Make (AAA) Video Games Great Again

Being a business-minded person (ironically majoring in English), it hurts to me to see the state of AAA titles, or titles that have major (designer) studios and massive budgets behind them. I’m not going to try to make this a nostalgic, grass is greener type of post, but there has been an undeniable decay in quality titles. I attribute this to a variety of factors, the foremost being the push of financial interests overwhelming any sense of artistry for designers and storytellers. Many famous studios since the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) have become “sell-outs” pumping out sequel, after sequel each year, releasing incomplete, glitchy games and selling them for $60 a pop. Why, you might ask, do they have the audacity to release half-baked titles? Because the seventh generation of consoles introduced the ability to PATCH games. Patching means they essentially offer online updates that you download straight to your console. In its best use, it fixes gamebreaking bugs that play testers missed, at worst it allows developers to meet their deadlines on products and just update it later.

From a studio standpoint, tension has grown between “hey, we’ve got this $100 million dollar game brand that’s super valuable, lets leverage that and sell it again, slightly different, for the full price!” and “hey, lets create something new and original, and see where it goes!” The operative term for this phenomena is risk.

Risk has always been an important facet of success in game development, people conceptualize all kinds of unique, wacky ideas, and generally if their team was behind them, they would get to work. Now, most big conglomerate video game companies have acquired these studios and have essentially told them to take far less risk, and to design titles that encourage the customers to spend even more cash on downloadable content. My favorite example of taking a unique idea and injecting old fashioned corporate greed is Evolve. Evolve took a unique concept, one player plays as a massive powerful monster trying to evolve (lol) and destroy the planet or kill the hunters. 4 other players pick hunters, categorized by roles, in order to combat the titanic beasts. Sounds interesting right? Check out this cool screenshot:Image result for evolve

It’s a AAA title that had a lot of unique promise to it. But then, on day 1 (yes, ONE, UNO, EINS) of its release, it launched with approximately $136 in buyable, downloadable content for players in the form of new characters and monsters…

Developers all started out in the same place, getting into game development either out of the interest in the challenge, or true love of creating stories and entertaining the masses. As soon as the sixth generation of consoles, that is, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube era, each platform had incredible AAA products come out, these games were complete because they had to be, you couldn’t issue software updates to any game-breaking glitches. Releases had multi-year gaps between them, meaningful space to respect their current offerings, and to properly develop their newest titles. Now, we have this:COD.jpg

COD Youtube.png

You really gotta ask yourself: what’s going on?

-Tom

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If We Could Go Back In Time…

Text by A.A. BENJAMIN, Game Demo by JO KIM, Characters by SPARLING

Our fictional Once Upon A Time Machine video game proposal (<–see our powerpoint presentation here) had one obvious blunder. We had a cool game demo but treated our presentation as separate from the demo.

As we talk about hyper-meditation in this English New Media course, finding ways to merge the two would have been an opportune way to express what we’ve learned in the course. However, timing issues and mishaps aside, the highlight of this project was collaboration. Our bouncing ideas transformed into a proposal that mimicked gameplay and a fun intertextual commentary that made gaming attractive to a target audience.

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The Narrator

We built a video game model off of the arcade style and well-known Mario Kart race track design. The premise of the game is that you can choose one from ten playable characters designed from H.G. Well’s novel, The Time Machine. You then race against your friends in your choice of eight vehicles derived from methods of time travel across literature and film to date, all with their pros and cons. Along the courses which follow the novel’s plot, you use items and special weapons to work your way to first place, surviving the clingy Eloi and destructive Morlocks. Our game provided some intertextual game play for intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, as well as sci-fi and steampunk fans. We also took liberties with H.G. Well’s more obscurely described characters to create gender and race-inclusive characters.

