Writing About Talking: Jumping the Shark Podcast #62

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just another ho-hum week of Jumping the Shark this week. Except not really, because EA2D’s Soren Johnson joins us to talk about his latest project, Dragon Age: Legends. Woo! If you’re not familiar, Soren’s past credits include Spore and a little gem we’re fans of around here, called Civilization IV. We skipped the what we’ve been playing portion of the show this week to keep the dialog focused on Legends. In the process we also talk about the past and future of social gaming, the development challenges and perks of trying to make an actual game in an arena largely known for Farmville knock-offs, and maybe, just maybe, a little Civ IV chatter too…

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This week was a normal multitrack edit, which usually means you’ll get the best quality we can deliver. I hit a couple snags this time that I couldn’t work my way around, so if you hear a bit of a hum or a high-pitched whine that go in and out, my apologies. I did my best to get rid of that and through 95% of the show it’s not noticeable. The hum was very likely a PC fan that, for some reason, was much more prominent in the opening minutes of Soren’s track than it was later on. Hopefully you don’t even hear the high-pitched whine that comes in and out with some of Dani’s audio. Binky doesn’t hear it. Bill hears it, but only just barely. I think it’s finger-nails on a chalkboard, but then, I was wearing some fairly decent headphones. Let us know if you notice it as I’m curious.

As for the content this week, Soren’s an engaging guy to talk to and we’d very much like to have him back on in the future. Just an incredibly friendly and gracious person. As for his game, the thing that strikes me about Legends is that it really does work as a game. I don’t play other Facebook games, but it strikes me as a cut above the usual Farmville type stuff. No, it’s not like playing Origins or anything, but as a sit down and play for ten or fifteen minutes while waiting for spaghetti to cook kind of game, it’s pretty neat. You get your character, you march down a path to an encounter, recruit the characters of some of your buddies, and play out a turn-based battle. In between you build up a castle with rooms that help load you up with potions, equipment, etc. This stuff will, in turn, help you get through some of the tougher encounters. In some ways, I dig this dynamic better than the encounter system in DA2 because of how it integrates a lot of out of combat decisions with what you’re able to do and how effective you are in combat. I won’t be forking over real world dollars anytime soon, and I’d hardly skip playing DA2 to put 40 hours into Legends, but if you’re looking for a neatly-balanced game, that a couple times a day, you can throw a half hour at, Legends is well worth checking out.

Machinarium coming to PSN

Danielle reviewed this charming point and click adventure game on the PC in January of 2010 for GameShark. She loved it. So news of the game heading for the PSN is worth noting.

Also worth noting is that Microsoft turned down the company’s offer to move it to Xbox Live Arcade. What’s up with that?

“They weren’t interested because the game was already released for Mac and Windows, and Microsoft demanded it as part of an exclusivity deal.”

Oh, that’s what’s up. Nice. Anyway look for Machinarium “later this year.”

As seen on Casual Gaming

Star Wars: The Old Republic Jedi Progression

A new trailer is available for the upcoming Star Wars MMO from BioWare. This one shows some of the progression branches for the Jedi class; from humble beginnings to dual-wielding bad-assery. Worth a look.

The Dumbing Down of Street Fighter

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Eurogamer has an excellent interview with Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono regarding the perceived dumbing down of Street Fighter IV for the 3DS. I can tell you that the Lite control options, where combos are mapped to giant buttons on the touch screen, makes the game more accessible for newcomers but it doesn’t necessarily make it easier. I lasted maybe three fights on Medium and seven or eight on Easy before getting my ass handed to me. Pro tip, don’t miss on an Ultra Combo. The AI will punish you for it. Ono makes an excellent point about the Lite controls being a way to get people into the game that maybe would be turned off by something as brutally technical as a fighting game of Street Fighter’s caliber. Honestly, this is a situation where I don’t know why hardcore elitists would care. More Street Fighter is good for everyone and if you filter out the Lite control using folks when searching for battles, what do you care? The reality is that these games are expensive to make and catering to an increasingly exclusive base of hardcore fans ain’t gonna get it done. I wish I were just better at the game because it really is an impressive piece of software.

Has Street Fighter been dumbed down for 3DS? on Eurogamer.

Calendar Man – Week of 3/28

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Welcome to Calendar Man where I outline all of the games you can spend your hard earned cash on. This week has the release of a new handheld system, the newest entry in the PGA series, as well as new wrestling and NASCAR games. Something for everyone, provided everyone wants to race in a circle for five hours or hit a dude with a chair.

