Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Sarkeesian on Positive Female Characters

April 10, 2015

So, one of the things that I’ve been constantly pushing for from those criticizing the state of video games and particularly the portrayal of women in them are examples of good portrayals and games, for them to both talk up the games that do it right in their view and to outline what it is they want to see. Anita Sarkeesian has just done that, and hints that this is just the first video in an ongoing series on the topic. This is good. This is very good, in fact. I strongly support her doing this.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to criticize her choice, and here there seems to be a lot to, in fact, criticize.

Her first choice is the Scythian from the game “Sword & Sworcery”. As far as I can tell — and, as usual, I encourage you to read the transcript or watch the video yourself to see if you agree — the main reasons she thinks that this is a positive female character are:

1) The character is barely recognizable as a woman.

2) The character is barely recognizable as a character.

3) The character sacrifices herself at the end of the game (it’s part and parcel of the game mechanics).

Now, this summary is a little thin and not quite fair, because she does give reasons for each of those, which I’ll get into in a moment. But I want to take a step back and examine this outside of Sarkeesian’s general analysis, because her reasons do seem to follow from her own analysis and the requirements it entails. And stepping outside of things that she doesn’t like, my first blush reaction is to say that if a character is going to be a positive female character, it should be obvious from the start that the character is female. You shouldn’t be able to consider the character a male character for most of the game for it to make the list. The game could make the list if it subverts this properly — ie puts a female character in a male character role and deliberately doesn’t make it obvious that the character is female only to pull the rug out from under you at the end — but it’s hard to say that the character is a good representation of female characters if for most of the game the player thinks that they’re a male character, in my opinion. But I also think that to get the stamp of approval as a positive female character that they indeed have to be a character, and not just something that you impose your own traits on. When I originally did my list of top ten best female characters, my original comment on it was that I couldn’t do a similar list for male characters because they weren’t really characters, but were instead shells that you impose a personality on. I wouldn’t consider my create Baldur’s Gate characters great characters, or at least not in a way that I assign to the game itself, because all of that characterization comes from me, and not from the game itself. The Scythian has a bit more of a personality than that, but Sarkeesian is explicit that she is the blank slate that players project on, which means that she’s promoting the idea of a positive female character that is mainly what you want her to be.

So, what are Sarkeesian’s reasons? While she does make at least some of them explicit, I think we need to look at her overall assessment to really understand what she’s looking for:

When archetypal fantasy heroes in games are overwhelmingly portrayed as men, it reinforces the idea that men’s experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered, that women should be able to empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

What I think she’s trying to do is get a female character into a traditionally male role without making the game about the main character being a woman. Essentially, the idea is to have the game work out in precisely the same way that it would with a male protagonist, except that it just happens to be a woman who is the lead instead of a man. When you tie this in with her own stated views, I think things become clear. The first point is to avoid “Ms. Male Character”, making the main character act just like a male character but adding some feminine fashion just to make it clear that the character is a woman. This is important, because the thrust here seems to minimize the impact the main character being a woman has on the game. The second point is to both facilitate it being no different than if the character was a man — and defining a character might well introduce differences — and to force players to “get inside the head”, as it were, of a female protagonist. The third point is to highlight that this is a woman with agency, and that her death is done due to her own choices and not just to service the plot of a male character.

The problem is that it seems to me that the way this was done impedes what she wants to see in a game. And to see that, we can look at my choice for a positive female protagonist, Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Frame. I explicitly reject what I think is Sarkeesian’s main push there: what makes Miku such a positive female protagonist is precisely because she isn’t just a female character stuffed into a male character’s shell/story, but that the game is different in ways that work better for a female character (for example, not relying on strength-based weaponry). Ultimately, we know from the start that Miku is a female character, and yet the game still doesn’t really play out any differently than it would with a male protagonist, highlighted by the fact that you start with Mafuyu and switch to Miku and the mechanics don’t change. If Sarkeesian wants players to empathize with women’s stories, then it has to be clear from the start that this story is a woman’s story, and ideally there would be things in it that are particular to it being a woman’s story, things that you wouldn’t get in a story from the perspective of a man. For example, while Sarkeesian might rightly see sexual assault threats in a game as being there for fanservice, the threat of sexual assault is something that women face and fear that men don’t (for the feminist argument for this, see “Shroedinger’s Rapist”). If a game can convey that threat from the perspective of the female main character such that even those who don’t face that normally can empathize and therefore feel and understand that fear, that seems to me to be the sort of thing that Sarkeesian wants: player empathizing with the woman’s perspective as women are expected to empathize with the man’s perspective normally. If all you do is stuff a woman into the precise same role as a man and nothing changes, all you’ve done is essentially put a female character into a man’s story, which does not seem to be what she’d want.

