Montageman: A dude who writes

March 18, 2008

Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Filed under: videogames, wii — Tags: , , , , , — montageman @ 10:12 am

First of all, it is not normal for me to go out on the release date of anything to purchase or see it. I try to avoid opening nights of films, I’m not big on standing in line for something. The last time I waited in line was for the Wii a couple Christmases ago. The Smash Bros. franchise has been around since the days of Nintendo 64. A very easy game to pick up and play, Smash Bros is frenetic and has infinite replay value. I didn’t really play Smash Bros. for N64 much – I started playing Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube. Part of what I like best about Nintendo and their games is the small learning curve for initial enjoyment, meaning a novice can pick up just about any Nintendo game and play around for a few minutes to get the gist of what’s happening. For example, just from watching for a few minutes, my near 80 year old grandmother was able to play Wii Bowling with us. The ease of play is even better on the Wii due to the physical nature of the games. When limited physicality is imparted on these games i.e. actually swinging the Wii-mote to play Tennis or Golf, the learning curve switches from “you must hit A at just the right moment to hit the ball” to “it’s just like playing real tennis”. I use the limited qualifier because games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero are actually much more complex given their use of total physicality along with their rhythm component.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl is excellent. An easy game to pick up and play as well as game rife with unlockable items (over 700 from what the dude at Gamestop told me) and game modes, Brawl has near infinite playability for single players as well as multi-players. Additionally, the game can be played online, but when we tried to play my brothers recently the game slowed down so much it was unplayable and we bailed on the idea. We haven’t tried again, but hopefully that will be fixed (or maybe it was a hardware issue on our side). We’ve played for roughly 6 hours thus far, so I have not experienced most of what the game has to offer. More to come as we work through the game.

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March 4, 2008

Rock Band

Filed under: affect, play, videogames — Tags: , , , , , — montageman @ 2:17 am

I was given an Xbox 360 as a birthday present this year.  A wonderful gift, indeed, made even better because one of my brothers has let me borrow his copy of Rock Band with all of the accompanying instruments.  Essentially, Rock Band takes the Guitar Hero model of rhythm gaming further and adds drums and vocals.   What is great about these games (along with Dance Dance Revolution and the like) is there is an endless replay factor.  Even after you’ve scored 100% on a particular song, you can jump online and compete against an unlimited and ever growing number of players.  Furthermore, the game play of Rock Band does not require learning the Xbox controller scheme rather you must learn the guitar/drum/microphone scheme, which may be easier for those not familiar with controllers.  Similar to the Wii model of using the controller as a point of action, the player is actually doing the actions on screen.   Much different from games like Grand Theft Auto or Madden NFL 2008 where the player is using buttons to stand in for actions i.e. the A button shoots a gun or throws the football, Rock Band players are banging the drums, singing into the microphone, and strumming a guitar.  Thus engagement with the gamer is taken to a new level beyond the controller as representation – the A button is no longer the trigger.  Drum sticks are necessary to play Rock Band.   The importance of physical engagement in rhythm games complicates the relationship of the player to the controller and the game.

June 24, 2007

Gaming through School

Filed under: Academic, news, videogames — montageman @ 6:19 pm

NPROn NPR’s All Things Considered this week, Heather Chaplin (co-author of Smartbomb) reported on a new school in New York that will be back by a million dollar grant from the McArthur Foundation. The school’s curriculum will be centered around game design & gaming literacy. Streaming audio of the story can be found here.

Gaming literacy is a fairly new concept & definitely goes beyond the realm of video games. The NPR piece argues that video games are systems and in order to properly function within these systems knowledge must be gained and used effectively. Essentially, this is a similar type of learning that we do all through school. For example in order to understand calculus, we must first have a strong grip on pre-calculus which requires knowledge of geometry which requires knowledge of addition and subtraction and so on. Collection of knowledge is prevalent across nearly all fields and gaming appears to be an effective way for kids to grasp these ideas.

This school is a tremendous idea & I would love to teach there (since I’m way too old to attend). However, the piece runs parallel to another segment that aired a day later, which can be here. Manhunt 2, as previously reported, had its release date suspended. The argument is that the game is “too violent,” so violent in fact that it was given the dreaded Adults Only rating – a rating tantamount to the NC-17 or X rating given to films. The AO rating is a kiss of death for sales because major retailers like Best Buy and Walmart will not carry games with this rating. This seems strange to me. On the one hand, neither place can carry a supposedly ultra-violent video game, but Walmart sells guns, ammo, and books by Ann Coulter and Best Buy sells recordings (and maybe books) by Larry the Cable Guy – all of which are much more offensive to me than a little killing in a video game.mario

When the two stories are looked at together, a problem arises. If kids are learning game design in school at such an early age, will they also be told what kinds of games to design? Will games like Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, and others be demonized in favor of less violent games? And then we must define violence, right? Why is Mario killing a goomba with a fireball any different from the killing done in Manhunt 2? The question becomes how do we feel when Mario kills a goomba versus how do we feel when a strangulation happens on Manhunt? Is the feeling so different that a person would be moved to mimic Manhunt rather than Mario? Hopefully, this new school will teach kids the feeling behind games not just the content.

