Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Christmas Loot

I hope everyone had a good gaming Christmas. I sure did. Here's a rundown of what I got:

Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption (Wii) - The final installment in the Metroid Prime series. Long-time readers of this site may remember my frustration with the first game in this series - the bosses were insanely hard, and I never got past the Omega Pirate - but damn, I wanted another first person shooter for the Wii with good controls.

There are reportedly only 2 such shooters for the Wii - this Metroid installment and Medal of Honor Heroes 2, which I'd enjoyed very much last year. With the release date of The Conduit still only listed as "Spring 2009", it was Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption or nothing. I will play as far as I can into Corruption and when it gets too hard, just abandon it. Sounds like a plan!

Okami (Wii) - I played a demo of this game on the Playstation 2 a few years back, and have wanted the Wii version since it came out last spring. I can't wait to get into it.

Castlevania : Dawn of Sorrows (DS) - I've wanted a modern DS Castlevania for some time, and this one certainly fits the bill. Although I've yet to find a whip to use as a weapon, the gameplay is classic, and is mixed in with some great RPG elements. The graphics are superb and the music is epic. The monsters are also well-designed and fun to battle. There's a lot of gameplay here, I suspect.

Castlevania : Portrait of Ruin (DS) - Another one! I'll try this one out after I beat Dawn of Sorrows.

Those first four games were all gifts from my wonderful and understanding wife. Among her gifts from me were two games she wanted - Wario Land : Shake It for the Wii, and Midnight Party Pack for the DS, so I may try those games out, too, when time permits.

The fifth game I got for Christmas was generated from a Gamestop gift card:

Farcry 2 (XBox 360) - An open-world first person shooter with stunning graphics and a huge map to explore. I got an hour or so into it yesterday and was very impressed. The story is cool so far, and the character one plays is sticken with malaria! That's right, you're prone to pass out from time to time as you play. Also, if a gun you picked up from a fallen foe looks rusty, it might just be crap and jam up on you in the middle of a fight!

There's an interesting story about how I acquired Farcry 2 from my local Gamestop. Anyone who went to one of their stores the day after Christmas probably experienced what I did - wall to wall crowds, an obviously overworked and stressed-out staff, and utter chaos everywhere.

I went into the store looking for Farcry 2, and there was no box for it on either the used or new shelves. Without a wandering sales associate to pester about it, I decided to stand in line and take my chances that there were copies behind the register. To their credit, the staff at that store kept things moving along quick, and the line that looked very long translated into a mere ten minute wait for me.

At the register, I asked the clerk about the game, and he looked around behind the counter for it. He failed to find it, and looked on his computer for it too, and it seemed that they were indeed sold out. "What about that copy?", I asked, pointing to a single copy of the game sitting in a stack of other games.

It took him a second to see where I was pointing, but then he took the game from the pile and examined it. There was a small tag attached to the back of it, and he noted "It's being held for someone."

Crestfallen, I began to think if I wanted another game, but before I could finish that thought, the sales associate noted "But he was supposed to be here five hours ago".

"You snooze, you lose", I said.

He agreed, and rang up the game. It got better. The game was on sale for $40, down from its normal $60 price tag. In addition, it was a Gamestop-exclusive pre-order copy with 6 Bonus levels. I thanked the guy behind the counter, hoping that the person who had held the game would never show up and get angry with the staff there.

So, I've gotten five new games for Christmas, which should keep me busy for some time. I'll write full reviews as I delve more deeply into those games.

Beaten in 2008

I'm pretty sure with only a few days left in this year, that I've beaten every game that I'm going to beat. So it's time to look back and see what I've accomplished. I've surprisingly finished more games this year than I normally do, something I suspect is because my gaming habits are changing.

With less time and money to devote to gaming, which I'm sure most middle-aged gamers also experience, I've been buying better games and trying to get the most out of them, rather than buying every new game and skimming through it. It helps that the internet provides an unprecedented level of information about new games these days, with professional and less-than-professional reviews everywhere you look, allowing more cautious purchases than in the past.

So here's what I beat this year:

Super Mario Galaxy (119 Stars) - Wii
Medal of Honor Heroes 2 - Wii
Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Justice For All - DS
Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations - DS
Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney - DS
Bully : Scholarship Edition - Wii
Portal (on The Orange Box) - XBox 360
Call of Duty 4 - XBox 360
Half Life 2 (on The Orange Box) - XBox 360
Half Life 2 Episode 1 (on The Orange Box) - XBox 360
Half Life 2 Episode 2 (on The Orange Box) - XBox 360
Fable 2 - XBox 360
Portal : Still Alive - XBox 360
Grand Theft Auto IV - XBox 360
Dead Space - XBox 360
Left 4 Dead (survived all 4 campaigns) - XBox 360

Some other games that I beat to varying degrees, but the nature of these games makes it hard to define "beaten" : Super Smash Brothers Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, and Boom Blox.

It was a very good year for gaming, and my own perseverance, coupled with great gameplay, made it a more accomplished year than previous ones. Will these changes continue into 2009? Time will tell.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Welcome, Canadians!

I've been interviewed by reporter Christopher Poon for a cool article about middle-aged gamers in the Georgia Straight, "Canada's largest urban weekly", published in Vancouver.

There's a link to this blog in there, so I want to wish a warm welcome to all my Canadian visitors. I hope you enjoy the site. Stick around after Christmas for some year-end articles, including my personal selection for Videogame of the Year.

Thanks to Christopher Poon for the shout-out, and I've got to say - Vancouver looks like one really great city. My wife and I have added it to our list of places to take a vacation as soon as we're out of enough debt.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Goodbye To An Old Friend

I was saddened the other day to learn of the closing of a Toys-R-Us store here in town. There are several locations of that chain here in Columbus, Ohio, but that particular one held some special sentimentality for me. It had been my longest running supplier of videogame software, and I had been purchasing games there for the last six generations, more or less.

I'm from a small town north of Columbus, which had slim pickings in terms of game stores back in the 1980s. So on a road trip to the city on March 28, 1986, I scanned the one part of town I knew for shopping - Morse Road - for software stores, and found that Toys-R-Us.

I was blown away by the sheer selection offered there. They had the games displayed behind glass, with a system where you take a paper ticket to the front to get the game. The game I choose that night was one of the greatest games I had ever played - The Bard's Tale for the Commodore 64. That was the first game I purchased at that store. A few weeks later, I returned on a second road trip (both of these trips were not just for games, but also to party with friends) and got Neutral Zone and another classic game called Sword of Kadash, both again for the C 64.

In late 1986 I moved down to Columbus for good, and continued to build my Commodore 64 collection with more games from that Toys-R-Us store. They always had a selection of the newest games, and obscure titles that I had only seen before in magazines. In addition to the previusly mentioned Sword of Kadash, I picked up the classic Penguin Software games The Crimson Crown and The Quest there, as well as Skyfox 2 : The Cygnus Conflict and Alternate Reality : The City.

After I got my Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, I picked up games for it at that store. After that, in 1990, I purchased my Turbografx 16 console there, and several games for it. My purchases began to wane after that because of closer locations with more varied product, but I know I got some of my SNES, Genesis, Sega CD, and Playstation 1 games there.

My last videogame purchase at that store was on March 8, 2007, when I got Archer Maclean's 3D Pool for the Game Boy Advance, when I had stopped there to look for a Wii during my Wiiquest. The coolest thing about my last visit there was the sales associate who was kind enough to fill me in on how to get a Wii (show up at any Toys-R-Us early on a Sunday).

So many game stores in my time have come and gone, along with the memories of purchasing great games at those places. I wonder if I'm the only gamer who gets sentiemtnal about those sorts of things.

Oddly enough, the demise of this one Toys-R-Us location makes one of the other ones, the one closest to my current home, the oldest still-existing game store I visit. I've been going to that Toys-R-Us and buying games since August of 1987. Maybe I'll stop there after Christmas and see what's in the clearance bins - for old time's sake.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Left 4 Dead Quick Review

It's Valve. It's Zombies. What else do you need to know? I said "quick review" right there in the title.

Oh, okay. Here's more.

Left 4 Dead takes the zombie apocalypse genre and does it right - more than right. Then, it tosses out the old cliches, like slow, lumbering zombies and replaces them with spastic "infected" that run at you in huge numbers like those women at the Filene's Basement bridal gown sales. And just to prove how insanely innovative they are, Valve added five special types of infected - sort of mini-bosses, that each have special attacks and abilities.

The single-player is fun, but the online co-op play is really great. It puts the cooperation back in co-op, as players can get stuck in situations that only another player can help them out of. Players can heal each other and revive each other.

I have yet to try out the online versus, where you get to play two teams of four against each other - one survivors and the other as special infecteds - but it looks pretty sweet, too.

