Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gaming Through a Writer's Eyes - Anton Strout  

Instead of my usual ranting and raving tonight, I am incredibly honored to present an essay written by one of my favorite Fantasy authors, the charming and talented Anton Strout. Given his status as a writer and a gamer, I asked him for a few words on both subjects combined. Surprising the hell out of me, he was gracious enough to accommodate despite an incredibly busy schedule. Without further ado, here's what he had to say…

Hello, and thanks for having me. Before I begin my guest spot here at Drinking Coffecola, let me get my introduction and a bit of shameless self-promotion out of the way so you know who you’re dealing with.

I’m the author of the Simon Canderous urban fantasy series for Ace Books which include Dead To Me, Deader Still and the latest book, Dead Matter. I can also be found in a variety of anthologies—some of which include Simon Canderous tie-in stories—including: Boondocks Fantasy, The Dimension Next Door, A Girl’s Guide to Guns & Monsters, Pandora’s Closet, Spells of the City, and Zombie Raccoons & Killer Bunnies (my favorite name of them all).

I currently live in the haunted corn maze that is New Jersey and, most importantly, I am the worlds most casual and controller-smashing video gamer. I am also prone to hyperbole.

Making a videogame comprises many a part, but what makes a game come alive? Is it the gameplay? The music? The character or level designs? The story? Certainly all of the above, and if one of those elements is lacking, a great game can become a mediocre one. But since I’m a story slinger by trade, I’d like to talk about the writing in games.

As a writer/gamer, I am in the habit of dissecting the things I experience. My content creator eye can’t help it. I need to know what makes things tick. Where does the heart come from in a game? More and more, I think story has grown over the years. Just take a look at Resident Evil 5 dialogue now compared to that of the “master of unlocking” clips from RE1. There’s a ton of games I could talk about, but I’m going to go with a few here that struck a chord with me in my development as a writer.

People often ask me to define why I write what I write and funnily enough, my answers tie in to gaming. When I elevator pitch my books for people, I usually tell them I write Jim Butcher Lite urban fantasy novels, basically because I miss Ghostbusters and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s no coincidence, then, that these two television and movie franchises both have games.

Ghostbusters has come a long way in story development since its Commodore 64 version (where I basically maxed out my Ecto-1 with all the best equipment, then sadly my friend’s mother threw away our account numbers for all our stuff). The story of the recent game version was critical enough that it was actually written by the screenwriters of the film and playing it is feels like being immersed in a brand new Ghostbusters film. It helps that it also has many of the original voice actors, art design and such on top of a fun plot, but the writing really helps pull all those elements together. It’s no different than what I’m trying to do when I structure a novel. Short of writing actual gaming code, I need to create all those atmospheric elements so the reader immerses themselves into a world where they believe it’s possible to be chased down by a demonic carnivorous bookcase.

When I first picked up the Buffy the Vampire Slayer video game, I was worried. Movie and television tie-in games are almost always questionable, but I have to say the 2002 game and it’s follow up in 2004, Chaos Bleeds, was written like an actual episode and caught the essence of what the show was. Despite a lot of the humor in it, a lot of the game creeped me the hell out as well. The writing set a tone and a mood that were furthered by all the other elements. When I learned that my fellow urban fantasy writer and friend Tom Sniegoski actually wrote them, I was jealous as hell that he got to do it.

Roger Ebert recently wrote that video games can never be art. I like a lot of what he has to say about movies, in this case, I think he’s dead wrong (despite the large amount of things he can quote in his original article, found here.)

Defining what is art is subjective, as proven by thousands of years of people trying to define aesthetics. I know what it is to me. It’s anything that’s crafted that I can experience and it evokes something in me from my interaction with it.

And games do that for me. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, for instance, was one of the first games to make me cry. Even with only subtitles and no voice acting, the storyline brought me to tears with Link’s shift from adolescence to an adult and the way the world changed between that. I laughed out loud and wanted to dance with the king of the Gorons when Link found the song to cheer him and played it for him. I can still remember him shouting, all caps, HOT HOT HOT! If that ain’t art, then I don’t know what is.

Writing is an integral and more and more important part of the game creation process, probably even more so in games that are 100% original content, but that’s a guest post for another day…

Again, thanks for having me and if you are so inclined, please go check out the books!

Infinite thanks to Anton Strout, controller-smashing player and author extraordinaire. If you're in the market for an exciting Urban Fantasy page-turner, take the man's advice and go check out his books. If you'd like to learn more about Anton, you can visit his website HERE, or follow him on Twitter -- @AntonStrout is his handle, and I can tell you first-hand that he tweets some pretty amusing stuff.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Risen (360) Giveaway, Baby Won't Sleep, and Random Bits  

It's been one heck of a day. For whatever reason, the baby decided that he would wake up at around 3:30am this morning, and no matter what the wife and I did, we couldn't get him back down. That was pretty painful (and, I'm sorry, but as lovely as the Sprout channel is, I'd much rather be staring at the inside of my eyelids at that time of day) but we figured he’d probably crash for a good nap in a few hours... but he didn't.