March 19, 2007

Gauntlet

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 12:28 am

My family has owned a delicatessen for about 35 years. During the mid to late eighties, one (or sometime 2) of the most important items in the store was the arcade game(s). My dad knew one of the arcade distributors in the area, so he would rent the games as a favor both to his distributor friend and to us (his sons). Games would change about every month. I only remember a couple – The Main Event (an excellent tag team wrestling game with a number of fictitious characters), Rampage (a beat ’em up game where players would control one of three monsters and rampage through cities destroying buildings, eating people, and fighting of the armed forces), and Gauntlet (the first dungeon crawl game & could also be characterized as a run and gun; players had a choice between an elf, wizard, warrior, or Valkyrie). Each of these games were designed to be played by at least 1 player, but were the most fun when played with 3 (Rampage) or 4 (The Main Event and Gauntlet). This turned the store into a community meeting place for the neighborhood kids – a place where kids could play games, eat candy, and drink soda, so basically it was an arcade with an incredibly small amount of choice between games.

Gauntlet (Atari 1985) is, in terms of my personal history, the first arcade game that I would say I was addicted. The cabinet itself demanded respect – it was larger than regular cabinets simply because it housed 4 joysticks instead of 2 allowing for co-operational play between 4 players at once. The point of view is top-down, which was later mimicked by games like The Legend of Zelda and Grand Theft Auto 1 & 2. The game takes place in a dungeon that is being taken over by a multitude of different enemies (ghosts, goblins, ogres, etc.) which must be killed or avoided by one, two, three or all four of the games protagonists. The game’s main objective is essentially the same as many other games in this genre: to restore the order and rid the castle of the enemies. Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation talk about the status quo as objective, “Players are ultimately the security guards whose task is to shoot (or kill) anything that appears threatening because the ultimate threat is that the enemy will destroy the equilibrium of the system and eventually halt the game by killing the player. In essence, the player is constantly asked to defend or reestablish the status quo,” (93). Restoration of order has been a fundamental objective in a number of games both before and after Gauntlet. What made Gauntlet most interesting to me was the cooperative nature of the objective and the need for four completely different characters to work together. A warrior, an elf, a wizard, & a Valkyrie – each with strengths and weaknesses, the warrior was powerful so he could take damage at a slower pace, the elf was quick, the wizard was good with magic, and the Valkyrie was decent in all categories.

Gauntlet had its controls set up in the following fashion: a joystick, a fire button, & a magic button. The magic button could be used once a player had potion in his possession. The potion would clear the visible area of enemies. One of the fundamental differences when a game is translated from arcade to console is the control scheme – there is no longer a magic and shoot button, rather the magic is the A button while shoot is the B button. This may not seem like a big deal for a game like Gauntlet, but as controls become more complicated, some gamers will lose interest in a game quickly because of convoluted control schemes.

March 11, 2007

Interest in Videogames: Consoles & Synergy

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 9:41 pm

When the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt were packaged with the console. Nintendo was so radically different from its competitors that giving consumers a couple games to pique their interest made sense because interest is one of the primary affects. I remember opening the my Nintendo along with with Tag Team Wrestling (Data East, 1983) and being immediately enamored with the idea of playing these games. A similar feeling accompanied my purchase (or receipt) of the Sega Genesis, Sony Playstation, Sega Dreamcast, etc. Console gaming begins with interest in the hardware. From the beginning of home gaming, the need to upgrade has always been one of the main driving forces of the industry.

When a console is released, an immediate following is born. Regardless of whether it is big or small, all consoles have early adopters who then will either advocate the system or abandon it. Essentially, the hardware, software, and accessories come together in a sort of synergistic fashion creating a new world of gaming possibilities. In 1985 when I opened the Nintendo on Christmas, I had no idea about the ramifications of that event. Sure, we had an Atari at my house and I had played Coleco-Vision at my uncle’s, but the NES was something special.

Before we can talk about why the Nintendo Entertainment System was so special, it might be helpful to take a l0ok the historical underpinnings of videogames.  The International Arcade Museum (http://www.arcade-museum.com) includes all coin operated machines in its extensive list.  The most important part of their list for my purpose is the listing of games under the type “arcade”.  Penny Arcades, which surfaced and became popular in the 1930s (http://www.pinballhistory.com), included all types of mechanical, interactive machines like pinball as well as games like Basketball Champ (http://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?letter=B&game_id=890).  Basketball Champ has a simple premise – shoot the ball over the defender into the basket.  As simple as this may be, the game offers players a chance to master a skill that they may otherwise be unable to do (shooting a basketball through the hoop), but also there is the possibility of competition always present.  While this is theoretically a one player game, it is possible to have one player take 15 shots followed by another player thus leading to a tournament of sorts well beyond the scope of simplicity a mere picture of the game may show.   This speaks to the public nature of games in the beginning, even early fortune teller games were more fun when fortunes could be compared.

