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Brakketology Waxes Nostalgic

SteamBox

I was innocently strolling through my Feedly feeds a couple days ago, window shopping for things that looked interesting –things that would justify my desire to not have to, you know, be productive– when I ran across a reference to Vale having taken the wraps off their internally-developed Steam box. And then another. And then another. These are, of course, signs that an embargo just lifted.

I can name the number of times I’ve been invited to go behind the scenes to get an early look at something and then write free PR about it. It was always a fun experience just because you got to actually see stuff that only a small group is privileged to see and you got to meet people in the business (almost universally great people) that you would never ever get to meet in any other situation. Getting to sit down and have a casual conversation with someone like Fred Wester (Paradox Sofware) or a Mike Laidlaw (Bioware)? That’s awesome. Getting home and realizing you now have to try and write something unique about an experience that was exactly the same for a dozen other people who saw the same thing and are also about to write about it? Blech. Waking up and seeing them all online at the same time and then coming across the one or two utterly brilliant iterations that aren’t yours and make you feel bad about yourself as a writer? Vomit.

This is all to say that while I miss getting to have some of those experiences, I absolutely do not miss the sheer pointlessness of the work involved. It’s much better to look from afar and call attention to the stuff worthy of your attention. Which I’ll do right now…

All hands on Steam’s box. (Yes, I’m ashamed of myself for typing that.) Of the 90 kajillion pieces on the SteamBox, Sean Hollister’s write-up at The Verge deserves your lov’n eyeballs. In particular, it’s got some fascinating details on the evolution of the controller:

Originally, Valve wanted to revolutionize PC input, but it soon realized it needed to focus on a much more fundamental goal: simply getting the library of existing Steam games to work with a new controller. To do that, the company needed a way to make many PC gaming functions possible on a controller without the 104 keys a keyboard affords. Early on, the team decided to go with a touchscreen that could virtualize those keys instead of adding more buttons. “For all of Valve’s existence, we’ve been a software company, and we wanted as much as possible to have control over the input experience through software,” Coomer explains.

Then, the team decided they wanted the same kind of control over the trackball… but that proved impossible. “You can’t ship a software update to change the diameter of the ball or the mass or anything.”

From there, design evolved organically. The trackball made way for a trackpad, which could be programmed not just to emulate a mouse, but also support gesture control. One trackpad became two (and two became a giant touch surface before Valve came to its senses). Valve added tiny solenoid actuators to provide haptic feedback. The entire shape of the controller went concave so the fleshy base of a user’s thumbs wouldn’t interfere with the touchpads.

That’s a huge chunk of text, more than I’m usually comfortable quoting, but there’s a ton more at the link.

Chris Kohler’s piece at Wired is also particularly good.

And while we’re on a Steam info-orgy, there’s evidence online to suggest that they may be working on allowing Steam to function indefinitely offline, instead of just for a couple weeks. That’d be nice… if it ever actually happens.

Those other consoles. Before Valve released everyone and their brother to write everything they wanted them to about SteamBox, the issue of the day had been all about the PS4 and Xbox One’s ability to work as media servers. Sony took the first lump when they put out their FAQ, which mostly listed things the console can’t do; things they’d somehow managed to not talk about yet. This was entirely predictable. Still, the lack of DNLA support (for streaming audio/video from a networked PC) was shocking, given that the PS3 has it and its one of the console’s more redeeming features. Ben Kuchera has been killing them over it at Penny Arcade Report, culminating in this post about why having easy access to your music should matter to gamers:

Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 used compatibility with your existing media as a selling point, and offered a variety of ways to use that content or to bring it into your gaming experience.

This is a hell of a thing to lose, and if a multiplatform release comes out that supports custom playlists on one console but not the other, that’s a serious selling point for many gamers. You can also forget about games like Audiosurf 2 that can use your own music; you’ll need to either pay for Sony’s proprietary solution or not use that feature if such games ever come to the PlayStation 4. That’s a massive bummer.

Right on cue, Microsoft comes out and says, “Hey, we love that DNLA stuff.” That sound you’re not hearing is absolutely everybody feeling irked at Sony, but not changing their PS4 pre-order.

SteamBox is looking better and better.

