Thursday, January 01, 2015

My Year In Gaming 2014

2 Contributions
I don't know how many people will ultimately read this post. It has been a long time since I've written anything down here, and I know my audience, which was already dwindling, has virtually evaporated over the past 8 months. A lot of things have happened, both in my personal life and within the gaming community which made blogging, especially about games, seem both not that important and more than a little dangerous this year. After seeing the things that happened to a lot of the people I follow on Twitter, people I consider friends, peers and mentors, and a number of people I look up to, getting pushed out of their jobs, their industry and yes in some cases, their homes, I'm very much on the opposition side of a particular hashtag. The fact that I don't even want to mention it by name, and yet I'm still afraid random people might show up here to try to "debate" the merits of said hashtag. I'm saying that knowing that I would financially benefit if they did though.

But that all shouldn't prevent me from doing my recap post for 2014. If I had been smarter, I would have written this throughout the year, but I wasn't so I'm going through my recent game list on Steam to get the order of everything right, and for the most part, it should be accurate.

Last year, I played 24 games across 12 months and this year I played 30, but I played one game for 4 months, so it is more like I played 29 games in 8 months plus one more for the rest of the year. With those kinds of stats, you know that this is going to be another LONG post.

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Don't Starve: Traditionally, the first game I start in the new year is a rogue-like/procedurally generated game, since they fit with the theme of restarting and putting a new spin on things with every new iteration. Don't Starve was much in keeping with that same theme. The premise is you wake up in the wilderness and you have to gather resources to craft things and feed/protect/shelter yourself. I found the experience of playing it largely enjoyable, but in the end, I was terrible at surviving. But it was fun trying, and that's all that I can ask of the experience really. And I love the art style so much. It has a wonderful art style, and to me, that is its most memorable feature. This was also the first of two games released by Klei Entertainment that I played this year.



Planescape: Torment: I tried... I really did. But I just didn't click with this game. I can understand why it is such a beloved game even now from my relatively short playtime, but I just couldn't get into it. The world had just started to open up for me, but by that point I had felt overwhelmed for quite some time trying to figure out how to make progress in the world, and knowing that every decision might have consequences made me really, really have to think about every thing that I said to every NPC I met. I know someone on Twitter who seemed to have the same experience I did, which makes me feel a little better. I have a sense that if I played this game back in the early part of the 2000s, I would have loved it, but I think that time has passed. It also made me a little fearful about trying to play some of the other older isometric RPGs I have, both of the Dungeons and Dragons variety and the old Fallout games which I think is a shame.


Euro Truck Simulator 2: This is very much one of those games that people think of as a joke until they play it... and a lot of people have played it now. This year, I had two separate experiences with this game this year. I played it in January and found the experience largely enjoyable, and much of my pleasure was derived from just seeing how Europe was recreated in the game since I've never been there, so it was something that appealed to my love of exploring spaces and seeing new things in games. When I had seen most of the map, I started to lose interest in the game. But I have to say, the driving was oddly satisfying, and building up my little company was sort of fulfilling. I then revisited the game again in November, partially as a transitional game after a long, long experience with another game, and partially because since I had played it in January, the developer had added Steam Achievements and additional content to the game, and I wanted to see how things had turned out since I had played it previously. Strangely enough, I have a bunch of memories attached to the music that was playing on the radio as I was driving. Like every time I hear Kajagoogoo's Too Shy, I think about driving into Paris from the east at sunset and having to go through toll booths, and Lily Allen's The Fear makes me think of driving north from Plymouth to Glasgow at night through construction zones and dodging speeding tickets, and U2's New Year Day reminds me of driving outside of Metz on route to Rotterdam in mid-afternoon... and I have so many memories/associations like this in my mind. I discovered a lot of great music, and for that alone, it was worth my money.



Super Hexagon: This is a hard game. It has 6 achievements, one for each of the levels, awarded for staying alive in the game for 60 seconds. I did not get one of them. And it is frustrating because it looks so deceptively simple. I wish I was better at it, I really do.Then again, Terry Cavanaugh is known for making hard games.




Wargame: European Escalation: I really liked the presentation of this game. It is a tactical war game which presents a series of scenarios/campaigns based on hypothetical ways that the Cold War in Europe during the 1970's and 80's could have erupted into a full-fledged hot war, and each campaign is prefaced by a short cut scene explaining the situation that led to war... and as someone who studied a lot of these events in the past, most of the setup is stuff that actually happened and it is just the very end, the final flashpoint that ends up different. Like the setup for Able Archer... every thing that they mention except the actual outbreak of war happened. The game itself is also very nice to look at, and extremely detailed. Like you can pull all the way back to see the whole map of the engagement, and then zoom in level by level until you are looking at a specific unit, with a model moving around in real time in a detailed environment that is deforming under the conditions of battle. From the technical side alone on this, I was pretty impressed. I know the later games in the series have more dynamic campaigns and such, but I think I like the idea of these tightly designed scenarios put together as campaigns better.



Beat Hazard Ultra: This was the second time I played this game for a sustained time period. The first time I really played it, it was a time in my life when I was amongst the best players in the world at this game... a couple of my scores were in the top 20-30 in the world (and my old scores are still pretty highly ranked even years later). So, when Cold Beam Games announced that there was going to be new DLC coming and they needed late beta testers, I felt like I was someone who was very qualified to test that content out. While I didn't get the old feelings back for the game (since it was DLC that allowed people to play/build their own ships, so it felt like a different game), it was an enjoyable process. I don't generally like to see how the sausage is made when it comes to games testing, but this was a rare exception, and a couple of my suggestions made it into the final product to make the experience better for everyone, and I think that is a good thing.I created some popular ships for the workshop too, and while I had a lot of fun playing it, I can also tell that I will never be as good as I once was at it.