With mommy and me drained due to lack of sleep, we staggered through the day waiting for him to finally run out of juice and zonk out... but he didn't. With the internal energy reserves of a long-distance marathon runner, he kept going, and going, and going, and going and still hasn't fallen asleep as of the time I'm writing this entry.

Pray for us.

Games: Gonna clear out the inbox and post a few random bits here –

>In case you missed it, here's a LINK to my Just Cause 2 (360) reviewed which just went up today. There's a lot to like about it, but it's one of those instances where less would have been more.

In other Just Cause 2 news, I just got an e-mail announcing two new DLC packs for the game. I can't say that I'm honestly raring to get back into it, but one of the items detailed was “Parachute Dual Thrusters: twin parachute-mounted jets which transform Rico’s trademark parachute into one of the most nimble and powerful attack platforms.”

I haven't seen what it looks like in action, but it sounds just crazy enough to get me to put another hour or two into the game. If nothing else, I'll just screw around and pick up a few more of the easier Achievements while putting it through its paces. This DLC hits the 360 on May 26.

>Not exactly news, but the Lost Planet 2 multiplayer demo is now freely available on the various DL services. If you didn't win one of the codes earlier in the month, this is your chance to get caught up. If nothing else, give it a whirl and try out some of those crazy Vital Suits.

>Still working my way through Trauma Team (Wii.) Just about through with all of the initial campaigns, and the more I play it, the more convinced I am that it's probably going to end up being my favorite Trauma title of the series. I think so far, the best paths are Forensics and the EMT. The not-best? Endoscopy, by a mile.

The forensics is deep enough and interesting enough to be a game all by itself (and, I buy that in a second if it was) and I like the quickly shifting back and forth between patients when playing as the EMT. One is totally cerebral, and the other is about fast action and reflexes, so it's a good balance. As far as Endoscopy goes, it's just really dull... there are only so many applications for sticking a tube somewhere, and actually having to physically thrust my arm forward in order to make the probe move is a real pain in the ass. It's just irritating, really, and could easily have been done by pushing up on the D-Pad.

I was hoping to get the review done this weekend, but I hit a snag. Each path (out of six) will let you get only so far before you hit "locked" missions that can be opened by making progress with the other doctors. I've done as much as I possibly can, but I hit a puzzle in the Forensics section that I can't solve and I'm stuck. Hopefully this roadblock will be removed soon, because I'm quite eager to push on. That little bump aside, Trauma Team has been a fantastic little title that comes highly recommended.

>The final Risen (360) giveaway: As promised, I’ve saved my final copy of Risen (360) for readers of the blog. I have only one more brand-spanking new, completely sealed and untouched copy of the game waiting to find a new home, and all you need to do to win it is give me three topics that you'd like to hear us discuss on a future episode of the GameCritics podcast.

Feel free to write as much or as little on each suggestion as you'd like, but definitely come up with at least three separate ideas. Leave your three (or more) suggestions as a comment at the end of this post, and I will pick a winner at random from everyone who comments.

That's all you have to do. Pretty easy, right?

Since this post is going up on a Friday night, I imagine that quite a few people will probably not see it until Monday (when they should actually be working) so the winner will be announced on my next blog update, probably Monday evening. That seems to me like a pretty generous timeframe to enter, so hopefully everyone is interested in the game will get a chance to do so.

Good luck!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Giving Away Risen - 360  

Games: Going to turn in early tonight and get some sleep, so no big update tonight EXCEPT to say that I'm giving away copies of Risen (360) via my Twitter account. If you're already following me, then you've probably seen the contests. If you're not, then... you're not.

No worries, though -- If you're anti-Twitter for some reason (and I know some of you are)  then you'll still get your chance. I'm saving the last copy to give away to folks who comment here at my blog. Keep your eyes peeled for your cue, and you just might win a free copy of this really excellent RPG

Infinite thanks to super-cool Aubrey at SouthPeak Games for providing the loot, and also to everyone who's been supporting, this blog, and me!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Preview: Trauma Team (Wii)  

Games: For a change of pace, I thought I'd give a little preview love to the upcoming Trauma Team from Atlus. As anyone who reads this blog surely knows, I loves me some in-house Atlus, and after having spent the last few days with the title, it's proved to be no exception.