TomentNumenera

Drifting with the tides. The Torment team has posted their latest project update, in which they discuss the game’s alignment system: Tides. If you’re a backer or prospective buyer, this is worth digging into. It’s not so much a morality system, bur rather a representation of how your view of the world affects your actions:

Rather than focus on moral axes, the Tides look at a person’s legacy, at what they’re remembered for. They are not something people consciously strive for; very few individuals even know they exist. They are more like an invisible force (think magnetism or gravity) driven by people’s actions.

There are five Tides, and I want to walk you through each of them and then talk a little about how they’re used in the game. As you read, remember that the Tides do not care about motives or morality. Each Tide is embodied by heroes, villains, and folks just trying to do their best. The motivations of these people rarely matter; the Tides describe the legacies they leave behind. The Tides are pushed and pulled by action, not motivation.

There’s plenty more, where they detail each of the tides and how they’ll represent in the game. Very cool stuff.

It’s a dungeon, but on your desktop. A couple years ago at the E3 iteration of IndyCade, I got a look at a little dungeon-crawling RPG roguelike by the name of Desktop Dungeons. It had a playable “alpha” that I proceeded to skip in favor of holding out for the final game. I never heard about it again. Until this week. It’s freshly overhauled and it’s out tomorrow. The promo video (below) is all goofy fun and show very little, but if my memory is any indication, it’s worth taking a flyer on.

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Adventures. In spaaaaaaaaaace! If you miss the old the Sierra Quest style adventures and want a little more isometric scifi horror in your life, check out the Kickstarter for Stasis. It looks groovy and it has a proof-of-concept demo you can check out. (I haven’t yet.)

Speaking of all things Kickstarter, Joystiq is doing a neat little feature, called Crowdfund Bookie, where they’re tracking the progress of various crowdfounded games. It’s way, way cooler than the shortlived piece I used to write here. It even has charts and graphs! (RimWorld absolutely killed their goal.)

Fear the mowhawk. Soren Johnson, he of Civilization IV fame, has built himself a new home (with a little help from Stardock). Good luck, Soren! I know you’re all about the RTS with your new project, and it sounds awesome, but maybe you’ll make me another turn-based game someday? Also, I could use a decent reliever in the OOTP league. I’ll trade you a starter for one if you also throw in the best prospect you have. Call me!

Brakketology Is Out of Its Element

Big Lebowski Reunion

This is from my buddy’s annual best of its breed Halloween party last weekend. Call it an unofficial and wholly fictional Big Lebowski reunion tour. On one hand, being asked to be Donny is both A) uninspiring – I mean how do you replicate Steve Buscemi’s look in that movie? Guy wears bowling shirts and Dockers. Done. And B) debilitating to one’s soul, because you know you’ll spend the entire evening being told, “Shut the fuck up, Donny.”

On the other hand, this collection is incomplete without Donny and these dear friends of mine did an unbelievable job replicating Jesus, Walter, and The Dude. Walter in particular is just an eerie likeness. Also, given A and B, there may be no one else in the world, and certainly not in my social circle, better-suited to manning the role. That may be a dubious distinction, but if you’ve got it, own it, right? Plus, as a collection this is completely awesome.

On to business. In this week’s Brakketology rock lives, Mythic’s free-to-play designers ruin beloved franchises, Enemy Within gets some hands-on time, there’s more Xbox One/PS4 comparing and contrasting, and Star Citizen is the game that refuses to take “no” for an answer.

Rock and Roll Will Never Die. I was as big a Guitar Hero (1/2)/Rock Band stalwart as anybody, but despite a recent resurgence at said Halloween party this past weekend, the fad has ebbed and now my collection of plastic instruments –instruments that in no way replicate the experience of playing music– sit in my basement awaiting the inevitable day that they’re moved out completely. There is something in me, though, something that yearns for the notion of game and actual guitar teaching to work well together. I never gave Rocksmith (or that other game I don’t recall) a serious look, but Rocksmith 2014 is now upon us and I’ll be damned if Sean Sands’ deep dive into it at GWJ doesn’t make me want to let slip a couple hundred bucks and dive in. Where is that pesky willpower when you need it?

Console War. FIGHT! If you’ve already taken up sides on the XBox One versus Playstation 4 tempest (in a teacup), this Edge Online article isn’t going to sway you, but it’s a nice even-handed look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two consoles (at the hardware level) with some cogent thought put into how messaging (and lack thereof) has played into the equation so far. Lots of good quotes from people at Microsoft and from developers.

