Sunday, May 26, 2013

EDITORIAL: Xbox One Reveal



I want to apologize once again. Because of unforeseen personal issues, I have not had time to finish my intended article. It’s a long story, but it appears that my plans for the future will have to be put on hold, if not reworked entirely. Also, my favorite podcasts over at spill.com were cancelled: The Loading Bar and Remote Viewing.
All the same, I do want to take this chance to talk about the developments this week, specifically regarding the Xbox One. I’m going to skip over the name. True, it’s kind of stupid, but ultimately it won’t matter. People will just take to calling it the Xbox, or the X1, or whatever. The name is the least of the issues that I’ll be talking about.
Let’s start with conference itself and the terminology they used. I at one point was trying to count the times they used the words “TV” or “Television”, “Sports”, “Call of Duty”, “Content”, and “experience”, but I lost track after each hit a dozen or so. The conference was 60 minutes long, so they used each of these words AT LEAST once every 5 minutes on average. In the case of Television, it was significantly higher. It’s kind of startling to watch the videos, where they spent nearly 4 minutes or so just saying these words and nothing else.
There are two possible trains of thought. Either they were really trying to hammer in that this was the ultimate “Television experience for all your Call of Duty and Sports content!”, or that these presenters really need to get a thesaurus. Frankly, I’d say both are likely. I do have to wonder, however, how much of the hatred the system is now getting is because of this not-so-subliminal message. Would people be more accepting if Microsoft hadn’t hammered it in that this is all they care about for the future?
It took half the press conference to show anything resembling video games. 31 minutes, of a 60 minute video game console announcement, to show video games. Actually, scratch that, because the EA sports thing has been confirmed that it was not actual gameplay, but a pre-rendered video based on what they WISH it looked like. Then we get Remedies new game…which is a live action trailer with CGI shots of a boat crashing into a bridge. Then 343 Industries comes out and announces…A HALO TV SHOW! Umm, ok, Call of Duty Gameplay trailer? Sounds promising. Only this “gameplay” trailer shows no “gameplay” whatsoever.
So, if we made it to the end of the VIDEO GAME CONSOLE announcement without seeing any gameplay, and only a handful of in-engine shots of games. The rest of the announcement was spent talking about TV and how we can now Skype while we watch TV. They completely failed to address any of the concerns people had during the conference. The rumours about it still requiring an always on internet connection, and that it couldn’t play used games were both completely ignored.
After the conference, we got our answers. Sort of. Not really, they mentioned the issues, but remained elusive. The Xbox One Q&A on the MS site proclaimed “No, it does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet.” Whoever wrote that needs to be smacked. While we still know the details, members of the MS team have given us the information that the system needs to be connected to the internet once every 24 hours. This information is subject to change, but for now, this is the stated plan. Presumably, if you try to play a game while not connected to the internet, and haven’t verified it online within the past 24 hours, then the system will lock you out of it.
Next we have the used games issue. These two issues are largely related, as each game disc is not really the game, but a license and the files needed to play it. If the license is being used elsewhere, then the disc is worthless. The license applies to the console, and the gamertag used to install it. It’s installed on Xbox A, and Profile A. I can then play the game on any profile on Xbox A, or any Xbox, so long as I’m signed into profile A. However, if I have 2 xbox’s in my house (say one for me, one for my significant other), and we each have our own profile, I can’t switch it to Xbox B without purchasing a new license (of which we have no details on how this will work, other than a vague comment saying it will likely be the full cost of the game).
This gets more confusing when you talk about multiple games. Let’s say I have Call of Duty, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, and Battlefield. I install Call of Duty and Bioshock on Xbox A, Profile A, and Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield on Xbox B, Profile B. I decide I want to play Call of Duty, while my significant other wants to play Bioshock. We cannot do this under what Microsoft is telling us right now, even though we have a disc for both games. One of us is confined to Xbox B, and has the option of Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield.
What’s even more interesting is that Microsoft seems to notice this, but is either confused, or trying to confuse the issue. A Eurogamer article quotes Phil Harrison as saying “What we’re doing with the digital permissions that we have for the Xbox One is no different than [how it works now on the Xbox 360].” He then acknowledges the difference, that the game has to be played on a specific system, all the while maintaining that the game can be shared amongst a household. As I said, he either doesn’t understand, or he’s intentionally trying to misinform the public.