You can counter that the idea that the traditional heroic story is a man’s story is precisely the problem; women are just as heroic as men are. Which I concede, and is implied by my discussion of Fatal Frame and noting that the game doesn’t really change just because the main character is female. But to argue this, I think, undercuts a lot of the general criticisms of games that Sarkeesian makes, because it assumes that, in general, the stories in games are not tailored to a male audience and the male perspective, and that the only difference that matters is the gender of the character itself. In short, you have to argue that the games and characters themselves are mostly gender-neutral, and it’s only the gender of the main character that’s the issue. This would make most of her examinations pointless and explicitly refute about half of “Ms. Male Character”, so that’s probably not what you’d want to argue there.

So, if Sarkeesian wants female characters put into the same roles as male characters, it seems that she’d want them to be characters and to be readily identifiable as female characters from the start, so that players are forced to treat a female character in at least roughly the same way from the start. Also, if the game can indeed subtly shift the perspective somewhat so that players actually get to experience the perspective of a female character that’s definitely a bonus. Unless Sarkeesian wants to argue that the focus on the natural beauty of the world and not on combat and killing reflects that — which would be as much and as bad a sexist stereotype as the ones she criticizes — “Sword & Sworcery” doesn’t do that, which means that the Scythian does not seem to be a very good example of a positive female character.

Of course, Sarkeesian just be just overjoyed to have a female lead in this sort of epic, heroic tale at all. At which point, my only reply is that she seems to be easily impressed.

Tropes vs Women: Introduction

March 30, 2015

So, this post is an introduction to my finally, hopefully, going through all of the Tropes vs Women videos and commenting on them. There are a few reasons why I’m now deciding to try to push on doing this, but they mostly follow from the fact that Sarkeesian is not going to go away, which could be good or bad depending on what you think of her views. She’s being tapped for more and more things and might be more influential, and so we’re likely to be hearing from her for a long, long time to come. Which pushes me to comment on her videos because:

1) This is going to be an on-going debate, and we do have to have a debate on this. My putting this out is my contribution to that, even if few ever read it and even fewer care.

2) The main purpose of this blog is to get me to write down the things that I think about a lot so I can stop thinking about them. With Sarkeesian constantly coming up in video game discussions, I’m going to hear a lot about it, which will remind me of the things I didn’t care for in the analysis. At least this way I can say that I’ve already written about it and, hopefully, can then stop thinking about it or feeling bad because I haven’t talked about it yet.

So, in this post, let me outline my overall and general issues with the series:

1) The things that she says that are true are not new. They’ve been talked about for ages and ages in various places. Now sometimes you do have to repeat true things, and also sometimes someone can be lauded for putting those old ideas in new, interesting, and clearer ways. The issue is that Sarkeesian generally doesn’t; her approach is not particularly interesting and often seems muddled, particularly because …

2) … the things that she says that are new are almost certainly not true. She tosses in a lot of what are at best very controversial ideas in the same context as the old and true ideas, and tries to link them all together, which weakens the overall argument that her videos are trying to make. She also judges a lot of things on a rather shallow assessment, which means that as soon as I note the issues she has in interpreting Dragon Age: Origins I start to wonder about the other games as well, which again weakens the overall point of the videos.

3) It really seems to me that underneath all of the feminist theory and psychology and the like, that at the end of the day her argument boils down to “We need more female protagonists” … which is not a particularly interesting comment and goes against a lot of her recommendations and her criticisms of gaming companies and gaming in general.

But I hope to make this more clear when I post on her specific videos.

One thing that I need to address are claims that this will only increase the harassment of her as people use my charges that she’s, well, wrong about things to harass her for being wrong. That might happen (I personally doubt it, considering how small this blog is). But I still have to be able to criticize her views if I think them wrong, no matter how others might use that. We simply cannot say that a lot of people are jerks to her so no one can criticize her. That’s an artificial stifling of debate, and that’s not acceptable. We might just as well insist that she not talk about things that people will disagree with as say that people ought not disagree with her because of the potential for harassment. I will strive in my responses to be fair, charitable, and argue for my position with as strong arguments, reason and evidence as I can. That’s all anyone can expect from me, and that should be acceptable.

