My Time on Remote Control (i.e. RIP Ken Ober)

19 11 2009

So I’m surfing around the ‘Net today when I come across this story relating the unfortunate death of Ken Ober. For those of you who aren’t as obsessed with the 1980s as I am, Ober was the host of one of my favoritest game shows of all time – Remote Control. For those of you too young to remember the days when MTV actually played music videos, Remote Control was one of the first actual “shows” on the network. The basic premise was simple – if weird. According to the theme song, Kenny was a kid who was obsessed with game shows so when he grew up, he decided to have his own in his Mom’s basement where all the questions were about his favorite topic – TV. It was funny and anarchic and boasted early appearances by Colin Quinn, Adam Sandler and Kari Wuhrer. The thing is, not only was I a fan of the show – I was also a contestant.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine. It’s 1990 and I’m a Junior at the University at Albany when MTV comes to campus looking for contestants. I go down to the Campus Center with a few friends and wait on a really long line to audition. When I finally get in, they make you take a pop-culture quiz and then get up and introduce yourself. The idea being that while you may know a lot of stupid and useless trivia (and really, I am the king of stupid and useless trivia) they also wanted people whose personality would come across well on TV. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have never accused of being a shrinking violet and I ended up getting on the show.

Come the day of the show, I took a bus from Albany down to New York City to the Harlem studio where the show was taped. Keep in mind that this was pre-Renaissance Harlem in pre-Guiliani NYC, back when it was the scariest part of a really scary city. When I knocked on the door, staffers ushered me inside the building the way you see police ushering hostages out of a bank when they’ve just been released as part of a hostage negotiation. The only thing missing was the bullet-proof blanket.


(This was not my episode, by the way. I never managed to get a tape. If you know anyone at MTV, please let me know)

The staff itself was very friendly and they put us through a pre-show briefing in the Green Room. They also offered us as many Cokes and/or caffeinated beverages as we wanted. They wanted us to be “up” for the show. That wasn’t really a problem. I was so nervous that I had half a can of soda and my hands started shaking. They then gave me the best advice any game show contestant can receive – watch the light! The thing about game shows is that they all work pretty much the same way. The contestant’s buzzer is locked out until about a second or so before the host finishes the question. Then the light comes on and your buzzer is live. If you buzz in before the light comes on, you’re given a half-second penalty. That prevents the contestant from just pressing the buzzer over and over again. That means that even if you know the answers, the winner of a game show is usually the person with the best timing. I was thrilled – all those hours I wasted on Pac-man and Space Invaders was finally going to come in handy!

The other two contestants on the show were a guy named Doug and a very pretty girl named Lem. Lem kind of froze up under the lights but Doug was a pretty tough competitor. Its been a lot of years so I don’t really remember too many of the questions I was asked, but I do remember Colin Quinn and Susan Ashley (I was on during Season 5) re-enacting a skit from the Honeymooners and the question from “Mr. Baggy Pants.” “Knock, Knock.” “Who’s there?” “Hatch” “Hatch Who?” And the answer was, of course, “Gesundheit.” Along about the middle of the show before the commercial break they had what was called “Snack Time” where they would drop some kind of food on your head. In my case it was Hostess Sno-Balls. They were stale in case you’re wondering. I finally ended up winning on this question in “Brady Math.” “Greg and Bobby are hung on a hook in a meat locker by Sam the butcher. If their body temperature is currently 84 degrees, how long have they been hanging on those hooks and how many kids are still waiting at home?” Yes — I got it right.

The bonus round on Remote Control during the 5th season was that they strapped you to a wheel and spun you around while you tried to guess what artist’s video was playing on tiny TVs at your head and your feet. This is actually much more difficult than it sounds. I managed to not throw up and named six out of the nine videos, so I think I did pretty well. I ended up winning about $1,800 worth of prizes including a stereo, a dozen CDs, a portable TV, a set of really cool (in an ’80s kind of way) set of speakers with pulsing neon lights in them, a pair of Rollerblades and a pair of British Knights sneakers (remember British Knights?). On the way out the door, Lem asked me for my phone number, which I forgot to give here — I’m still kicking myself over that one.

