Archive for December, 2007

Free as in Freedom

Posted in Consoles, Indie Games, PC Gaming with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2007 by Kit

In a previous post, I went off on PC gaming and how much it completely, totally sucks. And I stand by that position with one notable exeption: free games.

Consoles are still frightfully proprietary and will remain so for the near future. As a home Linux user and part-time Open Source evangelist, this annoys the hell out of me. Not just anybody can fire up a compiler and start producing games for the Wii, XBox 360, or the PS3. This gives the game machine manufacturers a really unprecedented level of control over the content available on their systems.

Imagine if everyone had to get the blessing of the manufacturer in order to make a CD that plays in your car stereo, or a DVD that plays in your home theater system. CDs and DVDs would be a lot more expensive, and you might occasionally have trouble finding an album that plays in your brand of CD player.

Because of this situation, there is no serious indie market for games on consoles. As long as the Big Three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) make it expensive to produce games for their machines, there never will be. These companies don’t actually want a thriving indie game market – they believe that it’s in their best interests to make it just a little bit expensive to publish a game for their console.

Since games sell consoles, the Big Three would rather focus marketing efforts on big blockbuster titles. Games with TV commercials that make you feel as if you really have to play that game. They are banking on these marquee titles (think Halo) to help them sell consoles and don’t want to muddy the marketplace with thousands of no-names that won’t necessarily inspire people to buy a console..

What they want is a cardboard cutout of Master Chief standing on a pile of Xbox 360’s in every GameSpot. Ideally, they are shooting for a handful of new major games like that every couple of months to really put their marketing money behind.

Not so in the PC world. There are so many indie games that it’s hard to keep track of them all. And many of them are free. So in the interest of extending the olive branch to the PC world… I give you the One Good Thing about PC gaming: Free, indie games.

Below is a rundown of some greats. They are all “Open Source.” That means that they are free for anybody to use, modify, sell, or give away, so long as they also provide the source code for any changes that they make. You may have heard about the Linux operating system or the Firefox web browser – those are both examples of Open Source software.

Egoboo is a 3d arcade-action dungeon exploration game with a cute visual style reminiscent of Mario. It’s been out for a while, and has garnered an active community. The official site is mostly dead and is rarely updated, but a new community has sprung up that is producing new releases of the game.

FlightGear is a slick, professionally produced and fully open flight simulator. As a young geek, I was addicted to Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer. Obviously, this fully modern flight sim puts that experience to shame (although it lacks a poorly rendered likeness of Chuck Yeager mocking me whenever I crash). The pure joy of flying a virtual airplane is now sadly lost to me, but FlightGear itself really does it well if that’s your thing.

Armagetron Advanced. Remember how I tried to have Tron killed on the game grid? Remember how poorly that lightcycle game turned out for me? Well despite my resulting aversion to the very idea, I have to admit that Armagetron is a great game. It’s a 3D racing game where you pilot lightcycles just like the ones Tron rode to infamy on, and you can play it with friends over a network. How about that?

Frozen Bubble is a free remake of Bust’a’Move. I’ve tried to steer clear of blatant remakes in this list, but Frozen Bubble is just so damned well done. You can download and install it directly on your computer, but you can also just play the java version online right now!

Nethack is an ancient geek standby, and also extremely engaging dungeon exploration game. NetHack dates back to the days when computers didn’t have any means of displaying complex graphics – so the player, the terrain, the monsters… everything had to be represented with alphanumeric characters. Today it is quite possible to play NetHack with graphics (even in 3D!) but real geeks are only happy if their character is represented by an “@” symbol.

Neverball is a 3D arcade game that is reminiscent of that old wooden Labyrinth game… you know, the one where you guide a ball through a maze by tilting the board itself? Use the mouse to tilt the world around your Neverball as you guide it through various obstacle courses.AlephOne is an Open Source release of Marathon that is supported by its original designers: Bungie (of Halo fame). Mac users from back in the day might remember playing Marathon while their PC buddies were knee deep in Doom. Bungie has added all kinds of interesting updates (including optional updated 3d models, new scenarios, physics, network games, etc.).

