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Gaming Stories: Halo: Reach – Firefight

The face of easy credits.

I haven’t played Halo 4 yet. I’ll probably get to it at some point; “the Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom” is one of my favorite gaming memories, and I would rank Halo 3: ODST as one of the best games I’ve ever played.  I have faith that 343 Industries will have done an acceptable job of creating a good Halo game. For me, Halo 4 would have to compare against the most recent Halo game I’ve played, Halo: Reach.

Bungie implemented a level progression system in Halo: Reach tied to credits that players could earn in the campaign, in multiplayer games, and in Firefight, which could be played with others or solo. To incentivize the player to buy into this progression system, Bungie tied avatar customization options, such as helmets and armor, and a number of achievements to the credits and the progression system.

As always, where there is a system, there will be ways to exploit it. I remember when someone on Xbox360Achievement.org’s Halo: Reach message board pointed to a strategy in the Gruntpocalypse game type in Halo: Reach‘s Firefight mode that players could use to make credit farming in Halo: Reach a breeze. That turned out to be an understatement. At my peak, I could farm 10,000 credits in about 10 minutes of play, which reduced Halo: Reach into a daily yet very disposable experience for me.

Hooray credits!

While the strategy was relatively simple, it took skill to execute. The key was to kill the Grunts as quickly as possibly with headshots using the DMR battle rifle. The credits rolled in as long as I could maintain the streak of headshots; inevitably, a Grunt would tag me with a plasma grenade, which would end the streak and the possibility that I could continue to earn credits at a rapid pace. By that point, it was time to move on and count my haul for the day.

The tools of the professional.

As always, people may decry that credit farming strategies demean a game. I contend that implementing these strategies requires a deep understanding of how the game works. To farm for credits in Gruntpocalypse effectively, I had to know the preferred Firefight map, Corvette, intimately. I knew the Grunts’ spawn points, and I knew how long it would be between each Grunt’s spawn. I knew the angles from each spot on the raised platforms. I knew the timing to run back to my spawn point to reload my DMR. I knew how much splash damage I could expect if a Grunt launched a rocket from his Fuel Rod Cannon or threw a plasma grenade at me. I knew the map well enough that I could play when I was tired from a long day of work and life or when I was still sleepy because I had just woken up. I was in that stage for at least 10 minutes a day every day for more than a month. There may have been times where I knew that map better than I knew how my apartment was laid out.

Strangely enough, it never occurred to my friends or me to actually play regular, actual Firefight in Halo: Reach even though we were obsessed with the Firefight mode in Halo 3: ODST. By allowing players to customize their Firefight experiences in Halo: Reach, I think it took away from the common stories that Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight maps would help create. My friends and I could compare notes about how we handled the snipers that would spawn in the map “Crater” or how we would roll together in a Warthog to take down the Wraith tanks on the map “Lost Platoon” in Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight maps. It’s possible that Bungie opened too much of the experience to the player’s control; with the ability to customize, our common points of reference for our Firefight stories were gone.

I suppose that I’ll always have my credits from Halo: Reach‘s Gruntpocalypse mode and the wonderful cyborg arm it bought my avatar.

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Getting Methodical With ‘Halo 4’

Between listening to gaming podcasts and reading different articles about Halo 4, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the game’s combat and encounter design, and what makes it different from other shooters out there. I hear people praise the combat in Halo 4 a lot, and much of that praise surrounds the enemy AI, and how the AI and mix of enemy types create a robust combat experience. That’s certainly true, but I think the reason Halo’s combat really clicks for me is that it’s design is a perfect match for how I like to approach combat in any game–methodically.

A lot of shooters are designed to push you forward as a player. Call of Duty is the most obvious example of this. You are not expected to stop and think, you are expected to run and shoot. You are most successful when you can charge in and take enemies out as quickly as possible. In some cases, enemies will continue to spawn until you do charge past a certain point. This type of design creates tension by evoking a “seat of your pants” type of experience, where you are constantly in danger of losing control, but also feel like a superhero at the same time.

