Blog Archives

Why it’s time for a video game music Renaissance

Hum a melody from a video game that came out in the past 10 years.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Chances are, you can’t, unless you cheat and use melodies from a Mario remake or the Halo anniversary edition. But why is that?

Well, let’s give a brief history of video game music (again [again {again}]). You had bleeps and blips with pacman, then someone came along and invented MIDI (woohoo!). Gameboy and Nintendo had 3 wavetable oscillators (pronounced “instruments”) and a noise machine for percussion. Then you get 16-bit stuff, samples, FM synths and some pretty rad stuff with Super Nintendo, Sega, etc. etc. Playstation comes around and supports digital audio! Woohoo again! Then from PS2/Xbox/Gamecube onward, you get mostly high-quality crystal-clear audio with amazing processing, either recorded by a live orchestra or painstakingly crafted from magnificent music libraries (like the main theme of Game of Thrones. You thought it was live, didn’t you? Nope, libraries). With the most modern consoles, adaptive music has come into play that defies the very idea of a soundtrack and offers a smooth blend of music from one place to another.

Whew, that was a crash course if I’ve ever seen one. Point being, the blinders have been removed, the constraints are nonexistent, and the audio processing capabilities of the newest consoles/PCs are so powerful that it’s the compositional equivalent of a kid in a candy store. It really is that good. And therein lies the problem.

Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

Let’s talk about MMOs… sigh…

I know what you’re thinking. I really do. You think that I’m going to talk about WoW, and SWTOR, and climb on top of my level 90 soapbox to deliver some self-righetous speech about how all MMOs are money-grubbing scumbuckets who utterly destroy your life as collateral damage. You think I’m going to villify Blizzard and BioWare and every one of the 50-some-odd million people who play (or have ever played) MMORPG games. You think I’m going to whine a little bit about PvP, and say that EVE isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is.
Well, my friends, you’re wrong.

Read the rest of this entry

I’m baaaaack!

Hello, ladies and germs! Actually, I should say “guten Tag!” because I’m in GERMANY.

Whoa. Guys, I’m in Germany.

For the new folks here at the blogoblag, let me fill you in: I’m studying electronic music at the Hochschule Trossingen. Unbelievably rad! My studies begin in about 4 weeks, but right now I’m taking a 6-week long INTENSE German language learning course. Every day, 6 hours a day, just German. I haven’t been speaking a lot of English lately, so forgive me if I occasionally use a German word now and then. Actually, that won’t happen, as these blogs are rigorously edited for spelling and grammatical errors.

Not.

So, the transition from American culture to German culture has been a little bit difficult. I had my trusty DS with me, and I’ve been playing a lot of Poke’mon: White to pass the time. I’m staying with a host family that didn’t have internet (UNTIL TODAY thank Jobs), and so I was woefully without games that require the internet to play (like Diablo and Starcraft and often Minecraft and a lot of Steam games) and games that require the internet to DOWNLOAD (like the new Android Humble Bundle 3. I hope you bought it!). But now, German DSL is screaming along, giving me access to you, my dear readers, and to a wonderful cornucopia of other things like Facebook and Reddit. Actually, those things aren’t wonderful. They’re just excuses not to go outside and see this totally different, beautiful country that I’m in. So, perhaps I’ll slack off on keeping up with my American friends or the newest cat pictures.

But this blog! It must not be forgotten.

This particular post isn’t actually going to have anything of real substance (deep, well thought-out opinions about the true nature of video games will come later. Pinky swear). However, it’s going to let you know that all is not lost! There might be a brief hiccup when I move from my current location to Trossingen, because, well… new living location, lots of stuff to do, no internet, yadda yadda. Everyone who’s ever moved out of their parents’ basement knows what I’m talking about: that brief couple of days (or weeks) that you realize there is NO WAY for you to know what anyone else on the planet is doing. Interesting feeling.

So! The rest is bookkeeping. It is rather late here, and I almost said “the rest is beekeeping.” Perhaps a more interesting hobby, but I don’t think the analogy works here.

