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The Xbox One at One – Part Two

xbox one at one part two_1000As with the major releases of the last year mentioned in Part One, Xbox One gamers were presented with some new installments to some favorite series as well as one excellent new title. As I have stated in the past, different gamers like different games and the list of downloadable Xbox One games below aptly proves this point. Both my eldest son and I enjoy Trials Fusion. As is often the case, I make it further through the game’s progression while my son concentrates on the track builder. All of my sons play Minecraft, both on the Xbox 360 and the One. They do not play nearly as much as they used to, however, with Terraria usurping Minecraft’s status.

I have always had a huge problem with the Worms series. The controls never seem to work except to kill most of your own team. I find that I tire of it quickly, but my boys seem to enjoy it and as there are relatively few multiplayer split-screen games, having one they like playing together is always welcome.

In my opinion, and those of countless reviewers, a pinnacle of the smaller, downloadable game segment this last year was Valiant Hearts: The Great War. A rare quiet and beautiful moment in gaming. A poignant, well-written story expressed through a puzzle game with a unique graphic style that is at the same time cartoonish and sophisticated. Ubisoft achieved here what it does with the Assassin’s Creed games, sparking a desire in both me and my boys to learn more about the history of the subject of the game. In the case of Valiant Hearts, the developers include historical details and photos with each section. It seems no accident that I find my self playing games developed by Ubisoft more and more often. They often offer a deeper experience than other games on the market.

Date Title IGN Rating Gamespot Rating
April 2014 Trials Fusion  8.2 8
May 2014 Worms Battlegrounds  8  —
June 2014 Valiant Hearts: The Great War  9.3  8
September 2014 Minecraft  9.7  7

 

Comicon 2014

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Recently, Comicon came to New York City and a group of us went to experience the event. None of us had been to a Comicon before, and although some of us have had experience with related trade shows and events, we did not really know what to expect. So many preconceptions jump out. As it turns out, many of them are accurate.

Our crew consisted of my sister, her daughter and her best friend as well as a close online friend and my oldest son and me. This is essentially our gaming “crew” as well. We had planned this trip months in advance and looked forward to it.

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I think that what you get out of the experience depends greatly on what you are expecting. This is true in most cases and is the subject of my next post, but in this case, I believe that we did not have any specific expectations and therefore were not disappointed. That is not to say however, that the event was what I thought it would be. Comicon has a large open floor area as well as special panels and various side rooms where scheduled events occur. We were there for the floor experience. In my mind, Comicon is a bit like Burning Man, with unbelievably well-made costumes with an almost anarchistic bent. In actuality, a bit yes and a bit no. Costumed attendees are everywhere and in many cases the costumes are very impressive in terms of workmanship and detail but also in the wearer’s ability to embody what often is an exaggerated physique. Not all can make that claim unfortunately. The best image to explain Comicon is one in which a costumed attendee is taking a photo of another costumed attendee. This is a very common thing to see here.

The overall feeling of openness and inclusiveness is refreshing and almost makes fighting the crowds fun. The presence of large game and other software developers or even toy and accessory manufacturers was limited. There were many third party distributors of toys, clothing, accessories and various specialty items. If you like comic, Sci-fi and game related titles and characters, this is the place for you. I saw many items for sale that I have never seen anywhere else. Some collector’s items, others just fun trinkets.

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Being there with family and friends definitely added to the experience and the difference in ages and perspectives also made for a wide variety of interests. None of us are very into comic books but all are avid gamers. We also like the same games and characters, many of whom were represented both as items for purchase as well as live in costume. Our favorites included various miniatures, weapons and items of clothing from Borderlands, Plants Vs Zombies and Minecraft. We purchased a few Borderlands related t-shirts from Glitch as well as a plush CL4P-TP  (Clap Trap) that says twenty different phrases and from a different vendor, a plush turret from Portal 2 that not only also speaks, it is touch sensitive and says different things when “killed.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Comicon, unlike other shows of its kind, is not primarily represented by the creators of the various entities, but by third-party vendors. Very few game, film or television developers were present. Instead, a wide variety of companies and vendors promoting and selling items related to the characters, shows and games filled the aisles. But most all it seems that Comicon is about the fans and their identification with the characters. On the way out we ran into a couple that had come with their own life-size CL4P-TP. Made of cardboard and built atop a RC car, it was mobile and surprisingly stable. Best of all it completely captured the essence of the event – creativity, individualism and fun.

Selling Games

Video games are emotional. More emotional than most might expect, it turns out. True, there is always high drama in the scripts of today’s games regardless of genre, but that’s not what I am referring to. There is the excitement and happiness that you see and hear watching my boys play Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare or their newest favorite, Dungeon Defenders. And as I was recently informed by my family, I too get emotional (and loud) occasionally (ok, often) when playing certain games.