“Of course [the company’s messaging problems] hurt in the short term,” says Ken Lobb, partner creative director at Microsoft Game Studios. ”We’re not blind, right? Did they hurt in the long run? We’re going to have to find out after we launch. We knew what we were going to do with indies. We knew what we were doing with Killer Instinct. But when someone comes in and asks a question about something we’ve decided we’re intentionally not going to talk about until a certain date, sometimes you get half answers. There’s no such thing as perfect PR.”

Well, unless you’re Sony. (I can’t believe I just typed that.) Speaking of the One, here’s a demo video of the dashboard. Although it is more frenetic than a coked-out squirrel, being the one guy who’s less interested in the games than the everything else it does, the responsiveness and multimedia capabilities are of interest to me.

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It Is What We Thought it Was. Rich Stanton’s Eurogamer review of Ultima Forever went up back in September, but I’ve only just come across it. I spent roughly 10 minutes with this abomination of F2P horror and Ultima bastardization and never launched it again. I never wrote about it because, well, what can I authoritatively say about something after 10 minutes other than it clearly wasn’t for me. But Rich played more. He’s a braver man than me. And was likely paid to. I’m not sure there’s enough money in the world for an Ultima fan to have to endure this:

In the dungeons, and also in every town, are chests. Here’s where things really go south. Ultima Forever’s currency is keys. Bronze keys you get constantly, and 18 of these can be smooshed into six silver keys. Gold keys are the rarity. These get you the best loot from chests, open inventory slots, allow you to use a second ability at once, and pretty much everything else of any consequence. Did you get that? Basic things like a second spell slot are locked behind paywalls. And not only that – you have to pay to unlock these things separately for each character. Your key balance is shared across your account, but not what you buy. Another sneaky touch is that Ultima Forever sells silver key bundles starting at 69p, but the minimum purchase price for gold keys is £6.99.

How did this happen? The short version is, “who gives a damn.” I mean obviously Mythic is making games for other people. I’m not sure who those other people are, but there are surely two or three of them out there. The longer version is birthed in the attitude of EA and Mythic, given voice in a mid-October interview at Pocketgamer with Dungeon Keeper for iOS senior producer Jeff Skalski, who said this:

“If you want to play Dungeon Keeper or Dungeon Keeper 2, go to Good Old Games and download them,” the senior producer tells us. “I’m not trying to recreate those games. This is not Dungeon Keeper 3. This is not a PC game for mobile. We’re not trying to build the game like it’s 1999,” he says. “We want to make a Dungeon Keeper experience that’s right for this platform, so there were things that we just had to change”.

This is called violating Bill Harris’ first rule of public speaking: Don’t be a dick. I realize, Jeff, you probably weren’t trying to be a dick. You were probably overtired and maybe even having a bad day and the words probably sounded less offensive in your head than they do in an article. And yes, you’re very correct that you’re not just recreating those games. But you also have to understand that if you’re putting the name on it, you are supposed to be recreating the spirit of those experiences. Everyone and their brother knows stuff has to change when you start designing for mobile. But, see, that’s not what the problem is either. The problem is you’re designing for free-to-play and that is a model that ruins every decent gameplay concept it touches. So, you can act be as exasperated with Mythic’s critics as you like, it doesn’t change the fact that the F2P games almost universally suck and when you force that model on some very much-loved franchises it kills what people loved about them. That tends to piss people off. If you want the safety of obscurity that these types of games so richly deserve (to be obscure, that is), your bosses need to put a name on them that nobody cares about. Until that day, however, endure the criticism. It is earned.

Enemy Within Gets Buzzed. RPS posted a boatload of impressions based on hands-on time with XCOM: Enemy Within. Despite the section I’m about to quote, the tenor is very nearly universally positive (and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Meer’s voice back at RPS). But then there’s this here bit I’m about to quote:

The game does feel a little cluttered now, in terms of the amount of things that need researching and building slow things down enormously – which wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for the matter of keeping the XCOM project’s funding nations happy. With all my cash and efforts going into Mechs and gene-splicing, it’s much more tricky to raise the capital and staff needed to build more satellites and Interceptor kit. I had four nations back out in my second in-game month, which wasn’t because I’d fouled up any missions but because I couldn’t erect enough satellite dishes – which as you may remember also entails building enough relays and power generators and lifts and excavations – in time to offest their rising panic from the terror missions I wasn’t able to do. Still, it is feasible enough to get by, but my point is that all the new stuff – colourful and varied and silly and strategic – both steals focus from and really shows up weaknesses in the base-management aspect of XCOM.