There's not much to Left 4 Dead beyond all that. But again, it's Valve, so the game has the absolute highest level of polish in the gameplay, presentation, and level design perhaps possible. The craftsmanship of software engineering from this company shows in every title it makes, and Left 4 Dead is just the latest example of how to do everything - even something as cliched in the videogaming world as zombies - and do it right.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Milestones : Defender

A joystick and a button. That was all we needed in those early days. The joystick moved your ship or character and the button fired or jumped. A few games went outside that paradigm, adding a button for other features such as a pointlessly risky hyperspace jump (I'm looking at you Asteroids), or replaced the joystick with a slick trakball or paddle, but for the most part the joystick and button served our needs.

Which even at the time seemed silly to us. I mean, it's a spaceship, and the few spaceship interiors we had seen either in reality or fiction all had huge control bridges with banks of consoles on them. Even single-person fighters we had seen in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica had more than a joystick and a button.

So then Defender appeared. Here's how it appeared to me, on a Saturday night in my rural Ohio hometown.

My friends Andy and Barry were staying overnight in my basement, as we did frequently in those days, to of course gorge ourselves on videogames and snacks. We had Barry's Atari all hooked up, and it was time for a snack run. Andy and I took up that charge, leaving Barry there engrossed in Riddle of the Sphynx.

At Lawson's, a nearby convenience store, there was always one arcade game, and we knew what it was because we were there frequently. Tonight, as we gathered up the snacks, Andy and I noticed that a new game was there, making strange new sounds. This was Defender.

We just stared at the controls and the attract mode (alternating the title screen, the onscreen play demo and the high score chart)for a minute and took it all in. In the middle of the control panel were two buttons, used to select either a one-player game or a two-player one, which was pretty standard at the time.

To the left was the familiar joystick, but it only moved the side-scrolling ship up and down. To the right of the joystick and a little bit down the panel was a strange "reverse" button, which flipped the orientation of the ship from left to right and back again. So these functions would be done with the left hand. I was immediately skeptical of the reverse button.

On the far right side was the good old "fire" button, and to the immediate left of that a "thrust" button. So now we had a joystick and two buttons involved in steering the ship instead of just the joystick handling all of those functions. My closed-minded cynicism grew.

But wait, there's more. To the left and a little bit down from the thrust button was a strange new green button labeled "smart bomb". And way out there in the middle of the control panel, far from either hand, and below the aforementioned player select buttons, was the good old "hyperspace" button, again only recommended if you're about to die, as it will most likely destroy your ship if you use it.

We turned our attention to the screen. It looked incredible. Mountains scrolled by the fast-moving ship, aliens were plucking people off the planet, the ship was shooting the aliens and rescuing them before they hit the ground, there was an incredibly detailed and functionally useful radar screen, and the sound effects which had moments ago gotten our attention from across the store were a symphony of digital carnage.

I put the first quarter in. I died pretty quickly. Andy tried a game. He died pretty quickly. We put down our munchies and went to the counter for more quarters. Our previous doubts about the ship movement controls were the first to go, as we grew accustomed to the tight responsiveness of the reverse button. Andy was the first to pull a quick reverse and fire after flying past an alien ship, which was quite satisfying, as the maneuver seemed to leave the alien ship momentarily confused. I was the first to lose all the humanoids and see the world blow up and the game go crazy. We both figured out almost immediately to be very conservative with our limited supply of smart bombs.

Hours later, we returned to my basement with our munchies, no change left save for a few pennies. Barry had dozed off. We told him about Defender the next day. This title had dragged us out of our primitive control schemes kicking and screaming, demanding with its hardcore difficulty that we adapt to the future of gaming, a challenge we have gladly accepted ever since.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Imagine If You Were Like This

The first achievement points I got on my XBox 360 were on Half-Life 2, when I threw a soda can at a cop. I had heard of achievment points and gamerscores of course, before I got the system, but at that exact moment I realized what an utterly pointless system of points it was.

In my 38+ years of videogaming, I've never needed any reason to play videogames other than the games themselves. Game designers and programmers create them, and I play them - with a particular personal drive to explore the worlds they create. I've never needed a little sound effect, an on-screen pop-up, and a total number to accompany me on my journeys.

Nor have I needed any methodology to gauge myself against other people playing the same game, which seems to be one of the driving priorities of the "achievment point idolatry generation" (referred to from here on out as APIG ). I play what I want, when I want, how I want, and on my own schedule.

I shudder to think of those gamers for whom achievement points actually matter more than the joy of gaming itself. I know they're out there. Their priorities have centered on their personal comparisons to other gamers' achievements rather than having a good time fully exploring a game world, or trying out different items, classes, or playstyles.

Instead of just gaming and having fun, they have attached their fragile self-image to their hobby to such a degree that their gaming habits are constantly determined by what other people are playing and what they are "achieving".

Let's have fun with an example. We'll use two gamers, called Gamer 1 and 2, who for this example we'll say have some real life contact like school or work where they have time to talk about their gaming. Gamer 1, one of our APIGs, constantly claims to be on a tight budget and has thus made plans to buy only Big Holiday Game B and C this year. Gamer 2, a more casual gamer with an actual life outside of gaming, has been watching reviews for Big Holiday Game A, and decides to get it when it comes out.

Gamer 1 of course, deathly afraid of Gamer 2 getting achievment points he doesn't have, or just playing one of the Big Holiday Games before him and thus putting a chink in his pathetically fragile gamer ego, rushes out and gets Big Holiday Game A as well, and then scrambles to finish it as fast as possible before Gamer 2, who could care less about achievement points or where Gamer 1 is at in the game, because he's having a blast with it.

And so it goes through the holiday releases, with Gamer 1 getting every one of them and beating them in a week, while Gamer 2 plods along with a few games he got, having a good time with complete indifference to Gamer 1's ego. Gamer 1 constantly quizzes Gamer 2 about what he's getting next, so that he too can be there, following him from game to game like the little kid back in elementary school a few grades behind who follows the elder kid around, emulating everything the elder does because he's the coolest person that he knows.

Imagine if you were like Gamer 1. Your entire self-worth defined by competing with and comparing yourself against the other gamers you know in such a manner as described in the example above. None of them offer you any serious competition, because they just don't care (they just play games for the sake of playing games). But you go on from one new release to the next, and you even play really bad games, just to jack up those achievement points and be the first in the circle of people you know to beat them.

It reminds me of the people you sometimes see at a summer blockbuster movie. You're there to watch a movie that you are interested in, and you sit quietly and pay attention to the characters and the story. They talk, fidget, check their cell phones for text messages, and generally don't pay attention to the screen at all. Why are they even there? Because so many of their friends are going, and so that they can say simply that they went, too. Just being able to say you went to the movie has become more important that taking it all in.

And so it goes with the Achievement Point Idolatry Generation (again, the APIGs). Just playing through a game as fast as possible, and culling achievement points, has replaced truly enjoying a game, and watching it unfold as the designers intended. Bragging rights and adolescent egos tied to pointless numbers have replaced the spirit of discovery and the thrill of besting an actual in-game challenge.

I don't think most gamers are like that - yet. Imagine if you were, though, how shallow your enjoyment of your hobby would become. How the other gamers you talk to would dread your presence, and yet - at the same time - gain a greater appreciation of how they just play videogames to - yep - just play them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Goodbye Ultima Online - Again

Last night I wrapped up my business in Ultima Online and closed my account, for the third and most likely final time since I first logged on over a decade ago. I hadn't been playing much at all for about the last year, and had been hanging on mostly to hold onto my lighthouse in the game, and out of nostalgia.

My final voyage across the seas of the Atlantic shard (server) was uneventful, seeing no other ships at sea, all for the purpose of carting several trunks of valuables to the bank. I tore down my lighthouse but kept the most valuable items in case I ever want to return.

I doubt I will. I came back last year to help test and play the highly disappointing Kingdom Reborn client, and have done little since then in the game. My old friends are gone, and I never really got my gear up to the standards ushered in by the Age of Shadows expansion over five years ago.

It was a great part of my life, but I no longer have the time or money for it, and the hope that the game could inexplicably make some triumphant comeback in terms of appeal and playability has long since died. I hope it chugs along forever, and that people enjoy playing it, but it will have to go on without the Admiral terrorizing the empty seas.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Portal : Still Alive (and Kicking)

My leading contender for "Game of the Year" so far in 2008 is Portal. Yes, I know it came out last year, but I'd just gotten an XBox 360 in June, along with The Orange Box, and that's when I got to play it. My previous blog entries detail pretty well my love of this game.

But what about "Portal : Still Alive", recently released on the XBox Live service as a downloadable version of the original with 14 new "Challlenge Levels" added? Well, it's great, too. I've been playing it for the last week, first going through the 19 levels of the original and beating it again before tackling the new levels.

