Top Ten Videogame Tips for Noobish Parents

7 10 2009

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Noob (n.): Gamer slang for a new, inexperienced player

As gamer and a writer who’s also a Dad, one of the things I don’t get to write a lot about is my relationship with my kids and the things I’m learning about gaming, kids and how to find a balance between sharing my love of gaming with them and not turning them into addicts who spend most of their lives staring into a screen like — well, like their Dad.

That’s why I was thrilled when L.A. Parent magazine asked me to be a guest blogger at I Don’t Have Time for This, Editor Carolyn Graham’s official blog for the magazine. They asked me to put up a “basket of kittens” which is three little mini-reviews all on a similar theme. This time I did a thing on movie games — and trying to find three movie games that weren’t terrible wasn’t easy. You can check it out here.

With that in mind, I also wanted to quickly put up a list of 10 things I always want to shout at parents whenever I see them wandering about cluelessly in a GameStop. It’s not their fault, really. If you’re immersed in the culture, it’s tough to realize just how weird an intimidating and alien gaming looks like from the outside. Add to that the time pressure of modern life and the fact that kids are quiet while playing the games, it’s no surprise that most parents just choose to ignore the world of gaming despite the fact that it’s now so ubiquitous that it’s become the lingua franca of childhood. That’s a mistake. As parents, you need to know what your kids are playing and what they’re into. If it’s important to them, it should be important to you.

Still, if you don’t know your Mario from your Master Chief, these little tips should help:

1. Know your ESRB ratings!

This is a-number one the single most important tips for a parent. Look in the lower left hand corner of any game box and you’ll see a little white box. There’s a rating system similar to the movies that lets you know what age groups the game is recommended for. I’m not going to going into all the details here (you can get everything at the official ESRB Web site) but here’s a quick guide: Most games are rated E or E10+. that’s approximately a G or PG rating. If you see an M, that means “mature” — roughly the equivalent of an “R” rated movie. If you see an “AO” I don’t want to know what shop you’re in because those are the gaming equivalents of porn and most retailers won’t carry them.

2. Check the screens on the back of the box!

Game companies aren’t exactly shy about advertising what’s in their titles. The blurb on the back of the box will usually give you a pretty good indication of what’s inside and if that isn’t enough, look at the screen shots. If something in them gives you pause — a disturbing monster, a scene of bloody violence, a character dressed in a skimpy outfit, the rest of the game doesn’t get any better. Game companies put their most provocative stuff right out on the box for a reason — it sells.

3. Do some research.

In the age of the Internet, there’s simply no excuse for not knowing what kinds of games you’re bringing in your house. Games are extensively previewed and written about for months and sometimes years before they’re released. A quick perusal of a site like GameSpotwill load you down with everything you need to make a purchase decision. One site I particularly like is What They Play, a guide to games for parents.

4. Set time limits!

This is a biggie. Like any other form of entertainment, videogames can fill as much time in your kids lives as you allow them to. So don’t. Have kids schedule their game time the same way they would schedule anything else. How much time you allow them is up to you as a parent but what we’ve found works best in our house is a couple of hours on Sunday morning and that’s it for the week. That way Lily, David and I can look forward to “our” game time while mommy’s still sleeping.

5. Let your kids save their games!

This goes along with number 4, but it’s important. When time for playing games is up, it’s up. Don’t ever just shut off your kid’s game though. Give them five minutes or so to save their game, warn them and stand over them while they do it. Nothing gets a gamer more upset than losing progress in a game because it wasn’t saved. Give your kids a few minutes leeway and you’ll find it’s much easier for them to stick to their time limits.

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6. Try some games out yourself.

Don’t worry about looking clueless — you will. There’s nothing a gamer like more than sharing their passion for games though and you’ll definitely score a few points if you’re willing to try out their favorite games. Ask to start on a tutorial level (almost all games have them) and be willing to ask your kids for advice (and ignore it). You might even want to fire up the games they’re playing after they go to bed just to see what kinds of images they’re exposed to.I know you’re tired, but why not TIVO Dancing With The Stars in favor of being aware of what’s in your house?