This story actually has kind of weird post-script. A few years later I was working at my first job out of college and I’m paired up for training with another new hire. All day long I keep thinking this guy looks really familiar. He says the same of me and we’re wracking out brains trying to remember where we know each other from. Camp? School? College? Did we attend the same Hebrew School? Finally he looks at me and says, “Did you ever see a game show called Remote Control?” Yup, it was Doug, the other contestant. It really is a small world.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. Remote Control was a really awesome show. Rest in peace, Mr. Ober. I had a great time.





What if Videogames Had Died in 1983?

18 11 2009

I really like Kyle Orland. As a games journalist his quiet ambition for pushing games journalism beyond what it is is matched an underappreciated talent. Sometimes though even a good writer can miss the boat. That’s what I think happened in his interesting but underthought series of What if? articles at Crispy Gamer. In the articles, Orland attempts to look at key gaming moments and ask what might have happened had a different course been taken. Some of the questions he asks are interesting ones — What if Magnavox had decided to enforce Ralph Baer’s patent for a “television gaming apparatus” and gone on to become the almost monopolistic holder of the video game industry through its Odyssey 3 system? What if Nintendo had never released the Game Boy? That sort of thing. It’s an interesting concept, but Orland doesn’t really think some of the implications of the questions he’s asking through.

Take for example his segment on what if Atari had avoided the videogame crash in 1983 and gone on to face Nintendo. He posits that a forward thinking Nolan Bushnell pushes the development of the Atari 2700 — a more advanced console replacement for the 2600 that would be backward-compatible with 2600 cartridges. The console takes the market by storm and Atari survives to push upstart newcomer Nintendo into a corner of the market by 1990. What he misses in this posit is that the Atari 2700 actually existed and it was a disaster. It was called the Atari 5200 and while unlike the Orland’s fictional 2700 unit it wasn’t compatible with 2600 cartridges, that wasn’t really the deciding factor in its eventual death. The 5200 had the horsepower to compete against both the Intellivision (which it was designed to destroy) and the Colecovision (which had more graphic power but horrible controllers). Even without the backwards compatibility, the 5200 was certainly no disaster right out of the gate and after the unit was redesigned to accept 2600 cartridges could have been a success under the care of a competently run company.

The issue was really the glut of poor Atari 2600 software, the proximate cause of the great videogame crash of 1983-84 from which the Western industry almost didn’t recover. Orland’s 2700 system — even with backward compatibility — doesn’t address this problem. Indeed, it actually makes it worse because one of the first things a 2700 user would do would be to buy the bargain basement software that was currently flooding store shelves because it would be cheaper than the newer 2700 software. That would have killed the 2700 through word-of-mouth much faster than the 5200 died in the real world thanks to corporate stupidity and neglect. The institutional rot at Atari was already a foregone conclusion by 1983 and the innovation that eventually saved the Western side of the business – the Nintendo Seal of Quality – only came about because the fledgling Nintendo of America had learned the lessons of the crash. Without the crash, it’s extremely doubtful that Atari would have come up with the idea of licensing third-party software developers for the 2700 by virtue of the fact that they never thought of it for the 5200.

More importantly, Orland misses one of the real “what if?” scenarios that jumps out of Atari’s crash and burn – the fact that even if Atari had managed to survive the great crash it would not have gone on to face off against Nintendo – it would have survived by becoming Nintendo! In 1983, Atari under the “leadership” of Ray Kassar was on the verge of inking a deal with Nintendo to distribute Donkey Kong on home computers – a deal that was designed to be the precursor to Atari distributing Nintendo products outside of Japan. Given that Nintendo’s reason for wanting the deal was Atari’s impressive worldwide marketing apparatus, it’s entirely likely that the Famicom (which became the Nintendo Entertaiment System in the West in our world) would have been Atari-branded. That would have been the Atari 2700.