Interactive NPC World …

February 20, 2015

So, I’ve started playing a number of games in a round robin, which include Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, and one thing that I thought of while playing Mass Effect 2 is the issue of NPCs in the world that you can interact with. Some of them will give you quests or items or other things, while some of them will just give you a little phrase or comment and then you can move on. The issue, of course, is that you usually don’t know which is which until you actually interact with them. Which means that if you want to get all of the quests and the like you have to interact with all of the NPCs, many if not most of which just say something and let you move on.

This can get very annoying if you have a lot of NPCs and the ratio of useful to colour NPCs is low. I’ve played games where I stopped interacting with NPCs because it was so annoying separating the NPC wheat from the chaff. But the flip side isn’t much better, as if you only create NPCs when they are useful the world can seem empty and unreal, only populated by quest-vending machines and the like. And filling it with people that you can’t interact with at all — like, say, most MMOs — reduces NPCs to background.

Which might, actually, be the best way to handle it. We don’t want players to have to obsessively interact with everyone, and we want populated places to seem populated, so making them non-interactive solves that, at the expense of, well, making them not seem like actual people. It’s nice to have NPCs that are people in at least some sense, but not good if we confuse them with NPCs that matter to the overall game plot and quests and so try to get them to interact with us outside of that. If you do go that route, you have to limit the number of NPCs or annoy the player by making them interact with all of them or else risk missing out on something interesting. And if there’s one thing that players hate, it’s missing out on something interesting.

Ultimately, though, this probably is a problem of balance, striking the right balance of NPCs that you can interact with in passive ways with the ones that open up interesting opportunities in the game world. It does enhance a game to be able to talk to NPCs and have them say things like jokes and give interesting tidbits about the world. It’s just that if you are getting that when you want to make sure that you’ve hit all the quests it will get annoying after a while if there are too many of those. We want to interact with people … but not all the time. Kinda like life, I think.

The Fridge (and Inadvertent) Brilliance of Save Points …

January 26, 2015

So, not long ago, I talked about how a crash when I hadn’t save caused me to stop playing a game. I’ve been thinking about this some more, and I’ve realized that most options for saving work against what a good game should be doing: engaging you in the game. Whether it be the story or the action or whatever, good games — like all forms of entertainment — should immerse you in the game so much that you forget that you’re playing a game. If you are that immersed, it’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking “I wonder how long it’s been since I last saved”. Doing that is usually a sign that you aren’t immersed in the game, or have been reminded that this is a game, often by seeing a long and tough fight coming up. You’re no longer swept along by the action or the story, but are instead thinking in game terms. Auto-saving avoids this, but has the problem that it yanks you out of the game and reminds you that this is just a game. The exceptions are games that did saving during loading screens, which already break immersion.

However, what is different about save points is that they are objects in the game world itself. Manipulating them is, in fact, manipulating an object in the world. Yes, it is an object that exists mainly to do game things, but it is part of the game world itself. Thus, it becomes an object just like any other object that is in the game, and so the impact it has on the game is generally no more than any other artificial game component that has to be there in order to play the game (using items, viewing an inventory, equipping, etc, etc). Because it’s part of the game world you can make saving simply a regular part of the game, something that you do as automatically as quaffing a potion when you’re low on health or reloading. So every time you come across a save point you just automatically save and go on, and it doesn’t take you out of the game at all, because it is an integral and constant part of it from your perspective.

This turns out to be the case for me in most of the console games I love. In “Lord of the Rings: The Third Age”, because save points also healed your HP and MP, I used to hit them every time I found one … and sometimes even backtracked to get the recharge. I was saving not to save, but essentially to rest. In Suikoden III, I so conditioned myself to save every time I came across a save point that when passing through the castle of the Zexen Knights I would save on both sides of the castle, even though all I did was pass through. I had to consciously stop myself from doing this. Because save points were spread out and often indicated that you were going to face something tough, it was generally easy to condition yourself to use them whenever you saw them, and thus make using them part of your regular practice of playing the game.

The problem with save points is, of course, that they aren’t always there when you need them, and so you can be using save points and still have to replay a lot of the game should you die or screw up. But by making saving part of the world and even trying to find in-game reasons for you to be accessing them, they remove the artificial nature of saving and so make the games more immersive. Not bad for something that consoles adopted due to technical considerations.

I Was Having Fun … Until It Crashed.

January 20, 2015

So, I started playing “X-Men: Madness in Murderworld” last night through an emulator, and was getting into it, and working my way through it, and then I went to change to Nightcrawler to teleport up to the previous floor … and the game crashed. Despite the fact that I was getting into the game — one of the reasons that I hadn’t saved, well, ever — I then pretty much immediately turned it all off, because I didn’t feel like redoing those parts and so didn’t feel like playing the game anymore.

