Archive for February, 2012

Hang that game on the wall. Next to the Picasso, dear.

February 20th, 2012 1 comment

I have long held that games are a new art form, but only very slowly gaining the acclaim that they are due. For too long, people have derided games as mere toys or diversions, unworthy of the status of being art. After all, since kids play these things, they can’t be legitimate works of art. They’re just things to keep us entertained for a little bit, and then they go away. But Psychonauts, if you’ll pardon the pun, has stuck itself in my brain, and will undoubtedly influence the tabletop games I run from here on out.

It’s been 7 years since the game was released, and I had always heard it was revolutionary, but no one could tell me why exactly. It was simply, “You have to play this,” from all corners of the internet. Then, Yahtzee came along with his review, and I was suddenly more intrigued. With all the attention on Double Fine because of their Kickstarter drive giving me the last push, I went on Steam and picked it up.

And I could not put it down. This is a game whose story is genuinely original and funny, a call to the days of old when humor meant more to a game than body count. It’s also profoundly moving. All of the characters are well detailed, because you have to help almost all of them with their psychological problems. There has to be literal depth there, as you go spelunking through their unconsciousnesses. If the characters don’t have story, then they don’t have problems for you to solve. Additionally, it ties in beautifully to the exploring element championed by Psychonauts; if you want to get more powerful, you have to achieve objectives within the “mindscapes” of the characters that involve uncovering their secrets and helping them with their (literal) mental baggage. As people hide their shame deep within their consciousness until it becomes a part of them, so too do the characters who you have to help. Secrets become things to search out and fight, or organize. Baggage becomes things to pick up and reunite. Every character has some secret, some shame, some hidden pain that you have to work out, or else you don’t progress. It is this depth that is truly refreshing in a game; I grew fond of every character, even the antagonist, though I have to say that the turning point for me was getting the achievement “I’m Sure She’s Over It”. I won’t spoil it for you, but she’s not. She’s just covering.

That’s what makes the game amazing. Its platforming blends into its story and back again. Because I took the time to explore, I found out a whole new level of depth to a major character. It changed my understanding of her interactions with everyone else in the story, and it is this level of seriousness and complexity which defines art.

When you can make a game go (ahem) levels deeper, and to change the way its players think, you cannot simply dismiss it as meaningless entertainment, devoid of any value other than wasting time. You have to give it more credit than that.

Buy Psychonauts. Play it, as it’s relatively short at 8-10 hours. Enjoy it.

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How Fine? Double Fine

February 11th, 2012 2 comments

Double Fine’s unprecedented success with its Kickstarter donation drive to produce a new game begs a question: Can this be a sustainable business model for the future of gaming? Before we tackle that weighty question, let’s start with some facts and observations, and wend our way from there.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Double Fine Productions, lead by Tim Schafer, decided that they wanted to start a new game. It is what they do, being a game production company after all, but still, they felt the itch. The being said, the problem with most independent developers (and Double Fine is one of the largest), is their inability to gain the financing necessary to produce their games. Many games that do get developed by indie teams are just labors of love, and any compensation for them comes at the end of the process, if it comes at all. Many actually just die on the operating table, and never see the light of day. Their producers are small 2-3 man teams, who need jobs to pay the bills. They can’t afford keep working all night in their garages, as they’ve got to get sleep at some point. The costs involved (the technology, the staff, the office space, and the energy requirements to name a few) in producing games like Call of Duty, Madden NFL, and Assassin’s Creed is the reason that Activision, EA, and Ubisoft exist at all.

So Tim decided he wanted to cut out the middle man. Enter Kickstarter. A website that accrues donations for creative projects, Tim decided to set up a drive there to see if he could get his game financed. He wanted $300,000 to fund it, and an extra $100,000 to film it.

He got that much in 8 hours. People didn’t stop. Currently, it’s at $1,521,422. For those of you busting out your calculators, that’s 3.7 times as much as he asked for. With 31 days left to go.

Unless something catastrophic happens, it’s easy to predict that this game will be a success. The talent is there, and so is the money. Gobs and gobs of money. But is this a sustainable business scheme for the future? That’s a little trickier to speculate on.

The buzz for this product may have really started when Notch tweeted “Let’s make this happen.” He was specifically talking about Psychonauts 2, but the internet noticed, and maybe Tim did too. It’s tough to say without interviewing him when exactly he got the idea to go to Kickstarter. It’s also tough to say if anyone else could have had the success in using Kickstarter that Tim Schafer has. He has the luxury of a great intro video, an impressive gaming resumé, and an amazing team. Though the games page on Kickstarter is full of projects that have been funded successfully, it’s tough to use that as a gauge to see the projects that have failed to be adequately funded, because they just don’t show up. However, there are plenty of games and other projects on Kickstarter that don’t have Tim Schafer behind them, and they get funded just fine.

