On Being a Late Adopter

I’ve decided to edit the title of this blog to give it slightly better focus. I think it suits the name of my parent web site fairly well. I notice that I tend to discuss games that have been “out” for a while rather than the latest, greatest thing. This is for a couple reasons – I tend to take more time with a game than an early adopter, and I tend to get new games later than most people do, after they’ve been out for a year or so and the price has dropped. Basically, the most logical reasons for it to take a long time for me to review a game, that I figure a lot of people will actually run in to in the real world.

One game I plan to jump on early, however, is Scribblenauts – I can’t think of another time when I’ve counted the days to a release like I’ve been watching this one.

What’s it like being a late adopter? Well, you get spoiled for everything. You know what to expect. I do keep up with a lot of other gaming blogs, so I’m used to getting some important thing revealed to me and having less things be a surprise because I didn’t play them the week they came out. So if I do spoiler games that I’ve been playing, rest assured I’ll tend to spoiler games that have been out for about a year or more.

Fat in Fable

Everything I’d heard so far about Fable II talked about the townspeople, the shallow interactions, the unfair bad guy, and the dog. There’s one thing in the game that nobody talked about, which surprised me a little, and that is the fat woman.

I don’t use “fat” chick in a derogatory manner, but as a descriptor. The first hero that you recruit to your band, Hannah/Hammer, is a rather large woman. She’s tall and strong but also has a large belly and pudgy legs. She’s definitely fat – also useful, likeable, confident, friendly, and the game itself respects her.

What?

I cannot recall ever having actually seen this before. There are fat characters in video games, sure. There’s Rufus from Street Fighter – his story makes him look like a joke but he’s a reasonably good fighter – and Honda who is fat due to sumo. There are also “big boned” women who are curvy and a little on the overweight side, but they don’t usually have bellies to speak of. And there are women who are fat, like the evil Queen in Final Fantasy 9, but they aren’t respected: being fat is just another way of showing how evil, or how ridiculous and goofy, those women are. And even those women are few and far between. Far more likely is the sexy, skinny Ultimecia-type evil queen.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with attractive characters, which I’ve said before. But there’s some room in the world for fat chicks too. And that’s why I’m a little surprised that nobody talks about Hammer: a woman who happens to be fat, but her story arc is not about the fact that she’s fat. Instead, she goes on a quest to help her village, and then finds herself having to avenge the death of her father, which is a properly heoric story. In other words, it’s a story about a fat woman, but it’s not a story about how she feels ugly and wants to become skinny so a guy can take her to prom. (It’s also not a story about how she uses the power of her fat sass to show someone the ways of sass, which off the top of my head is the other acceptable MOVIE you can have starring a fat woman.) OK, one guy called her a troll, but he was obviously a bad guy and I wasn’t supposed to respect him.

That isn’t to say the entire game is respectful about how it handles fatness, but it’s more weird than anything where it comes to your avatar, so I’m neutral on it. Eating any food more substantial than a carrot or tofu (such as delicious meat pie) adds to your “fatness” score, wherein I lose, by my guess, one point of “attractiveness” stat for every five points of “fatness.” This applies unless the villagers looking at me are “fat-loving” in which case I believe it is the opposite relationship; a few people have this attribute. What’s weird is the fact that no amount of exercise, walking to every village or getting in tons of combats, can take away this fatness from eating one item, but if I eat celery it removes fatness. I’m pretty sure the first Fable worked like this too, though I haven’t played it. Overall I prefer how The World Ends with You handled food and eating but Fable is obviously an abstraction.

But people have talked about how weird that is. Nobody talked about Hammer and I think it’s one place where I can say: thumbs up, more like this. She wasn’t even annoying when I had to ESCORT her, and that’s saying something since escorts are usually pretty obnoxious.

What I’m Up To

Hi internet – I moved to a new apartment this week and we just now got internet access again. I’m using this week to catch back up with all my various virtual environments and projects.

