Posts made in January, 2013

I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but one of my non-video gaming hobbies is Magic: The Gathering. It’s a game that I picked up from a couple friends during high school (towards the tail end of Revised) and played fairly consistently for a couple of years, before sticking all my cards in a box and moving on to other adventures for a while. I think I played a couple of games during college, but didn’t buy any cards – or really think about Magic at all – between a pack or two of Alliances (in 1996) and a Deck Builder’s Kit sometime in 2011 (I think. I somehow have one or two cards from the 2009-2010 Zendikar block, but I’m not sure where they came from.)

At that point, a few of the folks in my D&D group started playing casually before our games, as a way to kill some time and expand our gaming. And that was pretty fun. I broke out my cobbled-together-from-booster-packs deck from 1996 and joined in with my horribly-outclassed Sengir Vampire and Norritt, and it was pretty enjoyable. I started looking at ways to modernize that deck, since all the cards that I used to think were good had strictly-improved replacements that had been printed over the last 15 years. I started messing around with printing out proxy cards, in the hopes that I could have a chance to play casually with my friends while not going down the black hole of wallet doom that Magic can be. It worked out because my friends were doing similar things – I bought a few cards here and there to at least make myself feel like I was vaguely supporting Wizards of the Coast – and everything was fine.

Except, the problem was, I’d gotten myself hooked again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s true. See, Magic is one of those games where you can spend far more time theorizing about the game than actually playing it. It’s vastly complex and, depending on the format that you choose, essentially impossible to understand all the angles. You not only have to consider the tactics that your deck is built around, but you have to understand the strategy of each of opponents’ decks (or, at least, some general approaches for various styles), so that you can be ready to deal with them. It’s really cool, and there are a ton of moving parts.

The problem, then, comes back to that black hole money pit I mentioned. At its heart, Magic is really the quintessential model for a microtransaction-based game. You build a ruleset (in this case, a good one, even!), get people hooked with introductory offers (Starter Decks, Intro Packs, etc) that have enough to be able to participate, but not enough to really be competitive, and then sell them incremental upgrades that constantly leave them wanting more. Magic is particularly insidious in that they sell randomized booster packs – a set of 15 cards, with an random selection from several rarity pools (1 super-common land, 10 “common”, 3 “uncommon” and 1 “rare”). A typically “good” deck, has a large number of the rare and uncommon cards, so in order to actually build one of the better decks, you are going to need to open a large number of booster packs. Or go to the secondary market, which is thriving – some cards from the newest set are going $20-30.

This can all add up really quickly. And new sets of cards come out every 3-4 months, that change strategy (or push other, older cards, out of the Standard format), so there’s a strong incentive to buy early, buy often, and continue buying. If you want to build a specific deck (and there are tons of tools to help you build them without having physical cards, like Tapped Out), it’s probably better to just buy the singles. But when you see deck lists that consistently have a price tag of $300+, that seems… ridiculous. On the other hand, if you just buy a few more packs, well, maybe you’ll get something good! Or maybe you’ll get something that your friend wants – and maybe that friend has some cards that you want! And then the whole thing devolves into “Holy shit, my wallet is empty and I’m still missing these 5 cards!”

And all that is if you only want to build one deck and maintain it as new cards come out, which can get really boring.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s incredibly difficult to find a good line between having fun on a hobby that I like and not letting it take over my world – both mentally and monetarily. I know that the best thing to do is to just buy some extra printer toner for my casual games, keep playing in the occasional Draft (a format where you buy a few cards that you then use in the games and potentially win some prizes out of), and ignore the draw of a “real” deck. But my lord is it enticing to just buy that one next pack, and hope I get what I need…

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Learning the Language

Posted By on Jan 24, 2013 | 4 comments

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the video game world. EA is taking a fair amount of (deserved) heat in the blogosphere; there has been a renewed discussion of game violence, its affect on society, and the industry’s place within that conversation (a topic that we addressed this week on the podcast); we’ve seen yet more stupid marketing decisions that make us all look bad; and some interesting – if odd – product announcements at CES. And despite my intentions to write something here more often, I’m not yet in the habit of reacting to these things by spitting out words here. I’ll keep working on it, though!

Even with all those juicy topics out there, I’d like to talk about something else today. Specifically, the way that we, as gamers, deal with those that are less involved in our hobby. A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a video on College Humor that poses a “what if” – what if all games had a super-easy mode? It goes on to show Sonic charging off in search of coins, running a single loop-dee-loop and then passing through the end gate. Pac-Man is shown eating pellets around the outside of the map while the ghosts flail about helplessly inside the caged walls. And it goes on.

Look, I don’t want to be the comedy police here, and in a lot of ways, I think the video is funny! It takes things that many of us feel from time to time and pursues them to their ridiculous end. They’ve also done a pretty good job of actually constructing the animations in a way that look like they belong. So, that’s cool, too. And, honestly, I think I’d seen that video before (it was originally posted in 2010) – and probably thought it was sort of funny, at the time. However, having seen it again, I think the underlying assumptions that it tries to play off of are flawed. Namely, I think it promotes the same sort of “us vs them” mentality that leads to outrage in “casual vs hardcore” arguments – or the somewhat more insidious “fake geek girl” discussions.

There is an thought-provoking post here that suggests that, perhaps, we as gamers (or, more widely “geeks” or “nerds” or whatever) have a tendency to look down our noses at those that are not as educated as we our in our chosen discipline – an education that is evidenced either by gaming credentials like how many games of XYZ subgenre you have played, how many games you have 100% achievements for, or simply how many hours you have spent teaching your fingers how to handle an Xbox 360 controller. I don’t think this is a particularly large stretch, but the corresponding questions that are raised about how we treat so-called outsiders are a lot more interesting to me.