I’ve been nominated for the “One Lovely Blog” award by two separate people: cary, a longtime follower (really, one of the first) and a damn good game blogger in her own right, and Brendan, a blogger I wasn’t familiar with until, well, he sent me his nomination. Mea culpa.

As I tend to Google things, I have discovered that a ton of people have been “nominated,” and that there’s actually no one who really AWARDS these things. However, it’s totally nice and cool and it was the impetus for me to get my butt onto the computer and do some serious writing about video games! So, thank you both for the nominations… I found it very sweet.

About my day job (you know, this whole “music” thing I’ve flown halfway across the world and abandoned my family and friends to pursue). Before I left I spoke with a friend who has been in the film and video game industry for a long time, often as a certain type of artist, but as of late more as a representative for other creative types. I won’t be too specific, but she’s pretty awesome and knows EVERYONE. Anyway, we got to talking about how I would absolutely love more than anything to write music for games. It’s been a pipe dream that I’ve never considered to be a real possibility, but she was very supportive (which is a big thing, considering she KNOWS the industry and how difficult it is to enter). She mentioned something about lending her support in a more tangible way (which I also won’t mention here), but would perhaps be my “foot in the door,” so to speak. It’s not a free ride. I’d have to work hard. I’d have to start at the bottom, getting coffee for people like Hans Zimmer or Nobuo Uematsu (truthfully, getting coffee for the people who GET COFFEE for these composers). I jest, a little bit, but the important thing is, that I’d be working in that industry. Here’s the caveat: if I did take her up, I’d probably be working for a LARGER game company (think EA or Blizzard or Bethesda or something). They employ a lot of people, and as you may have read, I’m not always on their side. I think my goals and my ideals align more with an indie game group, but alas, it’s pretty much impossible to “apply” for a job in that world. It’s a great deal more about knowing the lead programmer (for example).

So what do you think? It’s a complicated decision, to be sure. Fortunately, I don’t have to make it for a year yet, and by then, everything could change. But I’m interested to know what everyone thinks.

That’s all for today! Sorry about not having any unrelated analogies or funny pictures. More will come. I just wanted everyone to know that I haven’t died or fallen off the face of the earth. I’m just on the OPPOSITE face of the earth. Completely different thing.

~Another Gamer

P.S. Here are some games. I think they’re awesome, but a couple of them will be relevant to my next post. SO PLAY THEM! Don’t slack off, you have gaming to do.

Dibbles: A puzzle game with a rather morbid (and awesome) twist.

Zombotron… 2! (even more fun than the original.)

Glean: I love these types of games. Perhaps not a “blatant” ripoff of MotherLode, but similar. This one, however, is complex, rather beautiful, and extraordinarily well-written. As far as flash games go, I recommend it very highly. Play it, be completely engrossed, leave a comment when you remember that there exists an internet outside of finding the next treasure chest.

P.P.S. I’m glad to be back. I don’t know if you could tell. I’ve missed writing about video games so much. I haven’t stopped being passionate about them, so not being able to write is a rough business. I’m glad to be back.

The end of Zynga?

Perhaps I should have titled this post “A gamedev you’ll loathe,” because of the simple fact that Zynga is as close to the spawn of Satan I have seen in this world (besides whoever thought up “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” of course. What a bastard). Zynga, if you don’t know them (and you should), is the company that makes all of the “ville” game, most notably Farmville. They also are in charge of Words with Friends, Zynga Poker (duh), and more recently, Draw Something. They pretty much have a corner on the Facebook game market, and they certainly use their powers for evil. Listen to this quote by Farmville creator Marc Pincus:

“I knew that I wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues, right, fucking, now. Like I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this Zwinky toolbar which was like, I don’t know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it.”

Wow, what a jerkwad. Not only are you the maker of some pretty dubiously legitimate games, but you also encourage your users to download, I dunno, MALWARE? Jeez. Sauron looks at you and just says, “Dang, dude.”

But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who loathe Zynga with a flaming, fiery passion: they’re dying.