The MS team maintains that trading in games will continue. The currently proposed system is that I can trade in a game at an approved retailer. When the game gets traded in, their system will send information to my console telling it to not let me play that game anymore (hence why I need to be connected to the internet at least once every 24 hours). The retailer then pays a cut of their profit from selling that game to MS, who then takes part of that and gives it to the publisher of the game.
There seems to be no real consistency in their statements however, whether it’s Phil Harrison, or “Major Nelson”. They’ve muddled the issue, and changed their stance over the past few days, and it’s rather confusing to watch. It honestly feels like they’re intentionally releasing information piece by piece to either a) soften the blow, or b) change their plan to see how much they can get away with.
So, who does this all benefit, who does it condemn, and who is left out to dry? Well, it benefits Microsoft, first and foremost. They’re pretty well known for taking a fairly substantial cut of the profits on their XBLA games, with 30% being thrown around quite a bit. The second beneficiary is other major publishers. EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and Capcom have all been pushing for similar measures to reduce used game sales. The amount they benefit is debatable, but if used games go away, they’re the most likely to survive.
The people it condemns are the mid-level publishers, and us; the consumer. Nobody wants to buy an unknown game by an unfamiliar company for a $60 investment. The ability to trade that game in and get some of the money back is a compromise. Why spend my money trying out something new that might suck, if I can purchase a known quantity? Why take the chance on another Gearbox game when only half of them are good games? Instead, buy Call of Duty, because you liked it last year so you know it’s not as much of a risk. The industry will stagnate. People are afraid to develop original games as it is, imagine how it will be when people are legitimately afraid to buy an unknown game.
And those that are left out to dry? The Developers. That’s right, you may have noticed, we haven’t been talking about them. Many developers, the people who actually make the games, are owned by Publishers, but there are many that work independently as well. The independent developers usually make a deal with a Publisher to release their games. This income is going to the Publishers, while the amount that goes to the developers seems to be at the sole discretion of the publisher. I can imagine that this will be part of contracts going forward, but then again, so is having a bonus based on metacritic performance.
I’m attempting to reserve judgment until we get the full, official details, but let’s just say I’m skeptical. This doesn’t seem like a system “by gamers, for gamers”, but a system made by major corporations making closed meeting deals designed to hurt their consumers.
The last thing I want to talk about is the Kinect 2.0. Because the system requires an internet connection at least once every 24 hours, it’s most likely that people will leave it connected. This means a camera, in the living room of every household that purchases the system, which is always connected to Microsoft’s “cloud”. A camera with voice recognition software, nonetheless. The camera is always on, and always connected, even when the system is turned off, because it needs to respond to “xbox, turn on”.
Let’s forget about the Big Brother style implications of having a major corporation have unconditional access to your home. Instead, let’s talk about how Skype will always be connected, and how it can affect the simple things. If you should accidentally say something that sounds like “call mom”, then it will video call your mom for you. If someone calls you during a movie, it shrinks the movie and displays their feed. If you think the xbox alerts can be annoying now, just wait until you start getting interrupted constantly by people signing in and out of Skype as well. Throw in potential privacy concerns (hey, maybe I felt like walking around in my underwear all day because I wasn’t expecting anyone to see me?) and it seems like an unnecessary mess.
Microsoft has filed a patent that will use the Kinect 2.0 to tell how many people are in a room. If there are “too many” people, it will refuse to play movies. It will bring up a prompt, asking you to pay extra money for this “public showing”, or won’t play until the number of people goes down. “Too many” seems to be any number greater than 4. So all you families of 5 out there, prepare to shell out extra money for content you already own. In fact, I can’t imagine that too many people have NEVER watched a movie with more than 3 other people in their own homes. It should be noted that MS puts out hundreds of patents that are never used, but it does give an interesting viewpoint on how MS is already thinking of ways to abuse the system.
Obviously, this wasn’t as short as I wanted it to be originally. Was hoping to keep it short, particularly since I haven’t found the time to write what I promised. I sat down to write this, and ended up writing & researching until well past my bedtime, so I hope you can understand. Next week I’ll begin posting about gender issues, and during the course of the week I’ll have at least one new review and a special letter.
By the way, a lot of this information was taken from Ryzaki’s post here, which was in turn taken from Robbie H on Neogaf. I’ve verified most of it personally, at least so far as to the original interviews.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

