Friday, December 28, 2007

The Disrespect of the Knowledgeable

For about 20 years now, I've been writing about games primarily for people that know about games. The role has changed considerably over the years, but the fundamental purpose of what I do has been basically the same. People want information about something they care passionately about, and I've been in the lucky position of being able to give it. Of course I've always noticed the cynicism and sarcasm of the audience, and have fallen foul of it many times (indeed, early in its life, I once stupidly said I was "over" the Nintendo DS) - but within the context of "enthusiast" coverage/media/community, it was to be expected. Enthusiast coverage of just about anything is as much about validation and vindication as it is about information. The audience wants to be challenged, because it already has the fundamentals covered.

Since moving on to What They Play though, my role has changed dramatically. Instead of feeding an already knowledgeable audience with new information, I'm working with a team of very talented writers to feed a new kind of audience; people that know absolutely nothing about videogames, but know they need to know more. They crave the information, but they have no frame of reference, and no context, so consequently don't need to be validated or vindicated in any way. Any new knowledge is good, because it better equips them to tackle the difficult and challenging job of being a parent. For example: When you've been out of the gaming loop (or indeed, have never been in the gaming loop at all) the popularity of the Wii makes for a somewhat intimidating challenge. Even though it's designed for families, it's still a complex device. For the unfamiliar, it presents myriad challenges from the moment it's taken out of the box. Many parents couldn't pick Mario out of a lineup, and really don't understand the difference between a PlayStation and an Xbox, or a Wii and anything else. Going to Target or Wal-Mart to buy a game is a confusing, and intimidating experience; often, when the clerk says "what system do your kids have?" these parents aren't even sure. "Er, it's white." Go to Target and hang out in the games section for a while...I guarantee you'll hear a conversation involving an utterly bemused mother who wants to buy a game for her child, but just isn't equipped to make the call.

Our goal has been to try and help these people. To feed them information they need to know about games, while also providing examples of families that play games together to help them see that it's not a scary, weird thing that's only really for grumpy, cynical boys aged 18-24. What I've noticed though, is that the knowledgeable, game-savvy, or online-savvy audience is far from helpful. Communities that try to represent the broader "crowd" are really just large, elitist groups with very little respect for those that don't know as much as them. Enthusiasts react to the information given (or lack thereof, from their perspective) and choose to be derisive, not caring that it might be useful to someone else. These people, who often bemoan the fact that something like gaming isn't treated "seriously" or isn't accepted as part of the "mainstream" are core to the larger problem. They seem unable to process the fact that there is a larger group of people, who are hungry for information, and hungry for experiences that simply don't care quite as passionately as them. This broader group may not understand the concept of a "Mii" and they may not really "get" what Xbox Live actually does, but they do want to learn - and as they do, their numbers are growing, and their spending power is growing. Their taste is starting to affect the bigger picture.

These people crave simplicity, and interactive entertainment experiences as simple as putting a DVD into the player. They're "new" gamers, and the games business loves them. They demand less, spend more, and are ultimately responsible for the ongoing year-on-year growth of the games business. They're fresh meat. The group that identifies itself as "hardcore" can help a few games sell millions each year, but the "mainstream" audience (that the core sees as ignorant) will be what makes a lot of games sell millions each year. That there's tension here seems ridiculous. Enthusiasts seem to feel threatened by more casual or "non-game" experiences gaining a foothold, but how could this possibly be bad? My DS is currently teaching me Spanish, and I'm really enjoying it. Isn't that good? Just because Ubisoft has made My Spanish Coach for the DS doesn't mean it won't make another Splinter Cell, or it won't make a sequel to Assassin's Creed.

What I've always found heartening about speaking to gamers is their willingness to help each other out. They share information, they share news, and they share ways to play games more efficiently, or in ways that are more fun. I hope, ultimately, that they can see that this new, less knowledgeable audience is similarly in need of help, and rather than feel the need to be derisive of any efforts to help will see that more gamers = more opportunity for games publishers = more games.

Super Mario Galaxy affecting my kids' play

When I first started Super Mario Galaxy with my kids, it was mostly a selfish experience. I wanted to play it, and I knew it was something "safe" to play in front of them. It was the perfect "during the day" game (and to be honest, everything else I've wanted to play lately has been M-rated; Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, etc.) For the first hour or so, they complained that it was "boring" and didn't want any part of it. I'm not sure what it was that changed this, but everything flipped during this holiday - they're now completely transfixed by it, and it's one of the few games that they demand to sit and watch, rather than sit and play.

It's also changed the way they're playing with their toys, too. Action figures are often seen running up vertical surfaces now, and underneath things...just like Mario as he zips around those floating 3D objects. While playing with some toy animals recently, my oldest grabbed a toy drum and pretended it was one of the giant, rolling obstacles from the game which the animals would have to avoid. His brother then ran to find some bouncy balls, so we could "throw them and stop the bad guys" just like the bob-ombs in Galaxy. While at a pizza place recently, my youngest had a toy climb up my body before triumphantly declaring that he "got the star!" when he reached my head.

