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http://theologygaming.com/

Why Blizzard Games Work

I think I’m starting to get why Blizzard games are so popular. I feel like I keep talking about WoW, but since I finished school a week or two ago, it’s all I’ve been playing! I thought I was going to play Xenoblade Chronicles, but I got sucked in. I started leveling a Warlock from 53 (where I had gotten him) and powered on through to 82 so far in about 5 days or so. That’s pretty good time, or a sign of some mental addiction. But I think there’s a deeper reason why WoW sucks me into its world.

A bit of background. I was never much of a PC gamer at all; I mostly stuck to consoles, since I didn’t really see the need to buy a PC, especially because, until 1998, I didn’t even know they existed. Sheltered? Maybe. But I honestly had a great childhood, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

To proceed, my first gaming PC was a Dell I got in 2000, and MDK2 and Unreal are the first games I remember playing in any real capacity. Still, neither were a favorite, and if I was going to pay the exorbitant costs for games that looked slightly better, or played slightly differently, than my N64 or Playstation, I’d stick with consoles, thanks.

Of course, as PCs got better, it wasn’t much of a difference anymore – PCs had a stark advantage in terms of graphical prowess, although they lacked that extra “oomph” I was looking for. Having been trained on the Japanese aesthetics of bright colors and creative looking worlds, I just couldn’t bear to play these dark, gritty, and rather adult games.

If you payed attention and connected the dots, you’ll see where I’m going with this.

However, in 2005 or so I was introduced to World of Warcraft by a friend. I sucked at it pretty bad, but those bright colors drew me in. I had played WarCraft III, so I was vaguely familiar with the setting, but it was interesting! And fun! And I could play with friends (well, that’s what I thought at the time, anyway. I picked a night elf hunter. It seemed cool enough; you get interesting toys, weapons, and things to play around with. I lost motivation, however, in hitting the level cap. My friend (and friends who joined later) basically power-leveled to 60 and left my poor hunter behind to rot. If you’re not playing with friends, then what’s the point? So I quit.

Now, I hadn’t forgotten that experience. I had just tucked it away so I could do schoolwork and graduate from high school. I tried FFXI in the meantime. I figured I liked Final Fantasy games, so why not this? Well, once you’ve tried WoW, you don’t tend to like other MMOs, and I think there’s a good reason for this: accessibility. Simply put, MMOs before WoW were not accessible. That is, they required massive amounts of time to play for little reward. Yes, grinding can be considered a sort of “skill”, but it’s not the kind of skill a person used to console games craves. It’s certainly not one that I have the time nor luxury for. Why punish the player for playing your game? At least in 2006, the cool stuff in FFXI was locked away. I want a Red Mage outfit, and I want it now! Not so, said SE: you must work hard for it, in a way that makes no sense to a new player. Not only that, the game gave little to no indication as to what the various roles of classes were, what was good, what was bad, was a quest worth doing, goals, etc. They throw you into an incredibly complex set of systems with little to no tutorial, and almost mandatory group questing. There’s a niche for this, but why make it solely cooperative? For money, of course! But this is disingenuous to the consumer, who literally pays with their time rather than their skill.

Now, there are two ways to a teach a player: through the game itself, or through tutorials. FFXI did neither of these well at the time. Eventually, I had to quit, as did my brother who came along for the ride.

Now, I said we could probably play WoW. My brother also played console exclusively, so he was rather skeptical. We both decided, however, that a quality game is a quality game, regardless of brand, and so we jumped into the Blizzard boat together. He played a undead mage, I played a tauren druid.

Those were some good times, people! Questing, dungeons, figuring out class mechanics, and even trying to make an nonviable spec (moonkin druids of vanilla should know what I mean) work in level limit dungeons were just the tip. I’ve raided Molten Core and Zul’Gurub! It was my bad to pick a druid, as they only healed at the time, but my ability to reach level cap speaks volumes about how much fun I was having.

I even got my parents into it. We all still play. But why? Well, as my father put it “It’s Secret of Mana online, basically”. Except this is an American game! And I think, if you’ve read this blog with any sort of regularity (or the backlog), you’d know that I supposedly have some kind of bias against that! Why do I play WoW continually, then?

