Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reflecting on My Mass Effect Experience Part 1--The Dungeons & Dragons Parallel

I've been reflecting back on the ending of Mass Effect 3 (and the trilogy as a whole) since finishing the game this past weekend. In fact, I can't get the game out of my head. More specifically, I can't get the story out of my head, and I think it's because I feel such a strong sense of ownership of the narrative that I helped create over the past five years. It's that sense of ownership that makes me realize what a marvel the Mass Effect series is, both from a technical and a storytelling standpoint. In my personal experience, the Mass Effect series is the first series of video games that has truly managed to capture what is was like to play through a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to completion. For that reason alone, the Mass Effect games are my favorite video RPGs of all time.

People like roleplaying games for a lot of different reasons, but the main reason I love them is because I love creating a narrative for my character within the framework that the person running the campaign (the DM) creates. In a good tabletop game, I am presented with the rules, the setting, the lore, and maybe even some recent events that serve as the launching pad for the campaign. I create a character within that framework, fill in some backstory, and decide which traits I am going to emphasize in order to play the character in a way that fits the narrative I'm creating for them. Over the course of the campaign, my actions have an impact on the story, and the relationships I form with other characters (both player characters and non-player characters) all contribute to my character's overall story. While the person running the game has a larger story to tell and had a measure of control over that story and its outcome, I am creating my own character's narrative within that larger story.

It's the dynamic that I just described that many video game RPGs fail to really execute on. Many games allow you to create your own character, some with a lot more customizability than the Mass Effect series. But it's the ability to let the player tell their own story while still maintaining a strong connection to the overarching narrative the most games fail at. Most are too restrictive, offering the player no real room to create their own narrative. Those games may let the player customize the look of the character, but everything else about the game is very scripted. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have games like the Elder Scrolls (which I am a huge fan of, by the way). The Elder Scrolls games feel at time to me like a D&D campaign with no one running it. They are a giant sandbox where you can create many narratives for your own character in the world, but you often feel disconnected from the story the developers set out to tell. I played through the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion twice (over 150 hours), once sticking almost strictly to the main storyline, and another time ignoring it completely. I loved the world and the myriad of things I could do within it, but the main story was never compelling enough to keep me connected to it.

Mass Effect managed to keep the balance between my story and the larger story over the course of three games. It wasn't perfect--there were times where the game almost became too restrictive, especially in Mass Effect 2, where I really disliked how the developers handled some of the storylines. But even when I felt the games faltered, it was mostly with the larger story. I was still allowed to play my character the in a way that was consistent with the narrative I had created. That held true right through the end of the trilogy, when I was able to end my character's story in the way I had been envisioning it since early in the second game. That made for an incredibly satisfying end to the series for me, and one of the most cherished gaming experiences I've ever had.

In my next post I'll get a little spoilery, as I want to talk about the story of my Commander Shepard.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Wii U Could Prove to Be a Missed Opportunity for Nintendo

So this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has come and gone, and Nintendo didn't really do much to get people excited about their new console, the Wii U, which is slated to arrive later this year. With both Microsoft and Sony holding off on new consoles until at least next year, Nintendo has an opportunity to surge ahead of their competition, and they simply aren't taking advantage of it. One of the big reasons I think this console will struggle has to do with its basic design, specifically the new tablet controller Nintendo is pairing with the console.

For those unfamiliar, the Wii U is an HD console that figures to be as powerful or slightly more powerful than the XBox 360 and the PS3. The most unique feature of the console is a tablet controller called the GamePad, which resembles a UDraw tablet with two analog sticks and a touch screen in the middle of it. Games that take advantage of this tablet controller in many ways, from allowing players to continue playing a game even when not using the TV, to offering completely different gameplay to the tablet user than the other players are experiencing.

I actually applaud Nintendo wanting to include this new tablet functionality with their upcoming console. Tablet gaming has taken off since the last generation of consoles launched, and many new gamers have come to the hobby through their experiences with iOS and Android touchscreen devices. Not only will the GamePad allow for developers to add tablet-centric features to their games, but I could also see developers porting over some of their iOS and Android games to the Wii U to be played on the tablet. So, again, I think it's a good idea.

Where I think Nintendo has completely missed the boat is in the fact that they already have a touchscreen device that could do many of the same things the GamePad will do. It's called the Nintendo 3DS.

For the love of Pete, why in the world would Nintendo want to create another peripheral that will drive up the price of their new console, when they could have just built a level of interoperability between the 3DS and the Wii U into both devices? They've been working on the Wii U since 2008 (the 3DS launched in early 2011). The crazy thing is, a lot of the features that are being touted in the GamePad controller are present in the 3DS as well. Both have a resistive touch screen, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a microphone, a d-pad, face buttons and shoulder buttons. The GamePad has a front-facing camera, while the 3DS has both front and rear-facing cameras. The 3DS has a screen that's about half the size of the GamePad, and it lacks the second analog stick and the second pair of shoulder buttons the GamePad has. One of those deficiencies will be addressed soon, as Nintendo just announced a 3DS XL, which will have double the screen size of the current 3DS.

So the question is, do the few extra features the GamePad has necessitate its existence? I don't think so. The 3DS is close enough to the GamePad that it could have served as the unique controller Nintendo wanted to have with its new console. Nintendo could have really boosted the sales of the 3DS by coming out early and stating that the handheld would offer additional functionality to their upcoming console. Everyone currently with a 3DS would have a reason to be excited about the Wii U. The money Nintendo saved in not having to manufacture GamePads could have offset the cost of bundling a 3DS with the Wii U, or perhaps cutting the 3DS price even further.