The new levels are, so far, not all that much of a step up in difficulty from anything seen in the original ones. There are some new environmental elements that pop up, though, which makes the new levels feel refreshingly different at times. I won't spoil them other than to say that they are platforming classics.

Missing from the new test chambers is the voice of the computer GLaDOS telling you about cake and such, but this omission is a minor loss. The levels themselves are all good, bringing back that Portal feeling when you swear you can actually hear the wheels turning and sparks clicking in your own noggin when you figure things out. I wish there were more than 14 new levels, but I'll take what I can get.

So the game is fine, but the package - 1200 Microsoft Points - is sort of a rip off for those of us who own the Orange Box. In my opinion, just the new levels should have been available as a free download for Orange Box players alongside the 1200-point whole package offering.

But Portal : Still Alive is what we got, at least for the time being. For myself, it was worth it just to get these new levels and play them. For someone who is only casually attached to Portal, or whose moral compass allows them to deny themselves the absolute joy of new Portal levels to stand firm against such a rip off, this package might not be ideal.

I'm so apeshit for this game that's I'd probably plop down ten dollars every month for another 14 levels. I hope they don't do that, but instead just focus on a proper sequel for a game that certainly deserves one.

Monday, October 27, 2008

And Now I'm Playing Fable II

One of two games this fall that I'd seen fit to pre-order, (the other being Left 4 Dead) I picked up my copy of Fable II at my local Gamestop's midnight sale, joined by about fifty other eager gamers. Another great reason to pre-order was early access via XBox Live to Fable II : Pub Games, which featured all three casino-style gambling mini-games from Fable II, coupled with the ability to transfer one's winings to their hero when they got the full game.

So I started playing Fable II last week, and have progressed steadily through the game, mostly enjoying myself. It's a game that has a lot going for it, and I like it, but I can't say I think it's the second coming of Zelda or anything of the sort. It's a great game, but not an overwhelmingly groundbreaking one, which is odd considering all the digging one does in the world of Albion.

I'll try to explain why.

On the plus side, it's got a huge world to explore, but allows the player to skip over areas when it comes time to backtrack. Once you go to another area, it's added to the map, becoming only a few clicks away on the Quests / Map tab. The combat is superb, offering hack-and-slash action that's a cut above many recent releases. One button for melee, one for ranged attacks, and one for magic, with a few added abilities for each, makes combat simple and fun, yet challenging and complex at times.

The NPCs, from villagers and guards to farmers and bards, are numerous yet very similar to each other, and react to your deeds and "renown" when they see you. There are many factors which influence they attitude toward the player, and many ways to interact with them, including marriage, sex, and parenting. The whole "Sim Middle Ages" thing is complex, but not all that endearing after messing around with it for a few minutes.

The social aspects might be a feature that I grow to appreciate more in the coming weeks as I play deeper into the game, but so far the game creates no emotional pull when doing things like getting married and having children, other than a brief, narrated cutscene about those institutions, and a few lines of "welcome home" dialogue after a notable absence.

The economic aspects of owning homes and businesses is also detailed, but so far has not been enthralling. It makes for a nice investment, though, raking in rent money from one's properties while out adventuring, and even while offline to some extent, it seems. Again I caution that I'm not that far along with Fable II to safely say that there isn't more importance to the social and economic aspects later in the game, but so far they seem like minor, albeit detailed, bells and whistles.

They do factor into the game's overarching story in terms of players being able to choose good or evil paths through the world. This aspect of the game is well done, harkening back to games like Ultima IV where moral quardries would pop up from time to time, often without clear ideas of the consequences or impacts one's decisions would make. I suspect that this offers the game much replay value as well, as some quests simply cannot be done while maintaining one side or the other.

The story and characters are pretty standard fantasy fare, with tales of triumph and tragedy and mystery, but again, so far, they haven't really endeared themselves all that much. The only character so far that has done that successfully is the much-hyped NPC dog that follows one through the game. It's a marvel and well deserving of all the praise it's been getting.

I have yet to try the innovative online co-op with any of my friends, nor do I see a benefit to it at this time. Perhaps later, when I've completed the game, there may be some parts of the game that will be more fun played that way.

Some minor complaints include slow load times between zones, graphical glitching, slow menus (with another really slow clothes-changing menu a la Grand Theft Auto IV - can't anyone make one of these that works at modern speed?), and extremely tedious work mini-games of blacksmithing, woodcutting, and bartending. I'd almost believe these laborous tasks were designed by former Ultima Online designers.

Really, all gripes aside, Fable II is a pretty good adventure game with great combat and detailed social aspects. Where it bogs down, and what it lacks, are very minor complaints that won't keep anyone from having an enjoyable run through a few towns, dungeons, or wooded areas. I suspect as well that the game will have a longer replay value than most games of this genre, so it's a good value as well as a solid title.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stomping Around In Dead Space

I've been watching recent game releases, thinking of picking up a new game for my XBox 360 that would be worthy of the insane sixty dollar price tag. Reviews and free demos of Star Wars : The Force Unleased and Fracture made me decide to wait and see what else was coming out. Last week, I took the plunge and picked up Dead Space, an EA game of survival horror set aboard a huge planet-cracking space ship.

Now, the so-called survival horror genre kind of spent its nickel with me a long time ago, possibly as far back as Resident Evil, when those dogs come jumping through the window. Since then, nothing in gaming really makes me jump out of my seat like that, because every new room I enter, I'm remembering those dogs and am ready for it. You know the cliches, and in many of the genre's titles, Dead Space included, moody music cues you in to impending zombie "gotcha".

Dead Space does all the standard stuff very well, though. It plays with the over-the-right-shoulder view of Resident Evil 4, with your health bar running along your spine as a part of your Celestial-esque (a Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics reference, look it up) space armor. Corpses, debris, and gore are everywhere in the derelict ship, and the monsters that hop out at you consist of mutated things that claw and stab. It's the standard story of the nutjob scientist with delusions of grandeur, down on stagnated human evolution and thinking that somehow savagely violent virus-mutated monsters are the way ahead. And the spaceship is the standard design seen since those Alien movies, with dark metal halls lined with tubes and wires. Yawn.

Everything is very polished from the stunning graphics and moody lighting to the interfaces, heads-up displays, and the controls. My only complaint about the controls is that the inventory takes too long to come up, and one wrong movement on the D-pad can mean trouble if you pass over the med kit you need. The action does not pause when you're digging around in your inventory.

The game would be pretty good if it just did all that - got everything right and polished. But there are a few gameplay elements that really shine in Dead Space, the biggest one being the zero-gravity areas. Moving and fighting in these areas could have gone horribly wrong, but thankfully they got it working well. You're wearing magnetic boots, so when you enter zero gravity areas, you stick to the floor. When you need to get somewhere that's not on the floor, you aim the left trigger to where you want to go and hit the Y button to jump across.

This makes for some fun, vertigo-twisting gameplay a-la Super Mario Galaxy, when suddenly up is down. Another exceptional gamplay aspect is the need to dismember many of your enemies to take them down. Straight shots to the chest may slow them down, but only by taking off an arm and a leg (much like game makers do to us with these SIXTY DOLLAR GAMES) will you finish them off.

There's a cool stasis ability which can be a livesaver when it freezes / slows down enemies, and a kinesis ability that's use is akin to the awesome gravity gun from Half Life 2. In fact, I've used it in similar manners, shooting explosive tanks at oncoming enemies with the same effect. Both of these abilities are used to solve puzzles as well as in combat.

The armored hero has a powerful melee option, swinging wildly the gun he is holding, in a forward and return arc. He's also got a thundering stomp ability, not that useful all the time, but fun to break open crates with and pulp up the blood-splattering corpses of downed enemies.

I've reached as far as a really tough boss fight at the end of Chapter 6 of Dead Space so far, and I'm having a good time with it. Dead Space is the first really good title of the holiday season this year, doing all the conventional stuff of survival horror really well (and polished), and then becoming exceptional with some great new gameplay elements thrown into the mix.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wii Fit It Into Our Schedule When We Can

I got the call at work, just as I was leaving. My wife, Monique, out shopping at a nearby Target store, sighted one of the rarest sights in the modern consumer jungle - a Wii Fit. Since its release in May, the Wii Fit package - which comes with the balance board and Wii Fit program disc - has been as elusive as the Wii itself in the wild. I had never seen one myself.

But this Target store is somewhat of an anomaly. It's one of the last holdouts in a consumer dead zone, an area of empty strip malls and closed stores near our apartment. Being built just one exit off of the freeway down from that doomed Target is another, newer Target store in a booming area of homes and stores that has supplanted the old one. All of this makes this Target less visited, and thus my wife saw not one, but two Wii Fits just sitting there for sale.