New Releases

By now, the 3DS has launched and hundreds of thousands of people are enjoying glasses free 3D, blurry vision and splitting headaches. Kidding! If you haven’t picked up a system yet, skip to the Deals section to see where 3DS games are on sale, or go to this page from earlier in the week, or, follow the following links to buy them from Amazon and save yourself trips to the store:

If you still have your DS, or want to try out the backwards compatibility on a movie tie in game for a flick about a wannabe Easter Bunny, Hop for the DS comes out this week. The movie looks amusing, but I thought the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie was downright hilarious, so perhaps I’m not a good judge of humor.

The PGA Tour juggernaut continues with the Masters taking front and center in this year’s spate of releases. I’m interested to see how the Playstation Move version fares against the Wii version as the Wii version of this game has been spectacular for two years running.

505 Games continues their DS tie-in game releases with Johnny Test for the DS. I’ve seen the show. It’s amusing, but it makes me think of Johnny Quest and that show was sooooo much better.

For all you wrasslin’ fans out there, THQ’s WWE All Stars releases this week on just about every platform including the PS2. The PS2! I didn’t know dev kits for that system were still floating around.

Koei let’s you get with both the hacking and the slashing this week with Dynasty Warriors. I’m always amazed at how well these games sell as they all seem the same to me. Then again, I’m buying Nintendogs again so maybe I’ll just be quiet now.

The Legend of Heroes series brings Trails in the Sky to North America for the first time with The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky for the PSP.

Parasite Eve fans rejoice! The The 3rd Birthday is upon you! I hope there’s cake, and gifts and balloons. What? Monsters? But, it’s a birthday party! Let’s hope the monsters bring cake.

If you want to get your race on, how about Shift 2 – Unleashed? As opposed to the original Shift which was leashed, this one is unleashed which means, what, I have no idea.

Should the unleashedness of Shift 2 not scratch your racing itch, how about a little NASCAR action?


Toys R Us – Buy one 3DS game, get one at 50% off, $39.99 games only. Free $10 Pay Per View cash towards WrestleMania XXVII with purchase of any WWE All Stars game.

Target – Wii Fit Plus Bundle plus the Biggest Loser (Wii) for $89. This includes Wii Fit Plus, the balance board and the Biggest Loser.

Best Buy – Free $10 gift card with purchase of any two 3DS games. Free $75 gift card with purchase of PS3 320GB Move bundle. Save $25 when buying two of the following Move games; Killzone 3, Playstation Move Heroes, the Fight Lights Out, Fit in Six. Free copy of Talledega Nights on DVD or Blu-Ray with any purchase of NASCAR 2011 on 360 or PS3. AC: Brotherhood , NBA 2K11 and Read Dead Redemption are $29.99. Epic Mickey and Michael Jackson the Experience for $34.99. Halo Reach for $39.99. Marvel vs Capcom 3, Dragon Age 2, Bulletstorm, Call of Duty: Black Ops for $49.99. Tangled for the Wii for $19.99. Free Best Buy $10 gift card with purchase of Country Dance on the Wii. Free copy of Just Dance Kids with purchase of Just Dance or Just Dance 2.

Kmart – Save $25 on a 3DS game with the purchase of a 3DS system. Save $10 on the following Kinect games: Game Party in Motion, Brunswick Pro Bowling, Fighters Uncaged, Sonic Free Riders, Motionsports Play for Real. PS3 Killzone 3 bundle and Killzone 2 for $299.99. Save $10 on the following PS3 games: Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2, Bulletstorm, Fight Night Champion. Save $10 on the following Wii games: Just Dance, Just Dance 2, Michael Jackson the Experience, Just Dance Kids. Free Pictionary or Dood’s Adventure uDraw game with purchase of uDraw tablet.

Steam – $15 off of Call of Duty: Black Ops, Neverwinter Nights 2 Platinum for $9.99 and other deals, all on the Steam specials page.

Impulse – Nothing jumps out at me on the Impulse sale page, but feel free to check it out for yourself.

Sunday Time Waster: So You Want to Write About Videogames?

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As someone who manages a game site, I get a lot of unsolicited writing samples sent my way. This is partly the case, I imagine, because GameShark actually pays its writing staff. We don’t pay a lot – but we do offer some compensation outside of a free game.

I’m writing this Sunday Time Waster because I have also received a surprising number of inquiries and unsolicited writing samples sent to my NHS email address. So, to celebrate the coming of spring even though it remains 28 degrees outside as I write this, I’m going to offer some friendly advice to everyone who fancies themselves a game critic.

Every manager is different but here are some Abner Guidelines on how to submit your work to an editor…

Rule #1

Don’t do that.

Don’t submit your work to an editor.