The reason, it seems to me, is that the crash broke immersion. While I was playing the game, I was carried along from one room and one floor to the next, with the occasional fight, but was mostly exploring and having fun doing that. When the game crashed, I was yanked out of that immersion. And at that point, I could only remember the mechanics and that they weren’t that interesting, and might be hard to manage. And because I hadn’t saved, well, ever, I had a bit of a slog to get back to where I was, I just didn’t have the motivation to keep playing the game … even though I would have kept playing if it hadn’t happened.

This, I think, drives Shamus Young’s analysis of dying in survival horror games, or probably in most games. An atmospheric or action-oriented game will drag you along just by having you have to do something or having something else happen. You get immersed in the game and allow it to lead you to the next section … and the next, and the next, and so on and so forth. When you die, that breaks, and so you aren’t following the path anymore, and without some sort of compelling mystery or goal that you want to see resolved you may not have any reason to go back, at least not immediately. This is only made worse in games where you have strong penalties to overcome after death, like replaying a significant portion of the game or some kind of handicap or even just an onerous method for restoring a save: the more work it is, the more likely you are to simply stop when your immersion is no longer pushing you along.

I think this also works for Story Collapse. In those games, it is the story that moves you along and immerses you in the world, as opposed to the atmosphere or the action. When you hit the point where the story itself breaks your immersion, you are again pulled out of the immersion and returned to, well, playing a game. If the story collapse is minor, the rest of the underlying story elements give you the incentive to carry on; even with that minor problem, you still want to see what happens next. But if it’s strong enough, you find the story either confusing, uninteresting or just plain screwed, and so you lose interest in finding out what happens next. If there is nothing else driving your fun, you’ll quit.

Ultimately for any form of entertainment, people will only watch it if it is entertaining, which means that it immerses them enough for them to focus their attention on it and not on anything else. If you break immersion, then you stop being entertaining, and you have to leave enough reasons for people to think that they will still be entertained if they continue on. Sometimes, that doesn’t work, and the things I’ve talked about in this post are examples of that happening.

A Dizzying Array of Options …

January 3, 2015

… makes me dizzy.

Okay, so I’m playingRecord of Agarest War Zero again, after picking it up and then getting stuck and giving up on it for a while because grinding was getting too difficult. And this time, I’ve actually paid attention to what options you have in the game, and what you can and need to do to build out really powerful characters and parties that can survive the grinding tactical combat of the game — so that I can get to the good part of figuring out who I’m going to marry and have a kid with (already picked out the name!) — and, well, there’s a lot of it:

*At the beginning, you have to choose your class from Warrior, Battle Mage, and Mage. That’s one of the simpler choices in the game, although I’m not really sure what the difference is.
*Then, you have to pick something like 5 cards that combine to give you a ton of attributes. There’s nothing in the game as far as I can tell that tells you what these things do, although I might have missed it.
*Then you pick something like three more.
*In the game itself, you have to choose six people out of your entire party set to actually participate in the battles. Characters that aren’t in your party don’t get XP, so you might have to switch them around a bit.
*For certain battles, enemies have different resistances. For example, crabs are vulnerable to magic and resist physical attacks, so you’ll want lots of mages pounding on them. Fairies, on the other hand, are weak to physical and strong against magic, so you want physical characters pounding them.
*You can earn adventurer titles as you do things in the world, which will give you goodies when you claim them.
*You can buy weapons from stores, although the selection can seem pretty slim because …
*… you can make new weapons by using the smithing books you can buy from the stores. Once you do that, then the store somehow knows how to make them so that you can buy them from them. Even old weapons can be useful because you can break them down to make components for new weapons. Some of the other pieces you get by killing things in the world.
*Through battles, you get "Enhancement Points", which you can use to enhance weapons and armour. You can only convert items into components if they have been fully enhanced.
*As you fight, eventually you will level up, and so get points to spend on your attributes.
*You also get “Power Points”, which you can use to further enhance your abilities.
*You also get “Training Points”, which I haven’t been able to use yet for some reason.
*You also pick up skills that you can sell(!) or add to your characters.
*You can also add skills into the skill slots of your weapons to give you another skill to use in combat. I actually liked this because it let me give one character his own Double Needle combo and a Double Needle combo with his sister Routier (again, I remember the female characters’ names but not the male characters’).
*And eventually, you get married which determines an awful lot about the character for the second part of the game. As does your relationship with the other candidates.

Now, I didn’t really enhance my armour much, but did for my weapons, and leveled up fairly far, and managed to get past where I had gotten before. I hadn’t done any of this the first time I played and, to be honest, had no idea what this stuff was for. So, this does seem to matter to the game. How much does it matter? Do I have to balance this perfectly or else I’ll be behind the 8-ball for the entire game? Can I focus on one or the other? How much of this do I have to do?