The recent launch of Titanfall (See? I went five whole sentences before mentioning it this post) is waist deep in emotions both on the side of the players who are quickly abandoning in droves their old favorite, Call of Duty, and on the side of the creators – Vince Zampella and his colleagues at Respawn Entertainment. The history behind Respawn according to Wikipedia:

On March 1, 2010, Activision amended its report with the Securities and Exchange Commission to add notification that two senior employees of Infinity Ward were being fired due to “breaches of contract and insubordination”. This coincided with Jason West (Infinity Ward president, game director, co-CCO, and CTO) and Vince Zampella (CEO and co-founder of Infinity Ward) editing their profiles on the website LinkedIn to list Infinity Ward as a former employer as of March 2010. Reportedly, a meeting between Zampella, West, and Activision staff occurred on March 1, after which neither Zampella nor West were seen; this was followed by the arrival of security guards at the studio.[1][2] It was later confirmed by Activision that West and Zampella had been dismissed, and had been replaced on an interim basis by Activision CTO Steve Pearce and head of production Steve Ackrich.[3]

On April 12, 2010 the Los Angeles Times reported that West and Zampella were forming a new independent gaming studio known as Respawn Entertainment.  As of July 10, 2010, 38 of the 46 Infinity Ward employees who resigned from that studio following the firings of West and Zampella revealed through their LinkedIn and Facebook profiles that they had signed on with Respawn Entertainment.[7][8]

In his article in the New York Times last week, “Acquiring Status as Big as Their Robots, Titanfall the Game Turns Designers Into Stars“, wrote:

Video game designers may be the world’s most anonymous creative professionals, at least among the makers of mass entertainment. That’s because game players tend to extend their loyalty to favorite franchises or proven studios rather than to individual designers.

But this isn’t always the case. Vince Zampella and his colleagues at Respawn Entertainment, a new studio founded by veterans of the military shooters Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, have quickly become celebrities in the industry. Last week, they released the year’s most anticipated and talked-about game, Titanfall, a multiplayer science-fiction shooter that pits people and giant robots against one another in a crucible of frustration, accomplishment and exhilaration that players describe with the word “fun.”

The marketing dollars and prowess of Microsoft, which is betting on Titanfall to help its Xbox One console overtake Sony’s PlayStation 4 in sales, have something to do with the newfound fame for Mr. Zampella and Respawn. Yet the faith that players have in the work of these designers — on titles like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Call of Duty and, especially, the billion-dollar Modern Warfare series — has played a much larger role in the hype. The success of Respawn and the excitement over Titanfall represent one of the few times that a new studio has garnered considerable attention based on the reputation of its designers for doing good work elsewhere.

But there is another side of games apart from the emotion of the competition  – the camaraderie, the teamwork, the team. Many of my favorite game experiences have been in multiplayer games, many of those online. Recent games include Titanfall, Call of Duty Ghosts, Minecraft and Borderlands 2. So there is a sadness that creeps over me when I learn that one of my friends has sold a game that we could potentially play again. This has happened to me a few times lately, so I decided to ask a few questions. These include “Have you ever sold or traded a game?”, “How much do you typically get for games?” and “Have you ever regretted selling game later?”

Some of my friends shared the questions with their friends and the results are not surprising. Many have sold games in the past and continue to do so. The main reason is often financial, but storage space being limited in many cases keeping the number of games low is just a good idea. I can sympathize on both accounts. New games are not cheap and with the ubiquitous season passes adding $50 to so many popular games, they aren’t getting any cheaper. There is definitely something to be said for not having to look at games that you don’t care for cluttering up your shelves.

I do not sell my games. There are a few reasons for this and I will list them to quell your unbridled curiosity, but I am not really interested in starting a dialogue about whether it is good or bad to sell your games. It’s a decision that each must make for him or herself.

Typically when I buy a new game, I am not the only one who will play it. I have three sons who each like similar games but in the past have shown interest in varied games as well. Thus the chance that a game that I have completed will be played by someone else is very good. I can completely appreciate wanting to recoup some of the cost of gaming by selling games that I think I will no longer play or ones that I think are just terrible. The problem as I see it is that terrible games are not worth much to GameStop or Walmart or on eBay. And games that I think are horrendous on occasion end up being a family cult favorite (yes I’m talking to you Looney Tunes ACME Arsenal). The games that are worth something to resellers are ones that we are still actively playing.