So she bought it, and we've been working out with it every day ever since. It measures your balance, weight, and BMI (body mass index or something like that, which means how much you weigh corresponding to your height), and then logs it so you can do day by day comparisons.

Designed in Japan, the Wii Fit has clearly been made - and I'm treading dangerously close to racial stereotypes here - for the body types found there, and not for the many shapes and sizes that might be found in our American melting pot. And it's also lacking any sense of tact when dealing with those weight variances. Step on the board and you'll get an "ohh!" from the board's onscreen avatar, which kind of comes across as "Ooooh! Even though I'm designed to handle up to 300 pounds, your 190 is really straining me, fatty."

It gets worse. The Wii Fit program, after measuring you each day, chides you for any increase at all, even when it's less than two pounds, which it states is generally the amount of weight that everybody gains or loses each day through regular eating. It categorizes anyone without the exact BMI required as "overweight" or even "obese".

It criticizes posture as well, and warns of dire consequences if you rely on one leg even slightly more than the other. Excuse my leg breaking accident 11 years ago, Nintendo. Sheesh. In addition, it gets all snippy if you don't exercise at the exact same time every day. Again, maybe life in Japan is more structured, I really don't know, but ours is a freaking circus, so we should be rewarded for stepping on the damn board every day at all, regardless of if it was an hour later than the previous day.

But wait, there's more. This morning, during my workout, the Wii Fit asked me if I'd noticed any problems with Monique's posture. It gave me four answers to choose from, and of course since she was standing there watching me work out I answered "looks good", as any husband who wants to live another ten minutes would. The question really took me off guard, though, and made me wonder if this insidious piece of plastic and circuitry was trying to start some shit between me and my wife. Hey Wii Fit - if you have any issues with my wife's posture, take it up with her and leave me the fuck out of it.

All that being said, Wii Fit is fun and yes, I can feel the burn. There are Yoga and Strength Training exercises which are the real meat and potatoes of working out, and there are Aerobics and Balance Games which are the dessert, and thus a lot more fun. There are more exercises for each category unlocked as you continue to work out each day, and it keeps and compares scores between each user, so Monique and I compete for the high score in each category.

So Wii Fit is good, and it will probably do what it's supposed to do, as long as we stick with it. The question is, will we? We're commited to do so, but if we go out of town or some emergency comes up, and we miss a day, I've got a feeling that the harsh taskmaster that is the Wii Fit program will be so snotty about it as to discourage any further attempt at commitment.

As always, time will tell.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hail To The King Baby!

Duke Nukem 3D came to the XBox 360 Live Arcade today, and hell yes I downloaded it, in case you were curious. The classic first-person shooter has been ported perfectly with all its charm and plays great. It's still a triumph of character and level design and still offers a vast inventory of items and weapons that were revolutionary at the time it was released.

Back in the day (the long-lost era referred to by historians as the 1990s), I didn't have a PC until 1998, so I got to play Duke Nukem 64, an altogether watered down version on the Nintendo 64. It was fun and kept the gameplay intact, but sadly left the strippers out.

Now I get to get achievement points (whoopity dooo!) for tipping the strippers, and enjoy the cool new features which have been added to this version. The most interesting of which is the ability to rewind the game after death back to any previous point in the level and pick up the playing from there.

There are online and multiplayer modes, and the ability to record, save, and send clips of the game play, too. I look forward to trying all of it out. This game, and all the other treats available on the XBox Live service, more than justify the monthly subscription fee and small additional fees (800 points for Duke 3D) for XBox Live Gold. Keep it coming, Micorsoft. Let's see Redneck Rampage next, please.

Monday, September 22, 2008

More Thoughts on Grand Theft Auto IV

Of course, I love this game. Almost everyone does, and those who wrote about its greatness did so back in April when it came out. As usual, I'm behind the curve, but I do have some thoughts to share about life in Liberty City.

Everything I was hoping for is here - it's just a massive heap of content and things to do, and I can do them at my own pace, pushing the story forward when I feel like it, and messing with the breathtakingly detailed virtual world they've created when I don't feel like going on a mission or playing darts with Roman for the tenth time.

The missions have gotten more challenging without adding any real frustration to the game. If I fail one mission repeatedly, I can put it aside and do something else, and then come back to it in a few days and usually succeed. New weapons like the sniper rifle and new items like the cell phone camera have kept the missions fresh enough to avoid repetition, although a lot of them involve long chases through the streets of the city.

What has me pleasantly surprised about GTA IV is the story and the characters that have all unfolded along the way. Like those Phoenix Wright games, good characters can make a great game a masterpiece, and the writers behind this game have done an excellent job of making me care about a bunch of morally bankrupt sociopaths and their lives.

Nico's in it for the money, but he often shows a bizarre sense of honor along the way that's humorous and interesting. The decisions that the player makes along with Nico really build sympathy for the character, even as he's blasting a shotgun at the police or getting some back-alley fun from a prostitute. I guess I was expecting thuggish sleazery just for the shock value, but the game's creators really have a lot more going on here.

I expect to be playing GTA IV for the rest of the year, at least, and with more content coming for the game via XBox Live, perhaps beyond that. With the impressive schedule of fall videogame releases ahead, though, my time in Liberty City may be limited, but that's okay. I know Nico and the rest will be there waiting for me with more stuff to do than I have time for.

Milestones : Mattel's Dungeons and Dragons Handheld

After playing Adventure on the Atari, I was hooked on games with a set quest and an ending, which were scarce in the Golden Age of Arcades where almost everything was a shooter or a maze chase. I was also at the time, and still am, a fan of portable gaming, but most of those were the same old song and dance - LED sports games or pared down versions of arcade games.

Imagine my delight, then, when Mattel put out a tiny LCD game version of Dungeons and Dragons. I saw it in either a game magazine or the JC Penney Christmas Catalog and knew I had to have it. I didn't know too much about it then, but had hoped for the best. On that Christmas morning in 1982, I hit the jackpot with the first fully contained portable adventure game.

It had much more depth than I had hoped for - three difficulty levels, randomly generated mazes, several items and obstacles, great audio effects used to enhance gameplay, and challenging exploration. Players carefully work their way through a 10 x 10 grid maze littered with pits, searching for first a magic arrow, and second, the dragon to shoot it at. In a possible unintended homage to Atari's Adventure, an annoying bat sometimes picks up the player and deposits him in a random room - sometimes right into a pit, ending the game if the player doesn't have a magic rope.

The elegance of the design of the credit-card sized game, no thicker than a magazine and controlled with three simple buttons, is awesome for its time. It runs on 2 A76 watch batteries, which they still manufacture to this day and sell everywhere. It has a demonstration mode that saves battery life, which is necessary since there is no off switch. Once the batteries are installed the game is powered and running.

Probably my favorite non-programmable handheld of all time, Mattel's Dungeons and Dragons is a technological masterpiece from 1982 that gave me my first taste of portable adventuring, and did it right in every way. I still break it out of its original box and go for a quick adventure in that dungeon every so often, and it's still quite challenging and fun.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lifetime Achievement Points

So I'm on XBox Live these days, as one can tell by the little thing on the sidebar of this blog which tracks what I'm playing as well as my "gamerscore", an accumulation of "achievement points" from every game I play (successfully) on the XBox 360. It's a way for gamers to compare just how much of thier lives they are throwing away on gaming, and has been described accurately elsewhere on the internet as "e-penis length".

What turns me off from the whole system is that it's just XBox exclusive. How can a young, adolescent, and "leet" Halo 3 player be a more "achieved" gamer than me, who has invested over thirty years in this hobby? It's ludicrous, and Microsoft should award points for past gaming experiences.