For me, Halo feels the exact opposite. You are frequently encountering scenarios where you are tremendously outnumbered, and often outgunned as well. Charging in will often result in a swift death, and wasting ammo early in an encounter can create a near-impossible situation later on. A methodical approach is usually rewarded, as even on the higher difficulties, there are multiple ways to tackle an encounter, and there are enough resources to get you through, if you manage them appropriately.

[Minor Spoilers Ahead]

One of the encounters in Halo 4 that provides a shining example of rewarding a methodical approach is the end of the very first mission. You have to battle Covenant forces on the exterior of the UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn. Covenant dropships are flying in reinforcements, and your job is to get to a control room where you can fire one of the FoD’s missiles. It’s a huge, open area, and there are enemies on three sides of you (in front and on both flanks), almost all of whom you must go through to get to the control room. Once you actually hit the launch button, a malfunction forces you back outside to manually open the launch hatch, which is protected by more waves of enemies.

I’ve played through this battle several times now, and it never gets old. As you step out on the exterior of the ship, a battle rifle is floating by that is a must-have. With it, you can address the Jackal snipers that are pinning you down, and either take out several Grunts, or a few Elites before running out of ammo. I came into the battle with a grenade launcher, but the limited ammo meant I could not waste any shots, especially if I hadn’t used the battle rifle on the Elites yet. If I hadn’t cleared a path down the left flank of the ship yet, I had to circle all the way around to the right, where I could grab a Covenant Carbine for some mid-range sniping, but the Elites would usually require me to get closer, as they are more likely to dodge long-range attacks. Even when I used the battle rifle effectively, and made my grenades count, I usually ended up low on ammo as I climbed the ramp to the missile control room. After the launch malfunction, I would have to scrounge for weapons in order to take out the last waves of Covenant and launch the missile, before completing the encounter.

Each time I didn’t take a thoughtful approach to the encounter, I ended up in the meat grinder. I tried to bull rush my way up the left flank a few times, and got as far as the ramp before the crossfire killed me. I got sloppy with the battle rifle a few times and the snipers I left standing kept me pinned down until I ran out of ammo. Wasted grenade launcher shots made for some ugly melee battles (and losses) with Elites. But every time I died, I knew exactly why, and it almost always came down to not thinking things through.

That emphasis on a methodical approach appeals to the RPG-lover in me, and it’s how I pretty much play every game, no matter the genre. In a lot of games, that style goes against the design of the game, and I usually make the game more difficult for myself by trying to stick to my playstyle. This is especially true of shooters, which is why there aren’t many to be found on my “all-time favorite games” list. But the Halo series, particularly in its campaigns, is a great fit for my preferred style.

Ironically, I spend almost no time with the multiplayer components of Halo games, because that methodical aspect of the gameplay goes out the window in those modes. That’s when I switch over to Call of Duty, as high-octane, panic-inducing multiplayer is what they do best. In fact, many of my friends prefer that series, as they find Halo’s gameplay too slow, even boring at times. When it comes to single player however, for me, Halo’s combat design cannot be beat.

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Gaming Stories: BrickBreaker

This screenshot doesn’t look right to me because
this is the starting board, and the player already has 600 points.

Click the back button, confirm that I want to quit, click the play button. A ball clipped through the end of my paddle again. I know it’s going to happen every time it comes in at that angle, but I always expect it to change the next time it comes in that way. How annoying that I’ve managed to lose a ball on the first stage again. I guess I’ll click the back button, confirm that I want to quit, and click the play button again.

I hate BrickBreaker. I’m starved of other options on my BlackBerry Curve, so I inevitably go back to BrickBreaker for another emotional beating. My relationship with BrickBreaker has survived three phones so far; why should I stop now, especially since Klondike and Texas Hold’Em King 2 load so slowly on my phone. At least BrickBreaker loads quickly.

Hitting restart, either because I’ve lost all of my lives or because I lost a life in the first stage and restarted in frustration, means that I feel like I’m trapped in the worst feedback loop. I never feel like I’m making progress in the game; when I reached a new high score this week for the first time in more than a year, I wasn’t even sure how to react.

Forget this. Time to restart and go through the cycle again.