While players may be familiar with the Trauma formula of doing crazy surgeries against ever-increasing odds and biological agents that are closer to being aliens than tumors, Trauma Team takes a huge step away from the established pattern and shakes things up from top to bottom. While I enjoyed Trauma Center and its sequels, this new approach is a complete home run.

For those that don't know, Trauma Team now features six different specialties instead of only surgery. Surgery is still here, but in addition there are paths for EMT, Diagnostics, Forensics, Endoscopy and Orthopedics. I initially had my doubts about how different the game would be, but those doubts have been laid to rest. I haven't completed the game at this point, but I have touched on three of the six fields.

Surgery is the same action that series fans know and love. Surgeon ‘CR-S01’ is a nameless prisoner who’s been sentenced to 250 years for a crime he may not have committed, and each life he saves shaves time off of what he's got to serve.

Players have access to the standard range of surgical implements, and will be proceeding through this path in the same way that they have in previous games. No surprises here, but the solid action still delivers.

Maria Torres is Team’s sexpot character, a hothead EMT whose gameplay centers around juggling multiple victims at the scene of accidents. She shares some tools with the surgery path, but spends more time on stabilizing patients and doing first-response care... Things like opening airways, establishing IVs, applying splints and emergency blood transfusions.

I think it's fair to say that her actions are a little shallower than what's available in the surgery path, but it's more than made up for by the need to jump back and forth between multiple patients.

Gabriel Cunningham is the diagnostician, and of the three modes I've played so far, his is the most absolutely different and completely new, not at all similar to anything that's been seen in the Trauma games before. Instead of getting his hands dirty, Gabe spends his time interviewing patients and trying to pick out clues to their conditions from the things that they say.

Once he's got a general idea of what's going on, the player checks vital signs and examines blood test results. If further information is needed, patients can be sent to X-ray, CT or other various high-tech tests. After getting these results, players have to look very carefully at the images in order to see small differences and variations that may be dangerous. More like a puzzle game than the fast-paced OR action players generally expect, it presented welcome mental challenges while giving my reflexes a break.

At this point, I still have three more specialties to spend time with, but I'm absolutely loving everything I've seen so far. Each mode has been different from the last, yet well-developed and well-defined enough to feel like they each present their own unique flavor.

In terms of production, Trauma Team is aces. The music is superb swank-jazz similar to the top-notch tracks in the stellar Persona series, and the graphics are a brilliant 2D/3D hybrid that blends Anime style with comic-book panel presentation. The writing is sharp, the voice work is excellent, and there's plenty of story to flesh out the segments between operations. The developers are still resisting adding any sort of RPG-lite or choice elements, but I'm not going to criticize at this point... they've done so much to freshen up the formula and so much of it is dead-on correct that I'm going to be quiet, smile big, and keep playing.

More info to come, but it's pretty clear that fans of Trauma are going to be in heaven with this installment, and newcomers are going to find one of the most stylish, distinctive games available on the Wii. It's fresh, it's different, and it's beautiful.

For more information, check out the official website HERE and keep your eyes peeled for the game when it hits retail on May 18.

(P.S.- I may be a bit of an Atlus shill, but that doesn't mean this game isn’t awesome.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

My Follow Fridays!  

Misc: Rather than spam the Twitter feed with chunk after chunk of FFs, I thought I'd put together a comprehensive list of the folk I follow and read on a daily basis. These are all living, breathing people who reply to messages and interact with others, and the categories should be self-explanatory. Following these people gets me through my day, and if you're not already following them, give 'em a shot.

(Caveat: the list isn't complete... I'm SURE I've missed a few. Apologies if you're one I've overlooked!)

Follow Fridays v2.1 Staff:


Game Folk:

Game Devs/Pubs/Media:

Writing Folk:

Misc Peeps:

Just Cause 2, The Haunt, Beasts of Burden, and Wormwood  

Games: Although it's a little late to the party, I would definitely recommend any Heavy Rain fans (or even not-fans) give a listen to the latest GameCritics Podcast.

Totally dedicated to David Cage’s game for the entire hour, Richard Naik, Trent Fingland and Dan Weissenberger (along with host Tim Spaeth) chew some pretty good fat. You can check it out HERE.

In other games news, I just finished my playthrough of Just Cause 2 about an hour or so ago. The funny thing was, I had seen enough to write the entire review at about the eight-hour mark but I held back on publishing it to be sure that I had seen enough to form a valid opinion. The game continued on for another six hours, and you know what? Not only did my opinion not change, it actually got worse... The review will go live soon, but Just Cause 2 is definitely a case where more does not equal better.

Comics: Had a chance to start whittling down my backlog of comics today, with mixed results.

