Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gone SCEE-ing

I'm still here.

Although I seem to have made a fatal error in not being able to have net access at home… which wouldn’t be a problem if my articles were obtainable outside my laptop.

Which they're not.

So I'm left with several articles on a laptop which currently doesn’t have net access.

Sigh.

Normal service will resume once this tricky issue is resolved. Which will probably mean when I come back to B'ham in a couple weeks. But I'm happy to say things are going well, at least, and there may even be some good comic book related news around the corner. Wish me luck...

Until then, same bat-channel, not so much same bat-time.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Games column: Why Wii is the perfect Fit for the games industry (or: 'Wii Fit > the Anti-Christ')

What does Wii Fit mean for the games industry?

Everything and nothing.

That's it, column over.



What? There's still 1, 484 words left to fill?

Oh. Okay. Let's go a little more in-depth, then.

Wii Fit has caused more than its fair share of outrage and bile since its grand unveiling at this year's E3, where the Nintendo developed software was seen as the latest attack on hardcore gamers' market share, patience and pride. After a lacklustre conference, the company's coup de grace of a health-based title which not only boasted a wealth of *gasp* mini-games but also a new peripheral was just too much for some, who went on to declare Fit was the anti-christ and a clear harbinger of the End of Days.



She can smell your fear, Halo fiend.


Months later, and things have settled down somewhat. But the 'sting' of Wii Fit still remains, even with the lovely hardcore endorphins of Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Smash Bros. Brawl and others imminent. As intimidations go, the exercise and fitness disc is hardly the most pronounced – I've yet to see any promotional material which threatens to "pump *clap* YOU up" or even a burly moustached man asking me if I'm "ready for pain", "ready for suffering", or ready for "Captain Freedom's workout". Indeed, the rather gentle screenshots of faceless virtual avatars doing basic stretches and the like, complete with obligatory real-life people mimicking the moves is about as innocuous as it comes, designed to appeal to the widest of audiences. All fairly ironic given we hardcore gamers are used to scowling gun-totting marines and gangsters (hell, even pink blob mascot Kirby gets painted with a mean mug for his Western packshots – compare them to Japanese ones and you'll see the hilarious truth) but get all worried by some leotard wearing smilers who want to join our hobby and lifestyle.

Casual gaming: serious business.






Wii Fit: It will kill you and all you love. While you sleep. With fire.



Of course I'm being facetious about this all. How can you not? I know exactly the reason why this course taken by gaming frightens the daylights out of some to the extent it has. Gone are the days where our genres appealed to a fixed demographic and where gaming design geniuses like Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto were dedicated just to creating software aimed at our likes. I understand that the growth of genres away from our established norms could mean less of what 'we like', limiting 'our' choice and potentially stunting 'our' types of games. But in some respects, this has always been happening, merely on a more agreeable level.

I remember the first time Luigi's Mansion and Pikmin were unveiled on GameCube, and remaining distinctly unimpressed (even if the graphics were nice); and I wasn’t the only one. Pikmin? Pah, I already played Command and Conquer, thanks. As for Luigi's Mansion, well if Nintendo thought this was to satisfy my longing for a Mario game, the company had another thought coming. Were these titles really what Miyamoto was working on? Where was MY Zelda? MY Mario Kart? MY StarFox? MY F-Zero?






With. Fire.



Naturally, when I played these games, hubris slapped me in the face repeatedly because they were actually great. But the point was, anything which took a company I had personal investment in away from what my tastes deemed relevant or familiar, became am equally personal affront on my supposed sensibilities. As a publisher's audience expands, it seeks to increase that expansion to bring in new blood just as it captured you in the first place. And if that means a new direction, new properties and artistic growth, then that is exactly where they'll go.