This has been on my mind for some time and I would have let it go, but a few of my friends sold games that we all had purchased recently. I was a bit sad that Dead Rising 3 was among them, but when I heard that both of my friends had sold Forza 5 I had to write. Forza? Why don’t you just break the disc in half and stab me in the heart with it? My favorite game and you sell it? No, it’s ok. Everyone has to do what they think is right. I’m just getting a bit emotional.

 

 

Interface

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Happy New Year to all. I have been deeply nested in holiday and home for a month, playing games with family and friends. Over the holidays, we went skiing and tubing in Pennsylvania with another family and had a great time playing some old favorites and some “new” games. The house in which we stayed in had a pool table, which was thoroughly enjoyed by adults and children alike as was a “bar top” trivia game. The gaming system is called the Megatouch XL and this version hailed from 1995. It features a touchscreen CRT display and a color VGA display (although ours often dropped out to a faint blue color). The system has 20 or so games such as solitaire, poker, trivia, mah jong and even horse racing. Despite the fact that every child had their own tablet (and all of the adults had smart phones), everyone was drawn to this retro tech oddity. It wasn’t that the content was so good that we overlooked the poor graphics and sound — we genuinely enjoyed the quaintness of the experience. You might jump to the conclusion that this was us recalling fond memories of playing similar games in our youth, but the younger generation was even more drawn to it than the adults. Was it just the curiosity of it? Who knows, but my eldest wants us to acquire one for our home. They do take up considerable space, perhaps  Megatouch makes an app. In fact, they do, many of them.megatouchxl

Over the last few weeks I couldn’t help but notice the development of interpersonal skills while gaming. The holidays provide opportunities to get together and spend more time with your kids. My boys and I certainly played a wide variety of games, both digital and analog with other kids of various ages as well as adults. It didn’t really matter whether we played pool, dominoes, Chinese checkers or Call of Duty Ghosts or Forza 5 — it is always interesting to note the interactions between kids (and adults, too) while they play games. Perhaps the act of playing a game with a given set of rules allows people to let down their guard some and show their emotions in a less restricted way. Maybe we see their truer self.

It’s not always a matter of competition either. Some of the most volatile and contentious situations happen while my kids build worlds in Minecraft. Regardless of game type, the adults try to instill the right values concerning sportsmanship and fair play as well as the golden rule. Many adults see video games as out of their comfort zone and don’t necessarily apply the same coaching approach. In general, we were pleasantly surprised at how well everyone got along and the few incidents that occurred were all used as teachable moments.

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With regard to my own gaming, I have been almost exclusively focused on Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag and many of my comments while applicable to many of the new games are directed specially to AC4. I completed the main mission and have been wrapping up the various other activities such as the assassin’s contracts, diving missions and naval battles. After completing the main mission, I watched the credits, as I often do for the games I play. Once again I was amazed at the number of people who work on the large games. Black Flag has one of the longest credits that I have seen, perhaps the longest. To be honest, I quit out before they ended, but I saw enough to appreciate the scale of the operation. AC4 Black Flag, like many other games these days, was developed in many locations simultaneously, so it’s hard not to be a bit dumbstruck by the scale of the development. The size of the world and the amount of detail that is present in every location is staggering. I have always been a fan of large open-world games recently favorites include Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 3, both Borderlands games as well as the other games in the Assassin’s Creed series.

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Beyond the shear size of the navigable world and the degree of detail involved in every piece of it, this game has so many other levels of interaction, each fun in its own way. The main mission with its various scripted sequences puts you in your own action film. The many assassination missions, including those where you help side characters through their storylines, provide for a rich experience at each location. Then there are the treasure maps, the chests, the Animus fragments, etc. There is no shortage of things to do. Part of what sets Assassin Creed games apart is their attention to historical detail. AC4 is no exception. On top of the fantastically detailed and period correct ships, weapons and clothing there are the sea shanties that your crew will sing while doing their work. I have accumulated over thirty of these. It is easy to forget the amount of time it takes people to research, produce and record these in addition to the main background music, which like all games in this series is really powerful and spot on in terms of feel and weight.

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Every game depends on the success of its user interface to provide the appropriate degree of control while not overloading the user. AC4 Black Flag, like many new games, features more interface types than was required in previous versions. The display that is ever-present while you walk through the towns or captain your ship is minimal and designed to be unobtrusive. This game is beautiful at sea and on land and features lush environments that would be spoiled by clunky menus and navigational aids. There are different menus for each type of shop and the various games within the game, each built from the same visual kit of parts as the main interface. These days, there are also smart phone and tablet apps that tie in directly to the console game each with their own interface that echoes the main game. The effort required to create and coordinate all of these graphic elements is both staggering and ever-increasing.