The Haunt from Image was very disappointing. Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am a huge fan of Robert Kirkman and his work on both The Walking Dead as well as Invincible. Love both of those books. LOVE THEM. However, as much as I respect Mr. Kirkman, I’ve got to say that his work here left me ice cold.

In a nutshell, the main character is a priest whose brother was some sort of super spy, and after this spy brother is killed, he possesses the priest and gives him goopy-tentacle-suit powers. There is some government agency stuff, rival assassins, and so on and so forth.

I didn't find any of the characterizations to be compelling, and the story felt very amateurish and nonsensical. In terms of the art, I have to say that I am not much of a Todd McFarlane fan, and since he's doing visuals, there's not a lot here for me to like. I'm convinced that he is completely unable to draw anything that doesn't resemble either Spawn or Spider-Man in some way, and to say that his style is unappealing is an understatement. I had hoped that Kirkman's plotting would make the book worth reading, but that's a negative. After five issues, I'm out.

Beasts of Burden from Dark Horse has been a pleasant surprise, although I guess I can't really say that I should be surprised. Written by Evan Dorkin of Milk & Cheese fame (if you haven't read M&C, GO READ SOME RIGHT NOW!!!) and beautifully illustrated by Jill Thompson, Beasts is about a group of pets who guard against supernatural occurrences and threats in a small town.

Although the dialogue doesn't always quite hit the right notes for me, the scripting is very interesting and has a superb balance of both cute/cuddly and horrific/terrible. If the creators were afraid to get dark or go violent, the book wouldn't work as well as it does. However, they have shown several times that they're not afraid to spill a little blood in service to the drama, and I love them for it. I've read the first four issues at this point, and I will definitely be reading more.

(Another animal-based book well worth reading is We3. Sad pets, laboratory cruelty and cybernetic enhancement blend together for an unforgettable tale. Damned touching, it was…)

Finally, I'm into the second series of Wormwood. Subtitled ‘The Last Battle’, the series is written by one of my all-time favorite writers, Garth Ennis, and stars the antichrist himself. However, although he's the son of Satan and the one meant to bring about the apocalypse, he's instead rebelled against dear old dad and become content with being a media executive.

The book touches on many issues that a reader might not expect, and spends a lot of time on character development. For example, in the issues I read today, the main character was struggling with the idea of becoming a father himself, quite apart from its significance to ethereal balance. The story is a little involved and I would recommend anyone interested in it to pick up the first series instead of just jumping in, but it's dark, adult, incredibly smart and is a good gateway into the work of Mr. Ennis. This is exactly the kind of comic that I love to curl up with at the end of the day. Insta-buy.

Although I've got more in my stack to get to, I'm always looking for quality recommends from other people. If you've got something that you think is worth a shout-out, leave a comment and let me know!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sony's PS3 Move Event - Seattle  


Games: On April 8, Sony hosted an event in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood in honor of the new PS3 Move controller and its games. I was fortunate enough to attend the event with a number of other local press folks (big ups to Chris Matel of Gamer’s Hell and New Guy from the Escapist Without a Business Card) and snapped a few pictures in between scarfing hors d'oeuvres. Check it out.

This was the line of PS3 non-press attendees waiting to get in after the Press period was over. Thank goodness for credentials!

A view of the main floor from the balcony area above. The event was housed in a local bar near Broadway (a popular strip in Seattle's most gay-friendly neighborhood) and the bartenders were quite generous. Notice the open door at the top of the pic? The constant opening/closing and changing light levels threw the Move controllers into a tizzy and required constant recalibration. It was unfortunate placement since the developers on hand mentioned several times that the Move is fine in either light or dark settings, but that it struggles in environments where lighting fluctuates. That fact was quite noticeable.

The Move controller itself, with a plethora of buttons and a squishy ball on top that changes colors on the fly.

A shot of the Move with its sub-controller (now called the 'navigation controller'.) The lighting? A perfect example of why Chris Matel works at Gamer's Hell -- That red glow is coming from him.

The person depicted here is playing Sliders (tentative title). A crazy downhill racing/obstacle game that features characters scooting on office chairs, it looked amusing enough but didn't control well. It was also very simple in nature, and didn't do much to show the controller's strengths. Some players will buy it for the gratuitous butt-shots offered by the arching Chinese girl character, but it was more novelty than anything.

A shot of the 'Motion Fighter' game (actually called 'Dukes' on the PS3 system memory.) Of everything that was shown, this was the game that had the most potential, in my opinion. Played with a Move in each hand, the game tracks actual punches thrown and had a nicely visceral feeling. The developer present said there'd be a lengthy campaign mode as well as some character customization. When asked if it was strictly fisticuffs, he said that there'd be some special moves and grabs, but the game was basically enhanced street boxing.