My frustration with BrickBreaker also involves the dissonance between my visual expectations and how the game engine works. If a ball comes in at a steep angle to my pad, it will phase through my pad into the infinite abyss, thus costing me a life. I know that  the ball will clip through my paddle when it comes in at those steep angles at the ends of the pad, but I’m continue to be surprised and annoyed when it does. Also, the ball’s trajectory will occasionally change on a rebound for no discernible reason. Is it because the game thinks that the ball is stuck? Is it because the phone actually detects tilt, even though I’m pretty sure the BlackBerry Curve I’m playing BrickBreaker on doesn’t detect tilt? Or is it because the game is just terrible? How can you engage with a game when the game reacts contrary to expectations that have been built over time? When a violation of expectations takes place, trust between two parties is violated. Maybe that’s why I’m almost never happy with BrickBreaker.

Mobile games seem to be the untapped area for FAQs. If I were to load up GameFAQs, I can find guides for all kinds of games regardless of platforms. For some reason, I hadn’t thought that there would be a guide for what is ostensibly a geometry-driven game. It was only in the course of researching for this post that I found the Ultimate BlackBerry BrickBreaker Guide, which dates back to 2008.

It’s strange to have such an extensive history with a game that I hate-play. I rarely enjoy the experience of playing BrickBreaker; I pay no attention to it; I never think of it after I put the phone away. It’s as disposable an experience as I can think of, and yet it’s been a significant element of my life. When I’m bored at a meeting, I might play BrickBreaker. When I’m bored on the train, I might play BrickBreaker. When I have no other entertainment options, I might play BrickBreaker. It’s a game of last resort.

One day, I’d love to talk to whomever programmed BrickBreaker. Here are my questions:
1. What was your vision when you designed it?
2. Why does the ball clip through the paddle’s ends?
3. Why does the ball sometimes unexpectedly change trajectories?
4. Did you design the boards by hand, or did you just generate them through math?
5. Did you ever think about letting a player keep track of progress so I could just continue from the last stage I completed? I know it’s a score attack game, but I feel like I’m just seeing the same first six or seven stages over and over again.
6. How many players actually even see the more advanced stages?

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Gaming + The Internet = Sadness–It Never Ends

I wrote a series of posts recently on my own blog about how gamers on the internet (and some of the gaming press) have become a shouty mob of morons that are ruining the hobby. You may find those posts to be idiotic in their own right, but they’re my opinions nonetheless. I wrote them as more of a way to deal with my frustration at what I was seeing and hearing about my favorite hobby. And I thought I was done getting everything off my chest, until yesterday.

Because yesterday, the internet took stupidity to another level.

THQ, the struggling publisher behind such awesome games as Company of Heroes, Darksiders and Saints Row, did something awesome yesterday. They offered a “Humble Bundle” promotion, where you could pay whatever you wanted to six amazing THQ games. If you paid one cent more than the average person, you unlocked a seventh game, the fantastic Saints Row: The Third. Best of all, you could determine what part of the amount you spent went to charity, what part went to THQ, and what went to the “Humble Bundle” folks that organize these sales.

So, for a small donation, I got Metro 2033, three Company of Heroes games, the original Darksiders, Red Faction: Armageddon and Saints Row: The Third. And I helped the Child’s Play charity. Awesome, right?

Apparently not to a lot of the shouty internet gaming community, and some gaming / tech websites.

See, a lot of gamers seem to feel that because the “Humble Bundle” sales began as a way to promote indie games (they were called “Humble Indie Bundles”), having a big name publisher like THQ take part tarnishes the good name of the “Humble Bundle” brand. Worse still (according to the internet), while the “Humble Indie Bundles” have always been DRM-free downloads of games, the THQ one requires (gasp) Steam activation. So, in the eyes of the outraged, not only does the big evil publisher come along and ruin the “Humble Bundle” name, but they bring the dreaded DRM with them.

Really?

Seriously?

Are we still talking about games here, people?

I give up. I’m going to go play some Metro 2033 now. Rage amongst yourselves. When you’re done determining whether or not the “Humble Bundle” is still humble anymore, you can finally resolve whether Green Day is punk or not, and why your former favorite comic creator is or isn’t a sellout because they’re writing for Marvel now.