Guacamelee! Gold Edition: A wonderful lucha-inspired Metroidvania, with a visual style that is bright, cartoonish and yet totally fitting the feeling and story of the game. In keeping with that theme, the combat is more like a beat em up rather than using the shooting mechanics that these games typically use and it was an interesting design choice which I think enhanced the game. It recently received another edition with more content, so if you are thinking of getting this game, it would probably be better to get that version rather than the Gold Edition, which is roughly the same price of the new version.



The Walking Dead Season 1: A gut punch of an experience. I don't read the comic and I don't watch the show based on it either, so I was largely coming into the universe completely fresh. While the larger events are almost all set in stone, it is the smaller decisions and mistakes that haunt you and I respect that. And some people would complain that your interaction with it is minimal, so it isn't really a game, but I don't subscribe to that view. I legitimately cried while playing this game, and I'm glad that I played it with all the episodes available, since I don't think I could have waited to see what happened between chapters. I had doubts that an episodic game could be this good, but I totally understand now why this made so many GOTY lists last year. Stunning, simply stunning.



Sword of the Stars: The Pit: A traditional rogue-like with turns and randomized layouts, multiple classes and races etc that takes place in the universe of Sword of The Stars. And like its fore-bearers, it is a very hard game, and after a few good runs, I had made it to the 15th floor a few times, which sounds good, but I'm led to believe that you have to get down to the 25th-30th floor and then fight your way back up the way you came. Yeah, I'm not good enough to do that, and I don't know if I ever would be.



One Finger Death Punch: The genius of this game is it is literally designed with just two inputs, basically hit left and hit right and yet it works so well. It is basically a rhythm game, with an art style that is basically stick figures fighting in front of Asian-theme backdrops in short stages, but somehow it works brilliantly. And you'd think with only two inputs that it would be easy, but no, like a rhythm game, you have to hit those two inputs at exactly the right time for what you want to do... you can't button mash... it is designed to be precise and tight, while allowing for some improvisation. It is very good at what it does, and when you get it right, you feel like such a badass.



Pinball FX2: The post right before this is about this game, so I am not going to write a lot about it here. In short, I really liked it. The flipper action felt good, the tables are interesting, and I like the business model where they let you try tables before you buy them, and you only have to buy the ones you like in most cases, so you get the experience you want at a price you are willing to pay.



Mark of the Ninja: A magnificent 2D stealth game. Mechanically, it is solid as a rock, the difficulty is perfect, and the atmosphere and design choices are sublime. I don't generally like stealth, but the way Klei did it in this game made it a joy to play. The game even felt like the perfect length as well. Everything worked. This is the second Klei Entertainment game I played, and as you can tell, I really liked it.




Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic: When I tell people that I started but did not finish the game, they seem very disappointed in me.And it turns out, it was the second Bioware game this year that I abandoned in the middle of a playthrough. There are a couple of reasons this happened. One was a technical issue where the cutscenes (and there are a lot of them) would change my monitor resolution to play, and there were times when it somewhat crashed my game... and that soured me on the experience. Another thing was, I didn't like the combat.... it just rubbed me the wrong way and it felt weird. The story was good from what I played of it and as I'm playing this many years later, I have had a rough idea of where things were headed towards the end of it, but I wish those two major issues didn't get in the way of my overall enjoyment of this title.



Risk of Rain: Another procedural generated rogue-like game (I played a lot of them this year it seemed). This one is a side scrolling, sci-fi shooter/platformer and it was quite appealing to me. I had quite a few runs that seemed poised to end in victory, but they were all dashed. One of the interesting mechanics in this game is the fact that you are punished with harder difficulty if you dawdle too much, so you have to balance looking around for loot and moving on in the game so you can face the bosses and higher level creatures when they are easier. I think of the four of these kinds of games that I played this year, this would be the one I recommend the most.



Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages: Simply delightful. This is a strange little ship-based RPG, with a quirky story, awesome soundtrack and a lot of customization. The controls are a little odd, as they don't work the way you would think they would for a top down shooter type game, but you will pick them up quickly. Basically, you play as someone who wakes up from unauthorized surgery that has left you with amnesia and an AI talking to you in your brain, and you are looking for answers about what just happened to you in a picaresque kind of narrative. It really tickled my fancy. It was a labor of love by the crew at Triple.B.Titles, but they released a game I loved, so I was very much pleasantly surprised. I liked it so much, I helped fund their next game by preordering it on Kickstarter. 



Hearts of Iron III: This one was more of a lark, since I have experience playing Paradox games and some experience with this particular franchise. I just wanted to see if I could do anything as Turkey as a member of the Allies. The short answer is no. Even after getting overrun by the Nazis, I continued to watch things play out and what ended up happening is Russia took over EVERYTHING in Europe and Asia by the end. Yeah... that was certainly an unintended consequence of me losing as Turkey. It was fun watching it happen though.


Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star: Also known as Achtung Panzer: Operation Star. I remember reading about this game in a PC Gamer editorial by Rob Zacny, and it got me really interested in it. However, it has a really steep learning curve, and I didn't fully grasp how to play... I probably didn't help that I didn't read the manual, because it has been a long time since I've had to. I think I will eventually go back and give this game a second chance because I think the fault really was with me not understanding how to play it rather than it being a badly designed game.