The moves list for 'Motion Fighter'. It's a bit hard to make out, but the top row is mostly based on motions only, and the bottom row represents moves that use motions plus buttons.

Chris and I playing against each other in one of the simplistic 'enhanced reality' minigame/partygame applications for the Move. Instead of seeing the us holding the controller onscreen via the PS3 Eye camera, it appeared as though we were holding tennis rackets, electric razors, harpoons, and so on. As you can see, the Eye was also used to snap our photos for in-game avatars. As you can also see, he's winning.

The people on the balcony above were treated to Socom 4.  Using both the Move and the navigation controller, it handled exactly like a Wii game in its Wiimote/Nunchuk configuration. However, the aiming with the Move was far superior to anything the Wiimote was capable of. Aside from the new controller, it seemed like any other standard military shooter, though there wasn't much time to take in its finer details. Sadly, the Sony reps removed it from the floor before the Press period was over.

This picture speaks for itself, I think.

It was a good event overall and it was nice to finally get a hands-on with the Move, but I will say that the first round of software is less than impressive. The games seem to fill the same space that Wii titles currently do, and I didn't see any compelling reasons to rush out and preorder the new hardware. That said, the Move was vastly superior to the Wiimote in terms of accuracy and 1-to-1 movement reception. The tech is clearly better, so my hope is that by E3 or soon thereafter, we'll start to see some games that capitalize on that fact.

Still, I have to be honest in saying that the Wii's been out for a few years and I've yet to see much that truly takes advantage of its controls... I suspect the same may hold true for the Move. Time will tell.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening ... Afterthoughts  

Games: I finally got around to playing (and finishing) Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening this week, and it was an interesting experience.

I'm going to be talking about only this subject for the rest of the blog, in what most people would probably describe as rambling haphazardly in geektastic fashion. If this doesn't sound like a good way to spend three minutes, skip reading today's post and come back next time for my rundown of the Sony PS3 Move event. You've been warned.

(Also, I will be responding to some of the DLC comments later, I just need more time to digest them.)

So….. Awakening.

To start with, it was a pretty chunky amount of content for something called an "expansion". It may sound odd, but after going through it I kind of felt as though it might have worked better if it had been split up into its three main component parts and doled out one at a time, similar to the way Fallout 3 handled its five add-ons.

The main reason I say this is that as an expansion, it did not include the same amount of character-building and dialogue content found in the main game. If you ask me, those things are what made the original DA experience what it was, and playing a title which is technically the same (but with less dialogue) only served to highlight how poor the gameplay actually is.

Combat is still a fairly jumbled mess and level designs remain quite boring. Many of the quests are on the insipid side, and without having the same level of dedication to my party, I found myself simply skipping some of the more pointless quests to keep the story progressing at a faster pace.

This is just a theory, but I imagine if Awakening had been separated into thirds, going through it might've been more tolerable since there would be less to go through at a time. After all, it's easy to put up with stuff that isn't stellar if it only takes an hour or two. Getting through ten or fifteen hours of not-stellar is a little tougher.

Another reason I think separating it might have been a good idea is that I found the experience to be fairly buggy, and having to only focus on one portion at a time may have been a benefit to quality control. As a sometimes-completionist, it was quite irritating to see that some quests didn't clear from my active queue after finishing. At first I thought it meant there was still something left to do, but no, they were just bugged. Other quests simply wouldn't trigger. For example, in Amaranthine, I was supposed to steal booze from a gang, yet the gang never appeared.

I'd like to finish your personal quest, but I literally can't.

Along similar lines, I found the implementation of the companion-specific quests to need a little more work as well. I couldn't get Sigrun’s to activate (another bug, well-noted by the GameFAQs community) and the same went for the second part of Oghren’s. Also, due to the way the game is structured, it appears as though whichever party member is collected last will not be able to undertake the Joining ceremony, nor their specific quest, apparently. When the proper character is spoken to in order to initiate it, it instead leads to the final battle. (If I’m wrong on that, please let me know.)

These issues were quite surprising given that interacting with the companions are generally the high points of any BioWare game, and they left me with a generally unsatisfied feeling.

I don't want to sound like Awakening was all bad, though, because it wasn't. Despite the characters not having as much dialogue or depth as the main game, I did enjoy them. Once again, BioWare shows it has the most consistently well-done characters in the industry thanks to interesting party members like the acerbic, wisecracking Anders, or the undead Justice. The handling of Nathaniel Howe was another high point, and I certainly enjoyed seeing the way his character related to previous events.

The undead character, Justice.