The options are staggering, and this is a trend that I’m seeing in a lot of games … but this one is, in my opinion, exceptional. There were a lot of things to balance in Suikoden III as well — level, skills, skill levels, weapon sharpening, armour, party, etc — but they seemed more, well, detached, in that you didn’t generally have to think about them all at once. In this game, perhaps because all towns seem to give all options, it seems more like you have to think about these things constantly and all at once. They’re more tightly intertwined than I’ve seen in other games, perhaps. That leaves me thinking that I have to spend a lot of time worrying about this, as every time I return to town I have to think about enhancement, titles, weapon changes, and the like, and at every battle I’m thinking about PP use and party composition and formation and what I’ve got to use.

I miss the simpler days, when all you had to worry about was your weapon, your armour, and your level. And your skills, and spells, and …

Okay, maybe those weren’t actually simpler days …

Feminist Moments in Video Games …

January 2, 2015

So, Anita Sarkeesian was asked to list some of her favourite moments in video games. She came up with five. What’s noteworthy about the list is that only two of them deal with what feminism is actually about — gender equality — and are examples that, reading her description of them, are essentially “And this game has a female protagonist”. The others are essentially about other forms of inclusivity, and while yes I have heard about intersection I don’t think that intersection means that you get to claim issues in those other areas as rightly being specifically feminist, especially considering the issues that feminism itself has had with inclusiveness wrt some of those areas. Anyway, the last two aim at LGBT issues that happen to involve female characters, while “Thomas Was Alone” seems to aim at general diversity in a manner precisely like we’ve seen over and over and over again in most cartoons, as by her description it’s essentially a “character is different and can’t do what the others can do but discovers that they have a different talent that becomes incredibly useful and saves the day!” kind of thing.

Suffice it to say that these examples are particularly impressive.

So, it got me thinking, and I decided that I, despite having only a casual interest in both video games and feminism, would create my own list. I’m not going to say how long it is, but it will be at least five and will have examples at least as impressive as hers, if not more so. These are in no particular order.

AD&D inspired games: Because they were based on the original PnP D&D system, pretty much from the start they allowed players to create female characters, and thus potentially all female parties. I don’t know if the Gold Box games ever got to the point where they dropped the difference between the genders in at least human characters (I think that went out in 3.5 or somewhere around there, but can’t track that down), but by the time Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate arrived on the scene for at least human characters the games were explicitly pointing out that the difference was cosmetic, not functional, meaning that you could put either a male or female character in any role you wanted, from front line fighter to fragile mage. Gender didn’t matter. And this was incredibly important for a number of reasons. The first is that because the popularity of these games had an impact on the other RPGs that existed at the time, and seems to me to be one reason why most of the other RPG series — like Wizardry and Might and Magic — went with the same sort of model. Even if they weren’t inspired by the games, they definitely were inspired in some way by the PnP system that created them. Thus, this inspiration and how dominant these games were as RPG series made it so that a Western RPG that doesn’t allow for the player to create their character(s) with the gender of their choice is considered limited compared to its companions, which would even extend to series like the Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, among others. You can compare Western RPGs to either JRPGs or FPSs and see just how dramatic a shift in attitude exists there.

Bioware RPGs: While the AD&D inspired games created a fantasy world where the difference between a male and female character was merely cosmetic, Bioware, moving on from Baldur’s Gate, created fantasy and sci-fi worlds where the difference between a male and female character mattered, but not in terms of functionality. Female characters still didn’t have any mechanical differences from male characters, but the relationships they could have were different. Starting from Knights of the Old Republic, where a dark side female character that romances Carth could get an extra and potentially satisfying scene for those who hated Carth, through Sith Lords and into games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, female characters were not only seen as objects of desire, but were able to express romantic impulses of their own … and, more importantly, to choose to not do that. Which has carried over quite dramatically to The Old Republic, as those sorts of romances are a big part of the game and even was a selling point for at least some gamers.

Dragon Age: Origins, Female City Elf Starting Story: Essentially, in this story a woman rises up against an oppressive Lord who wanted to rape her and some of her friends, fights her way out of captivity, and rescues herself and them. No damsel in distress, this. Since Sarkessian was impressed by a game where a character was thrown a staff and told to free herself, surely she’d be more impressed by one that was thrown a sword and saved herself and everyone else. I talk more about this scene here.

