Apr 3 2009

Paging Dr. Wark

We’ll be recording our second Book Club episode next week for Gamer Theory, and we’re pleased as punch to announce that the book’s author McKenzie Wark will be joining us for the discussion.

If you’d like to participate in the conversation, you can post comments or questions to our Book Club page, Facebook group, or direct message us on Twitter. We’ll be recording the episode on Thursday, April 9.

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.

Feb 18 2009

The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

The XBox 360 I bought back in spring 2005 died its inevitable death the first week of January of 2009, and I finally received the refurbished unit back from Microsoft last Friday. I hooked it back up over the weekend just to make sure it actually does work, but I found myself with a dillemma of sorts that I’m sure is becoming a more frequent occurrence as console gaming continues to become more and more mainstream with each passing year.

I’ve had plenty of friends go through Redmond’s red-ring-around-the-rosie routine with their XBox 360s to know that I wouldn’t be receiving my unit back within much less than a month’s time (and to the person they were all correct…). With a substantial backlog of games still unplayed from the gluttony of last fall coupled with the fact that I have a shit-ton of prepwork to do for my upcoming Games & Literature course that starts in April, I rationalized buying a stripped-down “Arcade” SKU of the 360 that would allow me to keep on truckin while I simultaneously awaited the return of my recently-departed.

You already know where this is heading: it’s an embarrassment of riches, right?  Two XBox 360s! No problems there, right?

Umm, not quite.  I mean, it’s a nice problem to have I suppose, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Anyone who has had a matching pair of anything will inevitably feel this way, I think.


I’m curious to know what ya’ll have to say about this, and even more curious to hear your suggestions for what can be done to maximize a 2-XBox household.  (Besides, of course, shoving them up my ass…I already gave that a spin when the towel method failed, but that’s already a lot more than you needed to know.)

Jan 30 2009

Opertoon-ity Knocks?

Ruben & Lullaby is one of the more interesting iPhone/iPod Touch games to appear recently, and has inspired a whole new discussion thread in the ongoing conversation regarding The Jesus Phone’s narrative possibilities. Probably the best piece I’ve read so far about Ruben & Lullaby is Emily Short’s new GameSetWatch column, in which she compares this “opertoon” (defined by Ruben & Lullaby’s designer Erik Loyer as “a story you play like a musical instrument”) to Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas’s Facade:

As I played, I couldn’t help comparing “Ruben & Lullaby” with “Facade”. (There are after all only so many game/interactive experiences that thrust the player into the middle of someone else’s romantic discord.) The two complement each other in odd ways, one getting right what the other didn’t. In Facade, the characters were specifically drawn, abounding in motives and neuroses, often to such a degree that I wondered why my character was friends with them in the first place.

On the other hand, it was often hard to tell how my actions were controlling the outcome of the game, and interaction — typing full sentences of dialogue — was clumsy. Things I wanted to say were often woven into the wrong place by the time I hit RETURN. (And I’m a pretty fast typist.) In fact, the comparison is more or less a case study in the value — and danger — of using verbal content in games. Dialogue characterizes, clarifies, makes specific. At the same time it’s hard to interact with and potentially confusing.

These are important issues to consider as games continue narrowing the gap between the real and the virtual, and especially so when game designers ask players to converse with their games as they might an actual, breathing human being. In Ruben & Lullaby, we interact with the game’s characters and influence their world by shaking or stroking our iPhones (and, really, who doesn’t love that for its own accordant pleasure), but we are nonetheless locked outside the environment; if we shake the screen, the characters don’t get angry with us, but rather take it out on one another.

I definitely see the connection Short is making here, but I can’t help make an entirely different one between Ruben & Lullaby and The Sims. While an exponentially larger “God game” in almost every sense, for me The Sims still affords us players the luxury of not living in the lives we have created for those poor bastards trapped behind our computer monitors. Ruben & Lullaby is a beautiful, elegant expression of this same notion, only infinitely more portable.

That we can so quickly and easily wreck (or–*sigh*—save, I suppose…) an intimate relationship and have that interrupted by a text message or phone call from a telemarketer seems both sinister and by the same token incredibly appropriate; it seems we’ve atomized our humanity on nearly every level, and the most pressing decision in the fray could very well be how many rollover minutes we’ll have left at the end of the game session.

Jan 24 2009

Beam us up, Nick & Ian

Gentleman, scholar, and first-ever FWR guest Nick Montfort’s new book, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Game System, is now available for keepsies from the fine folks at MIT Press.  Montfort co-authored the book with the brilliant Ian Bogost, and describes it thusly over at Grand Text Auto:

The book examines the relationship between the unusual hardware design of the Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600), the games that were created for it, and how those games influenced later titles and genres. Ian and I discuss the Atari VCS itself and six telling cartridges for the system: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We delve into the technical specifics of the system, tracking developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics.