But I think it’s the beginning of a new era, certainly. As with book publishing, game publishing is being… well not crowd sourced exactly, but definitely crowd financed. The major limiting factors for the creation for books and games have been money and avenues for distribution. But these walls are being torn down in this digital age. Distribution platforms such as Valve’s Steam, Amazon’s Kindle Store, and Apple’s iTunes, the bars for both the cost to produce these goods and the ability to spread them are being lowered substantially. Anyone with a computer can create something and spread it as they like. The real limiter then becomes, as it always should be, quality. The things that do well should be intrinsically more valuable than those that don’t. Because anyone can make anything, the good things will naturally rise to the top as more people examine, use, and play these games. The ones that are worth it will be talked about and shared, and the ones that aren’t will be forgotten.

As gamers, I think we should promote these trends for two reasons:

1. Encouraging the distribution of games increases their popularity be definition, giving us a broader and healthier community.

2. Having more options to pick from in terms of games gives us stronger games, and lets the medium develop as a true art form.

I realize that not everyone can afford to pitch in to the projects they would like to. Times are tough, and money’s always been tight for a lot of friends of mine. That being said, if you can’t contribute monetarily, please spread the word. These kinds of things need to be endorsed, for the good of both our hobby and community. And if you’ve got the time, and the inclination, then do so yourself. Get on Kickstarter, grab some friends, get out there, and make something. Do us all proud.

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The Revolution Will Be Livestreamed

February 5th, 2012 1 comment

Introduced in late October, SOPA (the “Stop Online Piracy Act”) was hailed as a reasonable, intelligent bill, carefully crafted to stop online piracy. This praise came from people who had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

Piracy is a problem, but the way to deal with it probably isn’t more legislation, especially legislation as Orwellian as the SOPA bill was. This is not actually a philosophical argument, but one with practical examples. Authors, artists, and producers think that the best way to deal with piracy is treating it not as a crime but as a measure of acceptable loss. Other governments have thrown studies at the problem, and concluded that piracy may not impact the bottom line of artists in a meaningful way. If you’re more well known as a musician because your songs get shared around, your revenues actually tend to be higher.

So why does the American government believe that artists need to be protected thus? Several artists themselves have complained about the takedown of Megaupload, and the very fact that it happened suggests two things. First, that the real agenda is not the protection of artists or the integrity of their work, as the RIAA and the MPAA have claimed. Second, that legislation such as SOPA is in fact unecessary, as Megaupload was taken down despite the law being shelved. If the artists don’t want it, and the feds don’t need it, why are laws such as SOPA still being discussed?

SOPA may be shelved, but it’s being rexamined in several forms. The most prevalent one is a international agreement called ACTA, or the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Drafted principally by the United States, this abysmal excuse for a document proposes a wide variety of methods by which copyright holders may retain the integrity of their goods on the internet, methods such as criminal prosecution on people with no probable cause, and vastly overcosted civil trials where the defendants may owing wind up many times more than the market value of the goods pirated.

The fact seems to be that while the aim of these treaties and laws may be in the right spot, it’s like trying to hit a target with a nuke. I’ve seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s nuclear museums, so let me assure you, that is not hyperbole. The force of these pieces of legislation is such so as to break and destroy the system currently, and make sure that nothing grows again. The common user will be unable to even think of trying filesharing or BitTorrent, and just accept the methods presented to them as the only real, viable solutions.

And yet, that has never been how the internet’s worked. The internet, being a method of communication and information sharing perhaps at its purest form, relies on groundbreakers and pioneers. The people who built the internet, and who continue to shape it, are those people who can see beyond today, and beyond tomorrow. They are the ones who will innovate, and change, and revolutionize. And they will get around SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and anything else like it. What these bills do is choke people who use the internet “casually”. I put that in quotes because the internet can do amazing things, and to suggest that things like sharing art or talking with your friend halfway across the world are casual is somewhat demeaning, but the point I’m trying to make is that this will do so much more harm to people who aren’t the culprits as to make me shudder.

So what can we do? Even though SOPA induced a massive backlash, it still enjoyed debate for far too long. Similarly, Lamar Smith is not done with his internet legislation, and ACTA continues to fly relatively under the radar. It seems that every time the internet gains some ground, we are once again under sttack by forces that would cripple or destroy it.

Above all, we must keep fighting. If this is a battle, and we are encountering fatigue, then we should rest, and ask our brothers to watch our posts for a while we can recuperate. And then, we have to pick up our arms again. We have to spread the world that our liberities are under attack, and be ready to guard them. We have to tell our friends that they need to once again summon up their strength and go to the line, to defend the internet from people who have no idea how it works. We have to call our Congresspeople and our Representatives, and tell them, in one clear voice, “No.”

And we do this until we win.

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