This is exactly the kind of thing I’m worried about. Balancing base funding and mission selection with the state of nations and their terror level was already a rather frustrating experience. It’s good in that it forces you to make difficult decisions, but it also feels rather plastic and punitive after awhile. Anything that makes resource allocation at this level of the game more difficult or punitive, without re-balancing the whole darned thing, strikes me as a particularly bad move.

Sidenote: The PA Report preview of the game notes that your soldiers can also earn medals based on unique combat actions. That, combined with the fact that you can rename them whatever you want, could be pretty cool.

Ever More Star Citizen Hype. They just passed an absurd $25 million in funding. There’s a new trailer. Despite the focus on online gameplay (which I keep having to remind myself I don’t give a fig about), this is getting harder and harder to resist. I don’t want to give them my money yet. I told myself I would wait for the final product. Resistance failing.

YouTube video

You’re Like a Child That Wanders into a Room. Finally, if you have no frame of reference for The Big Lebowski portion of this post, I give you this (NSFW: language):

YouTube video

One of the all-time great movies. And if you disagree, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Brakketology Gets a Job; Keeps Flying

FireflyBoardGame

In this day and age a guy has to do what he can to get by. That means you have to take a lot of jobs to make ends meet, even legal ones. A Firefly class boat needs parts and supplies to keep it in the air, after all. In this week’s Brakketology, if you haven’t guessed, I got a chance to play Firefly: The Game. Along with some first impressions of that, there’s a promising first look at Banner Saga (via RPS) that demands you pay attention, more Enemy Within bits, Project Eternity continues its climb up my list of most anticipated games, Amazon does something that almost made my life better, a real Ultima lands on iOS, and Xbox One gets a release date…

Find a job. Find a crew. Keep flying. I talked a bit (or tried to) about Firefly: The Game on JtS this week. I loved the thing. It’s exactly what a Firefly boardgame should be and if you’re a boardgamer and a fan of the series, you should absolutely give it a look. The theme is exactly as described in bold. You’re the captain of a Firefly and you need work, legal or otherwise. The board is big chunk of space populated by the many moons and planets featured (and not featured) in the show and you travel from place to place seeking work from the likes of Badger, and Patience, and –shudder– Niska. Do not disappoint Niska. You also have to build a crew that complements the skills required to execute on a given job, you have to keep them happy, and you need supplies (not to mention gas) to keep your boat in the air. It’s thematically perfect. The only flaw is that it’s a bit solitaire. There are means by which you can interact with other players while on-planet together, trading items, stealing crew, etc., but it’s not required and in the game I played it never happened. It’s also a game that takes a full play-through to get the hang of. In my game there was a lot of downtime while people figure out their moves, consulted rules, etc. It’s the kind of thing that goes away once at least a couple players know the game cold, but it’s a factor you should consider before breaking it out. Also, it’s a four-player limit, which it really didn’t need to be. I’m betting that, like Spartacus (also from GF9), that the inevitable expansion addresses this. (On the bright side, you can also play it with just one player.)

Banner Saga. It Looks Good. RPS has a hands-on look at Banner Saga. It’s long and detailed and you should read it. This was a game that I had intended to Kickstart back in the day, but missed the deadline because I am, of course, monumentally lazy (and cheap). Now that single-player information is starting to come out, the game sounds (and looks) exactly as good as I thought it did during its proposal stage. Here’s a taste from RPS:

I can’t think of a game I’ve played in recent memory where each and every choice I made felt so heavy. I went from telling tiny squads which squares to move to while fighting drunks (that was a fun tutorial) to managing a powder keg caravan of thousands. And if I didn’t keep it all together? If the whole thing went sky high, if I didn’t placate the spoiled human prince, if I didn’t show my Varl legions that I was just as firm yet wise as their old leader, if I didn’t keep our supplies topped off, if I didn’t get rid of the spoiled supplies some grateful merchant accidentally gave us when we saved his life, if I didn’t, if I didn’t, if I didn’t…

Then the ice would break.

There are comparisons to Oregon’s Trail (in a good way) that follow, not to mention the sorts of hooks and subverting expectations that any gamer will appreciate. Go. Read.

