Tuesday, September 22, 2009

PS3 Backwards Compatibility Update

Oddly enough, this Sony update comes to us from SEGA. The prominent third-party game publisher's press site leaked rough minutes from a meeting with Sony that were promptly downloaded by the good folks at Objectif-SEGA.

The memo includes a lot of information that was probably supposed to stay secret, but the important bit is that it sounds like the rumors of Playstation 2 games for premium download on the Playstation Network are true, and that Sony will be rolling out their newly patented software emulation to support the initiative.

Of course, the trouble is that this is no kind of news at all for anyone who likes money. The useful information is still being omitted: will this Playstation 3 software emulation support playing PS2 games on disc? If it won't, it is still crippled functionality being marketed as a feature.

Demand more, people.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mass Market Effect

This is going to be brief.

Mass Effect has what is probably the best combat system ever developed for a console/computer roleplaying game.

This does not mean it warranted a premium-downloadable-content bot-match arena.

BioWare, I love you guys, and I realize you're neck-deep in bringing us Mass Effect 2, right now, but could you at least warn a die-hard fan that his $5 won't net him any storyline content?

Caveat emptor, I suppose.

Speaking of Mass Effect 2, I'm a bit nervous that the new plot seems to involve an entirely new crew, and that the plot seems to diverge from the Reaper threat established in the first game. I have no doubt that the game will be excellent -- BioWare has a nearly spotless track record -- but I am disappointed that many mysteries that went unsolved in the first game will continue to be unsolved at least until the third game in the trilogy, and that relationships forged in the first Mass Effect will only have passing impact on Mass Effect 2.

Still, much remains to be seen. Mass Effect 2 is still largely an unknown quantity. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


The big console news right now is the price drops and redesigns going on, and one of the aspects of the Playstation 3 redesign is the absence of backwards compatibility from the new models despite Sony having recently patented a system for software backwards compatibility running on the PS3’s Cell processor.

I hear all the justifications. Some of them are good. Most are not. Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing, John Keller, claims that backwards compatibility is “not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing,” which is ridiculous, considering that the currently marketed PS3 units are not backwards compatible, so it is actually impossible for backwards compatibility to be a purchase intent driver. Good show, Mr. Keller.

Some fans claim that the need for backwards compatibility just isn’t there. That it is only relevant at the beginning of a console’s life, when there is not a sufficient catalog of next-gen titles to support the console. Others argue that no one wants to play last-gen games anymore, or that they just don’t even if they have the capacity. This is obviously not true, or Keller wouldn’t casually remark that “it’s all people ever talk about.” Frankly, that’d be a red flag for me if I worked in marketing. But then, I don’t. I’m not going to get into the quality or breadth of the PS3’s game library here – that’s too much a matter of opinion.

Here’s my take: a lack of backwards compatibility in a popular mainstream gaming console is dangerous. It’s obviously not going to bring about the end of days or anything, but from a consumer’s perspective we should all be concerned about it. It is functionality that should be included in next-gen consoles. We paid the money for the last-gen games; we should not lazily accept the loss of the ability to play them. Video games are not like books or movies or music. Books require no operating system to use, and paper is almost a universal medium. Movies and music can be copied from last-gen media onto next-gen media with a minimal loss of quality and no loss in utility. But a video game depends not only on the media it is printed on but also the operating system of the console or computer it was designed for. When that operating system becomes defunct, so does the game.

Yes, Playstation 2 systems cost $100 brand new, today. But what about tomorrow? When the consoles disappear, the Playstation 2 library is gone. There will be future attempts to resurrect it for the sake of nostalgia, like Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, but these downloadable content libraries are slow to grow, incomplete, and still dependent on yet another operating system – not to mention the fact that they require a second purchase of the game! Every time a console is made obsolete and its successor is not backwards compatible, hundreds of creative works are lost to the playing public, and their return is entirely dependent on the vagaries of manufacturer foresight. Video game console manufacturers are historically not the most foresighted organizations, as evidenced by Sony’s seemingly willful ignorance of their consumer base’s interest in backwards compatibility.