I remember going to Frankenmuth (http://www.frankenmuth.com) years ago and being excited to go into the penny arcade.  Being a young kid interested in games, it seemed crazy to me that people actually had fun playing games like Basketball Champ, especially because my historical knowledge of games lacked immensely at that point.  However, whenever I would go into the arcade I would find myself completely enmeshed in these games, or as enmeshed as someone could become in such a game.  The dichotomy presented by these mechanical “action games” versus videogames is an interesting one.  The simple instructions of early games makes them endearing, much in the same way Ms. Pac-man is endearing.  Simplicity allows for immersion, or forgetting that a game is being played.  This is not to say that the player imagines he is a yellow face chomping dots but rather that the avatar on screen is an extension of the player via the joystick.

March 8, 2007

Power-ups

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 3:37 am

While visiting my cousins tonight, they brought out their Nintendo DS hand-held systems.  Neither of them had any idea that I am interested in games, rather they wanted to show me what they could do.  This was, of course, an excellent opportunity to watch a couple young girls (aged 8 & 4) engage with a game.  They owned a bunch of games, but the older girl was playing The New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo 2006) while the younger one was playing Super Princess Peach (Nintendo 2006).

I asked the older girl how long she could play before she got bored.  She replied, “About a half hour.”  Yes, she’s young and her mind drifts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when there’s only 30 minutes to play the game had better be fun.  Watching her interact with Mario, she was more affectively interested in the game when Mario was powered-up.   At the start of level 1, Mario is small and is situated on the left side of the screen.  Mario’s fundamental goal is to move further and further to the right and eventually run into Princess Peach.  The goal is the same in nearly every Mario game, which is why it is so effective.   The power-ups are similar as well.  Every time Mario runs into a red & yellow mushroom, he gets bigger; a green and white mushroom is good for a 1up (another life); the glowing flower gives Mario the ability to shoot fire; the floating leaf gives the ability to fly.  Throughout the 20 or so years of Mario, power-ups and saving the princess have been foundational.

March 7, 2007

Kaboom!

Filed under: atari, videogames — montageman @ 4:45 am

There was always something entertaining about watching that convict migrate across the television screen; dropping bombs as he moved from left to right.  The object of the the game is simple: don’t let the bombs hit the ground.  The player controls a bucket that must catch all of the bombs.  Childly simplistic though it may be, Kaboom! is what Atari was all about – simple but addictive gameplay.  It was quite possible for anyone to pick up a controller and play most Atari games almost seamlessly. This is due to the Atari’s inviting joystick and one button controller – a very comforting piece of technology.  The idea, and many of the ads for Atari concentrate on this, was to make playing Atari a family event replacing board games and repurposing the television beyond what the VCR had done already.

March 6, 2007

Arcades & the Drift

Filed under: barthes, videogames — montageman @ 4:44 am

Going to the arcade as a kid was always a reward – all A’s on the report card, got all of my chores done on time, or mom was out for the night so dad would go for pizza and videogames as a night out.

Galaxy Family Fun Center

The logic of the arcade is not unlike that of the casino – loud noise and flashing lights emanate from the machines, which functions to give a feeling of discomfort. It is impossible to ignore the lights and sound, so rather than being bombarded by this sensual onslaught all night, you play a game. Arcades are, for the most part, public spaces. A place where people come together to compete in the arena of gaming prowess, Galaxy would always have the latest fighting game – back then it was Street Fighter 2. People would crowd around the game hoping to get a shot at the winner. Fifty cent buy in, but unlike a casino, there is no money at stake. Street Fighter supremacy is strictly a bragging right. There is a lack of pressure when playing videogames – playing a videogame is much different than playing Blackjack at a casino. Players can have fun learning to play Street Fighter, but learning to play Blackjack in a casino is a high stress job that inevitably will involve making others angry. Raph Koster: Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter (98).  While there is decidedly more pressure in a public space like an arcade, the economics of the arcade are far less stressful than those of the casino.

Additionally, if a player is not happy with his gaming experience at a particular machine, then he can move on to the next machine virtually seamlessly.  The arcade encourages the drift.  Roland Barthes defines the drift as the moment when we do not respect the whole (18).

