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Hype and its Costs

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There seems to be an established norm in the game industry that the biggest releases require not just brilliant marketing and seemingly limitless advertising budgets, but must inevitably accrue a previously unprecedented level of hype as well. Sometimes the hype is internally generated in the form of claims of “Next-Gen” or whatever and other times, it is the target audience or press that project their desires on the game in varying levels of accuracy. No doubt, hype sells games. It also has its downsides.

It is impossible to ignore the recent release of Bungie‘s Destiny. Ads for the game and its release are everywhere you look online and the live action commercials run frequently on television. I have played the game extensively, finished the campaign and am continuing with the strikes, crucible matches and various available sides missions. I like the game more than I expected I would. It is beautifully crafted and apart from some recent server connection issues, plays smoothly. It cost $500 million dollars to make and earned that amount back in its first day. But it’s clear that it is a victim of its own hype. Most of the criticisms I have read and heard are a direct result of the claims that the developer made. I expected that there would a backlash to a launch this large, but some of the critiques go well beyond my guesses.

As Dennis Scimeca of “The Daily Dot” noted “If any studio other than Bungie had released such a bait-and-switch as Destiny, critics and gamers alike would be losing their minds.” It could be worse? Maybe I am missing something, but this is a solid and fun game and no game ever lives up to the hype. In fact, nothing does. No film, no phone, nothing. People always seem to expect more – at least some people do. I could mention politics at this point but that world is so skewed by each individual’s own agenda to render it inapplicable. I don’t think that the detractors of the game have a specific agenda, but the scale of their disappointment still surprises me. In his article “Destiny doesn’t come close to living up to the hype,” Dennis Scimeca provides his review of the game and explains what he believes are the game’s many shortcomings. For the most part, I agree with his opinions. The main missions are repetitive and follow the formula too closely. The addition of the recent Queen’s Wrath missions have helped broaden the selection if only in levels of difficulty and not terrain or the enemies fought.

It is odd that the game cannot be played without Xbox Live, a fact that came acutely to our attention a few weeks ago when we temporarily lost power and as a result, our Verizon FIOS as well. A local transformer had spiked and then ran out of juice completely which, in turn fried our master FIOS box and left us without phone, cable or internet connectivity for days. This was especially irritating as it was over a long weekend when my oldest son and I were planning on spending some time playing the game. As our friends played and advanced beyond our player levels, we realized how much we enjoyed and missed the game. We are back and have been making up for lost time. It’s a shame that there is no split screen option as most of the time we play we could both be playing if the option was available.

To me, Destiny feels like a blend of the recent titles from the Halo and Mass Effect series. If I have one complaint about Destiny it is that it is a bit short on soul. The Halo series casts a long shadow in this respect as the characters in Destiny are in no way personal. Even the live action commercial contains more emotion, humor, wit and bravado. Mass Effect went much farther in that respect with actual scripted interplay between the characters. It added another level not only in gameplay but in how much you like and identify with the cast. If you are really looking for a game with personality and soul try Red Dead Redemption or any of the Borderlands series. No one has more soul or humor than Borderlands. But no matter what the critics say, there is plenty to enjoy in Destiny.

Frustration

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Gaming can be a great way to get a break from life’s frustrations. We can let our imaginations go free in worlds created by artists and developers and not be tethered by earthly limitations and shortcomings. It is therefore even more irritating when your games create the frustration that you were trying to shake. Sometimes it is the entire game that elicits the frustration due to its bad design or execution. (Yes, I am talking to you, developers of the Loony Tunes Acme Arsenal game.)

There are some instances where the game itself is brilliant but flawed by the execution of certain scenes. A recent shining example comes right to mind in Far Cry 3. I absolutely loved the entire game except for the final boss battles. Without spoiling the plot of the game (which is extensive), I can say that the beautiful and freeing feeling that you get from the open world design where you attack targets and select missions without the pressures of time and physical limitations is completely compromised by these boss battles. The controls are reduced to simple timed button mashing and the entire sequence is scripted and completely unforgiving. To make matters worse, the characters you are battling deliver lengthy speeches prior to each section, so as you make mistakes you hear the same monologues over and over. And you will hear them over and over as the sequences are designed so that the only way in which to know what to do is to have done it before. This same situation exists in several of the Assassin’s Creed games where the free traveling open world is suddenly reduced to scripted button mashing. Luckily in both of these games, the good greatly outweighs the bad.