Here's a sampling of achievements that I have earned over the years but have yet to be added to my gamerscore by closed-minded Microsoft:

Beating my sister at Pong on Christmas Day so many times that she never played me again - 10G

Spending an entire week's lunch money after school on Monday playing Galaxian at my local bowling alley - 20G

Finding the "safe spot" on level three of K.C. Munchkin for the Odyssey 2 - 10G

Finding the hidden room and the designer's name in Adventure for the Atari VCS - 10G

Reaching the top of all four builings in the arcade game Crazy Climber - 25G

Sending in Kool - Aid points saved up over the summer to get a free copy of Kool-Aid Man for the Atari VCS - 50G

Actually playing through an entire game of The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt on the Odyssey 2 with another human being - 25G

Getting a tip published in the "Tips From The Experts" section of Odyssey Adventure Magazine - 100G

Beating "Escape From The Mindmaster" on the Supercharged Atari VCS - 20G

Beating four of the five Scott Adams text adventures on the Commodore VIC 20 (including The Count) - 40G

Getting to the hidden area in Protector for the Commodore VIC 20 - 25G

Creating a working videogame for the Apple 2 computer as my final project in my high school computer class - 100G

Getting the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy for the Commodore 64 - 42G

Beating Julian in a duel of swords in Nine Princes In Amber for the Commodore 64 (a text adventure sword fight!) - 25G

Mapping out The Bard's Tale for the Commodore 64 - 50G

Mapping out Sword of Kadash for the Commodore 64 - 100G

Beating Forbidden Forest for the Commodore 64 - 25G

Beating Military Madness for the Turbografx 16 - 50G

Mapping out the great tree in Faxanadu for the NES - 25G

Beating Super Star Wars : The Empire Strikes Back for the Super Nintendo - 100G

Mapping out Alien Vs. Predator for the Atari Jaguar - 100G

Finding and reporting to Nintendo a game-stopping dead end situation in The Legend of Zelda : Link's Awakening for the GameBoy - 1000G

Playerkilling over 100 landlubbers with my pirate character in Ultima Online - 25G

Discovering the Room Under the Lake in Ultima Online - 500G

Beta-testing Ultima Online : Third Dawn - 20G

Having an in-game item (The Admiral's Hearty Rum) named after my character in Ultima Online - 1000G

All the other games I've beaten over the years - 25000G


OK, Microsoft, you can add these to my gamerscore whenever you want. Thanks!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ok, I'm Playing Grand Theft Auto IV Now

After playing Bully : Scholarship Edition on the Wii earlier this year, I wanted another sandbox game. Now in possession of an XBox 360, there was really only one choice. So I'm in Liberty City now, walking through the streets that most of the gaming world passed through four months ago, in Grand Theft Auto IV.

I haven't seen a cityscape this amazing since I was in Paragon City playing City of Heroes. And all the sandbox - style content is a smorgasbord for an explorer like me. I'm really, really good at learning 3D game environments, but Liberty City is so vast that it will take me weeks to know just the first island like the back of my hand.

The missions and gameplay are just what I expected, but the most fun I've had so far is testing the limits of what Nico can do, or more accurately, cannot do. For example, I was giggling gleefully as Nico stole one of those airport golf carts that are used to haul luggage, and tore off into the city with it, police chasing after him angrily. While my attempts to get away all met with failure, it was fun seeing just how dogged the police chase was. The cops in Liberty City are certainly smarter than the ones in Bullworth Town.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Grand Theft Auto IV later on, most of which was probably said four months ago in other people's blogs. Someday, I'll get a hit game at release and not be so far behind the curve, I hope.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five Years Later : An Interview With The Ultima X : Odyssey Team

Introduction

There have probably been more videogames that never made it past the development stage than were ever released. Heaps and mounds of design documents shredded, millions of lines of code lost or deleted, and the hopes and dreams of real people trying to bring thier ideas to other gamers dashed by forces beyond their control.

However, when a game series that defined a genre for much of the history of videogaming ends with its tenth installment lost to the dustbins of history, one wonders just what the hell went wrong. Such is the case of Ultima X : Odyssey, a game that was unveiled to the public five years ago today at a lavish and energetic press event, but cancelled less than a year later.

At the time of the cancellation, Electronic Arts issued the usual, cauterized press statement, claiming the same thing that was stated when an earlier Ultima - based MMO, UO2, was cancelled - that the decision was made to focus more attention on Ultima Online. Clearly, though, there was more to that story.

Since many of the UXO team's members were still either with EA at other divisions or out on the job market not wanting to cross any lines of professional courtesy by talking about the freshly-cancelled game so soon - or, even still, dealing with their own understandable disappointment about the project's cancellation - no one was willing to talk.

It's five years later, and the team has long since scattered across the country, and moved on to other jobs and challenges, so I wondered if maybe, just maybe, they were finally willing to talk about Ultima X : Odyssey and its unfortunate end. They were. I came up with fifteen questions and sent them out to some of the team and they were kind enough to answer, painting a picture of a time, merely five years ago, where events lead to the cancellation of Ultima X : Odyssey.

Rick "Stellerex" Hall was the Executive Producer of Ultima X : Odyssey, and is currently the Director of Production at Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, in Orlando, and has written about his fifteen years in the game development business in a book titled Game Development Essentials: Online Game Development.

Jonathan "Calandryll" Hanna was the game's Lead Designer, and is currently moving back to Austin to "work with a start up".

Kevin "Jalek" Saffel was a senior programmer on UXO and is now the Chief Technology Officer of Heatwave Interactive, and cautions us that "none of my statements express the views and/or opinions of Heatwave Interactive, Inc." . That's fair.

Amy "Morgaine" Sage was a Writer and Community Coordinator for UXO and now works as the Marketing Director for Freedom Holdings, Inc. in Austin, Texas.

The Questions

1. When was Ultima X : Odyssey first conceived and when did work on the project begin?

Rick Hall : Originally, just after the UO2 project was cancelled (March 2001) and there were a bunch of layoffs at Origin, maybe 3 or 4 months after that, we started talking about making a "True 3D" version of UO. Over the course of the next few months, that changed into Ultima X Odyssey. If I remember correctly, that was roughly October of 2001 or so when it became "UXO," and that's when the first few developers started working on it.

Jonathan Hanna : I’m not really sure when the project was first conceived, but if I recall, work started some time in mid to late 2001. But really, that was mostly exploratory, checking out engines, early designs, etc. The project didn’t really get going until early 2002. Even then the team was very, very small. Maybe 8 people.

Kevin Saffel : A couple of us were tasked by Rick Hall (Executive Producer on UO) to start looking into the next version of UO. We started out as 2 of us programmers digging around and messing with the 3rd Dawn code to make it "cooler". We eventually realized that we didn't want to go down that path and started thinking about a new game. The prototyping was probably started in late 2001. As Rick pulled more people onto our prototype, UX:O began to sprout. Initial "real" development probably started mid to late 2002?

Amy Sage : This is several years back, and I don’t have my old Origin mails anymore to go back and pinpoint it, but I’d say probably late 2002 when the discussions really started. As far as when it was conceived, that’s something Rick Hall would need to answer, since it was his brainchild.

2. When did you join the UXO team and what was your job on the project?

Rick Hall : I was the Exec Producer for Ultima Online, and was the first person on the team for UXO. I held the same title on that project.

Jonathan Hanna : I started in Feb. 2002 and was the Lead Designer for most of the project.

Kevin Saffel : I was on the project before it was a project. There were 2 programmers playing around with ideas and eventually the other programmer left to look into other project possibilities. It was then just an artist (Jeremy Dombroski) and I playing around with Unreal to see what we could do. I was one of the senior programmers on the project. For all intents and purposes I was the lead client engineer (under Clark Janes) but never got (nor wanted) the title :)

Amy Sage : It actually wasn’t too long before the San Francisco event, I don’t think… I remember I was still on UO as late as June of 2003. Jon Hanna (UXO lead designer) and I were good friends, though, and played MMOGs together quite a bit, so even when I was still on UO, there was always discussions going on about game systems and where the design was going. When I joined, it was as a combination community person/writer. Part of the job including writing fiction (for example, where did Gargoyle females suddenly come from, and since when did Gargoyles have tails?). I enjoyed that part because I did a lot of research into Ultima lore back on U:IX, and actually conferred quite a bit back then with Herman Miller, the author of the Gargoyle language. For UXO, I also wrote a lot of in-game text, including editing quest dialogue and design docs, and writing stat and spell descriptions.

3. Considering the stated reason that Ultima Online 2 was cancelled - fear that it would split the UO playerbase - how was UXO approved for development?

Rick Hall : Honestly, I think it was a matter of timing. Consider this: When UO2 was cancelled, it was done by the EA.COM division in March 2001. In that same month, EA acquired Pogo. Within six months, Pogo had displaced the EA.Com people and was effectively running EA's online business. Pogo was a completely different set of people, with a completely different perspective. They saw things differently, and allowed UXO to be undertaken.

Jonathan Hanna : I can’t say for certain, but one of the original designs was more like a big 3D expansion to UO. It’s kind of hard to explain without going into a lot of detail, but your UXO character was heavily connected to your UO character and you’d get benefits to your UO character for playing UXO and vice-versa. The design was changed to a stand-alone product pretty early on though and everyone was on board with that.

Kevin Saffel : I really liked what UO2 could have been. However, it wasn't just killed because of fear of splitting the UO player-base. It had some problems and EA didn't feel it was going to be ready when they needed it to be.

Amy Sage : This is one of those I can’t really answer, since I wasn’t in on the meetings where it was pitched. But if I had to come up with a reason, it would be the focus of UXO on incorporating a more single-player experience into a multiplayer world, something that UO never really had.