The problem with that scenario would have been – once again – a glut of poor software. Without a Nintendo Seal of Quality and a system of third-party licensing, there’s no doubt that crappy software for the 2700 would have flooded the market soon after the system was released. Regardless of the quality of the games that would be produced by Nintendo itself (we’re assuming that Atari would recognize Miyamoto’s genius and not try to slap a license on Super Mario Bros., by no means a slam-dunk), the 2700 would soon be buried in a bunch of crappy Chase-the-Chuckwagon clones. Atari would still have collapsed – albeit a year or two later and this time it would have taken Nintendo’s hope of Western expansion with it.

The result would have been a videogame drought that makes our crash in 1983-84 look like the glory days of the PS2. Nintendo in our world had a hard enough time getting into retail because of how badly retailers had been burned by the crash – they invented R.O.B. the robot specifically so they could call the system a “toy” rather than a videogame. After the crash of the Atari 2700 there isn’t a retailer in the Western hemisphere that would have touched a videogame with a 10-foot pole. Most Atari 2600 gamers would have either moved on to PC gaming as I did or simply forgotten about gaming altogether – except for dropping some quarters into the occasional old Pac-Man machine at a local 7-11 (the arcades also hit a big slump in this period from which they never really recovered). It wouldn’t have been the “end of videogames” but it’s entirely possible that gaming would never have become the relevant cultural force it eventually became. PC gaming could never have taken the place of console gaming because it wasn’t gaming that drove the adoption of the PC – it was spreadsheets.

In my mind, the true frontier of videogaming in such a world would probably have been the handheld system. In that case Nintendo, burned by the failure of the 2700 would have focused on expanding its Game & Watch line of products, introducing the first GameWatch Boy in 1986 (later the name would be shortened to just GameBoy) packed in with Tetris. About a year later the GameBoy would be rivaled by NEC’s Turbo Express and the two handheld systems would split the market between them, though NEC played second-fiddle to Nintendo until about 1995. Atari’s Game Gear – a joint venture between them and Sega – never managed better than a distant third in the marketplace.

In 1995 however, NEC would expand the capabilities of the TurboExpress by utilizing its heft as a consumer electronics company to link the TurboExpress into the burgeoning “multimedia” revolution by incorporating PCLink capabilities that allow users to download applications – including music and video files – into the newly renamed “TurboPod.” Eventually the TurboPod relegates the Gameboy into a niche as a mere gaming toy while NEC faces off against its real competition – Sony’s new line of Digital Walkmans that perform similar functions utilizing technology developed by Apple.

I think somewhere in that world I’m playing a lot of pinball.





Sanitarium and the ObamaCare Debate

11 11 2009

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OK. That headline is really just Google fodder looking for Obamacare search traffic, although reading the announcement about the release of Sanitarium at GOG.com did make me think about our current health care debate in a weird way. If you’ve never heard of Sanitarium, that’s a damn shame. It’s one of the most underrated and tragically ignored games of the 1990’s. It was put together by the Dreamforge Intertainment and published by ASC Games, the outfit that was working on an action game version of White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse that showed a lot of promise and still stands up as one of their finest titles. (Spoiler warnings ahead!)

The basic storyline is as cliched as they come. You’re a man who awakens as a patient in a horrible sanitarium, your face covered by bandages and you have no idea who you are or how you got there. The staff tells you you’ve survived a car crash suffered during an escape attempt and that your memory will return once you recover your sanity. What follows though, is a truly surreal journey into insanity as you as the player keep shifting in and out of bizarre worlds and the very shape of reality changes while you struggle to recover your memory. As you play, you as the player will find yourself in a 1950’s small town being absorbed by an alien invasion, an Aztec village being threatened by a hostile god, a strange house being haunted by ghosts and a hive of intelligent bees on an alien planet. Even your identity keeps shifting as you change at intervals from a scarred man to a ten year-old girl to a four-armed alien warrior to a living statue.