The healthiness of this is surely open to interpretation, and I'm sure some reading this would be a little concerned (taking things out of context seems to be a popular pastime of anyone with an ax to grind when it comes to videogames and child development) but what I'm enjoying about it is the way it has kickstarted their imaginations. They were already creative kids, but they're exploring concepts with their "regular" play now that they never would have previously. They're not demanding to play the game more, they're simply exploring new possibilities because the game has introduced entirely new concepts into their play patterns. They're no longer thinking of play surfaces in two dimensions, and they're starting to get a grip on the concept of "gravity" even though they don't know this yet.

17 Wii's Every Second

CNN is reporting that Amazon (our launch partner for What They Play, hence my interest in this) is having a remarkably good holiday season, going so far as to describe it as the retailer's "strongest to date." Of note in the story is the claim that "the online retailer said it sold about 17 Nintendo Wiis per second when the product was available." Apparently, it experienced its strongest holiday sales on Dec. 10, as customers ordered more than 5.4 million items, or 62.5 items every second. The company says it shipped products to more than 200 countries, with more than 3.9 million units sent on its peak day.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Game of the Year after pontificating very, very briefly on 11 of the games I played a lot of this year, I guess it's time to talk about the four games I didn't mention, and cast my tiny pebble into the ocean of opinion that is "Game of the Year 2007." I purposely didn't mention Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Bioshock, or Super Mario Galaxy the first time around, because let's face it (along with Mass Effect and Orange Box) they're pretty much all anyone's talking about right now. Although these are the highest profile titles, what's most important about this year is that there have been one hell of a lot of really good games that deserve to be remembered along with the big-budget, high-profile stuff. That said, no one can deny the way the bar was raised this year and whether you personally enjoyed the blockbusters or not (and personally, there were a few of them that I couldn't quite get it up for quite the way I'd hoped) there's no escaping the impact they had on gaming in general, and the fact that they were all exceptionally good. Amazing new features, unbelievable visuals, innovative new ideas, noticeable improvements in story telling (about bloody time) and emotional range, and even some good scripts. The four games above were all incredible...but when push comes to shove, and all things considered and all that - I think the real "game of the year" (and again, this is purely a personal, subjective view) was Super Mario Galaxy. It was very nearly Mass Effect, but ultimately I think that comes a close second.

I'm no Nintendophile by any stretch of the imagination, but the appeal of Mario is undeniable. Galaxy did what few other games have; it felt new, and imaginative, and whimsical, and created a world of magic and fantasy that recalled the days when all videogames felt that way. It uses the Wii controls in a way that's fun, but not gratuitous, and it is one of the most beautifully paced games I've played in years. After easing you through some relatively simple challenges, it whacks you with something crazy hard and infuriating...but only for a short while. And then it rewards you with something exciting and almost mindless. It's truly rewarding all the way through, and for that reason it's incredibly hard to put down.

I love playing it, and my kids love watching it...and now they're getting used to it, they're starting to want to do the thing with the second Wii-mote too. And what more could I want than that?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sunday afternoon gameplay

- - - -
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- - - -, what?
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Yeah, yeah, I know...hang on a minute
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Pata-Pata-Pata-Pon (yay!)
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wait a minute
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Friday, December 21, 2007

Random 7: December 21

1. Sensible World of Soccer is on Xbox Live! It may not look like much, but appearances can be deceptive. Many guys of a certain age (in the UK at least) spent an unreasonable amount of time playing this on the Amiga and the ST (and probably all sorts of other systems too; PC? Genesis? There was probably a SNES version too at some point.)

2. I just heard that Darren Gladstone is leaving Games for Windows: The Official Magazine to work at PC World. Best of luck, sir.

3. It's Global Orgasm Day tomorrow. I had no idea. I think we're all supposed to pop at once for the good of the Earth, or something. Could get messy. Apparently, it's all:
To effect positive change in the energy field of the Earth through input of the largest possible instantaneous surge of human biological, mental and spiritual energy.

4. A Space Invaders scarf? Yes please. Apparently there's only 500 of them being made.

5. I really quite enjoyed Drew Karpyshyn's first Mass Effect novel "Revelation" so I'm pleased to learn he's working on a sequel (dubbed "Ascension.")

6. SpongeBob Squarepants Underpants Slam hits Xbox Live Arcade exclusively next Wednesday. It is:
a fast-paced, side-scrolling multiplayer slapstick collect 'em-up, set deep in the ocean. An incredibly powerful storm current has disrupted a Royal Laundry shipment of the undergarments of Neptune, Lord of the Sea, and has spread his unmentionables across the bottom of the ocean. Neptune now calls upon all the commonfish to collect his lost undergarments, and fix this "delicate" situation. He's offered a bounteous reward to the sea creature who collects the most bloomers!

7. Don't tell the wife, but I think I've found my next car. I may have to just dream about it, and play it in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue though.