This concerns me. Video games are the books and movies of the next century. It is too easy to imagine a world where, say, the Lord of the Rings came out for George Allen & Unwin’s UnwinBox in 1954, but was never ported to Houghton Mifflin’s PlayMifflin 3 in the 1960s, and therefore failed to become the cultural phenomenon that inspired an entire genre of fiction as well as fantasy roleplaying. This is not an acceptable vision of the future of creative expression. This sort of thinking on the part of hardware manufacturers needs to stop.

Of course, John Keller is something of a denial expert, who passionately refuted the existence of the PSP Go! and PS3 Slim prior to the release of those two system revisions. Sony has a wonderfully self-aware commercial out now that captures the resultant hilarity far better than I ever could here. The only way to know for sure what the future holds is to wait and see.

But this gamer won't be buying a PS3 until backwards compatibility is confirmed.

Price Pointing

A short time ago, BBC Radio 1’s website Newsbeat featured an article by Dan Whitworth, calling attention to a British price hike for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The new Call of Duty will apparently retail in the UK for £55, rather than the usual £45. Apparently UK gamers are up in arms about it, although judging by the reactions from Dan’s interviewees, it’s not going to affect their purchasing decisions. Maybe that’s because they’re already willing to pay the equivalent of US$75 for a game Americans only pay $60 for. What’s another $16?

We Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the US around the inception of this latest generation of console gaming hardware in 2005 and 2006 when the price point for a new video game jumped from $49.99 to $59.99. I don’t remember a particular fuss being made about it at the time, although debate still rages in the community as to whether games were worth $50 in the first place. It’s this ‘price point’ mentality – this idea that no matter what the content of a video game (or, for that matter, a roleplaying sourcebook), it is worth a certain amount of money simply because it belongs to a certain class of commodity.

It is difficult to argue this point about video games because of the multiple genres involved, all of which have very different standards of quality. For instance, I may find it ridiculous that Halo 3, a ten-hour game, retails for the same price as Lost Odyssey, a 50-hour game, but that is largely because I am a roleplaying gamer, unlikely to get much enjoyment from Halo 3’s robust multiplayer system. But on the other hand, it is a often a challenge to find two games in the same genre that are wildly disparate in content, largely because the games with lesser content often suffer from other failings that cause them to be panned by the community.

Fortunately this generation of games has at least one example I am very familiar with. Take Shadowrun, another contemporary of Halo 3 that shares both the ‘shooter’ genre and Halo’s publisher, Microsoft. Shadowrun has no single-player content, which suggests a lower price point, but its matchmaking is also vastly inferior to Halo 3’s, and its bot AI is considered to be so bad that Halo 3’s complete lack of bot AI is preferable. These latter elements mandated a lower price point, and one was eventually reached – through market pressures. The game was retailing new at $29.99 only a few months following its release.

But the point is that both games started out at the same place, in terms of cost to the consumer: $59.99. Why was a game so clearly inferior to its contemporaries priced so highly?

Admittedly, in recent years we have seen game publishers set lower prices for ‘second-string’ video game titles, between $25 and $40, but this typically has nothing to do with quality or quantity of content and everything to do with brand. The big releases are all still right up there at $60, not including ‘special editions’ that can run anywhere from $70 to $120 or more. Now, I’m not saying that video games on average are not worth $60. That’s an argument for a different post, and probably a different blog. What I’m asking is, “Why is EVERY game worth $60?” It seems to me that gamers need to use some of that consumer market pressure that drove the price of Shadowrun down so quickly to convince game publishers that we are smart enough to notice that not all video games are equal. Maybe this means some of them will become more expensive than $60. But it sure as heck should mean that many of them become significantly less expensive.