Lately playing: Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time, which I am probably going to totally finish this week. I broke it out for a short seminar in my school on environment and Level Design and how the story from Zelda relates to Joseph Campbell and The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It’s very interesting how Ocarina does some of the classic heroic tropes directly, including for example the “Belly of the Whale” which is enacted very literally! It makes me wonder if this was considered during the design of the game or just the sort of coincidence that happens from it being a popular heroic trope.

I also picked up Fable II yesterday, and it’s actually interesting the parallels these two games have when it comes to setting a heroic story, and also what is done differently. So far Fable II is a bit of a weird game in some respects, particularly in how I interact with townspeople. The people seem too “simlish” to really develop any meaningful interactions with them; I haven’t found anyone there that I feel strongly enough about to try to date or marry for example, but I am still early on in the game. The economy of the game is also pretty illogical. Then again, so is the economy in Hyrule, where money is typically found by cutting down bushes. I get the feeling that Fable II included crates and barrels that I can break, but which have nothing of use in them, partially as a way to poke fun of the constant crate and jar breaking in Zelda which is useful for grinding cash.

Some sound and fury is being made about the City of Heroes community academically again. It makes me want to write a paper about the positive things about that community. I wonder if I would be heard.

Currently Playing

Just an update to currently playing from my gamer blog – I’m still working on FF4, but off and on I’m playing Mystery Dungeon Shiren, a roguelike game that seems to be more popular in Japan. I’m actually not all that good at rougelikes, but I like them anyway because they’re so challenging.

Else-blog I got a comment about my last recent post reminding me about the Ouroboros function in City of Heroes, which allows any player to repeat any content that they missed at lower levels by temporarily leveling them down to experience it. I hadn’t really forgotten it entirely, but it’s a great point that, with that feature, plus the new Architect allowing people to make missions that level them up very fast, there really isn’t a huge incentive to take your time playing the low-end game. You could always rush to the end, be a level 50, but then go back and play anything that you happened to miss that interested you…

It’s food for thought. I personally tend to play through games very slowly, just because I do a lot of things, play a lot of games at once, and have kind of an unusual usage pattern. For example, this Friday was actually the first time I ever finished Metroid Prime, despite having played it right when it came out at first, and having my own copy for years!

The Endgame

Currently playing: Final Fantasy 4 remake, Metroid Prime, and City of Heroes (a lot).

The renewed interest in City is due to the Mission Architect, a system that allows players to make their own missions in the game. An observation I’ve had from watching how people interact with the Architect: City of Heroes has no real “endgame,” but boy, people are certainly in a hurry to get there. Since the Devs have handed over all of their mission creation kits to players, it’s perfectly possible to make missions that give larger than average experience point rewards and level up faster.

I originally logged Revenant Ember, my Corruptor, on to mess with a new costume, but, since I got invited to a “farming” team I thought I’d check it out and see what this new trend was about. The mission was made up of a bunch of Rikti, but only the Communications Officers since they give larger than average XP rewards per kill. They’re all centered around pods because I guess this makes it easier to group them.

I got a level out of the farm, but it’s kind of a boring way to get a level. It’s probably faster than many other methods but probably also less fun. Normally my method for getting levels on Ember is to tag along while higher level friends take on difficult challenges, and just hang back and buff them, so this isn’t really different from my pattern with the character who hasn’t been experiencing the game content in any particular order. Just hanging out with my friends, even though they’re higher level on the villain side than I am, is still a totally valid playstyle after all.

When I logged in Puma Man later on Freedom (ha ha, it’s still funny, even if I never use the dude) I logged in to an argument on the broadcast channel about why people were farming. “There’s no endgame,” someone said. “The game doesn’t end, we can keep playing it as much as we want,” said someone else, being honest, but also missing the point entirely.