Yessiree! There has been news of Zynga’s stock tanking after the 2nd quarter profit reports came in. Not enough people are playing the existing games that Zynga made, and I guess they’re just not putting out enough new ones. What, Farmville, Cityville, Frontierville, Castleville, Yoville, Fishville, and Petville have saturated your market? AW, SHUCKS! That’s just too bad. Now, as for the 3 or 4 of you who are wondering if Zynga’s (hopefully) inevitable downfall is a good thing, let me explain some things to you about the company.

 

First of all, I think it’s clear from the above quote that they’re money-grubbing bastards. But there’s more to it than prompting you to install malware. The games themselves are all designed with a system in mind: you have a certain amount of “energy,” which you accumulate over time, that allows you to complete tasks. For instance, in Farmville, you plow fields, plant crops, harvest crops, and build structures (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong), with energy. As you expand your farm, energy becomes increasingly scarce, and you must either shorten the length of time between your play sessions (to get the maximum benefit from energy regeneration), or, in a more appealing route, you can pay REAL MONEY to buy energy. Yep. Paying real money for nothing. There are also tasks you must complete by getting an obscene number of friends to help you out on FB OR by paying real money. There are premium items that you can collect your coins and cash and pinch pennies over months to buy… or pay real money for them. Lots of these “pay to play” aspects have worked their way into all of Zynga’s games.

Now, I know that there is a fundamental disagreement about “pay to play” games. Many people say that they’re just fine, because you don’t HAVE to pay to play, and if one chooses to pay, they’re not paying for “NOTHING,” they’re paying for ENTERTAINMENT. While this is true, the amount of money you have to shell out to continue playing these games increases as you get through them. They are repetitive, and if we factor in how much work it took the developers to make said premium items versus how much you’re paying to unlock them, we get an hourly salary that even makes Blizzard employees drool. I believe strongly that if one is going to pay extra money to play something free, the additional gameplay and experiences you get to enjoy should be directly related to how much you pay for it. Consider the following:

Unlocking tomatoes, eggplant, and peas in Farmville is roughly equivalent to a month’s worth of World of Warcraft? Or perhaps it’s equivalent to an extremely kickass DLC for your favorite Xbox game?

Nope. Not a chance. These games are designed to suck you in (and your friends, through the incessant mass-delivered requests), and then, once you play often, you start running into everyday predicaments that are most conveniently solved by paying for the game. They don’t stop once you start paying, either. Eventually you run out of FarmCash (or whatever), and you must pay more to continue your lavish agrarian lifestyle. Utter balderdash, I say. If a game is free then make it free. If a game is worth paying for, ask people to pay for it. None of this “free to play, pay to win” nonsense.

So their business model isn’t working out anymore. Facebook is worried about it because they get 12 percent of their revenue from Zynga. Zynga is worried about it because they’re greedy sons-of-you-know-whats. But if their entire company goes up in flames? If I never see another Farmville (or any other ville) request in my entire life? If I download a mobile game I can play with my friends and I DON’T have to be bombarded with messages demanding my money? Well… there’s at least one person who WON’T be worried about the end of Zynga.

Me.

~Another Gamer

P.S. I’m sorry that I’m not as funny when I’m pissed off, but I’ve hated Zynga for a long time and vengeance is sweet.

 

Video Games and Norse Mythology!

The Norse were frickin’ amazing. A thousand years ago they were regaling each other with stories of Odin’s many glories and drinking lots of mead. The beat the crap out of each other, each with hopes of being killed in glorious battle and being taken by a beautiful Valkyrie to end their days at Valhalla… drinking mead… and fighting. I don’t really think they noticed that their concept of heaven was exactly what they were doing here in the first place… But hey, if that’s where your religion is at, more power to ya! Now, in terms of video games, the Norse religion has absolutely nothing to do with this lovable genre about which I blog, right? You say contemptuously, “Fool! I fight with my enemies in the hope of NOT being killed in glorious battle! Valhalla awaits me not, only the depressingly beautiful music of the game over screen. And none of my characters drink mead! When I’m playing video games, the only mortal imbibing that liquour of the gods is me!” (I certainly hope you actually say it like that. It’d make my day). But you’d be wrong anyway! Except about the mead thing.  Norse mythology is so much a part of video games that often they’re quite inseparable. I’m going to talk about three RPGs, however, because Grand Theft Auto actually lacks much of a mythological theme. These RPGs are Final Fantasy, Tales of Symphonia, and World of Warcraft (yes, I know. It gets old after a while).

