Monday, March 21, 2011

Gaming communities

Be a gamer for long enough and soon you'll start taking an interest in all things related to it.  If you want a better looking experience it means getting a better display or a faster video card.  If you just can't stand all that waiting between load screens of Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls then you get a faster Hard drive or an SSD.

Sooner or later you may feel the need to interact with others of a like mind.  You revel in the chance to discuss the merits and limitations of the latest hardware or game with others from all ages and interests.

Like any other online community devoted to a particular topic you'll find lively conversation and strong opinions on both sides of any argument.  The value and intelligence of the discourse vary with the forum poster. 

There is an issue, however, when you're a mid aged gamer. 

While gaming has become mainstream across almost every demographic the hard core enthusiast tends to be on the younger side.  Without making sweeping generalizations about the difference between generations I will caution you to tread lightly when entering forums.

More than once I've had the misfortune of having to deal with a gang of embryos consumed by their fanboydom and geekness.  Their weaponry of personal attacks and empty statistics defies reasonable discourse.   As much as you may want to pin their ears back it ultimately serves no purpose.  You may be thinking about how to fit your addiction into line with keeping the lights on and paying your mortgage.  They're thinking about frame rates at any cost because it's likely someone else is paying the bills.

Worse, if the  moderator of such a forum also subscribes to a similar fascism you may be done before you start.  Remember that the Internet is still the wild west.  Just as Paypal isn't a bank (and many have found this out the hard way) forums are not bastions of free speech.  More often than not a differing opinion from an article post or comment will be quashed without remorse.  Doubly so if such contrary opinions threaten the site's advertising revenue or access to free hardware "for review".

My suggestion is that it's better to take a more passive stance on such sites.  Enjoy the articles but resist the urge to post anything contrary to the group think at least until you've trolled the forums for awhile to get the lay of the land.  If half the forum posts are consumed with " great article" or " you're an idiot" then just move on.

Better yet, start your own forum, post your own articles and when you get the attention of a major hardware vendor, resist the urge to have your opinion swayed by them.  There are sites that claim to have done this but actions dictate otherwise more often than not.  That's fine so long as you don't claim to be unbiased in your opinions.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Browser Based Games

A good game doesn’t have to cost you any money.

All of the aspects that go in to what I feel is a good game can be found in many online browser-based games.  I include both browser and flash games in this category since you generally need a web browser to play them.  There are exceptions to the rule where you can get standalone copies of popular browser titles like Bejeweled but that kind of misses the point.

The hook with this type of gaming is usually comprised of two factors: price (free) and accessibility.  Most of us have tried our hand at least one browser game over at MSN gaming or when we had a bit of down time  at the office or were stuck on standby at the airport.  The challenge for a developer is to keep your interest but stay within the constraints of a limited resource environment.  Most browser games can care less about what video card you use or how powerful your CPU is.  If you can watch an online video chances are you can play a browser game.

As browser plug-ins evolve so does the possibility for a better gaming experience.  The thing to remember is that browser gaming isn’t meant to replace traditional gaming but rather be a supplement to it.  Sometimes you just want to hear that booming voice say “I N C R E D I B L E” when you have a particularly good combination of gems in Bejeweled.  Where traditional gaming can require a substantial investment in both the game and the hardware to fully appreciate it browser games offer quick and easy access to fun on whatever platform you choose.  The price is usually just your time and a few banner ads.

Smartphones are ubiquitous these days and it’s no surprise that advancements in browser gaming have led to an explosion in game titles adapted or written expressly for them.  This wouldn’t be possible without the original browser-based titles.  Developers have learned how to optimize relatively scarce resources much like early software developers had to optimize software to work with the original 640K memory limits of the IBM PC.

So we know that this type of gaming is generally cheap and demands little more than a good chunk of your downtime but why is it so popular?  Free is a great price but most things at this price point are better left alone so why bother?

The answer is that most people are hungry for any distraction from boredom.  It’s that simple.  I’ve been totally engrossed in a browser game for hours and then didn’t touch it again for months because I just wasn’t that invested in it for anything but a pastime.  That’s another key factor in that games like this that know their audience is comprised largely of a consumer that has at least a touch of ADD.  Make it interesting no matter what level I’m at and don’t make me feel guilty about ignoring it for a while.