That was only playing the game. WoW has a story, one derived from tying the loose ends of WCIII: specifically, Arthas and Illidan. Where were they? What were they up to? Those questions would be answered in time. Even with its cartoonish aesthetics and sense of humor, WoW was not without its dark moments. I mean, think of the kinds of villains the game has. As of Cataclysm, a nihilistic crazed dragon is trying to kill everyone. However, unlike in, say, Final Fantasy, we’ve had a whole expansion of quests, experiences, text, and cutscenes that establish the why and how of such villains. Blizzard has improved over time – we aren’t stuck with a Sephiroth archetype. The Lich KIng is such an interesting villain because he was once a paladin, and it has been established that he is now a composite of multiple people. Stuff established expansions ago (such as the Old Gods) gets answered later, but with just enough mystery and intrigue to add that extra flavor to it. People who play constantly and get burned out miss out on this because they’re focused on the goal and not all the little details Blizzard has put into the story of an ENTIRE WORLD.  I just love the lore, the world, the characters – it’s all been done before, but not quite like this! Metzen has a very Christian theme of redemption going on all the time in these things. If his recent statements regarding Illidan are anything to go by, he’ll get his own redemption for being both hero and villain alike, misunderstood and misunderstanding. It’s that kind of thing I can relate to, even in characters that state they reject redemption (Arthas), yet still keep the world from total destruction even as they purport to do the opposite Deathwing was less that, and more a tool of the Old Gods, but that’s cool too! What’s important is that the story is always developing, even if you don’t notice it. The Yogg-Saron fight, for example, has a point where one goes into the god’s mind, to find a sequence where Arthas tortures an unnamed prisoner; how you can develop a story in the midst of a boss fight is pretty amazing, but Blizzard knows how to slowly unfurl a story over a period of months, even years! That’s good storytelling.

And the cooperative aspect only adds to this. You have to work as a team to win in end-game stuff, or even in some quests. It’s fun cooperation, though (as long as everyone actually wants to play right). Sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating (like when my family finally beat Yogg-Saron with 4 people – I was yelling and fist-pumping), it’s really quite a joy when it all comes together.

The system is based on good mechanics, too! Blizzard eases you into your ability set regardless of class, and though the system’s not perfect, you can play without looking up anything outside the game. If you like to play some way, you can here. I like to optimize, so Elitist Jerks is a frequent internet destination for me, but it’s not necessary. I’m leveling a Warlock, currently, and he’s been a blast, even if their spell rotations are messed up. But it’s very much Secret of Mana-esque, just with a bigger ability set and the the frequent need to dodge attacks (or “stay out of the stuff on the ground”, the best hint you’ll ever get in this game).

If Blizzard can get a guy like me playing WoW, they can get anybody. It’s because they found a WHOLE GAME that works, not merely good game mechanics or aesthetics or story. It’s an integrate experience. That’s what gets me playing the game.

PS – I’ll be on vacation again…I have big plans for the blog, however, so stay tuned in June!

Pokemon Conquest!

Yay!

As a great fan of both Japanese history (specifically the Sengoku-Jidai period of the 1400s-1600s) and Pokemon, I was pretty sure this thing was never going to see the light of day in the United States. Lo and behold, I set my expectations too low!

Of course, a weird question: who is the audience for this game? Do the same people who know who Oda Nobunaga is, also like Pikachu? I can imagine it working in Japan, but here? I imagine I’m a pretty small subset, to say the least, but Pokemon’s still pretty popular ’round these parts, so who knows? Maybe some public school kids will get interested in an obscure war from five hundred years ago; Koei’s Warriors series has done that quite often.

I am a big fan of Koei’s strategy games as well; Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an excellent series, even if you hate calculating numbers for six months trying to conquer China. I can’t imagine this game being bad in any way. But, as noted earlier, I don’t see the crossover appeal for most people. I mean, who likes both of those? It’s like a caramel covered steak – I certainly like both seperately, but together?

I have hope, though. I’ll certainly buy it!

Finals Time!

Well, I’ve got two research papers and one thesis to write.

So don’t expect any updates until after May 2nd. Just gotta make it through this final push, and Master’s Degree here I come!

Xenoblade: First Impressions are Everything, Right?

Here’s a quick entry. I dumped about 5.5 hours into the game so far:

1. English voices are so good! Maybe it’s because I am American, but I think the accents really lend itself to a different world entirely than what I’m used to in JRPGs. I like it; they deliver the lines without melodrama, fuss, or fanfare, actually playing characters. Although wow, those names are rubbish (very British!). Usually I am the first person to turn the English voice acting off if I can (and if I can’t…well, I’m not happy about it.) If I am to compare, Final Fantasy XIII is pretty much the pinnacle in regards to that sort of thing.

