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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.

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?

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