Read the rest of this entry

You must bring balance to the force…

Balance is very important. It’s the only thing that keeps the universe in order. Yin vs. Yang. Good vs. Evil. Microsoft vs. Apple. You get the picture. But in video games, it’s you against the baddies, and only one of you is going to get out alive (or in the case of Poke’mon, un-fainted…?). And when push comes to shove, balance in video games is about how much power you have  versus how tough the enemies are. Balance is yet another important aspect of video games that constantly frustrates developers, and can truly make or break a game’s playability. And in the world of making video games, it is special because each game’s balance is unique; whatever you start with is going to take some serious tweaking to be viable, no matter how much experience in the industry you have! And if your game’s balance sucks, the first bits of feedback you’ll get are: “1/5, too hard” or “1/5, too easy.” Critics. I swear.

This has got to be the most underrated game in existence.

There are many things that go into making the balance of a game good. It seems all mystical and stuff, but in reality it’s just a collection of numbers.  I mean, you say “Okay, your magic missile does… *rolls dice* FOUR damage.” Four is a number! (And while we’re stating the obvious, the sky is blue.) These numbers, when working in conjunction with each other, make up your games balance. The main things I’ve found that really affect how your game is balanced are: your survivability, your damage, and the health of enemies. If you die too quickly, then your game will be spent hiding behind a wall to avoid being hit. No fun. If it’s too high, then you’re just going to run through the levels, blasting everything that comes your way. More fun! But still, not engaging enough to make you want to play it all the way through. Same thing with your damage. And, of course, the health of enemies is the biggest thing that makes a difference, because it not only affects how the game feels, but gives you lots of options for different enemies with different health. So you can have big, bad, tough enemies, and little, annoying, squishy ones. Yay!

This is all very abstract and math-y, so let’s look at some examples! World of Warcraft is popular, and we could say its balance is pretty good. But really, is it? 90% of the time, you’re facing one enemy at a time, whittling down their health until they’re a bloody heap of loot at your feet. And no one feels powerful just facing one enemy at a time. But then, you get to what’s lovingly known as “Endgame Content,” where you have somewhere between 10 and 25 guys beating the living crap of one guy. Now, if you think to yourself: hang on, I spent this entire game 1-on-1 with regular enemies, and you’re trying to make me feel MORE powerful by making it 25-on-1? Real smart, Blizzard. But here’s the thing that changes all that and makes you feel pretty cool and powerful and like you’re doing something with your life (okay, maybe not that last one).  When you have that team of 25 people, you’re free to totally let loose with your powers, because (wait for it!), your survivability changes completely! All of a sudden, instead of worrying about dying, you now have healers and things covering your butt and keeping you from death, which you are unfortunately NOT blessed with in regular 1-on-1 combat. Whoa, Blizzard, it’s like you do this whole balance thing pretty well!

Let’s find another example. This other, totally unknown and unpopular Blizzard game, Diablo 2, has in my opinion some of the best balance choices of any game ever, and I’ll tell you why (as if you doubted that I would). In Diablo 2 there are 5 types of enemies: Regular enemies, Boss enemies, Champion enemies, Quest enemies, and Final Boss enemies. (Yes, these categories have been arbitrarily created by me, but I’m writing the blog here, so suck it up!) Now the regular enemies, from the very beginning of the game, can be torn through like bloody evil tinfoil. They come in huge packs which eventually threaten your existence, but only if you’re really not paying attention. This is great because it makes you feel like you’re this awesome superhero, who vanquishes little annoying lizard-things with relative ease. Boss enemies are much tougher versions of normal enemies with special powers. Beating on them takes a while, but boy, does it feel good when they die. In that situation, your survivability’s down, your damage is up (because it’s focused on one enemy), and the enemy’s health is increased. But the balance feels right, even though it’s different than normal. Champion enemies are groups of slightly-less-than-boss-level enemies. Yet a different feeling of balance! Now come the fun ones: Quest enemies and Final Bosses. These are exceedingly tough enemies, and truth be told I think this is where the balance of the game breaks down a little bit. It’s rough to be constantly beating on an enemy with little or no indication that you’re really getting anywhere. Eventually, however, you finish them off, and it’s both well-rewarded with gear/uprgades, and with plot progression. And how those fights are balanced really makes the difference as to whether or not you feel like you really DID something, even if it took you a long time.

