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The Wonderful 101 doesn’t work, or maybe I’m just old, but either way let’s talk about it

I picked up The Wonderful 101 on a whim yesterday for twenty bucks. That’s pretty cheap, especially for a flagship game on a beleaguered console that launched just a few months ago, but director Hideki Kamiya has kind of a reputation for releasing inspired, frenetic, highly tactile games that sometimes fail to attract an audience.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always loved Kamiya’s games. Bayonetta remains one of my favorite action games I’ve ever come across, and even the more-esoteric titles like Viewtiful Joe managed to charm me enough to see them through to the end credits. I like the guy’s work; I respect his directorial style.

But for whatever reason, I just can’t figure out what to do with Wonderful 101. It certainly isn’t lacking in style: the game’s practically bursting with cheesy aesthetic, from the heroic theme music to the exaggerated movements of the 101 would-be heroes you control.

But that last point — control — is where the game stumbles for me, and I frankly didn’t see it coming. Kamiya’s games have always lived and died on the fluidity of control — the enthralling sense of power that comes from feeling a deeply intuitive connection to your larger-than-life heroic avatar. Each of his games has succeeded largely on the strength and alacrity of the hero’s connection to the player. But something about the game — maybe just the sheer volume of things moving around? — is making it damn-near impossible for me to make a meaningful connection.

I’m cool with a solid challenge in a game. I expect to die a lot in any serious action game, and 101 hasn’t let me down there. But when I’m struggling just to make out the myriad moving pieces on the screen in order to understand who’s attacking what? That’s just frustrating.

I’m probably drifting perilously close into grumpy-old-dude territory here, so I’ll admit this might just be my own failing as the player. But for a game that was heavily promoted and featured a playable demo — a rarity these days — I’m starting to understand why it wasn’t a commercial hit.

It’s a great idea and a joy to look at. It’s just a shame I can’t figure out what it’s trying to do.

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Spitballing on Valve’s Steam Box Strategy

Valve announced its initial lineup of partners and prices for the first run of Steam Machines, an open-standards game console built on Linux that utilizes the existing Steam library and ecosystem. A lot of people are shaking their heads because the manufacturers and prices are largely not competitive with the latest consoles from Sony and Microsoft. I think those are valid observations, but they miss the bigger picture of what’s going on.

I think I’ve figured out Valve’s strategy in partnering with these companies on this range of prices at this point in time. It’s actually pretty brilliant.

Here’s my theory: If executed well at the manufacturing, product quality and retail levels, Steam Machines could topple the console industry and dramatically disrupt the future business plans of one or more members of the console triumvirate (Sony/MS/Nintendo) after this generation. If so, it’ll happen because of three things:
- extensive, rapidly growing games library
- a much more rapid strategy for reducing cost while improving performance (more on that below)
- massive player install base and extraordinarily active community support

As the proof-of-concept for a product that will take many shapes and sizes in time, it’s clear that Valve is trying to use 2014 to demonstrate the diversity afforded by the partnership approach. I don’t expect to see much Steam Machine market traction at all in 2014. However, over the next three years I think we’re going to see an exponential uptick for Steam Machines in two areas:
1) A race to the bottom in price-for-performance competition (great for consumers)
2) A much broader array of SKUs that stand out (from budget to high-performance)

Here’s why traditional consoles are in a particularly bad place for the long haul on this generation: With the investment in unique R&D, broad middleware/codec licensing and so on, consoles just can’t drop in price as fast as PC hardware does. We’ve seen this every generation — my mid-range late 2010 gaming PC outperformed my consoles from day 1 and continued to do so until the end of the seventh gen. As always, Sony and MS (and Nintendo) have invested too many years and too many company resources in designing their own ideal hardware, software and ecosystems, and they can’t price-drop aggressively as a result.

In short: It’s not just standardized hardware adding up to create the MSRP in a traditional console, but for Steam Machines, that’s effectively all it is since the OS and schematics are free and open. The big difference here is that SteamOS is designed to bring the fluidity and flexibility of PC gaming to the living room, and even the current Linux library has the PS4 and Xbone beat overall.

Steam Machines won’t make a splash this year, but they’ll plant a seed and make a dent. And if SteamOS is solid and if big-box retailers can figure out how to stock and display Steam Machines, I think we’ll be seeing a very different landscape in 24-36 months. I’d bet on it.

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ROOM OF 1000 SNAKES
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Want to Understand Games? Start by Understanding Comics

Did you know I studied art for years in college? I always talk about my journalism background because that’s what’s on my diploma, but I actually earned a minor in digital arts as well.