X-men: Madness in Murderworld: This one is no where near as impressive as the others, but as it does feature the X-Men, it features two popular female characters, Storm and Dazzler, whose powers are necessary to advance in the game and who can easily engage in melee combat without being considered weaker in any way, as far as I remember. It also was a departure from the other Paragon games which didn’t feature any female main characters, which was also true of many of the other Marvel franchises, like Avengers.

X-Men Arcade Game: Which means I should add this one, as it had the same line-up as “Madness in Murderworld” which was a contrast to the Avengers arcade game that preceded it.

Fatal Frame series: A horror series that really promotes a competent, brave and yet still vulnerable female lead, which is a contrast to a game like Clocktower 3 which presented the female character as much more frightened and panicked. It also has more female protagonists than male by a large margin. I’ve gushed about the protagonist before.

Suikoden III: A playable female character that you can make the main character by giving her the main Rune of the game.

Silent Hill 3: The first playable female character in the series, it follows on from the original and was the inspiration for “Silent Hill: Revelation”, which is the movie that actually does, in my opinion, the lore of Silent Hill the best of the two movies.

Final Fantasy X-2: They’ve had female protagonists after and might have had them before, but putting aside the dress sphere system that made it seem like dress-up, this game features three strong and popular female characters.

Persona 3 PSP: The first game in the series to allow you to choose to play as a female protagonist, despite the fact that this required a lot of rework. And while people may criticize it for some of its changes and possibly for introducing the ability to save a male character through love — a typical female trope — I don’t find at least the last one problematic, because the notion was introduced with a male character in the regular game. In that instance, all the main character can do is encourage Junpei, and can’t do it directly, while in this case the main character can do it herself. It’s still landmark, especially considering that it was done to satisfy the requests of fans.

Ms. Pac-Man: Putting aside that Sarkeesian uses this as an example of a “Ms. Male Character”, at the time it not only was an instance of a female character, but even had more actually characterization in her model than the original Pac-Man had.

Note that, in general, it looks like Sarkeesian’s examples are of moments inside a specific game, while my examples actually aim at moments in the history of video games. I’d feel bad about that, except that the article itself is titled as being about the history of video games, and Sarkeesian’s examples often talk about the game overall and then grab one moment to highlight. Anyway, this post is about feminist moments in video game history, and are all about gender equality.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled.

January 2, 2015

So, lately I’ve been thinking about used games, which depending on who you listen to are either the banes of the gaming world or its last, best hope. Now, for the longest time I didn’t really buy used games. as I had room in my budget to buy new and stores that sold new games were more conveniently located for me than places that sold used games. But over the past couple of years I’ve found myself more and more often right near a place that sells used games and even game systems. I started stopping in there to look for old PS2 games since you simply can’t get them anywhere else. And then I started looking at PS3 and Wii games to see if I could find anything interesting, and I ended up picking up a few from them and other places. For example, I’m pretty sure that’s where I got Dragon Age: Origins and recently at another store I got both Overlords for the PS3. So, recently, I’ve bought more used games than I normally would, although I still buy more new games than used ones.

Now, a lot of gaming publishers will tell you that the used game and resale market hurts them, and their argument isn’t a bad one. After all, every game that someone buys used as opposed to new is money that could have gone to support the developers and the game itself, and given a direct indication of how good the game is and if it is the sort of game that was or could be a success. The counter to that is that, in general, people who buy used games simply can’t afford to buy games that are new, and so this isn’t an actual lost sale, and that the benefits to having a resale market outweigh that loss. There’s some truth to this, and I’ll get into those benefits in a minute.

The problem with the counter is that it actually isn’t true … or, at least, it’s not totally true. Many people who buy used games could, in fact, afford to buy them new, but find buying used more cost effective. In short, they’re just trying to save some money, and if they can get essentially the same product for less money then they’ll just do it. A lot of piracy, it seems to me, is driven by just that sort of consideration: if I can get the game for free instead of paying for it, wouldn’t I be an idiot for paying? And then the company line makes some sense, as it proclaims: yeah, but if you don’t buy the games new then you won’t get any new games at all.

Again, look at my specific case. While in general I tend to buy used the games that I simply CAN’T buy new, the fact that the games cost less certainly doesn’t hurt. And, in fact, there are often cases — DA:O being one of them — where it being cheaper is what encourages me to take a chance on the game. If I have to pay $60 for a game, then I have to be convinced that I’ll like it, and there are a few games that I DID pay that much for that disappointed me (Marvel vs Capcom 3, I’m looking at you here). If I can pay $20, I’m far more likely to take a chance on the game. In fact, I only finished Oblivion because I managed to find a cheap (new, though) PS3 version of it at Best Buy and thought that playing it while lying on my sofa might make it easier to finish it than was the case playing the PC version on my desk (and yes, it did work). So cost effectiveness — whether through used games, the bargain bin, or even piracy — can be a major factor.