Scorched 3D brings the so-called Mother of All Games into the world of 3D. Does anybody else remember the original Scorched Earth? That incredibly simple game where you had to enter velocity and angle numbers in order to get your cannon’s projectile to destroy the other player’s cannon? Anybody? Scorched 3D is exactly like that, only the action takes place on a three dimensional island with terrain. Also, your “tank” (which is really just an immovable base) can be upgraded with shields, different kinds of weapons (including nuclear bombs), etc. The game also incorporates local and network multiplayer, and is a great way to waste an afternoon.

Vega Strike is a space trading, exploration, and combat “simulator.” It’s similar in many respects to the old commercial game Privateer, but has a much larger universe to explore. You can choose from and customize many different kinds of space ships to pilot, and you can make money by trading or by accepting missions (randomly generated). I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time with Vega Stike, but it’s suprisingly deep, and very strikingly pretty.

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Oh Chuck, still you mock me in my dreams…

Happy Spendmass!

Posted in Off Topic, Rants with tags , , on December 10, 2007 by Kit

Atheist unbeliever that I am, I happen to love Christmas. I love getting cards. I love carols. I love lights. I love sweets. I love It’s a Wonderful Life.

But there is one Christmas tradition that fills my heart with cold, seething, murderous rage: Christmas advertising. I am also aware that this is the least original complaint ever. Lucy Van Pelt was right all along. Christmas is a big commercial racket. It is all organized by big eastern syndicates.

But do we have to be so transparent about it? This year, I’ve noticed a subtle increase in the number of ads that carry a specific underlying message: Screw your loved ones, Christmas is a great time to buy shit for yourself. We’re no longer even pretending to believe any of the generosity malarkey that once justified our annual consumptionfest.

Like the toy companies, the video game industry does its level best to provide us with a yearly “must-have” item that will suffer inevitable and well orchestrated “supply shortages.” Christmas is an incredible marketing two-fer for a few lucky video game companies (Nintendo).

  1. Loads of money from poor saps who are essentially required by guilt to buy a pile of useless shit for their (kid/lifemate/whatever).
  2. The added PR boast of being perceived as the hot toy of the season, since nobody can find your sold-out game anywhere. Now you have another guaranteed wave of guilt-fueled post holiday game purchasing by poor saps who failed to buy the love of their (kid/lifemate/whatever) on the first go.

My advice to game buyers this year? Stop putting up with this shit! Of all the industries to shamefully manipulate holiday release dates to maximize profit, the game industry is second only to Hollywood. If it’s not artificial shortages, it’s timing releases to either stack up on the holiday or to just miss it (so that marquee games can soak up the most consumer love).

It’s important to remember that they don’t actually have you over a barrel. There are lots of other ways to spend your money. Or better yet, consider finding some ways to make Christmas a little less about money in the first place.

So many game players are adult men with no kids. We can buy games whenever we want them. Maybe for adults, Christmas should be a time for us to reflect on some intangibles.

The old lady and I don’t buy presents for each other anymore. We bake, watch Christmas movies, listen to Christmas music – the whole shebang. And we each make a little something special in secret to wrap and put under the tree. The only rule is that it can’t be store-bought.

We find that we have a lot more holiday energy. We don’t get sick of carols the way we used to. We don’t feel as cynical about the holidays.

I’m not sure if it’s the lack of shopping, or just the amount of pride I take in assembling something special out of cloth, paper, or sugar. Or maybe it’s all the extra time we get to spend with each other, accomplishing something real and assembling all the other silly little presents that we make for our friends and family.

It’s not that we’re cheap. We’re doing fine. But we’d rather spend our extra money on a vacation, or something that we do together. And if we want a game, book, movie, or even a toy… we just go buy it.

