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Jumping the Shark Podcast #120

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This week’s Jumping the Shark has a giant plateful of Witcher 2 discussion. What makes it and its world unique? How does the combat translate to the console? Why do these games continue to stuff trivial loot in every barrel and bookshelf? After that, Brandon and Bill talk Prey 2 and what all the rumors of cancellation and delay might mean for the game. This is, much to my chagrin, a second week in which I miss the show, this time because of a wonky Internet connection that wouldn’t let me stay online for more than about ten minutes at a go. Send all complaints to Comcast. They deserve them.

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Barnes May Cry…Over Modern Gaming

The most surprising thing about playing through Devil May Cry via the new HD remaster collection isn’t that I wound up absolutely loving it, having somehow never played it since it was released eleven years ago. It’s that the game made me terribly sad. Not because the barely-there narrative of Dante, Trish, and the awesomely named Mundus, but because it reminded me of how video games used to be before the industry began strip-mining and over-monetizing itself under the banners of DLC, preorder bonuses, and online passes. The classic Capcom title also recalls a time when game makers were working with technology that wasn’t really anywhere near approaching cinematic technique with any seriousness or effectiveness. Instead of employing quicktime events and prattling z-grade scriptwriting to tell stories, the thrust of the game’s narrative is almost completely in its gameplay, setting, and atmosphere.

Devil May Cry is definitely an old fashioned game, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. The save system is obnoxious and you’ve got to buy these stupid yellow orbs that look like some kind of gummy candy to continue without redoing the entire mission over. Voice acting and dramaturgy is the pits, but those were the par-for-course Achilles heel of Japanese design in the early 2000s. The camera angle is fixed despite it being a 3D action game, and this undoubtedly would chafe modern gamers used to panning and tilting a clumsy camera around a character. Locked doors requiring weird keys and simple adventure puzzles abound.

That makes sense because the game was originally conceived as a Resident Evil entry, and it looks, feels, and even sounds like a pre-RE4 franchise effort except that instead of Panzer Jill or Abrams Chris the character is free-moving, limber, and has an unlimited supply of bullets. The game predates Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden by a couple of years and Kamiya’s title lacks that sixth-gen masterpiece’s depth and variety. It’s a basic hack and slash game that exists somewhere halfway between Golden Axe and Bayonetta.

But all of the above doesn’t matter, because the game is a great example of how timeless, solid gameplay overrides technical limitations and dated or obsolete concepts. Control is great, the combat system is simple but laced with flourish, and exploring the castle is compelling. It’s not quite the great location that Arklay Mansion was in the first Resident Evil, but it has a similar sense of architecture and space. It’s expertly laid out, with every furnishing positioned with the precision of an expert propmaster. But boy, does Dante hates furniture- who knew that chairs contained so many red orbs. The set is left a shambles.

It’s a sub-ten hour game, but it’s the kind of thing that’s worth coming back to. Performance rankings are a powerful incentive to replay, as are secret areas and alternative paths within a relatively linear framework. The game is meant to be replayed at higher difficulty levels, and since the gameplay isn’t tied so specifically to narrative it doesn’t feel tedious to revisit completed missions. I love the structure- 23 fairly short missions, each with a specific goal. It’s almost casually bite-sized. You can either buckle down and burn through a string of missions or just do one in ten minutes or so. It’s almost a modern concept.

It surprised me that I was able to get into the game and without a sense of feeling like it must have been great for 2001. I feel like it’s great for 2012. I recently tried to play Ico and Shadow of the Colossus and although I appreciated both, I liked neither for exactly this reason- I felt like I had missed the point at which those games had the most impact.

But what I keep coming back to is how refreshing it was to play a game that was 100% complete without any DLC, marketing gimmicks, screechy “community” politics, controversy over endings, or other modern quibbles. It was also refreshing to play a game that was very clearly a video game and had no aspirations to multi-billion dollar sales and no ambition to compete with any other form of media. It also exists a million light years away from the pretentious indie attitude that video games can be revolutionized by rhapsodizing about how great the 8- and 16- bit generations were. Its bluster and attitude are now quaint, but Dante’s silly swagger and ridiculous anime look are still not redolent of the off-putting hyper-male, locker room machismo of many modern games. There’s a certain glam rock patina to the game that I just love.

It also reminds me of how much I really do like Japanese design and how much I miss that pervading sense of cross-cultural strangeness that games going back into the NES era often had. Goofy internal logic, nonsensical storylines, ludicrous incongruities. It made me miss the days when Japanese designers weren’t trying to emulate the West- and gamers wanted the quirk, strangeness, and charm more than they wanted AAA polish, blockbuster sheen, and Michael Bay wallop. At least Platinum Games still carries the torch. They remember.

Playing Devil May Cry for the first time circa 2012 was hardly a trip down memory lane for me. I had no nostalgia for it. I wasn’t frothing at the mouth that Dante’s hair isn’t white in the upcoming- and very awesome-looking DMC from Ninja Theory. I just wanted to play a good brawler with great gameplay regardless of its vintage. But by being reminded of how much has been lost in this console generation, I got more than I bargained for- depression!

Jumping the Shark Podcast #119

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I missed this week’s show and have yet to listen in, so the description for this week comes to you courtesy of Brandon: “No Todd this week but Michael Barnes joins us to talk about Lords of Waterdeep, the iPad as a board game device and the joy of Dark Souls. More importantly, The Straw takes the hosting reins, ushering in a new era of podcast history. He also talks a lot about The Witcher 2 on the 360.”

I am told Bill hosted this show. Be afraid. Be very f***ing afraid.