But all of these cases involve the developer getting less money for their product. How can that be good?

Well, let’s look at other areas where the used market thrives, like books and cars. In theory, the same problem exists here, and in spades; used books and cars are far more common and, in general, the prices for at least used cars are dramatically lower. Buying used cars is a way of life, and buying used books is, in fact, fairly common. You see a lot more used bookstores or used car lots than you see used game stores, and you don’t all that often have massive used game sales as a way to raise money for charities. And yet, the industries survive, and even thrive. In fact, car dealerships actually get into the used car business themselves, selling both new and used cars, which is similar to what some game stores are starting to do.

So, what is it that allows these areas to embrace the used market without destroying themselves? It seems to me that it’s all about the future, and this ties back in to the benefits of having a used market. People will buy new books and new cars — and, therefore, new games — if they can get some money back for the things that they aren’t using anymore. In the gaming context, if I can sell off a few of those games that I’ve either finished and never want to play again or that I’ve decided that I don’t actually want to play, then that frees up money in my budget for buying new games. It also lets me try out games in a game series — like, say, Mass Effect — before splurging on buying the whole series. If I try a game from a company or that’s in a style that I’ve never played, if I really like it then I might start looking for their games new instead of waiting for them to get into the used market or the bargain bin, building brand loyalty. Also, there’s less of a risk in my buying a new game if I know that if I really don’t like it I’m only out $30 instead of $60, meaning that I’m more likely to take chances on new games that I’m not sure of.

Ultimately, a used sale does indeed lose some money for the developer, and that is money that they may never get back. However, having a strong used MARKET can be considered an investment, a way to get people interested in the games in that series or from that developer, with the hope that your products are good enough that the next time you release a game, they’ll want to run, not walk, down to their local gaming store to buy that new copy and get it right now, because they know that it’s worth the money and they don’t want to wait for it to get to the used market. So, trying to kill the used game market is, in fact, a really, really bad idea. But what I think publishers need to do is take a cue from automobile manufacturers and even some gaming stores and get into the used game business themselves. Take in used games, refurbish them, and resell them, while giving discounts on their new games to people who turn in old games. That way they can make money on the used market itself as well as from the sale of new games. It’s a win-win.

Now, the current situation isn’t as nicely set-up for that as it could be, and the increase in downloadable games is only making it worse. But as long as actual disks can be sold, publishers can allow for gaming stores to accept specific trade-ins towards their new games and have the stores ship them back to the company to be refurbished and sent back to stop the store’s shelves again. The nice thing about this is that you’d have a centralized distribution point, so that if in particular areas, say, Persona 3 sells really well the publisher can ship more copies there which a gaming store itself likely can’t do.

Well, maybe that’s not all that feasible, but one thing is clear: killing the used market is not going to magically solve the problems the gaming industry is having. In fact, it’s likely to make them worse.

Mad Leet Skillz …

January 1, 2015

So, as I’ve mentioned before I just finished a run of Oblivion, putting me only one full release behind the Elder Scrolls series. Now, Oblivion had another trait that was relatively new for me, which was the fact that your skills only increased as you used them, and not at all when you leveled up. This is, of course, a stark contrast to most of the other games I’d played like the D&D games or Knights of the Old Republic where your skills only increased when you leveled, or the JRPGs where you had to train them explicitly with a trainer, like in the Suikodens or even in the Persona series.

Now, one of the problems with the model of adding skill points when you level up is that you get into the really odd situation of going out into the world, doing things, and then having a totally unrelated stat get better when you level up. So, you increase your speechcraft after spending a long, hard day silently killing mindless undead. It just seems strange. And trainers aren’t much better, since you either have to go out into the world and do things — read, kill things — to get the skill points so that they can be trained, or you have to spend lots and lots of gold to learn these skills, which while realistic is a bit annoying.

Oblivion’s model, of course, avoids all that. You only ever increase in the skills that you use. That’s it. So what you need to do is practice and practice and practice some more until you get your skill to the level you want it. The more you use a skill, the better you are at it. So this is nicely realistic.

But it does have its problems. One of them is that there really is no good way to increase a skill that you don’t use that often. So if you want a character that can pick locks when necessary but that doesn’t pick locks all the time, there’s really no way to train that level without finding an explicit practice point. There’s just no way to learn anything without doing it, even if you don’t really want to do it over and over to increase that skill level. It’s also bad for situational skills, where they happen in certain cases but not in others. Again, you simply can’t train it without doing it, and so passive skills and situational skills are really, really, really hard to do. In the other games, these sorts of skills are just things you increase because you want to increase them, even if you aren’t actually getting into any circumstances that really need them … yet.