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Gaming Stories: Borderlands 2 vs. My TV

We don’t review games here, so what I write below is not intended to indict Borderlands 2 as a bad game. Indeed, it would be difficult for me to render judgment on Borderlands 2 at all since I can’t play the game. My Xbox 360 hasn’t been marked by the scarlet ring (“Ring-a-round Jay Allard/A pocket full of space bucks/Marcus Fenix/We all fall down”?), and the controller is charged. Instead, it’s impossible to play Borderlands 2 when the game looks on my television like someone had spread mayonnaise and petroleum jelly on it:

Almost none of this would be legible on my TV.

For the first time, text in a current generation game was completely unreadable, which makes deciphering mission criteria (though I assume that if the missions in Borderlands 2 are like those in Borderlands, it can be summed up as “kill everything and collect something”), weapons stats, locations, and skill descriptions near impossible. I fiddled as much with my TV’s settings as I could to try to solve the problem, but nothing worked. So, my Borderlands 2 playthrough, for now, concluded right after I was allowed to leave the beginning town. I now can empathize with the complaints about how Dead Rising was unplayable on certain televisions.

Yes, it’s very pretty, but I wouldn’t be able to read any of the text on my television.

Between my inability to even play the game and the fact that Gearbox Software has (so far, successfully) supported Borderlands 2 well with downloadable content, similar to how Borderlands was well supported, I find myself in a strange position of actually regret buying what is turning out to be a very good game. I wish that I had just waited until the inevitable Game of the Year edition of Borderlands 2 that would probably be out in time for Christmas 2013 and would collect currently available and any likely future downloadable content. It almost seems like I would be punishing Gearbox Software of supporting its game well, which points to a larger economic problem in the market today.

One lesson I’ve drawn from The Year With No New Games has been that, more often than not, I can successfully gamble that a game that has a season pass will likely have a special edition that will collect almost all of its downloadable content. The gamble can be extended to almost any game with significant amounts of downloadable content. The theory has held so far for Oblivion: Game of the Year EditionFallout 3: Game of the Year Edition, Gears of War 2 Game of the Year EditionBorderlands: Game of the Year EditionFallout: New Vegas Ultimate Edition, Dead Island: Game of the Year EditionUncharted 2: Among Thieves – Game of the Year EditionUncharted 3 Game of the Year Edition, Dragon Age Origins: Ultimate Edition, Red Dead Redemption Game of the Year Edition, Batman: Arkham City Game of the Year Edition, Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition, LittleBigPlanet – Game of the Year Edition, Grand Theft Auto IV & Episodes from Liberty City: The Complete Edition, Mortal Kombat: Komplete EditionL.A. Noire: The Complete Edition, to just name a few. My backlog is large enough that I can wait until these collected editions are released, and I can choose to spend my time and money on less publicized games, like Binary Domain or Spec Ops: The Line, instead. The market now has incentives for me to just wait, defeating the “Day 1” purchasing craze that publishers cultivate.

Ironically, if I could have read Borderlands 2‘s text on my television, I wouldn’t have had a chance to see how the market actually is and how my purchasing behavior has now been incentivized to wait.

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Gaming Stories: Aliens Versus Humans

When all of my friends were firmly entrenched in the world of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I found that I was intensely jealous that I could not participate in the conversation because I couldn’t buy the game. So far this year, I’ve been relatively firm on not buying new games; the only moments of weakness were when Borderlands 2, SSX, and Spec Ops: The Line were released and when I bought Episode 1 of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead on my iPad so I could play with my wife. This means that I can’t help but feel like I’ve been left out of the larger gaming conversation of the year. I can’t very well comment on whether Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops mode matches the greatness of Halo 3: ODST‘s Firefight mode, whether Binary Domain‘s supposed experiments in storytelling worked, or why it seems like many of this year’s spate of sequels (Darksiders II, Max Payne 3, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Resident Evil 6, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Prototype 2, Ninja Gaiden 3, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, even Halo 4) seemed to have underwhelmed.