All this being said, the game is not perfect. I have found a few glitches such as cut scenes where the audio has dropped out or a new one that happened to me last night where during the boarding of an enemy galleon, my character somehow fell through the deck of the ship and was trapped inside the geometry of the hull. But considering the scale of the undertaking, I am nothing but impressed at the quality of the experience and as usual, I have learned a few things about the period in which the game takes place and it has sparked my desire to learn more about that time in history and the real characters. What more can you ask of any work of art let alone entertainment?

Lava Lobsters vs the Xbox One

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Now that both new gaming platforms are out and the dust has had a chance to settle, I would like to give my early impressions. While some are focusing on the PS4 outselling the Xbox One worldwide and on the various hardware issues both platforms have had, I have not experienced any hardware issues with our new Xbox One. In fact, we love just about everything about it. The voice command and greatly improved Kinect are both welcome additions. Thus far, I have played Call of Duty Ghosts, Forza 5, Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag and think that each is well worth adding to your collection.

The first thing you notice are the graphic improvements in every game. Each has its own style and focus and collectively do a good job of illustrating the capabilities of the new technology. The next generation of games such as Tom Clancy’s The Division and Titanfall will undoubtedly take the graphic development even further.

We installed our new Xbox One in our main TV room where we have been playing our Xbox 360 Slim. Both Xboxes are hooked into a surround sound amplifier and the FIOS signal is now passed through the Xbox One. We also have an older white Xbox 360 in the playroom next door. I have been wondering over the past few weeks how the systems would be used now and what my boys would prefer. Thus far, the 360s are still getting a decent amount of use thanks mostly to Minecraft and BattleBlock Theater, neither of which are currently available for the One. When we have had a chance to play together, which has not been that often with the holiday activities, we have concentrated on COD Ghosts. We really are enjoying the online Squads mode. It is perfect for playing with kids (and adults who just don’t need the language, general offensiveness and getting their asses kicked in the standard multiplayer mode).

On my own I have completed the COD Ghosts campaign and am well into the Battlefield 4 campaign. I have made solid progress in Forza 5 and am now at level eleven. I am deep into the world of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and am really enjoying the experience. Except for a few minor control issues that are most likely more my own fault than that of the game, this latest installment is the best by far. The seamless transitions from land to sea and back, as well as the sheer fun of controlling your ship and fleet – including hunting and diving – it’s a deep and multi-layered world of pirate fun.

While I am very impressed by the graphics and improvements in the interface as well as in the handling and control overall, the most welcome improvement by far, is the load once and flip back and forth ability of the interface. With the previous system, the idea of jumping into a game for ten minutes or less was a bit of lie that we told ourselves. By the time the system booted and you logged in your now bloated player profile and then loaded the game, your ten minutes were now two. But you wanted to play your ten minutes anyway and that’s why you were late to whatever appointment you had.

No more of that. Now you walk into the room and say “Xbox On.” The system loads quickly, recognizes your face and loads your profile – a feature of which I never tire. Once you start the game and it loads, dropping out to the main menu and performing actions like watching television in a split window are instantaneous and at any point you can drop back into the game without the need to refresh or reload anything. This is a profound change to the way you can play and perhaps because it is less glamorous than other new features, has not received much press.

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My oldest son recently made a new friend who is not a gamer. Yes, there are some 12 year olds that don’t play any video games. He is not without his own obsession, however, and now my son has caught the same bug – fish and aquatic life. His new friend has ten or so salt water tanks with various species of fish. He is focused on his hobby and very knowledgeable. My son, being he sponge that he is, is absorbing all of the new information and diving in, if you will pardon the pun. He now has three tanks in his room, albeit all are fresh water. Two tanks have various goldfish and the third contains the Lava Lobster in the photo at the top of this post. The image below is one of the first two lobsters that he acquired. These were Mexican Mini Lobsters and unfortunately, both have passed. It is not due to a lack of effort as my son has pleasantly surprised me with his dedication and concern for the new biomes he has created.  The Xbox has little to fear of his losing interest. He is still playing games, but there is a balance developing and most surprisingly it is coming from within him

 

On the Eve of the Next Generation

XBox-One Horizon 1000This has been an important week for the gaming world. The Sony Playstation 4 was released and despite some issues is being heralded as a success. Its rival, the Xbox One is being released on Friday and with it the next generation of gaming is upon us. The flow of new games has already started with many, many more queuing up behind them. Along with these releases and announcements, there are the obligatory worries, criticisms and panics concerning what might or might not be changed or removed. There certainly has been a lot of talk. It is to be expected as this is the first major update to the two leading consoles in many years. The Xbox 360 debuted in May of 2005 and the PS3 in November of 2006. That same November saw the release of the hugely successful Wii console. Its replacement, the Wii U debuted last December but has not sold well in the U.S.