What makes Sanitarium amazing and still timely though is what all of these different worlds have in common. As you play, a thread between these different worlds begins to emerge, all of them relating to your shrouded past and to why you’re in that Sanitarium. There’s also some interesting commentary on the nature of pharmaceutical companies in a for-profit health care system and the realization that the true horror you face isn’t supernatural at all — it’s the very human emotion of greed and what some people will do to protect a profit margin. It posits a drug company that will murder a researcher who develops a cure for a deadly plague because it threatens to cut into the profits generated by the stopgap drug that merely allows you to live with the disease.

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Here’s the thing, though, the commentary in Sanitarium misses out on a very important point in the for-profit world of medicine — or the for-profit world of anything. Yes, there are unscrupulous people who will do anything to protect an individual company, but I’ve discussed health care with too many people who seem to believe that it’s the profit motive itself that’s the problem, rather than the illegal or criminal actions of an individual to protect a particular set of profits. Put simply, profits are the engine of progress. Even if we could magically create a socialized medical system that actually worked, it would bring medical research to a grinding halt. When doctors and researchers make the same money as McDonald’s fry cooks, you get the same quality of doctors as McDonald’s gets workers. Remove the chance to profit, remove enlightened self-interest from the equation and you put the kibosh on the chance for cures to AIDS, cancer or anything else that currently plagues us. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.

To be fair, not even Sanitarium makes the argument that Big Pharma and insurance companies are in a giant conspiracy to suppress the cures for diseases in the pursuit of profit. That game is mostly a thriller about an evil pharmaceutical executive — an individual who commits multiple criminal acts. They leave that to big budget Hollywood movies, Michael Moore and a delightful conspiracy theorist of my acquaintance who will wax rhapsodic on how we never landed on the Moon. I leave their arguments in the Sanitarium where they belong. But even making that argument betrays not only a blatant hostility toward capitalism, but a profound misunderstanding of how capitalism works, how research works and eliminates even the possibility of finding common ground in the health care debate.

Even if a company does manage to Silkwood a particular invention, there are too many other companies out there working along the same lines who will eventually make the breakthrough. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, he merely made the light bulb so good it became commercially practical. If some candle company had had Edison murdered, the light bulb would have been discovered by one of dozens of other researchers working along the same lines.

None of this, by the way, should stop you from checking out Sanitarium if you can. It’s a genius game that never got the credit it was due. At





On V, Obama and the Worship of the State

5 11 2009

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So I watched the premier of the the “re-imagining” of “V” on ABC last night. The series is, of course, a retread of the early-’80s vintage piece of sci-fi cheese that starred the Beastmaster, Jane Badler’s sexy shoulder pads and the blonde chick from The Greatest American Hero. The storyline remains the same. A race of aliens that look just like human beings land on Earth bearing a message of peace and an offer of technological assistance in return for our friendship and a chemical they need to survive. Naturally there’s more to the “Visitors” than meets they eye and as they insinuate themselves more and more into our daily lives, they gradually begin to assume a fascist control over our world, sparking the inevitable rag-tag resistance filled with photogenic rebels.

The good news is, the re-make is actually quite good. I enjoyed it and since everybody knows by now that the aliens are actually carnivorous lizards disguised as humans, the producers wisely chose to get that minor revelation out of the way in the first half hour and move on to the real meat of the story which is apparently a criticism of the Obama Administration and the cult of personality which has grown up around our President — particularly the slavish nature of the mainstream media. It’s tough to miss if you’ve been paying any attention at all to, like, life since the coming of The One. At various points Anna, the leader of the Visitors, makes pretty speeches to the frightened citizens of Earth, addressing themselves to protesters against the aliens’ presence, telling them that embracing change is difficult but that we must resign ourselves to it and promising them all kinds of goodies if only they’ll place themselves in the Visitors’ caring hands. At one point, Anna tells reporter Chad Decker (played by Party of Five’s Scott Wolf) that the Visitors would like to become the Earth’s sole health care providers — literally offering us “Universal” Health Care.