Let the cleansing fire do its work.

Gripped by this jealousy and looking for an inexpensive alternative, I settled on Aliens Versus Humans for iOS. Reviews, such as Owen Faraday’s for PocketTactics, described Aliens Versus Humans as a clone of the original X-COM: Enemy Unknown/X-COM: UFO Defense. Though Julian Gollop, one of the creators behind the original X-COM game, touted Hunters 2 as the tactical turn-based RPG that gets many of the elements crucial to such a game right, the aesthetic similarity of Aliens Versus Humans to the original X-COM game drew me to it.

Though Aliens Versus Humans brought the same sense of masochism and vulnerability that anecdotes about XCOM: Enemy Unknown conveyed, the way that the game is stacked against the player began to wear on me. Aliens could shoot at my soldiers from shadow without revealing themselves, which meant that I had to recruit sacrificial scouts for every mission to scout the map in order to find the enemies for my better armed and more experienced soldiers to kill. There were no costs associated with recruiting these sacrificial scouts, Once I solved the game’s core combat challenge in a way that made combat seem rote, a lot of the game’s appeal was lost.

The enemy variety never really seemed to change. Though there were hopping green blobs, skinny grey aliens in blue suits, skinny grey aliens in red suits, and alien cyborgs, they all seemed to use the same weapon and had the same reactions to my soldiers: shoot on sight regardless of how exposed they were. This only added to how rote the game seemed.

I think it was a night mission that broke me and forced my hand to try to break the game. I took a group of relative veteran soldiers into town to find some aliens to shoot. I lost four soldiers to an ambush that I couldn’t see. I tried to send my six remaining soldiers into a building; three of them made it. One climbed to the second floor to try to at least find the shooters; he was shot through the window before he could find the aliens. I tried to wait out the enemy in the building; they shot out the walls and eventually killed me. I quit the game and couldn’t think of it without getting angry for a few weeks. I finally beat that mission by abusing the game’s save and load functions to maximize my soldiers’ opportunities.

I have to acknowledge that I only played the original game’s missions, which were called the Training Missions, and I haven’t tried the new Onslaught mode yet. I’ve read enough about the game know to convince me to at least give the Onslaught mode a try.

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Gaming Stories: Video Game Championship Wrestling

The last professional wrestling video game I bought was 2007’s Fire Pro Wrestling Returns for the PlayStation 2, but the last one that I played obsessively was 2004’s WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw. The Create-A-Wrestler function in that game was limited, so I created some wrestlers who were not in the game’s roster and mentally replaced existing wrestlers with other characters to get the roster that I wanted. Thus, lesser wrestlers like Mark Jindrak substituted for 2004’s popular independent wrestler in my head. Every weekend, I would spend a couple of hours copying an independent professional wrestling company’s shows and simulating them, taking control of the simulation whenever it didn’t match what actually happened at the independent company’s show. This may explain many questions about my social life in 2004 and 2005.

Just give him the cookie, John Cena.

When professional wrestling is done well, it can be the perfect intersection of the sublime and the absurd, the blatantly obvious overtones and all kinds of undertones. My favorite professional wrestling memories usually involve wrestlers embracing the absurd, such as when the wrestlers slow down because an invisible hand grenade has been lobbed at a group of man-sized ants, or when a man-sized ice cream is foisted on his petard as he’s bodyslammed onto the very deadly sprinkles that he himself spread on the mat, or when a table beats a stepladder in a match that lasted almost ten minutes, or when a miniature Dachshund pins a metal ladder to become the Ironman Heavyweight Champion. It’s the juxtaposition of the deadly serious with the incredibly stupid that gives professional wrestling the unique flavor that no other performance art can quite match.

Recently, Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann showed off WWE ’13‘s Create-A-Story function in their Quick Look of the game and really showed what that function is capable of by creating the website’s weekly content preview video within the game’s Create-A-Story function. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by WWE ’13‘s Create-A-Story function and the silly things that one could create within it. On the one hand, a wrestler getting run over by a car is a very serious dramatic moment. However, if you recreate that moment in a wrestling video game, that level of separation from reality, combined with sheer repetition and the limitations of a wrestling game’s Create-A-Story function, makes it very, very funny (skip to 24 minutes in that video).