There are browser based games that are more like their commercial counterparts.  Browser games such as Lord of Ultima or Might and Magic: Heroes Kingdoms are in some cases spinoffs of commercial titles.  I’m involved in Lord Of Ultima and have been for the past year.  The nice thing with this game is that you get the flexibility to play the game the way you want to play it.  If you want to be the conquering tyrant you can be but only if those you subjugate agree to enter the fray.  If you just want to build cities and play a background role you can do that too.  The bad thing about a more complex browser game is that you have to suffer the same technical issues inherent in any free game but on a larger scale.

So how do browser games like Lord of Ultima manage to support themselves without advertising or a fee?  In Lord of Ultima’s case they have a mechanism to purchase upgrades in the form of diamonds that allow you to activate items that can give you more resources or speed up an operation.  You can play the game for no money but at some point you find the need for a quick upgrade and diamonds are the only way to do it.  That is obviously by design but not an absolute requirement.   The downside of a game like this is that you can end up investing as much time in it as you would a traditional game which defeats the purpose in my view.  For example; Lord of Ultima is all about building stronger cities than your neighbor.  With more cities comes more of a demand on your time and at one point I was devoting 2 hours a day to maintaining 30 of them.  Other players have hundreds of cities and for them it’s a full-time job.  At that point I think we begin to lose focus on what a browser game should be which is low impact and fun without demanding any more time than you’re willing to spend playing the game instead of maintaining it.

To sum it up, as long as there is the possibility of downtime and some kind  of computing device available there will be browser games.  So enjoy them, just don’t take them too seriously.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Driving games

I'm a frequent viewer  of BBC's Top Gear which airs on BBC America in the U.S.  I enjoy the antics of the hosts and reviews of cars I'd never be able to see let alone drive so it's a nice change of pace from the usual car show fare.

I was watching an older episode where Jeremy, one of the hosts, was trying to see if he could match a lap time obtained in the driving game Forza Motorsport with the same car on the same track in the real world.  The car was an Acura NSX on the very real Laguna Seca racetrack and with Forza being one of the more faithful driving simulations it seemed a fair match up.  Without recounting the entire episode I can tell you that he couldn't get closer than within 17 seconds of his gaming result. 

Now a better driver might have done better but that's not the point.  The point is that driving skills don't necessarily translate from the real to the virtual world or vice versa.  At least not at the current level of driving game evolution.

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Let's face it,  I don't care who you are, unless you're sitting in a multimillion dollar driving simulator you can't even get close to the real life driving experience.  No game can possibly duplicate all the the random scenarios that come up.  Games that try usually end up being unplayable because you can't apply the same judgement to a simulation on a computer screen that you would looking out your windshield. 

There's literally a "seat of the pants" dynamic that can't be duplicated and therefore can't be responded to in an equivalent manner.  Steering wheels, pedals and multiple monitors help but it's still not the same experience.

361259_Up to 75% off Video Game Accessories - Shop GameShark Store NowThere have been a few events in the past where gamers got the chance to do the real thing on a special track day always with a strong dose of humility at the end.  You may be able to turn 45 second laps on Laguna Seca in a Ferrari Enzo in Forza but you'll have a tough time even figuring out the seat belts in the real thing.

Still driving games are fun and for me some of the best would have to be Need For Speed Shift, Race Driver Grid and Dirt 2.  Those are more of the simulation variety with a healthy dose of arcade gameplay to make them playable.  Other titles like the older Test Drive unlimited, Flatout or Need For Speed titles like Most Wanted are pure arcade. Leave your sense of reality at the door and just have fun with those.

One of the worst I ever played would have to be Test Drive Unlimited.  That's a shame because it's a truly gorgeous game mapped on the real life highways of the island of Oahu in the state of Hawaii.  Driving it sometimes felt like a vacation and made me long for doing the real thing someday minus the 150mph speeds of course.  I'm sure Hawaii jails are just as unpleasant as anywhere else in the states.

The problem with this game was it demanded driving skills of a simulation but reacted like an arcade game.  That meant realism without any means of feedback.  Such multiple personality disorders can make for annoying gameplay.  A pothole in the middle of the road could cause a catastrophic end which would be fine if you could actually see it coming and react ( I never saw a pothole BTW ).  A brush against a freeway wall meant literally sticking to it and coming to a dead stop instead of a glancing blow.  Car control was marginal at best which made every race less about racing and more about avoiding game bugs.  Not fun...

So what makes a good driving game?  That's as subjective as your taste in cars.  If it's fun for you, looks good on the screen and you don't take it too seriously then it's worth having in your game library.

In the end, however, it's still just a game so don't go running off thinking you're all that.  Having the best lap time on the Internet  doesn't mean anything in the real world.  Don't feel too bad though, I've seen more than one successful race driver do horribly in a driving game.