2. It’s Japanese WoW, with a bit of active flavor for measure. Quests everywhere, though some can be really hard to find. You basically have to stand on top of somebody to find a quest, and given the day/night cycle, it’s not an easy task to find that person you want. Given the only way to find a specific person is through the Affinities menu, which is really terrible at displaying information, this can be problematic. What level are the mobs I should defeat? Where are they? These are questions WoW can answer with ease, but Xenoblade struggles to make it straightforward. Now, I’m not begrudging this fact – I like that the game WANTS me to explore its world, find stuff, get killed by enemies far above my level, defeat enemies who are slightly higher through skill and deft use of battle mechanics, but if you’re expecting a Western MMO you will be disappointed by Xenoblade’s “vagueness”. I’d say it is more about that Japanese “vagueness” and modesty – it’s up to the player to fill in the blanks, not the invisible guiding hand of the authors/developers (a reason why I mostly prefer Japanese games). Plus, they don’t seem to know how inventories, gems, etc., should work (look at WoW, guys). It’s just poorly presented information. However, again, I actually like its cumbersome nature because I actually have to think about it. I’m weird, I guess.

3. Battle system is excellent. It uses the standard MMO archetypes of tank, DPS, and healer, and they work as you’d expect. However, the game really wants you to think about using abilities, rather than a rotation or constant button pressing like WoW, for instance. When should I Topple, for example, the Mechanoid so I can use it at the same time as my teammate’s ability to Stagger, thus letting me do damage? The AI is good at this too, because it knows what you want to do to the enemy most of the time; the basic commands you can use seemed pretty unneccessary to me, but that could change. For boss fights, it even has its own DeadlyBossMods setup, letting you predict boss attacks and letting you use abilities according. It gives you interesting decisions, is what I mean to say, and that’s good! I don’t love real-time systems all the time, but this one does what it does well.

4. Story…well, if JRPGs are nostalgic comfort food to a degree, all I could see was anime tropes and characterizations from a mile away. But all the characters are likable despite the circumstances the plot places them in, so that’s good! That means they are relatable, and even if the story ends up with “mysterious boy with mysterious power defeats mysterious villain”, at least I actually want to see what happens to the characters I grew to like regardless. Plus, since Xenogears, I am wary of plots from Tetsuya Takahashi – but, I’m going to guess an extra 12 years or so since that ambitious, flawed, and fascinating project did the man some good. No more weepy emo Nietzsche/Freud/Jung stuff, maybe!

So, overall so far: good! But we’ll see when my studies are over (when I can touch it again)

A Set of Observations on Video Game Piracy

Piracy is pretty much inevitable when it comes to video games. It’s a weird and odd thing to say, but it is. Most companies are trying to avoid the problem, thought, and that’s where we end up with a clash of the new generation and the old generation. One sees the “other” as a stodgy, old set of evil corporate executives and stockholders who are wringing out money of consumers (the common, prevalent idea that “corporations only exist to make money for their stockholders”). The other sees this little young miscreants who want to steal the products they worked so long and hard to present to the consumer in the first place! Both have valid, and interesting, grievances in this. But I think the answer can’t be one side winning over the other; it’s more understanding the ideologies of each other, and reaching some kind of compromise.

Hackers can easily get around DRM, methods to prevent additional installations punish the consumers rather than the pirates, etc. Once those kind of people can shut down the internet access of entire countries, it’s better off to allay their concerns rather than, for example, trying to pass bills like SOPA, which attempted to have DNS bans which the government can enact on people! Is that really the best solution? It’s easy to get around a DNS ban, honestly. “Computer experts” and “security experts” know substantially less about these workings than those who grew up culturally with this technology. Now we have The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, which is giving ISPs the ability to ban user’s access to certain website. Legislation, contrary to what people seem to think on the “older generation”, is not the answer. We do NOT need another Playstation Network situation; that will just exacerbate this inconspicuous conflict. No proposed solution has really done much of anything to allay the problem, nor to make it any more profitable for the company that actually made the game. Instead, they alienate consumers, and the pirates alienate the companies in a vicious cycle.

Let’s just accept, for a moment, that 90% of all PC gamers are just going to pirate a game, regardless of how good it is. It may be the result of an entitlement society that has developed over the past 50 years or so since the Great Society of the 60s, but there’s not much you can do to change public sentiment on this point. People feel, when they get something, that they deserve some freedom in how it’s used. This works, somehow, for pirates as well, who feel they have some tether to the use of the product. Companies need to accept this, and appeal to the customers who are, in fact, willing to buy games because they appreciate the craft, money, and creative thought that goes into the manufacture of interesting, unique, and interactive digital experience. The pirates have been here, and always WILL be here, so work around it.