Montfort talked a little bit about this project when we interviewed him last fall for Episode 007, and I am very much looking forward to picking this up from my neighborhood Powells store in Cedar Hills. Congratulations, guys.

Jan 23 2009

Survival of the Poorest

This week I’m struggling to catch my breath after spending a long weekend in Las Vegas with two of my oldest and dearest friends from college. The three of us are all cash game poker players in varying degrees of severity and seriousness; one of my friends had never played live poker in a casino until this past weekend; another plays daily online, hosts a low-stakes home game virtually every weekend, and at least once a month takes a daytrip to a tribal casino.

As for me, I fall right in the fat middle, having played a little bit in casinos for real money and also online strictly for fun. I do not consider myself a serious poker player, but I do take the game seriously when I play it. Until this past weekend, I had never strung together more than two or three hours of continuous play, and even then it was within the confines of a small, comfy home tournament hosted by a group of friends. So when we all met up to play a weekend’s worth of poker, I had to find some serious stamina somewhere, and fast.

Poker is arguably one of the most ubiquitous games in Western culture, largely due to its simple rules and how it encourages social interaction both within the game experience and outside it. It’s a game easily played while enjoying a few adult beverages, and given the right combination of people at any given table, poker is a game that makes fast friends among virtual strangers. A player who plays the game long enough will see the luck of the cards do equally providential and terrible things to the fortunes of the people holding them; furthermore, there is usually a communal sense among players that the highs and lows will eventually catch up with us all.

In other words, there is a peculiar fatalism in playing this game always held in check by the egalitarianism inherent in the random spill of the cards. No person—not even the dealer—can be held responsible for the luck of the draw. And this, of course, is what makes playing games like poker for money so intoxicating and so potentially personally destructive to the players who play them. There is no golden elixir to swallow, no magic sword to wield, no discernible pattern to memorize, no Konami code to punch in that will immunize and protect a player from the highs and lows of this game; the best any one player can do to protect herself is to find comfort in the statistical probability of seeing that last card she needs to make the straight flush with three other players betting and raising into her before the river card appears, and as any table-top RPG player worth his salt will tell you, percentage odds are cold comfort when you’re in the very belly of the beast. How to best describe and categorize these kind of experiences is puzzling at best.

My friend and I had played a brilliant session of $1/$2 no limit hold-em at the Mirage, in the early evening of our last full day in Vegas. We sat at a table where the players—most of them clearly rounders—were finishing their last few hands before breaking for dinner. We barely played for 25 minutes; I only played three flops and my buddy played four. We collectively walked away from the table up nearly $400 for our time and trouble. As I cashed in my chips I literally felt bulletproof, that if the zombie apocalypse broke out right then and there (next to the Cirque de Soleil tribute to The Beatles, natch…), my friend and I would certainly survive.

Only a couple of hours later, however, I was at the tail-end of that same day, and playing another session of $1/$2 no limit hold-em at the MGM Grand, and I walked away from the table having flushed my whole chipstack chasing the last card that would have given me the best possible hand given the cards in play on the table. I had done all the math, considered the possibilities, and took a swing at bluffing another player off a huge pot that would have tripled me up for the day; unfortunately (and predictably, given the odds, of course…) I missed. When it came down to the end of the hand and I had lost what I had convinced myself was the best strategy out of this particular dungeon, that was the moment it struck me that poker isn’t a conventional game of chance.


See, cash game poker is a survival-horror game.

Cash game players are able to last into the wee hours of the next day’s morning (surviving mostly on the sugar from their weak-sauce well drinks, of course) because if they play enough decent-sized pots their bloodstreams are constantly awash in the ebb and flow of adrenaline and melatonin. I raked enough $40 and $50 pots last weekend to begin recognizing that cold flood racing down my arms and into my fingers as I pulled the chips into my little hovel: it’s the same feeling I’ve had when narrowly escaping the fish-people police in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth or using my final 20 machine gun rounds to drop that last Big Daddy in one of the deeper, darker levels in BioShock.

More to the point: cash game poker is a game structure that players cannot win; it can merely be survived. A winning hand of poker is only better than the other hands on the table at the end of the betting cycle; after the players pay each other accordingly, the cards are shuffled and a fresh hand is dealt. If we consider the simple fact that in a cash game, another hand will always be dealt as long as there are two people sitting at the table, poker is clearly a game of stagnation and stasis with no discernible or desirable end-state. Yes, a player can build an impressive stack of chips in front of her, but the game itself remains unchanged; the game does not care how many chips the players possess, for it is hermetically sealed from those who play it. Like H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth and Ken Levine’s Rapture, the cash game is an abandoned, fallen city, and its players are—at best—self-serving looters.

In the best survival-horror videogames I’ve played, I have always walked away realizing that I might be richer for the experience, but I have not truly won or fundamentally changed anything about my surroundings. Thus, playing a long weekend of cash game poker with my friends only to get on a plane and fly home feels eeirly similar to the feelings I’ve had finishing a session of Left 4 Dead:

Woah….that was close.

