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Archive for December, 2007

As you can probably imagine, I played plenty of videogames growing up. Luckily, my family not only tolerated the hobby, but even got into gaming a little bit over the years. Mom still plays a mean game of Tetris, and my sister was the first person I knew to beat Super Mario Brothers 2.Wii Family

With all the downtime around the holidays, it’s only natural that we play a lot of multiplayer games when the whole family gets together. Last year, a still-functional Super Nintendo, Super Mario All-Stars, and a lot of time on our hands made for a holiday filled with some of the most intense Super Mario action this side of The Wizard.

This year, I brought along the Wii for some Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports. The DS Lite came along as well, and we got to take advantage of the superb download-and-share feature in New Super Mario Brothers. Almost as an afterthought, I brought along Settlers of Catan.

SettlersYou’ve already read the title of this post, so you can probably guess which game we got the most play out of. I was pleasantly surprised to spend so much time with a non-video game over the holidays.

Settlers, like other European designer board games, is exquisitely balanced and relatively easy to learn. Out of the 4 games we played during Christmas, we had 4 different winners, and each one capitalized on a different strategy. The more relaxed, turn-based play of a board game fits well in a family setting, and was a nice break from faster-paced games of Bomberman and Mario 3 on the Wii’s Virtual Console.

There’s a real lesson here for videogame designers, particularly those pushing hard to attract casual gamers (and who isn’t these days?) The RULES in a game like Settlers or Puerto Rico are complex, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. A well-designed game, in any format, has plenty of rules that apply just the right amount of pressure on players. To hold our interest, a game needs to be hard enough to remain challenging throughout a new player’s learning curve (so we don’t feel like an adult playing Candy Land with children), but not dauntingly difficult (so we don’t feel like that guy doing the enormous crossword puzzle in the SkyMall catalog, or anyone that ever played Super Ghouls and Ghosts).

Along with those complex rules, however, are very simple CONTROLS. Obviously, that terminology stretches a little when we’re talking about board games vs. video games, but in either case, the range of player inputs shouldn’t feel like you’re learning a second language. Settlers offers a few actions for each player to use on each turn (trade, purchase, roll) and the entire game neatly fits within that framework. By contrast, every second of a game of Halo presents the player with an astounding number of choices, so the barrier for entry is significantly higher for rookie players.

The brilliance of a game like Settlers is it marries the rules and controls that govern the game to a fairly simple storyline, so each player’s role makes sense in the loose “story” that’s unfolding on the board. Further, the story makes all of Settlers’ rules easier to grasp, and easier to see how the individual player decisions affect the game.

As stories in games get more and more sophisticated, control schemes and rules shouldn’t have to. Epic found an elegant compromise with their context-sensitive, all-purpose action button in Gears of War, and it looks like Metal Gear Solid 4 will boast a simplified control scheme that remaps action buttons based on circumstances. Mario Galaxy introduced a ton of new rules, with different gravity on quite a few of the planets in each level, and I never felt like it snuck up on me, or was a cheap way to up the difficulty in some stages.Mario Galaxy gravity

Hopefully the new generation of game developers hasn’t entirely forgotten gaming’s roots and plays a new board game once in a while. After all, there are only so many original Nintendo and Commodore 64 games that a developer can draw inspiration from.

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‘Tis the Season

Child’s Play

Liquid Architecture is for the children – just like Wu Tang! But seriously, Joel Johnson is hosting his third annual fundraiser (or Funde Razor) to benefit a charity that’s very near and dear to my heart, Child’s Play.

It all goes down on Wednesday, December 12 at Barcade – Brooklyn’s favorite retro arcade/dive bar. Yours truly is actually making the trek to Williamsburg, a ‘hood that I’m not even cool enough to be in the other 364 days of the year! If you live within a drive of the 5 boroughs, I highly recommend coming by, purchasing a ton of raffle tickets, and witnessing some of the best rock stars that have ever touched a Guitar Hero/Rock Band controller.

For the uninitiated, Child’s Play is an annual labor of love organized by the guys behind Penny Arcade. They put toys and videogames in the hands of thousands of very sick, sad children each year, through a network of 40 children’s hospitals worldwide. Of course, none of that happen can happen without donations, so even if you can’t make it to the event in Brooklyn (or the simultaneous rockfest in Denver this year), please consider clicking it here and making a donation, or better yet, purchasing something off one of the hospitals’ wishlists.

Obviously, these hospitals need medicine, supplies and staff just like every other medical facility, but sometimes these kids and their families just really need something to put a smile on their faces. If you need further motivation, here’s a letter from a former children’s hospital patient:

To Gabe, Tycho, and all those amazing contributors.

I felt I needed to write this, to thank you and your wonderful organization for what you have done. I have been a faithful reader of Penny Arcade for a few years now, but this is the first time I have actually taken the time to look over the Child’s Play website. And I was stunned to see that the IWK Children’s Hospital was included on the list of hospitals which would receive donations. The realization that you were helping children everywhere, not just in your own town, or even your own country, brought me to tears.