No Easy Answers

At a time where there's a lot of serious screwed up stuff going on, and people blaming videogames for all kinds of evils, it pays to get some perspective. Lots has been written comparing things to Columbine, and lots has been said by people that really have no idea what they're talking about. A good friend of mine really does know what he's talking about; because he was there. To help you understand what happened, and what it was like, he wrote a book about it. You should read it. I read it a while ago, and it moved me pretty deeply, particularly as a father. Mrs. D just got done with it too, and was moved to tears almost every night while reading. For those of us that have forgotten what the pressures of being a teenager were like, or what those pressures can evolve into, this reminds us. As Publishers Weekly put it;
The question of why Columbine seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 classmates and one teacher before killing themselves is personal for classmate Brown, who was friends with both boys. However, this search for an answer is unlikely to provide closure for either Brown or others concerned about preventing future acts of school violence. The author, who appeared on Oprah and other shows after the killing spree, writes conversationally, as if he were being questioned by a talk show host and asked to describe growing up with Klebold, why he thinks Harris told him to go home right before the shootings and what can be learned from the gruesome event.

11 Games I Enjoyed in 2007

Not that anyone cares any more, particularly since I left 1UP Yours, but here are my picks for the best games of this year, with no consideration for review scores or popularity or perceptions...this is just me, and what I played a lot of. There probably aren't going to be any surprises here, except perhaps for three games that aren't on the list (and that's not because I didn't like them)...

I'm so sad that a sequel to Crackdown looks so unlikely, as Real Time Worlds' game was absolutely one of my favorite of the year. I played it all the way through twice, and then downloaded everything they offered up too. One of the best sandbox games yet.

Hotel Dusk
It was fashionable to like this, and then it was apparently fashionable to be openly derisive of it. I thoroughly enjoyed it though, and hope that there's either a sequel, or a follow-up that uses the same user interface. I loved the writing, the art style, and I'm a sucker for DS games you hold like a book. That's not exactly the most logical justification ever, but hey...I just liked it.

Rock Band
Yes, I like Rock Band better than Guitar Hero 3. Why? Because I like playing it with other people, I like the songs more, and I like that it doesn't try too hard to 'be a videogame' by dropping unnecessary "gameplay" into the music experience. I liked GH3, but I hated the duels. I've no idea if that's reflective or contrary to popular opinion, and I don't care. That first one with Tom Morello sucked all the fun out of it for me.

Planet Puzzle League
Shane Bettenhausen told me that this was one of the best puzzle games ever made. He was right. A wonderful game played solo that blossoms further in multiplayer.

Pac-Man Championship Edition
Proof that the oldies are the goodies. The best update of a classic anyone's produced yet. Wonderful.

Ratchet & Clank Future
My favorite game on PS3, by a hair. I know it's not exactly anything new - but it's such a perfect distillation of a whole lot of classic gameplay elements. Plus, it looks gorgeous, it's not too hard, and you can play it in bite-sized chunks. That's very important for me these days.

My second favorite game on PS3. From the moment I first saw this, I really wasn't too sure about it - but swooping around in a 'Hawk is great fun, and it's a multiplayer game where it's OK to suck a little bit because you can still scrape by.

Mass Effect
I played it through once, and I'll happily play through it again. I loved the story, and I loved all the talking. Yep, I went there. I loved it. A lot of people criticized it for being too chatty, but my favorite parts were the long conversations that really felt like they were going somewhere. Even though I knew that hooking up with Ashley was inevitable, the process of getting there was believable and engaging. I'm a sucker for sci-fi, and I loved the classic 70s and 80s vibe. Y'know...when the future was presented like the bright, shiny future, and not some dystopian shit hole.

Madden NFL 08 on Wii
Not because I'm in any way qualified to judge the quality of a football game. It may be the worst NFL game ever made for all I know. What I do know though is that in "Family Mode," my son and I play this religiously every weekend. We play, we talk about football, we laugh, we have a good time. We look forward to it every week...and for me, nothing could be better than that.

I was going to say "Orange Box" because it deserves praise just for being such unbelievably good value, but then I thought about it, and stuck to my original intention of this list reflecting my taste, and my taste only. Like many, my favorite part of the 'Box was Portal, and honestly I could never beat Half-Life 2, or Episodes One and Two, and I think I'd be OK with that. Intellectually I know they're classics, and that they're really good...but they just didn't quite do it for me. Portal, on the other hand, was glorious. Imaginative, brilliantly executed, witty, cerebral, and nice and short. Right up my alley.

Yes, Peggle was released this year. It is surely the finest casual game ever made...and it's become quite a scary habit. Fingers-crossed for an iPhone version in February.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cars, games, and tech

I love cars, I love tech, and I love games (d'uh.) I'm also quite partial to all things Porsche... so what could possibly be better than this? A liquid cooled SLi PC housed in a Porsche Cayenne wheel. Thanks to Gizmo Watch for the pic.

Games of the, yeah. Later

Everyone's doing top 10 games of the year lists, and I feel compelled to do the same. Trouble is, my list is currently at 19. I have to get on a plane in an hour or so, so maybe the hour and 20 minutes of physical and mental torture that is Soutwest's LA route will force me to whittle 'em down.