Mount and Blade: Warband: I played the original Mount and Blade a few years ago, and I really enjoyed it. Warband is supposed to be an updated version of the original and all the things that I loved about the first game are still here. The combat is as satisfying as ever, and I enjoyed building my own personal army. The strategy aspects are fun too, as you really get to determine how you are going to engage the enemy when you are at war. 



Just Cause 2: I was not really a fan of the first game, but I had heard good things about the sequel and at first it was a very fun, over the top experience.The first time you do some of the crazier stuff, you really get a kick out of it, but that feeling fades away by the 50th time you have to do something. I didn't care about the characters or what they wanted, and most of the things they wanted me to do were boring. I started rushing to finish it, which is never a good place to be with a game, but I had committed so much time to it at that point, I just wanted to see it through to the end. Suffice it to say, I thought I wasn't going to play any open world games for a long time afterwards.



 Shadowrun Returns: When I first heard about this game, I was hoping that it was going to be like the version that was released on the SNES, and while it does have a narrative connection to that, the combat is more akin to something like XCOM, which isn't a bad thing. My major complaint is it is relatively short, but in buying it, you are also getting a toolset to create and play other people's scenarios and stories, so that vastly increases the content that is available to you as a player. I'm hoping to play a much longer story that someone has created with those tools in 2015, as there are a lot of assets and I know the modding community for most games can create amazing things.


Ikaruga: When they said this was a hard game, they weren't joking. It doesn't mess around. Given my prowess at Beat Hazard Ultra, I thought that I might be better at this game, but nope. It kicked my ass. I made it to the second level a few times, but I was never able to advance beyond it. But it was still an experience worth having, even if I was unable to master it.



Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+: This is a great short session game, and just watching the trailer makes me want to play it again. The speed of the game is exhilarating, as it slowly ramps up, and you start doing things faster than you thought you were capable of at the beginning. The way I played it, it was more like a side dish to another, more substantial game... the kind of game you play to refresh yourself, to take a break with and it's really good at filling that role. It's a fitting successor to Pac-Man and Ms Pac-Man for sure.



Tomb Raider: This was my first real experience with the Tomb Raider series, and I have to say, it made quite the impression on me. I enjoyed it very much, and I loved the fact that in many ways, it felt like I was playing through a horror game rather than a pure action adventure one. I felt much the same way playing this game that I did last winter playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was the perfect difficulty for me, so when I failed to do something, it was entirely my fault, and the construction of the world and discovery of each part of it felt natural. If it wasn't for another game on this list, I would probably have said it was my game of the year.




A Wizard's Lizard: Another rogue-like, procedurally generated game that was released this year. This one feels a lot like A Link to the Past in terms of your movement speed and the way levels are designed. And like Rogue Legacy, as you play it, you can slowly build up resources which make the game easier and more varied as you go through the dungeon, so with every new life, you have more options to work with, and you can start to find a playstyle and loadout that really work for you.



Scribblenauts Unlimited: A fun little game. If you've never played a Scribblenauts game, the object is basically to solve people's problems by using your magic notebook to write down something that will help them. The database of things you can use is huge, so your solution will likely be very different from someone else's, which is great. And it is fun to play around, just thinking of the craziest thing you can and seeing if your collection of adjectives and nouns will pop into existence. However, like my experience with Lego Marvel Super Heroes last year, I don't really feel the need to revisit this franchise as I've gotten my fill of the mechanics and humor from just one game in the franchise.



Super House of Dead Ninjas: A procedurally generated action platformer with an 8/16-bit aesthetic with short, fast games in mind. It was fun (and as one of the first Adult Swim games released on Steam, my description seems to match a lot of the kinds of things that their games are known for), but ultimately, it didn't keep my attention for long. Good mechanics and charming retro feel for sure though.



Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed: A Kart-style racer featuring mostly Sega characters. It is a great game, though again, the Mario Kart franchise is still the king. But for a game that appeared on every other non-Nintendo platform, it is really good. I enjoyed the fact that the game wasn't limited to just driving, as most courses also had air or water elements, which allow for different racing techniques. I especially loved the inclusion of Wreck It Ralph, and while they didn't get John C. Reilly to relive the part, the substitute is pretty good. I think the fact that the stages were all based on Sega properties hurt the title a little bit though, since some of the properties didn't lend themselves to that particularly well, and some non-licensed tracks would have added some variety and spice to the game. But I still had fun, and that is the important thing.



Skyrim: Wow, what an experience. The fact that I waited so long to play this game makes me sad now.  How much did I like this game? I played it and only it for 4 months and I loved every second of it. And this wasn't the first time I had visited Tamriel since I had played Morrowind a few years back, and I was deeply enthralled by that, but it did not prepare me for this experience. It was completely engrossing, and any time I might have gotten bored, there was always something new to try, someplace new to explore, and it kept finding ways of taking me in new directions. Put it simply, t wasn't just the game I enjoyed most this year, but it is arguably the best game I've ever played. I'm saying that without hyperbole. Usually when I play a game, there is a moment where my enjoyment starts to trail off, a moment which tells me that perhaps I should start playing another game or start moving towards the end of the narrative so I can stop playing. I never had that experience with Skyrim. After playing it so long, I made a decision that after I accomplished certain things, I would stop playing. But I didn't. I kept finding new things to do and new experiences to try and I kept getting achievements (I ended the run with 72 out of 75 of the possible achievements). I decided that I would rather stop playing it having loved it so much than ruin the experience by playing it until I finally got sick of it, and I think it is healthier that way. I could always go back if I want to experience that world again, but parting with it was hard, but it is better this way.