Over the weekend, I discovered someone else who appreciated the inherent absurdity of professional wrestling and who combined it with the silliness that WWE ’13 is capable of rendering through its Create-A-Story mode. This person ran a TwitchTV stream, and I was delighted to see this on his stream’s static placeholder image:

Indeed, he was simulating a wrestling pay-per-view show in WWE ’13, only he substituted Internet celebrities like Egoraptor, JonTron, and the Angry Video Game Nerd, Gamecenter CX’s host Shinya Arino, video game characters like Phoenix Wright and Mega Man, and Dragon Ball characters like Nappa and Vegeta for the actual wrestlers. (For the lack of a better name, I’m going to call him “Bazza87,” since that’s the username on his TwitchTV account.) Last night was, so to speak, the grand finale to Bazza87’s weekend of simulation. Bowser had won a shot at Ganondorf’s championship in an over-the-top-rope battle royale, while the Angry Video Game Nerd and JonTron faced off against Guile and Donkey Kong, each character’s respective nemesis whose rivalries were ignited during a single-elimination tournament earlier during the extended holiday weekend.

Of course I watched the entire show, which seems ridiculous in hindsight. There were no stakes in any of the matches except those that the viewing community imposed onto the matches through collective force of will, as if we agreed to suspend reason and disbelief and chose to accept that these characters were real. We projected emotions and motivations onto them. So, when Donkey Kong faced JonTron, we remembered that JonTron had supposedly injured Donkey Kong during an earlier show and could tell each other that Donkey Knog sought revenge from JonTron. We were collectively creating stories, and it was almost magical.

This felt dramatic even though the game’s AI controlled all four characters. Perhaps that was the key to the experience; because human skill was removed entirely, the storylines worked themselves out on their own. Bazza87 supplemented the visual appeal of watching these ridiculous pairings with strong musical choices. For example, Charles Barkley’s entrance music is a reference to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, while Nappa’s music is a reference to Team Four Star‘s DBZ Abridged series of videos and Ghostbusters.

Ghost Nappa!

Bazza87 was also able to replicate the exciting spontaneity that professional wrestling is capable of , even though we know that nothing happens in professional wrestling without at least the wrestlers’ and promoter’s knowledge, just as nothing can happen in Bazza87’s simulation without his intent. That’s why the impromptu backstage brawl between Nappa and Zangief after Nappa pinned Zangief in the opening match felt perfect. Because all matches were simulated by the game’s AI, the show balanced unpredictability and planning beautifully.

In effect, watching these fictional characters fight was not as removed from watching actual professional wrestling as it would appear. We entrusted our time with Bazza87, just as we would entrust it with actual wrestlers and promoters if we attended a show or watched a pay-per-view event. Bazza87’s simulations straddled the line between undeniably real and serious and surreal and absurd as well as the best professional wrestling show.

Four days ago, Bazza87’s TwitchTV channel had about 1,300 viewers in its history. At current count, the channel has had about 150,410 viewers. This explosive growth can be partially accounted for by the fact that we like to see video game characters from different franchises fight, which would explain the popularity of the Super Smash Brothers series and the motivation to create PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale. I also believe that the success this weekend of the Video Game Championship Wrestling series was due to Bazza87, who applied an understanding of how professional wrestling works and achieved the crucial balance between drama and absurdity in his shows. The next Video Game Championship Wrestling show has not been scheduled yet, but I am undoubtedly anticipating it. After all, I need to see if Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s Adam Jensen’s challenge to Ganondorf for the VGCW championship will succeed, whether Mega Man can shed his status of “Canceled Man,” where the feud between Nappa and Zangief will go next, and whether Link, who debuted in a surprise match, will redeem himself after his upset loss to Waliugi. (Does a loss to Waliugi only seem like an upset because we’re applying outside information to this? Link is the Hero of Time and Waliugi is a second-rate villain, but none of that really matters in the Video Game Championship Wrestling world.) Perhaps Link can conquer a few dungeons so he can become the hero the VGCW league needs to unseat Ganondorf.