This same phenomenon is visible in the roleplaying game industry. Wizards of the Coast raised the cost of the core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition, from $20 to $30, and we all grumbled but didn’t argue. Their press releases were right, after all – the price point on the books had not risen for twenty years. It was time. I do not begrudge companies responding to the forces of inflation. Now, books a fraction of the size of those core rulebooks retail for $35, and major sourcebooks can retail for as much as $50. But the real issue is that again, these numbers are irrespective of content! Page count for a $35 sourcebook can range anywhere from 100 to 300 pages. So I’m forced to ask, “Why?”

Why is a 100-page book worth the same amount of my money as a 300-page book? Why hasn’t the community used its collective consumer power to do something about this? Why are we so content to throw our money away on these hobbies?

It’s certainly not that we aren’t aware. People notice these things; I know they do. I’ve heard them complain. But no one ever seriously eschews making a purchase as a result. Video gamers might wait until a game hits the shelves used to pick up the occasional title, but if it is something we really want, we’ll buy it new – or as soon as it shows up used, in which case we’re essentially paying full price anyway, and for a lower-quality product.

Perhaps we ignore these ludicrous price-point strategies because we recognize that spending money on these things is a waste to begin with, and we acknowledge this at such a basic level that we are not enraged by the blatant discrepancies. Personally, I think it’s time we all got a bit more active and conscientious about the value of our dollars. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly we owe it to the hobby.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

D&D4: One Year On

It’s been a little more than a year since Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, launched, and after six months of playing it regularly and six more of watching it evolve I think I have finally defined what it is I don’t like about it.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy D&D4. I’ve come to terms with it in a way that allows me to enjoy it a great deal as a sort of beer-and-pretzels, fantasy-combat board game, in the same vein as the old DUNGEON! game or the more recent Descent and Runebound. I’m not being flippant – I really do enjoy these games and I consider D&D4 to be one of the best. In a lot of ways, I’ve been waiting for a game like D&D4 my entire life. But I don’t consider D&D4 to be a roleplaying game.

I have to define ‘roleplaying game,’ because I’ve come to realize that the term means something different for everyone, and that my definition is somewhat more strict than most. First and foremost, I consider a roleplaying game to be a system of rules in which I feel comfortable telling an interactive story for the benefit of a group of players. It has been said that a good roleplayer doesn’t need rules to roleplay, and I agree with this sentiment – I spent much of my youth ‘roleplaying’ adventures with my friends in the woods behind my parents’ house – but roleplaying without rules is just improvisational acting, not a game. Likewise, a game like Dungeons & Dragons without rules for roleplaying is just a fantasy combat simulation.

When D&D was originally released back in 1974, that’s all it was – a fantasy mod for a squad-level medieval wargame. Even the concept of setting beyond a hole in the ground with a city nearby wouldn’t be published for another year. I bring up original D&D to illustrate that I’m not trying to make a value judgement or a comparison to the ‘good old days,’ here – just because a particular game is not roleplaying, or a spate of roleplaying is not a game, doesn’t imply that they are somehow diminished. They’re just in a different genre, by my definition.

I have a deep and abiding respect for Gary Gygax (may he rest in peace), and I shared many of his opinions, but this is one topic on which we differed. He was of the opinion that roleplaying was something that happened outside the rules. To me, that’s not a roleplaying game; that’s acting while wargaming. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, it is exactly how I tend to play the fantasy board games I love so much. But to me, a roleplaying game is a game that unifies roleplaying and combat under a single rule system, or at least with related rules systems. There need to be out-of-combat rules strict enough to provide challenge when performing tasks outside the dungeon, and in-combat rules relaxed enough to provide opportunity for character personality to emerge in battle. This is where D&D4 falls short for me, on both counts: its vestigial skill system and its exhaustive power list.