In the case of Far Cry 3, while the boss battles are frustrating, it is not due mainly to the level of difficulty. In some games, however, that is exactly the case. There are instances that burn in my memory where I was caught in a scene unable to advance and nearly had to quit the game. In the case of The Simpsons Game (for the Xbox) the scene that gave me trouble was beating god at “Dance Dance Revolution“. The timing of the moves in this section nearly made me pull my hair out and certainly made me fight hard not to curse in front of my three sons who were much younger at the time. Eventually, my oldest son figured it out and we finished the game. The web is also a great asset when you get stuck but sometimes even knowing what to do doesn’t really help. After playing through Mass Effect 2, I thought it would be great to go back and play through the first game of the series. I did so until a certain scene where the characters are all trapped on a rising circular platform where I watched my teammates die time after time leaving me to battle a roomful of enemies by myself. I am sure that if I went back today I could find where I am going wrong and finish the scene and the game, but at some point it becomes much less attractive to do so.

Many games contain parts that appear to be much more difficult than the rest of the game. You find yourself questioning whether there was enough play-testing prior to the game’s release. Sometimes you find something that you missed that makes the scene much easier (again, use the web) and other times not. These issues are secondary however to the biggest gripe amongst avid gamers. While playing with my party last night I asked everyone what they considered their biggest complaint when it came to gaming. The unanimous reply came instantly – lag. All those who play multiplayer first-person shooters know exactly what I mean. The situation may exist in many games but the biggest culprit lately is Call of Duty Black Ops II where the effect is especially pronounced. The typical way that it occurs is during gameplay you see an opponent, aim and shoot and then they somehow squeeze off a few shots resulting in your instant death. When the kill is replayed it shows your opponent’s point of view and the action is completely different. They had plenty of time and hit you many times while your shots came too little too late.

There is no doubt that some players are much better than others at deathmatch style FPS games. It is also true that some players will go to extremes to beat the system. These included the use of “Modded” controllers that allow weapons capabilities that they don’t typically have such as rapid fire and auto-aiming as well as unsportsmanlike gameplay like playing on the opposite team and allowing your friends to rack up free kills on you and thereby earning points as well as killstreak rewards for their team. Most seasoned gamers agree that multiplayer FPS games are best enjoyed when they first come on the scene. It takes time for players to find the games’ weaknesses and exploit them. But once the games have been around a while, it’s the Wild West, anything goes.

My last gripe concerns peripheral hardware, and not for the new platforms coming this fall. There are already too many places where we can read about how disappointed people are with what is coming and why they can’t use what they already have. I am referring to the current generation of consoles. I have had great luck with third-party controllers, batteries and accessories. I wish that I could say the same for headphones. I have spent a good amount of time researching what to buy and spent a good amount of money buying the best headphones in my desired range only to be frustrated time and again. The issues usually involve the built-in microphones. I have returned several sets of headphones from two different manufacturers over the last few years when their mics completely stopped working. The headset that I currently use echoes my comments and occasionally others’ sound as well. I have read the instructions and consulted online help threads and not found the answer. The game sound is great, but the echo in the conversation is a constant irritation. And no one needs that when they’re playing.

Do you have a pet peeve that I missed? A game that drives you nuts? A scene that you just can’t get pass in a game that you otherwise love? A hardware or network limitation that is ruining the fun? I would love to hear about it and include it in a future follow-up.