Understand that I'm not directly comparing Wii Fit to Pikmin or Luigi's Mansion. They're obviously different in many ways. However, each one of those titles exist to help push beyond what is established for their relevant format and ideals, extracting resources and talent from one aspect of development that we often take for granted, and moving them into another. The reactions now are far more diverse to what they have been years ago, but it's because we had titles that pushed those envelopes, even a tiny bit, that we have such a large and dedicated audience to disparage the likes of Fit et al in the first place. Risks are necessary to any medium, regardless of success or not, and in six or seven years time when another set of games become relatively new, those who grew up on the likes of Wii Fit will probably be saying something similar to what we're saying now. Because everyone starts off a casual gamer, yet not everyone has the time to become a hardcore one. It's nothing but divisive to exclude someone when they just want to enjoy what we do, albeit to a different and arguably less time consuming degree.

Earlier this year I read a Nintendo World Report interview with Silicon Knights President, Denis 'Eternal Darkness'/'Too Human' Dyack, where he said something that inavertedly related to all this: "the film industry went through a very similar thing where at first… all the movies that they did would be like trains running into cameras and just the whole spectacle. It was very spectacle-driven. People wouldn’t even come in at the beginning of the movie because there was no story, they would just come in to see the spectacle and the technology of these moving pictures. They were enamoured with it, it was the biggest thing. But then after a while, when people, the technology levelled out and people started becoming more critical and started saying, 'What am I getting out of this? Why am I going to this? I’ve seen trains running into cameras'. People actually started telling stories and it really started to be considered an art form."



There Dyack is referring to how games criticism is expanding, but looking at the statement another way it relates to how gaming's genres are growing in a fashion similar to other entertainment mediums. Movies went from single event spectacle, to silent narratives, to fully blown story tales, to music-motivated film, to colour, to genre exploration, to what we have now where any of the above are used, but there's invention of various kinds happening every year; both technology and artistically driven. Same with music and art itself, where what is considered acceptable is pushed and changed as the audience and possibilities change with it. Videogames are no different. And regardless of whether we like it or not, genres will expand in directions of all kinds to match the diversity and scope of film, books, music, TV and others. I doubt some who grew up watching the evolution of movies were overwhelmingly happy to see the first fully animated film… and I certainly remember brief reactions of those who grew up on animated film baulk at the first CGI laden movies, complaining they "just weren’t the same" and "took away the soft-rendered humanity of it all, replaced with lifeless, blocky 'real' 3D". I was one of them.



However, like John Lasseter (Toy Story) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles/Ratatouille) changed many sceptics' minds over what can be done with the CGI movie, I imagine many gamers will eventually be won over by this new type of game, if not by the likes of Wii Fit then maybe something else down the line. Rarely do cynics and unbelievers find themselves altered by the opening generation of a new genre or medium, as usually those examples are not the best of what's to come. By comparison to latter offerings, they're typically crude, relatively simple and reasonably one-note. But without those brave pioneers, they can't grow to fulfil their full potential. And by that we're denying numerous generations of inevitably exceptional titles in the future.



In the meantime, Wii Fit's presence and likely success will herald further possibilities and avenues of developer creation, not to mention the potential held by the Balance Board alone. Those moaning that Fit is different from the likes of Brain Age and such, and thus unlikely to sell as well, are being obtuse. In the eyes of the general public there's little difference – they're effectively the same currency in this ever widening world of gaming (and Wii is already seen as a 'beneficial gaming alternative' in some circles anyway). Not to mention there are plenty little side games from the 40 activities built-in, putting to rest ill-judged cries a limited and short-lived style of play.




Hardcore gamers' kryptonite. Apparently.



Of equal significance, Wii Fit will provide a healthy shot in the arm to gaming's overall PR, offering a stark contrast to the relatively unfair and frequent attacks garnered via titles such as Manhunt 2. Whether the medium needs such a fix is really not the point – anything which broadens the appeal of gaming and helps break down the misconceptions and barriers to what the close-minded think of our hobby is a good thing. It may not be an immediate effect by all means, but it's certainly a step in right direction and the more people converted, the less sensationalistic "Nintendo killed my son" headlines we'll see. And barring any "Nintendo turned my son into a frenzied fitness freak" front page replacements, isn’t that something as gamers we can all benefit from?

A moment of clarity

Okay, so here's the situation.