I’ve been mocked, in the past, for wanting to expend character resources on a skill like ‘pottery,’ because doing so limits the dungeon-crawling efficiency of my character. But for me, creating a character is not about creating a single-purpose tool. My favorite campaigns are the ones where characters purchase homes, open businesses, and marry townsfolk (or other adventurers), and in so doing become relevant not only to the success of the campaign but to the success of the setting. In short, my favorite campaigns are the ones that encapsulate an entire life rather than individual dungeon escapades. I have trouble explaining this to other D&D players, I think because they consider activities like these to be external to the game, or at best a secondary game. But for me, spending hard-earned gold on a permanent home or business is just as viable an investment as purchasing a new weapon or suit of armor. I believe, therefore, that the same rules should govern both.

Most D&D4 gamers I speak to seem to agree that the skill system is crippled, but many of them don’t seem to mind it as its impact on traditional 4th Edition play is minimal. For me, the lack of a flexible, diverse skill system is damning – it robs me of even the most basic system of adjudication for non-combat actions. This is apparently not a common concern, but it is mine. If I want my character to make some money on the side shoeing horses, there should be a difficulty associated with the required tasks just as there is a difficulty associated with dungeon crawling. It’s all part of the same game.

My complaint with D&D4’s power list is more esoteric, and harder to explain. Players railing against D&D4 often claim that there is less choice involved in creating a D&D4 character than there was in previous editions of the game, and this is pretty patently untrue, as fans of the system are quick to point out. Wizards and clerics have lost a lot of options, but everyone else has definitely gained in the variety department. I think what my fellow discontents are trying to say, rather, is that in D&D4 all choices are laid out for the player, even hard coded, and there is no creativity involved in their selection.

In previous editions of D&D, players had fewer choices to make in the rules, but there was a lot of empty space in character generation as a result. Room to extrapolate on things. A character became a person not because he was extensively customized with established rules, but because he was so similar to every other member of his class and race that you had to look between the rules to personalize him. In D&D4, between powers and feats, characters are watertight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great game design. I just don’t think spamming ‘Twin Strike’ encourages creativity, and I consider creativity to be a very important part of roleplaying. Can you rename Twin Strike? Can you reflavor it? Sure, but at the end of the day, every power has its own established, unique rules for execution and result. There’s only so much modification you can do without changing the mechanics. The mechanics of a power are definitive.

I think the best way to illustrate this particular point is to suggest an alternative. Even if a player likes the power list as written, I doubt they would argue that it would not be even better to have the capacity to design custom powers for their characters. And that is the “choice” that my fellow discontents are missing in D&D4. When all attacks were a d20 roll against THAC0 followed by rolling weapon damage – or to put it another way, when there was only one rule for attacking – there was a lot more room for personal embellishment. Every attack was different because every attack could be – the d20 roll governed only its success or failure. The power list removes that wiggle room by rigidly defining a character’s options during combat, and discourages embellishment by providing an effortless and universally recognized alternative.

And that about sums it up. By my definition, D&D4 is not a roleplaying game. It seems to me that D&D4 cripples roleplaying coming and going, as its combat rules are too detailed and its out-of-combat rules not detailed enough. Now, plenty of people are roleplaying using the D&D4 rules and enjoying it, and I don’t mean this piece to suggest that they are somehow doing it wrong. As long as they are enjoying themselves, that’s the ultimate goal, and I am glad to see them achieving it. The above are just the reasons why the new system doesn’t work for me personally. I had hoped for a long time that an increased number of supplements would ‘rescue’ D&D4 for me, but these issues are fairly substantive, and present in the core of the system. It seems unlikely they will ever be “fixed” in this iteration of the game, so I continue to look elsewhere for a roleplaying game with a system that will support the kind of long-running immersive campaign I prefer to dungeon master. I will, however, continue to enjoy playing D&D4 modules for enjoyment’s sake.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Jones the Cat on Gaming

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while – since shortly after we acquired our new kitten, Jones the Cat – but actually having a kitten around the house made me that famous extra bit busy that knocked this journal off the bottom of my high-priority list for a few months. My apologies; I’m going to try to get back into posting regularly again now that she’s been spayed and the stress is slowly wearing off. I’ve got a few things stored up that need to be given voice.

