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The GameStop/OnLive Debacle: How I Like To Think It Happened

GameStop Underling: Huh. That’s interesting.

GameStop Boss: What is?

Underling: These Deus Ex: Human Revolution games Square Enix shipped us include a voucher for a free OnLive copy of the game. I don’t think they mentioned they were gonna do that.

Boss: What? OnLive? But we just bought our own digital delivery game service - Impulse! That makes OnLive our competitor!

Underling: I suppose it does.

Boss: We better open the boxes and remove the vouchers.

Underling: Wait, what?

Blizzard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DRM

You may have heard that there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle recently in response to some news about Diablo III. I’ll walk you through it - but first, we need to talk about Ubisoft.

On July 28, Ubisoft reported that they consider their constant connection DRM scheme to be a “success.” This despite the uproar and backlash caused by the scheme, the fact that it was immediately cracked, the clear demonstration of the system’s flaws when denial of service attacks locked out paying customers and left pirates unaffected, and Ubisoft’s eventual scaling back of the DRM to a once-per-run validation. Their reasoning?

Uncharted, One Chance, and Cheating

I don’t have much more to say about Uncharted 2, as it turns out, because I didn’t get through much more of it before giving up and sending it back to GameFly. I’m therefore not qualified to review it, but I’ll tell you that the reason I sent it back was because I disliked (a) the combat (b) the parkour (c) the artifact-hunting, which leaves very very little to enjoy. All that remains is the game’s cinematic components, the dialog and characterization and set-pieces. And there’s the other problem: Uncharted 2 is, even more than its predecessor, far too movie-like.

The One Commandment for Game Sequels

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about franchises. Having recently played Mass Effect 2, and then Assassin’s Creed II, and now Uncharted 2, I have a lot of questions about what sequels are and what they should be.

When I played the original Mass Effect, I fell head-over-heels in love. I made three complete play-throughs in rapid succession, I devoured both novels available at the time (Revelation and Ascension), and when called upon to name my favorite three video games, Mass Effect made the cut.

Then I played Mass Effect 2, and now I barely care about the series. I mean, I’ll probably play Mass Effect 3. I guess. Certainly not for full launch-day price. You can bet I won’t pre-order, even if they don’t pull any of my pet peeve shenanigans.

What happened here that turned my devoted fandom to near indifference?

The Superhero Games I Wish Existed

The way things are right now, I still don’t have time to write the in-depth, fleshed-out articles I used to write. But I still have a lot of thoughts about video games, and most of them don’t really fit into 140 characters. So from time to time, I’m going to revisit this space with what’s on my mind.

Today I am thinking about superhero games. These, like film tie-ins, are so rarely done well that it’s actually noteworthy when they don’t suck.

Spider-Man 2 box art
Arkham Asylum box art

Part of the problem might be that superhero games tend to confine themselves to the “third-person action game” format. Sometimes that works - GTA-like mechanics fit Spider-Man surprisingly well, and taking several pages from the book of Bioshock (switched, of course, to third-person) paid off well for Batman.

Real Games Have Curves: Welcome to the Competence Zone

Let’s make a graph. The horizontal axis is player skill. On the far left is no skill - just random button-pushing. On the far right is perfect video game godhood, always doing exactly the correct thing at the correct time in the correct way. The first time you play a game, you’ll probably be somewhere in the middle - farther right if you’re a veteran gamer, farther left if you’re a novice. As you play the game, and learn its mechanics, you’ll trend right as you get better.

The vertical axis is performance level. At the very bottom is complete failure - game over as quickly as possible, not achieving any of the game’s goals. Farther up is the passing line, separating failure below from success above. The line itself is a performance level of just barely passing a challenge - surviving the boss fight with one hit point left, clearing the race course just before the clock runs out, and so on. And at the very top of the axis is absolute perfect performance - winning by the largest margin possible.

Now we can chart the performance levels achievable with a particular amount of player skill: the “skill curve” for a given challenge.

When the Oldies are Not Goodies: The Questionable Legacy of Nostalgia

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine - original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/myklroventine/3210068573/

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine

Once upon a time, people didn’t buy video games. They went to an arcade, and bought playtime in twenty-five cent increments. How much time a quarter bought was completely dependent on the skill of the player. An unskilled player would find their progress barred quickly, and need to supply more quarters. A skilled player could proceed much longer, and was thus rewarded for the time, effort, and money poured into gaining their skill. The public nature of the arcade also rewarded the skilled player with the opportunity to show off in front of others. This provided the unskilled players with something to aspire to and suggested that it would be worthwhile to keep feeding the machines with quarters, so that they too might someday bask in similar glory. So it made a great deal of financial sense for arcade games to feature limited lives with more available for purchase.

Eventually video games moved from the arcade to the living room. Here it was much harder for a player to compare themselves to other local players, and there was no need to keep the quarters flowing since games were purchased outright. The reasons to limit lives had vanished, and barring the progress of unskilled players now served mainly to disrupt the experience and prevent those players from seeing all the content of the game for which they had already paid. This limited the games’ potential audience - why buy a game you can’t expect to make it through? Financially, it made no sense whatsoever for games played in the home to feature limited lives.

But that didn’t stop them from doing it anyway. From the original Super Mario Brothers on the NES all the way up to New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii, mainstream games have still not completely shaken off the limited lives trend. Why?