The most enjoyable part about this project, to me, was the generation of ideas together and then watching them develop through art and imagery. One thing we would have needed to do if this were a real proposal would have been to fully design our own concepts and/or cite our sources (drawing them would have been super fun). Though we wouldn’t have to consider copyright issues with the aged H.G. Wells novel, we concluded that we could keep the vehicles as direct references under the Fair Use doctrine. Also, as indicated by our classmates, we could have described the functions of more of our characters, vehicles, and levels rather than focusing on one or two, so here some drafts that didn’t make the cut:

 

Man With A Beard
Man With A Beard–Spontaneous combustion whenever using matches

 

Time_Machine__in_Engine_by_natetheartist
Time Machine Sled–Can hold endless items. The more you have slower you are. Items attract Eloi, sled itself attracts Morlocks. Enables use of mace
Tardis–Unaffected by villains. Overheats when lighting matches. Your matches don’t work on villains (because you’re in a box. Basically, just avoid matches). Disappears momentarily. Works best with Medical Man
HyperSpace
Final Stage Kill Screen: In the old arcade games, the machines had limited space and therefore when players got far enough the graphics began to devolve. The Time Machine ends with the Time Traveller disappearing without a clue of where he went, so the last stage could be a “kill screen,” racing at length until the game graphics begin to deteriorate.

Unfortunately, we are mere undergrad students incapable of rendering the game in such the intricate way that we imagine, so if we were to get a chance to build it, it’d probably be less compelling. But it was fun to dream, anyway. Isn’t that where all great games begin? Progress!

–A.A. Benjamin

Gimme hold of that narrative!

Narrative ambiguity is a central feature in Journey; a pro for those of us who enjoyed playing/watching the game, irritating and inconclusive for those who did not. But many of us felt connected to the character(s), sensationally aware of the setting, and personally invoked in the story–whatever we manipulated it to be. Not surprisingly, Journey’s critical response also centered on the game’s open interpretation aspect. Joel Gregory, a game reviewer for Playstation Official Magazine writes that “its [the game’s] brilliance . . . comes down to the fact that the symbolism is left open to interpretation” and describes the game as an “interactive parable” (2012).  And as Gregory notes, the interpretations of the game are infinite, but a definitive answer isn’t the point here. Rather, the game invokes the player on an intellectual level and allows (or forces, for those who didn’t find joy in it) to engage with and in many ways, complete the story by his or herself.

In class, we wondered if this type of game–one that requires intellectual reflection and analysis–might be limited in audience. Many people, it seemed, might be turned off by the mental gymnastics required of the player. And Gregory echoes these concerns, writing that “some think it’s pretentious nonsense.” But the game’s critical reception overwhelmingly suggests otherwise: Journey is currently the fastest selling game on Playstation Store to date, won multiple Game of the Year awards (in categories ranging from story to gameplay engineering), received a Grammy nomination for the score and garnered 92% approval rankings on both GameRankings and Mediacritic.

So rather than excluding segments of the typical gaming community, might Journey (and games like it) actually invite a larger audience? The gameplay is relatively simple, but as Eurogamer reviewer Christian Donlan writes, Journey creates a “sense of hardship” because of the vast unknowns in the world of the game. (This “hardship” is precisely what draws so many advanced gamers to the game; they still find payoff in the end despite the low technical demands of the game.) Games like Journey invite another class of people to the gaming table: maybe those novice gamers who still want to participate in the stimulating virtual world,  maybe those literature buffs who want something new to dissect and analyze, maybe those who feel most connected to a story when they make their own contributions to it. I suspect a bit of all three lies within many Journey players. (But to give credit where credit is due, the game developers have done the majority of the mental work for us plebian players by creating such a visually and sonically robust world.)

In a workshop on Vanderbilt’s campus this afternoon, game designer Evan Meaney cautioned the audience of the illusion of choice present in video games. In his words, games offer the viewer more choice than film (or other media forms) only by “better lying.” And this makes sense–of course a user doesn’t have full control over the game world, because the game developers have only coded so much! In terms of mechanics, Journey succumbs to this same critique. But by granting the player with narrative power, we’re gaining more control, and for Lamer Gamers like me, that’s pretty darn empowering.

-Emma Baker

The Eye: In Gaming and Other Forms of Media

A. A. BENJAMIN

 

I’ve noticed a trend in the different mediums I’ve come in contact with lately.  