XCOM: Enemy Within Tries to Look Spontaneous. There is now a highly, highly scripted demo, which is so contrary to what XCOM is that it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from it. It’s worth noting that the more scripted the events in a mission in Enemy Unknown, generally, the less interesting that mission was. It concerns me when they talk about “new environments” they haven’t addressed them in the context of just another mission, because that’s what the game needs from an expansion. More types of random missions. More variety of environments for random missions. A longer game to accommodate it all. More ways to customize your squad is nice too, but I’m not on-board yet with the whole mech and genetic modification angle. I’m strictly wait and see on that. If I can be permitted to concern troll Firaxis, I’m wary their focus is on expanding on the wrong things. I’ll still buy, though, because that’s how much goodwill they earned from me with Enemy Unknown.

For those looking for hope, here’s a blurb from RPS who got some hands-on time with it:

I got to play a little of Enemy Within last week, and the net effect of these new units was that aggressive strategies felt much more effective and satisfying. I usually turtle so hard that people want to turn me into soup, but mechs’ ability to essentially function as mobile cover and a nice helping of active camouflage for weaker units made me feel like I was better able to control the battlefield. However, to balance that out, aliens have mechs too, and I nearly ingested my Adam’s apple every time a sectoid gave one a near-impregnable shield via mind merge. The short version? It wasn’t necessarily better or worse than the way I usually play XCOM, but it was certainly different.

Project Eternity Gets a Stronghold. Obsidian came out with a fresh info-dump on what is one of my top three Most Anticipated Games That Might Come Out Next Year — Eternity. The topic du jour is the player’s stronghold. This is no longer a fresh or novel concept for an RPG, but that does not mean it can’t be cool if done well. This looks cool, mostly because it will have function beyond being a place to dump stuff. Here’s a list of passive things it’ll do. You’ll find much more at the Kickstarter page; the bit about constructing a prison sounds particularly cool so do click over.

  1. Resting bonuses. Some of the upgrades to your stronghold will grant temporary bonuses to your attributes or non-combat skills when you rest there. As examples, you can build Training Grounds to improve your Strength or a Library to improve your Lore skill. Some of these upgrades are expensive, but you’re worth it.
  2. Adventures for idle companions. You will eventually have more companions than will fit in your party, so you will have leave some of them behind. While they are idling away at the stronghold, they can take part in their own adventures, earning additional experience for themselves and extra money, items and reputation bonuses for you!
  3. Ingredients. Many of the stronghold upgrades will generate ingredients used by non-combat skills. For example, Botanical Gardens create Survival ingredients over time, and a Curio Shop produces ingredients for use by both Lore and Mechanics.
  4. Special offers. Sometimes visitors to your stronghold will have rare items for sale, or perhaps they will offer you items in return for something else. Pay attention to these visitors. Some of these items may be nearly impossible to find any other way!
  5. Wealth. Don’t forget that by owning a stronghold, you also own all of the surrounding lands and impose a tax on all of the inhabitants. It will feel nice for a change to have someone recognize your high standing and give you the money that you so richly deserve.

Xbox One Needs a Hug. Has no Takers. Lots of Xbox One stuff going on this week. November 22nd is the first day you can officially not buy the console. Lucky you! What’s amazing is that I’m actually on the fence about it. Despite the fact that I’ve been doing 100% of my gaming via PC the past year, and am perfectly happy with that, I almost want this console just to have it. Maybe it’s because Microsoft keeps bending over backwards to let people know that, “Yes, we know you hate us and everything we stand for, but look at all the ways we’re maybe(?) changing things you don’t like just to make you happy!” Like, teasing the possibility of backwards compatibility… someday. There’s a desperation so thick it makes me want to give them a conciliatory hug by just buying the thing. Also, I think my kids will like the new Kinect and it might keep them off my PC. Also also, I haven’t bought a new gadget in a long time and I’m getting twitchy. It’s a sickness.

On second thought, this ad is so full of awful maybe I’ll reserve my hug for awhile longer…

YouTube video

Because football wasn’t complete until Xbox One. Maybe it’ll even solve that pesky concussion problem.

Ultima IV to iOS. If you want to get the stink of the kinda sorta free-to-play abomination that is Quest of the Avatar, you can now get a retro fix of Ultima IV on iOS as Mythic –let’s just call it an apology even though it isn’t one– ported the Commodore 64 version over to Apple’s mega-mall of a store. And it’s free.