Jan 14 2009

Crashing the Gate

I’m usually not one to get excited about XBox Live’s downloadable content, and I’m easily made weary from seeing a certain someone at a certain console manufacturer spam Twitter with messages about the same.  (What’s that you say? I can buy a polo shirt now for my Live-atar? Do go on!)

But I’m feeling markedly different today because XBL is releasing the first in-game content for Behemoth’s truly majestic sidescroller Castle Crashers, a game that has grown dear to my heart due the simple fact it’s in heavy rotation (still…) in my home.

Now, mind you, I haven’t actually played Crashers in months; rather, I have three boys (ages 12, 7 and 5) who are endeared and committed to this game on a level that is deeper even than their affinities for the new Clone Wars series, pepperoni Hot Pockets and chocolate milk. These boys of mine are good-natured, thoughtful, and respectful in ways that mark their close bonds to one another, and the large amounts of time they’ve spent together have always involved both physical and virtual gaming. They are, for the most part anyway, compassionate gamers, too, which I believe is incredibly important if they are to fully enjoy and learn from their experiences. I do not tolerate any squabbling or frustrated pissing/moaning about how a certain game is—to quote the 7 year old—”a big fat rip-off!” And for the overwhelming majority of the games they play, they are genuinely, positively engaged.  My oldest in particular has recently taken a very serious approach to playing Japanese RPGs, and he is meticulously replaying the Kingdom Hearts series on his PS2, literally wringing every drop from the narrative. He is serenely contemplative as he plays these games, and he considers them to be equally important to the “tween” novels and manga he reads so voraciously.

But when it comes to Crashers, all three of them viscerally respond to the game’s beat-em-up aesthetic that is much more than just skin deep. The suavely color-coordinated knight-sprites are very much action heroes to them, and for at least the last four months I’ve had the youngest boy wake me up every Saturday and Sunday morning (well before any sane or mature person would consider to be a reasonable time to get out of bed, by the way) with the faint but familiar whisper:

Dad, can we play on the 360?

Their incredibly hip grandmother visited us back in October for two weeks, and after living in our a household (where television programming takes a distant third place to web surfing and playing videogames), she became so well-acquainted with the thunderous, triumphant music that plays while the game is loading she bought each of the boys a vinyl figure of their favorite chromakeyed character. These they have kept in their acrylic showcases every night since Christmas, and the middle boy is dead-determined to use his figure to craft a Halloween costume for himself this year (thanks, of course, in part to having seen pictures of this dude’s amazing ensemble).

When Crashers was released last year, there was much a kerfuffle over how much Microsoft was charging at the gate. I was baffled by this conversation back then, and probably even more so now. As regular listeners of the podcast already know, I don’t like to get caught up in conversations about games-as-commodity unless we’re talking in only the most theoretical of terms. However, in this particular case, I think it’s fairly obvious Behemoth has a rock-solid intellectual property that is not only an economic success but is arguably a cultural one as well.  There’s really no need for WiiFit in our house because my 5-year-old son constantly jumps up and down as he plays the game—usually and virtually nonstop for 30 or 40 minutes—as he imitates his knight’s animation. He does this unconsciously, too, it seems, because I make him stop when he is obviously tiring himself; after only a minute’s rest at most, he will be back on his feet again, the music and movement coursing through him as might a dream.

Castle Crashers is—and will probably always be—at the very least a fond childhood memory for the three most important people to me on this planet. In the end, I guess what I’m asking, is how do you put a price on something like that?

Aug 30 2008

Deus Ex gets Brainy

Some of the best commentary about games and gaming culture to be found anywhere on ye ol interwebs is produced by Michael Abbott. We’re big fans of both his Brainy Gamer blog and podcast, and excited to see he is ramping up his Vintage Game Club to go a few rounds with a little game called Deus Ex.  Shane and I are both tracking down copies of the game (which, apparently, is available to play *for free* over at Gametap) next week, and looking forward to jumping on the VGC discussion board for some high-octane playin and prattlin.

Tangentially: McKenzie Wark dedicated a full chapter of Gamer Theory to Deus Ex. Bet your bottom dollar we’ll be flipping through that soon as well.

Aug 7 2008

an open invitation to talk World of Warcraft

Shane and I will be recording the Book Club episode of FWR within the next week or so and would be delighted to have you participate.  If you’ve already picked up a copy of Corneliussen & Walker-Rettberg’s book Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft reader, please post your thoughts here on our blog or in our Facebook forum and we’ll incorporate them into the show. If you haven’t read the book but would still be willing to share your WoW thoughts/observances/experiences, we’d love to have you chime in as well.

More than anything, we are way more interested in facilitating a conversation about WoW and issues raised in the book than “reviewing” or critiquing.  If you are even passingly interested in World of Warcraft, we want to hear from you.