Which leads to another problem, which is that if you base skills on how much they are used it becomes a problem if you ever include either in the main quest or in a side quest a portion that relies on them. After all, that character might simply have never had any cause to use that skill up until that point, and you’ll have a wide variety of skill levels per different characters. There’s no way for a player — even one that’s using a walkthrough — to increase important skills just because they might need to pick a lock or use a bow or track something later. So, you either end up with them practicing those skills all the time or, instead, have to ensure that no one skill is ever critical for a quest line, as they can’t even go away and level up a bit and come back; no, they’ll have to practice. Yes, I’m talkin’ ’bout PRACTICE.

Wizardry 8 had an interesting system that was a hybrid of these two models. As you used skills and abilities, their levels increased just as they do in Oblivion. However, when you leveled up you received a certain number of skill points that you could then distribute among all of your skills. Which meant that if you want to increase your thieving abilities, you could do so even if you hadn’t been picking locks and disarming traps. So you could create a back-up to your main rogue so that if something happened you wouldn’t be missing those critical skills. And even for a main character, you had an easier time either making a focused character by sinking all your points into your main skills or, alternatively, making them more of an all-around character by spreading your skills out, no matter what the game actually threw at you in the early stages. Doing it this way, you can then include some cases where a certain skill is needed as players will, in fact, be able to get that even if they dislike the mechanisms for doing it.

Now, this isn’t a perfect compromise, as if you allocate too many skill points you’re basically a KotOR-style game and if you allocate too few you’re an Oblivion-style game. And I’m sure that there are better solutions out there. But ultimately,playing in a good RPG requires you to be able to build a character in a way that makes sense while still being able to make that character who you want it to be. Skills are a major part of that, which is why getting this right matters so much. On the one hand, you don’t want the odd disconnect of using your combat experience to increase your speech ability. But on the other hand, you also don’t want to have your character be limited in what they can do solely by what the game tosses at you in the early stages, or what solutions the player happened to think of first. Thus, both styles have their problems, and it would be a good idea to find a compromise that can fix both problems.

I Know That Voice …

December 31, 2014

So, I’ve been playing through Oblivion and making every effort to finish it, and so for the first time in my life I’ve been immersed in a game where there’s voice acting for pretty much every character in the game, from the most minor to the most major. And there’s something really odd about that which is … the reuse of voices. In Oblivion, at least, there’s a small number of voices that are used for most of the NPCs, even for major ones. So they get used over and over and over again. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if these voice actors were really, really good voice actors, able to do a wide range of voices and make them sound completely different. But either they aren’t that good — although they are good enough for what they’re doing — or they aren’t doing it, so you end up with multiple NPCs with the exact same voice.

This can cause some role playing problems. If you associated that voice with a villain, hearing it on one of your allies will still carry the emotional connotations, making it harder to like your ally. That’s also the case if it was the voice of an NPC that you really liked who now is playing the role of a villain. Also, while you’re wandering through a new city hearing the old voice will immediately get you thinking “What’s that guy doing here?”, when it’s a completely different character. This, of course, will break immersion and remind you that you’re playing a game with a limited number of voice actors.

Don’t get me started on the fact that all Argonians seem to have the exact same voice, at least per gender. I can buy it for the Daedra enemies, but a playable race?

Now, this was clearly done to INCREASE immersion, and have you think that you’re really talking to people and really interacting in a world. But, of course, having enough voice actors to at least make this be not noticeable would require a massive budget just for the voice acting. So Oblivion seems to compromise, by hiring just enough voice actors to make it hopefully less noticeable, but not so many that the budget gets out of control. But this sort of compromise is one that makes no one happy. It probably costs far more than they’d like to do the voice acting and limits the big name voices they can bring in for their main characters. Yet it’s still really noticeable to anyone who pays any attention at all to the voices, who are the people who will find the sheer amount of voice acting to be a really good thing.

Ultimately, this is one of the issues with a lot of the new and cool developments in current gaming: they tend to be all or nothing. If you go all out on it, it will cost you a fortune but will be amazing. If you don’t, then at best you’ll get a minor improvement possibly at the expense of something else, and at worst you’ll defeat the whole purpose of doing it. So do you break the bank or risk spending money for nothing or risk being considered out-of-date? Choose wrong, and you might go out of business.


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