One of the earlier classes I took covered sequential art and featured excerpts from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I’d always meant to track down a copy of the full book, but it just…never happened, I guess? Honestly, at the time I wasn’t that big into comics — I didn’t discover Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen until I was into my twenties.

The idea to finally read Understanding Comics popped into my head a couple weeks ago when I was listening to a recent episode of Tone Control when host Steve Gaynor cited it as a valuable resource for thinking creatively in the language of games. And that’s when it clicked for me that, wait, comics and games do have a lot in common. Sold!

McCloud’s book isn’t just a history or a vertical slice through the medium of comics — it builds a framework for understanding the purpose, syntax, grammar and potential for an entire communication medium. It has a humble and somewhat goofy look to it, but its structure, framing and message are rock-solid. As someone who hasn’t read a whole lot of literature about understanding the form and function of a medium since my earliest mass-media survey classes, I found McCloud’s straightforward approach extremely gratifying.

If you’re interested in really getting to know a medium that’s still misunderstood and maligned by a big portion of society, I can’t recommend it enough. Or if you’re simply interested in game development, you’ll find plenty of ideas and things to consider when constructing your own mental framework of the vocabulary and grammar of communicating through the gaming medium.

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One of my favorite things about living and working in Austin for a few years was that there was always something culturally resonant, cutting-edge or otherwise awesome happening just around the corner.

Last year a couple of my friends and I took a very long lunch to go see Gabe Newell give a talk at the University of Texas. I remember leaving with an almost embarrassing amount of excitement brewing in me; here was a guy who got up on stage and flat-out answered questions about how Valve works and why it’s designed as a title-less, hierarchy-free organization — and also unquestionably the most transformative company in the entire games space in years. Hearing Newell explain in his own words not just how Valve works but why it’s structured in such a deliberate way was edifying. It reinforced my belief that a company that hires very carefully and seeks out multitalented people — and then makes it a priority to enable those people to realize their fullest potential — isn’t just the folly of a bunch of millennials with tawdry bachelor’s degrees.

Part of why I loved being at Facebook was that the company practiced what it preached. Social relationships are vital at a social network, and the only way to feel comfortable is to feel empowered to be yourself. Everything about working at Facebook is tailored to make that happen — there’s no dress code, goals are set in a very flexible (but still ambitious) manner, and managers are evaluated based on how well they enabled their reports to excel.

Valve takes this notion to its fully realized state. The company is flat; there is no hierarchy, no pressure to prepare reports and impress the right people. There’s just a hell of a lot of good people and a hell of a lot of trust that everyone else is doing their best to identify the business’s needs and to make sure they’re being met.

One thing I wrestle with a lot at this point in my career is: Do I want to find a place with values and working conditions like at a Valve or a Facebook where I can thrive personally and creatively? Or do I want to start a company that provides those opportunities for even more people? It’s a strange thing to mull over. I’ve never seen myself as an entrepreneur by any stretch of the imagination (not to conflate entrepreneurship with wanting to start a business).

But after having spent many years working at unremarkable or wholly unsatisfying jobs — and then working at a place that said “wait, no, that’s horrible, here’s how things really oughta be” — I’ve had this urge to find a way to build something that others could benefit from. I still believe I’ll go on to make some good games, but I don’t want to go it alone — and I have enough presence of mind to know that I’ll never be the best programmer, artist, musician, designer, producer, accountant, marketer or strategist out there.

But if I could find those people, appeal to their values, and give them a place they can stake ownership within in order to create something much greater? That’s a pretty appealing idea.

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My Top Ten Games of 2013

#10 - Tearaway (PS Vita) - A charming, incredibly inspired game that uses the Vita in brilliant ways. It’s a game that wouldn’t work on any other device.
#9 - Rogue Legacy (PC) - The punishing difficulty of a roguelike combined with the RPG/platforming fun of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
#8 - Pokémon X/Y (3DS) - The first Pokémon game I’ve played to completion since the original Blue version. It’s damn fun and takes a lot less time to finish than the old games, which is perfect for adults with adult things like jobs and stuff.
#7 - Pikmin 3 (Wii U) - Easily the best in the series, Pikmin’s kind of a weird real-time strategy/action game hybrid, which sounds strange, but it all just works. It makes great use of the Wii U’s tablet as well.
#6 - Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) - This is the best social/casual game I’ve ever seen, and it’s insane that nobody ever created something with this amount of polish, cleverness and ingenuity on Facebook. Brilliant writing and deceptively engaging social features made this the game I went back to the most frequently all year.
#5 - Device 6 (iOS) - It’s probably fair to call this an experimental game, but it’s actually just a really clever puzzle game told through text and images. If you have an iPad and a couple hours, you really need to play through this game.
#4 - Super Mario 3D World (Wii U) - I don’t know how these games still manage to be fresh and original after so many years, but they’re also still some of the most fun you can have with a game system. It’s also the first Mario game to make multiplayer actually fun instead of a hassle.
#3 - The Last of Us (PS3) - Naughty Dog has proved it’s capable of telling a fun story with incredible set-pieces with the Uncharted series, but The Last of Us goes into relatively uncharted territory for games: survival, ethics, and so on. Absolutely essential for anyone with a PS3.
#2 - The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS) - This is the best Zelda game since A Link to the Past. Seriously. It manages to breathe more creativity into the series than any game in decades, and the result is a game that both pays homage to a true classic while introducing enough new innovations to make it feel distinct.
#1 - Gone Home (PC/Mac) - This is probably barely even a game by some definitions, but there’s no way this story would have worked in any other medium — and it works really, really well. It’s a story that will resonate with anyone who remembers the ’90s, and it explores themes that are as relevant today as ever.