EDITORIAL: Damsel in Distress



This is going to be a short post. I’m currently working on a larger post, which will actually end up being multiple posts, either 3 or 4. I do want to spend a little bit of time talking about an issue related to what I’m going to be posting next week, however. That is the idea of “damsel in distress”.
The main stream ideology seems to be that every time a woman is in jeopardy, she becomes a damsel in distress, particularly if the person that helps her is a male. A woman should be confident and independent, and if she’s in peril, she should get herself out of her. This is an ideology perpetuated by certain feminists, particularly a certain member of kickstarter and YouTube fame.
Last week on Game of Thrones, a certain female was placed under a severe amount of jeopardy. She was put in a position where she COULD NOT win without outside intervention. Another character saved her, a male, and going online, people were angry. Online, I saw a few postings of people saying how terrible it was they reverted her character to being a “damsel in distress”. I had to make a comment on one of them, and here’s what I said:
“She's supposed to be badass, not invincible. I hate the implication that just because someone needs help, they are a "damsel in distress". Was Tyrion when he was saved by Bronn during the first season? Was Bran when Kat saved him? Tyrion again, when Pod saved him at Blackwater Bay?

Just because a character is in peril and needs help, doesn't make them a "damsel in distress".”
Based on the fact that I got 17 thumbs up, while the original post only got 4, I’m going to say point proven.
Tune in next week for a multiple part talk on gender issues, and how they apply to video games.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

EDITORIAL: Types of Protagonists



Linguistics is the study of human language. There’s a whole field of science dedicated to studying how and why we use the words that we use. It’s important that we be aware of the words that we use, because the wrong words can lead to more than a simple misunderstanding. There are two terms that we use to describe protagonists that are often used improperly, and I want to take the time to define them properly, and to talk about them.
The first is “anti-hero”. In video games, and sometimes society at large, the term has taken on a “social meaning”, which is not the actual definition. Someone who is an Anti-Hero is a person who does heroic things for non-heroic reasons, but people use it to describe a protagonist (main character) who is not heroic. The Punisher from Marvel Comics is a pretty prime example of a real anti-hero, whereas Kratos of God of War is often referred to as one. There’s nothing heroic about killing the Greek Gods…maybe he’s not the “villain”, but neither is he the hero.
When it comes to video games, it’s actually a lot harder to come up with examples of anti-hero’s than you would think. As I look through my own collection, one of the best I can come up with is Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, if played on Renegade. But even that’s not really entirely true. Typically we think of an anti-hero as someone who does not have a noble goal in mind, such as saving the galaxy. In truth, I would have to go with War from Darksiders. He has been blamed for starting Armageddon, and sets out on a personal quest to clear his name. He doesn’t want to restore humanity, or defeat the legions of Hell. His reasons are entirely selfish, but he sets out to kill the legions of hell and defeat the Destroyer.
That leaves us with the question of why anti-heroes are so rarely used in video games, and when they are, they are so forgettable. Personally, I think it’s largely a matter of writing ability. The video game industry, for all our talk, is still not at the level of the film industry. We’re more on par with the comic book industry, with a handful of good writers, and a lot of poor ones. If you don’t have a good writer, a character as complex as an anti-hero comes across as brass and annoying. They can seem disconnected from their emotions and not aware of their surroundings, while all the best anti-hero stories are completely the opposite, usually someone tortured by their past that has given up on being “the good guy”, or is desperately trying to hold on to that.
The second phrase I want to talk about is “everyman”. We don’t hear it used as often, but even still, we can often hear it used improperly. I’ve heard people refer to Master Chief as an “everyman”, or Gordon Freeman because we can project ourselves on top of them. That is not correct. A geriatric 7 foot tall super soldier who slaughters aliens by the bucketful is not an “everyman”. Gordon Freeman is a brilliant scientist with multiple PhD’s who works in a top secret underground bunker conducting experiments into alternate dimensions. Although I can project myself onto them, I do not identify with them. These are not your average, ordinary, “everyman”.
One of the best examples of an everyman is Lee Everett from The Walking Dead. We don’t identify with him because we project, we identify because he seems like a guy you may know. He might be a professor of yours. He finds his wife sleeping with another man, and in a rage, he ends up killing him. On his way to prison, the zombie apocalypse happens, and he has to deal with the repercussions with his past life as well as his current one. This is a guy that you could know, who you could have a beer with and walks city streets. He’s not a super soldier, he doesn’t have 3 PhD’s in theoretic physics, and he doesn’t have any special skills that separate him from us.
The reason that an “everyman” doesn’t appear much is pretty simple. Most games tend to be action games. It’s hard to write an action game that has a normal, everyday human being, because it means you have to keep the body count low. When you try to paint your protagonist as an “everyman”, and then having him or her slaughter people by the bucket load, it loses something.
In the past 6 months, we’ve seen 3 mainstream games try this attempt, and it was ultimately their biggest failing. FarCry 3 features a douchy frat-boy type, who starts off slow but by the end kills hundreds of enemies. It actually mostly succeeds, as you believe the characters evolution. Where it fails is that the main character is never a likable character, even by the end of the game.
Tomb Raider also tried this tactic, by having a character that was fragile and emotional. It was ultimately betrayed by a large body count. Her first kill is hard, but immediately after that, she’s ok with killing a dozen people. By the end of the game, she’s racked up a larger body count than James Bond had in over 20 movies.
And the last game is BioShock Infinite. Booker’s status as an everyman is actually up for debate. He’s ex-military, an employee of the Pinkertons, and just generally a bad person. I wanted to bring him up, however, as he’s kind of a cross between being an everyman, and an anti-hero. He enters Columbia with us knowing little about him, believing he could be an “everyman”. He sets off on his mission to kidnap a girl in order to write off his debt and save his own butt. However, by the end of the game, he’s saved the girl from her prison tower, upset the status quo of a horribly racist society, and saved the world from certain destruction.
I suppose it’s a pet peeve of mine, but it makes my skin crawl when people use these words improperly. Many lists of “great anti-heroes” fail to include any actual anti-heroes. It’s quite the same, because it’s a complex character that rarely gets any notice. Hopefully the industry continues to grow, and attracts some more good writers, who are capable of evolving the industry.