4. UXO used the Unreal Warfare engine - how did that come about and how did you feel about that?

Rick Hall : We investigated quite a number of different engines, including Quake, Unreal, NetImmerse, Torque, Blueberry 3d, and the Crytek engine among others. Actually, we liked the Crytek engine the best, but it was prohibitively expensive at the time. Unreal was also a really strong choice. We liked the level editor, the price was right, the graphics capabilities were awesome, and Epic does an absolutely incredible job supporting those developers who use their engine. In the end, it was some interesting surgery making an FPS engine work with a MMOG, but we were pleased with the results.

Jonathan Hanna : The engine was picked before I joined the team. I was excited about it as it’s a great engine.

Kevin Saffel : Jeremy Dombroski brought the Warfare engine to our attention initially because his brother (Andy, the eventual Lead World Builder) had been working with it on other projects at another company. We had the Dawn model (from 3rd Dawn) running around throwing fireballs/freezing orcs and everyone began getting excited about the possibilities. We felt good about the Unreal engine; It has a great suite of tools that help you get content up and running very quickly. We felt we could build our own backend and use the power the engine and tools gave us to keep it cutting edge. We gave it a thumbs up to start doing actual technical design and getting server/framework programmers involved.

Amy Sage : I’m all for using already-proven technology… the less work you have to do from scratch, the more time you can put into making a good game. Remember I was also on Ultima Ascension, which was a shining example of the pain you can run into when making your own engine from scratch (by the time the game shipped, much of the code was already outdated and didn’t work well with the newest video cards). In addition, the time it took to work out engine-related problems was time not spent working on game performance and fine-tuning, which ultimately showed in the final product. So back to your question on Unreal… I can’t speak for Rick’s reasons on why he chose to go that route, but I think it was a fine choice.

5. Five years ago, on August 21, 2003, EA held a huge press event in San Francisco to introduce Ultima X : Odyssey to the world. What are your recollections of that event and how the game was received?

Rick Hall : I remember the event vividly. :) Actually, I still have a video of the event to this day on my hard drive. I had a lot of fun. I think the fans really enjoyed it, and if all of the video we collected was any indication, I have to believe the game was received quite well. To this day, I think that was the absolute best way to unveil a MMOG to the world: Instead of talking to the press first, go straight to the players. Let a large gathering of veteran MMOG-ers see what you've got and lay their hands on it, and you'll have a good idea of your chances when you go live.

Jonathan Hanna : I remember being really nervous. We were building something that had almost no resemblance to UO. It was a lot more like the single player games, focused on combat, questing, etc. I wasn’t sure if people would like it. But the response from the press and the players was overwhelmingly positive. So by the end of the event, I was thrilled.

Kevin Saffel : It was surreal. The event was put together really well by Debby Sue Wolfcale and her team. I really enjoyed meeting all the players and seeing their excitement for the game we'd worked so hard on. I remember watching the PvP competition videos and seeing our first class imbalance: The mage casting fireballs would own everyone, even the beloved alchemist! All in all the developers and the players had a great time and I think everyone was looking forward to seeing the game go live.

Amy Sage : That event was awesome. I’d been involved in the game just long enough to really get excited about the design and the innovative systems, and I was truly excited to see the anticipation from the fans. They were all looking forward to it, and it was a thrill to be part of the team.

6. At the time of the event, was there any hint that EA would be closing the Austin studio and attempting to relocate the team to San Francisco?

Rick Hall : No. At that time, I know for a fact that EA wasn't even considering that possibility.

Jonathan Hanna : Not really, although it’s something we talked about almost every year I was at OSI. When it happened, it was surprising, but not shocking.

Kevin Saffel : None at all. In fact, the people that were overseeing UX:O from EA in California were really excited for us and were happy with the reception by the players.

Amy Sage : Not that I had heard, no.

7. When did word first reach the UXO and UO development teams about the closing of Origin's Austin studio and the relocation of those teams to San Francisco?

Rick Hall : It was only a few months before they actually closed the doors. I found out about a week before the rest of the studio. I think it was around mid-February of 2004. They told the rest of the studio a week later that they'd be closing the doors in April and trying to relocate most of the team to San Francisco to complete UXO.

Jonathan Hanna : I want to say in Feb 2004. Don’t recall the exact date.

Kevin Saffel : It started out as a rumor maybe 2 weeks before the actual announcement. It really put a damper on the team's spirit. Eventually, they announced it to us that they were shutting down the studio and moving select people to California. It was very sad to watch as the company slowly disintegrated over the next few weeks.

Amy Sage : Official word? The day before it happened in Feb. of ‘04. There had been a few uneasy signs though, for about a week… someone’s temporary contract not getting renewed when we thought it would, a couple strange design documents found in a shared folder, a cessation of meetings shortly before, all combined with the fact that a part of the design had just been handed to a team from California a couple weeks before. I definitely had the feeling a major shift was coming for UXO, but until I got the official word, I didn’t know it was the whole studio. That news was rough - definitely one of those ‘knock the wind out of you’ moments, since I‘d been there for 6 years.

8. What was your reaction to that announcement - did you even consider the move?

Rick Hall : Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed. No, I didn't consider moving to San Francisco. Mostly, that was because I was absolutely positive that almost no one else would go either. People who live in Austin really love it, and there are plenty of other game companies. Everyone would have preferred to finish the game, but it wasn't worth it to them to move a thousand miles away and double their cost of living.

Jonathan Hanna : I was disappointed obviously, and to some degree still am, but at this point I can understand the decision given the landscape at the time. I never really considered the move. Most didn’t.

Kevin Saffel : Honestly, I was shocked. I loved working at Origin and on UO/UX:O so much that it was a HUGE emotional blow to me. I did seriously consider the move to California. The offer was great and my fiancée (now my wife) and I talked about it at length. In the end, we realized that we had too many ties to Texas and Austin and just couldn't bring ourselves to leave.

Amy Sage : We’d just watched Westwood get shut down, and then Maxis, so the writing was definitely on the wall. In boldface, and underlined. The option of moving was never really there for me, though… my husband at the time was working on a new project at NCSoft, and there was a lot of promise there, so there was no way we were picking up and moving to California.

9. While Ultima X : Odyssey wasn't officially cancelled until June 30, 2004, was development of the game pretty much over when most of the team decided to leave EA earlier in the year?

Rick Hall : Yes. Although EA extended offers to 35 members of the Austin dev team to move to San Francisco, only 2 artists and 2 level builders accepted their offers. EA tried to find people in California to finish the project, but that was close to impossible. It was a huge project, and there would have been no one to get new people ramped up. Very little was done with the game between April 2004 and the end of June.

Jonathan Hanna : I wouldn’t say that. Most of the team didn’t make the move so obviously that slowed things down, but the game was handed over to a new team and there was a transition period. People were working on it after we all left.

Kevin Saffel : No, the game was a few months from beta. We were working very hard to ensure it was ready for beta so that everyone could enjoy testing it and really just get into load-testing and such from a production/development standpoint.

Amy Sage : This is one I really can’t answer, since after the studio closed, I changed my focus to other things, like finishing my college degree. Whatever happened in California beyond that point was pretty much out of my circle.

10. Why was Ultima X : Odyssey cancelled? We know the official reason given, of course, but after so much time, money, talent, and even publicity was put into it, it seems so unbelievable that EA was willing to just drop it and take the loss.

Rick Hall : EA had no desire to drop the project. Remember, they made offers to most of the dev team to try to relocate them to California. They absolutely wanted to finish the game. The whole issue was driven by investor relations. Wall Street demands efficiency. At the time, EA had studios all over the world and each studio requires money to operate. It was making EA less efficient than it could have been. Investor pressure caused EA to attempt to consolidate their satellite studios into "hubs".

That's one of the reasons why Westwood was shut down, and many of those developers moved to EA's San Francisco office. Shortly thereafter, EA attempted further consolidation with both Maxis and the Origin studio. I think the EA execs truly expected a higher percentage of people to accept their offers to relocate the Austin guys to San Francisco. After all, they had success in Las Vegas with Westwood (around 85% accepted the relocation offers), and EA expected to repeat that success with Origin.

Unfortunately, Las Vegas is very different than Austin. There aren't many game developers in Las Vegas, so the Westwood guys were going to have to move anyway. They had no other viable options, so they just took up EA's relocation offers out of convenience. In Austin, there were 20 other game developers right there in town, and practically everyone in Austin knows everyone else. It wasn't hard for a lot of people to find jobs right there. The end result was definitely not what EA expected. The UXO project died simply because of logistics, not because EA wanted to shut it down.

At Origin, we were just casualties of war in business. I don't blame EA. I understand why they did what they did, and it makes business sense. Even commenting about the amount of money that was spent on UXO is a bit misleading. UXO cost around $10 million over 2 years when it was cancelled. In the face of EA's $3 billion annual budget, that's really not even a blip on the radar.