Olli Olli: For my first game after Skyrim... it wasn't going to go well for any game that came right after that. But Olli Olli did act like a good palette cleanser for what was to come next. It is a 2D skateboard game with tight time windows to do tricks and it starts difficult and just gets tougher from there. I respect it, but it didn't wow me... but again, the circumstances could have been better. It was like a rebound game. I played more ETS2 right after this, and that helped me get ready for the next game on this list.



Payday 2: I generally don't play multiplayer games, so when I bought Payday 2 and most of the DLC during the Steam Summer Sale, I was actually mad at myself because I thought I would never play it and I had wasted my money (my other concern was the install size, which at the time of purchase looked like it was around 25-31GB, something that was also tweaked so it takes up a lot less hard drive space). But still, I wasn't convinced... but the new DLC kept being on sale, and I told myself, well, if it was on sale for another day, another week, maybe I would buy it... and inevitably, it kept doing just that. So, when everything for the game was on sale during the Fall Sale, I was keyed up... I was ready and excited to play this game. How excited? I played over 100 hours of it in 2 weeks. How insane is that for me? I don't think I played a game that much in such a short period of time since I was in high school. To put that in perspective, I played Skyrim for 4 months and racked up around 240 hours and I did 150 hours of Payday 2 in about a month.


Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition: I bought this in the summer sale with the belief that Namco-Bandai would ultimately drop Games For Windows Live and migrate it fully to Steamworks, and that came true, so my only objection to playing it disappeared by the end of the year. I was prepared for this to be a punishing game, and I'm slowly making progress in it. I don't know if I will ultimately beat it, but it certainly is fun trying at the moment, and satisfying when you do make progress or discover the secret to beating an enemy you thought was almost impossible to harm, let alone defeat. But we'll see how well my resolve holds up when I can no longer make progress... because that will likely be a breaking point for me. It seems like a good game to finish the year out with as well.


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This year, I think I have to grade the list of my favorite titles on a curve in a way because I loved Skyrim so much that it doesn't seem fair to pick it and then 4 other games, because again, I'm on the record saying it was arguably the greatest game I've ever played and that is using a long, long history of playing games to judge it against.

What I'm going to do is make a list my top 5 games aside from Skyrim and I think how it shakes out in that context is this:

1. Tomb Raider
2. The Walking Dead
3. Payday 2
4. Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages
5. Euro Truck Simulator 2

Number 5 was sort of a toss up between Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Mark of the Ninja, but I gave the former the edge because of the number of hours I played it and the fact that I revisited it after Skyrim and it held its own for a decent amount of time in that slot.

So how did I do on my to-play list for this year? Pretty good I'd say.

From the end of last year's post (I've bolded all the games I did get to) 

And what are a few games that are going to pop up on next year's list from the games I have at my disposal at the moment? Probably at least one older D&D game, like Planescape Torment (at least this one), and maybe a Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights game. Don't Starve is definitely on the playlist, and I will probably get around to the new Tomb Raider and season one of The Walking Dead. I'm also interested in trying Euro Truck Simulator 2 (with no irony attached, I've heard it is really good) and maybe, maybe Just Cause 2.
I did so well on that initial list during the first half of the year, I had to make a second list of new goals... which I was slightly less successful at achieving:

 

So, for 2015, in addition to Pixel Piracy, Long Live The Queen and Batman Arkham City (I'm taking the Bioshock games off the list for the moment), I also want to get to Ultimate General: Gettysburg, Steam Marines, The Walking Dead Season 2, one of the King's Bounty games, probably A Wolf Amongst Us, one of the EA arcade-racing games I have (either Burnout Paradise: Ultimate Box or Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit), and if Gnomoria finishes development and comes out of Early Access, I'm probably going to play that too.

If Bulletstorm or FUEL dropped GFWL/Securom, I'd play them in a second. But I don't think that is going to happen this year or any year.

And looking at that list above, it seems to be a lot less AAA-oriented than some of my lists in the past, and I'm ok with that, especially since I never know how a year is going to turn out, because I pick up a lot of games during any given year, so the games I absolutely love in 2015 might not even be on my list of things to get to right now. My game of 2015 might not be out yet, or it could be sitting in my library, an acquisition from a long forgotten bundle that I know nothing about at this moment, but which for any number of reasons, I discover to be a masterwork in its genre, something that just have to play.

That is half the joy in playing games... finding something unexpected and new... and the more people who make games and the more voices there are in the industry across the board from developers, producers, writers and artists to reviewers, critics and academics, the easier it will be to find that strange, entertaining new thrill, and I don't want that to go away. It vexes me that 2014 is tainted because so many voices were silenced and pushed out of industry and I think about all the games I won't be able to play or hear about because of it.

One hashtag left the gaming industry poorer this year in so many ways.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Review: Pinball FX 2

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When I was a kid, I loved pinball. I was always excited when I'd go to an arcade or a convenience store and they had a new pinball machine to play. The sounds and music from classic tables are still implanted in my brain even now, and I remember all the good times I had back then.