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Jumping the Shark Podcast #118

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With Bill and Brandon off traveling the world (sort of), their seats on this week’s Jumping the Shark are ably filled by fellow No High Scores comrades, Brian Rowe and Matt Thrower, who join Todd this week to talk about the challenge developers face in giving gamers the information they need to overcome challenges without letting it get too easy or frustratingly difficult. After that, the discussion turns towards topic of locking games to specific user accounts and what makes Steam different from the prospect of retail games being locked to a console or user for next-gen consoles. All that and more awaits you in episode 118!

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Pushed Around by the Industry

Bully - Indian burn on the playground

We had a lengthy discussion on this week’s Jumping the Shark about the next console generation and how Sony and Microsoft may use their next-gen hardware to clamp down the used game market by locking game purchases to specific consoles or user accounts. Don’t worry, this is not another diatribe over whether or not it’s okay for the used game market to exist. I’m on record as being fine with it. I don’t buy games used and I very rarely sell them back to a place like Gamestop, but I’ve no truck with the process. What I don’t particularly like, however, is just how brazenly the heavies in this industry are poking their fingers into my life and pocket book and justifying the action by insinuating I’m some sort of degenerate if I’d prefer to bargain hunt for the best value on my ever scarcer dollar.

These companies are waging a war with gamers right now and their weapons are $60 price points, season passes, day one DLC releases, mandatory online connections to play, etc. At the rate we’re going, to play games in 2028 you’ll have to have a publisher representative in the room with you while you play and you’ll be the one paying for his time.

EDIT: Per VRaptor117 in the comments section, this representative will henceforth be known as your friendly neighborhood In-house Fun-gineer.

Here’s the thing: When I’m not busy acting like a complete douche, I consider myself a decent enough bloke. (It’s okay. My grandmother is British so it’s only 70% phony for me to use their colloquialisms. Right, Matt?) I don’t steal my games, or my music, or my video. I pay for my books or get loaners from the library. Owing to this whole No High Scores project I do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do as a consumer, like buy games on release day and then buy day one DLC, because I feel obligated to write or talk here about whether or not said DLC feels like it’s supposed to be part of the game. The point is this: I do my part to support the work of the people making this stuff. So does the vast majority of other gamers. So as much as I am sympathetic to the need of developers and publishers to make money, I get really, really tired of these guys talking about their customers as if we’re the reason they’re not making enough of it to justify their obnoxious development and marketing budgets.

Hell, most of the time they’re devoting those sums to the types of games I couldn’t be less interested in anyway. Given that, the more they go out of their way to make the simple process of buying and playing their product a complete and total pain in the tookus, the more I don’t want to play their product at all. And, although it’s not here yet, the day is coming when I won’t.

I am, quite frankly, tired of being pushed around by this industry. I’m tired of characters in games sticking their hands out to me, in the game, telling me I should buy still more product to make the game I’ve already paid for better. I’m tired of paying for DLC and wondering the next time I load the game if I’ll still be able to pick up my save game should the publisher’s servers be down that day; because that never happens. I’m tired of seeing stories about how gamer X went in a forum and acted obnoxiously, only to have publisher Y disable access to games that person paid for and should be able to play offline. Now you’re telling me I’ve violated some sacred covenant because I want to lend my buddy my copy of Arkham Asylum so he can see if he likes it?

Here’s something the 37-year old me can say to a game maker, without a hint of reservation, that the 22-year old me would never have said: I don’t need to play your games. I love games. I’ve always loved games. But my life, and my ability to find contentment in it, is not tied to this business and that’s true of each and every gamer in existence, whether they know it or not. We do not need game publishers. We don’t need game developers. They need us. Maybe, just maybe, the loudest and whiniest among them should take a minute to consider that the next time they go off about how gamers are making it too hard for them to make gobs and gobs of money for their asshat shareholders.

What’s really interesting to me about all this, though, is that the more desperate these guys get to rake in every last possible cent to cover their outlandish budgets, the less interesting their games are getting. I played the first two Call of Duty games and had fun, but not even the move to a “modern” setting could interest me in playing another one, let alone the variety of me-too knock offs that come out every year trying to ape the formula. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the games I’ve heard about the past few months that have got me the most excited -your FTLs, Banner Sagas, and Wasteland 2s- are smaller projects for which larger publishers couldn’t be bothered to give a second thought.

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I have never been a big indie game guy, but that is where the spirit of not just innovation and variety, but also of basic fairness and balance, has gone. Michael Barnes wrote an excellent piece this week on how the best indie games today aren’t just retro affairs, but games that take the best of modern design sense and long-abandoned gameplay styles to produce something wholly unique. And guess what? They’re not charging $60 on one hand, while demanding constant access to your Internet connection with the other, and then holding back features for future DLC with some freakish third hand you didn’t even realize was there until it made a play for your pocket.

They don’t need to do these things because theirs is a much simpler equation: Put everything you’ve got into making something good, try your damndest to get people to notice, and, if you’re successful at both these things, make some money. It’s not an easy equation by any means, but it is a fair one, both for them and the people playing their games. And guess what? I’ve never spoken to an independent developer or someone working for a smaller dev outfit that wasn’t wholly appreciative of their customers. They have to be or they don’t stand a chance and they know it.

Publishers today make such big bets on their titles that they’re terrified of the uncertainty of a failure because any such failure could be catastrophic to the bottom line. I get that. But that’s the price you’re supposed to pay. Big reward is supposed to require big risk. But they want the big reward without the risk and instead of re-examining their flawed, budget-busting business models they’d rather rig the playing field under the deluded notion that the only obstacle between them and easily repeatable money-printing success are gamers who are getting too good of a deal off all their hard work. Talk about doubling-down on a terrible bet.

Now more than at any point in the last 30 years, gamers don’t have to play their games. There are plenty of other options and, if they keep trying to tighten their grip, they’re going to learn that lesson the hard way.