Jones the Cat is not named after T. S. Eliot’s Bustopher Jones, nor is she named after Ellen Ripley’s cat from the Alien franchise. I admit to being pleased by the unintended relationship with the latter.

Jones is named Jones the Cat to distinguish her from Reverend Jones, Jones the JP, and Jones the Prize Cabbage (which describes both his hobby and his personality). If you’ve not seen The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, it comes highly recommended. While it is at its core a romantic comedy, I suppose, it is also a really great look at how a village is a living entity and not just a collection of shops and an inn. So in that regard it might even have some roleplaying application, for fellow dungeon masters.

I’m writing about Jones because she’s unexpectedly taught me a great deal about gaming in the five months we’ve had her, and I think her lessons are worth spreading around. She has shown me that cats are consummate and capable gamers, and that I had forgotten a great deal about what that means.

Lesson 1: Frugality

Expensive toys are boring toys. Crumple some paper into a ball, and you have some real entertainment.

This is really the big one. Miniatures and map tiles and three-dimensional molded plastic dungeon walls are certainly very attractive, but they’re also expensive. Certain year-old popular roleplaying games are trying to convince you that you need these things to play, these days, and this could not be further from the truth. I think the jury is still out on whether combat visualization is necessary at all, even in new games, but assuming that you ascribe to the school of thought that it is, coins make perfectly good markers for characters and monsters. A piece of white paper with an inch grid drawn on it is sufficient for laying out most combats. I know there are dungeon masters out there who agree with me on this one: how many times have you painstakingly drawn a detailed, complex field of battle on a wet-erase mat only to have the entire battle use only the tiny open space in the lower-left corner of the map?

Remember that anyone can draw bushes and rocks, or use household objects to represent them. Remember that using a quarter to represent that orc isn’t any more disruptive to immersion than using the giant dire badger you got in the randomized booster of miniatures. Remember that, worse come to worst, you can even design your own rules.

I haven’t even touched on the absence of need to purchase pre-published modules and adventures, because I’ve always been a homebrewer, but it is just as true as the above that you can come up with your own stories. Money is strictly unnecessary to being a gamer.

Lesson 2: A Change in Scenery

If I drop the mouse here, it is a field mouse. If I carry the mouse over here, it is a rock mouse. If I bat the mouse into here, it is a cave mouse.

This rule applies more to wargaming than to roleplaying, but the same basic thought applies to both. A unit of soldiers changes entirely based on where and how it is fielded. Keep your mind open and your terrain modular, and the smallest number of miniatures can participate in an infinite number of sorties and conflicts. It’s not necessary to own multiple different large armies and several different detailed tabletops for the purposes of playing a wargame. Change the circumstances, and the same pieces can be rearranged into limitless combinations, each one sufficiently different from the last to be entertaining.

Lesson 3: Do What You Love

Play, play, play. Eat, eat, eat. Poop, poop, poop. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Play, play, play…

This is the lesson I have found most difficult to learn. Life is short. If you’re going to play, play. If you’re going to write, write. If you’re going to design, design. Better yet, do all three, when you feel like doing them. Being happy is just about the most important thing in the world.
It’s unfortunate that we do not have the same kind of leisure time that cats do – we have to look after ourselves. We have to work so that we can eat, and be clothed, and keep a roof over our heads. But that is all the more reason why we should use the time that is our own to do what we love, and have fun. Because if we work, and then come home and work more, what are we really accomplishing except our own misery and the misery of those around us?

Do what you love. Easier said than done, but worth striving for.

Lesson 4: Get Plenty of Sleep

I’m not tired, I’m just resting my eyezzzzzzzzz…

This is one we should all pay special attention to. No matter how good an idea staying up all night to game seems to be, it never quite works out. Playing without sleep sucks. Gaming, like most things, requires a certain amount of focus that is quickly lost after you’ve been awake for 16 hours. Caffeine only delays the inevitable and ultimately makes it worse. If you’re going to pull an all-nighter with your gaming pals, make sure you catnap in the afternoon or evening. It may feel like a waste of your time, but it’s going to be a bigger waste of everyone’s time if you’re falling asleep at the table. Dungeon master or player, or even if you’re just playing Halo, no one appreciates a gamer who can’t pay attention and stay focused.