But the last time I really played a pinball game on a console or PC, it was way back in the days of the Atari 2600 with a game called Midnight Magic, released in 1986-7. I missed out on Space Cadet on Windows too, since it was a separate installation on Windows 98.

So now seemed like as good a time as any to try my hand at the ever-popular Pinball FX 2 for the PC (which is also available on XBLA, and on PSN/WiiU under the name Zen Pinball 2)


I played the game with a Logitech F310 controller, which is arranged like a PS2/3 controller, but which has Xbox color coding and inputs, so this review should be relevant to console players as well.

I've also played 36 of the tables, so at this point, I feel like I have a good understanding of both the mechanics of this particular game and the design principles that Zen Studios uses in making their tables.


At its heart, Pinball FX 2 is designed to be fun and challenging rather than being a 100% accurate pinball simulation, and I'm okay with that. That philosophy allows events to happen that could only happen in a game, like having two realistic 3D characters battle and move around the playing field while you play through a table event. It also means that when you encounter events that require magnets to hold balls and such, they work perfectly every time, which to me is a plus, but other people might not like that. These are not real tables, and I think the whole experience benefits from that.

The Avengers Table

Every table I've played so far has been fun and visually pleasing to me while maintaining the illusion of reality and verisimilitude in most cases. I've been especially drawn to the Marvel licensed tables, especially the ones from Avengers Chronicles pack, which is four tables which cover The Avengers movie, and the Fear Itself, World War Hulk and Infinity Gauntlet story lines. I'm also a fan of the Star Wars tables. Given the fact that most of the licensed tables are from now Disney owned properties, I wouldn't be surprised to see either tables linked to their animated movies or perhaps the Muppets in the future.

Iron Man Table
The sound design is also quite impressive. Along with the normal sounds that you'd expect from the bumpers, flippers and other staples of pinball, each table has its own individual music and voices, though with the licensed tables, they usually use stand-ins in place of their more famous counterparts, which is understandable. The sounds for the tables not attached to a property also feel fitting for older pinball tables in real life. They are subdued but thematically appropriate and I appreciate that. 

The Empire Strikes Back Table
The controls are also very responsive, and even though I don't often apply english to the table, I like the fact that it is available and it responds to direction. The flippers also trigger instantly and powerfully, which matches my memories of playing classic pinball. A lot of the tables also have mini-subtables that you might get access to after doing a particular set of actions. These mini games are fun and challenging, and at times bring new kinds of experiences (like I remember playing a Breakout-like sequence on the Fear Itself table involving Mjolnir) that a traditional pinball game couldn't provide.

Pasha Table
I am also a fan of the way they sell their tables. The base game (at least on the PC) comes with one table for free (Sorcerer's Lair), and you can start and play that one as much as you want. You can also try the other tables and decide if you like them before buying them. By selling them individually, or in bundles of themed tables, you can commit to just the content you enjoy, which for this game is a model that works very well.

In the end, it is very easy for me to recommend Pinball FX 2. It has been an entirely enjoyable experience and it is the kind of game I can both pick up and play when I have a few minutes to spare and one which I could devote a lot of individual time to. It is hard to find a game that scratches both those itches for me, but this is definitely one of them.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Multiplayerphobia

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I've had a bit of a problem the last few years, one which I rarely if ever talk about. You see, I am generally uneasy playing multiplayer games online.

Don't get me wrong, local co-op and competitive gaming are both amazing and I love doing that, and in fact, they represent some of the best times I've ever had playing games. And I'd love to pick up a real world table top/pen and paper RPG some day, and I am genuinely excited by that prospect. But when it comes to playing games online, those experiences have not been as fun, and I don't even mean for the usual reasons people cited when talking about this subject.

I am not afraid of getting yelled at or abused by my fellow players, or receiving threats after a game. No, in my case, and I may be unique in this appraisal of things, playing games online with other people, even friends, gives me the same kind of introverted reaction that I would get if I was at a party with a lot of people I didn't know. It is stressful for me and it makes me tired. It is draining, and I feel like I need to stop and recharge rather quickly. When I started having this reaction, I didn't fully understand it. I thought it was strange and unprecedented, especially given the amount of time I spent playing MUDs in the late 1990's and again in the early 2000's.

And the strange thing is, I don't have anxieties about anything else online. I'll email anybody and I'll talk to anyone on Twitter/Facebook/chatroom/forums. it doesn't matter who it is. I have no fear about that sort of thing, and I really have never been shy online. It is as if being online has given me a persona which is an extroverted version of myself, one that is only available in this space.

But after having given the matter some more thought, it occurred to me that it was the pressure of failure, of screwing up, of letting someone else down, that has been weighing on me all these years. In those situations, you are making a commitment to another person and if you mess up or have to leave, you are wrecking their fun. That was the thought in the back of my head, and/or the pressure I felt while playing games with other people online.

I also think my play style isn't conducive to a lot of multiplayer games. When I play games, I like to explore, experiment and mess around and a lot of games predicated on multiplayer are more goal oriented. My play style is very much geared to the single player experience. The game that I immediately think of when discussing this is Torchlight II. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny looking for loot... but playing with other people, that isn't realistic. They want to get through the game in a reasonable amount of time, so I always felt rushed. I have a feeling that Borderlands would have been the same way. I want to look around, find everything I can and then move on. That's a problem online.

