The Evolution of Video Games and the Diminishing Relevance of Failure

By Thomas Adams

In class, we began discussing failure in video games. The most common version of failure in video games in gameplay failure. Gameplay failure is when the player fails to complete a task that he/she must complete in order to progress in the game. This could be failing to solve a puzzle (e.g. Portal), dying to enemies (Halo), or even losing a match against an opponent (League of Legends).  I will breakdown the evolution of games over time and show how failure in video games became less harsh and more importantly, different.

Thinking back to early video games, we have to look at the arcade genre. Because of the video game infrastructure at the time, these games were meant to be played at an arcade, not in your home. As such, these games were meant to be played for a few (but possible several) minutes at a time to allow for others to have a chance to play as well. Thus, the games had to be developed in such a way that allowed for meaningful gameplay progression, but also had a “hard-capped” end. For example, Donkey Kong allowed players to play the game for as long as they could, while they still had enough lives left. Of course, the game increased in difficulty and most players could never really play too long.

As companies began developing in-house consoles, like the NES, the gameplay paradigm followed. Many games for the NES still had a very “hard-capped” ending. Super Mario Bros., for example, had a similar structure to Donkey Kong. The player could progress as far as he/she wanted until they ran out of lives or beat the game. Having played the game myself, it is very disheartening to see yourself progress really close to the end, and then lose your last life. That’s it. Game Over. Now restart from the beginning.

As technology grew in the 90s, games could become more sophisticated. Developers could begin creating non-linear story lines and program 3 dimensional worlds. Take the Nintendo 64 games for example. Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 both became more forgiving when a player failed. Simply getting hit by an enemy didn’t mean death. Players began having health pools to take more than a few rounds of damage. Players also still had multiple lives. However, these two games in particular still had “Game Over” screens when a player completely died for the last time. (here is one for Banjo-Kazooie). As you can see, these game over screen are very disheartening and showing the player the results of their failures.

Fast forward another 10 years to the 2000s and even today. Technology has allowed us to put more content in games than ever thought imaginable. This new emphasis on content and story-driven games allows developers to be extremely forgiving with gameplay failure. This is mutually beneficial for both players and developers. The players get to continue their game without harsh penalty while also getting to access all the cool content that the developers spent millions of dollars on. It only makes sense, right? Why would a company spend that much resources on game content if the punishment for for gameplay failure was never getting to experience any of it? Nowadays, with huge thanks to advancement of technology, failure is almost irrelevant because of the willingness for developers to be forgiving and the perseverance of players in order to progress in those games.

GAME OR BUST. Probably Bust Though….

By: Squid

 

In King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters we witness the underdog, Steve, tackle the task of getting the world record score in the arcade classic Donkey Kong by practicing for hours a day and performing under pressure. The other side of the story shows a demigod of the arcade world, Billy, as he constantly displays a smug grin while maintaining his super star status from the comfort of his home. It really is a great story of a clash of titans that have mastered their craft to an uncomfortable level. By the end of the story, Steve’s works pays off and the audience is left with the knowledge that he successfully holds the top scores on Donkey Kong (live and recorded). Everything is right in the world – Billy and his goons don’t come out ahead, and the audience can stop feeling sorry for Steve. But what if he didn’t get the record? What if he just failed and I was just left there….cringing and feeling sorry for Steve, his wife, and his kids? Well, if that happened, Steve’s story would be like thousands of gamers around the world — thousands of gamers in the United States that all play the same game: League of Legends.

League of Legends is a notoriously addictive game. It has everything it needs to capture gamers and keep them playing the game. One of the biggest features of LoL is the immense professional scene that allows top gamers to make salaries and become famous like Billy Mitchell. But unlike Steve, most League of Legends players will never come close to becoming professional because they lack the work ethic and skill. The saddest stories are the players that come close to making it and end up failing; they put their money on the line, they move to a gaming house, take off college, and walk away with nothing…their dreams shattered. For young players that is a huge fear when trying to become the best. In Steve’s case, not as much was on the line, but he was clearly obsessed and had the risk of walking away as a failure who threw away valuable time.

Games can consume so much of an individual’s life. From the hours spend casually, to thousands of dollars gambled on the opportunity to become do what you love most, professional gaming is risky. When watching King of Kong, I couldn’t help but imagine the Steve that could have been: a sad, broken dude who obsessed over an arcade game. Steve is more than a character in a great documentary. He is a vivid example of what it takes to be a professional gamer; it’s hard; it requires countless hours of practice and dedication; you have to juggle real life with your dream; the chance of failure is high. In the end, you might fail….or you could play video games for a living….which is rad.

Brian Kuh, Hand of the King

By Thomas Adams

(I know it’s long but bear with me.)

From watching The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, I found Brian Kuh to be the most interesting of all the characters in the film. In the movie, he is portrayed as the stereotypical nerdy, white male overly obsessed with video games. While these things might be true, I found that Brian Kuh’s character is actually much deeper.