That’s why GoG.com gets its right, I think. Why punish the many because of the one? Why limit the consumer who actually wants to purchase your game? You shouldn’t. Companies, honestly, need to get with the times in intellectual copyright and just appeal to the audience to whom you want to sell things. Collector’s Editions, for example, provide some extras you can’t get with the normal game; GoG provides soundtracks (which usually gets me to even re-buy games for such a cheap price) and other interesting extras you can’t just happen upon. Of course you can pirate much of this, but there’s a sense of ownership in having, for example, an artbook or something that a PDF scan isn’t going to recreate. Aesthetics goes a long way into making a product much more appealing to a mass audience, and giving actual consumers and buyers exclusive stuff goes a long way to improving relations.

Think of companies as sovereign nations, and I think you can see some of this. Scott Adams noted in When Companies Become Countries that the company still needs to appeal to its employees and consumers to survive, even as a country. So, like a political process, there needs to be a compromise that settles both sides on the debate.

Logistics, as well, also help. Steam is easy to use, for example. Yes, you can’t sell your account, and you are restricted to a specific service, but can you blame them? The closed system works, as long as the consumer earns respect, because you can’t pirate things! That’s important for a company that wants to sell a game without losing profit. Origin, and other like services, are a bit more difficult to justify because they seem like a problematic “competition” between digital game service providers. I’d say stick to Steam for most, even if you don’t want to – alternative services, again, confuse consumers as to how to access the products, and especially with Origin, make the simple act of playing a game much more complicated than it should be. EA shutting down internet services for its games with “online passes”, for example, is disrespect for the audience that plays your games. Blizzard has an interesting model as well, similar to Steam but also requiring internet access. Honestly, it works, but it means you don’t own the product but a service.

I’m not sure the implications of that, but seriously, we’re talking about games; it’s not like I’m signing my life away for drug tests or something. I think the problem has a solution, but people just want to win and believe they have the higher moral ground. The narrative of the entitled pirate meets the narrative of the corporations, and never the twain shall meet because either one frames the other as an oppressor, or “the one who has the power”. In reality, both are really just people, and both have certain interests in their respective communities. They need to understand each other to solve the problem.

Will that happen? Who knows. We can hope, though.

EDIT: Aha! Looks like I am very good at analyzing these things! Though I hadn’t thought of the Steam sales, I think there’s obvious cons (as in this Eurogamer article), but also pros, as you can buy games you more than likely would never have bought if they weren’t on sale (like the King Arthur games for me, for example).

Xenoblade and The Grand Games Journalism Narrative

Interesting, to say the least.

OK, read all the blurbs on that page. What do they all have in common, you ask?

It is, either, the best JRPG of this generation (which I will hold judgement on), or it is the first time Japan got it “right”, or took Western design concepts and made them work.

If there’s anything I am not quite clear on, it’s how a hundred different reviewers can, through some bout of collective unconscious writing, all universally agree that this is exactly how the game should be reviewed and/or described. I mean, I’ve never seen so many similar reviews, except for EGM’s notable low score by Andrew Fitch, whose experience with JRPGs does give him a great deal of credibility. You should see the comments on that thing; everyone tells EGM they are giving a biased review, as if every game must receive the same score from every publication.

Is that seriously the only way to describe the game? Is the only reason American reviewers are giving it high scores simply the fact that it panders to our idea of a RPG, rather than the game itself? Why is it the savior of the JRPG? I thought Lost Odyssey played plenty well, same as hosts of other JRPGs that came out this generation.

There is certainly some grand narrative that “this is the savior of the JRPG and Japanese games” that everyone has adopted before they even picked up the controller. All I ask is we judge the game on its own merits without some weird cultural biases already impinging on what kind of opinion we have on it. Like, for example, that it plays like a Western MMO! Which is in every review! Wow, guys, way to be original and not plagiarize each other!

I certainly appreciate Operation Rainfall’s efforts to get this released on our shores, along with The Last Story; honestly, I was completely mad that they weren’t getting a release over here at all! Now that I have a minty fresh, new game smell copy in my hands that I don’t need to modify my Wii in order to own, I am happy. But I am hoping that, sales wise and quality wise, what isn’t happening is that we’re propping this game up to get more JRPGs. It certainly appears that way from an outsider’s perspective.

I have my hands on it, but I haven’t played it, for the record. Given Xenogears (reviewed on this blog rather poorly), I am hoping for some amazement.

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