Next week I step back into the inescapable rabbit hole that is the Games Industry -capitals for she who must be obeyed- full-time. Having been knocking around its flashing coloured district for the past six years (the last two being freelance) it's strange to think I've been working for the media as long as I have without going slightly more insane than I already am. But back I go. And mercifully, it's one of the more sensible and adult decisions I've made this year -you can count those on the fingers of one hand, by the way.

However, it also means my games freelancing days are totally over. Which in turn means no more rambling at length about whatever the heck I want about whatever console that's fallen within my gaze, while being paid for it.

So it's likely the videogames slant that's been slightly marginalised in The Writer's Block will re-emerge a bit more in the coming months to allow me to express matters I'm unable to cover in my full-time role. In-between me pleading (pleading!) for you to buy my forthcoming brain haemorrhages spilled out on flat dead trees, of course.

Fortunately, I have content in that area that can be used to kick off this direction. Some of you may have noticed the lack of Wii Chat articles over the past few months. Don't ask me why, because frankly, I (and the other writers of the site) don't know the reasons. I'm secretly hoping the editor hasn’t fallen off a cliff or anything equally as perilous. But in any case, I had a backlog of articles written that never saw print, and seeing as they're still my own intellectual property I thought I may as well start posting them here in all their verbose, tangent sparking glory. This site could do with more content of that kind, and if I'm going back to my games roots full-time I may as well begin things with some good ol' fashioned column roughage as breakfast to this new 'day'.

So thanks for sticking with me; see you on the other side…

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Man-o-pause

"Let me have that ammo crate."

"It's yours."

"Anyway, like you were saying. Are you serious?"

"I sh*t you not. His Dad's brother turned out to be his actual Dad. F*cked up, I know. When that got out in school, all the kids were calling him "The Man from Uncle".



I'm going through a few changes this month. No, not THE change – I'm a tad too young for that, still. But these changes will be duly reflected on the site in time. Part of all that is I'll be moving back to London, which has naturally caused some pause for thought given I left The Smoke barely a few years back for a multitude of reasons. Some of you will know exactly why I'm moving back, but for those who don’t there'll be fairly large 'clues' on this site's switches in the next few weeks.

But what it'll also mean is I may not have a net connection to update as often as I'd like (erm, not you'll probably notice any difference, given the irregularity I'm updating of late). So yeah, lots of shifting and jumping in the coming weeks, hopefully all for the better. Enthusiasm tempered with caution.

Anyhoo, as promised, another extract from Silly Games (as was the opening exchange, in case you were wondering). This one's language is a little more… colourful. So naturally beware of the salt that is profanity in this entry. All the same, it's not too explicit, especially compared to the rest of the novel, but I made the realisation that most of its 'cheerier' parts were quite obscene and I didn’t want to have a downbeat extract again for this week (although if I included the end of the chapter, the tone of this passage would be far different to what you have here).


Just a warning...



SILLY GAMES EXTRACT 2



15 odd games, several pizzas, far too much alcohol and profanity later, Gee and I took a time out as the evening winded down. Neither of us had drunk as much as the others -especially the twins, who were clearly revelling in their newfound 'legal adulthood'- and were taking a quiet moment in the kitchen to catch-up a bit more in-depth.

"So, you really okay, Gee? I mean, really."


A sad smile emerged on her face as she pushed herself up onto the left side of the galley. "Yeah… it's… yeah, I'm fine. Just disappointed. I think that's what hurt the most, you know? I thought she was interested in me. Fed me all this spiel about not getting to meet many women that she could 'connect' with where she came from and all that bull. Then she just drops the, 'I thought you're into that sort of thing' crap. Been hard enough few years coming out to everyone as it is, fighting so many misconceptions, you just about start thinking everything's butter smooth, then…"

"Yeah."

"But hey, live and learn, right? It's all we do these days. Live and learn. Then screw it all up over again."


I felt a slight flush of embarrassment. "That's my job."

Gee patted my shoulder. "Like I said before, it's fine." Pause. "So, how's things with you? All this time, I've barely even asked."