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(Selected) Total Gaming Platform Sales | 11/20/13

Pos Platform North America Europe Japan Rest of World Global
1 PlayStation 2 53.65 55.28 23.18 25.57 157.68
4 PlayStation 38.94 36.91 19.36 9.04 104.25
5 Wii 44.95 33.47 12.75 9.28 100.45
7 PlayStation 3 27.45 32.26 9.6 11.24 80.55
9 Xbox 360 44.86 24.87 1.65 7.77 79.15
16 Xbox 15.77 7.17 0.53 1.18 24.65
23 Wii U 1.64 0.87 1.15 0.27 3.93
Source: VGChartz.com | For more poll details

Many predictions have been made about the success of the new consoles and polls have been taken to gauge public reaction. I have written about what I consider unexplainable biases present in some of these polls in earlier posts. Cast Your Vote: Consoles and Cast Your Vote: Xbox One Anger – Is it Genuine? While understand that some of the policies initially presented at the Xbox One’s launch were received badly and that the One costs $100 more than the PS4, I consider these fairly moot points as Microsoft has rescinded the most egregious of the policies and the cost difference is easily lost in the enormous expense of buying games and peripherals. In any case, I simply cannot understand why so many who responded to the surveys were turned off by buying any new console.

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Poll of the Day | 11/10/13

With the launch less than two weeks away, do you plan to buy an Xbox One?

Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered from a local store 2.58% 907
Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered online 2.17% 763
Yes, I haven’t pre-ordered, but I plan to find one on launch day 0.56% 196
Not at launch, but I expect to have one by the end of the year 5.4% 1901
No, I don’t have any plans to get one yet 89.3% 31428
TOTAL VOTES 35195
Source: GameFAQs.com | For more poll details

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Poll of the Day | 11/09/13

With the launch just a week away, do you plan to buy a PlayStation 4?

Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered from a local store 7.36% 2372
Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered online 5.94% 1914
Yes, I haven’t pre-ordered, but I plan to find one on launch day 2.28% 735
Not at launch, but I expect to have one by the end of the year 23% 7417
No, I don’t have any plans to get one yet 61.42% 19805
TOTAL VOTES 32243
Source: GameFAQs.com | For more poll details

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If these numbers accurately represent the gaming public, then I feel badly for Sony and Microsoft and for the industry as a whole.

Despite the GameFaqs polls, the industry is doing well. A recent report aired on NPR’s “All Tech Considered” stated that the gaming industry has grown to $20 billion a year – that is twice what Hollywood brings in. Some close to the industry expect this total to rise to $70 billion by 2015.

I for one am looking forward to the new games and new capabilities, but I can’t escape the feeling that the general gaming public is spoiled and jaded and expects that everything will be perfect at launch. They are ignorant of the fact that the consoles are not the money makers (as it was released this week that Sony spends $381 manufacturing each PS4 which they sell for $399) and that many of the new games do not fully take advantage of the power of the new systems.

For me, the Xbox 360 was a significant milestone for many reasons. It was my return to gaming after a long absence. It was my first gaming console since I was a teenager and most importantly, it is the console that my children are growing up using. When we purchased our first 360, back in 2006, my eldest son was five years old and my twins were three. My eldest took to it like water and I tend to forget just how well he did playing games, some of which are still challenging for adults today. I think of all three of them playing MotoGP 2006 with me. It is still a beautiful and excellent, but very demanding game and I doubt that they would put up with it today. As new games came out and the boys grew, they each found games that appealed to them personally and today they all have their specialties. There are still many new games that they all play together such as Minecraft and BattleBlock Theatre.

My first post, in fact dealt with this feeling related to Pixar’s ”Cars” games (Nostalgic for Cars) and I can easily think of several times when the boys and I all focused on a single game together. Past favorites included Castle Crashers, various Halo iterations as well as the music games, Rock Band and Guitar Hero

But the point is, I have literally watched my boys develop and grow using the 360. They have become better players and in many cases learned valuable lessons about how to interact with those sitting next to you as well as those with whom they play remotely. (My twelve year old now spends most of his time playing with friends on Xbox Live.)

So I am looking forward to the new generation and all that it its expanded technology can bring. The increased graphic capabilities, the levels of interactivity, the integration of the television all have potential to elevate the experience. It took six or seven years to get where we currently stand. I bet that looking back in 2020, when my boys are nearly independent adults, we will have a similarly nostalgic feeling for this time and this new generation of consoles.

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