7. Don’t surprise your kids with a game as a gift.

This is a biggie. Games aren’t fungible. If you don’t know exactly what game your kid wants, don’t buy it. Gamers have definite ideas about what they want and will often plan purchases months in advance. In the same vein, if you go looking for a specific game, be sure to bring home that game. Don’t listen to the sales clerk that holds up another box and tells you that “This is just like that game, only better!” It isn’t and it’s not.

8. Be aware of games with a significant online component.

Even if a game has no objectionable content, be aware that many games these days have significant online components — even consoles. Players can now play with real people from around the world and that means that kids need to exercize the same level of Internet safety and awareness playing Halo ODST as they would while surfing the ‘Net on a PC. No personal information should be revealed, no phone numbers, no locations, no real names and if something uncomfortable happens, they need to tell you immediately. Ask them to remember people’s Xbox Live Gamertags or PSN IDs!

9. Monitor your credit cards!

The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have excellent online services that allow gamers to immediately buy new games, videos and downloadable content online. Be sure you know which of your credit cards these services are attached to and monitor them. Since these services charge “points” rather than actual dollar totals, it’s really easy for kids to forget they’re spending real money.

10. Monitor trashtalk and teach your kids to be good sports.

Gamers have a tradition called “trash talking” where they make fun of and try to “psyche out” an opponent by distracting them with insults. How much of this you allow is up to you, but if you allow it at all, make sure your kids understand that this is all in good fun and that feelings should never be hurt over a game. Trashtalking should never extend beyond the game and shouldn’t cross the line from mocking someone’s playing skills (“You shoot like may Grandma!”) to the personal. Finally, when all is said and done, players need to be good sports. That means being good winners and good losers and telling opponents “GG” (Good Game) when you’re finished.





Review: MySims Agents @GameSpot

3 10 2009

My latest review is up at Gamespot — MySims Agents. As a series, it’s not quite where it needs to be, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. If you’ve got kids, they’ll love it and you’ll have a good time playing it with them.

Check out the review here!.

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GoG Thursday: The Longest Journey

2 10 2009

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Adventure games have always occupied a weird netherworld between movies and actual “games.” That’s because the level of interactivity and actual gameplay in most adventure titles is actually pretty minimal. They are, after all merely a collection of brain teasers and often-arbitrary and maddening puzzles that act as roadblocks between cut scenes. Despite that, the best adventure games offer incredibly compelling experience despite their inadequacies as actual “games.” Maybe it’s because as crude as they are, they come closest to the now-scoffed at idea of “interactive movies,” in which you actually get to live through a well-told tale. Maybe. I haven’t thought about that deeply actually but that does seem like a good idea for a future “Angry Bear” column.

This is about GoG Thursday and one of the finest examples of adventure games in our hobby’s brief history — Ragnar Tornquist’s the Longest Journey. If you’ve never played it, head over to Gog.com and pick it up. You won’t be sorry.

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The Longest Journey is the story of April Ryan, a young woman at a crossroads in her life who discovers she’s a “Shifter.” Shifters are a very rare breed of human that can shift between our technological Earth and it’s magical twin that exists in a parallel dimension. The two earths were split thousands of years ago to prevent humanity from using the powers of both magic and science to destroy themselves. To keep the two worlds apart, a series of Guardians were set up to keep the worlds separate and monitor the balance between them. Now, however the twelfth Guardian has gone missing and the 13th Guardian must be found before the balance between the worlds collapses and the magical and scientific Earths reunite — violently.

The journey that follows is an amazing trip into two separate worlds that ask some pretty profound questions about a lot of stuff. Is science just magic that works? Is there a destiny for all of us and can it be changed? Does free will have any meaning at all? It also does a lot with the theme of duality and unity. It deals with the clash of faith and reason, logic and instinct and order and chaos and why they’re opposite and whether they can be combined in a single healthy universe or person. Indeed, if there’s one thing I love about this game, it’s how often it chooses to take the unexpected path in its storytelling. The character of April Ryan is really on two quests — one to save the world, one to discover herself. She succeeds at the first but utterly fails at the second, something that has profound consequences in Dreamfall, the second game in the series.

