Announcing Y-Button

Today, I’m launching Y-Button: a podcast that asks why we care about video games.

Y-Button podcast cover art

Since my previous, short-lived video game podcast Ported went on hiatus in 2016, I’ve been ruminating on what would make a compelling video game podcast. (I’m not exactly sure why Scott Taylor and I stopped recording after only three episodes, but I’m sure we fall into some statistic.) Video games are space I care deeply about, but I’m not exactly sure why. I don’t play video games often, but the majority of media I consume — podcasts, news, documentaries — is video game related.

After seven years of asking myself why I care about video games, it dawned on me that maybe I should ask other people why they care about video games. (The realization hit me when I was listening to the Smartless episode with Rian Johnson and he and Will Arnett went on a tangent about games.)

Y-Button will feature interviews with journalists, enthusiasts, creators, and media personalities covering their origins with video games, why they care about the medium, and what excites them about the future. I’m starting with some friends and aquaintences, but the goal is to branch out to both well known industry insiders and celebrities you may not have known had a passion for video games. Dream guests include Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon, AOC, Chrissy Teigen, Sarah Bond, Reggie Fils-Aimé, Rian Johnson, and Will Arnett to name a few. If you know any of these folks, hook it up! (The late Lance Reddick was also a huge source of inspiration and would have been a great get. RIP.)

Publishing this podcast is a source of immense excitement and anxiety for me. Worst case, I’m very proud of the name and cover art. I spent two nights learning Blender to create the 3D rendered button — my first experience with 3D modeling. I also wrote the theme song featuring my friend Scott Wilkie on a Minimoog with the direction, “make it sound like Steve Winwood”.

I hope you listen, provide constructive feedback, and maybe even suggest or connect me with a guest you’d like to hear on the podcast. It’s available wherever you find your podcasts including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. You can find the RSS feed here.

Enjoy the show.

Gunpei Yokoi, Game Boy creator: Our competition has a color screen? 'Then we're fine'

An excerpt from the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein:

From a technological standpoint, even in 1989, the Game Boy was laughable. Yokoi’s team cut every corner. The Game Boy’s processor had been cutting edge in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, home consoles were in fierce competition over graphics quality. The Game Boy was an eyesore. It featured a total of four grayscale shades, displayed on a tiny screen that was tinted a greenish hue somewhere between mucus and old alfalfa. Graphics in fast lateral motion smeared across the screen. To top it off, the Game Boy had to compete with handheld consoles from Sega and Atari that were technologically superior in every way. And it destroyed them.

What its withered technology lacked, the Game Boy made up in user experience. It was cheap. It could fit in a large pocket. It was all but indestructible. If a drop cracked the screen—and it had to be a horrific drop—it kept on ticking. If it were left in a backpack that went in the washing machine, once it dried out it was ready to roll a few days later. Unlike its power-guzzling color competitors, it played for days (or weeks) on AA batteries. Old hardware was extremely familiar to developers inside and outside Nintendo, and with their creativity and speed unencumbered by learning new technology, they pumped out games as if they were early ancestors of iPhone app designers—Tetris, Super Mario Land, The Final Fantasy Legend, and a slew of sports games released in the first year were all smash hits. With simple technology, Yokoi’s team sidestepped the hardware arms race and drew the game programming community onto its team.

The Game Boy became the Sony Walkman of video gaming, forgoing top-of-the-line tech for portability and affordability. It sold 118.7 million units, far and away the bestselling console of the twentieth century. Not bad for the little company that was allowed to sell hanafuda.

Even though he was revered by then, Yokoi had to push and shove internally for his “lateral thinking with withered technology” concept to be approved for the Game Boy. “It was difficult to get Nintendo to understand,” he said later. Yokoi was convinced, though, that if users were drawn into the games, technological power would be an afterthought. “If you draw two circles on a blackboard, and say, ‘That’s a snowman,’ everyone who sees it will sense the white color of the snow,” he argued.

When the Game Boy was released, Yokoi’s colleague came to him “with a grim expression on his face,” Yokoi recalled, and reported that a competitor handheld had hit the market. Yokoi asked him if it had a color screen. The man said that it did. “Then we’re fine,” Yokoi replied.

Rewind My Heart

Maddy Myers, Polygon:

In 2023, it may sound absurd for Blockbuster to stage a comeback. But it should, and here’s why: Video game rentals. Although movies, TV, music, and even books have made the leap to digital subscription platforms with (relative) ease, video games haven’t been quite so lucky. Sure, Xbox Game Pass is great, and it’s only a matter of time before internet access becomes widespread enough that cloud gaming becomes a viable business concept (pour one out for Google Stadia). But we also live in a world where games suddenly become unavailable or delisted from online stores, like the impending Nintendo eShop situation.