Research, puh-lease

GamePolitics revealed yesterday that a New York Division of Criminal Justice Services (DJCS) presentation on video game issues listed a well-known hoax site as a parental resource. Thankfully, those responsible have done something about it. The Staten Island Advance today reports that officials have removed the infamous hoax site Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence from a listing of parental resources which appears at the end of the presentation.

Wonderful though this is, this does beg the question of how it made it in there in the first place. The fact that MAVAV is a hoax site is fairly easy to learn, and you'd think that those charged with putting together a presentation of this importance would be asked to actually do some research beyond just Googling "video games" + "violence." This isn't the only example seen lately, either. Last month Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy compiled a list of video games that she believed should not be given to children this holiday season, which included Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Scarface, 50 Cent Bulletproof, Killer-7, and Hitman: Blood Money. Again, a little research performed by those charged with working on the list before it was published would have revealed that all of the games on the list were M-rated, and several of them were either ambiguous as which entry in the franchise was cited (Manhunt? Really? Not Manhunt 2?) or were just plan old, and unlikely to be on kids' wishlists anyway (50 Cent?) This was an opportunity for Worthy to promote sensible parenting and educate the public on an established ratings system. She could have positioned herself as someone genuinely concerned, and prepared to help parents make smart choices. Instead, she chose to simply showboat a woefully misguided opinion on what she, or her advisors, feel is a hot-button issue.

That these people in positions of power and influence are unable to generate well-researched information is cause for great concern. If the people in their charge can't do a little research about a topic such as video games - where does that leave us on the really important stuff? If they can't spot a hoax gaming site, should we trust them with things that are actually... y'know... important? I think not.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Productivity Killer: Peggle for Mac

Oh no... Peggle is now available for Mac OSX. I'd managed to mostly escape its clutches previously, thanks to it only running on Windows - but now it's available for the iPod and the Mac. There is just no getting away from it. I should just hang up my hat for the rest of the year right now and resign myself to the fact that I'm just not going to get anything done.

If you've never tried it before: BEWARE! If you are at all likely to get hooked on Casual games like Bejeweled or Bookworm, imagine the sensation you get from them...only multiplied by a factor of, like, 50.

To make matters even worse, the download version is $10 off right now.

It runs on just about any Mac likely to be in circulation right now, but needs as least OSX 10.3.9 to run.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Random 7: December 18

1. The PSP now has the coolest feature PS1 games remotely from your PS3 at home. Makes you wonder why Sony isn't shouting from the rooftops about this one.

2. A twofer on iPod (of all things). Sonic the Hedgehog (the original Genesis game, only with bizarre iPod thumbwheel controls) which is crap, and Peggle which is not. Some people have said that this is "the best casual game money can buy."

3. Michael Pachter speculates that Mass Effect will come to PS3, and everyone starts reporting on it as a done deal.

4. E3 returns and this time they might have gotten it right. Decent location, right idea about meetings and demos, and the industry gets to keep it's focal point of the year.

5. The Warhawk Omega Dawn "booster pack" goes on sale later this week, complete with dropships, and other associated awesome.

6. So, there's a Duke Nukem Forever teaser dropping tomorrow?

7. Is Advance Wars really going more "mature"?


This feels just like living in Paradise

Excuse the David Lee Roth lyric as a blog title, but as if there weren't enough reasons to be positively giddy about the January 22 release of Burnout Paradise, they've now revealed the soundtrack: which most awesomely includes Guns N Roses' 1987 track, "Paradise City." Hell. Yeah. \m/

Actually, come to think of it, it's a shame Diamond Dave's not in there too.

The soundtrack includes all the music from the previous Burnouts, plus new tracks too, and classical music for the "screensaver" mode:

Adam And The Ants, “Stand And Deliver”
Agent Blue, “Snowhill”
Airbourne, “Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast”
Alice In Chains, “Would?”
Army Of Me, “Going Through Changes”
Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend”
Brain Failure feat. Dicky Barrett, “Coming Down To Beijing”
Brand New , “The Archers Bows Have Broken”
Bromheads Jacket, “Fight Music For The Fight”
Depeche Mode, “Route 66 (Beatmasters Mix)”
Faith No More, “Epic”
Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City”
Innerpartysystem, "Heart Of Fire”
Jane’s Addiction, “Stop!”
Jimmy Eat World, “Electable (Give It Up)”
Junkie XL feat. Lauren Rocket, “Cities In Dust”
Jupiter One, “Fire Away”
Kerli, “Creepshow”
Killswitch Engage, “My Curse”
LCD Soundsystem, “Us V. Them”
Make Good Your Escape, “Beautiful Ruin”
Maxeen, “Block Out The World”
Mexicolas, “Come Clean”
N.E.R.D., “Rockstar (Jason Nevins Mix)”
Never Heard Of It, “Finger On The Trigger”
Operator, “Nothing To Lose”
Permanent ME, “Until You Leave”
Saosin, “Collapse”
Seether, “Fake It”
Senses Fail, “Calling All Cars”
Showing Off To Thieves, “Everyone Has Their Secrets”
Skybombers, “It Goes Off”
Soundgarden, “Rusty Cage”
Sugarcult, “Dead Living”
Swervedriver, “Duel”
The Photo Atlas, “Red Orange Yellow”
The Pigeon Detectives, “I’m Not Sorry”
The Styles, “Glitter Hits (J.J. Puig Mix)”
Twisted Sister, “I Wanna Rock”
Tchaikovsky, Dance From the “Nutcracker Suite”
Boccherini, Minuet
Mozart, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”
Saint-Saens, “Carnival of the Animals”

Wetter than a fishes wet bits

I've been trying to avoid driving into the city this week, because when it's a) nearly the Holidays and b) raining, everyone drives like a psycho in the Bay Area. Seriously, the 101 from Marin into the city is 90% fucktards on a daily basis. People seem to forget what lane markings mean, and which pedal is the brake.