It’s Wolf’s reporter character that makes the criticism most obvious. Decker is a pretty-boy talking head on a cable news channel who has dreams of being a real reporter (a story idea he comes up with is praised by his boss and then handed off to another journalist while Decker is directed to return to his TelePrompTer). Yet when presented with an opportunity to be a real reporter, Decker muffs it — twice. First he actually shuts down fellow journalists who have the temerity to ask Anna some semi-tough questions, telling them to “have some respect.” Having shown himself to be pliable, Decker is then offered the opportunity for the first one-on-one interview with Anna where he’s told to “not ask any questions that might put us in a bad light.” When he objects, he’s told his big exclusive will be cancelled unless he plays ball. He does so and delivers a softball interview, only to be offered an ongoing exclusive arrangement with the Visitors that basically turn Decker into Anna’s Chris Matthews. On accepting this arrangement, he’s actually told by one of the Visitors that “sacrificing one’s principles for the greater good isn’t a bad thing.” That, of course, could be the motto for the Obama Administration.

The big thing though, is the worshipful attitude that the public begins to adopt about the Visitors. They are literally the “Deus ex Machina” — the machine out of the sky that has come to solve all our problems. It’s also the element that’s most changed with the original series which was a pretty explicit analogue for Nazi Germany and a forceful fascist takeover. The difference is mainly in tone. Rather than an explicit takeover, the new series seems to be more about gradually conditioning the populace to depend upon the Visitors for everything and turning gratitude into worship. It’s not for nothing that one of the lead characters in the new series is a Catholic priest who is dismayed rather than overjoyed by the suddenly filled pews in his church (he disagrees with the Pope’s acceptance of the Visitors as God’s creations by pointing out that rattlesnakes are God’s creations too.) He realizes that times of strife can awaken religious longings in people in search of security — longings that can be subverted by those looking for power by replacing God with the State.

It’s this theme that resonates most strongly with Obama. Now before the objections start, I am NOT comparing Barack Obama to Hitler or a Nazi. What I am saying is that — as Jonah Goldberg points out in “Liberal Fascism,” — both American liberalism and fascism share intellectual roots. Both are ultimately concerned with the proper ordering of society and the proper redistribution of wealth along regimented, almost militaristic lines in the interest of complete equality and fairness of outcome. The problem with that, of course, is that that is incompatible with individual free choice, so naturally that’s the first thing that has to go. There’s also the idea of the State as cornucopia — the font of all good things. At the heart of this idea is the belief that it’s the responsibility of the state to care for its citizens in loco parentis, — a key point of contention for those like me who would like the State to stay the Hell out of our business.

Of course, bringing this up irks Obama supporters no end. Thin-skinned as our Dear Leader seems to be, they seem offended by the idea that a mere science fiction series might be criticizing Obama or worse — pointing out the almost religious cult of personality that’s grown up around him — so they do their best to dismiss it. I’ve heard everything from the fact that this re-make was in development before Obama was elected to it being a mistake to read too much into an action-adventure series to the fact that the storyline is a pretty solid match for the original. The last seems pretty ridiculous to me. It’s like saying that the new “Battlestar Galactica” wasn’t about the War on Terror because the original series was a sci-fi re-telling of the Book of Mormon (which it was, by the way.) As for not reading too much into it — this is science fiction people. This is the genre where, as Rod Serling pointed out, “A Martian can say things a politician can’t.” Metaphor and allegory are as natural to the form as rockets and rayguns. Why get so upset? I got over the Anvilicious “red energy is the source of all evil, blue energy is the source of all goodness” political commentary in Astro Boy. You can get over this.

The original “V” showed the “1984”-esque face of fascism — the “iron boot stamping on a human face, forever.” The new one shows the kinder, gentler sort of fascism, the “Brave New World” –esque universal nanny state. It’ll be interesting to see where they go with it and whether Obama’s supporters can be as tolerant of criticism as they claim to be.





Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

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So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

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Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.





Blogging will be a little light for the next week.

30 10 2009

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If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the last few days, no, I’ve not been off snogging in a love nest with Sarah Palin — as enticing as that prospect is. I’ve been offered a position as Senior Editor with Nexon.com helping out with content and helping run the official Web sites for a whole bunch of great games. I’m really excited about it but before I begin my new position, I need to clear up all of my freelance and project work. That’s where I’ve been — neck deep in a couple of really big RPGs that I can’t talk about and preparing for Halloween and a whole bunch of other stuff too.