Kindle Readers to Get the Best of Both Worlds? Almost. Amazon, which already gets props for doing this with their music catalog, will now let you purchase their print books and, at the publisher’s discretion, let you tack on the ebook for a small fee (free in some cases). As a Kindle user who laments not being able to share books I enjoy with the people I know, this is a long overdue solution. Now if only I could tack on the print book sale to all my ebook purchases from the last year. Nothing like punishing those of us who bought into your platform already. Ugh.

Pondering Tuesdays – Reality Check Edition

Tomb Raider - Lara on Radio

I’m just going to keep putting random “thinking about stuff” synonyms in the title field until I run out. Let’s get started…

Wanted: Strong Female Role Model. Ashelia (no full name given) played Tomb Raider and had a powerful reaction. Go read it and then come back.

I wish I could have my daughter read this. You hear about the need for female empowerment and role models all the time. It’s almost always well-intentioned, but there’s a point at which those become buzz words and not something genuinely meaningful. As a father, it makes it hard to know exactly where to steer her because you want so badly for your little princess, as she becomes a person who’s not so little anymore, to choose role models that represent the best in human nature and not Twilight’s pitiable Bella or some camera-starved reality TV whorelet.

Also, Justin Bieber. Le sigh.

No, I want Ana to know about real strength, the strength to persevere in the face of adversity and not be dragged down by it. Not Lara’s strength in a video game, though certainly she’s a well-conceived character in the reboot, but Ashelia’s in writing that piece. And not just to write that particular piece but to endure what she did and carry on, going out into the world and having a voice. Not everyone rises above that kind of experience. A lot of us sink and never get our heads back above water level.

Ana is nine years old. She’s too young to read this article, too innocent of the world still to understand what it means. She doesn’t yet know of the myriad things that go bump in the night and I want her to have that last for as long as possible, though I know there are far fewer of those days of blissful ignorance ahead of her than there are behind. No, she can’t read this yet, but there will come a time when this will have resonance for her, when it will mean something. And when it does, I’ll have the link stored away. I don’t mind waiting a little longer.

Where’s the Love? In a world where Bioware is something of a sad pinnacle for the idea of character love stories in games, I find this PAR article quote, from Torment creative lead Colin McComb, comforting:

“We do plan to have relationships in the game. I don’t know if we’re necessarily approaching romance, at least not in the way it’s been explored in games recently. There’s a lot more to the word love than simple flesh coupling,” McComb explained. “That’s frankly the aspect of it that’s least interesting when you get right down to it. It’s the interpersonal intimacy. It’s learning the depth and turmoil of another person that I think is more fascinating. That’s the aspect we want to explore with relationships with people.”

Mass Effect 3 Ending

It’s not that I think Bioware games are embarrassingly bad in this regard. Liara (pictured) has some magnificent turns to her character. And I’ve defended Bioware’s use of relationships in the stories for their games more than once. It’s just that they’ve never really done better at it than they did with Baldur’s Gate II and the original Knights of the Old Republic. They’ve never found the next level. They’ve designed relationships in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series such that sex is the goal and that’s an anathema to telling stories with believable, meaningful relationships between characters. Great storytelling, stories that reflect the human condition as it were, need to be able to reflect that love is a powerful driving force in the proverbial Hero’s Journey. That the Torment team appears to get this is encouraging and, if they execute, it should make for an interesting step forward in how romantic character relationships play out in the framework of a story-based game.

Gaming: The Next Generation. King Art Games hit up Kickstarter, hoping to get six-figures for their turn-based strategy project, one that’s inspired by games like Advance Wars. It’s a solid, compelling proposal that was, not coincidentally, fully funded in a week’s time. There are 32 days left.

What Kickstarter is doing is making responsible game development possible again. What do I mean by that? I mean that in a world where Square can publish some very good AAA-budgeted games and still have their president forced to resign because of inability to make financial numbers, we see yet more evidence that AAA publishing is, in two words, Teh Stupidz.

The jury is in and the game industry is not nearly the big business it wants the world to think it is. It is not Hollywood. Trying to make the business of producing games into Hollywood, no matter how great $200M Bioshock: Infinite may be, is not a recipe for industry-wide success. These are exceptions to the rule, though I have my doubts that even this critical darling will deliver a serious return on investment. (It’s worth pointing out that $200M number could be completely farcical. My point still stands.)