Besides, the games will be cheaper when they go on sale in January.

The inevitable sexism rant.

Posted in Rants, Sexism with tags , , , on December 4, 2007 by Kit

I’ve been holding back this post for some time, because I didn’t want to start things off with a big feminist harangue. I guess the time has come.

Women Like to Play Games, Too

A lot of hay is made about the so-called difficulties of courting women gamers. And I think that’s mostly bullshit. It isn’t hard to get women interested in games, it’s just that the big game publishers are addicted to the kinds of games that appeal to their traditional market: men in their 20s and 30s.

They’ve been targeting that demographic since the first Playstation came out, and they really know how to do it. Making a serious effort to include more potential players is a risk they aren’t willing to take, even if it means sacrificing some potential theoretical profit.

I think that’s a mistake, because there isn’t any trick to getting women interested in so-called hardcore video gaming. Women want to play games as much as men do, but gaming has been so trenchantly sexist for so long that it’s hard for some people to imagine a world in which it isn’t. The Wii has proven that lots of people outside the traditional demographic are interested in playing games. But far more needs to be done.

Side note to game designers: Reaching out to women does not mean putting pink butterflies on the package.

I’m not even an expert on my own tastes, let alone anyone else’s. But I have some ideas, not that anybody is interested.

We Have Several Different Kinds of Sexy Bitch In Our Games

Women in games today are depicted as:

  • Almond-eyed Fucktoys with Attitude.
  • Ugly Bitches.
  • Sexy Bitches.
  • Brainless Sexy Bitches.
  • Brainless Ugly Bitches.

Regardless, they are all in the game to be had, either metaphorically or literally. Yes, yes, I know that there are exceptions and that you can go through your game library and glean a measly few semi-evenhanded treatments of women. But it’s hard to deny that this is an enormous trend.

When a designer decides to make a female protagonist sexier… they aren’t doing it for women. They aren’t doing it because women are interested in being Almond-Eyed Fucktoys with Attitude. They are doing it because men want them to be.

The Myth of the Powerful Lady

Occasionally gamers will trot this one out. They’ll offer up one of the various Almond-Eyed Fucktoys with Attitude as an example of a “Powerful Woman” who somehow breaks gender barriers with her sheer bitchy ass-kicking boobalishousness. But, ladies and gentleman, Lara Croft isn’t really breaking any gender barriers and we all know it. She’s there for the boys, and she represents a gender-role fantasy that has been carefully calculated to appeal to us.

Editorial Addition: In fact, this particular phenomenon is even worse for the potential female gamer. The message these so called “Powerful Women” send is: “No matter how bad ass you are, no matter many guns you have, no matter how strong, intelligent, or independent you are — you will still be measured by the size of your tits and ass. So you better bring the Double-D cup and the booty if you want to participate in our make-believe world.”

Men Are Sexy Too

“But, games usually depict the male protagonist as having an ideal physique.” So goes another common argument. And you know, I’m not so sure that’s true. I can toss out counterexamples all day (and it’s telling that most of the games with ugly protagonists still feature sexed-up ladies), but there’s more to it than that:

When you are a man, being leered at is never a threat.

When you are male, the situations where being slobbered over might represent a threat are statistically irrelevant. You’re a man! You’ve got the power, baby! The obvious corollary here is:

When you are a woman, being leered at is often a threat.

Look, fellow males. How many times have you walked into a darkened bar, caught the eyes of several people wandering over your chest and ass, and thought to yourself… “Maybe I should have a drink someplace more well-lit.” How many times have you thought that it might be a good idea to call up a friend to escort you to your car from a late night class?

When you are an adult male, the possibility of rape in the everyday world is basically nonexistent. When you are a woman, it’s a fact of life. Statistics vary widely, but most estimates put the number of women who have been victims of a sexual assault at around 15-20%. Some put it as high as 30%.