You pretty much have to assume that, if you give something to players that can potentially be exploited for rewards and achievement, a certain population of them will do that. This is true even if there is no reason to exploit it. The content at all levels in the City games is fairly interesting, with just a few dry spots, and the Devs of the game don’t typically only fill in content at the upper end. In World of Warcraft, all the new content is upper-level, but this isn’t really true in City, where new content is typically accessible at level 35 if not sooner. The MA content in particular can be played at any level.

On the other hand, it’s just so nice to be powerful and to get those XP bubbles and the ‘pop’ that if you really just like being high level, you might want the fastest way to get there. It doesn’t really bother me somehow that people want to exploit the MA for XP, except that they’re missing out on missions that might be interesting and fun to do, and, think that CoX is a really shallow game as a result, when they reach level 50 and then discover they missed everything along the way.

On the other hand, it DOES sort of bother me that people who are farming the MA by creating exploitable missions also get more playtime on their missions than mission authors who have written interesting stories and worked hard.

Games I’m Playing

I finished Retro Gaming Challenge! Lots of interesting stuff. Fun game all around with just a few moments of frustration. The play control is much tighter than the old games it’s trying to represent, but, to compensate, there isn’t as much lag in them either. This is particularly notable in Haggleman 3 when there’s 20 enemies on screen at any given time.

Next on the list of things to play for my DS… Princesses!

The eyeeees, they stare. People say I never seem to show interest in cute games, but this isn’t true. I’m just more interested in trying out different gameplay models than worrying about aesthetics.

Short review: it strikes me as a short game, but there are a lot of songs to unlock so I’m not sure if I’m really already at the halfway point or not. I’m much more interested in the “dating game” aspect of the game than in the dancing mechanic, since you don’t see dating games so much in the US, and even when you do see dating games, it’s usually one guy and a bunch of girls, not one girl and a bunch of guys. So that’s cool! It seems like two of the guys have already fallen a hundred-percent in love with me, but not my current dance partner! I wonder if there’s any way to switch to one of the guys who likes me best, or if once you pick a guy you are stuck.

The “dancing” aspect is basically Elite Beat Agents dumbed down, and forcing you to repeat the same songs a bunch of times, so meh to that, even if it’s mostly for little girls and not older gamers like me. The public domain songs they use in it are kind of boring; it would be better just to write all new music than to rearrange “The Saints Go Marching In.”

Art Works

I reformatted the art gallery hosted in this space with some recent examples of 3D work. Only a few pieces right now as a lot of my 3D art time is being taken up with my current MSU project or teaching!

Art Gallery Index

The “art” gallery actually is still mostly my design documents and links but it’s a fresh start for the images section.

Saving Tomb Raider

Crossposted from my LJ.

Apparently, Tomb Raider Underworld, a mediocre game released during a saturated new-gaming season, didn’t do so well. This to me is not a surprise.

I’ve never been interested in playing Tomb Raider games. When I was younger, this was not really because I found Lara Croft all that offensive (though it may have been my stated reason), but it was more because I found all the media coverage of Lara Croft to be somewhat offensive. First of all, no, she was not the first woman to star in a video game. That honor goes to Ms. Pacman, thank you mainstream media.

Now, I’m over the whole Lara Croft thing, but I’m still not interested in playing Tomb Raider games, and that is mostly because of the game. I remember what I did play of the earlier installments – annoyingly exact jumping, frequently getting my too-wide pixel ass stuck in tight rock caverns with no way to move backwards – and the new installments don’t seem to offer anything new from that so I’ll just give them a pass and play more Fallout.

Eidos seems to believe that what they need to do to attract women to Lara is to make her more “female friendly.” Cue an article full of women saying that is stupid. I basically agree.

What they need to do is make the game more fun, but that is going to take a while to percolate, so, allow me to posit the real problem with Tomb Raider… is this. Also, this.

See that? It’s called “there’s nothing interesting to fight in this game.”

So. Here is how you save Tomb Raider, AND attract more women to your game.