I think my expression kept on the rueful side. "Argh, you know. Work's sh*t, I'm stupid with my money, I make bad social faux pas'…" -Gee smirked- "Biz as usual."

"Nothing new?"

"Some things here and there… bit too early to say though."

"Oooh, mysterious…"

"Nah, not really. I tell you I started a blog?"

Gee guffawed. "You hate blogs!"

"I know… but… necessary evil."


"Hypocrite."

"Don’t deny it."

We went into the main computer room where I showed her my slapdash efforts. She gave me a few tips on my design and how to draw in an audience, to which she directed me to a small side project site which involved several scantily clad, heavily bosomed female anime characters standing on a dance stage to an empty auditorium, looking decidedly bored. I turned to Gee. "Erm…"

"Shhh," she grinned. She went through a couple pages of unintelligible routines, then clicked on a 'contribute' button, entered a PayPal amount of £5 and then said, "watch this."

Her site returned and the characters on the screen suddenly started writhing slowly around each other to some generic Europop. Then as the tempo started to speed up, the music turned into some sort of J-pop variant and the characters started to dance manically, jiggling their numerous animated bits rhythmically, but as per anime conventions, never dropping out of their barely apparent clothing. Flashes of Gary's crotch dance from days before came worryingly back before my eyebrows rose several feet off my head. "Gee, what the hell is-"

She put a finger over my lips. "Shhh… wait."

I continued to watch the animated women bounce and jiggle and writhe, singing along to the crazed soundtrack. Then bizarrely, a male avatar walked on to the screen and sat down. A little speech bubble popped up: "Glad 2 see you back online, thought u were gone 4ever."

The song changed. Something contemporary poppy, not totally sure, but the dancers seamlessly switches rhythm and tempo to match. Then another man appeared and sat down. His speech bubble was just " :) ". Then another. And another. We watched for minutes as the previously empty seats filled with oglers.

"So, wait," I said, "these guys are paying for this?"

"At the moment it's a small contribution – they come in, pay whatever and then have about 10 minutes to play whatever song they want while my characters do their biz."

One man's speech bubble suddenly came up: "Take it off, baby!"

Yow. I silently turned to Gee who was rolling her eyes. "Expected, but no, before you ask, they never get naked – the tease is part of the attraction."

"And they just what, sing and dance? That's it?"

There was a slight skewing of Gee's eyes. "Well, that's part of it… I've kinda got a deal with a few sites… well, actually, no, let me rephrase. I've got a deal with some friends… hackers… who work within a few sites where there's thriving virtual communities. Places where people hang out online with their virtual lives. They've created this underground server which patches on to their virtual world and that's where we test out stuff deemed too risqué or outside the community's terms of service. Few people know about it, because obviously, if word gets out and we all get caught, we're in the poo, but there's enough of a keen side audience who's willing to play along. My contribution was this – a tame but very specifically geared interactive go-go bar.


"I took it offline for a bit because, frankly, it was boring. And many of the sites we piggybacked have started to venture into this stuff anyway. We're about one step away from interactive CGI porn, so this is nothing, really. But I seem to have a dedicated group who can't get enough. So I guess if you tap the right people with the right product the loyalty makes itself. The money goes to my usual charities and I get a good experiment to boot."

I was incredulous. "I love your intentions, but, Christ, how do you get away with…" I pointed to the overt jiggy jiggy, "…this?"

"Male dominated field, baby," said Gee. "Better yet, male dominated field of geeks. Geek women are hot. Face it, I could crap on a page, rub it in water and most of you would cream yourself at the subtext."

I shook my head, laughing in disbelief. "Jesus…"

"No offence, but guys… guys are huge lump sacks of walking procreation hormones. Women control the undercurrent of everything you know. Your world is a big ol' sham because you worship these," she grabbed her breasts theatrically, "and pray with this," she waved an imaginary penis from her groin. "Accept that and everything else is sweet vanilla ice cream. As long as you remember that we're the ones providing the milk."




"You're so wasted at your company."