All Killer, No Filler

The Just Cause 3 trailer is here. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is upon us. Dragon Age: Inquistion surprised with “Game of the Year” at DICE. And I’m tired of open-world.

More specifically, I’m tired of side-quests.

The first post to relaunch my personal blogging, Finding The Rails, attempted to capture an idea that like RPGs, there is a tricky balance to life between rails and side-quests. After a year out of college, I found difficulty in finding focus in my professional growth. School always provided a rail; you stay on track and graduate. What was often heard but never comprehended was the idea that after school, life changes. Priorities change. Responsibility kicks in. Time flies by. Emotions are juggled.

Somewhat recently, I purchased a PS4 — in large part to play Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I had completed the main quest, but throughout my playthrough, I continually felt compelled to seek out side-quests and collectibles. Like commanding an unruly Graug, I felt I had to continually redirect my attention to the main goal. Thankfully, I had completed enough side-quests and gathered enough collectibles to level Talion up enough progress through to the (lackluster) end.

This should not have been the case. Side-quests and collectibles should not be necessary to complete a game. Arguably, the greatest games of all time were played in a roughly linear manner. Super Mario Bros. (and most of its iterations) is (are) extremely linear and hold up today. Mega Man games provide boss patterns that streamline the game’s experience. Hell, even Final Fantasy games feel largely liner amongst the Skyrims and Dragon Age: Inquisitions of today. (Yes, I am giving FFXIII a pass — nay, credit — for it’s extreme use of linear gameplay, especially when FFVII and FFX feel like average adventure games amongst the throng of open-world, 100+ hour games of today.)

It goes without saying that hours upon hours of gameplay lure consumers to the idea that value is based on dollars spent per hour played. (Sales strategy? Definitely. Blocking mechanism against rival product? Possibly.) But when three hours of an 80+ hour game feel like a slog, how can one be expected to reap the entire value?

Today, Polygon published a piece from Tristan Ettleman on the trends of low-income gamers:

I expected to find a robust multiplayer game at the core of every low-income gamer’s library. Industry trends, the “content galore” allure of multiplayer gameplay and my own experience led me to believe that sticking to a popular online game was the most cost-efficient way to maintain a passion for video games.

That’s not the case. Time is another resource that’s in short supply when you’re struggling to pay the bills, so shorter, story-based games become a big draw.

This is an interesting observation, and one that does not stop at the low-income gamer.

I recently purchased Dragon Age: Inquisition and Far Cry 4, both of which topped countless “Best of 2014″ lists. I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel tricked into playing side-quest after side-quest before fully comprehending the story and stakes. Even the controls and mechanics still felt foreign after hours and hours of play. I’ve given my two-cents about exploitative gameplay, and even though these lengthy AAA titles aren’t picking at my wallet every few minutes, they’ve certainly got me pissing away $60 for upwards of five hours of playtime before I’m tapped out. All for the allure of spectacular visuals, the promise of storytelling, and conversation amongst the gaming community.

Books are focused. Movies are focused. Music is focused. Most pre-GTAIII video games are focused. My job, my relationships, my life is/are not. Call it another “get off my lawn” moment, but I need some focus in my games.

All killer, no filler.

Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2: Here We Go!

Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2 was released on April 23, 2015. The addition of Animal Crossing’s Villager and Isabelle as well as Dry Bowser don’t do much for me. Likewise, new karts have never been something I glamour for, often selecting the standard kart for every race. (I dig classic!) However, the new Crossing and Bell cups include some of the most gorgeous video game visuals I have come across, Nintendo game or otherwise.

As I was racing through the new and original Wild Woods track, I was itching for Dry Bowser to hop out of his kart and explore. (I’ve experienced similar feelings racing through Shy Guy Falls, Dolphin Shoals, and Toad Harbor.) Likewise, the Animal Crossing track turns the traditionally isometric town into a truly inhabitable world.

A racing game feeling inhabitable speaks volumes.