You see, I was one of those kids who’s earliest memories are of hospital waiting rooms. I spent a large chunk of my childhood in the IWK, enduring four or five surgeries before I was even eight years old. I was born with abnormally small ear canals, essentially leaving me deaf for much of my early life. I learned to read almost before I could speak; I could not properly hear my parents speak in order to imitate them. I was cut off from a world of sound, and often felt like an outcast, as even after surgery I had to learn to speak without a lisp. I was accident prone as well; my balance having been severely affected by the quality of my hearing. And yet even through I made so many trips to the hospital, even though I endured surgery which would leave me feeling ill for days afterward, the games room in the IWK had always been a sanctuary. Where I could play with other children who were like me; who were ill and away from home, but for a short little while, there was a little bit of normality in our lives. We could play, and laugh, and forget that we had to be careful of the IV which trailed behind us wherever we went. We could be children again, even if it was only for that short span of time.

I just wanted to thank each and every person who has contributed to this wonderful charity, because I feel as if each and every one of you has touched my life by touching the lives of these children you help. You’re giving comfort to children who are told to be strong. You’re bringing joy to kids too ill to laugh. And most importantly, you are restoring their hope. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of you.

Sincerely,
Jenn K.
A gamer, a fan, and a former sick kid.

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Air Supply

Mainstream coverage of the games industry has been a mixed bag for decades. It’s often harmless – a reviewer gets in over his head, or a stat gets misquoted. Sometimes, it’s much more serious, and some desperate reporter drops in a Jack Thompson quote or throws around some baseless claim about violence in games that turn kids into serial killers.

Nick Wingfield at the Wall Street Journal has actually assembled a respectable body of work, covering the industry with the same level of respect and insight that he employed when he covered Apple Computer in the 80’s. Along with Seth Schiesel and Charles Herrold, Nick’s on the short list of gaming specialists that are worth reading every day. This week, he covered Nintendo’s Wii supply issues with remarkable clarity.

Wii lineAs the gaming community’s grown over the years, new system launches have gone from non-events (do you remember where you were when the Super Nintendo launched?) to frenzied riots that claim entire weekends and tragically, some lives. This phenomenon of launch hype has also given rise to perhaps my single biggest pet peeve: conspiracy theories from morons insisting that “they” (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all worn this mantle at one time or another) are shorting supply (of the 360, PS2, PS3, N64 and Wii, respectively) on purpose, to hype demand.

You’re reading Liquid Architecture, so you’re smart, right? So you know just how stupid the concept of purposely shorting supply for a console would be, right? Especially considering EVERY system since the NES, up until the Wii, has been produced and sold under a razors-and-blades business model, where its manufacturer needs to put the absolute maximum number of consoles in players’ hands on launch day to recover hardware costs by selling more games. Good thing you know, because explaining that every time a hot console launches really gets under my skin.

Wii salesUp until very recently, these types of mindless, armchair “exposes” were the domain of low-rent “outlets” like some jerk you work with, or a guy at school that insists you can see a ghost in “Three Men and a Baby.”  Unfortunately, blogs (not unlike this one) have given these guys (and their crackpot theories) an audience in recent.  Even worse, a few legit news sources have fallen into the trap, spurned by some loose-lipped executives that should know better.

Bottom line: Wiis are still hard to find at retail.  Yes, it’s rare for the same system to run scarce two years in a row.  But c’mon, it’s the Wii!  Anyways, you should read Nick’s piece ’cause it’s a rational explanation of the shortage.  And next time someone tells you how Nintendo’s keeping them off shelves on purpose, send them this article.

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E3 2005The Escapist, essential reading every week, posted a great article on this week on the state of game industry conventions, post-E3.

As an E3 veteran, I can see why the ESA pulled the plug on the show. Those cavernous booths that EA, Microsoft and Sony put together year after year had to be crazy expensive (in case you missed it, these things were huge – I hope someone’s planning a memorial to the brave young men that got lost and starved to death in Sony’s E3 2004 space). Also, there’s no way to track all the expenses for invite-only dinners, private parties, bands, and staff per diem back to actual game sales. The fact is, this media-and-industry-only show reached critical mass right around the timeany fan could become a journalist with a blog like this one.E3 2006

On the other hand, E3 was a blast! And more importantly, it was a one-stop show for face time with the gaming press, retail purchasing directors and developers. Out of the bumper crop of replacement shows to surface since the end of E3 (as we know it), I’ll be interested to see which ones actually stick around for a second year. IDG World Expo’s E for All had a rough opening this year, but if anyone can right the ship, it’s the people that gave us MacWorld and, well, the original E3.

DLBy all accounts, the Penny Arcade Expo is a stellar time for fans, and it just keeps getting bigger. Multipurpose shows like the Wizard World comic conventions and Digital Life have done a decent job with fan service as well. They don’t, however, seem to have any solution on the table to replace the business functions of E3, like formal retailer meetings or press tours with specific company booths.

The Big 3, and a few huge publishers like EA have supplemented their stops at the open-admission fan shows with their own invite-only press days, usually at their offices, under their control. Honestly, it works great, and I’m sure the whole thing can be done for a fraction of their staff mini-bar expenses in LA during E3 week in previous years. I’ll be interested to see if the Game Developers’ Conference, the reorganized “Min-E3” invite-only show, or a new event entirely meets the critical business needs that have gone unserved since The Big Show went away.

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