I’ll be back blogging near the end of next week, in the mean time, here’s a couple of links to my latest articles:

My review of the PSP version of Naruto Legends: Akatsuki Rising on GameSpot

My review of the PSP version of Obscure: The Aftermath on GameSpot

My latest “basket of kittens” guest post for L.A. Parent on sports games for kids

A really sexy picture of Catherine Bell designed to pull in traffic:

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See you in a few days!





Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?

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Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.





Getting Carried Away in LotRO’s Hall of Mirrors

19 10 2009

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After a hiatus of about three months, I spent last Saturday night doing something I haven’t done in a while — playing The Lord of the Rings Online. Now I love that game and if I had all the time that some of my guildmates seem to, I’d have at least half a dozen 60s instead on one along with a level 27 Champion and a few alts all hovering around 20. MMOs are like relationships — you occasionally need to take a break to see other games. (Please don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I actually made a good bit of progress on my epic quests, finishing the first half of Volume II and finally convincing someone to take a trip to the Mirror-halls, one of the new three-man instances.

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Here’s the thing about the Mirror-halls. I love a lot of the stuff that Turbine does with their instancing and dungeon runs. There’d nobody better at telling a story in an MMO through the medium of dungeon design. They’re also really good at making the environment a more interactive and interesting part of a dungeon run. It seems to me that the mirror-halls is one their biggest missteps in the game. The big challenge in the mirror-hall is to reclaim the place from the merrevail (evil female demons) that have taken up residence in the place by adjusting the huge rotating mirrors to once again bring light into the place. That means that players have to run around adjusting these huge mirrors while fighting against wargs and morroval who are trying to keep the place in darkness. The place is a huge puzzle and is incredibly confusing.

The problem is that this is the the one area I’ve seen where Turbine’s creativity really ran away with them. Considering that this is a three-man instance and such instances were created to be challenging as larger content without the need for the huge time investment or a ton of people, why on Earth would you then go create an instance where even if you know the pattern you’re going to spend a huge chunk of time running up and down through confusing corridors turning mirrors just so in order to get just everything right? Then after all that, you follow it up with a boss fight that’s just brutally hard? Come on guys! Pick one or the other. If players are going to invest the time in getting the puzzle completed, would a simple tank n’ spank boss fight be too much to ask? Conversely, if the challenge is the fight, don’t make us fight the landscape getting there as well. This may be just me but having both at the same time smack of the classic World of Warcraft 40-man raids where every step had to be choreographed to within an inch of it’s life.





The Tipping Point? Nexon Reports 36% Growth in 3Q

17 10 2009

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Game Informer is reporting that Nexon’s America had a 36% jump in revenue in the third quarter. Between this and things like Dungeons & Dragons Online switching to free-2-play and the really fun League of Legends being offered for free I’m starting to think we may be reaching a tipping point where game developers are realizing that the traditional methods of revenue generation from gaming are being supplanted by a whole new method of monetizing products. What makes this especially interesting is that this is Nexon America, not Nexon as a whole which was already a successful Korean developer. Nexon America is a separate business entity designed to sell it’s products in the Western market. It’s apparently working.

The key of course is offering products designed with that kind of business model in mind and overcoming the impression of F2P being the catch-all for crap games not good enough to be sold at retail. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons Online, the game was always good. It was just saddled with the wrong business model. The design of DDO was always more suited to small groups of friends pushing their way through the content at a much slower pace than the ticking clock that a $15 a month subscription fee would allow. So what you had was people bulling their way through content over and over again in pick-up groups because they felt like they had to play to justify the expense. What people are finding now is that they can go through the game at their own pace and spend money or not as it suits their game style. From what I understand, the result is people spending a lot more money than they ever did as subscribers.