In the end, it just seems way off to me for Nintendo to be creating a new piece of hardware that functions similarly to an existing one. Nintendo could be leveraging its current handheld to help ensure the success of its upcoming console, but they seem to be moving in a completely different direction.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Free-to-Play is the Way to Be

I was reading an article on IGN this morning about Bioware considering moving to a free-to-play model for Star Wars: The Old Republic. This didn't surprise me at all, since a subscription-based model is unsustainable in the current gaming landscape unless you are World of Warcraft (and even those guys are seeing their numbers decline). My prediction when The Old Republic launched was that it would be free-to-play within a year, and it looks like that could well be the case.

For those not familiar with it, in the free-to-play model the base game is free, and players can choose to pay for everything from new character outfits to temporary stat bonuses, and everything in between. While this model has had a somewhat shady history, in the past few years its found a nice balance. Players can actually experience the game completely for free if they choose to, and most of the items that can be bought are not game-breaking or offering an unfair advantage to paying players.

Over the past three years, this scenario has played out again and again. Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and more recently DC Universe Online all struggled under traditional subscription-based models. All three have since moved to a free-to-play model, and all three turned their financial fortunes around.

You could make the argument that Bioware planned all along to move to a free-to-play model, although I don't think they'd ever admit it. I think one new business model for MMOs is to start out as subscription-based, and then move to free-to-play when the numbers start to go south. The reason most developers and publishers would not admit to that being their plan is that it really takes advantage of early adopters and fans of a particular property. In essence, they try to recoup a good chunk of development costs on the backs of their most die hard fans, and then switch to a more sustainable model once they've squeezed what they can form their fan base. In the case of The Old Republic, all of the die hards are already subscribing, and new people aren't coming at for $15 a month at the rate Bioware needs them to. By switching to a free-to-play model, a much larger group of potential customers opens up to them. I am among those potential customers, as I won't pay $15 a month for a game I can't dedicate a ton of hours to, but I certainly don't mind spending five bucks here and there to enjoy some benefits and support the game.

I've actually had a lot of fun playing DC Universe Online on my PS3, and I've spent some money on the game as well. I may only get to play a couple times a month, but I get the most bang for my buck, and I'm happy to support the game. I'm also looking forward to Guild Wars 2, and both the developer (ArenaNet) and publisher (NCSoft) have been proponents of the free-to-play model from the get go. The original Guild Wars is largely acknowledged as a standard-bearer in the free-to-play landscape (their model consists of players paying for expansions to the core game).

So, the watch for The Old Republic's move to free-to-play is officially on. Any developers looking to launch a new subscription-based MMO should watch this situation very closely. Because if a Star Wars MMO made by Bioware can't survive with a subscription-based model, what chance does anyone else have?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

CBR Has a Nice Write-Up of a Creator-Owned Comics Panel I Moderated at Boston Comic Con

Back in late April, I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel on creator-owned comics at Boston Comic Con. The panel featured some amazing creators--Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night), Becky Cloonan (Wolves), Geof Darrow (Shaolin Cowboy), Joe Benitez (Lady Mechanika) and Jeremy Bastien (Cursed Pirate Girl). We had a great discussion on the state of creator-owned comics, as well as heard stories from the creators on their experiences in making a career in the industry. The experience was one I will never forget.

I also got to meet Brigid Alverson, who writes for CBR, and she and I bonded over the work we did for the site. Brigid wrote up a nice piece for the Robot 6 blog on CBR, which I actually just tracked down the other day. You can read it here. You can also hear the entire panel (the audio is not great, but it's serviceable) by downloading the latest issue of the Secret Identity podcast here.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

E3 2012: How the Big Sites Cover the Big Shows

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is almost upon us, and as excited as I am for all the big gaming announcements that will be coming next week, I’m actually more interested in how different news outlets will be covering the show. I’m a big process nerd--I like to know how things are made. News coverage is no exception.

When big show like E3, New York Comic Con or Gen Con comes along, the websites that cover games, comics and entertainment are all vying to be the one stop shop for people looking to follow the news coming out of those events. But the sites that cover these events best have a strategy that goes beyond just live-blogging the major press conferences and reprinting press releases. They have a strategy for covering these shows that is a combination of material that’s being generated at the show mixed with features that were put together well ahead of the actual event. These features have been coordinated with the publishers and pr reps to be released at a certain time during the event for maximum impact.

 Let’s say for example that there’s a press event for Halo 4 at E3 this year. There will be tons of sites that live-blog the event, but the sites who know what they’re doing will also have additional content to tie into that press event. Maybe they spoke to one of the Halo 4 devs a week ago, and their exclusive interview will be posted on their site right after the press event is over. Not only does this expand their coverage beyond what a lot of other sites are doing, but it also gives the illusion that the interview is being conducted at the show, as if they corralled one of the developers as soon as they stepped off the stage and interviewed them. A lot of bigger sites also have people covering the show from their home office as well, watching the streaming events and then writing recap articles, or taking news bits that are forwarded on from the show and making meatier articles out of them.

When a site really nails their coverage of a show, they have a consistent stream of news and features that are releasing throughout the show and for days afterward. For some sites, the larger events put more eyes on their site than at any other time during the year. It’s a big deal, and every site wants to be the one that becomes the go-to site for masses.

I was fortunate to work for Comic Book Resources for a couple of years and participate in coverage of both New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic Con. CBR is a well-oiled machine of coverage during major shows, with news, features and video interviews happening throughout each event. They set the standard for comic show coverage, in my opinion. I was coordinating the game coverage for those shows, and had the experience of covering NYCC from the vent, and SDCC from afar. They were great experiences, and seeing what happens behind the scenes is what really got me interested in the process of event coverage.

So for both the news and the news coverage, I am really looking forward to this year’s E3.