Chew on that statistic for a second, and think about how much gaming culture must look exactly like a creepy bar where the lights are just a little too dark. I think a lot of women take one look inside and choose to entertain themselves elsewhere.

I Like The Sexy Ladies, Really!

Let it not be said that I’m against sex in games. I’m not. I’m not even against pornography in games. I’m okay with a gaming world in which there are both seedy bars and places that are clean and well-lit.

But right now, the gaming world looks like one giant red-light district. And I’m tired of listening to people in the game industry act as if there is some mysterious trick to writing games that women will like — all while painting the nipple cups onto the latest Sexy Bitch With Attitude.

The Ethics of Journalism in Games

Posted in General with tags , , on December 3, 2007 by Kit

It’s with a interesting mix of pleasure and disgust that I contemplate the fate of poor Jeff Gerstmann. Pleasure, because online game magazines are notoriously dependent on developer advertising for revenue, and maybe some of them will begin think a little harder about ethics. Disgust, because the story seems to confirm many of my opinions about game reviews.

The background, for those of you who don’t follow this sort of thing (and good for you!). Dramatis personae:

Gamespot.com is an online magazine of sorts. It features reviews, previews, interviews, and various other sorts of views about all kinds of things related to video gaming. Like many of its counterparts, the writing there is a little too gushing and breathless for my taste. To be fair to them, they do have a reputation of being ever so slightly harder on the games they review than the other big rags. It’s owned by C|NET, so that should give it a little cred, at least as far as technology-related journalism goes.

Jeff Gerstmann wrote a lot of stuff for Gamespot until very recently. He was an editor for 10 years, and seems to have been one of their best. Favorite quote from a review: “Hour of Victory is broken in several spectacular ways; and no one, under any circumstances, should play this game.” Recently, Jeff wrote a review for a new (awful looking) game called Kane and Lynch. And Jeff’s GameSpot review panned it. Hard.

Eidos Interactive is the video game company that produced Kane and Lynch. At the time Jeff’s review came out, they had teamed up with Gamespot on a giant advertising campaign to push the new game. Users could “skin” the entire Gamespot website with a Kane and Lynch theme (why?), and there was some kinda flash video editor that let you make your own Totally Rad(tm) Kane and Lynch trailer. Presumably this kind of marketing is targeted squarely at the same kind of people who watch compilations of TV advertisements for amusement.

So, the interesting thing is this: Soon after posting his ill-famed review, Jeff was fired! Fired!

Soon after that, Eidos threw a shit-fit and withdrew their advertising from Gamespot. The rumur mill began grinding. The blogs began buzzing. Rumor has it that Gamespot lost hundred of thousands of dollars of future advertising revenue over that one bad review. Rumor has it that Jeff was sacrificed to the almighty dollar. Nobody knows how much of it is true, but the whole thing even made the front page of Slashdot. That’s about as big as a limited interest story like this gets.

Now, to be fair, nobody knows for sure that Jeff was fired for his review. I mean, it could be a coincidence that a respected, high profile, long-tenured writer was put out to pasture immediately after writing a bad review of a game that was responsible for tons of advertising revenue for his website. Maybe they were planning on firing him all along and were just victims of almost impossibly bad timing.

But, regardless of who is really right, all games have winners and losers. So let’s divvy ’em up.

Gamespot: Lost one of their best writers. Lost tons of credibility with their readership. Is going to have to figure out how to convince us that they aren’t in the business of selling positive reviews. Score: -2.

Eidos: Looks like the big cry corporate crybaby that couldn’t take a bad review. Still stuck having to sell what by many accounts is a fairly mediocre game. Score: -2.

Jeff: Instant celebrity, official status as the “straight-shooting journalist who can’t be bought and sold.” Practically guaranteed another high-profile writing job, perhaps for an organization that understands that reviews are only as good as the perceived integrity of the reviewer. Score: Who cares? Jeff is clearly the winner of this round.