The engaging characters were par for the course, but one thing I didn't expect was how similar Awakening was to Mass Effect 2 in terms of structure. In both games the player is tasked with collecting upgrades to fortify something. In ME2 it’s the Normandy spacecraft. In Awakening, it’s the Vigil Keep. Both titles have late-game ramifications based on how much effort the player put in. Besides that, both games wait until the end phase to really kick their main plots into high gear. After what felt like three generally disconnected quests in Awakening, everything started to mesh and make sense in the final two or three hours. There were a few fairly agonizing choices, and the level of drama finally took a sharp upswing before credits rolled. This paralleled my experience with ME2’s teammate-fetchquesting exactly, just on a smaller scale.

Another unexpected aspect that I appreciated about Awakening was that it gave me a second chance to experiment with a new character build without having to re-play the core 50-hour quest. In my Origins run, I chose to be a sword/shield user and became quite comfortable with being the primary damage dealer in every encounter. After discovering that BioWare did not take into account the fact that a player’s Warden can sacrifice themselves at the end of the adventure, I chose to start a brand-new character rather than compromise the storyline continuity I had created.

(And by the way, WHAT THE HELL was up with NOT taking that ending into account? It should have absolutely been possible to import the choices I made in the game INCLUDING the fact that my Warden made the ultimate sacrifice at the end. Resurrecting her with a quick handwave? No bloody thanks, and way to disregard the way I played the game.)

Better than a sword and shield? Maybe. Funnier? Definitely.

Deciding to take a different route, I created a mage to see how the other half lived. After setting one up and taking my best guess at how a mage should be built, it was quite a shock to have to completely re-vamp my battlefield strategies and play the game in a totally different fashion. I was vaguely hating life for the first few hours until I found the right selection of spells that suited my preferences, after which things started to click. I can't say that I never stopped feeling naked without heavy armor and shield, but the mass-damage lightning spells and sniping-distance energy bolts helped to compensate. I don't know that I would stick with a mage for Dragon Age 2: Excessive Subtitle Here, but I might consider it and that's not something I would've said prior to Awakening.

After all was said and done, I'm not quite sure that the experience was worth it. Like I said, I enjoyed the chance to go through new content with a different kind of avatar and I was definitely a fan of some of the new teammates, but it all felt a little long and a little flat until the very end… I guess it just goes to show that developers should play to their strengths, and in BioWare’s case, their strengths are their writing and their characters. Take some of that away, and the end product doesn't quite make as much sense as their other efforts.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Consumer's Seven Laws of DLC  

With the advent of online connectivity for consoles, developers and publishers alike have been exploring new opportunities for new creative and financial endeavors. While some people may have initially had doubts about the viability of Downloaded Content (DLC), it's become quite clear that this new business/development model has been wildly successful. Without question, all sides agree that DLC is here to stay. However, proper utilization of DLC is still in its infancy, and has much potential for going astray.

Just because something is technologically possible doesn't mean that it's morally right (or even good business) and as people who participate in and support DLC, the three authors of this article are absolutely in favor of seeing it continue as long as profits don't trump ethics.

The following rules of fair play weren’t created by spoiled gamers lashing out or to serve some imaginary sense of entitlement. This outline is about keeping the games industry in touch with real consumers and common-sense expectations in a new world full of unexplored territory -- territory that's extremely ripe for consumer exploitation. Developers and publishers want to succeed and earn a living. Players want to enjoy their creations, yet avoid being taken advantage of. It is our firm belief that these two sides can meet amicably in the middle, and we hope that these seven laws will help spur conscientious thought and discussion on the subject.

--Brad Gallaway, Peter Skerritt, and Michael Tilson

1. All purchased DLC shall stay with the consumer, not the hardware. Additionally, all DLC shall be transferrable to current and successive hardware models of a given platform in the same generation.

When a player spends money on a download, it's unthinkable that they'd have to pay for the same content again if (or when) their hardware is rendered inoperable. For example, players who’ve bought DSiware aren’t able to transfer those purchases to a DSi XL, or even to another DSi should their first unit die out of warranty.

2. Publisher-locked content on a disc that’s not accessible through play (henceforth referred to as Ransomware) shall not be called DLC, and game discs containing Ransomware shall disclose such to the consumer prior to their purchase.

As players saw most recently with BioShock 2, developers have started encoding certain pieces of content on discs, and then locking this content away unless players pay for keys obtained online for an additional fee. Since nothing but a key is being downloaded, such content is not DLC, and advertising it as such is blatantly misleading the consumer.

3. Any DLC requiring additional purchase should not be launched simultaneously with a new game.

If developers have the time and resources to create paid DLC that's released at the same time as the new game, then that effort should have been put towards the game itself. This is especially true in the cases of DLC that adds content which could realistically have been expected to be included with the retail version. Day-one DLC available free with retail purchase or another such offer is acceptable since it does not require additional money from the player.