In fact this is one of the few stories of this type I can remember that doesn’t end with some preachy homily about “coming together” and uniting the disparate halves of our souls. It points out that certain things are diametrically opposed for a reason and that attempts to unite them may be an example of human hubris. Perhaps it is better to leave magic and science in different universes. Being a grown-up sometimes means we have to make agonizing choices and decide what we’re going to leave behind. The Longest Journey doesn’t shy away from that nor from showing the consequences of those people who insist on having it all.

Highly recommended.





Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Nobody Knows Anything

30 09 2009

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Here’s a little story. Back when I was working at Interplay, my then boss Bob Picunko (who’s now a big muckity-muck over at MTV) came into my office to talk about a game that he had heard that Disney was working on with Square Enix. It was called Kingdom Hearts and it combined Disney characters with Final Fantasy characters which on the surface sounds like most ridiculous combination around. Both of us dismissed the idea as something that would never work. Well, we were wrong. Kingdom Hearts turned out to be a smash hit and easily one of my all-time favorite PS2 games. Sometimes the strangest combinations come out of left field to knock your socks off (if I may mix my metaphors there).

Now of course, Kingdom Hearts is a mega-successful franchise that’s treasured and no doubt championed by many inside Disney and Square. Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan and all that. On the release of the latest iteration of the franchise though, it’s worthwhile to remember that this was not an idea that most people would have initially championed. I have enormous respect for my former boss — Bob’s the kind of smart, savvy guy I’d follow off a cliff and nobody knows games better, but he totally missed this one. Without blowing my own horn, I know gaming pretty well too and I dismissed Kingdom Hearts at first. Everyone in this industry has that kind of story — the one they totally missed.

Conversely, there are opposite stories as well. Ray Kassar, the head of Atari who presided over the original company’s destruction in the late ’70s was also the guy who essentially invented the home console port with the Atari 2600 Space Invaders. It behooves us all then to show a little humility sometimes, realizing that nobody really knows anything. We can make our best guesses, apply our facts and figures and bring all our experience to bear and still miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes we just get lucky because there’s a person or a team out there that everyone laughs at with a vision. In the mean time, if you’ve never played Kingdom Hearts — go do so and thank me later. If you have, enjoy the new game. I know I will!





Stardock Takes a Stand for Fox News

28 09 2009

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I found this interesting, especially given the recent hullabaloo over the Shadow Complex boycott. Brad Wardell, the CEO of Stardock Software and an outspoken conservative, has decided to take a stand against UPS. UPS, the package delivery service, recently decided to drop all of its advertising with Fox News. Stardock, according to Wardell’s comments on his Facebook page, does a “non-trivial amount of shipping with UPS.” Upset by the company’s decision to pull its advertising from the network, Stardock Software will now be doing all of its physical game fulfillment through FedEx.

So now we face yet another aspect of the Shadow Complex boycott issue. What’s good for the goose and so on… If liberals can boycott things that offend them, then so can conservatives. While I doubt losing Stardock’s business will result in a significant hit to UPS’ bottom line, this doesn’t strike me as a terribly healthy phenomenon. There are lots of CEOs out there, and lots of companies much bigger than Stardock and what happens when everyone needs to start signing an ideological bill of particulars before someone else will do business with you? If I have to have my voting record perused every time I go for a job, I might as well move out of California now. As lovely as I’m sure Texas is, I have no desire to live there.

To everyone’s credit, the discussion that came about as a result of Brad’s post was pretty civilized as such things go, but the gaming industry is a pretty small neighborhood. That tends to encourage civility. The rest of Red and Blue America? Not so much.

And on a completely unrelated note, if you’re at all interested in strategy games and have never played Galactic Civilizations 2, drop what you’re doing and play it now! You’ll thank me later.

UPDATE: This story got picked up by GamePolitics which prompted Brad Wardell to e-mail with the following:

My Facebook comment was taken considerably out of context. I could care less about Glenn Beck or whether someone advertises on their show or not. But UPS is boycotting the entire channel which annoyed me enough to ask my publishing director to look into whether it was true (it was) and have them look into Fed Ex which provided competitive pricing and make use of them for our uses.