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Gearing up for 2014

I’m not the kind of person who makes new year’s resolutions, but I do have those moments every now and then where I’m staring off into space and realize it’s time to finally start doing something I’ve been meaning to do forever. So:

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION, KIND OF: In 2014 I will learn the hell out of Unity and release a game for sale before the end of the year.

This isn’t exactly a new idea; I’ve been regularly taking notes and planning potential “bug-out” plans where I drop everything in pursuit of indie game development for years. But this time it’s Facebook-official, so, y’know. There’s that.

One thing I’m gonna need for any serious 3D development is a system that can handle the overhead. I’ve already got a solid i5 CPU, but my graphics card and hard-drive speeds were lacking. As a secular-presents-day gift to myself, I picked up a couple of sweet upgrades:

My machine was mid-range by late-2010 standards. Now I’m comfortably in mid-range for 2014, and now I have no excuses.

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Recently I’ve been spending most of my free time learning more about game development — reading books, watching videos of lectures, and of course, listening to countless podcasts. Most fluctuate unpredictably between helpful insights and idle chatter, but Tone Control stands out for its singular focus on lengthy, intimate, in-depth conversations with veteran game designers.

Steve Gaynor’s one of the folks behind Gone Home, which is one of my favorite games in recent years. Now he’s doing a podcast where he chats with some of the best designers in the games industry, like Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin of The Walking Dead and Neil Druckmann of The Last of Us.

Gaynor’s a sharp guy with a knack for managing the flow of a conversation. I was thrilled to interview him a few months back, and I’ve really enjoyed the episodes of Tone Control that he’s put out so far. If you’re interested in some in-depth discussions between expert game designers, definitely give this show a spin.

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Here’s something worth watching: Steve Gaynor’s presentation on Gone Home at Reed College. An insightful talk about a groundbreaking game made right in Portland.

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"Movies and plays get much of their power from the resonances between the structural layers. The congruence between the theme, plot, setting and character layouts generates emotional power. Computer games will never have a significant theme level because the outcome is variable. The lack of theme alone will limit the storytelling power of computer games."

Hard to refute. Impossible to refute. Ladies and gentlemen, to hell with the marvellous power of storytelling. If the audience for science fiction wanted *storytelling*, they wouldn’t read goddamned *science fiction,* they’d read Harpers and Redbook and Argosy. Stories won’t save us. Stories won’t save *you.* […]

We’re not into science fiction because it’s *good literature,* we’re into it because it’s *weird*. Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal…A good science fiction story is something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes roaring out of the other side. Computer entertainment should not be more like movies, it shouldn’t be more like books, it should be more like computer entertainment, SO MUCH MORE LIKE COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT THAT IT RIPS THROUGH THE LIMITS AND IS SIMPLY IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE!

Don’t aim to be civilized. Don’t hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet. To hell with them; they put you here. You should fully realize what society has made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird and don’t do it halfway, put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it. […]

Those of you into SF may recognize the classic rhetoric of cyberpunk here. Alienated punks, picking up computers, menacing society…. That’s the cliched press story, but they miss the best half. Punk into cyber is interesting, but cyber into punk is way dread. I’m into technical people who attack pop culture. I’m into techies gone dingo, techies gone rogue — not street punks picking up any glittery junk that happens to be within their reach — but disciplined people, intelligent people, people with some technical skills and some rational thought, who can break out of the arid prison that this society sets for its engineers. People who are, and I quote, “dismayed by nearly every aspect of the world situation and aware on some nightmare level that the solutions to our problems will not come from the breed of dimwitted ad-men that we know as politicians.”

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— Bruce Sterling in his 1991 speech from the Computer Game Developers Conference