1) Don’t change Lara’s body. Lara looks fine the way she is. She should wear fabulous outfits and look great in them. That is part of her job.
2) Add a bad guy. Not just, like, any bad guy, but a totally hot bad guy. A rival relic thief who breaks all the rules. A man with confidence and an evil smarm. A man with a hot, Eurotrash accent. Who takes off his shirt during a cut-scene.
3) Have him maybe summon some ancient creatures with a curse accidentally so when I do have to whip out my pistols there’s something other than an endangered species to fire them at. Something I feel like killing.
4) Vary the set pieces so they travel all over the world, say, chasing this guy, instead of being locked down in one particular temple. Include with this a variety of interesting local costumes for Lara. My husband’s suggestion is to start the game on a cruise ship so Lara has to fight the entire first level in an evening gown. Brilliant.
5) Make Lara in to a good guy who occasionally saves people so we like her a little more, instead of someone who just steals and shoots cats. It might not even hurt to make her a little flirtaous and sexy again. I’ve heard she’s a lot more of an ice queen lately? I haven’t played any of the new games.
6) Add a hot bad guy. Did I say that already? HOT BAD GUY – WOMEN LIKE THAT A LOT

Oh. And it’s OK by me if you go ahead and switch to an M rating so she can show her tits at some point. Or maybe don’t show them, per se, but some Fox-News-Offending righteous sideboob during a love scene would be acceptable. Perhaps a love scene with… I dunno, the hot bad guy.

I will buy this game if you make it, Eidos. Or you could hire me, this is OK.

I live – and I do math

Having a day from work this week I realized I hadn’t updated this blog in a long time. Guess I have a hard time keeping up with being serious, but I’m going to keep trying!

I wanted to use this space to write an analysis of something I found elsewhere on Blogger, rather than using my casual Livejournal for it.

In this article dated last month: The Game Widow Phenomenon, author Wendy Kays claims to crunch the numbers on how many people consider themselves “Game Widows.” A Game Widow is, as I understand her thesis, a person who has a spouses or significant other but feels that they are less important to them than a video game, video games in general, or the video game industry.

She also invites math whizzes out there to correct her numbers if we see a problem. Well, technically I’m not a math whiz, but I have done some game research so let’s see if I can help this out.

I’ll start at the top, and work my way to down to the bottom, which actually contains the error that struck me as most glaring. She writes:

According to a Blizzard Entertainment press release, there were 10 million people playing WoW as of July 2008. According to Nick Yee’s research, the average MMO player is spending 22 hours a week online. Of those gamers, 30.5% of MMO players are male and dating, 26.2% are female and dating, 33.1% are male and engaged, married or separated, and 60.3% are female and either engaged, married or separated.

That last figure to me seemed somewhat suspect, so I went and looked up Yee’s actual charts about demographics, located here and here. If there are more recent charts that have the 60.3% figure, I couldn’t find them – these charts are dated 2003 so they could definitely be said to be out of date.

At any rate, if we were to use these charts, Yee isn’t saying that 60.3% of MMORPG players are female and engaged, married, separated. He’s saying that, of the subset of MMORPG players that ARE female, 57% percent (the number that I found – 60.3% in her argument) are married. From his study we can conclude that, of the MMORPG players that are female, a higher percent of them are married than the MMORPG players that are male.

If we want to simply make a conclusion as to how many players are married, Yee has that number, or at least that number so far as among his respondents: 36%. If we assume that number has remained steady, that means that out of 10 million WoW subscriptions, there are 3,600,000 game widows.

But wait. We can’t go that far yet. First we need to know how many people Blizzard is calculating as users. Is the 10 million figure actual human beings, or just subscriptions? So many times, MMORPG research falls in to the fallacy of “one person, one account,” which is simply not true (it’s particularly pervasive in research about player avatars, to the point where it bothers me a great deal). A minority of very serious WoW (or MMORPG players in general) players are “double-boxing,” meaning that they have multiple accounts (Two, or sometimes more) for the same person. This can be used to cheat the game or simply to get more alts to play with on your favorite server. We also can’t count the amount of people who are goldfarmers who may have accounts, since a goldfarming company may be counted as 20 or so individual users.