I've always loved playing games by myself, and talking about those experiences with other people, usually people who had themselves played those games, in chatrooms and forums for well over a decade. It is how I enjoyed games, a world where I would write AARs, tell anecdotes about the strange things I saw or just talk about strategies or the story/characters. I would almost call the way I play/talk about games, especially with the growth of the internet, I don't know.... single player plus? All the comforts of social networking, without the anxiety.

Come to think of it, the only game that I felt entirely comfortable playing with other people the past few years has been Team Fortress 2, and I think that was for a few reasons. Firstly, it felt casual so I could just jump in a game if I felt like it and leave the same way. There were also so many people playing on a single map that my overall contribution would likely not be the game changing factor in any match. Lastly, there were no feelings of social obligation for me. If I played, I played... and if I didn't, well then too bad, because if I didn't, there was always going to be another game for my friends to join. 

Now I am wondering what I should do. Should I try to force myself through these anxieties, especially given the fact that developers/publishers are increasingly shifting their focus away from single player games towards multiplayer experiences to increase the lifespan of their games and soften trade-in numbers, or should I be content to stay in this nice little box of comfort I am currently in?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two Types of Geek Friendships?

1 Contributions
A few weeks ago, a thought struck me, one which I presented to a couple of friends who told me that perhaps I was on to something. I am just spitballing this here because I

Basically, I think there are two general types of geek friendships based on the nature of the individual geekdoms.

On one hand, there are the geekdoms which are predicated on not just enjoying things yourself, but by sharing them with your friends and colleagues. And then there are geekdoms in which you have to go outside of your peer group and seek out others who have an affinity for that type of thing and thus cultivate new friendships because of that shared interest.

For example, there are a lot of aspects of my geekdom that I am very public with, and I encourage my friends to experience them too, oftentimes evangelically. Off the top of my head in terms of games, I have tried to get a lot of people into things like Beat Hazard Ultra, A.I. War: Fleet Command and God Hand unapologetically. And I am recommending Brooklyn Nine Nine to everyone I know in an admittedly hardcore way.

And then there are things like Football Manager, which I really enjoy, but it's something which had limited appeal amongst my friends, given the fact that it is a menu/spreadsheet driven game about soccer. So to find people to talk about that particular interest, I had to seek out new friends based around that game online.

Most of those people lived in Britain and were significantly younger than me, and because of that, I wonder if in their lives, Football Manager falls more in that first kind of geekdom, since even stand up comedians make jokes about playing it there, so it is likely a very different geek culture for that across the pond, like there may be regional aspects to this theory as well.

Come to think of it, I had a little bit of a similar experience with Euro Truck Simulator 2 as well. 

I am imagining one of my friends who used to play Warhammer 40K had similar kind of thing with that game, since he made friends who were already into it by competing in local tournaments rather than trying to convert me or his other friends into players of the game. The barriers for adopting the hobby are the high cost in terms of both money and time in building your model army, the relatively small community, and the nature of gameplay which wouldn't appeal to everyone. By making friends amongst the existing player base, those barriers were eliminated.

Again, this is something that occurred to me recently, and I could totally be off, but does something I am talking about here seem anecdotally true for any of you as well?

Friday, February 07, 2014

I Am Going To Fight

9 Contributions
I think this has been a long time in coming, though I can see hints that this was a decision I was moving towards for months now. I've been writing this post for well over a month as well, and I kept putting off posting it because I've been a little afraid to say this, to come right out and say it rather than have it just sitting in my brain. 

I have resolved that I will no longer turn a blind eye to how certain vocal segments of the gaming community treat women.

What really crystallized this decision for me was what happened to developer Zoe Quinn recently after her free game Depression Quest entered the Steam Greenlight system for a second time and she was attacked mercilessly online and over the phone.

After seeing what happened to Zoe Quinn, I made the decision that me being silent was helping those who bully my fellow geeks. I was bullied as a kid, and let me tell you, I hate that crap. As a community, we all got enough of that stuff when we were kids, and we shouldn't be doing that to other people who share our interests, and we shouldn't be making it easier for the kind of people who do. It is like if at the end of Revenge of the Nerds, the Trilambs, having won control of the Greek council, start acting exactly like the Alpha Betas to everyone, because they are merely doing what had been done to them. If we want a better community, more people have to be willing to fight for it and I think I am finally ready to do that.

The reason this kind of thing is increasingly important to me is that core of male geeks are pushing back very hard on segments of the population that by default have been deemed not geeks... especially women. When I made the decision to just blog about video games, I started follow a lot of prominent women in the industry on Twitter, and I've been hearing a lot more stories and seeing male geeks trying to push women geeks out of our community, so it is becoming more visible to me now. 

I am thinking of all those stories of girls going to conventions and having to vet themselves again and again because they do not conform with this image of what a geek is... and being told that they are fake if they screw up. Imagining myself in that scenario, I would hate that. Or the stories of being sexually harassed again and again and again as both developers and members of the press.

I had known about things like this in the past, but I never really understood how endemic it was.

I would like to say that it is because of my time spent in the early 00's on a couple of web design forums that  had vocal and prominent female members and founders, and it was through those outlets that I ended up playing my first real online multi-player FPS, Unreal Tournament with a group of men and women from that site, where there wasn't any push back on the women because we all knew each other and they were also some of the best players. And then I played a lot of years of single player PS2 games. Then, when I returned to multi-player gaming, it was in Team Fortress 2 on Steam, and I never heard or read anything in any of the games I played that was really problematic... not even rage when you were on a losing team. It was a playing experience that seemed ideal to me, and rather divorced from the horror stories of abuse in games like Battlefield and COD...