This is completely and 100% true and was true when I first put up the story. This is why this story was labeled “Stardock Takes a Stand for Fox News,” NOT “Stardock Takes a Stand for Glenn Beck.” However you feel about Fox News, I wanted to make sure that Brad’s stance was clear.

Update 2: Brad Wardell comments on his personal blog

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GoG Thursday: Realms of Arkania 1 & 2

25 09 2009

One of the few fringe benefits of going out on your own is you get to catch up on a lot of games that have been moldering away in your “to play” pile forever. Given that my gaming history stretches back to 1977 though, that means that my “to play” pile includes titles that first came out on floppy discs back in the Clinton era. That’s why I like Gog.com. They’re a startup company that takes old games and makes them workable on modern hardware and sells them pretty damned cheap. Ever tried getting a really old DOS game to run on Windows XP or Vista that you’ve downloaded? Yeah, me too and I have the tear-stained t-shirts and furrows in my desk to prove it. That’s why I’m starting “GoG Thursday.” I’m going to pick out something on GoG.com that I’ve either never played and blast through it or something I have and talk about why it’s still awesome. And no. I’m not getting paid for this, although that would be nice.

This week’s GoG Thursday is the just released “Realms of Arkania 1 & 2”, the first two installments of an RPG series that never got the attention it was really due in North America. the games are based off a stat-intensive RPG series still popular in Germany called Die Schwarze Auge or “The Dark Eye,” a kind of Teutonic answer to Dungeons & Dragons. The Dark Eye series is a fairly standard RPG universe that becomes special in the way harks back to Tolkien’s inspiration in Germanic folklore. Orcs and goblins for example, are furry savage beastmen that haunt the forest rather than the pseudo primitive tribesmen that they usually are in modern fantasy. It’s also a pretty low-magic universe where enchantment is rare and special rather than a substitute for technology.

The first two games in the series will come as a bit of a shock to anyone whose RPG experience only stretches back as far as Bethesda’s Oblivion. Realms of Arkania is old-school RPG time with loads of stats for everything under then sun — including a characters personality traits. They all mix and match in a variety of ways to determine the player’s success at everything. That means if you’re not into min/maxing a character or delving deep into stats and math, you’re going to find this a really difficult game. If you’re not afraid of a little work though, there’s nothing better than this series for the obsessively nerdy RPG player. Back in the day, I lost WAY too much of my youth digging through really well-designed dungeons and battling the monsters in these games. Of the two, the second game in the series — Star Trail — is better. You really don’t have to play them in order to appreciate them though. Whichever one you start with, you won’t be disappointed.

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Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears

17 09 2009

My first piece for Gamasutra Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears just went up. As tough as it was to write, there’s nothing I like better than delving into the guts of the game industry and figuring out what makes this stuff tick. DDO is a classic example of a game hurt not so much by what was on the screen (I reviewed it over at GameSpy and while it was good then, it’s gotten much better) but by the decision about what business model to put on it. It’s amazing how sometimes the littlest thing can help or hurt a game — being in the right place at the right time, having a celebrity admit that they’re a fan, putting the wrong artwork on the box… The bottom line, as with the movies, is that nobody really knows anything before a title launches. It’s a lot of educated guesses and soothsaying. You can be smart and reduce the risk, but ultimately it’s still a roll of the dice. Are you listening, Mr. Kotick?
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In the mean time, I was once again impressed at the passion that goes into the people who work in the gaming industry. I’m not just talking about designers or producers like Fernando Paiz but also PR people like Adam Mersky and Atlus Online’s Jaime Ortiz (who’s a business operations guy). It struck me while talking to them that these are people who love what they do. It may be because this is still a relatively young and small industry where the first generation of pioneers is still around even as the third generation of money-men and MBA try to corporatize it, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s not often you get to be present at the settling of a new frontier and this is a time in gaming that will never come again.

Hey! I just got an idea for tomorrow’s Angry Bear column!

Read Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears at Gamasutra.

And if you like it, leave a comment and hit the button below to share this with others.