Rape Jokes, Sexism, Parenting and Gaming

I was alerted to an article by Rebecca Greenfield in The Atlantic Wire entitled “The Rape ‘Joke’ at Microsoft’s E3 Reveal Is a Bigger Deal Than Another Bad ‘Joke’” which alleges that:

“… a Microsoft presenter slipped an apparent rape reference into a Monday presentation at Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, the biggest video-game conference of the year. During a demo of Killer Instinct to drum up excitement for its new Xbox One, Microsoft brought out a man and a woman to battle it out on the big screen onstage in Los Angeles. In this scripted event the man, of course, kicks the woman’s ass at the fighting game. “I can’t even block correctly and you’re too fast,” she says, playing a video game like a girl. But even more problematic than those stereotypical gender roles was the part when her adversary said this: “Just let it happen. It will be over soon.” You know, like a rape: The audience chuckled. “Wow, you like this,” the man continues, as he beats the virtual woman. And the woman, much like someone being sexually assaulted, replies: “No, I don’t like this.”

The sentiment was echoed by Chenda Ngak at CBS in “E3 audience offended by “rape joke” at Microsoft Xbox One event“. While it is true that as Greenfield puts it, “Perhaps more than any segment of the technology industry, gamer culture has had its fair share of sexism problems…,” I am getting mixed reactions as to where this incident lands on that spectrum. The non-gamers I have shown this to report seeing at least the sexual innuendo – and were somewhat rocked by the “just let it happen” comment. But if you read the comments in reaction to the CBS piece, you will see that many readers do not seem to think this was a rape reference or even sexist. The one thing that is undoubtedly true: the players in this demo were not evenly matched – the man was one of the producers of the game, clearly more skilled at the fighting techniques and using a special controller and the woman was a Microsoft presenter with a standard controller and a totally different charge – to help highlight the extended features of the game. Let me know where you come out on this. Please cast your vote after watching the video.

But the overarching point is not lost. Traditionally, female characters wear skimpy clothing and feature exaggerated body parts to make them more alluring. In the past the industry put emphasis on strong male characters who were almost always the stars of the game. But I think it does the entire gaming world a huge disservice to pretend that things have not changed and that the rampant sexism of the past is present in most games today.

Yes, female characters still feature exaggerated bodies and often wear sexy outfits, but the male characters are equally exaggerated and unrealistic, representing a non-existent super male. Let’s face it, at least some gaming is about fantasy and stepping out of your life into a more exciting role for a time sells. No question, this was a male-dominated market at first, but the number of female gamers has increased steadily and now account for nearly half of the total market. Wikipedia has interesting further detail under the topic Women and video games.

Of course there are limits, and good taste and social responsibility dictate these, and today most of the huge game developers take great care in where they draw the lines. I applaud Bioware, for instance, for enabling players to create Mass Effect’s main character as a male or female and allowing the user to determine (for the most part) the character’s body type and style. Many games feature equally balanced male and female characters like the Borderlands games for example or the new Fuse, but these limit the customization available to varying degrees.

In any case, the look of the characters is only part of the equation, what happens to them conveys the most important message and there are plenty of games today that seem to seek a balanced approach and not send the messages that so many find offensive. Careful game selection is critical. This is especially true when you are a parent of young gamers. As a father of three young boys, all of whom play a wide variety of games, I make it a point to research each game and in many cases play the games with them. I often choose to play female characters part of the time which my sons don’t understand. As they are a still too young to have real interest in girls, their unanimous preference is to play only as male characters.

But only part of the gaming experience is controlled by the developers. The online community plays a huge role in shaping the experience. Much like the variety of people who make up the game companies, the online gaming community includes all sorts of people with varied degrees of education, experience and enlightenment. One does not need to look very far to find racism, homophobia and sexism. Unfortunately, these are the realities of our society and their presence in the gaming communities only shows how accurately the gaming world reflects today’s different cultures, in the United States and abroad.

The importance of sending the correct message about healthy relationships and how to treat all human beings does not come from video games, it comes from parents. What you say and how you react to things that your children see and hear while playing video games, or watching television or films greatly affects how they process that information.

You may question – why am I talking about this on Father’s Day? Because the day is not just about giving gifts to dad. As fathers, the greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to have and sustain healthy, mature relationships, built on respect and trust. I firmly believe that talking about the problem and educating about healthy relationships can reduce the violence and protect our children.

NO MORE_STACK_RGBYet, new data from a NO MORE survey (sponsored by the Avon Foundation for Women) shows that these conversations are not happening. Three out of 4 men in this country say they have NOT talked about domestic violence or sexual assault with their children. That is why I am supporting a new effort, called NO MORE, to break through the silence surrounding these problems and get men talking about the issue.