4. Additional DLC content should be something above and beyond what could reasonably be expected in a full-featured retail game. Story additions, standard features and normal ‘extras’ should not be held back from retail releases for purposes of becoming DLC later.

Prior to the age of online consoles and microtransactions, developers would frequently include all sorts of options and features in order to make their product seem as though it were delivering the best value. These days, it seems that developers are now holding back such additions as a way of generating revenue later. For example, Mass Effect 2 is charging for new costumes and Resident Evil 5 locked away a versus mode, both of which are things that would normally be expected in any current big-budget game.

5. Difficulty of a game shall not be skewed in order to encourage players to purchase DLC.

Although there haven't been any egregious examples of this phenomenon so far, it's not too hard to imagine a situation where enemies are so powerful, or life-ups are so infrequent that players would be tempted to pay for items that make aggressive titles more playable. Additionally, games which provide DLC shortcuts for players to avoid grinding should not have grinding in the first place. For example, Dante’s Inferno offers in-game currency (souls) in exchange for real money as a way of skipping the tedious ‘redeeming’ minigame to earn it, and Tales of Vesperia lets players purchase level-ups outright. Although the idea of shortcuts might seem like a good idea, why should they be desirable in the first place?

6. Owners of DLC should be allowed to create back-up copies of their purchases.

DLC should be treated as an actual commodity, not as a limited-life rental disguised as a “purchase”. If players pay real money for a Dragon Age expansion, and they should be able to sell that expansion (along with their disc) at some point in the future like any other used good. Back-ups are also important since it's possible for paid DLC to unexpectedly become unavailable, and people may lose access to their paid content. For example: players who purchased Robotron 2084 for the 360 may have noticed that it's no longer available through the Marketplace. A similar situation occurred with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, and certain download characters are no longer available. If a player’s hard drive fails or a unit catches the RROD, they aren't able to recover the content that they already own.

7. Titles available only via download should offer players a demo prior to purchase. Titles which do not offer a demo should be eligible for a refund.

While Microsoft has done an excellent job of offering a free demo for every title in their Marketplace, both Sony and Nintendo sell a large number of games without any information about them, nor any opportunity for a player to try before they buy. With physical copies, players could rent first, or at least trade or sell unwanted titles to recoup some of their investment. With demo-free DLC titles, consumers have no way to know exactly what they're buying and have  has no recourse whatsoever should they take a chance on a game which turns out to not be what they expected.

Agree? Disagree? Have another idea? Leave a comment and let us know.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blue Toad Murder Files, Afrika, and two upcoming contests  

Games: I'm just wrapping up my review for PSN’s Blue Toad Murder Files, and while I had a pretty good time with it, I could easily imagine the majority of people hating it. It's fair to say that the game is more cutscene than gameplay, and from a critical angle, there’s really not much to praise -- BUT -- I'll be damned if I didn't enjoy going through the first three episodes with my wife. We are fans of quirk, I suppose.

That said, it's actually a pretty expensive offering compared to most of the other titles on Sony's online service, and for a game that offers so little gameplay, the high price is going to be a major sticking point for most. Myself included, really... if the developers not at least five dollars off of the price, I’d have a much easier time recommending it.

Look for the review to go live in a couple of days.


In other games news, I started up Afrika on PS3 just for fun, no review intended.

For those who may not remember (or for those who missed it the first time… the game had ZERO presence) the player takes on the role of a photographer in a relatively unexplored region of Africa. After setting up base camp, requests come in via PC for things like ‘head-on shot of a zebra’ or ‘monkey in a tree’ and so on. At that point, it's up to the player to drive out into the savanna and get the required shots.

It's almost exactly like a terrestrial version of the Wii’s Endless Ocean in that much of the game is simply the experience of being there. Replace whales and angelfish with giraffe and gazelle, and it's basically the same thing. I don't mean that as a negative, though. I had a great time with Endless Ocean, and Afrika had little problem keeping my attention as well. There's no combat and animal attacks only result in the player being sent back to base camp, so everything is very safe and harmless. This will definitely be one I'll share with my older son when he comes to visit for summer.


One last note, I'm expecting more codes for Lost Planet 2 (360/PS3) to give away, and in addition, I'm also going to be running a contest to give out multiple copies of Risen on 360. Keep your eyes peeled here for more information soon, and if you're not already following me on Twitter, I would humbly suggest that you do so... I'll be giving out more information via tweet, and you don't want to miss out, do you?

Friday, April 2, 2010

No Girls in Crackdown 2, XBLA's Shadow Planet, and Lost Planet 2 Charity Info (and Pics!)  