TheEYE
Movie: The Fellowship of the Ring
Game: A Story About My Uncle (PC)
Game: A Story About My Uncle (PC)
Game: Journey (PS3)
Game: Journey (PS3)
Article: some Uber alien game that hasn’t come out yet
Article: some Uber alien game that hasn’t come out yet

What is the cultural significance of this eye and why do we fear it? It drives us instinctively to hide even when it has not been explained—game, movie or otherwise—why we should hide in the first place. Something fictitious puts such a deep anxiety in our hearts that I have to wonder what about this fear is real.
 
 
 
My first instinct is to run to Orwell’s “Big Brother” in 1984. This could possibly be a subconscious cultural and political commentary of modern day lack of trust in structures of authority and power. This unifying symbolism shows a thread of fear that weaves these creative minds together as they form a common enemy.
 
The looming watchful eye always takes a grotesquely large and bulbous shape, anywhere between orange to reddish in tone, sometimes with that cat-like slit that seems to be that much more evil. It is always THE eye. One, not two.
 
 
 
Not only does the singularity suggest the disturbing all-powerful theme explored in 1984, but it also creates this alien-ness that makes it hard for us to fathom what the one eyed creature would do with us if it did catch us. The unknown stirs our deepest fears…
 
Though recurring images across mediums may not be intentional, I think it’d be a bit naïve to assume that they are by accident. What are we trying to tell ourselves, with the continuous return of this monster? Maybe we fear imposing onlookers stripping away our privacy and autonomy. Maybe we fear spectatorship, which is quite interesting considering the mediums in which this monster takes form. If we conflict with a culture of spectatorship, we must be using some strange counter attack that involves becoming the looming spectator ourselves. We can comfortably strip Frodo down with our own eyes, but God-forbid the camera turn on us. Our first instinct is to hide and fear, and it appears that game developers continuously use this easy fix to propel gamers through their desired narrative.
 
I still can’t pinpoint, though, WHY The Eye is such a universally easy fix. How has this organ become a fearsome symbol through time?

The Eye of Providence, or what illuminati conspiracy theorists call, the Eye of Horus  (U.S. Dollar Bill)
The Eye of Providence, or what illuminati conspiracy theorists call, the Eye of Horus (U.S. Dollar Bill)

The Evolution of Immersion

By: Billy Bunce

Help me. I’m being pursued. I desperately flee from four shadowy figures, each of whom desires nothing more than my death. Oh, but what a relief it would be were that my only dilemma. As I was first abducted by these four (though I luckily just escaped), I have absolutely no knowledge of my surroundings. In fact, I feel almost…trapped. I have no idea how to escape. My only chance of temporarily evading my captors would come from thoroughly surveying the area in which I currently find myself. Then and only then might I possibly be able to find some fleeting escape to postpone my inevitable demise. Maybe I’ll be able to find a weapon soon and fight back against my captors for a brief while. But until then, I run.

Now, reread that paragraph with the newfound knowledge that I just presented a more absorbing, epic, and slightly altered synopsis of the game Pac-Man. Such an involved mindset, though actually rather commonplace in modern console and computer games, is never encountered in classic arcade games. This, in my opinion, is the primary difference between arcade/board games and contemporary video games: a sense of immersion.

I’ll never forget the evening when I finished the fourth case in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the DS. The ending was so shocking and mind-blowing that I literally found myself unable to study for the AP exams that I had the next day. Lost in contemplation, I was only able to think about the game, the characters, and the complex murder mystery that had just been revealed to me. It was then that I first realized just how absorbing a video game can truly be if done right.

However, it wasn’t just the narrative that caused the game to affect me the way it did. The graphics, music, and presentation all combined to make Phoenix Wright one of the most enthralling experiences I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. None of these great aspects, though, can be found in arcade or board games. Although the original arcade games should be appreciated for the difference they made in shaping the present state of video games, the truth is that I will never be as enthralled by a game of Pac-Man, Monopoly, or Galaga as I am by Phoenix Wright, Metal Gear Solid, or Final Fantasy VII.