Interesting side note about that: Boss names are randomly generated, but their health bars are the length of their name. So if you have a Diablo 2 boss named “Ted,” then each hit feels like you’re taking away about a pixel of his health. But if you have a boss named “Angerfist, the Pustulant Harbinger of Doom and Destroyer of World-Eating Zombie Dragons,” then each hit makes it look like you’re taking away like 3 letters of  his needlessly lengthy name! It’s an interesting Diablo 2 kind of thing. Unfortunately, Diablo himself has a very short name, and boatloads of health, so you’re really working for that next pixel of damage, and generally dying a lot in the process.

It all makes sense, really. And if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that Blizzard can take two games with essentially the same style of gameplay (one hero versus many baddies), and yet can make satisfying gameplay out of 1-on-1 and “1-on-wow, that’s a lot of enemies.” You get the feeling how unique balance is? And truth be told, there’s one aspect of it that’s really more important than how easy or difficult the game is. That aspect is how the game FEELS. Balance, in its very essence, is about feeling. It’s about how powerful you feel when you’re mowing down armies of enemies, or how helpless you feel against that final boss. It gives games variety within their own combat system, and it keeps you engaged as you figure out how to fight tougher enemies, or gloriously shoot down hordes of weaker ones (I don’t know if you can tell, but I love killing those weaker enemies. It’s a better stress-reliever than yoga!).

On a slightly more interactive note: to illustrate my point about balance, there’s a specific kind of game genre called “Bullet Hell.” These games have a pretty fun balance typically characterized (I bet you’d never guess this from the name) by a LOW survivability.  Check out one of my favorites here. Dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge, folks.

That's a lot of green bullets. Also, for extra bonuses, the closer they get to you without hitting you, the better. Hooray.

So that’s that. Think about it the next time you play a game like Ratchet and Clank, or Ninja Gaiden, or Mass Effect. How does it feel? I don’t mean to sound like your resident video gamer Freudian shrink, but seriously. You’ll realize that not only did the game designers really make an awesome gameplay experience for you, your character is really effective at blowing stuff up, and it feels good. 😀

~Another Gamer

P.S. So… tell me about your mother.

Achievement Unlocked!

Congratulations, me! It’s my 10th legitimate post on this awesome website. In my short time here, I’ve accumulated acclaim, many followers, national renown, and had Rush Limbaugh call me a slut. It’s been a good run so far, and I have no intention of stopping anytime soon! And for some reason, on this portal to the blogosphere, they have a tally that keeps track of the number of posts you have published, and a goal that incrementally becomes higher as you fulfill it! To me, it kind of feels like an achievement. And, (amazingly enough) that’s what I’m planning on talking about today: Achievements.

I'm still working on getting this one.

Read the rest of this entry

The Blizzard Epidemic

You’re a serious gamer, right? I mean, your 4 food groups are chips’n’dip, hot wings,  cold pizza and Mountain Dew. You think that by going to bed early, you mean 3 or 3:30am, and you cancel that date you (finally) picked up from the online matchmaking service because it conflicted with your XBOX live time. Wait, no? You’re married to a wonderful woman (or man, even), work full time, have 3 kids who you’re trying to get through the public school system? You have an SUV, a mortgage, and you are looking forward to a relatively comfortable retirement? And you pay fifteen bucks a month to play World of Warcraft. How is this POSSIBLE?!?!?!? World of Warcraft is the bane of existence! It dominates your life! You lose real life friends and replace them with NPC’s in-game! You tell your guildmates that you’re going to go back “into real life” for a bit, like this is Inception and your fantasy world has become reality! It’s a terrifying, life-sucking, social-adjustment-destroying monster. Right? Read the rest of this entry