Sleeping now means you can play later. It’s an exchange. Don’t short either activity.

Lesson 5: Hallucinate

This apartment is filled with bloodthirsty paper balls, bent on my death. I must destroy them.

This is the rule that fuels the others, and it should not require much explanation. You would not be a hobby gamer if you did not have an imagination, so use it! If something stops being fun, change it! Make up new rules, or a new situation, or new characters, or a new twist – a new anything! It doesn’t matter how stupid or insane it seems to you – you are predisposed to find your own ideas dumb, and you should not let that stop you. If it sounds like fun, it probably will be.

Remember being a kid, and running around the woods with a stick, pretending it was a sword? I’m not necessarily recommending that you join a live-action roleplaying game, here – the good ones are few and far between – but ask yourself why you think people who LARP are freaks, and reconsider those opinions. Try to tap into that childhood mindset and make it active again. Be willing to experiment, and more importantly to get hurt. When you fall down you can always get back up again. Get crazy. No one ever created anything of value by thinking like everyone else.



So much for the stress wearing off. Jones' keen gamer instincts have helped her to circumvent all five protective measures we've taken to prevent her from pulling out her stitches. I've already had to rush her back to the vet once. We're hopeful that her duct-tape-enhanced Elizabethan collar will hold until she gets the stitches out on Friday, but it is difficult to be optimistic in light of her terrifyingly advanced problem-solving ability. If anyone's reading this, your thoughts and prayers would be appreciated.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Faith Check: Natural 1

I find myself troubled. This journal is not, as a rule, for detailing my personal life, but this particular issue is somewhat thematic, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

Last month, I turned 30. The change was not immediate – realistically, I’ve been feeling it coming on for a number of months – but I do wonder if it is not at least subconsciously linked to beginning my fourth decade of life: I seem to all appearances to have grown out of tabletop roleplaying, just like my father always said I would.

I explained these feelings to a friend the other day, and said that I was feeling odd and depressed because I had always been defined by tabletop roleplaying. He disagreed, replying that I had always been defined by telling a story, and that for many years roleplaying was the best way for me to exercise that interest. I think he might be right, because that is exactly how I feel: I’ve reached a point in my storytelling career where telling a story through a group of participants has become inefficient and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s not writing. It’s barely even practice.

My dream job is writing for roleplaying games, whether they be tabletop games or computer games or console games. But that’s not the same thing as sitting at a table with four friends and wrestling them through over-long combats and awkward interpersonal acting, and I’ve begun to realize that I can’t get there from here. Even the best computer or console roleplaying game is still a linear experience at its core, no matter how many subplots it contains. Even a play-by-post game is more an interactive novel than a true tabletop experience, by necessity. Even tabletop roleplaying sourcebooks tell a story that ultimately has nothing to do with the people sitting around the table. It is the gamemaster’s job to interpret these dense documents into something personal and enjoyable for the group, and that is what I’m tired of doing. I’m tired of writing my story and then having to chop it up and shift it around and – in short – give someone else say in how my story goes.

I acknowledge that this sounds spectacularly selfish, but I do not feel unjustified. Gamemastery is possibly the only art form that requires such input from one’s audience. And that is good; it is all part of the fun of tabletop roleplaying. The trouble is that it is no longer interesting to me. What I want is an engaged audience that appreciates and recommends without actually being involved in the process. I want to keep reading roleplaying game materials, and designing game systems, and writing stories, and having them bring people joy, but I no longer want to workshop them. I want to be my own author. I want to be a complete entity unto myself, and I want my audience to be a complete entity unto itself.

And who knows, next week I might realize this was all a fevered hallucination and that gamemastering tabletop roleplaying sessions is really where I belong. But I doubt it. I feel like change is on the wind, and it is time to grab my hang glider.

It is a long drop.