Thoughts on E3 2013: Day 3 – A Tangent on Great Games Journalism

Now that no new information is going to be revealed over the threat of the graphical plateau driving development costs to destructive heights, we can officially say that the drama of the press conferences is finally over. On that note, let’s talk about  games journalism! Here are a number of channels and newssources whose thoughtful content I enjoy substantially. If you like the kind of stuff I write here or on The Artifice, check these places out, its likely that they do what I do way better.

  • Super Bunnyhop – This is a very intelligent Youtube channel giving smart, well researched, and highly interesting (if not a tad cynical) criticism and analysis of games and gaming news. Check out their Critical Close-Up of Metal Gear Solid 2, its the most accessible and creative analysis of its kind.
  • Errant Signal – Excellent and educated analyses of recent games, I think Campster is a game studies scholar. Check out his videos on Spec Ops: The Line and Kinaesthetics, they informed a lot of the research I did on the game.
  • Rev3Games – Youtube channel made out of TechTV and X-Play expatriates, including the fantastic Adam Sessler, who states that being freed from the time constraints of television has allowed him to go more in-depth with his criticism and previews of upcoming games, incorporating elements of game studies and critical theory shockingly missing from mainstream games journalism. Not to be missed is his weekly rant series Sessler’s Something, where he opines on recent news each monday.
  • Extra Credits – Almost everyone I know at game school watches and loves this show. Smart, terse, and very funny, this not only the best educational series for game-students around, but an excellent introductory show for people who want to study and understand games from a deeper level.
  • Kill Screen – Fans of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter take note, as this is essentially a response to that fantastic book. Going above and beyond the medium, Kill Screen discusses games with a distinct and unique voice, going into many fantastic places in terms of society and culture.
  • PolygonThis online magazine gives scintillating coverage of current events in the game industry, giving host to some fantastic opinion articles and journalistically-ethical reviews.
  • Gamasutra – Everyone in the gaming industry already reads this, but for the unfamiliar, this publication is managed by the people behind GDC and gives host to wonderful writers and critics such as Leigh Alexander and Ian Bogost, as well as yours truly.

Well, I hope you like those sites, check them out. They’re my conduit for what’s going on in the industry right now. If you have any recommendations, share them in the comments.

Thoughts on E3: Day 2 – Creators of Childhood Memories

All the press conferences have wrapped up and all that’s left for now is for each of the companies to exhibit their upcoming games. Nothing quite as eventful or dramatically over-the-top as yesterday, just some really impressive games, especially from Nintendo.

Super Mario 3D Land

Let it be known that I love Nintendo. My first console was a N64, and if it wasn’t for that gateway to the medium, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Nintendo is this industry’s most valuable asset because they’re the last big company out there that specializes in the creation of childhood memories. Consider the offerings from the other AAA publishers, violent action games targeted at young adults, no wonder why the mainstream media has such a negative perception of this medium. As wonderful and impressive as they are, Metal Gear Solid V and Watch Dogs aren’t going to be any kid’s childhood memories as they simply don’t exist to serve that young audience. Heck, consider the beloved Naughty Dogand their constant shift to appeal to a grittier, more adult audience with their progression from Crash Bandicoot and Jak to Uncharted and The Last of Us. Consider iOS games, will their simplified design, ample micro-transactions, and lack of a defining brand identity create the kind of treasured childhood memories for upcoming generations of gamers? Nintendo brought us out of the Great Crash of 1983 and were responsible for the Casual Revolution of 2006, an essential step that took us where we are now as an industry. To see Nintendo continue to flounder as they did this past year would be devastating to our medium.

And that said, Nintendo’s upcoming lineup is the strongest it has been in ages. Pokemon X and Y transition to fully rendered 3D worlds, a first for this beloved series. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a sequel to A Link to the Past, which happens to be the very first Zelda game that I completed alone, making it a seminal and important game in my life. Super Mario 3D World is the series’ prettiest looking game in years, and the possibilities of a portable Smash Bros. that fits into our busy daily lives sounds incredible beyond words. Five year olds of the world, get excited, you’re about to join this great medium via the same treasured and beloved series that were part of our lives as youth. And in all our bitter cynicism towards the future of AAA, our ire towards the puerile and misogynistic members of our community, and all our giddiness over the possibilities that the indie shift can create for our medium, just take comfort in that there will remain a space for that innocent childhood wonderment.

