Thursday, April 28, 2011

System Shock

Maintenance? More like reconstruction.

By now anyone with an Internet connection and who pays attention to videogame news would be aware of the problems Sony are facing right now: firstly that the PlayStation Network had to be taken offline indefinitely and secondly, because its security and therefore users’ personal information was compromised. The ramifications of this are extremely serious and it’s no surprise that mainstream media and news outlets -- normally uninterested in the games industry -- are reporting on this problem, some even including it as their main story. When the possibility of credit card details being stolen from Sony’s network is involved, it’s serious business and on a global level, too, but even if you take the credit card issue out of the equation potential identity theft and fraud is still a massive cause for concern and it’s good to see it being treated as such, even if it impacts on Sony’s reputation negatively in the process.

Three questions are being asked: Why did PSN go down? Why have Sony taken so long to communicate those reasons to its customers? And how did they allow such a thing, on such a serious level, happen in the first place? These are valid questions and absolutely the first ones that need to be asked, particularly if credit card information is involved, but I’d like to add a couple more, too: How will it affect things going forward, for the industry as a whole and outside of it as well? What happens once the initial problem and the justified panic that it caused, passes and things, for the most part, return to normal? Something tells me it’s more complicated and more far-reaching than we all may think, right now, under these worrying circumstances.

To begin with, what does it mean for online, supposedly secure infrastructure? What will Sony do -- how will they rebuild their network -- to ensure such a thing never happens again? How will Microsoft react with regards to Xbox Live’s system? And what about Apple, eBay, Amazon and any other major player who have such a strong online market presence? While it’s easy to think and assume this is a videogame industry exclusive issue, it’d be naïve and arrogant of the aforementioned companies, game related or not, to ignore this catastrophe and not examine their own services. Obviously theirs would be built and operated differently to that of the PSN which makes Sony’s problem easy to dismiss, but to ignore this opportunity to evaluate their own infrastructure would be a detriment to them and their claims of consumer security being the top priority, and may even inspire hackers to go after them after displaying such (potential) arrogance. Industry in general needs to watch this debacle closely because its impact on online business and commerce is, or should be, significant.

To go in a different direction, what does it mean for digital distribution? Supposedly becoming the standard in five to ten years, how will a hacking problem so severe that an entire online service is taken down and rebuilt affect the viability and general attitude of buying games, music and movies on the Internet? Like CDs and print, most people seem to believe that brick and mortar shops are approaching death -- will that belief now change among general consumer and industry sentiment and, if it does, how will it change the immediate to near technological future? Only time will tell but the drama Sony is facing right now goes far beyond just videogames and could, possibly, change the way things are done in the future. The repercussions are massive but whether anyone realises the extent of just how much, right now at least, remains to be seen.

To deviate yet again, consumer reaction has been unpleasant. It would be easy to say that any anger and frustration directed at Sony and this dilemma is warranted and completely justified, but even so I feel like attitudes towards the situation haven’t been as well considered as they could be. Insults and complaints are nothing new when something bad happens or goes wrong in this medium -- in some respects, it’s part of game culture whether we like it or not -- but even so, slagging Sony off for this problem, while done with good intentions, is of concern and doesn’t demonstrate the kind of understanding of issues like this that we should have, especially as most of the people ranting are adults. It is, essentially, misdirected anger because while the situation should have never happened to begin with, it wasn’t Sony’s fault that they were breached and information was obtained. This fury can be overlooked, however; insults and whining because of the simple fact the PSN is down, on the other hand, is absolutely ridiculous and just demonstrates the entitlement and selfish ignorance that a lot of gamers unfortunately have. Complaints about the service being down when the reasons behind it are vague are okay but once people know why it’s down, and that Sony are working to their absolute best to solve this problem, the insults and immature comments should stop. They haven’t and it’s been disappointing to observe on top of an already unfortunate circumstance. It’s not surprising, of course, but on a personal level it would be nice to see people actually think before they speak, for a change, and not just care about themselves.