Sending in a blind, hope for the best writing sample is a tad presumptuous. An email inquiry is always the best way to approach this; introduce yourself, don’t come off like a stalker, and politely inquire if there are any openings. This is also a good opportunity to sell yourself. Even if you have never written for another game site, you need to make said editor at least curious to read your work.

“I love games!” isn’t going to cut it. I did receive one of those emails recently. and while I appreciate anyone’s love for games, well, my daughter loves games, too. She’s 10.

Rule #2

Do your homework.

I see so many people screw this up and it’s bad form. When you do eventually submit an article to an editor you need to do some research on the website.

Follow THEIR format – not yours. (And for god’s sake don’t use another website’s format.)

Does the site publish reviews in 1st person? 2nd? Every site is different. I’ve written for magazines that refused to allow writers to use the word “I” in a review. So…do your homework. It helps. Whatever you do don’t switch them around.

This is what I mean: http://classweb.gmu.edu/WAC/somguide/123person.htm

Along these same lines you have to watch tense. Switching from past to present and then moving to future is annoying and all too common. Find out how the site functions and live there.

How are the articles formatted? What’s the tone of the site? Does the site have any intro doo dads to its reviews? (Like GameShark’s What’s hot/not stuff). How long (in words) are the reviews? 700 words? 2,000?

Taking the time to show the editor that you want to write for THEIR site specifically can go a long way if there’s limited room on the freelance staff and it comes down to the person who took that extra time and the one who simply sent in a generic article.

Rule #3

Stay in your wheelhouse.

This is your chance to show the editor what you can do, so pick a game that you know like the back of your hand. Contrary to what some think, it doesn’t have to even be a brand new release. A good editor will look at the way you lay out your criticisms and not just that you reviewed the current ‘hot’ game. Don’t be afraid to tell the editor, “I don’t do shooters.” (Or whatever) You will make their job much easier if they know what you can and can’t do. There’s no shame in being unfamiliar/hating a particular genre.

In addition to this, you need to realize that editors read samples all the time. Why should they care about yours? When you are done writing your article, and let’s just assume it’s a sample review even though sending in other forms of game writing is a good idea too, you should feel like yours is the definitive review of that game. This doesn’t mean it needs to be 1,500 words long and cover every piece of minutia but at the end of the day the editor needs to feel like your review was not only well written but that your criticism and observations were special because frankly, if you write a generic review you will be looked upon as a generic writer.

And that’s usually a one way ticket to the “thanks for playing” folder.

Rule #4

Send a document and not a link.

Don’t make the editor go to another website if you have work published elsewhere.

(I learned this lesson the hard way back when I was freelancing. Sorry Jeff Green. Really man…my bad.)

It also doesn’t hurt to attach a resume. You are applying for a job—act like it.

Rule #5

Misspellings are instant killers.

Running ‘spell check’ isn’t enough. If you misspell a word or use weird grammar in your sample you have effectively wasted everyone’s time. Also, please, know the difference between its and it’s.

Rule #6

Stay tight.

Reviews should be lean, mean, fighting machines. (There’s never a bad time for a Stripes reference.)

Do not waste words. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of experience to be able to write an effective ‘long’ review. Most people will, quite simply, tune you out if you begin to ramble.

A very effective tool that you can use is to take the game you are using as your submission piece and write the review using no more than 100 words. Not 104 words. 100 words or less.

It’s a bitch, but it’s a fantastic teaching tool which forces you to cut out the bullshit. You can always go back and use all of the pretty adjectives you can think of to describe how neat-o a game’s graphics are after you finish but you should be able to convey your thoughts and get to the meat of your criticism on any game in 100 words.

This is harder than you think. This isn’t even criticism but have you ever thought about the TV show descriptions you read when you are channel surfing? Try using 35 words to describe the movie or TV show you just watched. Tough, eh? It’s like Twitter, but useful.

The point is that if you can make your reviews razor sharp and make every sentence count for something the editor will certainly notice it, whether they agree with your opinion on a game or not should be irrelevant if the editor has a clue. If you submit an article and the editor replies with “You didn’t like Game X!?” Chances are you don’t want to work there anyway.

Rule #7

You can always resort to just plain bribery.

(I like a good Riesling and Gevalia Coffee.)

OK enough of that. Let’s get to the good stuff and that’s announcing the winner of the Homefront Steam code contest!

After spinning the Wheel of Contest Destiny the winner of the code is:


I’ll be sending RorinRune an email shortly which guarantees lifetime loyalty to No High Scores.

Thanks for entering and we’ll have another giveaway soon.