Jonathan Hanna : No idea really. It was 4 or 5 months after I left, and I’ve heard lots of different reasons, but never got enough information to determine which was the most accurate. I’m sure the original team not making the move contributed to that, but there were probably other factors.

Kevin Saffel : I honestly believe they had no intention on killing it at the time Origin was shut down. EA thought about 80% of the people (from Austin) that were offered the move to California would go. There were a handful of developers out in California that had been helping the Austin team for a little while. However, with just 2 people (artist and world builder) from the Austin UX:O team moving to California, there really wasn’t enough people to continue developing the game. None of the engineers that designed the technical pieces of the game and none of the designers went. Eventually most of the programmers in California moved projects or left EA leaving very few people on the UX:O team. They attempted to revive it as a single player game, but, EA eventually decided that was a bad idea (wouldn't be a big enough game) and it was finally killed.

Amy Sage : Again… I wish I knew. I can’t say it was a major surprise after the recent cancellations of Earth and Beyond, Motor City Online, and UO2, but as for the real reasons, those were meetings I wasn’t in on.

11. Did the impending release of (and unbelievable hype for) World of Warcraft affect the development of UXO or its cancellation?


Rick Hall : Not at all.

Jonathan Hanna : No, I don’t think so. It definitely didn’t affect our development although obviously we were paying attention to them. As far as UXO’s cancellation, I’ve never heard WoW mentioned specifically as a reason.

Kevin Saffel : It did put some pressure on us to figure out when UX:O should be released. There were beliefs that it should be released prior to WoW to embed our player-base into the game so we wouldn't lose them. There were concerns that when WoW was out, that you'd have a rough time pulling people from it if you waited too long. However, from what I knew internally, none of that was a deciding factor to kill UX:O.

Amy Sage : The development, not necessarily. We paid attention to what they released about their design for sure, but I honestly don’t think they influenced our design all that much. The cancellation? Entirely possible. EA already had one swords-and-sorcery game turning a profit (Ultima Online), and WoW was looking to be bigger by the day. Not to mention Blizzard has a well-earned reputation for releasing great games, so they had to have known it would be major competition.

12. Do you believe that, if UXO had been finished and released as originally planned, it would have been successful?

Rick Hall : I believe UXO would have been successful, but I don't hold any illusions that it would have reached 10 million subscribers, like W.O.W. Keep in mind, before W.O.W. a successful MMOG was anything over 200,000 subscribers. I think UXO would probably have reached somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 subs. It would have been a good, solid, successful business, but nothing like the runaway success of W.O.W. It's important to understand here that UXO was running on a budget that was a tiny fraction of the development costs of W.O.W., and our development schedule was somewhere around 1/3rd the duration. When you spend a lot less time and money developing a game, it's reasonable to assume you'll get less out of it when it hits the shelves.

Jonathan Hanna : Yes, but that’s a tricky question to answer. If we had made the new ship date, we would have run smack into WoW’s launch. It think it would have been very difficult to compete with them even with UXO’s unique designs. UXO was a relatively low budget title though, so I think it would have been profitable and would have found a base from which to grow.

Kevin Saffel : I do. It was still a little rough around the edges but there were a LOT of great things in the game. Item leveling, ascension, spell system, cutting edge art and many others. I was actually looking forward to playing it myself. I believe it would have really hooked old Ultima fans because it really pushed hard on what made Ultima what it was.

Amy Sage : Part of that might have depended on whether we got it out before World of Warcraft, since people tend to stick with a good game once they start it, and we knew that coming out before them, and having a good and sticky initial experience, would be a major plus. Even if we had come out after them though, I do think we had a good chance. Our goals were really sound… solid game performance, wide variety of environments and characters, guided quests and stories that led you into the game world at a steady pace, but yet enough to see and explore to keep you entertained for a really long time.

13. What did you take away, or chalk up to experience, from your time working on UXO - both in terms of game design and how the games business works?

Rick Hall : That's a longer answer than I can provide here. I wound up publishing a book earlier this year on MMOG development, and it contains a lot of what I learned on the UXO project, both from the design perspective and the business.

Jonathan Hanna : Mostly that you should always remember this is a business. People will make decisions you don’t agree with and you can’t take it personally.

Kevin Saffel : 1) Just because it's realistic, doesn't mean it's fun.
2) Leave time to iterate on design. We went through 7 or 8 iterations of combat (in code) before it felt fun. It's worth it.
3) Any game can be cancelled any time for any reason.
4) Beta for MMOs is as much of a marketing tool as it is a development tool.
Don't EVER forget it.

Amy Sage : I came away with a healthy appreciation for being a hardcore gamer who happens to be female, since as one of only a few female gamers on the team, I had the opportunity to pipe in with advice to keep the audience wider, or the occasional “No way, those breasts are WAY too big.” (Yeah, I know, the guys are cursing my name now.) As far as the game business in general… it didn’t really change much. In the six years I’d spent at Origin, I’d watched major layoffs almost every spring. I’d seen two entire teams laid off practically out from under me, in U:IX and UO2. I’d seen half a dozen games in development get cancelled, and several other EA studios consolidated before ours. UXO was really no different in terms of how the game industry works… it changes fast, and it’s hard to really feel a sense of security. I’d go back into it in a second, though, as the ability to be creative and be around creative people is something really special.

14. At the event where Ultima X : Odyssey was unveiled, the team seemed energetic, confident, and enthusiastic about the game - is that common among development teams in your experience?

Rick Hall : I think we had a pretty tight team, but that's not exactly rare in game development. We all liked working together and loved what we were working on. If I had to guess in my experience how often that happens, I'd say maybe 10% - 20% of the projects I've been associated with have had that level of positive feel on the team.

Jonathan Hanna : Yea it is, but this team was especially so. It really was a great team.

Kevin Saffel : Usually the excitement is in the beginning and then again in the very end when you're about to ship. The UX:O team seemed to carry the excitement through most of the development. I do believe, however, that the event did help to get the team even more jazzed about UX:O. Seeing it up in lights and watching the excitement on the players' faces was great for the team.

Amy Sage : I think so, yes, when the team feels good about the game, and we did.

15. Do you have any other thoughts or experiences about working on Ultima X : Odyssey that you'd like to share on the fifth anniversary of the game's unveiling?

Rick Hall : There are tons of old war stories I have from those days, and I always enjoy telling them. I think if there's one thing I should add it's that I bear EA no ill will over the whole thing. It was very disappointing, but it made a kind of business sense. And since I no longer work for EA, I have no reason to be a "company man" and spin things to make them look better. I responded to your questions the way I really feel about it all. It was a great experience. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was disappointing how it ended, but these things happen.

Jonathan Hanna : It’s one of those times in my life that I will always remember fondly. My entire time at OSI, even before UXO, will always be like that. I am sure I’ll get to work with some of those guys and gals again. Hopefully anyway. They were a fantastic group of people who despite a lot of obstacles, built something very special, even if most games will never see it.

Kevin Saffel : I really wish it would have hit the world. I would have loved to talk to players about it and see how people received the game. It was a bit different than anything out at the time and still would be. There is still part of me that misses Origin and everyone that worked there on UX:O and other projects. I would like to see EA possibly try to reboot it and see if they could kick-start the Ultima franchise again.

Amy Sage : I’m just bummed I never got to play a Gargoyle. Thanks for contacting me, and I look forward to seeing your story. :)

Conclusion


And now you know the rest of the story (my apologies to Paul Harvey, but I've always wanted to say that). Ultima X : Odyssey, set to be the tenth installment in the classic Ultima series, a sequel to Ultima Online, and a true 3D Ultima MMO all at the same time, was unveiled to the gaming public five years ago today.

Less than a year later, the game was cancelled by EA, but not necessarily due to some cold, number-crunching executive in a shadowy office, as many of us had always assumed. Sure, the economic realities of the business end of game making were a factor, but revealed in the answers above was an even stronger force at work.

Austin, Texas, must be one hell of a great city. I mean, I've heard that before, but damn. Five years ago EA flew me to San Francisco, which, due to my own economic realities, was a first for me, and I fell in love with that place the second I got off the plane. Even with the cost of living factored in, to deny oneself a chance to live and work there means that life in Austin is damn good, and fosters some serious loyalty.

So, no one's to blame here, five years later. EA did what they had to do, with the full intention to finish and release Ultima X : Odyssey. Their miscalculation about the UXO team's loyalty to their home and indeed, to each other, meant the game was doomed the second the decision was made to close Origin down in Austin.

But we all lost that day. EA, the UXO team, and those of us who were very much looking forward to playing it. One of the greatest game series of all time, which started back in the fall of 1980 with Ultima I and defined the role-playing game genre for much of its run, ended with the one game that just might have brought it back to its glory. It certainly had me excited about the future of Ultima again.