So, to avoid asshats, to be a bit more environmentally friendly, and to soak up some of the commuter money I've been stuffing on my Translink card (and subsequently not using) I've been getting the ferry to work, and walking the mile from the ferry building to the office. This morning = big mistake. I am now wetter than a fishes wet bits, and in desperate need of taking my pants off. I'm not sure the girls at the office will appreciate that.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Random 7: December 17

1. Jeff Gerstmann has a blog up. People speculating on his career finally have something to actually source, rather than just rumor and speculation.

2. Hal Halpin is saying very sensible things about gamers and Jack Thompson; on GamePolitics, and in EGM.

3. Age of Conan quest designer Joel Bylos thinks World of Warcraft is losing its appeal. Maybe that's just wishful thinking?

4. GameStop is on the S&P 500 list, and for some reason people are acting surprised.

5. Valleywag is reporting that Gawker media boss, Nick Denton is going to be taking back the reins of news/gossip blog for a while. When he ran Valleywag itself for a short while, he doubled its traffic.

6. Nerd fact: Today is Wright Brothers Day. On December 17, 1903 (near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina) Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flight.

7. Ubisoft's My French Coach is actually a pretty remarkable little educational game. It's part Brain Age, part Rosetta Stone. Now, what I really want to try is My Spanish Coach. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"What's Your Favorite Game?"

Ahhh the holiday season. A time of cocktail parties, and festive events trapped making small talk with people I've never met. To the people I meet at this time, I'm either some kind of curiosity, or an untapped information resource they were previously unaware of. "So, Andrea tells me you have something to do with videogames?" the conversation usually begins. "What do you do?" After telling them that I make a website aimed at parents, the initial frosty reception tends to warm up a bit (as this proves I'm somehow not the embodiment of the devil, trying to peddle evil wares to their poor, unsuspecting children) and start asking the usual questions: "Can you get me a Wii?" (no) or "What are you playing right now?" or "Can you get me a Wii?" (I said, NO.) The one that always stumps me though, is "What's your favorite videogame?"

You'd think such a simple question would be easy to answer. Everyone's used to "What's your favorite movie?" or "What's your favorite band?" (come to think of it, I think I'd struggle with those, too) but answering the favorite game question seems so much harder, because invariably the inquisitor doesn't have a fucking clue about the subject in the first place, so there's a 99.9% chance of them just looking blankly at me, regardless of what I answer.

Flicking though a copy of Esquire on a recent flight, I spotted an editorial by Chuck Klosterman called Me, On Shuffle in which he attempted to tackle the issue of favorite music. Rather than name an individual band, he highlighted different passages of music that he loves, and attempted to extrapolate some indication of his taste based on Mick Mars' sleazy guitar lick on Motley Crue’s “Ten Seconds to Love,” and, say, Karen Carpenter's repetition of the word "Baby" at the end of "Superstar."

This struck me as a great way to tackle the issue of "favorite game" and I promptly hatched a plan to shamelessly rip-off his concept, and apply it to 20 years of games playing.

So, in no particular order (and by no means complete - I may come back to this) here's a bunch of examples from which to judge what I really like about videogames. Some of them are specific moments, and some of them are broader examples of pitiful nostalgia, I guess:

- The way that the Assassin's Guild sidequest in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion felt like it's own complete game, and where being a "bad guy" was so well integrated into the storyline that the change in behavior it demanded was utterly seamless. Few games outside of this or maybe Knights of the Old Republic have made being a sleazy, no-good bad guy feel so natural. Er, or maybe that's just a scary insight into my own personality.

- Oh god, this one makes me feel old. Playing Star Raiders on the Atari 400 for hours upon hours and believing it was a glimpse of the future. Seeing it now, it looks like a simple, herky-jerky Lego fight...but at the time, it was like playing Star Wars, or something.

- Solving the "Thor's Hammer" puzzle in the original Tomb Raider with a group of people in the room. It was a truly collaborative experience, and the satisfaction came as much from the camaraderie as the gameplay. In retrospect it was probably just a lame lever puzzle, but it's part in the greater St. Franics' Folly portion of Tomb Raider seems to have stuck in my head for some reason.

- Feeling like a superhero while jumping over buildings, and mindlessly beating the crap out of anything and everything in Crackdown. No one's come close to creating that kind of feeling of power ever before.

- The sense of smug satisfaction from getting a gold medal in any of the crash modes in Burnout Revenge. Come to think of it, just about everything in Burnout Revenge.