Game of Thrones RPG In the Works

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French site FactorNews is reporting that Cyanide isn’t working on just a Game of Thrones RTS but also a Game of Thrones RPG. That’s a lot of Westeros themed acronyms. The story follows alongside the events of the books, first being told from the viewpoint of a Night Watch brother up on The Wall and then switching to that of a Red Priest who is returning from a 15 year exile. The plot and characters were created with cooperation from the creators of Westeros.org, and Cyanide went to so far as to sit down with Martin himself to present the premise. It sounds interesting however as I’m pretty sure Dance of Dragons will ever come out (summer release date, my butt), this Ice and Fire skepticism tends to permeate all other properties as well.

Seen at Joystiq.

Second Expansion for Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition Announced

Well, this came out of nowhere.

Today, Fantasy Flight Games announced a rather unexpected expansion for one of its flagship titles, the six-year-old Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition. It’s called “Shards of the Throne”, and according to the announcement page it’s bringing a lot of new material to the already content-packed game- perhaps as much as Shattered Empire, the previous game-changing expansion from 2007, did. Three new races, race-specific technologies, mech units, mercenary pilots, more planets and most intriguing of all, some advanced political/diplomatic elements including representatives, promissory notes, and assassins.

For those unaware, Twilight Imperium is about as close to a Master of Orion/Galactic Civilizations board game as you’ll find. It’s pure 4x gameplay. Yes, it is complex, long, and cumbersome. But it’s also unquestionably epic, massive, and for its biggest fans it’s practically a way of life. For some groups (like mine), it’s a notoriously difficult game to get to the table due to the sheer logistics involved with it, but it is a truly great experience and it’s definitely an event every time. FFG releases a lot of garbage expansions these days, but I’m definitely on board for this one- even if we only play it once or twice a year.

Hey, want to win a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (360)?

There’s an easy giveaway going on at the Gameshark Facebook page. The winner takes home a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for the 360. All you’ve got to do is like the page, and for there to be at least 650 likes by Monday (there’s 577 now). The page is also a good way to keep with the NoHS crew’s paid(-ish) gigs.

I loved Lords of Shadow, so I can vouch for the game. I thought it was second only to Bayonetta as the best beat ‘em up of 2010 and if you’re an open-minded Castlevania fan that might favor a more Western approach to the franchise’s core values, then I think you’ll like it too. So have at it- free great game, there’s your mandate.

Dragon Age II in Review- Part 2

It’s 3:14 AM. I just finished Dragon Age II. I’m exhausted, exhilarated, and I still don’t know if I made the right decision in letting my former best friend and closest ally walk away from being responsible for committing a heinous act that has directly precipitated a bloody conflict. I had spent the better part of the game trying to circumvent a particularly nasty clash of ideologies, playing both sides but ultimately siding with family and friends despite the game’s repeated attempts through its plot to convince me otherwise. So begins the last part of my look at Bioware’s latest and most divisive title since Jade Empire, and for those of you who haven’t played I’m keeping this spoiler-free so that I can have a last shot at convincing you to play this outstanding game.

Prior to the end-of-game events that I can’t help but view as ultimately tragic and as a failure of compromise, I saw and did a lot over the course of my forty-odd hours with the game. My Hawke killed a High Dragon and at least fifty of her dragonlings in an epic battle that must have lasted thirty minutes. He had an ill-advised but irresistible one night stand with Isabela, the almost parodic piratess. He helped an angry, hateful elf get over himself and pissed off a prince-in-exile who was mighty handy with a bow. I owned a mine, smuggled, and investigated a haunted house. He fought against filthy slavers at every opportunity and tried to be a good man, even if sometimes that didn’t pan out. Hawke also had a strained, awkward romance with a Dalish blood mage that never seemed quite meant to be, and by the end of the game I deeply regretted not pursuing Aveline’s affections.

He killed lots and lots of men, dwarves, elves, and Qunari and I’m not quite sure that at least half of them had to die to achieve our goals. But it seems that, as in real life, some of our battles are predestined, not selected. The events of the last part of the game left me wondering how much I could have actually changed through different choices and paths through the game and how variable the outcomes actually are. I know many will complete game multiple times to see every possibility, but I find that wondering what might have been is more interesting- and possibly less disappointing.

The final act ended with a boss fight that would have made Ray Harryhausen proud. Although it was definitely a cool, over-the-top finale, I found myself all through the third act wishing that there wouldn’t be a boss fight of any kind at the end. I had hoped that it would all end in discussion and debate with Hawke making decisions that would cement the future of Kirkwall and its inhabitants. But it seems some video game traditions aren’t quite ready to be upturned. Likewise, the last act relied far too heavily on the old “fight through hordes of foes” endgame trope, just as the game’s predecessor had. In a game where politics, intrigue, characterization, and dialogue are more compelling than swordplay, it gets to the point where the fighting just becomes pointlessly grueling.