...you know, scratch that. The truth is, I've been a coward. This is a problem that has been here all along and I just didn't want to see it or confront it. I was willfully ignorant.

I had an indication in the late 1990's, within my first 2 years of using the internet that it was a problem. And in retelling the story, I had someone who I deeply respect basically tell me the same thing.

Yet, I didn't want to really understand.

When I learned about the site Fat, Ugly or Slutty, I asked my female friends about it, and they recounted stories about things that happened to them that were very much in keeping with the things that were said and posted on that site.

And again, I didn't really want to understand.  

Sure, I was sympathetic and horrified by the stories of dick pictures and awkward, gross and actively hostile messages sent their way... but in the end, I didn't say or do anything to try to make things better, and that is all on me.

If I am going to be honest, when I look back at some of my earlier posts when I was writing about pop culture as a whole, I do notice that young female celebrities got a lot of negative attention from me, a disproportionate amount. At the time, I didn't see the problem with it since they were prominently featured in entertainment news, but in retrospect, it wasn't entirely fair of me to do so. If I am going to be a vocal part of this solution, then I have to acknowledge that I haven't always been entirely without sin when it comes to these matters.

It is so easy to criticize or make fun of a celebrity, since they are likely not going to see what I wrote about them. It feels harder to go after the kind of people who make life hell for others in the gaming community because you are often confronting them directly. I am generally non-confrontational, so even though I am resolving to fight, part of me is still telling me not to.

Back before I started Culture Kills, I used to blog somewhere else in a community that was largely conservative. I am very much the opposite of that. For a time, I was the second most popular blog in that community (and even when I was not, I was still in the top ten), but being a voice that was relatively moderate in amongst a larger group of people who were fighting over politics wore me down. I didn't enjoy fighting. I was good at it, really good, but it left me feeling angry all the time.

And for the most part, when I left there to start this blog, I largely sidestepped the fighting. I was part of a larger group of other pop culture bloggers and in general, we were all pretty polite and cool with each other, even when we disagreed, and I liked that. It is something that made blogging enjoyable for me.

But in fighting against this entrenched, sometimes anonymous group of people, I know I have to be prepared for, at the very least, some unpleasantness and I think I finally am. So I am going to be calling that stuff out here, and if I see it out in the wilds of the internet, I am going to be pushing back against it there too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I Am Trying To Understand Gamer Rage Over GOTY Lists

2 Contributions
When the PC Gamer Game Of The Year selections were slowly being posted, I'll admit that I took a perverse glee in reading the asinine and outraged comments beneath each one. Like how dare PC Gamer come to a consensus about some games they enjoyed and share those conclusions with the world.

For example, I am a subscriber to the magazine, so when they decided that Spelunky was their Game of the Year,  I had remembered that in an earlier issue, that they had given it a score of 96/100. Looking at Metacritic, there are only a few games that they have given equal or higher scores to: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Half Life 1 and 2, Minecraft, Civilization II, Crysis and The Sims. So it should have been no surprise that PC Gamer gave the award to Spelunky.

Some people didn't agree:


And that one is a rare comment that actually mentioned other games that it should have been instead. Most do not. They simply complain about the choice without offering up an alternative.

Part of the humor for me comes from the fact that I really don't understand the anger. It makes me seriously ask, does a website or magazine picking a title that they didn't like somehow invalidate these people's entire existence? It is someone or a group of people saying they liked something... it isn't a personal affront to you or your way of life. 

The game that ended up being the gold standard of this kind of angry denunciation by gamers in comments this year was Gone Home. It was ugly... it is the only way to put it. It was a perfect storm of a game that was relatively short, had a female protagonist and told a story in a non-violent way through the exploration of a house in a non-horror setting. It won a lot of awards, and certain segments of the gaming community hated not just the fact that it won, but that it even exists. They went out of their way to spoil key plot points of the narrative and say things like it was destroying gaming, or that it wasn't a game at all or other awful things. These comments were flowing as the lists were being announced, so it was a long term process. (And don't get me wrong, there are an exceedingly large number of people who enjoyed and loved Gone Home in the fan community as well).

Again, no one is forcing you to play it. No one. You like something else? That's great. That is your game of the year. Because there is a definite difference between having a respectful disagreement and setting out to wreck the future experience of other players by deciding to tell everyone what the story is of a short game. It's not cool. That is beyond the bounds of spoiler etiquette.

I am invested in the games and other things I love doing well and getting critical recognition. There are genres of games that I don't like. If a game from one of those genres won a Game Of The Year award over a game I loved, I'd be still okay with it. I wouldn't spend my time ripping on the game that won in the way a lot of these commenters do.

And I am saying that as someone who wrote a twitter diatribe against the RoboCop remake to the official account for the movie... so I still have moments of geek rage.

EDIT: Well, someone wrote an article recently for the International Business Times which seems to answer this very question. The article is titled Why Do Gamers Obsess Over Review Scores?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Digital Backlogs: Don't Be Ashamed

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Recently, Polygon and Kotaku posted articles about a problem that a lot of people ruminate on... that of the digital backlog people who use Steam and other digital services develop as they use them.

Whenever this kind of topic gets brought up, especially when it comes to digital libraries, the question that a lot of commenters tend to ask is: why do you buy all these games that you don't play?

From someone who has quite a collection of digital games, I have a few answers for those people.

