GWJ Conference Call Episode 151

Conference Call

Batman: Arkham Asylum, WoW Cataclysm, Wet is Terrible, Seven Questions, Your Emails and more!

This week Michael Zenke joins us as we formulate seven questions that must be answered well for a game to be considered good. Don't forget to submit your own question for the list! We also announce the upcoming live show this weekend! If you want to submit a question or comment call in to our voicemail line at (612) 284-4563.

To contact us, email [email protected]! Send us your thoughts on the show, pressing issues you want to talk about or whatever else is on your mind. You can even send a 30 second audio question or comment (MP3 format please) if you're so inclined. You can also submit a question or comment call in to our voicemail line at (612) 284-4563!

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Show credits

Music credits: 

Intro/Outtro Music - Ian Dorsch, Willowtree Audioworks

"Anxious Tedium" - Ouranos OST (Tom Quinn) - http://thomashquinn.googlepages.com - 0:27:44
"The Way Your Journey Ends" (Tom Quinn) - http://thomashquinn.googlepages.com - 1:01:01

Comments

I think some of these questions are less about what makes the game fun (and thereby allowing a player to get into "the flow" that was much bandied about), and more about what are the signals that demonstrate a game has grabbed you.

For me, I know that a game has grabbed me when I spend time outside of the game, thinking about the game or talking about it in a positive light. Whether it be because I enjoyed playing it so much (fun!), because of a compelling story or mechanic, etc.

The one question I thought of while listening to your great podcast was "Do I think about playing this game when I'm not playing games?". Then several counter examples came to mind.

While playing a Civ IV game I'll think about it all day at work.

When I get home I play Bejeweled Blitz on facebook for 3 hours.

I feel like I had the grain of truth with my initial thoughts, but my counter examples threw me. Thoughts?

Gravey wrote:

A video game is just a system, a model running on a collection of rules with objectives.

There's something a little bit stunning about this statement. You've completely stripped down video games to their essence in a way that I haven't seen before. Like breaking down comics into "sequential art," it cuts through a lot of the conversation about what is and isn't a "game." Bravo, sir.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Gravey wrote:

A video game is just a system, a model running on a collection of rules with objectives.

There's something a little bit stunning about this statement. You've completely stripped down video games to their essence in a way that I haven't seen before. Like breaking down comics into "sequential art," it cuts through a lot of the conversation about what is and isn't a "game." Bravo, sir.

Life is just a system, a model running on a collection of rules with no objectives. Or are there?

Sorry I couldn't resist.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Gravey wrote:

A video game is just a system, a model running on a collection of rules with objectives.

There's something a little bit stunning about this statement. You've completely stripped down video games to their essence in a way that I haven't seen before. Like breaking down comics into "sequential art," it cuts through a lot of the conversation about what is and isn't a "game." Bravo, sir.

Thanks adam, you made my day. It comes out of reading two books in particular, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, by Jesper Juul, neither of which I could recommend enough.

Really, games are structured play. Play can be anything that isn't real (and doesn't have to be fun, e.g. instructive role-play), and once you define and limit what can be done within the play activity and give it win and loss conditions, it's a game. In fact, what a game (the rules set) does is arbitrarily make the objective of the play activity difficult. For instance, you could play by putting a puck in a net. But apply some rules (in this case, those of hockey) and it's a game. You can't just pick up the puck and drop it in: you have to follow the rules, if you want to win.

Since computers have an advantage of being able to process a huge number of rules at once, they can run very detailed simulations by modeling some aspect of reality. That's what video games inherit, and makes them different from other kinds of games. But again, there's nothing necessarily fun about simulation systems. Microsoft Flight Simulator simulates aircraft flight (obviously), SimCity simulates urban planning, September 12 simulates the effectiveness of surgical strikes, The Path simulates female adolescence. I would say that the point of playing these, or any, games—that is, the point of engaging with the system—is to overcome the challenge (the object of the game) within the bounds of the rules.

So a game doesn't have to be fun, it has to be challenging, if only slightly. Maybe the fun is in overcoming the challenge—maybe it isn't!—but fun-ness alone won't help us decide if the game is good. Neither, of course, will the degree of challenge. Context, engagement, flow (Csíkszentmihályi FTW) are more productive criteria.

Great episode as always. The seven questions discussion was great food for thought. Keep up the great work!

Was the word Certis was looking for (not lore) realized? As in a fully realized world?

This can arise from multiple dives into the world (franchises) or from some new IP with a deep dive into the back ground.

The "franchises or new IP" question was sparking something with you guys, and I know what it is. Here's what that question should be:

"Does the game feel true to its source material?"

The word "feel" is the most important part of that question. It's not "is", which throws the question into the black hole of wikipedian fact-finding fan rage.