Games: Although I wasn't the biggest fan of the original Crackdown, I did see a lot of potential in the title and I've definitely been looking forward to the announced sequel. However, the recently-announced news that there will be no playable female agents was incredibly disappointing to me.

Current hardware can't support feminine curves!

Ruffian developer Billy Thompson was quoted by 1Up.Com as saying:

"In Crackdown, the amount of memory that it was going to take for it to do all the actual animation, the texture sets and the models for the females -- we would've needed to massively reduce other sections of the game," Thomson told 1UP at PAX East this past weekend. "So rather than do two separate models, we cut it back and gave the player as much customization as we could on the male character and that allowed us to use that extra memory to do other things in the game."

Now, I will be the first one to admit that I am not someone well-versed in the technical side of game production, nor have I ever made a game myself. That said, I can't help but find this line more than a little hard to swallow. I mean, let me get this straight-- simply having a female playable character would "massively reduce other sections of the game”? Really? Did they intend millions of polygons to go into breast structure alone?

Let's get serious here. Tons of games give players the option to choose either a male or female avatar, and I'm having a really hard time imagining something so special about the Crackdown 2 experience that a system's resources are depleted to the point of being unable to render the opposite sex. Going further, every picture I've seen of the Crackdown characters so far has them completely covered in armor, so would it really have been a drain on the system to swap a male head for a female one?

Granted, male and female bodies are not identically alike and animation differences do exist, but I'm sure that somewhere in the game Ruffian’s artists have created at least a few female characters for use during the campaign. Could any of those have been repurposed?

Nyah nyah!

Crackdown 2 was on my to-play list. In fact, it was one I had been specifically looking forward to for the purpose of co-op with my wife -- and before anyone assumes that she would be upset by this omission, the truth is that she has no problem playing a male character whatsoever.

If anything, I'm probably more upset than she is that females aren't in the game since I usually pick a female avatar. After all, my Commander Shepard is the galaxy’s toughest lady, and you do not want to mess with my Latina mob boss in Saints Row 2, either. Ferelden’s darkspawn problem? Beaten back by a lady Warden. Fable 2? Fallout 3? Hell, even 3D Dot Game HeroesAll female characters for me. Let's face it, in games which do not feature a single, predefined character as the protagonist, offering either sex isn’t an above-and-beyond use of resources, it’s the norm.

Regardless of my preferences (or my wife's willingness to be flexible when female avatars aren’t offered) I find it unacceptable that in this day and age, a developer thinks it's okay to skip representing half the world’s population. Girl gamers aren’t the rare creature that they used to be, and not every guy has sexual insecurity issues with playing as a woman.

Come on, Ruffian... it's not too late to do the right thing.


Super-cool site 8 Bit Horse has some great coverage of an upcoming XBLA game titled Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. This is the first I've heard of it, but you better believe I'm going to keep an eye on it from here on out.


In other games news, Dan Weissenberger has put together an incredibly detailed takedown of Heavy Rain’s endless potholes, weirdness and WTFery. The best thing is, he's been writing it as he's been going through the game, so his perspective is that of someone who does not know the ending yet. I've been tweeting about it incessantly, and strongly suggest that anyone who played Heavy Rain and felt let down by the story (uh, that’s everybody, right?) do so. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.


Coming back to Lost Planet 2 for a minute, Capcom has announced a new charity event called ‘Kill Big for Charity’ that ties into the title. Here's an excerpt from their press release:

Capcom will create a charity fund of $20,000 as a donation for the first one- million Lost Planet 2 multiplayer demos downloaded on the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft and PlayStation® 3 computer entertainment system from March 31, when the early access program begins, through midnight PST May 5. If the demo surpasses the million mark across both platforms, an additional $5,000 will be donated when an extra 500,000 downloads is achieved. Please visit Lost Planet’s community site, for early access codes. They will also be distributed by various blogs, gaming media sites, and

In addition, here's a contest if you think you're a Lost Planet 2 bad-ass:

Additionally, beginning April 1, community members will compete for a seat in the celebrity tournament and a trip to Los Angeles to attend the launch party by submitting their best tips and tricks for beating the new Lost Planet 2 multiplayer demo to Capcom-Unity. The Capcom Unity team will choose the four lucky winners and shall post them on and For more details on the contest and the official rules, check out

Finally, for those of you who were curious about my hands-on with the Lost Planet 2 demo, I snapped a few pics of Capcom HQ to share.

Beyond these doors... A place only dreamed of.

Nathan Spencer's in good company.

Stylin' nametags.

Eight networked 360s, with eight networked PS3s on the other side.

Game journos in their natural environment.