Despite rolling my eyes at having to slaughter another fifty or so bad guys, the last half of the game mostly did not disappoint despite uneven pacing. Some events felt rushed and strangely incomplete, while 11th-hour busywork quests bogged down the horse race to the end and I have to admit that I left three quests, including two collection ones, unfinished. Sorry kidnapped lady, the fate of the city is at hand and suddenly your plight isn’t a big deal. Regardless, I think the third act had some truly amazing sequences culminating in decisions that make the concept of “moralty choices” in other games look about as deep as Rebecca Black choosing where to sit in the car.

For me the defining moment of this entire game was at the end when it was time to make a critical choice that I wasn’t sure that my longtime friend Aveline would side with. A paragon of the Lawful Good archetype and staunch law-woman, she had been with me and disapproved many times of actions we took. But when it came down to the most important decision in the game, she unconditionally pledged her support. It felt like more than just a function of where her friendship/rivalry slider was at, which is certainly the mechanical man-behind-the-curtain. It was emotional, resonant, and meaningful in ways that few video games can achieve. I welled up, a little.

Some of the story beats in latter half of the game I thought were just devastating. One in particular found Hawke implicated in wrongdoing against his will (at least in my game), and the excellent voice acting conveyed this heart-wrenching sense of betrayal and emptiness. I found myself carefully considering each major decision- even when the game was literally throwing them at me in every other spoken sentence. There were only one or two times where my selected response resulted in Hawke doing or saying something I didn’t intend- a definite improvement over the Mass Effect games’ sometimes inaccurate precise.

There were some silly moments too, as that old specter of blood magic (the Thedas equivalent of WMDs, in a sense) reared its head one too many times. Worse, the worn-out trope of the surprise bodily transfiguration of the villain was deployed once too often. I’m no longer shocked or surprised when a character explodes into a mass of malevolent tentacles or turns into a demon. I don’t think anyone is at this point.

I was disappointed as well to find that Flemeth, who made such a grand entrance at the beginning of the game, never returned. Unless there was something that I missed in my playthrough, she’s never heard from again except in a couple of passing remarks. It could be that Bioware has larger plans for her in an overarching story, but for the purposes of Dragon Age II she really just sets events into motion. So if her made-over appearance bugged you, it shouldn’t affect the remainder of the game.

Fleeting Flemeth aside, I was pleased to see some old friends from the first game return, including a pair of characters that appear to be the series’ analog to C3PO and R2D2. There is one late game cameo in particular that I thought was just awesome and totally unexpected. I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see a DLC mini-chapter based on this character’s appearance in the game. It could be a good one.

There are plenty of loose threads aside beyond whatever happened to the Witch of the Wilds (or her grandchild, for that matter). The purpose behind the Chantry Seeker’s interrogation of Varric is never made clear, and the framing narrative is left anemically untended in the end. My ending, at least, was too much of one of those “and then the hero left” kind of things and there is a mention that one of the characters stayed on with Hawke but there wasn’t really a reason as far as I could tell. One of the returning Origins characters is hinted at moving on to big things in Orlais, but at the end it’s unclear what direction that might take. And then there’s the whole issue of what the events at Kirkwall mean for the rest of Thedas. There are two ways the story can go, and I can not imagine how the writers of the third game could possibly craft a game that incorporates both sweeping outcomes. I hope it’s not one of those situations that bedevils series television, where the writers have written themselves into a corner.

Reflecting on the game as it passes from currency, it’s hard to miss the things that are wrong with it but almost every negative point seems to go right back to the game being rushed and not nearly as labored-over as its predecessor or other past Bioware titles have felt. All the lore, all the atmosphere, and all the great writing is there no doubt but perfunctory elements like the canned dungeons, some lazily cliched resolutions, and some abbreviated story threads reflect a shorter development schedule. As for the streamlining and mechanical changes, I think it’s a near-total success although it cuts it all very close to “too much” in some functional areas.

Ultimately, my response to Dragon Age II is an emotional one. This game made me feel, and when I’m feeling I’m not so worried about the flurry of numbers that Hawke is beating out of a Shade, tactical views, who’s wearing what armor, and whether or not injuries have specific descriptions. Characters, story, and narrative rule the day, and to this end it is truly an epic of both events and relationships, although often on unexpected scales. The things that truly make a Bioware title great are absolutely present in this game and I think there is definitely an argument that could be made that this is the company’s most resonant, sophisticated, and best-written game to date.