Oh yeah, and this I guess…

An Ill-Advised Rant on the Next Console Cycle

These are my gut reactions to the XBox One press conference. Forgive me if I can’t predict the future. 

People predict that this next console cycle will be the last of its kind due to the proliferation of alternative distribution methods like Steam and iOS, and that might be true with the advent of cloud computing. Outsourcing the number-crunching to powerful remote servers and having the console act only as a client for playing these games means that the only upgrades that need to be made are to those remote servers, nullifying the need to upgrade every few years. I’m excited.

Square box with sharp edges. Bleh.

That said, I can’t help but be incredibly disappointed at this morning’s XBox One reveal. Aside from its ugly design that would have been acceptable only in the early 2000s, the preoccupation with television other traditional forms of entertainment sets it up for failure. Fewer and fewer people are watching television and prefer to catch series through channels like iTunes, Youtube, and Netflix, formats that suit our increasingly busy lives and schedules. I mean, consider a number of my friends from film school, most of their goals don’t lie in theaters or TV screens, but in web series and internet video. To focus on traditional, centralized methods of media production sets us back. In essence, the XBox One is just trying to be an uglier DVR, while it is nice to have a centralized place to access all our entertainment options, I think we’re missing the point here.

 Which brings us to games.

Aside from cloud computing’s power to advance the big-budget AAA games, it would seem that indies will be the deciding factor for who wins the so-called “console war”.

Let’s back up a bit, previous generations were never decided by console specs, they were decided by price and exclusives. Consider the Wii’s $250 launch price and the casual revolution that it started, and compare it to the PS3’s incredible processing power locked away behind system architecture so problematic that the 360 ended up consistently getting the best version of a multiplatform game. Point is, the complexity and power of a console isn’t going to make too much of a difference in how this console cycle plays out.

Furthermore, another change owes itself to the “Ludus Florentis” phenomenon that I pointed out in my previous post. Consumers are beginning to get tired of the big-budget AAA games, and instead of dropping $60 on a highly anticipated blockbuster, people are beginning to prefer to put that same money to purchase a variety of downloadable games, the success of Journey, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and The Walking Dead prove this. Simply put, its not the console that has access to the most anticipated exclusives that will dominate this next generation, but the one that has the strongest indie-outreach program and online storefront.

Nintendo and Sony both recognized this change and made aggressive pushes to their plans for downloadable games. Sony made their massive indie kick by reformatting their storefront and adopting a familiar PC-like architecture for the PS4, as well as completely eliminating their developer registration fee. Nintendo made theirs by releasing the HTML5 based Nintendo Web Framework for the WiiU and opening up their submission process. As a result, the registration and development process for these consoles will be comparable to what already exists with Desura or the App Store, which can only mean good things for the diversity of games that will exist on these platforms. The XBox One’s preoccupation with the Call of Dutys and EA Sports of the world will probably make them increasingly irrelevant as the cycle plays out, which is disappointing, considering the wealth of great indie games like Bastion that owe their existence to XNA this generation.

Technology!

But more than anything else, what concerns me about this next generation are development costs. Both press conferences in the past few months marketed incredible graphical fidelity, pushing amazing texture resolution and ridiculous polycounts for each model in a game’s world.

This’ll mean bad things for games.

Art assets are one of the most time and resource consuming components of game development, already, asset production is outsourced to outside studios for many AAA games. Increasing the graphical fidelity of each asset in a 3D game world will only continue to bloat development costs and increase the level of damage done to a studio should a project fail.

Furthermore, games seem to market “emotional storytelling and characterization” with the graphical fidelity of these games. Strangely enough, “emotional” seems to have become a new buzzword in the odd era that we exist in at this moment.

But graphics don’t mean anything for emotional resonance.

The Walking Dead

Games are games, and achieve their meaning through play. The scarf-restoring cuddling and momentary escape from gravity connected to each jump in Journey made it such a compelling experience. The narrative weight lent to each dialogue option in the low-fi Walking Dead made one of the most emotionally intense games I’ve ever played. Graphical beauty didn’t make these games emotionally powerful, great ludic design did.

If anything, I’m intrigued by what this next console generation has to offer. Ludus Florentis opened up Steam, mobile, and cloud-based games to an unprecedentedly wide audience and diversified the kinds of games that could exist and succeed. The effects of what happened in these alternative spheres will mean a lot to how this next generation plays out.

And I want to try the Ouya.