E3 2012 Game Design Insights and Commentary

June 13th, 2012

Walking down a hallway, solving an obvious puzzle and mashing a button for a quick time event: sounds like one of the most anticipated games of 2012 to me! Or at least, this was the response by many “critics” in print, the enthusiast press and on blogs to the Tomb Raider reboot showed off at last year’s Microsoft E3 event. The game’s second live demo at this year’s show, a bunch of disconnected; barely-interactive gameplay sequences, only provided further proof of the lack of concrete game design. Yet while the game’s gratuitous brutality has been rightfully questioned, the equally dubious gameplay has avoided heavy scrutiny. The uncritical eye of the majority of game “critics” continues to be distracted by flashy graphics and throat stabbing. (For many of the reasons why, read here. I’ll be exploring some more reasons later). This year’s E3 brought its fair share of Tomb Raiders including Resident Evil 6, Last of Us, boating in Assassins Creed, Star Wars 1313 and Sleeping Dogs—most of which will be hyped beyond reasonable doubt; some of which will probably win something at the game critics awards. Update: Turns out I was right on the money.

While there is growing disapproval around Tomb Raider and other games of its ilk, such voices haven’t reached a critical mass to drown out the marketing buzz. This E3, I compiled notes on the conferences and key games of the show, with a focus on insightful commentary and game design. Although my ideas are limited to trailers and game demos put online, I hope it gives you an idea of the type of commentary we’d be getting if critics valued gameplay as much as they say they do.

Please let me know what you think and what you made of the show in general with the new Disqus comment system. You can sign in with your social media handlers too.

Microsoft’s Conference

Smartglass

Halo 4

Tomb Raider and Resident Evil 6

“I’d get excited more if all the effort/money that went into spectacular-but-shallow set pieces was diverted to deepen the core mechanics. Look how much Mario does with a simple JUMP mechanic. That’s what I want to see from shooters: versatile core mechanics. Instead you get sequences that don’t gel with the core mechanics, so they get simplified into something that is incoherent with the game. We all know why they exist though: eye candy for trailers, to shift units.”

Dead Space 3

Farcry 3

Metal Gear Rising

Sony Conference

Last of Us

Beyond

Call of Duty Vita

God of War: Ascension

Nintendo Conference

ZombiU

Paper Mario: Sticker Star

New Super Mario Bros 2

New Super Mario Bros U

Game and Wario

Rayman Legends

Nintendo Land

Batman: Arkham Asylum Armoured Edition

Misc

 

Book Review: Play Reality: How Videogames Are Changing EVERYTHING

June 9th, 2012

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Recently I was contacted by Jayne Gackenbach about her recent book, Play Reality: How Videogames Are Changing EVERYTHING, which she co-wrote with her son Teace. Jayne is an established researcher in lucid dreaming and states of conciousness. Teace is a “gamer” and author of several books. Play Reality is broken into 9 chapters, each roughly 8 pages long, covering topics like game addiction, gamification, video game violence and the effects of games on our health. The dreams chapter in particular draws on Jayne’s more recent research on conciousness, realities and video games. Jayne provides the academic credibility while Teace presents it in a more accessible format with anecdotes, language and references to appeal to players.

Jayne’s intention is to bridge the divide between players and academics in order to equip players with the tools they need to understand and stick up for video games, particularly given the media’s often twisted and unfavourable portrayal of the medium. For this reason she contacted me and offered a free copy of the book. I read the it, gave her some feedback and there’s been a healthy dialogue back and forth. Since I haven’t written anything original for the blog in such a long time, and my feedback fits snuggly alongside the other book reviews on the site, I’ve decided to post my impressions on the site. It’s refreshing to engage in such an open dialogue with another writer, so I thank Jayne for that.

General Thoughts

Teace writes very clearly and has a strong, generally-likeable and occasionally humorous personality. The topics are well chosen and covered with the right amount of depth. Although in some chapters the evidence isn’t as conclusive so as to be so assertive. I found the last few chapters of the book to be better than the first few. Perhaps this is an indication of my own editing style, but I think the book could have been reduced to maybe 60 pages and still retained it’s meaning and personality.

One thing which bothered me about the book is Teace’s intentionally-juvenile, slang-filled “gamer” voice which is generally great, but sometimes irritating. It’s not so much the writing that bothers me, but what it implies about people who play games. Personally, I don’t like the “hardcore” and “casual” gamer labels, let alone “gamer”. These terms are inaccurate and contradict each other all the time. As is mentioned in the second chapter, the average age of players is 37 and the population of players is wide and diverse, including a large proportion of girls. I think that his gamer voice, like too much of the discussion around games, plays to and validates this “hardcore gamer” group which is only a minority.

Chapters

I liked the introduction a lot, it has a great personality and sets up the premise well. I didn’t read the chapter on the history of games, because I’ve read a few books on this before.

The culture chapter feels very much like clichéd academic writing and the gamer language doesn’t quite meld as well as it does in later chapters. It seems like the academic stuff is paraphrased and then the gamer terms are interjected in between the paraphrasing: they don’t meld together. MMORPGS are always used in academia to validate the study of games which I’ve always found frustrating as anyone who plays games knows that mainstream games are where all the interesting developments are happening. By primarily focusing MMOs/Second Life, I’ve always felt that academia has never properly acknowledged video games.

For the addiction article, the examples from China and Korea are dwelled on too long before the real problem is identified, that these people live in highly-stressed societies. So, for a good part of the chapter, I didn’t think that much was being said.

The violence chapter is much better. A few good examples are provided, Teace used the No Russia mission which is refreshingly relevant and then the conclusion of temporary aggression is promptly reached with suitable examples.

I love the 3rd quote at the start of the perception chapter. Again, Teace’s Splinter Cell example grounds the topic with the audience. The points in this chapter aren’t as strong as the later ones. This feels like a minor chapter which leads into the later discussion on dreams, conciousness and gamification.

The serious games/gamification chapter provides a great overview of serious games with suitable examples that highlight a surprising amount of issues. I liked 2 of the points made about gamification 1) that the future is always in the hands of the affluent and just needs to be spread 2) the generally theorising of the way games could be integrated into our society. The former got me thinking a lot and the ideas are well conveyed. However, I felt that there wasn’t enough writing on the negatives of gamification which seems to often be discussed most amongst players and developers. For example, New Labor’s reforms to improve the UK’s public service in the late 90s are an example of gamification that turned out to be a catastrophe. Artificial rewards can be extremely dangerous and I was surprised the book didn’t cover it more.

The health chapter was fine. Personally, I would have been more interested if it was focused on finger strain, sight and sleep as I think most players already know that moderate play isn’t bad for them.

The dream chapter has a lot of little insight into dreaming which I found interesting, like the way we usually dream before we wake up and how our brain can’t determine the difference. However, the research and assertions, which is primarily focused on just one example; at least in this book, are quite dubious. I’m not sure if it’s because of a lack of research or just the way you presented it in the book. (Jayne has assured me that her other research explores this more thoroughly and suggested that I plug some of her more recent work here)

The final chapter had me thinking the most after reading the book. Sure, the examples are a bit out there and I don’t agree with all the predictions, but the examples of the 6th sense tech from MIT carries this chapter in a big way.

Overall

Play Reality covers it’s topics well, with enough depth and clarity while still appealing to a wide reader base. For players looking for an entry point into many of the key issues surrounding games at the moment and a peak into the academia, this book comes recommended. If you’re like me and already familiar with the key ideas, there’s still some good insights. Some of which I haven’t been able to free from mind and may eventually make their way into blog posts.