March 5, 2007

Memories lead to Pac-Man

Filed under: memory, videogames — montageman @ 4:01 am

I’ve been trying to write for my master’s essay, but have been blocked.  My project, as it currently stands, is attempting to get at the fun aspect of gaming, which videogame theory fails to get at outside of Raph Koster’s excellent A Theory of Fun.  Even Koster’s book, though, is concerned too much with the cognitive and not enough with affect and pleasure.

I’ve been playing videogames for most of my life.  We had an Atari 2600 in the early 80s; a Nintendo in the mid 80s; a Genesis in the early 90s; a Playstation/Saturn/Nintendo 64/Dreamcast in the mid 90s; Xbox/Playstation 2/Gamecube in the late 90s; and now the Wii.  I would also frequent arcades to supplement my home console gaming.  Games have been an important part of my life, so why is it so difficult for me to step back and figure out what makes these games fun?

My first memories of games revolve around the Atari.  My dad playing Football with his cousins; playing Pac-Man with my mom; attempting to master Bomberman;  Atari games seem primitive now, but back in 1984, there was nothing better (at least for a kid with no other knowledge).  Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man was and is still a fun and addictive game.  Playing a game first requires the player to learn the game’s language and control scheme.  Early games had a simple language – the Atari controller was a joystick and a button.  Very simple, but a near replica of an arcade cabinet.     Pac Man is fun because there is no learning curve.  The game’s objective becomes clear after playing for a few moments.    Feeding Pac-Man is of the utmost importance and is the object of the game.  He is hungry, always hungry – the Pac-Man must chomp its way through 240  dots and four power pills that line his symmetrical maze while dodging (or eating, while under the influence of the power pill) his antagonists, the 4 ghosts – Pinky, Blinky, Inky, & Clyde (Weiss, 6).  The game is never ending.  There are cut scenes between levels 2 & 3 and 5 & 6, but after that the sky is the limit.  Actually, according to Twingalaxies.com: five people have achieved a “perfect score” of 3,333,360.  From Geek.com: Billy Mitchell, 33, of Fort Lauderdale scored a perfect 3,333,360 points on a Pac-Man machine in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. The perfect score is achieved by playing for six hours, through 256 levels of PacMan, eating every dot, energizer, blue ghost, and piece of fruit on every single level, without dying once. After the 256th level, the game freezes. The moment of Pac-Man freezing is, in essence, the defeat of the machine.  Instead of an ending like Mario saving Princess Toadstool, the game itself gives up.

Yet, this is not a satisfactory explanation.  Pac-Man‘s designers either consciously made 3,333,360 the perfect score or the game’s design does not go beyond level 256.  The simplicity of the game is both its genius and the source of its boredom.  Pac-Man was not made to be played for 6 hours straight.  At the height of its popularity, it would have been impolite to play for 6 hours straight.  Most of the Pac-Man machines were in arcades, which are public spaces.  The player chooses his game and pays for his time with the machine – usually anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. The player must respect others and their desire to play the same machine.  The fun of an arcade game is made to be fleeting, or conducive to drifting.

February 12, 2007

Controllers, Control, & Interactivity (Part 1)

Filed under: console, controllers, videogames — montageman @ 4:09 am

Jeff Han’s presentation got me thinking about games. I agree with his assertion that we should move away from the restrictions of the keyboard and other physical devices. The interface needs to be changed. When he’s moving the images around on screen, thoughts of Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002) come to mind, but even more than that – playing the Wii came to mind.

Very rarely, if at all, in videogame schloarship is there any talk of the appartus. I would argue this is because not much has changed since Pong hit the streets so many years ago. Sure, there have been alternative methods of control like the Dance Dance Revolution pad, Nintendo Track and Field pad (a.k.a the power pad), or the power glove, but for the for the most part, if a side by side comparsion is done between early arcade games, the first consoles up and through the next generation consoles, most glaringly obvious is that out method of control has not changed much. Nintendo is the one company that has begun to change that, but we will return to that momentarily.

atari controllerTake, for example, the Atari 2600 controller (pictured left) – a seemingly simple device, a joystick and one button. In contrast, the Xbox controller (pictured right), more complex, right? Visually, yes – more buttons, more control pads, etc. However, the essential function of both is the same – to give the gamer the ability to control the onscreen avatar throughout the apparatus (console). Both controllers are physically connected to the console, which then physically connects the gamer to the console. The hardware then becomes an extension of the player. Even prior to consoles and arcade games, games like the one pictured left (c. 1924) allowed players to control a series of players with a joystick or some similar type of lever. Interactivity has always been an issue. Videogames bring interactivity to a level of mirroring. It follows that if a player is to become affectively interested in a game and its characters the game must respond attentively to the player’s commands.

Part of the enjoyment of gaming deals with, as I’ve mentioned previously, the ability to control someone or something normally considered not controllable. While the control given the gamer is within very strict constraints, the responsiveness of the controller is paralleled by no other activity.

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