I can’t see myself leaving the house to rent a video game, but I love the idea. I enjoy playing bits of games to get a feel for the mechanics, innovation, and splendor, largely because I want to stay in tune with the zeitgeist and the video game podcasts I listen to.

While digital video game demos remain a thing, they are hit or miss in terms of showcasing the actual game. Some demos provide an accurate taste for the game, even allowing players who purchase the game the opportunity to pick up where the demo leaves off (Dragon Quest XI), while others are poor examples of the true heart of a game (Kirby and the Forgotten Land).

The notion (and memory) of renting a game for a limited time to play as long as my heart desires, and progress as far as my time can muster, feels like an unappreciated lost love.

'Regret's a killer worse than death'

Jack Billings (Billy Crudup), Hello Tomorrow! (Apple TV+):

Explain this to me… we live with miracles at our finger tips. We fly to the stars. We split atoms. We’ve got robots taking out the trash. Why are we all still waiting to live our dreams?

Well, there’s a technical term for that in my business: That’s call a “shit deal”. Our best days: they’re piling up in the rearview. And that hope that keeps us going: it’s wearing down to the bone. Some of us are losing people we love. And just like that “any day now”, that turns into “too late”. Gone forever. Because every day that we’re not living for Now — Right Now — we’re waiting around dying. One empty promise at a time.

I’m not waiting around anymore, goddammit. Neither should you. The time is Now. And regret’s a killer worse than death.

Great writing that shook me out of a funk. Put it next to ”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

No Fail Mode

I advocated using Tunic’s No Fail Mode in ”My Favorite Things of 2022”. Here’s some neat detail about the feature from Wired’s “How Indie Studios Are Pioneering Accessible Game Design” by Grant Stoner:

Accessibility may seem daunting, but by listening to experts in the field and the lived experiences of players, it affords disabled individuals the opportunity to play some of this year’s best games, and by proxy, makes games better for everyone. In March, developer Andrew Shouldice launched Tunic, a game about an adorable little fox trying to solve a grand mystery. With exploration and puzzle mechanics harkening back to the original Legend of Zelda, mixed with Soulslike combat, Tunic offered quite the challenge, more so for those with disabilities. But rather than expect and force people to overcome potentially inaccessible barriers, Shouldice wanted everyone to play his game.

“It’s true that challenging combat is a core part of Tunic. However, including options like No Fail Mode does not ‘compromise the integrity’ of the game or anything like that,” Shouldice says. “Really early on, I thought it would be a challenge to incorporate that sort of setting into a game that uses difficulty to gate progress, but in the end, it was a very straightforward decision. The truth is that people who enjoy the combat challenges are just not going to use the option, and those who don’t want to engage with the combat will. In the end, the core of Tunic isn’t about exclusion based on whether you can press the buttons at the right time. It’s about being curious and willing to explore a world you don’t understand. Adding some options to let more people experience that part of the game was absolutely worth it.”

The creation of No Fail Mode did not detract from a central mechanic of Tunic: exploration. Players are actively encouraged to seek out the unknown and regularly return to visited areas with new items. Discovering alternate pathways and searching every nook and cranny of zones is what makes Tunic so enticing to play. Despite the success of No Fail Mode, the feature still needed fine tuning, and proved that accessibility is a continuous process, one that does not stop when a game is released.

“A few months before launch we set up a Discord for press folks to collaborate on puzzles prelaunch,” Shouldice says. “One reviewer got to the credits, having defeated the final boss using No Fail Mode. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they missed out on a big part of the game—you’re supposed to fail that fight in order to unlock the game’s next act. As a result, we added a special case, where even if you’re using No Fail Mode, you can die in that fight. Our rationale was that if someone turned on that option because they preferred the puzzlier aspects of the game, it made no sense to penalize them and lock off some of Tunic more intriguing late-game riddles.”

This is essentially the curb cut effect:

…the phenomenon of disability-friendly features being used and appreciated by a larger group than the people they were designed for.

I learned about the curb cut effect from The Besties episode ”Accessible Gaming with Steven Spohn”. I’ll likely post the excerpt of Spohn’s description of curb cutting and it’s effect on gaming soon, but it’s a must listen episode. And I recommend having a box of tissues handy.