I recognize that starting this conversation is extremely difficult; knowing what to say may be even harder. That is why there are resources you can use to make the conversation meaningful. These include information from Loveisrespect.org, Futures Without Violence and Break the Cycle. Get resources on talking to sons about healthy masculinity from Men Can Stop Rape and A CALL TO MEN. You can learn more about these organizations and many others at www.nomore.org.

This Father’s Day, decide to make teaching your children about healthy relationships part of your mission as a father. Remind yourself that this is what it looks like to end domestic violence and sexual assault. It looks like everyday people, standing up and saying NO MORE. Join me, and teach your sons and daughters to do the same.

Please also see my earlier post about NO MORE and view the public service announcement.

The Multiplayer Experience

L1020022-1000The world of gaming is vast and offers a different experience depending on the type of game you play and with whom you play. There are so many fantastic single player games that are well-written and beautifully scripted that one can easily spend all of their time being the star of their own action film. But multiplayer games offer a different level of excitement and interaction.

I am a fan of the single player modes of the blockbuster series like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect and Far Cry. I nearly always play the single player first, although I play the multiplayer modes before finishing the single player experience. There are games such as Battlefield and especially Call of Duty, where diving into multiplayer sessions becomes a daily event. This was also true for me with Mass Effect 3 for a while, but as much as I love them, for some reason not with Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry.

Racing games are another situation completely. As I have mentioned in the past, I am an avid player of the Forza, Grid and Dirt series and even try my best at F1. In each of these, I spend countless hours playing both the single player and then the multiplayer aspects of the games. Forza definitely excels in this arena with the most robust and interesting variety of race types and locations in my opinion. I have also played many of the Need for Speed games although I always prefer the driving feel of the cars in Forza and the Codemasters games. The racing game you play decides much of the type of experience you can expect. The Codemasters games (Dirt, Grid, F1) are very popular with European and Australian audiences and it is often difficult to find enough players at times that someone on the East Coast of the U.S. may want to play. The intensity level of the competitors also ranges widely from game to game. Some games have loyal and dedicated followers who know the tracks and cars so well that newcomers will find it frustrating. I have also found that the level of sportsmanship you can expect to find varies greatly.

L1020027-1000Civility is also something that varies greatly from game to game. I play Facebook Scrabble with a dozen or so strangers at a time. Some of these players have been playing a non-stop series of games with me for years now. A few have proven to be the most polite and thoughtful people with the highest degree of sportsmanship that one can find. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the small-minded, bigoted and homophobic players that dominate the world of Call of Duty. As much as I enjoy this game, it seems to attract people, especially males, who seem to think it clever and amusing to display behaviors that on the street would get their asses kicked. Some sport in-game logos that refer to the N word and contain various homosexual put downs. The comments made by players in this game particularly almost always require me to mute players that I do not know. It is a sad realization of the stereotypes that non-gamers have of the gaming world. My sister is an avid gamer and owns all of the major consoles. She maintains that the Playstation audience is better behaved and less offensive than that of the Xbox community, even within the same game. I understand that the Xbox community is considerably larger and it makes sense that it attracts all types of players, but it is a sad fact that people (of all ages by the way) act this way in public.

There have been many times when neighborhood kids or family members drop in and we decide to all play a game together. This typically leads us to the realization that there are not many games that allow for three or four players on the same Xbox. There are arcade games, many of which are turn-based that allow for four players on the same box, but the total that allow for four on a screen are much less. We often play Castle CrashersSonic & SEGA All Star Racing or play a round of local combat training in Call of Duty. We used to play the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games often, but over time the guitar controllers have all become faulty. It is a shame because “getting the band back together” was really fun. Maybe it’s time to buy some new controllers.

If you know of great multiplayer games that allow for three or more players on the same Xbox, please let me know using the form below. If you have favorite multiplayer games (or games with multiplayer modes) that I have not mentioned, please send me your thoughts and I will follow up in the coming weeks. All comments welcome.

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