My warmest thanks to Rick Hall, Jonathan Hanna, Kevin Saffel, and Amy Sage for taking the time to answer my questions about Ultima X : Odyssey and for, at long last, giving many of us closure on the events of that time.

To them and everyone else on the team, and those who planned and ran that incredible event five years ago, you have the gratitude of at least one would - be Ultima X : Odyssey player, on this, the five year anniversary of the event. Alucinor awaits the brave...let virtue be your guide.

Five Years Ago Today : The EA-X Event

On August 21, 2003, game maker Electronic Arts invited over a hundred people from the gaming community to San Francisco, all expenses paid, to unveil Ultima X : Odyssey to the world. I've written about that day extensively, so rather than rehash every little detail about it, I have decided to commemorate that day five years ago with embedded movies.

First, there was the email inviting us to go to the event. It contained a link to this flash movie, after which a registration page would appear. That page is long gone, but the movie lives on.

At the event, when we walked into the great hall at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, were were greeted with this movie:
video

Later, EA released a movie highlighting the event itself:
video

And, a video was released of a fly-through of the game's environments, accompanied by that epic music score:
video

Finally, here's the movie I made a few years back as a tribute to that game and event:
video

And if you're looking to find out even more about what an incredible game Ultima X: Odyssey could have been, look no further than the extensive UXO Stratics Archive, which they've been kind enough to keep alive on the net all these years.

On this day, all Ultima fans should look back with fond rememberance for Ultima X : Odyssey and all that it could have been.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

BioShock....Meh.

After all the praise lauded on the game, the great reviews, and several friends telling me how amazing it was, I was looking forward to playing BioShock once I got the XBox 360. A co-worker loaned me his copy awhile back, but it sat idle while I fought my way through all the Half-Life 2 episodes on the Orange Box (which, I must say, were just incredible).

So I started on BioShock recently, and, well, I'm not really enjoying it that much. And I just can't really put my finger on it. The story, characters, and retro-design environments are all pretty cool. The mix of weapons and super-powers (called plasmids) are fun. So what don't I like?

Death in the game is just a very minor inconvenience, and nothing resets when you die. Instead, you are revived in the nearest Vita-Chamber booth, with everything you had on you when you died, and yourself at half health. This means you can go right back to what you were fighting and keep hammering away at it, dying and returning repeatedly until it's dead. I literally have had a few of those "Big Daddy" guys right outside the Vita-Chamber, killing me seconds after leaving it but not before I got a few shots in.

Maybe it's the overly-noir environments which hide any graphic details of those crazed "splicers" that attack me wherever I go. Every place in the game is dark and shadowy, and while what lighting there is never fails to impress in creating those shadows, the cumulative effect is just an irritating hodgepodge of nooks and crannies that often make it hard to see enemies and objects in the morass.

Or perhaps it's just that, if I wanted to play Pipe Dream again, I'd break out my Game Boy version. Dozens of different objects in BioShock can be hacked, from vending machines to security cameras, by playing a mini-game that is, quite simply, Pipe Dream. While certain powers can assist in this so-called hacking, or shortcut it altogether, I've still ended up playing more Pipe Dream than I have in years.

BioShock is nonetheless a decent game, but for me personally - and I admit my gaming tastes are a little out there - It's just not living up to the hype. I've made it to the area called Arcadia, though, and will probably finish it soon. Maybe the ending will make me a believer.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Evolving Videogaming Setup

I've done some digging through old photographs and come up with this gallery of various videogame setups I've had over the years. Enjoy!

1983


I was a junior in high school, and in my room I had my Odyssey 2 set up. Behind the games I had for the system was my collection of Electronic Games magazines. To the right I kept my handhelds and other gadgets, including a TEAMMATE Game Computer, a primitive but fun little toy, and below that I had an original Magnavox Odyssey, acquired from a friend of the family, that unfortunately didn't work.

1994

At the height of the 16-bit era, I had four systems hooked up in my living room. Below the TV was the Turbografx 16 and the NES, and to the right I had the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. I also had the Sega Master System converter for the Genesis and some Master System games.

On the other side of the room from all that, I kept my portable systems, including a GameBoy, an Atari Lynx, a TurboExpress (which rocked), and a Sega Game Gear. Not pictured and set up in my spare bedroom was my Commodore 64 and the vast library of games I had built for it.

2004


At this point, I wanted to have as many systems from my immense collection of games hooked up a the same time. Below the TV are my Playstation, SNES, Gamecube, and Nintendo 64. Wires leading forward from that setup went under a throw rug to my coffee table, where I had the Atari 2600, Odyssey 2, and NES all hooked up. It was quite a mess, but looked impressive.

Also in my living room were my portables - with my fledgling Game Boy Advance collection - and stand-alones, as well as two Vectrex units (what's the plural of Vectrex, anyway? Vectrexes? Vectrices?), and a Tempest arcade game, which I never could get fully functional. The sound and controls were fine, but the screen was distorted. I sold it off, as well as most of the games pictured here, during my eBay purge that started in 2005. So 2004 was my last hurrah for batshit crazy-ass videogame collecting.


And finally, in my bedroom in 2004, were my Commodore 64 and PC game libraries. As I reported last year, the Commodore 64 stuff was also - quite tragically - eBayed off too. It was like cutting out a piece of my own soul, but at the time the market was hot for C64, and it helped pay for my wedding.

2008

Today, accompanying our new 32-inch flatscreen TV, my wife and I have an XBox 360, a Wii, a Gamecube, and a PS2, along with their respective game libraries. Also on the shelf with those games is our collection of Nintendo DS, GameBoy Advance, GameBoy Color, and GameBoy games.

In our office, I have the Odyssey 2 set up, which I showcased in a blog entry last year, as well as the PC, the twin Vectrex units, and some stand-alones.

I wish I had taken more pictures over the years of my gaming setups as they evolved. But life moves fast, and with so many great systems and games coming and going over the decades, it's not always easy to hit pause and reflect on what you've got.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Orange Box

While considering the purchase of an XBox 360, I was thinking about what games to get for it right off the bat. Most of them, it seems, were releases from last fall. Ahead of all of them, though, on my list of most wanted games, was The Orange Box. Something inside told me that this package of three games - Half Life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2 - would have a huge amount of play time and thus "bang for the buck". I was right, and I'm sure glad and grateful that my co-workers who gave me this generous gift also included this game.

Portal I dove into right away. At first, I didn't get it. There was a chasm I had to cross and I couldn't make the jump. It took me awhile before I realized that, DUH, I cold make a portal opening over on the wall across the chasm. Another DUH moment came after I was chasing down what seemed to be another person in the test chamber with me, who was always one step ahead of me running into a portal of their own, when I realized that it was actually me.

The joy of Portal is one often universal to a good videogame. It's in learning the rules of the universe the game's designers have set up and applying them within the game. In Portal, it's a strange universe indeed, and figuring your way through the test chambers using the tools you're given is an absolute mind-exercising challenge of the highest degree. It was over too soon, but word from the recent E3 expo is that more Portal is on the way.

Team Fortress 2 is an online game that I've only dabbled with so far, but it's been fun. It seems more cartoony and thus more casual than most online games I've tried, but to be honest I haven't yet put the time I need to into this third of the Orange Box.

Half-Life 2 is just plain amazing. I feel comfortable giving away spoilers ahead because the PC version has been out for years, and this console version since last fall. At first, I thought the game was sort of drab. I had no idea of the plot, I was placed in a dystopian police-state city with a crowbar and told to suck it up.

It took awhile before the pace picked up and I got some better weapons, and got to some new environments. I even got a few hints of plot from the NPCs I encountered, making the game a little more interesting. As I progressed, I got to tool around in a swamp boat, got a really cool gravity gun, and fought all sorts of weirdness in the form of facehugger-controlled zombies and the like.

The best sequence so far in Half-Life 2 came yesterday when I got to ride up the coast in a dune buggy. It was a long road, stopping at remote houses to take out enemies and search for supplies. At several points in my journey I had to use the gravity gun to clear the road of wrecked cars, cackling gleefully as I sent them flying over the guardrail, off the cliff, and into the water below. Another stop along the way was at an enormous suspension bridge, where I had to climb along the girders on the underside of the bridge, and back again, to unlock passage of the top of it. The heights were dizzying.

At the end of yesterday's session of Half-Life 2, I had a new toy which allows me to tame and control a small squad of ant lion bugs and use them to take out enemies. It's been a long game so far, and the best part of it is that the Orange Box also contains Half-Life 2 Episode 1 and Half-Life 2 Episode 2 as well. I can't even imagine what kind of surprises are in store for me in those games.

The Orange Box was certainly the bargain I had hoped it would be - It may be months before I close that box and move on to something else, because the content within is absolutely fun and challenging.