- Playing Madden NFL 08 on the Wii with my son, and seeing how happy it makes him.

- That bit at the end of Halo: Combat Evolved when you're driving as fast as you can through the tunnel, while all hell breaks loose around you. I was utterly crap at it, and died over and over and over...but it was just so well scripted, and so exciting.

- The first time you take on a Star Destroyer in LucasArts' X-Wing because it was one of those jaw-on-the-floor moments where a game served up something with a real sense of scale.

- Letting the Tetris blocks get all the way to the top, and somehow managing to bounce back so well that you clear the entire screen. The sense of achievement (and relief) is wonderful.

- Unleashing a relentless, and well-timed series of attacks with Mitsurugi in Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast and beating my opponent with a rare (for me, because I suck) "perfect" result. It was the most believable sense of fighting with a sword I ever remember in a videogame. The sequels have all been good, but nothing will top the excitement of playing this one.

- Leaving Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and getting a sense of the scale of the game for the first time.

- Hearing the funked-up version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor from the original Gyruss arcade machine (the first machine with stereo sound.) That, and successfully shooting every alien in a wave. My first memory of learning the patterns in shooters.

- The way the original WipeOut made me feel like I was playing a game from the future. It was the embodiment of everything the original PlayStation stood for. Hi-tech, hip, fucking pretentious techno nightclub gaming. Every time I hear the opening riff of The Chemical Brothers' "Chemical Beats", I think of 1995, and the sense of awe I got from both the game, and the machine.

So based on all of this ponderous bullshit, it seems I like futuristic, sci-fi, bad boy violence, where size matters, and there's some good music. Oh god, I'm such a cliche.

Gamasutra's Top 5 Trends of 2007

Everybody loves lists, and we'll no doubt be inundated with them in the coming weeks. I may even indulge myself if I find the time to come up with something interesting. In the meantime, here's Gamasutra's:

5. Consolidations
4. Catering to the Wii Audience
3. The Rise of the Shooter
2. Indies Going Major
1. Mainstreaming of Handhelds

Spot on. With Activision and Vivendi merging, BioWare and Pandemic being sucked into EA (and nothing but good things being heard from all parties) number 5 seems rock solid. Number 4 is something that's been talked about all year, and it was definitely a topic we brought up on 1UP Yours a lot too. For all the trash talk about games like Carnival Games, and My Word Coach - they seem to be selling remarkably well, and for every weird choice like Jenga, there's a genuinely interesting game like Cranium Kabookii. You can't argue with number 3 after the success of Halo 3, or Call of Duty 4. As for the indies going major, at number 2 - perhaps a more apt discussion is the platform holders' willingness to embrace and promote the indie scene. Games like Everyday Shooter, and flOw have not only proven successful, but have already started influencing other products (not least of which, stuff on the Wii.)

If I had to come up with the most significant thing of the year, I have to agree with Gama's "mainstreaming of handhelds." Who would have thought we'd see grandma's, aunts, uncles, moms and dads all playing DS games this year? Who would have thought that so many experiences (often dismissed by "enthusiasts" as non games) would have helped push the platform to greater and greater heights. Handhelds did well, but let's not beat about the bush here; the DS may very well be the most significant piece of videogame technology this year. Hell, not this year - maybe ever.

Game reviews: Time for something new?

The usefulness/appropriateness/practicalities of game reviews have been discussed at great length for years. I've been doing this stuff for nearly 20 years now, and while early on there was absolutely no question about the service they provided, in the past five or six, the nature of criticism has changed. I can remember online discussions starting to affect things back in the days when I ran PC Zone in the early to mid 90s. Newsgroups and bulletin boards, though only read by a relatively small number of people, proved that the "crowd" often saw things differently than the critics. It made for interesting discussions, but ultimately the criticisms were still a big part of the buying decision process. Games were bought only by enthusiasts, and those enthusiasts only had a limited number of outlets to go for information. If a reviewer said "this game is bad" it could have a material impact on the success of that product. It had only been a few years at this point, remember, since the only way to judge a game was to find a store that sold it, look at the back of the box, and take a risk. In the early days of buying games for my Atari 400, I know I got burned many times because the promise of the packaging wasn't delivered upon.

Now though, the volume of games, and the size of the audience has changed things quite dramatically. No individual critic can possibly develop an intimate knowledge of all games, and meanwhile the enthusiasts are now fully able to share their views on all games. Newsweek's N'Gai Croal tackles this subject as part of a series of editorials on Slate this week and notes, "The Internet has fundamentally changed the nature of criticism. TV critics used to review a pilot or the first few episodes of a season, then return at season's end, if at all. Now professionals and amateurs alike recap and critique each episode on a weekly basis, then dive into their comments sections to mix it up with their regulars. A critic's opinions were always fodder for debate among his or her readership, but those debates were scattered and isolated. Now those debates can take place right alongside that critic's opinion and, in some cases, help inform those opinions by forcing the critic to engage with the readers, or just inform the critic period...This is also a good thing." He goes on to tackle a comment made by Esquire's Chuck Klosterman last year, in which he observed, "There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I'm starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games." N'Gai's response is something I agree with very strongly, and he articulates it far better than I could in the article. "Hell, Lester Bangs couldn't even be the Lester Bangs of music today," he says, "let alone videogames. The critic is going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird; he or she is an anachronism in an age where anyone can publish an opinion."