This is what makes Kickstarter-backed games important. In a world with very few responsible game publishers, the upper-echelon of Kickstarter projects bring game development back into the real world. They’re taking game development out of the hands of supposedly Very Important Men and letting real gamers fund real projects based on real budgets; small teams of passionate designers making their kind of game, selling it for one fair price with the goal, not of making gobs and gobs of money for shareholders, but to earn a living. Yes, there are exceptions and there are plenty of pitfalls to spending money on games that may never see the light of day, but I’ll take my chances with inXile and Obsidian, Conifer and Stoic. They’re in the business of making games I want to play and they don’t need $200 million to do it. That’s something that I want to be a part of, both as a gamer and as a consumer. Clearly, I’m not alone in that.

On Boredom and Looking Ahead to 2013

This is the time of year when everybody and their brother coughs up a games they are looking forward to list. (Well, it was when I wrote the initial draft of this post.) We didn’t have much of that here, but certainly it’s come up on Jumping the Shark. The thing is, for me and video games, there’s not much I’m looking ahead to. I mean I’m sure there will be stuff I play and stuff that, as the year proceeds, I’ll get excited about playing, but I’m as bored to tears these days with the Video Game Preview Circus as I am with the rest of the industry. It’s been a recurring theme this past year that there’s plenty enough going on in the present that precludes me from having any desire to spend time getting amped up about gaming projects that I may or may not see in the next 6 to 12 months.

“Dear, Gaming Industry,” as the cliché goes, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Except, well, it’s you…

How many times have I written in the past two years about how the direction of the industry, combined with where I sit at this particular crossroads in my life, has left me with waning interest in the hobby? At least twice that I can think of. I’m sure there’s more, and at this point I risk verging into broken record territory, but these were the two I could find in the archives that most stood out in my memory:

The Lull of 2011
Pushed Around by the Industry

There’s a money quote in the latter of these:

“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…”

The bellwether for me was the recent Bioshock Infinite trailer.

YouTube video

Kudos to you if you watched that and thought, “Oh, hells yeah!” Seriously, nothing I’m about to say is meant to be judgmental of anyone who is still enthralled with modern mainstream gaming. This is purely personal, and personally? I shrugged. It could not have felt more “meh.” And let’s face it, if the thought of playing Bioshock Infinite contains not even a momentary thrill, even for someone who adored the first two games, then you’ve probably crossed a line somewhere.

I’ve been chewing hard on this over the past couple months and I’ve settled on the idea that the whole big guns, big explosions, big loot thing that pretty well defines the last decade of gaming has grown so stale and repetitive that even games from a franchise with terrific history, with a promising backdrop or story, don’t elicit much of a reaction from me anymore. Whether it’s blowing shit up or harvesting acres and acres of phat loot, nuance on the same exact thing I’ve been doing for forever can only carry me so far.

(What’s funny is I penned all this a couple weeks ago, before reading Mr. Barnes’ Rethinking Mass Murder post. I’ve been sitting on this because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to post it or not. Mike’s excellent post convinced me I should.)

Just so there is no misunderstanding my point, my complaints about RPGs who’s sole mechanic is the acquisition of loot via monster slayage, or shooters that glorify killing by the baker’s dozen, have absolutely nothing to do with personal ethics or moral judgment. This sense of malaise towards killing in games is a feeling that started long before Newtown and it’s not about shame or ethics or The Children. I feel no more shame in gunning down a polygonal representation of a soldier in Human Revolution than I do in putting waste food in my garbage disposal. (Which is to say, maybe a very tiny bit.) I think it’s mostly that I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and it’s just not interesting anymore. Hey, another Sword of Otto Octavious with 30% bonus damage to spiders that I’ll likely dump a couple hours from now when I get the Mace of Mysterio that bumps it up to 35%. Yay?

Hey, look! I’ve leveled for the third time in an hour and can now choose a new skill that I’ll care about for approximately the same amount of time it takes to grow bored watching Hunger Games! (For the record, that’s about six minutes.) And in another half hour I’ll get another another level-up “ding” and pick something new that’s approximately .65% better than the skill I just got. Hazaa?