I began by analyzing his role in the video game world and his relationship to others. Brian Kuh first emerged on the scene with the likes of Billy Mitchell, Steven Sanders, etc – vying for the world records at the popular arcade video games like Donkey Kong. Brian eventually befriended Mitchell, the long-time Donkey Kong world-record holder. This relationship is portrayed in the movie by Kuh being Mitchell’s “right hand man”, as he is the bearer of Mitchell’s newest world-record attempt video tape. However, Kuh has never set a world-record himself on the game. In fact, his highest score for the game (at the time of a 2008 interview) was a mere 568,400, much less than Mitchell’s old score of 874,300. Up until 2005, Brian worked as a bank comptroller in New York City. He decided to “retire” (his words) from that and move to where Fun Spot was in order to play there more often – and possibly set a world record for himself. This information is important when you consider Kuh’s motivation behind his actions and life-decisions.

In the movie, we can really see Brian’s character come to light when Steve Weibe is playing Donkey Kong at Fun Spot. Frequently, we see Kuh standing over Steve’s shoulder, commenting about the game (to him and/or the film crew). As Steve gets closer to breaking Mitchell’s world record, we see Brian start citing “luck” and “randomness” for Steve’s continued success. As Steve nears the “Kill Screen” (end of the game), Brian starts bringing many people over to Steve’s machine as he can. One could argue that Brian wanted as many people to see the kill screen as possible, as it is a extremely rare event to witness one in person. While this may be true, I feel that it is next-to-impossible for Brian to not have subconscious ulterior motives in bringing a large crowd to Steve’s machine.

Fun Spot hosted an annual arcade tournament in 2007. Kuh actually set 16 world records at that tournament. However, when you look at the list of games the records were set for, you may reconsider before getting his autograph: 1943, Final Lap, Rampage, Sprint 2, Starship 1 – just to name a few. Since all these games were less popular than something like Donkey Kong, these world records were considered easy to break. Furthermore, all 16 records were broken shortly after Kuh set them and he has not set any new ones since.

Based on my research and observations, Brian Kuh’s numerous fruitless attempts at holding world records in popular arcade games have influenced his actions and life-decisions greatly. He associated himself heavily with Mitchell, moved from a job in New York City to live near Fun Spot, and passive-aggressively attempts to belittle others’ world-record endeavors. What all this means is not for me to say – I am merely an observer. That’s up to Brian Kuh. There’s a great deal more information I found and more evidence from the movie related to this topic. I could probably write an entire social psychology dissertation on it.

Hilariously and ironically enough, Kuh’s biggest claim to fame might be his portrayal in the movie as he attempts to herd all the people at Fun Spot to see Steve Weibe’s kill screen. Here are a couple youtube videos highlighting the nerdy-ness of it (I’m a nerd so I’m allowed to say that). 10 hours version, parody

– Thomas Adams

Limitations of Genre in “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters”

I read some critique of the King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Although the film grossed over $700,000 globally (not bad for small-budget documentaries) and achieved critical acclaim (Rolling Stone calling it “roaringly funny”) others had their concerns. After some poking around, most critique falls into one of two categories:

1. Subject matter: many critics disliked the movie because they found the topic of video games inaccessible. Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post, opens her critique with the question “what is more tiresome than watching somebody play video games?” This type of critique has nothing to do with director Seth Gordon’s movie making ability or the strengths/weaknesses of storytelling, but dismisses the film for its subject matter alone. While I don’t think this is a very salient argument, Hornaday does have a point: King of Kong will most likely not attract non-gamers, regardless of the actual mechanics of the story or art of the film.

2. Unoriginal themes and “lack of depth:” Hornaday criticizes Gordon’s “all too familiar formula” and says that the film’s “structure … has become increasingly hackneyed with the glut of competition documentaries” (She cites Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound as probable inspiration for Gordon.) Other critics think the film relies on stock characters and overused themes which make the film one dimensional and unoriginal. Blogger Paul Dean agrees that the story is a simple “story about good pitted against evil.” However, Dean doesn’t think this is necessarily negative, but rather essential to writing a compelling story about video gamers, which most of the world is unfamiliar with.

These types of critiques struck me because they were extremely similar to the type of critique that Lord of the Rings (and the fantasy genre) typically receives: either people can’t connect with the subject matter, or they find the themes elementary. I had not thought of King of Kong as a “fantasy” because of its documentary quality, but now I’m not so sure. Examined under the same critique of fantasy, it appears that Gordon does prey on elements of fantasy storytelling to create his film: he sets up an unfamiliar world, describes the rules of that world, and forces the audience to connect with the characters despite their unique reality. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is not a fantasy film, but it invites the audience into a sort of virtual world. To do this successfully, the filmmakers used techniques of fantasy storytelling, and thus are met with similar criticisms. For me, this was an awesome exercise in the possibilities and limitations of genre (documentary, fantasy) and I’m curious to see how some of these critiques are either dodged or manifested in other mediums (film, written narrative, video games) as we move through the course.