Enthusiasts still demand critical opinion, as much for validation of their own taste, as for critical insight or buying advice. The process of assigning some kind of qualitative indicator to a product still seems to be an important part of the process of enthusiasm. That said, is it really useful in any way? There have been many occasions in my own career where I've been chastised by the crowd for expressing an opinion about a product for which the hardcore enthusiasts have already declared loyalty. MotorStorm on the PlayStation 3 immediately springs to mind. Though a glorious example of what the machine can do graphically, it was ultimately a shell of a game that stretched a basic concept too thin. I found the game exhilarating, but exhausting - something I still feel about it, despite numerous add-ons and downloadable supplements. When I said this, the hardcore PS3 fan base treated me as a heretic. Though they hadn't played the game themselves, they had decided en masse that the game was some kind of beacon of hope for the slow-selling platform. Given the installed base, the only people at this point that were going to buy this game were these outspoken fanboys, and their minds were already made up. So what use was the review? And the problem wasn't that I'd said it was "bad" I'd said it simply wasn't "great." The score given was a 7.5 out of 10. But the audience didn't want granularity to opinion, it simply wanted a hearty "yes!"

So as we continue on, and the enthusiast press becomes more a part of a conversation, rather than a "lecture" are review scores necessary at all? The audience still craves something, as evidenced when we tried removing scores from Computer Gaming World last year (because we felt its more mature audience would appreciate something more akin to discussion) there was outcry! "We want to know what score you'd give it," the crowd shouted back.Perhaps the future of games criticism is to stop any pretense of trying to cover everything, and make a point of being more elitist. Only covering the "cream"? Editorializing purely by omission? That doesn't strike me as useful, as there's always a game that I want to know about that the enthusiast press has already ignored out of prejudice (it's for kids! It's for girls! It's casual!) or from simply not having the bandwidth. Perhaps when it comes to "scores" all that's really needed is a binary system. A parallel to Roger Ebert's "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down"? A yes/no approach. Given that the press is criticized for marking on a 7 to 10 scale anyway, the scores are already open to interpretation, and any tweaking of a review scale is ultimately pointless. Percentages? Nah. Out of 5? Well, when you use half-points you're still marking out of 10. Letter grades? How do you map them to what people are already used to? Is an A+ a 10? Does that mean that an F is the equivalent of a 4 out of 10? How does that change the problem... particularly when it will be converted in the reviews aggregation sites anyway?

I think a binary system may be the only way to go for the "professionals" and then coupled with an approach that truly embraces the crowd. Rather than separating the Pro's and Joe's, reviews need to be mixed up together. The Pro's have the benefit of access, and the possibility of expressing an opinion first...but they shouldn't be presented in a way that implies their opinion is somehow more important.

One month old

On December 12, What They Play turned one month old. It's hard to believe in a lot of ways, as it feels like we've been up and running much longer than that. We've squeezed a lot into the first few weeks; we've generated more traffic than we'd thought possible, we've put up a Holiday Guide for parents, a number of features that are starting to show the kind of editorial vibe we want to develop (particularly in terms of taking the fear out of videogames) and we've somehow managed to produce over 500 write ups of the most popular games. There's still an unbelievable amount of work to do; we need to hit 1000 write ups as soon as we can, we need more features and stories, and we still have a lot of site development to work on. We're redesigning our homepage, adding site functionality, adapting our video strategy, building a Question/Answers engine, and adding a blog network. We're also looking at our code base and editorial strategy and looking to launch our next site as soon as we can in Q1 2008.

The press has been very kind, and we've been able to secure a steady series of meetings with individuals and corporations that have been real eye-openers. We've talked to media dealmakers, entertainment executives, TV producers, investors, newscasters, striking TV writers, game developers, publishers, business development gurus, marketers, and even a State Senator (Leland Yee, who was very accommodating) about what we're trying to do, and everyone has seen the value in speaking to parents about this subject, and in this particular manner.The team has been remarkable, and our contributors and contractors have made moving so quickly a real joy. Back in June and July in hardly seemed possible that we could have done so much before the end of the year.

500, and counting

A way we're tracking our progress on What They Play, aside from the obvious, boring stuff like y'know; traffic, and revenue, is the amount of content we've posted. Every day, we obsess on the counters that tot up the number of game write ups we have, and wonder how much we can generate in the coming weeks. A condition of our funding was that we have 100 games written up by the time we launched. As we worked toward our November 12th launch date, this seemed like a truly challenging task. We were finding our "voice" and communicating our style rules to our writers, and we had to toss a lot of work back and ask for rewrites. Many writers were unused to writing completely objectively, and simply describing game experiences took some getting used to.