I’m tired of paying handsomely for the privilege of feeling like a gerbil pacing around the feeder waiting for the next pellet to drop. There was certainly a time when I found all the mechanics at play in mainstream titles exciting, but there was also a time when mainstream titles were more at home innovating and risk-taking, something the gobs and gobs of money involved makes AAA developers nearly incapable of doing anymore. As time marches on, and these experiences grow simultaneously less varied and more rote, it’s all become a thrill of diminishing returns. Unlike the gerbil, however, I’m not going to starve to death if I start skipping these meals. There are no longer enough fancy kill-foozle skills and whacky grenade launchers out there to make it any kind of visceral thrill for me to blow up a bunch of polygons, no matter how cool the ragdoll physics. Frankly, I just don’t give a fuck about all that anymore.

No, these days if I’m going to take time away from everything else in life to play your game, you’re going to have to offer a little more than just another retread experience. You’re going to have to offer me good wine and exotic cheeses and not the same old empty calories. Is it any wonder that the games I’ve most enjoyed in the past year –XCOM, The Walking Dead (the TellTale game), FTL, Mark of the Ninja– are either highly derivative of what I’ve been playing for ages or offer genuine variation on existing mechanics? Mark of the Ninja doesn’t re-write the book for stealth nearly as much as its most ardent fans might want you to believe, but the combination of 2D side-scrolling with vision cones and sound bubbles along with a genuinely interesting story progression does offer something unique from playing yet another paint-by-numbers experience I get from a Dishonored or the latest Bioware opus. That it’s contained in a nicely animated, wholly digestible 10-hour experience doesn’t hurt either.

Given all this, it’s probably not hard to see why my writing frequency has plummeted to approximately nil the past few months. Writing requires passion and, with me, if there’s no passion for the subject (not to mention no paycheck), it’s pretty damn hard to work up the will to write about it. My urge to write has always waxed and waned, but the truth is, I’ve had desire to write these past months, but I’ve had zero desire to write about games, even with some of the immensely pleasurable experiences I’ve had with some of the titles mentioned in the previous paragraph. There’s about a billion other hosers writing reviews for these exact same games, some far better at it than me and some not so much, but regardless of which case, I’ve lost interest in even tacitly competing with them. This isn’t to say I’m totally done writing about games, but that yet another review isn’t where my head is. I think that any game I write about going forward has to give me more to say than merely assessing its bonafides. I can do that on the podcast, which is a weekly quick-hitter that doesn’t involve endless hours of writing and re-writing.

So, I’ve had to ask myself, what is No High Scores going to be to me in 2013? Nothing of what I’ve written above should be interpreted as questioning how much I value NHS, and little would make me sadder than seeing tumbleweeds blow through here. I can’t praise Brandon, Michael, and Matt enough for continuing to keep content running through the front page while I ponder existence and Bill builds his cardboard empire. And, bottom line, I still want to be a part of producing content for this wonderful place, which is a direct reflection of how I feel about everyone here with whom I write and all of you who read. I feel genuinely bad that I can’t match the passion and enthusiasm you all maintain for this hobby. The counter to that is that I have a career that needs more focus than I’ve been giving it, two kids who may need their dad as much as ever this year, and a wonderful relationship (thanks eHarmony!) that I hope to continue building. Throw in a very real need for no less than eight hours of sleep a night and a growing desire to not only read more, but also dip my toe back into the creative writing pool (something I’ve not done consistently since college), and that doesn’t leave much room for feigning interest in a been there, done that industry that’s far more focused on AAA monetization than value for my dollar, not to mention my time. (Indies and small pubs, you are hereby exempted from the preceding generalization. You’re aces in my book.)

So where should that balance come from? Realistically, it probably means my output here will continue to be inconsistent at best, but potentially it means just writing broader. If a game grabs me (or doesn’t) and it gives me something to say, I’ll certainly write about it. But I hope to spend more time just writing about mass media consumption at large and how it has shaped and continues to shape my life and the world around it. I have ideas in mind for a handful of posts already that are, at best, only tangentially related to gaming. Whether that will interest you enough to click through to the full-length articles I can’t begin to guess, but it’s something I want to try and, for those of you willing to ride out that experiment with me, my appreciation is boundless. (Disclaimer: I will never engage in politics writing here nor would I hold you hostage to anything fictional I might lamely try to produce in the coming months. Even I have lines.) For those that aren’t, hey, I get it and hold no hard feelings over that. Presumably, you do come here to read about games, after all. And, hey, hopefully every so often I’ll be able to oblige by still pumping out some real guts level thoughts on those games that come this year that actually do capture and hold my interest.

Regardless of how it all shakes out, here’s to you all and making the most of 2013, whatever it brings!