There are huge swaths of people that play games (the ESA has a ton of information here), and the numbers are growing every year. While it is certainly true that some of us dedicate more of our energy to games than others, I’m struggling to see why that should make us better than them on a fundamental level. Even if those of us who self-identify as gamers spend more money and more time playing games, should our desires completely override everything else? More importantly, shouldn’t we want to bring even more people into the fold?

I think that last bit is really the clincher for me. I love games. I love playing them and talking about them and thinking about them. I love playing them on my own and playing them with other people. So why in the hell would I want to keep other people from enjoying them? If a game has an incredible story and camera work, why wouldn’t I want to share that with my uncle who loves narrative fiction – books and movies both, but hasn’t really played any video games since Doom gave him motion sickness? Why would I decry the Wii as a platform for kids and old people and “non-gamers”? What does that even mean? I played a hell of a lot of Wii Sports with my family, and in doing so, my dad started to finally understand the language of controllers – and video games. In that case, it hasn’t turned him into a consistent gamer, but it certainly made him more willing to try out some other games with my brother and I.

And this is how you get through to people. It’s how you shut down the arguments of the people calling for an end to all video games. This is how you give the proverbial middle-finger to people like Ralph Nader who call the game industry “electronic child molesters” (yes, he actually said that this week). It’s also how you get your friends and relatives to start enjoying one of your passions. You don’t do it by making fun of the fact that they can only get through a game on “Easy” mode. And you certainly don’t do it by decrying that mode – a mode which literally affects your gameplay options in ZERO WAYS – even exists. You do it, instead, by being glad it exists, so that people who otherwise might not have years of gaming experience behind them (or people who are simply interested in experiencing things differently than you are – a novel concept, I know) can be drawn in and captured by all the things that you already know are great.

So, look, there can be some humor taken from a video like the one I linked. But you know what a world where “Super-Easy Mode” exists looks like in my head? One where we can share our passions with a wider group, and not feel stigmatized for doing something that a huge number of people do. One where I can hand a game to a friend/co-worker/relative and say, “This is cool, you should really check it out – just put it on easy mode, and it will be fine.” and then, a few days later have them respond with, “Wow, that was fun! Have you got anything else you can show me?” Because yes, yes I do.

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Happly New Year to everyone! It’s the end of another holiday season, and that means that there was (is still, even) another Steam sale. With that comes the inevitable realization that I have way too many games. And while that realization does seem to repeat itself quite often, it hasn’t stopped me from participating. Again.

However, this year, I’ve been a bit more judicious than in the past. Or maybe I’ve just purchased most of the large packs that interest me already. Who knows? What I do know is that I’ve picked up a number of indie games that I have somehow missed in other packs or shopping sprees. So far, that has included Intrusion 2, FTL, Legend of Grimrock, Mark of the Ninja, The Binding of Isaac, and Hotline Miami (thanks Liore!).

I haven’t yet approached Mark of the Ninja or Legend of Grimrock – or FTL, since that kind of scares me – but Steam is reporting 8 hours on Hotline Miami, 2 hours on The Binding of Isaac, and 30 minutes with Intrusion 2 (enough for the point I’m going to make, here). And I have to say that while all three of these games are fun, they each very much suffer from being “indie”.

Hotline Miami is probably my favorite of the bunch, and the time I’ve put in backs that up. Sure, some part of that time was paused while I was doing things around the house, but I’ve completed all the levels, unlocked a number of the masks, AND gone back for more. It’s a cool mix of strategy and shameless beatemup, with a funky, violent vibe. It runs smoothly and supports my Xbox 360 controller well. But there is no way to control the volume in the game. Music volume has a slider, but the sound effects do not. I eventually solved this by using the Windows audio mixer to drop the sound level for the program, but that seems very silly. It also has been having issues with Steamworks – reportedly, enabling Steamworks will cause some installations to crash. For me, it just isn’t tracking any achievements. Which is annoying, because I scanned through the achievements and a lot of them seem really fun to try to pull off! I can obviously take on those challenges anyway (or make up my own), but it has definitely impacted the replay value for me.

The Binding of Isaac is a really bleak game that is set somewhere between a child’s nightmare and purgatory, with distinctive art and sound – I mean, you literally fight your enemies with your tears! The problem is, I am constantly fighting against the controls. It plays in a similar style to an old top-down shooter – say, Smash TV – and is crying out for dual joysticks. By default, these are implemented with WASD for movement and Up/Down/Left/Right for shooting. It’s undocumented, but you can also use the mouse to fire, with aiming direction determined by your cursor’s relative position to your character. This is… not the easiest. I went looking in the menus for controller support, and the game literally says “Gamepad? Use JoyToKey (Google it!)”. I mean, it’s nice that there are some breadcrumbs but also… fuck you. I mean, I got the program and set it up (with more googling for how to map a 360 controller to the keys, and a lot of experimentation for which mapping made sense), but I haven’t had to do this sort of shit for like 10 years. And JoyToKey does not seem to play very well with analog sticks – they seem to “stick” in a given direction occasionally. I mean, I’ve been pushing through it because the game is fun, but actually having precise control would be nice.

Intrusion 2 is another dual-stick shooter, although it’s more side-scroller and reminiscent of Contra than top-down. The problem here is just that it’s not smooth. Everything is just a little bit jerky and kind of frustrating. I want to like the game, and I don’t hate it, but I feel like I’m again missing out on some more responsive controls. This one at least works with my controller.

So I guess the meat of this is that I am sort of struggling with myself over the following questions: Given that I like a lot of things about the indie development trend (in terms of storytelling, interesting/innovative gameplay, publishing/pricing models), is it also unreasonable to expect some level of polish and support? Is asking for controller support, resolution control, and SOUND LEVELS too much? Should I just be happy that I’m getting to experience these games at all?

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