A breathtaking “open-world” Legend of Zelda is a reality. Likewise, Nintendo has shown stellar execution of HD visuals in Mario Kart 8. This adds up to trigger a craving for the next iteration of 3D Mario games to be set in a seamless HD universe; freeing itself from stage selection and selective star quests and instead opting in for a connected Mushroom Kingdom.

This does not mean an “open-world” Mario game. I am no champion for open-world games. In fact, I often loathe them. I become distracted by side-quests and/or feel forced spend hours completing unnecessary tasks to progress the story or grow the game only to be forced to backtrack or fast-travel to previously completed areas. More and more I feel “open-world” means “lock-in”, encouraging players to invest obscene amounts of time in a single game to the point where they are afraid or ashamed to give it up.

I would love to see the next iteration of 3D Mario games open up into semi-open, adventure style platformers à la Jak and Daxter. No overworld. No stage select. No “painting portals”. Missions are discovered throughout the Mushroom Kingdom in lands akin to Thwomp Ruins, Cheep Cheep Beach, and Moo Moo Meadows, each gated by the traditional “star-requirement”.

I previously posted some thoughts on Iterative vs. Redesigned Experiences:

Super Mario 64 could have just as easily been another side-scroller, albeit with better visuals. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time could have been another top-down adventure. Donkey Kong 64 could have gone a number of pre-existing directions. Sure the Metroid series skipped the Nintendo 64 generation but Metroid Prime could have been another 2D platformer. The fact of the matter is that these titles reinvented their respective franchises. The worlds and characters we loved were shown in a new light and perspective. Sure, they are great games but they reinvented the way we thought about the franchises. This is what makes them so special.

More than just a great racing game, I believe Mario Kart 8 provides a glimpse at the future of the Mushroom Kingdom. Like Super Mario 64 dropped the “3D game design” mic, a fully connected Mushroom Kingdom could bring the 3D adventure-platformer back into the limelight and showcase exactly how it should have been done 15+ years ago.

Video

Thoughts on Star Wars Teaser #2

  1. I could have sworn they were pulling audio from Return of the Jedi. (Mark Hamill still sounds youthful.) Until Luke’s line: “You have that power, too.”
  2. And if this is truly new dialogue, Luke state’s that his ‘father has it.” Has. Not had.
  3. It’s fun to imagine Vader is still around, but whether it’s clever audio splicing or Luke referring to the omnipresent (Force ghost*) Anakin, I say Vader is dead and gone.
  4. Finn is a trepidatious Stormtrooper recruit. The chaotic stormtrooper battle scene affirms his worries and he chooses to leave the Empire (or equivalent faction). This is the first time we witness the weight of war and death on soldiers in the post-prequel films.**
  5. I need to figure out a way to be a part of this upcoming series of Disney Star Wars films.
  6. I hate zoom. (1:28)

—– 

* Thanks for the heads up to @AlexandreSitbon. The term was slipping my mind.

** Correction: Sad Ewok.

Campaign Season

Over the weekend, I had an interesting conversation with a relative. The conversation was not interesting so much as my reaction was interesting.

This relative asked what school I had gone to and I replied with the addition that I had majored in political science. Without hesitation, he responded, “let’s talk about politics.” My reply, “let’s not,” went in one ear and out the other.

To backtrack, I had become extremely passionate about politics during my senior year of high school. Over the course of my college career, I shied away from pursuing my innate passion to debate ethics, policy, and humanitarian issues. However, after many twists-and-turns, majors and minors, I found myself holding a BA in political science.

Back to the conversation.

Naturally, the it veered into Hillary Clinton’s announcement for the 2016 presidential bid. My relative’s qualm against her was that electing her as president “would put Bill back in the White House,” but “Bill was a good president.” My confusion began here.

Then my blood began to boil. I hadn’t felt this way in a long time. But I wouldn’t let it get the better of me. I was wiser than I was in high school and college. I had learned not to speak up when I didn’t know 110% of what I was talking about.

But I snapped.

