Mar 31 2009

FWR Episode 018: The Oregon Trail

In Episode 018, we talk about the recent iPhone/iPod touch reincarnation of an old favorite, The Oregon Trail. This game was instrumental in shaping how we understand not only educational games, but also games in general. We talk about input methods, the trajectory of educational games, and where the original and current versions of this title fit in.

Quickly, thanks to Sinan Kubba and Joseph DeLia at the Game on: Big Red Potion podcast for actively engaging us in conversation in both textual and audio formats. And thanks to you for listening.

Mar 27 2009

Wolfenphone 3D

It’s officially all downhill for me from now on, seeing that Wolfenstein 3D has officially arrived on the iPhone. If you are a friend/loved one, I am especially sorry.

John Carmack has written a detailed overview of this port project on id Software’s website. Here’s a bit of the timeline:

Late last year, the mobile team had finished up all the planned versions of Wolfenstein RPG, but EA had suggested that in addition to the hundreds of customized versions they normally produce for all the various mobile phones, they were interested in having another team do a significant media quality improvement on it for the iPhone. While Wolf RPG is a very finely crafted product for traditional cell phones, it wasn’t designed for the iPhone’s interface or capabilities, so it wouldn’t be an ideal project, but it should still be worth doing. When we got the first build to test, I was pleased with how the high res artwork looked, but I was appalled at how slow it ran. It felt like one of the mid range java versions, not better than the high end BREW as I expected. I started to get a sinking feeling. I searched around in the level for a view that would confirm my suspicion, and when I found a clear enough view of some angled geometry I saw the tell-tale mid-polygon affine swim in the texture as I rotated. They were using the software rasterizer on the iPhone. I patted myself on the back a bit for the fact that the combination of my updated mobile renderer, the intelligent level design / restricted movement, and the hi-res artwork made the software renderer almost visually indistinguishable from a hardware renderer, but I was very unhappy about the implementation.

I told EA that we were NOT going to ship that as the first Id Software product on the iPhone. Using the iPhone’s hardware 3D acceleration was a requirement, and it should be easy — when I did the second generation mobile renderer (written originally in java) it was layered on top of a class I named TinyGL that did the transform / clip / rasterize operations fairly close to OpenGL semantics, but in fixed point and with both horizontal and vertical rasterization options for perspective correction. The developers came back and said it would take two months and exceed their budget.

Rather than having a big confrontation over the issue, I told them to just send the project to me and I would do it myself. Cass Everitt had been doing some personal work on the iPhone, so he helped me get everything set up for local iPhone development here, which is a lot more tortuous than you would expect from an Apple product. As usual, my off the cuff estimate of “Two days!” was optimistic, but I did get it done in four, and the game is definitely more pleasant at 8x the frame rate.

And I had fun doing it.

That’s right: Carmack personally oversaw this project, and took less than a week to complete it. I’ve already spent a good chunk of my afternoon replaying this classic game on the iPhone and I’m blown away at how fluid and immersive it is.

But the best news of all? Carmack expects that “Classic Doom” will come out “fairly soon”. If Wolf 3D takes all but 4 days, I’m thinking we should be seeing this next weekend, right? ;)

Mar 25 2009

Giddyap! The Oregon Trail

Just a quick post here to say I am love-love-loving Gameloft’s adaptation of The Oregon Trail for iPhone and iPod Touch.  Oregon Trail was probably my first computer gaming experience when I was but a wee one growing up in the nightmare of Reagan’s America, and like a lot of us from that era, I still have fond memories of my classroom’s Apple IIe and its always-sticking left arrow key.


A quarter century later, I still find this a very fulfilling and enjoyable game, and probably moreso given the fact I teach full-time at a college in Oregon City, OR (where I teach a games studies course every spring, no less…) that—yes—is literally located on the Trail’s End Highway. Call me a goober, but last week I purposely waited to download the game to my iPhone until I would be physically there on campus, at the end of the trail, index finger poised and at the ready to rustle up some grub.

Mar 16 2009

Lay it on, Layoff

I just spent most of my morning playing and marvelling over Tiltfactor Laboratory’s new browser game Layoff. Co-developed by Tiltfactor and the Rochester Institute of Technology Game Design and Development program, Layoff is a smart and smarmy commentary on “the current state of the US financial crisis,” in which the player helps restructure yet another faceless corporation’s hapless workforce.

The gameplay is a variation on Bejeweled, wherein the player targets entire classes of workers for layoffs by lining them up in multiples of at least three; once three or more workers of the same class are arranged in a row, they are sent tumbling to the bottom of the screen, where they are instantly queued to collect unemployment.