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Nintendo is a Heck of a Lot Smarter Than ‘Hardcore’ Gamers Would Like to Believe

How often do you read a post on Twitter, a gaming forum or in the comments of an article about Nintendo, where “hardcore” gamers deride Nintendo for making underpowered hardware that is more concerned with being accessible to a wide audience than pushing the technological envelope?

Here’s three I found in short order as I sat down to write this post:

“Nintendo jumped the gun with this console (WiiU)–the Wii was a success purely because it primarily catered to the casual gaming crowd.”

“The Wii was short-term miracle that won’t be repeated in the future. Nintendo doesn’t seem to have a long term strategy and is dangerously out of touch with gaming in general IMHO.”

“$299+ for a console with specs basically the same as (or worse than) cheaper competing models that are being replaced by something much better in a year? Seems like poor planning on Nintendo’s part.”

Does this sentiment sound familiar? It should, because we’ve been hearing it since shortly after the launch of the first Wii. Which, by the way, went on to sell 100 million units. We also heard it after the bumpy start of the 3DS, which has since gone on to sell 22 million units worldwide (in less than two years).

A lot of “hardcore” gamers seem to want the WiiU to fail, and many of those same gamers are the ones who scoff at the idea of mobile gaming, despite the enormous growth of games for iOS and Android devices over the past few years.

But ironically, it’s the “hardcore” gamers that are the short-sighted ones here. Because the fact of the matter is that the AAA, big-budget technological marvels that defined this gaming generation are going to be a smaller part of the next one. What “hardcore” gamers see as “casual” gaming will become the norm, and what they consider to be the mainstream now will become a niche market in the next generation.

And that’s why they’re all angry at Nintendo–because Nintendo isn’t railing against the move toward more accessible gaming experiences, they are embracing it. Nintendo gets it–more than Microsoft, and certainly more than Sony. And Nintendo has once again positioned themselves to be successful in the next console cycle. They have an HD-capable machine that can provide a spectrum of gaming experiences, from “casual” to “hardcore.” They have a stable of first-party franchises and characters that adult gamers grew up with and kids are immediately drawn to. And when it comes to their user interface and aesthetics, they would rather be charming than edgy, which results in a wider appeal.

Neilsen just did a survey in which they asked kids ages 6 to 12 what electronics and gaming devices were on their holiday wish lists this year. Of the top five, four of them belonged to Apple. The iPad topped the list at 48%. Number two? The WiiU.

This week, word came out that Microsoft was planning on releasing two versions of its next console. One version would be geared toward higher end, more technologically intensive gaming experiences, while the other version would be more of an entertainment hub, with the ability to download and play XBox Live Arcade titles and smaller games. Sounds like Microsoft is starting to get it, but I’m not sure that creating two versions of the next XBox is the right way to go. In any case, they’ve seen the writing on the wall that the “hardcore” market is shrinking, and they are beginning to adjust.

It was also revealed this week that while Nintendo is selling the WiiU at a small loss, as soon as a consumer buys one game for the console, it becomes profitable for Nintendo. Odds are that will not be the case with the next XBox (the high end version) or PlayStation.

So as “casual” games continue to become more popular, and console develoeprs continue to leave to develop for mobile platforms instead, “hardcore” gamers continue to yell that Nintendo doesn’t get it. In reality, Nintendo began to adjust their long-term strategy with the Wii, and that has continued with the 3DS and now the WiiU. Of the big three console manufacturers, Nintendo is poised to be the most successful in the future. If I was Sony and Microsoft right now, I’d be terrified, as they are developing new hardware for an audience that is getting smaller, and with publishers and developers who are afraid to take risks with big budget games.

The next year sure is going to be very interesting.

**If you’re wondering why I put the terms “casual” and “hardcore” in quotes for the entire post, it’s because they are nonsensical terms that are usually used by avid gamers to separate themselves from less avid gamers. 

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This Holiday Gaming Season, It’s All About the Handhelds for Me

As I was scouring the internet looking at Black Friday game deals, a thought occurred to me–this is the first year I can remember where there are more handheld games I want to play than console/PC ones.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call the holiday gaming season September 2012 to February 2013.