It’s something to consider, but we can possibly assume that double-boxers are outliers, and still arrive at the conclusion that 3.6 million WoW players have spouses. Even so, we can’t come to the conclusion that 3.6 million of these people are game widows. We need to do some more math. We should know how Yee calculates his average number of hours per week: here is a chart. He has it categorized to show that the largest amount of players run between less than 10 hours a week up to 30. Some strong outliers that play the game more often pull the overall average to 22 hours per week.

What information don’t we have? The percent of people who play the game a lot, but are married – there’s no crossover demographics research done, and there would need to be to draw a definite conclusion as to who is a WoW widow. We also don’t have the information about whether or not people who have a significant other do their gaming with them – if they did, that might be felt more as a shared activity than something that was “widowing” the spouse.

If we assume that the demographics of marriage have no effect on the amount of hours played, we can cross over these two charts, and I would argue that if someone plays less than 10 hours a week, they probably aren’t making their spouse a widow for the game. So subtract 26.2% of our original game widow figure, at least, to arrive at 2,656,800 game widows, or half the original figure. This is actually a large estimate because of dual-boxing and other behaviors, but it’s about half her original estimate of people who might be considered WoW Widows.

Moving on:

As of July 2008, Sony had sold 140 million PS2 consoles. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 33% of all gamers are women over the age of 18, and 42% are men over the age of 18. America Online (AOL) and the Associated Press did a poll that showed 33% of gamers are married and have kids. This leaves us with about 19 million female and about 15 million male game widow(er)s worldwide.

We need to know how the ESA defines “a gamer.” Otherwise, don’t these numbers already look surprising? The ESA defines a gamer as basically anyone who plays games. That’s why their demographics for “casual gamers” are so high. Their percent of “online gamers” includes people who only play video poker or Scrabble on Facebook. The ESA also doesn’t look for worldwide figures: it specifically states that its survey is of American Households.

That might be irrelevant to the discussion. You could still feasibly widow your spouse for Scrabble or Peggle. But if you’re trying to make a point based on the overall sales of PS2 consoles, then you’re not crossing the demographics well. We can’t draw any conclusions based on the sale of PS2 consoles and the ESA’s gamer demographics.

We do have the figure in her argument that 33% of gamers are married with kids, and with the ESA’s statistics we can figure out how many people in the USA are gamers. We’ll use their 65% of households figure and try to crunch down: 300 million people in the USA, times .65 is 195 million gaming households. 33 percent of that is 64,350,000 million married with children households that game. High figure, but we can’t draw any conclusion whatsoever as to how many people are “widows” here, because we don’t know the average playtime in these households, and we would need that data to make any argument. Just as many of this is probably parents who play with their kids which would be a positive behavior.

Finally, her last paragraph:

According to the IDGA Developer Demographics Report, 88.5% of game developers are male, and 11.5% are female. According to an IDGA Quality of Life white paper, 61.5% of spouses of game developers say they work too much. We can assume, then, that at least 61.5% of game developers have spouses.

This is the most egregious error. You can’t use the figure “61.5 percent of spouses of game developers say they work too much” and transform it in to “61.5 percent of game developers have spouses.” That’s not equivalent. It would be more correct to assume that 100% of the people interviewed as to whether or not their spouses were overworked, were already spouses of game developers! So you’re basing your figure on stating “100% of game developers are married and 61.5% of these people believe their spouse is overworked.” You can’t make that assumption. You first have to find out how many of the 100,000 estimate are actually married, then take 61.5% of that figure instead.

I think I’ve been more thourough about this but welcome additional comments or corrections.

Nobody Cares about Sandy

I suppose I should learn that, even if I have another article idea in my head, it’s not actually likely that I’ll write the next thing that I predicted I would write. But I do want to talk a little about NPC design today, as an aspect of narrative, and how providing context is the key to impact.