Unlike the jewel-encrusted browsergames that partially inspired its game mechanics, there is no leveling in Layoff or warm-fuzzies awarded for clearing the grid. A tally is kept in the top right screen, showing the player how much money she has saved the company by gangplanking the workers onto the public dole. If the player matches five workers of the same class, a corporate merger ensues and a banker icon is added to the grid; bankers cannot be selected or grouped for removal in the same way that the other classes can, and are only alleviated by the “BANK BAILOUT” button underneath the player’s tally of “$ SAVED”.

What I find most satisfying about Layoff, of course, is its underlying argument. Hovering the mouse over any worker on the grid gives the player a short character sketch of that specific sprite’s personal history or situation. Mini-bios for the workers are poignant and sobering, revealing the hardships, worries, and strife that are becoming all too commonplace in our New Depression.


A different poignance is found in the bankers’ pop-ups, whose text frequently parrots the corporate-speak commensurate with the talking heads on CNBC or FOXBusiness. In my most recent game session, I laid off an entire row of orange-shirted workers and was immediately rewarded by the banker who took their place shamelessly proclaiming:

The gameplay is confined to the top half of the browser window, but it is probably the bottom half that is most compelling. This is where the text pop-ups appear, also where all the displaced workers pace back and forth as they wait to collect their unemployment checks, and still also where a CNN/FOXNews-style ticker displays factoids from the real world of corporate mergers and the collapse of the U.S. banking system. The total effect of this space is a powerlessness for the player that is rare to find in most games, because most games are trying desperately to distract us from these kind of issues. In other words, Layoff is by design all about the proverbial bottom line, and it does not hesitate to point fingers.

For Tiltfactor, Layoff’s competence as both a game and an argument draw immediate comparisons to the rhetorical/persuasive works of Ian Bogost, Gonzalo Frasca and Paolo Pedercini. This is not only high praise in my opinion, but praise well-earned.

Mar 10 2009

Give Me 1000 Good Games

Every once in awhile a game really grabs our attention. I’m not even going to mention the game that has actually broken this camel’s back, if only to not fuel my inevitable detractors. But I will just simply state, as fact, that occasionally a game comes out that gets so much attention in one way or another that it creates first a bubbling discussion, then a ribald debate, and, finally, a hipster ostracization wherein snooty bloggers and podcasters won’t even mention the game’s name in a post.

Clearly, I’m above all this.

One Thing to Remember

I want to start by asserting one simple caveat. If you take nothing else away from all the writing I ever do about videogames, please accept and respect this:


Without qualification or exception, every single game that has ever been created is art. Art. ART. It does not matter what authorial intention is/was. It does not matter what consumer or critical reaction is/was. It is just a fact that every game ever created, and every game that will ever be created, is art, is artistic, is artful.

Every little thing that we as humans have created or ever will create is ART. We cannot pretend like we live in a world where Art inhabits a little petting zoo for the rich and privileged. Nor can we pretend like there is some committee or expert who can unequivocally declare a work “art” or “not art.” It is a challenge of quantum complexity and insane futility to proceed down a path that presupposes only certain things are or are not art.

Any time an individual speaks about something being “artistic” I do not read that as an argument. I read that as a personal judgement about the quality of the individual’s experience, something that is specific to a particular context, informed by a unique history of contexts.

Sturgeon’s Law + $$$ = Videogame Industry

In the gaming industry of the early 21st Century, Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect. While all games are art, they are not all “good” art. So the trick becomes to learn about the landscape of games, to examine every single game that comes out and to know what makes a game “good” or “bad” and, most importantly, why a game has that effect in a given context. It must be understood that every game must be discussed within a specific context. Contexts may be able to mix, but ultimately no one discussion of any game is going to suss out all of the interesting things to say about that game. And a game which rates very well in one context (say, the “Played while getting drunk with buddies” context) may be a real stinker in another context (for example, the “Played with wife and kids on family games night” context).

It is pointless to believe that any one discussion is enough for any given game, regardless of how “good” or “bad” that game is considered.

It is also important to remember that most games try to push the easiest-to-reach buttons. This is what gives most game plots their melodramatic flair. Mainstream blockbuster games are very much like mainstream blockbuster movies in that they are typically designed to offend as few people as possible and trace simple plotlines enacted through predictable character behaviors with very little emotional motivation. At best we get a game of Spielbergian qualities, which, unfortunately, much of the pubic is happy to brand “artistic success” and “legitimate consumer entertainment.”

But why should games be different from any other media form? I enjoy complex characters, motivational quandries, and intricately woven stories in my books, poems, movies, television shows, music, and comics. I enjoy media that asks me to figure out something about how it works. Why wouldn’t I look for those same qualities in the games I play?