On December 10th, we uploaded our 500th write up. It was of NCAA March Madness 08 on PlayStation 2 if you're at all interested in that kind of thing. Somewhat anticlimactic in terms of product, I guess. I probably could've engineered it to be something a bit sexier, in retrospect. Regardless, the 500 mark is significant, as it's a line we'd drawn in the sand for ourselves as the point where we could start looking seriously into syndicating content. Plus banging out 500 of these things within a month of launching isn't half bad. The crew we have writing for us has been absolutely fantastic.

Spike VGAs 2007

The Spike Video Game Awards aired on Sunday night, but filming was on Friday. Zoe (What They Play editorial manager) and I were lucky enough to fly down to Vegas (along with Mrs. D) for a night to watch the filming, and come away with tales of craziness, drunkenness, debauchery, and expensive bar bills from the Wynn.Vegas was packed, as ever, in part because of the VGAs, but also because of the big Ultimate Fighter thing on Saturday. Rumor had it that tickets for that event were going for $25,000 or something crazy. There were a lot of Brits in town...all of which were presumably there to overspend on watching a couple of guys kick the shit out of each other.

The VGAs themselves were much better than they have been for the previous four years. Filming was less rushed, and a lot of "humor" seemed a lot less forced than we'd seen previously. It still wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and the MTV Networks insistence of forcing pop culture where it's not wanted/needed still makes for a slightly uncomfortable mash-up of video games, hip-hop, rock and roll, and whatever is hot on TV. Thankfully, the game creators were given a little more prominence this year - with creative leads and producers called in to collect awards, rather than just voice actors and musicians.

Kudos to Patton Oswalt and the Foo Fighters for standout performances on the night. Not sure what was up with Kid Rock's performance though. Presumably he was just product placement, or something. The opposite of kudos go to Tila Tequila, who was an embarrassing wreck squealing about being "tri-game-ual" in her love of 360, PS3, and Wii. It was just pitiful. Who the hell is she, anyway? Also, there were foam fingers on every chair.

The red carpet event leading into the event was surprisingly fun (if you ignored the tedious "interviews" everyone was forced to give), and we spotted "Chuck" stars Zach Levi and Josh Gomez (whose video game roots run so deep that he's done voice work for Final Fantasy X-2, Call of Duty 2, and Armored Core 4) playing Rock Band. Zoe, so enamored with the duo, raced to get a picture with them. Thankfully they seemed happy to oblige. (That's her in the photo, in case you hadn't figured it out yet.)

Obligatory introduction post

I guess any inaugural post needs to begin with an introduction, and a bit of background information. Not that any of the 12 people inclined to read this don't know already. Back in August this year, I left Ziff Davis Media (where I was the SVP and Editorial Director of the 1UP Network, which includes, EGM, Games for Windows The Official Magazine, and Gamevideos to name a few of the properties) with my business partner to start a new company called What They Like. From the very beginning our goal with the company What They Like, and the first product we were launching What They Play was to help empower parents. At a time when it seems that everyone is trying to tell us what to think, or what to buy (particularly in the videogames space) it seemed that there were very few resources designed to help parents make smarter choices. Our philosophy from day one has been that the best possible parental control for any kind of entertainment is parents. Who is better suited to control media consumption? Who knows kids better? No one. Every family is different, and every family has a different set of rules for what they allow. The line in the sand for what is acceptable is difficult enough to establish when you’re the mom or dad concerned…so how can someone that’s never met your kids possibly make that call for you?

Videogames are an important part of entertainment, and they’re becoming a more and more significant part of the media diet. They’re demonized constantly, and characterized as “violent” or, shockingly (and inappropriately) “pornographic” by observers claiming to be “concerned.” There’s an ESRB rating on every game box that gives a broad indication of what age it’s appropriate for, and there are descriptors that characterize the content. What we do at What They Play is put that information into some context. If it says “violence,” we discuss the nature of the violence. Is it hitting things with a stick? Or shooting aliens in the face with a plasma rifle? If it mentions “language,” we characterize the words used. Are the characters constantly peppering their lines with f-bombs, or are you hearing words like “crap” or “ass”?

If parents have the resources and the information they need to make informed decisions, they’ll be more confident about the products being bought and consumed, and they’ll feel better about satisfying their children’s wishes. Kids know exactly what they want. As we all know, they’re unbelievably media-savvy, and they know better than anyone what’s cool and what’s not. As kids get older this becomes more and more of an important consideration. Parents need to understand the content of the entertainment that’s wanted, and make judgment calls accordingly. With a little research, and access to good information, there can be some surprises. That World War 2 shooter that you assumed was ultra-violent may turn out to be historically accurate, and not feature any blood or gore. That adventure game with the sexy girl as the lead may turn out to be a great exercise in lateral thinking and puzzle solving…and may not be quite as saucy as you feared. What could be more embarrassing for a 13-year-old boy than being bought a spectacularly uncool videogame by a well-meaning mom and dad? Better to get the facts on the cool stuff, than impose bad but well-meaning choices.

So...that's what the business is doing. Here on this blog, I'll give some background on the way the company is evolving, talk about some of the cool stuff we'll be doing, and maybe give a little insight into our (sometimes bizarre) day-to-day activities.