-Emma Baker 

 

A Fist Full of… Drama

Being familiar with the competitive gaming culture around the game League of Legends, I have some basis for comparison when I watch King of Kong. In short, the competitive drama in King of Kong is when some people take something too seriously. And that is not a bad thing.

Having paid attention to what is basically the Major League of League of Legends, I know that what often excites people is the rivalries between the teams and players. In all honesty, much of the spectacular appeal in competitive events such as pro sports and competitive gaming lies in the people playing them, since the events themselves often do not have an interesting or existing narrative: watching Donkey Kong is watching a little man jumping over barrels and fireballs over and over, watching League of Legends is watching two teams of ten characters clobbering each other with fancy graphics, watching football (American or European) is watching a bunch of sweaty men/women going after a ball.

When the players generate drama between themselves, people pay attention. Famous biker is found to be doping? National television headlines the news. An American League of Legends player trash-talks another one on camera? Everyone posts the video on the front page of reddit. Drama between two Donkey Kong players? A documentary is made. These events draws attention from both the people who are familiar to the games and those who are not. I personally have not heard of Twin Galaxies and the competitive arcade culture until I saw the film. Drama generates excitement and exposure, and they in turn help legitimize competitive gaming.

Yes, I said “legitimize.” No, don’t pretend some of you don’t think gaming is dumb, with your jerseys and team paraphernalia. Joking aside, competitive gaming, much like competitive sports, puts the player or team on the spot, and often deemed the lesser if they are not successful or victorious. In situations like that, attitudes come into play, and people butt heads. Billy Mitchell probably believed he had to protect his position as the best player of Donkey Kong around, thus leading to some of his more unsavory comments. Perhaps Billy Mitchell is not the most likable person around, or perhaps he is a sore loser, but personalities like him create stories because of their undeniable skill set at their games and the drama they create.

FYI: Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, and Walter Day are still involved in competitive gaming today. There are some videos of them playing in events on the Twin Galaxies website.

-SYC

The Minions of King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters

The characters overall struck me as pathetic and childish. Specifically, the most pathetic characters were the supporting characters to Billy Mitchell specfically, Brian Kuh. I felt so bad for him that he was being used by Billy Mitchell as a go between to tell him Steve Wiebe’s scores. He seemed like a little minion and all he wanted was to get to the end screen and even in the end he did not get to the end screen by himself and the great Billy Mitchell was supposed to be teaching him.

I didn’t like that Billy Mitchell could see the videos of Steve Wiebe playings and getting to 1 million and he probably used that in order to “beat” Steve’s score. The relationship that Billy Mitchell had with Walter Day made them quickly accept his score and that whole experience was problematic with me. Also, the childishness of the Billy Mitchell calling his friend and not going to eat at a certain restaurant because Steve Wiebe showed up.

Overall, the World of Arcade gaming to me seemed childish with a bunch of grown men and women fighting and partnering up like small children on a play game. I am not sure if this is a accurate portrayal of the gaming arcade world or if it is just how the documentarians chose to show it. However, that is what I felt about the world of gaming after experiencing King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters.

 

-Amanda

King of Kong-or-An Exercise in Frustration

Coming into this movie, I had high hopes.  It was a movie about competitive video game players.  Heck, it was Donkey Kong!  That’s a great game, right?  Oh how naive I was.  The film, King of Kong- A Fistful of Quarters is your stereotypical underdog story.  An undefeated champion with an entourage of followers and empire built around himself finds his title challenged by an unknown underdog.  The champion tries to sabotage his opponent at every turn, only to finally be bested.  We the audience root for the underdog as we see his struggle develop, despise the champion, and enjoy the underdog’s eventual victory.  It is a tried and true film formula that everyone loves.  All it requires is a good challenge, a good villain, and a good underdog.  Unfortunately, despite all its efforts, this film falls flat in supplying that final ingredient.

The film excels in the first aspect.  Billy Mitchell makes for an excellent villain.  Even if he is a great person in real-life, great care has been spent making him seem like a deplorable human being.  He’s mean, he violates rules that he himself set, he has spies, etc.  But Steve Wiebe, the protagonist, is not given this amount of care.  The film tries so hard to present him as a relatable, likeable human being.  He’s a teacher, he was depressed, his life-long dream of being  a lifer was ruined, he threw out his wrist at the ‘most important’ moment of his life, he’s a father, he’s a husband, etc.  And yet, he comes off as callous and self-absorbed.

Yes, it is good to have a dream.  Yes, it is good to have a hobby. Yes, it is good to have something you are passionate about.  No, it is bad to let that thing consume your life.  No, it is bad to let your small child cry at you to help him, to be a father, and for you to act as though he is nothing more than a nuisance.

Yes, this has been a rant.  It’s just, I came into this movie with rather high expectations.  What I expected was an okay underdog story.  What I got was a movie full of unrelateable and vaguely terrible human beings…  Except Q-bert lady, she seemed pretty awesome.

 

Good on you Q-bert lady.  Good on you.

 

~Nathanial Edwards