On the Video Game Review Community

[written in Iraq while reading EGM; I gave up on editing this even though it’s really disjointed and written over a long period of time with no cohesion…take it how it is =P]

I don’t trust video game reviews. The reviews are too full of junk, hyperbole, unimportant stuff. Is the game fun? Am I going to keep playing it? All I really need to hear is whether I should buy, rent, borrow, or ignore a game. Here’s what I don’t need to read in an actual game review:

“It’s third down and goal, and the ball rests inches away from pay dirt. The play calls for a lob pass to the sure-handed All-Pro receiver Marvin Harrison. Colts QB Peyton Manning surveys the D, and beyond the secondary he sees a picture-perfect home stadium with its working Jumbotron and screaming 3D fans. You hear Manning calling an audible (yes, that’s his actual voice) and use hand signals to relay info to his wideouts. The defense notices the formation change — a linebacker barks out his own adjustments. It’s a handoff to the ever-elusive Edgerrin James. The hole quickly closes, leaving No. 32 with one option: dive over the pile and into the end zone. James scores! The crowd erupts, and listening to the local radio announcer call the action only adds to the excitement.”

How does this help me at all? That paragraph takes up a huge chunk of the two-page spread that most games get.

The review is followed by one more paragraph of equal length with equally vapid content. I mean, this is not a game review. It’s supposed to be a quick synopsis of one reviewer’s experience compared with two others’. But that’s a whole paragraph of nothing. The only slightly interesting part is the “audible” using Manning’s “actual voice”. And that is a pretty sad “feature” for a sequel.

The most useful parts of reviews for me are the small textboxes listing pluses and minuses in less than twenty words. Repetitive voice-overs or maps? VoIP multiplay? Long load times? These are the things that directly impact my gameplay. Other than that, I just want to know if a game is FUN. And “fun” is not really that subjective in gaming. Mario games are FUN. Zelda games are FUN. Katamari is FUN. Grim Fandango is FUN.

Now take this preview for Metal Gear Solid 4:

“We actually first had that idea for MGS2, but we weren’t able to do real-time whisker shaving. So, this time we also want to include that…hopefully we’ll be able to get it in the final game. Also, we’d like Snake’s face to look older and to show realistic expressions of fatigue as he goes through the game. Well, I told my team that, and they said, “Please, we don’t want to have to do that.” We’re not sure what’s going to happen with that.”

Jesus. Whisker-shaving. This is what they’re working on.

Nintendo is the only company in town that is coming up with original games. They’re committed to it now. I think they’re going to be extremely successful in a pioneering sense, but they might end up being the Apple of gaming, financially. That is, they will be culturally successful and have a good reputation, but until they come up with a killer device, they will not make a ton of money off it. (that said, I think the last time Nintendo actually lost money in a quarter was like 2002)

Sony has an established platform in its PS2 but it still does not cater to its strengths. It never has. It’s like a blind pig finding a truffle.

Most new games just look slightly better. They’re not more fun. This is what Xbox concentrates on because Microsoft’s aim in gaming has been having the most powerful hardware. When newer generation games come out, you have no incentive to play the old game anymore because they just look old. While not intentional on the developers’ parts to enforce continued consumption, it’s a nice side-effect for them.

What intrigues me most is online competition. I hear Xbox Live to some degree tracks gamer profiles so you can see how far someone’s gotten in various games. You have an incentive to play a lot of games — and do well in them — in order to build up your reputation. But Microsoft should take it further. Have an overall gamer’s ladder based on points. Have medals or special competitions which grant trophies that go on your profile. Unlock special bonuses when you get to a certain overall skill level. Display peoples’ rankings prominently throughout the Xbox Live world. The social element always makes a game more entertaining and longer-lasting. People will fork out money for reputation, even in online games. There is a lot of potential there for making money and for providing for a happier customer base.

As far as game development goes, I think the insistence upon graphics has been criticized plenty. It seems you cannot read a single Xbox 360 review that doesn’t have something about current gen vs. next gen. I do not fucking care! It SHOULD be next gen, but more importantly, will I want to play it two weeks after dropping 50-60$!

What got me to come onto the Internet in the first place way back when were text MUDs. Instead of graphics, these games relied on text. You’d walk from room to room, reading a text description of what was in the room. You could interact with things in the room using text commands. You could chat with people. As an admin, you could do as much as you wanted provided the code was there to support it.

The best part was that the text model was extremely easy to upgrade, modify, and maintain. Players on the game had a standard protocol on which to make their own game areas that could be easily implemented into the game. New commands were easy to add in. The game was extremely scalable since it was all text. Characters were as descriptive and emotive as the admin coded it to be and as the player role-played it to be. Making a character wink did not require four graphic artists to design models for it. It took a single line of code, or it could be done by the player using an “emote” command (i.e., “emote winks suggestively.” showed “BenTurner winks suggestively.” until a “wink” command would be added which would do the same thing).