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The thing about Turbine is that they essentially lucked into an F2P game by virtue of having DDO. This isn’t something that would work with The Lord of the Rings Online because the game structure is completely different. Nexon, on the other hand, has games that explicitly built around this kind of mechanic. If you get the majority of your gaming news from hard-core gamer sites like IGN, GameSpy or GameSpot you may have never seen or heard of Maple Story or Mabinogi. If you’ve seen some ads for it you may have dismissed it as the cutesy free-2-play MMO that “real” gamers wouldn’t give the time of day. When I was PC editor for GameSpy I know I’d get calls constantly from PR reps throwing games like that at me that — blinkered as I was by the “real” games that were sitting on my desk — I’d just ignore and dismiss. To be fair, a lot of them are really bad knock-offs that aren’t worth your time. The beauty of being out on your own though is the opportunity to explore areas of gaming that you’ve missed (I’ve become a hard-core Mafia Wars fanatic). I’m beginning to realize now the kinds of experiences that I’ve missed out on.

Take Mabinogi. On the advice of a friend I downloaded it and started playing and I immediately couldn’t believe how good it was. Mabinogi is a classic example of a game that doesn’t push the envelope as much as origami it around into a new and pleasing experience. Everything you might expect from an MMO is there — questing, leveling, killing monsters, crafting. Rather than the more linear experience that suddenly levels out into lateral advancement after the level cap is reached though, Mabinogi is a broad-based experience from teh get-go. It’s a game that encourages you subtly through things like the “Part-time job” mechanic to really explore and do different sorts of things during the same play session. Rather than mindlessly grinding through monsters or quests, I found myself in Mabinogi really running around and dabbling in the many different things to do. It’s got a fun arcadey combat system and randomly generated dungeons that actually utilize items in your inventory to create them.

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More importantly, it’s got the kind of wide progression scheme that encourages you to get involved on your schedule rather than the game’s. Without those huge time-sucking raids or the kinds of tricks that encourage players to devote big chunks of time to make any sort of measurable progress. That’s the kinds of things you need to justify a monthly fee. If a player doesn’t feel like they need to be in the game in order to advance, they’ll begin wondering just what they’re paying all that money for. It’s also why people feel like they can only play one subscription-based MMO at a time. For most people that’s World of Warcraft, the king of that sort of vertical-based progression scheme.

In WoW you HAVE to devote time to raiding or PvP in order to advance once you reach the level cap and old content is abandoned once the majority of the player-base moves through it. Free to play games don’t need that and consequently they can devote less developer time to creating these huge content chunks. There’s certainly room in this world for both types of games but it seem like there are more people with limited time who would prefer the F2P model than the kind of “health club” mindset of the traditional subscription model that really only appeals to people with lots of disposable time. It’ll be interesting to see how Nexon does once its yearly numbers come out. If it does as well as it has over the last few quarters, I think more than a few big western game companies are going to sit up and take notice.

(and yes, I did put another picture of a sexy night elf in here.)





This is What Oppression Looks Like: Iran’s Gay Hanging

16 10 2009

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This just in from The Petrelis Files: it seems our new dialogue partners and burgeoning nuclear power Iran hanged a man last week for being gay. According to the story at IRQR:

On October 6, 2009, Rahim Mohammadi was executed in Tabriz, a city in northwest Iran, after being convicted of sexual abuse and rape during sexual relations between males (a homosexual act called Lavat).

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what oppression looks like. I think what scares me about the current state of American politics is less the partisan rancor, which we’ve always had, than the debasement of the language that we’re using to describe our opposition. When any and all resistance to the President is referred to as “racist,” (to say nothing of the last eight years of facile Nazi and execution references) that really doesn’t leave much room to describe incidents of actual racism.

When we’re now more outraged by a blowhard radio host’s NFL bid than by reinstating an admitted dog-fighter I’ve got to wonder where the Hell our priorities are. I realize I’m screaming into the wind here, but can we please ratchet down the rhetoric? Ladies and gentlemen, there’s genuine evil in the world and we really need to be able to recognize it when we see it and what’s merely an honest difference of opinion.

In case you’re wondering — this is evil:

gay iranian execution, mashad, july 2005

This is a right-wing entertainer:

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See the difference? My great fear is that many of us will say “no.”