My personal belief is that a strong narrative, in a game, RPG, or other situation, will overcome many other shortcomings. At the MIND Lab we are currently doing a small experiment to see if people have different emotional resonance with characters who appear different visually. I believe there is some effect (and my talk about characters and appearances will probably be some future entry), but I believe the effect of narrative is much stronger.

In order to do this experiment I have become familiar with a program called Garry’s Mod. Through Garry’s Mod I also became aware of the webcomic done with the program, Concerned, which has just completed its long story arc and ended its run. I read the entire comic over the course of a few days and I must say it’s a rather good one. I can’t say if it would be as much fun for someone who never played Half Life 2 or not, though I think there’s certainly some meat there even for people who aren’t familiar with the game.

In order to read the “Author’s Notes” about a comic, one has to click on the “Hide/Show Notes” button beneath it. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, the context for what I’m about to discuss occurs in the following comics – One, Two, Three, Four. Slight violence warning on the first comic in that list. If you read the comics, go ahead and read the author’s notes, particularly for the last of the series.

What the author’s done with this small series of comics is make a “life story” up for an incredibly generic throwaway Combine minion, one minion in a series of long minions that you kill during the course of the game. The game itself does its best to dehumanize even these “human” opponents as much as possible, by providing them with a strange look and a very robotic voice. It also dehumanizes them in the narrative. Concerned acknowledges this the majority of the time, but during this small tangent the comic takes a different turn, providing some meaningful context for the death of one of these random NPCs. The author did it as a joke… and was kind of surprised when it wasn’t taken as one. He points out that it’s kind of weird that somehow, while just kidding around, he made some people care about a Combine solider, when he’d killed dozens of other characters off already, “and nary an eyelash was batted.”

It didn’t make it in to my thesis paper, but I’ve seen this principle at work. My thesis involved watching Gamemasters run live roleplaying games – for the uninitiated. If you don’t know much about Gamemasters, you’ll have to read the paper; I hope to have a PDF of the full document soon. During one of the sessions, I distinctly recall the death of a guard named Bob. “A guard is with you; his name is Bob…” says the GM, and everyone had a good laugh because he was an obvious redshirt, a throwaway, a boring Bob in a sea of Bobs, and destined to die.

When Bob did die, however, the GM said something to the effect of, “Well, someone will have to tell his two sons. And his pregnant wife.” And everyone around the table gasped and seemed disappointed. This was an easy enough, throwaway detail to add to Dead Guard Bob, but somehow even giving him that much context in the world around him made him a sympathetic character.

You’ve seen Frank. Now here’s Sandy. The last comic with Sandy is really the only time we get much of a glimpse in to her head… and, then, well… off with it, and she’s barely ever mentioned again.

So why do people care about Generic Minion Frank, but nobody cares about Sandy? Why care about Bob the Guard?

It’s not just the addition of a wife and kids that make the difference here. It could just as easily be a mother or sister, or a group of best friends, or a lonely apartment full of books. Put more simply: Combine Frank’s long tangent gave the character context. Narratively, the author developed a series of people who were around Frank, the friends and life he left behind, a series of hopes and dreams to associate with Frank. In contrast… nobody cares about Sandy. Sandy had no real background. She had PERSONALITY – in so far as she existed to provide a foil for the protagonist of the strip, Frohman, but she had no real backstory. No fears, no hopes and dreams… other than the temporary dream of ditching Frohman. I doubt it was terribly difficult to come up with a backstory for Frank; he had a small family and he apparently loved the ocean. That’s good enough to make him, somehow, more sympathetic than Sandy.

It’s funny how the devil is in the details, and how specificity – even simple specificity – can make Generic Guard #3 suddenly come alive. It’s not always easy to come up with this sort of thing on the fly, if you’re developing an interactive story in particular, but when it comes to creating impact, narrative context makes a huge difference.

Amanda Lange's Blog