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The Fallout over Fallout

12 09 2009

And it’s finally happened. Kotaku is reporting that Bethesda is suing Interplay for their failure to develop the Fallout MMO. Is there anybody out there who didn’t see this coming? I’m excepting as always, the troglodytes and mouth-breathers over at No Mutants Allowed and the rest of the so-called “Fallout community” (warning, following that link and reading anything on that site WILL make you stupid). By that, I don’t mean those hundreds of thousands of people who have rightly enjoyed Fallout 3 (many of whom have as it as their sole Fallout experience) or those like me who genuinely love the first two games in the series. I mean those who, their loud protestations to the contrary, have never forgiven the universe for not stopping the clock in 1998 and Interplay for daring to go out of business.

Yes, I said go out of business. I bear no malice at all towared the tiny shell that currently bears the name Interplay and if the seven employees over there manage to magically produce a Fallout MMO, I’ll be thrilled. Good luck, God bless. Let’s be honest, though. It’s not going to happen. Whatever Interplay used to be, it’s been a mere ghost of that for many years — exactly what it was when it sold the rights to Fallout to Bethesda in a wild gamble at creating a Fallout MMO. You don’t need a crystal ball to figure that out, either. The company itself admits as much in their public 10K report. Check out this list of “Risk Factors:”

WE CURRENTLY HAVE SOME OBLIGATIONS THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO MEET WITHOUT GENERATING ADDITIONAL INCOME OR RAISING ADDITIONAL CAPITAL.

As of December 31, 2008, our cash balance was approximately $0 and our working capital deficit totaled approximately $2.4 million.

We are currently operating without a credit agreement or credit facility. There can be no assurance that we will be able to enter into a new credit agreement or that if we do enter into a new credit agreement, it will be on terms favorable to us.

We are presently without a CFO, and Mr. Caen has assumed the position of interim-CFO and continues as CFO to date until a replacement can be found.

These are not the business conditions that make me want to go out and purchase Interplay stock. I’d get a better ROI selling my old comic books on Ebay.

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I’m not entirely certain why Bethesda agreed to this deal in the first place. I can however, envisage a scenario where they get a substantial discount off the price of the original IP purchase in return for essentially waiting for Interplay to fail in which case they would then be able to sweep in and be able to do the Fallout MMO themselves. And if Interplay had succeeded — great! It’s a win/win for Bethesda either way. As for Interplay, well, they were selling the last valuable asset they had in a gamble to keep themselves alive and capitilize on the potential success of a Fallout MMO. If they’ve failed to realize that, well there’s certainly no shame there. Businesses fail all the time. I’m sure the principles and employees currently at Interplay will be fine.

What gets me are the idiot Fallout fanboys and their venom toward Bethesda for doing exactly what anyone in their position would — protecting their intellectual property rights and insisting that Interplay live up to the terms of its agreements. I don’t have any knowledge whether Bethesda is correct in its allegations, of course, but there’s certainly nothing immoral in a perfectly sensible business decision. There’s this perverse romantic streak in the hard-core Fallout community that somehow believes that they not only have a right to “their” Fallout 3 — done of course in a “proper Fallout style” — but that going business concerns should somehow modify intelligent business practices to tailor to them because the original Fallout games were so good and they love them so much.

And please don’t pull out the old “We’re the audience, they should listen to us.” Here’s a news flash — when it comes to Fallout, you are not the audience. The “audience” for Fallout are those millions of people happily shelling out the shekels for Mothership: Zeta and racking up Xbox 360 Acheivements. Full disclosure: I was the product manager for Fallout: Tactics, a decent though not stellar stratgy game based in the Fallout universe. I loved working at Interplay and am proud to have been connected, however tangentially, to the Fallout games and the great people who worked on them. Having said that, the Fallout games as represented by Fallout 1 and 2 are history. Everyone involved with them has moved on — in many cases quite successfully — and the Fallout universe is in the hands of people who obviously love the franchise and are not beholden to you in any way.

Here’s a little secret: The original Fallout games were not terribly successful. Not that they were failures, of course, but even by the standards of the late ’90s they garnered much more in critical acclaim, fan love and industry respect than they ever did in cold, hard cash. While I won’t reveal proprietary numbers, Bethesda does more with the franchise in five minutes than Interplay did with it in its whole history. Knowing that, it makes Bethesda rescuing the franchise from oblivion (no pun intended) even more worthy of respect. They had access to the same numbers when they were considering purchasing the rights to the game. They did it out of love for the universe and the belief that they could bring both the same critical acclaim and the success that had eluded it under Interplay’s care. They were right.