After a few unproven assumptions about how things would pan out if she were president, I interrupted:

“If Hillary is elected, there are going to be folks that never let go of the email scandal. If Ted Cruz is elected, there are going to be folks that never let go of the fact that he was born in Canada. Just like the folks that wasted four years plus another four years questioning Obama’s birth certificate.

“Too much time is wasted. This shit doesn’t matter.”

It was quick, tame, and uneducated in the context of all things political. But even without all the answers and a well crafted strategy (of which I only ever had in school), I fought back; something I hadn’t done in years.

To be clear, I do believe that Hillary’s email scandal is a big deal. But under the context of my argument, it helped… maybe. I’m rusty. Cut me some slack.

In any case, the campaign season is upon us. Every four years, many “sports ball” tech nerds like myself get fired up during this time. It is a spectator sport we get interested in. And unlike fantasy sports, selecting your candidates and propositions actually affect real-life.

In the next week or so, my passion around campaign season will likely cool down. Like the baseball season, I’ll stay focused during opening week, putter out during mid-season, and ramp back up during the final third. But for once in quite some time, I feel fired up. And I like it.

He Would Not Work in Oils

Seth Godin on The Moment with Brian Koppelman:

If you think that you were born to paint in oils, or you were born to speak the truth about income inequality, or you were born— it’s just not true. If Vincent Van Gogh were born today, he would not work in oils. If Steve Jobs had been born 500 years ago, he would have done something else.

So what is the authentic version of Vincent Van Gogh? There isn’t one. What there is is someone who sought out a series of emotions that he could create for himself and gifts he could give other people through his work. And what I’m getting at is yes, we need to be consistent in honoring the truth of what we came to say.

But I also know that if I’d been born one block away from where I was born to different parents, or if I had been born in Yugoslavia, the fact that I’m here talking to you about these things would not have occurred. This is not the authentic expression of my DNA.

Excellent reminder.

José James on Discovering Miles Davis, Jazz

American jazz and hip-hop vocalist José James during a ‘Meet the Musician’ event at the Apple Store, Kurfürstendamm:

I couldn’t believe one artist had made 50 albums. I pull one out and I look at the back and it has four tracks on it and each track is 18-minutes long. I’m thinking, “I can’t listen to this. I want value.” I was looking for the one with twelve tracks on it.

So incredibly peculiar how we subscribe value. I too ran into the same quandary when experiencing Miles Davis for the first time. Then I thought back to listening to “The Decline” on repeat. And “2113” after that. And “Goodbye Sky Harbor” after that. And “Cicatriz E.S.P.” after that. And “Drop” after that. And “Chimera Obscurant” after that. And “Dauðalagið” after that.

Cumulative time does not equate to value. I’ll be damned if I couldn’t listen to “So What” on loop for the rest of my life.

David Benioff on Writing Fiction v. Screenplays

Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff on Aisha Tyler’s Girl On Guy podcast:

Writing dialogue. I love it. That’s the fun part for me. The hard part for me is writing the descriptions. There’s just something great about writing ‘INT. RESTAURANT. DAY/NIGHT’. A production designer’s going to figure that shit out. I don’t have to worry about it. I’m just going to write what the characters are saying.

I still love writing novels. Writing fiction to me… I still think of it as the highest form of writing, but it’s so fucking hard and it’s torture for me. I don’t have fun doing it. I have fun writing screenplays.

An extremely honest and reassuring quote. What aspiring writer doesn’t want to hear a quote like this from one of the co-creators of the most ambitious show on television?

Nintendo’s Trickle-Release of Retro Titles, Round 2

Sam Byford of The Verge on Nintendo’s trickle-release strategy for Virtual Console:

Here are some movies you can watch right now on Netflix without causing the value of film as a medium to implode: Raging BullFargoManhattanPulp FictionChinatownButch Cassidy and the Sundance KidAmélieTrainspottingApocalypse NowRocky. These are movies that a lot of people probably pay several dollars each for on iTunes (or, well, DVD) à la carte, yet their availability on Netflix doesn’t hurt their classic status. Nintendo has by far the most valuable back catalog and intellectual property in gaming; even if it only made its own titles available and ignored third parties completely, it’d have a vast library that a lot of people would be willing to pay monthly for.