I appreciate small movements as much as large movements, but small movements of concept, gameplay, or narrative do not illustrate well in a quick press release or five screens among a hundred other articles. In order to understand what is “good” or not about a game, we must examine it in depth. However, the industry is geared around the latest and greatest. It has only been in this latest generation of consoles and downloadable game services that old games were reconsidered as viable play options. But gamers know that a good game can be rewarding for years. This has been a constant tension, but I feel like gamers are finally beginning to turn the tide.

We can slow down. We can appreciate the full quality of the games we play. We can appreciate the way that context changes over time, which affects our understanding of a game. We can resist what may be the most insidious easy-button the game industry has in their back pocket: innovation.

The Myth of Innovation

When talking about easy-outs for game developers and publishers, novelty is the easiest of them all. “Innovation” has long been a mantra for the games industry, and on one hand, innovation must and will inevitably continue. It is impossible to deny that the growth of gaming is tied to the growth of technology. New tech has allowed us to realize just how important playful activity is, and games have grown as a media form to fill that niche. As technology progresses, it is unavoidable that games will utilize new tools to provide new experiences (or to rehash old ones). But, on the other hand, innovation is also one of the least useful measures of a game’s quality.

Given that innovation is a requirement of environmental success, how can it be such a commonly used term when determining if a game is “good” or not? Isn’t some level of innovation always expected? Isn’t some level of innovation often dictated by middleware tools and decisions made by hardware manufacturers? And do those “innovations” often push developers, willingly or not into new territory, forcing innovation with complete disregard to authorial intent? Yes. This is how innovation works in the industry — as often as not at the demand of a zaibatsu, not the whim of a developer. And here we remain, with an industry that creates new tools every day, yet has no problem re-releasing Product A as Product A 2: Now With 5 More Guns! and often receives critical acclaim for doing so.

It’s sad that game developers who recognize and respond to the environmental pressures of innovation, and keep in mind all the other things that make a game good, are not always the most successful. Because innovation is not really desired by most audiences (cf. the current state of Hollywood or prime time television), the really innovative stuff is often not appreciated until it has been done a few times. The most successful mainstream game publishers and developers are scavengers of the landscape, adept at picking the bones of better games and then polishing those bones and presenting them as sanitized, crowd-friendly experiences for kids and adults who don’t really want to think much about their games. And all of that happens under the banner of innovation.

One Game Proves Nothing

In short, innovation is a hollow claim to greatness, and any one standout game is not going to be enough to convince anyone of anything. I’m still not sure exactly who we’re trying to convince, or what we’re trying to convince them of. But it seems like we all want our parents to be proud of us, and in some way that means getting them to respect videogames. And I suspect more people would like their bosses to like videogames, too. And then there is that tricky “art” thing, which I feel like I laid to rest several paragraphs ago.

It probably comes down to the simple fact that when you like something, you want to share it. And people who “get” videogames tend to really enjoy them. I appreciate the different “games as art” or “this game is art” discussions because they achieve two things: 1) They get people talking in depth about games, which is something we need. 2) Participants in these discussions reveal a lot about themselves and why the games they play resonate, and those revelations are often endearing and fascinating. Don’t forget dear bloggers and podcasters that to all the rest of us, you are the NPCs in this game of life.

But any individual’s estimation of any game is never going to be representative or true. So no matter how many game critics clamor for a title, or how many fanboys petition for a sequel, nothing is going to change in the game industry or in how games are perceived in our culture until there are a lot more good ones. We have not even begun to see the game explosion; we are still in the infancy of the form.

Don’t give me one good game. Give me one thousand good games.

Give me enough good games to convince all my friends to play. And enough to convince the people I hate to play. And give me enough good games to convince my company to make games. And enough to get parents to buy games for their kids. And give me enough good games affecting enough kids for teachers to recognize the benefits. How many games is that? And over how many years?

I think it will be a long time before we don’t have to talk about games as art, or arts as game, and I intend to enjoy every discussion along the way.

Mar 9 2009

FWR Episode 017: A Return to Formlessness

In Episode 017 we construct a scattershot conversation, pulling in everything from N’Gai Croal leaving Newsweek to video capture features in games. We were joined by friend of the show, Netwurker Mez, who took the time to contribute comments in real-time via Twitter as we recorded. With her help, we take on Noby Noby Boy, Skate 2, and Street Fighter 4, among others.

We will probably try this live Twitter feed again in the future, so add us (Shawn, Shane, Trevor, FWR) and join in the fun. Thanks for listening.