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Steve Jobs Going after the Gaming Market — Seriously

10 09 2009

Dean Takahashi over at VentureBeat is reporting that Steve Jobs has finally set his sights on the gaming market. Apparently Jobs emphasized in a a New York Times Interview that the new iPod Touch is being repositioned as a game machine to compete with the Nintendo DSi and the new PSP. Not a bad pivot for a product that had ceased to have any reason for existing. Based on the report, Jobs seems serious this time — or at least as serious as he can be given that the iPod and the iPhone are rapidly turning into game machines whether he likes it or not.

Steve Jobs fascinates me (as he does many people). I believe he is what Robert X. Cringely referred to as a “positively-oriented sociopath.” That means that everyone in Jobs’ world has really been placed here for him to manipulate, use and discard at his whim — and that includes his customers. His mercurial nature is legendary and the products he produces are equally legendary for being built around Steve’s quirks (think about the original Mac being unable to network). The Mac hasn’t been taken seriously as a gaming machine simply because Jobs isn’t a gamer, doesn’t take gaming seriously and has always thought gaming to be an “impure” use for his machine.

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His influence was so powerful over the character of Apple as a company, that even when he wasn’t around, no gaming initiative Apple ever launched could find any traction. Every few years Apple announces that it’s finally taking gaming seriously and will be providing developers with the support and the APIs they need to turn the Mac into a world-class gaming machine. The result is always the same — the effort fizzles out and PC gamers go back to their beige boxes and the thousand shocks they’re heir to.

This could be different. The Apple iTouch could be the lower-priced entry to the world of the App store and with iPhoen games being cheaper to produce and sell, they’re starting to look really attractive to big game companies who are starting to seriously support the platform. Given that the huge pile of money that Nintendo floats on is produced in large part by their dominance in the handheld space, I’d imagine that there are a lot of sweaty and uncomfortable meetings happening in Japan right now. The irony of all this, of course is that if Apple does become a big player in the gaming market, it’ll happen despite, not because of Jobs’ genius. Of course if it works, he’ll still get the credit and claim this was his plan all along.

Knowing Jobs, he’ll probably believe it.

Update: Just got this Tweet from a friend over at IGN:

Phone just failed the impulse gaming test. Tried to buy 2 games but they were too big to download over the air. Sales lost.

Yeah. That’s a problem and something that if Jobs is really serious about turning the iTouch into a gaming platform. He’s going to have start imposing some uniform standards for apps in addition to actually providing developer support. It should be interesting to see just how serious he is with this.

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Angry Bear 16 is Up! The Most Important Twitter Conversation Ever…

10 09 2009

I love me some Soren Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, he’s the brilliant mind behind much of the gaming goodness that was Civilization III and Civilization IV. As such, whenever he speaks at a conference or updates his personal blog, he’s always worth listening to. What I wasn’t expecting was Johnson’s July 16th entry (called “So this is what Twitter is for…”) regarding a fascinating Twitter exchange he had with some of the leading lights in game design regarding the relative importance of narrative versus actual gameplay.

According to Johnson, the conversation began in response to a somewhat controversial talk given by Too Human designer Denis Dyack at the Design 2009 conference. Johnson Tweeted to Dyack after the talk and was This was responded to by Harvey Smith. Then Clint Hocking Rob Fermier. Brenda Brathwaite and a host of other leading game designers that included Ian Bogost, David Jaffe, Damion Schubert and even John Romero started a long, complex conversation about the boundaries and importance of gameplay vs. narrative. It went on for a while.

(This week’s Angry Bear is my take on Dyack’s talk and the conversation that followed. At the risk of stepping on the toes of all these game designers whose work I’ve long admired, I’m going to say that while I understand where Denis is coming from, he’s drawn absolutely the wrong conclusion from his study. I’m hoping for some heated conversations this week.)
 
Check out the rest of the new column here!

And while you’re here, why not check out the rest of the Angry Bear Columns under the tab at the top of the page?

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