Batman: Arkham Asylum succeeds incredibly well because of what the gaming public knows about Batman -- some know the comic books, more probably know the TV shows, even more know the movies. These are represented and magnified greatly in different ways by the game itself. Choosing the voice actors from the TV show was a stroke of genius (and luck in getting them I'm sure) because those voices work for those characters, allowing the public who never saw the show to get that short-cut into established voices. The game feels so true to its source material and engages the player with it that everyone who plays it is talking about it as Game Of The Year material. You're walking around the house looking for excuses to utter "I'm Batman!" to the wife, for crying out loud. It wins.

This also applies to "new IP" games because their source material is thematic and conceptual, but not literal. Example: Infamous. This game's source material, set up by the style of the game's presentation and early cut scenes, are gritty, Rated-T comic book-style super heroes and villains. Cole, the jealous friend Zeke, the estranged girlfriend Trish, are presented and fit the comic book mode. The progression of powers, the way the disaster-stricken city looks and pedestrians and criminals behave in it all feels true to where it's coming from.

Fallout 3 feels extremely true to its source material: post-apocalyptic, the PIP-boy's green screen presentation, the utter destruction to be found everywhere, how radiation is implemented into the food and water supplies.

This can vindicate a game that you know is good as a sum of its parts when each individual part isn't the best of its kind. Together it works and convinces you it feels right. It can also take a game with one or two crippling aspects and downgrade what could otherwise have been great. I'm thinking horrifying voice acting like you mention in Star Ocean for most gamers, but JRPG gamers just might consider that to be sadly true of its source material as trying to be a JRPG.

The email question about what game was a very formative one is one of the best I've heard in a long time. For me that game was Elite and its immediate successors. It spoiled me with its incredibly huge (although algorithmically generated) galaxies, upgradability, and the ability to just keep going if I wanted to.

I agree with the writer who said you guys have unfairly ignored the Ratchet & Clank series when talking about platform exclusives. While you did give it some credit after the fact, I think dismissing it because you feel it's aimed at a younger audience is a bit much. The level of polish in the games is simply exceptional. They wouldn't be this highly polished, voice-acted, and well designed if kids were their only audience. Kids don't care as much about their games. The jokes are clean and the heroes don't swear a blue streak -- they grumpily or sarcastically comment instead. Even though they can be sold to the ESRB's E-10+ audience that doesn't make them kids-only titles.

4) Does the game flow to the point that you lose track of time?

This could be broken up a bit. I am kinda surprised that the RPG players, MMO'ers, etc. haven't mentioned immersion as a basis for the seventh question. Maybe they assume the above question has the implied concept of immersion, but I would say immersion deserves a question all of its own. I can get lost in playing TF2 for hours, others can get lost in Peggle, and others will constantly grind mobs in MMOs, but it's not because we are immersed in the game. Immersion goes farther to pull a person from reality and care - or, at the least, become minimally interested - in a fake, unrealistic world with characters that we can't really relate to in any other way than playing through the game. So I would propose the following:

7) Does the game make me feel like the player is actually a part of the world and story?

- or -

7) Does the game create for the player a vested interest to the world and character(s)?

A note about "graphics." The brain quickly (a few hours or less) adjusts to "newness" and the neurons that were previously giving a response at the beauty of say, Crysis, stop firing. We quickly stop noticing how beautiful the graphics look. Did you not play Braid because it wasn't based on the Crysis engine? Of course not, you played it anyway. Graphics make sales, but don't substantially improve gameplay, except in a few exceptions where the graphics are important for the gameplay. In a flight sim, good hi-rez graphics might be important so that you can properly site your targets for example.

Arclite wrote:

A note about "graphics." The brain quickly (a few hours or less) adjusts to "newness" and the neurons that were previously giving a response at the beauty of say, Crysis, stop firing. We quickly stop noticing how beautiful the graphics look. Did you not play Braid because it wasn't based on the Crysis engine? Of course not, you played it anyway. Graphics make sales, but don't substantially improve gameplay, except in a few exceptions where the graphics are important for the gameplay. In a flight sim, good hi-rez graphics might be important so that you can properly site your targets for example.

That was exactly my hangup with the whole graphics thing. Well said!

Arclite wrote:

A note about "graphics." The brain quickly (a few hours or less) adjusts to "newness" and the neurons that were previously giving a response at the beauty of say, Crysis, stop firing. We quickly stop noticing how beautiful the graphics look. Did you not play Braid because it wasn't based on the Crysis engine? Of course not, you played it anyway. Graphics make sales, but don't substantially improve gameplay, except in a few exceptions where the graphics are important for the gameplay. In a flight sim, good hi-rez graphics might be important so that you can properly site your targets for example.

Ironically, graphics are also sometimes a distraction in games. I had a terrible time trying to see things in Killzone 2 (I know, I know, glowing red eyes). So much so I was turned off by it. It's hard making out what's a ledge or the wall behind it and so on when everything is high res textured with grey and brown and smoke effects floating between. Then again, it could have been the slower control scheme that I just never got use to.