This difference in the immersive abilities of a game arises primarily due to the evolution of the medium of video games as a whole. Board/arcade games are, more than anything, relics of a time when video games were naught more than quick, simple endeavors. The purpose of video games was once solely to have mindless fun, while they are now transmedial fusions which can provide involving, absorbing, and potentially life-changing experiences (Kingdom Hearts actually fell into that final category for me). Sure, a game of Dig-Dug or Donkey Kong is still fun every once in a while if I just need to kill some time. But for me, an immersive console game will always beat a simple round of an arcade game.

Boredom or Entertainment

   By:  Matt Almeida

        In my mind there is no question, I would choose a console or online game over a arcade game any day. Throughout my life I have had experiences with both and I certainly enjoy console and online games more because they differ from arcade games in numerous ways. Console and online games are fun and entertaining for an extended period of time unlike arcade games. Arcade games are enjoyable at first but in my mind this is only temporary. I can sit down and play an arcade game but after a while it just gets boring. Arcade games are difficult and are designed, for the most part, for the player to lose. After all arcade games are most commonly found in arcades where people pay to play. The only way an arcade can survive and be successful is if people continue to pay, play, lose, and then pay to play some more.

            There are many elements to arcade games that make them different and less enjoyable than those games on consoles and online. Although technologically speaking arcade games are usually fairly simple and straightforward, there are many complicated and complex aspects to them that make them extremely difficult. As I said they are designed to be hard so the player will lose and play again. Not only do arcade games involve difficulty but they are also usually laboriously lengthy. The games don’t always change that much but they go on for a while and incorporate many things that require strategy to become good at. Here is where the problem lies. I would rather have fun and enjoy gaming then extensively plan and strategize to be successful. As seen in The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters , arcade games require extensive practice and strategy to master. Although some arcade and online games require strategy,  it is not nearly as extensive, boring, or monotonous as with arcade games.

            Simply put, arcade games get boring and on top of that are somewhat anti social and provide very little reward. You can only say you’re a winner at an arcade game if you set some sort of high score. This can be achieved through practice and if practicing and having this goal at the end of the tunnel sounds fun and entertaining then maybe arcade games are for you. For me, however, they are only fun for short periods of time and the thought of sitting in front of Donkey Kong for hours and hours by myself is not a fun thought at all.  Console and online games simply are more fun, incorporating more entertainment, action, and a multiplayer social aspect that arcade games don’t necessarily have. I can play with other people in my home or from my home on the internet with online and console games.  I could play these  games for hours as they always provide something new. Every game has its core aspects and qualities but each play seems a little different than the last. Each game brings something new and unique and the entertainment is constant. Console and online games are new and cool. They are “in” now and are leading the industry with new technology that leaves arcade games in the dust. Perhaps it is just that console and online games are the games of our generation as for me they are simply just more fun and fun is what I want out of a game.

-almeidmd

Face to Face

Matt Thumser

The difference is personal. Board games and console games are really not all that different, if you look at it. Sure, console games like Halo and Madden may be more immersive; but with a little imagination, board games like Risk and Monopoly can place us in their own world for hours on end. Both types of games follow Jesper Juul’s definition of a game. They both pit us against each other, making a winner and a loser. They both serve to entertain us.

I have no preference when it comes to playing each type of game. I’ve had great experiences with each type, and I’ve had really bad experiences with each type. Who hasn’t felt the adrenaline rush fueled by the cash you earn at the end of a grueling game of Life; and who hasn’t grown frustrated with the tediousness of a game of Monopoly that drags on for hours? It’s the same with console games; the joy of scoring a touchdown to win as time expires in Madden, and the anger of an unbeatable level of Super Mario Bros.

Indeed, console and board games are very similar. The difference between them, however, is personal. The interactions between players are vastly different in the two media of games. Board games are personal; you know all of the players in the game. This isn’t present in console games, where you can just shut off the console if losing. In most cases, your friends won’t let you do that in the middle of a board game.