Sure, some will pay the cost of a month of Netflix for Super Mario 64 this month. But what about next month? I can’t imagine Donkey Kong 64 or Paper Mario drawing similar revenue, but they’re exactly the kind of title people would dip into out of curiosity under a subscription model. In a world where EA is offering access to all but its newest current console games for just $30 a year, this doesn’t seem like the hardest of calls.

When Nintendo began trickling out retro titles for the Wii Virtual Console, I shared Byford’s strong aversion to the slow, methodical rollout of games that had been available on past consoles (and ROMs) for years. At the mention of Super Mario 64 coming to Wii U, and Wii titles before that, the aversion never surfaced.

That the comparison of video games to film is an “apples vs. oranges” debate. Consumption of classic movies takes markedly less time than consumption of classic video games. With little time to focus on a single game, let alone the plethora or titles released every week/month, it’s nice to put the brake on “the binge” with an unhurried drip. A subscription service would not only bombard players with a catalog as stress inducing as Netflix’s, it would also surely waste away subscribers dollars spent vs. content consumed.

Regarding price, for titles I love and want to re-experience, Donkey Kong 64 and Paper Mario being two of them, I am more than happy to shell out $9.99 ($2.00 if I’ve already purchased on Wii) to relive the experience. On the other hand, I see what Byford is getting at regarding titles I had never played. Many of these legacy DS games are going to be a hard sell for me, especially when pit up against some of my fondest memories.

The Oral History of Steve Barron’s TMNT

March 30, 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. In commemoration, The Hollywood Reporter rounded up several cast and crew members to recount the making of the highest grossing independent film at the time.

The Hollywood Reporter:

Gray: I always thought it would be interesting to have someone who was coming out of MTV videos to amp this up visually. To make it a little bit younger. Director Steve Barron was suggested to us. We looked at his reel. He had done all this great stuff with A-ha. He had done “Billie Jean” with Michael Jackson. He had a very good visual style.

Steve Barron, director: I didn’t want to do something that was bloody. I didn’t want to watch that film. Funnily enough, Batman came out at the same time. It was that sort of tone I was already aiming for. The films that I loved, there was a sense of humor but a sense of peril as well. Of real peril, of grounded peril. Like something that had repercussions for what you did but had a wonderful sense of fun with it. I was a big fan of Ghostbusters.

[…]

Eastman: For an independent film, it was beyond our wildest hopes. We liked the final movie and we hoped people would like it, and [the fact] it did as well as it did was fantastic. Of all the versions of Turtles that have been optioned over the past 30 years now — and certainly in the entertainment arena — the first movie stands out as our hands-down favorite version.

If Barron’s TMNT is not my favorite movie, it easily slides into my top 5. I just wish Street Fighter would have been as successful.

PS4 Adds Console Wide Button Remapping

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

The screen at the top of this story doesn’t look like much. It’s a simple interface that allows you to swap any one button on the Dual Shock 4 for any other button. It’s a screen that makes gaming a much better place.

“Console wide button remapping is a huge deal for physically impaired gamers. One of the most commonly requested accessibility adaptation AbleGamers receives is for custom controller’s that move buttons to more comfortable positions,” Steve Spohn, COO of the AbleGamers charity; told Polygon.

“If you have limited movement in one arm, only one functioning hand, or even limited digit movement, button positioning is everything. And even more so if you have a neuromuscular disease such as muscular dystrophy where you fatigue more easily depending on what buttons you need to press.”

The push for full customization in button mapping has been going on for years, and some companies are better than others when it comes to offering the feature. What Sony has done is make the conversation obsolete by offering the option at the console level. This is a huge deal for many gamers.