I think one thing that people would really like about games is telling the story of their character. I remember about the only good thing about Black and White was that people would go onto forums and compare how their monsters were growing up, whether they’d develop personalities that ate people or were sad all the time or whatever. Nintendogs and Catz/Dogz and Tamagotchi were so popular because people cultivated their own unique pets. Well, there should be a simple text-based game where one can live a character’s life all the way through.

Not just write a whole biography of the character, but have a game that supported the ability for someone to progress through life making decisions or ignoring them. The number of choices could be nearly infinite with text, but severely limited with graphics. I wanted to build a MUD a long time ago that started off when the character was about 17. For his childhood, the player could choose from a list of multiple choices which would affect his later personality, like whether he had parents or if they ignored or nurtured him, whether he took interest in arts or sciences or just carousing; maybe his little brother would get murdered or he would be taken into the church. By the time the character was ready to play the game, he already had a past, as diverse as one could code into the game, ready to play the game, limited not in the diversity of choices but in the opportunities available to someone of his upbringing.

Imagine if you, say, wanted to go to Italy. So you did. And then after that, you decided you wanted to be an architect because of the buildings you saw in Italy. So then you did. Or maybe you tried, but failed the exams. But then you still wanted to be an architect so you kept trying. Maybe you decided to flirt with someone and ended up getting pregnant. How would that affect your life? Maybe you decide to drop everything and go become a soldier or a mercenary.

I think the potential for this game is immense. It reflects my own belief about life, that if your heart desires something, then you should not feel limited by your external situation but only by the motivation and will that you have. I think people would enjoy testing the limits of the game, or tweaking their characters to achieve a perfect outcome, or trying to create the most fucked up character, or trying to create an order within the game.

Now, make this into an online game. Maybe what other people do affects your opportunities because you’re born into their neighborhood where they only believe this and that. What will you do about it?

I guess a question is: why would you want to live a cyber-life? Well, maybe you want to experiment. Maybe you want to test your limits, see how you would react. Maybe you want to transcend what you feel you were born into or ended up as.

Also, isn’t this what The Sims is already doing? Or Second Life? Well, sort of. But there’s no application to real life in these games. The killer game is going to be a cross-over, making real-life into a game. I mean, we already compete in the real world. It’s often referred to as a game, or a race. The potential is huge.

I think the online world could benefit a lot from a textual environment. It’s far easier to add new features if you only need to worry about text and not make new graphics for everything. Granted, text will never catch on with most people, but perhaps it could be a Matrix sort of thing. An underlying textual system for a graphical world.

I simply do not understand why developers haven’t shared their code more. Some licensing goes on, but that only branches off for one generation or two. Say you want to make a game. You pretty much start from scratch, even if ten other games have done basically what you set out to do. You don’t use anyone else’s foundation, you don’t use anyone else’s tweaked, bug-fixed code. Games take so freaking long to develop BECAUSE they start from scratch. But it’s mostly all been done before. It’s a waste of effort. Developers would have more time to be polished or innovative if they didn’t have to waste most of their production time catching up with their peers first. A common codebase should be established. Think of something like wordpress: yes, people are using the same base, but it does not take away from the uniqueness of the blog content, as diverse as each individual author wants it to be.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On the Video Game Review Community

  1. I completely agree with your comment on videogame reviews and previews. And while I love EGM and have friends working there, they’re fanboys. They’re not catering to a discriminating public but to a zealous base. As games move more into the mainstream, so will its criticism (although I’ve always believed that real vg criticism on par with literary or cinematic criticism will help push the industry into a realm of real artistic legitimacy).
    As for your text-game idea, eh. As for real-life game idea, fuck yeah. It requires focus, but what is an rpg other than a simulated life with stats? Apply the statisical basis, have standardized pts/rewards/reputation for usual life events (graduation, marriage, babies, promotions, raises, etc.), have the user be able to create trackable individualized goals…the cool thing would be if you were able to motivate folk to do more with their lives, to learn more, try more, be less afraid. ‘course, we wouldn’t want anyone so motivated that they ran over hookers to get their money back, but whateva.

  2. Ben

    But do we want game reviews to become like reviews in other mediums? Maybe it would work for plot-rich games like Metal Gear or Final Fantasy but I’m not really convinced. You can sometimes read game reviews in Time or (grr) Stuff, geared towards the casual gamer, and the reviews are even worse than the fanboys’. I prefer it short, sweet, and not insulting my intelligence.

    I don’t think the video game production cycle is conducive to building deeply rich games anyway — a book that some author spends a decade writing would never happen in a video game type of world.

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