saying the whole Keep It Clean debacle doesn't deserve a couple thousand more words (which it surely will get) but I felt I couldn't let E3 week go by without comment on one of the announcements that Microsoft did feel was important enough to show-- namely, the impending renovation of the Xbox 360's dashboard interface in the fall of this year. Besides, I took a straw poll in HBO's irc server and this is the topic that won.

Then words begin to fail me and I long instead to wax poetic about publishing deals and PR tactics.

What to say, what to say...

I wrote a review of the Aeon Flux theatrical film a few years back on my own personal blog, and as a fan of Peter Chung's original cartoons, I was extremely disappointed. I wrote at the time that:

It is as if Paramount took a group of writers, locked them in a dark room with copies of the animated series, but gave them enough time to view only a small portion of them all, and then required them to write their notes about the series in crayon on the back of index cards. These index cards, out of order, were then handed to a completely different group of people, who then went on to make this film.

I can't help feeling that Microsoft has taken a team of interface designers, a Wii, and an Apple TV and done the same thing here. From the cartoony avatars you can see they're aware of the Wii. From the clean, white, sliding 3D interface you can tell they've seen an Apple TV, or at least Apple's Front Row program. Somehow, however, they either didn't quite grasp how or why those things worked and what was good about them, and managed to come up with something that bears only a passing resemblance to those two products, and are in the process of abandoning an interface that-- in classic Microsoft fashion-- after seven years has finally reached a "good enough" level of functionality.

If I'm lucky enough to have anyone at Microsoft involved in this project reading at this moment, let me emphatically state: please do not do this. As a last resort, I'd exhort you to make this interface optional. I know this to be a fruitless request since making things options rarely solves anything. All I can say, though, is that if this is the interface the 360 will be using in the future then I can see myself using it a lot less, and at least putting my console back to booting from disc on startup and bypassing the dashboard as much as possible.

If you haven't seen this thing yet, drop on over to GameTrailers, they have HD and SD versions of the walkthrough. Go ahead. I'll wait.

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Ah, the heady days of the early and mid 90s, when Bungie was an independent developer and publisher, master of its own destiny. They developed what they wanted to develop, announced when they wanted to announced, and shipped... well, when the boxes were done.

Those days must seem so simple compared to now.

Because what's going on now is apparently a Bungie announcement scheduled for E3 today-- one likely related to Halo in some way-- has been postponed indefinitely by Bungie's publisher.

That would be Microsoft, for those of you keeping score at home, even though the name "Microsoft" does not appear anywhere in the carefully-worded missive from Bungie president Harold Ryan.

Most fans, of course, don't care what happened or who is at fault. They just knew they were supposed to be seeing something exciting and new within the next twelve hours, and now they won't. For a form of popular entertainment whose fans vacillate back and forth between endurance trials of development waits-- three years for each of the last three Halo games-- and the instant gratification of online multiplayer matches where average lifetimes can be well under thirty seconds, such an indefinite delay is a great disappointment. Even if we don't know what it was we were supposed to be expecting.

So what were we expecting, when can we expect it, and why was it delayed just twelve hours before it was to hit?

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...is apparently how long humanity fought the Covenant over Harvest. It is not, gratefully, the amount of time you'll have to wait for Halo Wars from Ensemble Studios to come out, since supposedly the game is now set for a release sometime in Spring 2009.

So, a little less than one... long... year.

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The divide between story and gameplay has been a regular topic of discussion around here, so this Moving Pixels blog entry seems like it might be of interest. Called The Great Divorce, it imagines Plot and Gameplay as a couple undergoing marital strife. Give it a read, great fun.

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Game Over. Insert Coin.

The balance between carrot and stick, reward and punishment, in game design was so much simpler back in the arcade.

Take the gamer's money and give them a limited number of chances to progress, usually called "lives" since failure nearly always means death. When the player runs out of lives, they can pay to keep playing if they agree within a given time period. If not, the game resets itself to the start.

In some ways, it's a magnificently simple and beautiful state of affairs compared to what PC and console gaming has become, where the entire price of a game, hardware included, is bought and paid for in advance, and "pay for play" means online access fees and MMO subscriptions.

How, in an environment where you can't hit the gamer in the pocketbook for failing to demonstrate the requisite skills, can you punish them? Should you even try? Arcade games were designed to be "finished" only by the best of the best, but today's story-driven, cinematic AAA titles cost millions to make-- is it wise to reveal the entirety of one's design only to a select few? Might that not tempt designers to leave the ending out (I'm glancing in your direction, Halo 2, and yours, too, Indigo Prophecy) and focus energies on the beginning-- the part that most reviewers will see?

Is death in games supposed to be punitive, or is it there only to prevent the player from progressing through the game until they've demonstrated a certain minimum level of proficiency? If it is supposed to be punitive, what does it say about designers' opinions of their own game if the worst punishment they can come up with is playing the game more? Isn't the idea of dying, the message of failure, more important than the actual consequences? Or is it? Can a game design aspire to have replayability and still consider repeat play as a punishment for dying? What other punishments can there be? Should there be any punishments at all? Can any punishment be as useful or effective as requiring the player to insert another quarter, and if not, should gaming return to the arcade model, or should it abandon player punishment altogether?

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