Just off the top of my head, here’s the list of current and upcoming (in the next month or two) console/PC games I’m playing/interested in right now (as well as my preferred platform):

Halo 4 (XBox 360)
CoD: Black Ops 2 (XBox 360)
Borderlands 2 (XBox 360)
Dishonored (PS3)
Hawken (PC)
ZombiU (even though I don’t have a WiiU yet)
Black Mesa Source (PC)
Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
Crysis 3 (Xbox 360)
Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut (PS3)
Dead Space 3 (PS3)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3)

Here’s the handheld list:

Pokemon Black/White Version 2 (3DS)
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (PS Vita)
LEGO Lord of the Rings (3DS)
LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (3DS)
Little Big Planet Vita (PS Vita)
Kingdom Hearts 3D (3DS)
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King, Why’d You Steal Our Garbage? (3DS)
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (PS Vita)
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion (3DS)
Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale (PS Vita)
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)
Retro City Rampage (PS Vita)
Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (PS Vita)
Uncharted: Fight for Fortune (PS Vita)
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)
Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate (3DS)
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS Vita)

What’s more interesting to me as I look over that list is that there are games I would rather play on handheld than on console/PC. Retro City Rampage, Sly Cooper, Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet & Clank and the LEGO games are all ones that I would prefer on either the 3DS or Vita instead of on the larger platforms. In fact, the only games I can definitively say i’d rather not play on a handheld are first-person shooters and larger RPGs that just could not be done on a handheld.

I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way, but I suspect it’s because I no longer have time in my life for the marathon gaming sessions of even a few years ago. I get 1-2 hour increments at the most, and I squeeze them in wherever I can. So, I tend to want my games in a format that is easily accessible and consumable in bite-size chunks. But I also still want a meatier experience than most iOS and Android games can provide at this point. when it comes to console and PC now, I reserve that precious time for experiences that I can’t get on a handheld.

I think a lot of my friends are still finding the time to play console and PC games on a more regular basis than me, and their preferences are now the opposite of mine. They have little interest in either the 3DS or the Vita, whereas I find myself gravitating toward them more and more.

Smuggler

Force Test–Part 1: It’s All About Atmosphere

After spending a couple hours with the just-released, free-to-play version of Star Wars: The Old Republic, I’ve already seen some good, some not so good and some very intriguing things.

For starters, the cinematics in SWTOR are amazing. I had seen one of them before (the forest battle between troopers, Sith and Jedi), but the opening cinematic is stunning.

Once I got past the opening, I got to make my character. The transaction-based options are immediately apparent from the get go. While all of the classes are available to F2P players, only three of the species (Human, Cyborg and Zabrak) are available. Of course, you can purchase the other ones if you want. So, I made a female cyborg Smuggler, who is in league with the Galactic Republic.

The character customization options are decent, as there are several different versions of each feature to choose from (hair, eyes, etc.), but not the granular type of customization that offers infinite options for customization. Nonetheless, I was happy with the look of my character and moved on to the proper game.

The Galactic Republic storyline has its own cinematic, which was the one I’d seen before in previews (the aforementioned forest battle).

My storyline began as my character flew into Ord Mantell, a planet embroiled in a civil war. As soon as I began interacting with NPCs, the familiar Bioware conversation system came into play, and it works just as well here as in their other games. There wasn’t a lot of time for chit chat though, as there was a separatist attack going on that I needed to get out there and deal with.

Ironically, the combat is where I had the least amount of fun with the game in my first session. It’s very much the typical MMO style on combat–clicking on enemies, powers and abilities assigned to number keys, etc. The familiar pattern of ‘use an ability-wait for it to recharge-use it again’ feels the same in SWTOR as in other MMOs. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the combat is certainly not going to be the thing that keeps me coming back to SWTOR.

But I will be coming back, and it’s the rest of the SWTOR package that will be the reason. The Star Wars setting, the rich conversation system, and the desire to see my storyline play out are already making me think about this game when I’m not playing it.

I’ll spend some more time with it over the next week and be back to post again.