But the first thing we have to discuss is how people get large libraries in the first place. There are three real factors in terms of library inflation that people who aren't part of the community wouldn't really understand, because they haven't really experienced it.

Indie Game Bundles

This is a huge culprit in library inflation. So many times, even with "beat the average" pricing, paying for a full bundle just to get 1 or 2 titles ends up being cheaper than getting those titles individually, even when they are on sale. And in buying the bundle, you end up with a group of games you never really wanted in the first place, but which are now part of your library. You never wanted it, you didn't put your money into the bundle to have it, but now you own it, and I am sure there are other people who have huge libraries would tell you the same story about a sizable amount of their collection. It is like you are buying dinner at a restaurant, and you just want a burger at a reasonable price, but with the meal you end up with a huge platter of fries as well, most of which you will never eat, and you'll just bring it home, stick it in your fridge and never think about them again. Well, not until you look at your fridge and wonder how it got so full so fast.

Digital Store Game Bundles

At Steam this sort of thing used to be more common but in recent years, the number of bundles that they offer has been greatly reduced. However, they still tend to offer franchise bundles, which can end up being very tempting. For example, during the most recent Steam Winter Sale, the most recent Tomb Raider game had a few days when it was 80% off, making it 10 dollars. There was also a package that was the reboot plus every other Tomb Raider game on Steam for 4 dollars more, so if you had any interest in playing the older titles, well, paying a little more to have them all seems to make sense. Even off of Steam this happens. Recently I bought a D&D bundle from Good Old Games, which was 10 games, 7 of which I wanted. When I tried to remove one of the games I did not want, the price of the remaining games skyrocketed, so it was in my financial interest to buy them all. So in this scenario, you are buying a number of games to get most or all of them for future play. There was another short-time sale during the most recent Steam sale where there was a game (Toki Tori 2) which was more expensive by itself than the bundle it was also included in by a decent margin. Would you pay 4 dollars for a game or 2 something in a package that has 3 other games in it when confronted with a choice like that? I have a feeling nearly everyone would pick the latter.

One Game, Multiple Listings

Then there are times when you buy a game, and you end up with multiple game listings for it in your library, each of which count as a different title. Sometimes it is a game and its expansion, sometimes it is the game and then its beta version, but each time that happens, it inflates the size of the library, making it look like there are more games than there actually are. The most egregious example of this kind of thing in my own library was the Arma X Anniversary Edition which I bought in December. It is basically 2 games... but every expansion that came with it ends up with its own listing in my library, ballooning it to 8 games. Telltale Games' Back To The Future game has individual listings for each of the chapters of the game. These are just two common examples, and because a not statistically insignificant number of games do this, the number of games most people have in their library is smaller than what Steam counts them as.

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When you take these factors into account, I think it is likely that for the average Steam user, if they were to eliminate titles that fit into these three categories and merely counted games that they willingly bought, their library size would shrink by at least 40% if not more.

Now, I am not going to say how many games I have on Steam, but I will say that it is a substantial number. Even when you filter for the factors I've discussed above, I still have a sizable library of games that I've purchased willingly and that I have not yet played.

My own rationale for having so many games is really a matter of choice. I like having options, if I am looking for something to scratch a particular itch and only a new experience will do it. So if I am looking for a hard platformer, I have a few just waiting to be played. If I want a RPG with choices and morality, I have a few of those. If I want racing, grand strategy, management, fighting, open world... I have games on hand that I can just install and play any time I am in the mood.

If a game is sitting in my library unplayed, it also means that I bought it on sale, likely at 75% off. I've done the rough math on this and it turns out it isn't that bad. If I bought all the games that I've played so far at full price and compared that price to the amount I've spent on amassing my library, I've spent about 20% more to have these options. I think that is a more than fair trade-off really.

As I was writing this piece, it occurred to me that many of the same people who ask their fellow players why they buy so many games that they don't play likely use a service which gives them access to vast amounts of content that there is absolutely no expectation they are going to get through in its entirety.

I'm of course talking about Netflix and Hulu Plus (amongst other services). And what about people with DVR's full of shows they haven't watched? They are paying a fee every month for those services Why are using those services socially acceptable and encouraged, but somehow having the same kind of freedom in terms of a video game library, especially in the digital realm, is not?

In essence, we are both paying for entertainment, but somehow the person with a digital game library with unplayed titles is looked at with a little bit of derision, like somehow we are all doing something silly at best and completely idiotic at worst. I think that is a profound disconnect.

Even the language we use to describe having a gaming backlog works to perpetuate that same disconnect, because think about how often the word shame is used. You don't just have a backlog, you have a pile/stack of shame or shameful backlog. If you have a lot of unwatched movies, TV shows or unread books, one very rarely refers to that as something you should actively be ashamed of. If you put "pile of shame" into Google, you get almost 1.4 million results, with all the top results being about games. Movies and books pop up once in a while, but it is usually about games.

To me, a pile of shame sounds like the phrase you would use to tell someone who had, in a drunken fit, defecated or vomited on your carpet that they did so... that they left you a pile of shame. It shouldn't be used to describe some entertainment products that you haven't yet experienced.

Having a backlog shouldn't be a bad thing. Having options shouldn't be a bad thing. I think it is time for people to stop apologizing and feeling defensive about having more than a few games they haven't played. We have them and we shouldn't feel ashamed about them anymore.

And yes, the irony that I am finishing a post where I defended having a backlog with a statement about not feeling defensive about having one is not lost on me.