There are other areas to consider as this situation continues, and as people learn from it once it is over. I’m not going to mention them, however, because like everyone else with a PSN account I am concerned about my personal information -- especially since the credit card I used wasn’t my own -- and will be looking to Sony to keep me updated. Their communication has been poor, the debacle as a whole should never have happened, but I still trust Sony and hope they resolve this problem as quickly as they can. PSN can remain down for as long as Sony needs it to be because what matters is how they deal with it, and how they take responsibility not only for the problem at hand, but with our personal details going forward as well. The focus absolutely should be where it is, but I think it’s worth pondering the longer term outcomes -- rationally -- as well.

I’ve tried to approach this topic maturely and without the personal concerns I have with the current problems, as I’ve done with other issues in the past. Whether I have achieved this, and whether you even care (right now), is ultimately up to you.

Image gracefully stolen (perhaps ironically) from Kotaku AU.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How Bizarre

The closure of Bizarre Creations in February is disappointing on a variety of levels but none more so than the loss it brings: to those who used to work there and now find themselves in need of employment; to the racing genre for losing one of its most consistent and prolific developers; and to the games industry as a whole for losing such strong talent*. Regardless of the reasons behind the closure, Bizarre’s pedigree was unique, diverse and certainly unparalleled. It’s an unfortunate situation that happens all too often in the videogame industry (case in point: see the recent news regarding Guitar Hero) but rather than complain about it or attempt to lay blame where it doesn’t belong** in order to try and feel better about things, I decided to instead celebrate their legacy with this post, a tribute of sorts, looking at some of my favourite gaming moments that came from a developer who spent sixteen years in the industry.


The first of these can be found within the Project Gotham Racing series. Defined by its style rather than its speed, PGR was about the fast cars and realistic environments of other racers, but with the added intention to show off inside them. It was about the supercars instead of any car; about how sideways one could get whilst still maintaining insane speeds; and about demonstrating talent behind the wheel as often as possible as opposed to select, usually predetermined moments. The series took us to all the famous cities around the globe and turned them into race tracks, using real city streets as its courses and made sure that popular tourist attractions such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Big Ben and the Vegas Strip featured prominently as you sped past. Featuring arcade style handling which could appeal to anyone yet was still realistic enough to satisfy the hardcore racing enthusiasts, it played like a dream with its various stylistic maneuvers easy to pull off, and its cars accelerating, braking and generally performing like you would expect them to in such zany but immensely satisfying antics -- important in terms of fun, and in conveying a sense of believability given its real world locations, real cars and real sensation of speed. The tracks flowed like real street circuits do despite mixing and matching the various streets contained within each city, and it was possible to push a circuit’s limits with precision, accuracy and smooth driving (à la real track based racing) or bounce and slide, bump and drift and go nuts as the kudos -- the game’s reward system for stylish driving -- continually racked up. It catered to casual racers, the simulation faithful and everyone else in between, and did it with a flair and confidence that no other racing series can match, all while delivering an experience that was endlessly fun, accessible yet challenging , and full of content worth spending time with. It was the forebear for online gaming on consoles (PGR 2); introduced us to the world of geometric war (more on that in a second); gave reason to transition into the now standard high definition era (PGR 3); and also features some of the best weather effects and physics ever done in videogames (PGR 4). To put it simply, the franchise as a whole created trends rather than followed them, paved the way for a new direction in the racing genre, and offered the visceral thrill of speed alongside the impressive displays of skill and style that made up its unique personality, all while its competition jostled over superficial and at times meaningless features that were ultimately forgotten.

Platinum Prowess

For me, Project Gotham Racing was all about the challenge: how fast I could go, how stylish I could do it (to rack up points), and what was required to obtain the difficult Platinum medals. Project Gotham Racing 2 -- still the hardest in the series -- went beyond its beautiful graphics, awesome cars and faithfully recreated cities to become a game that I had to conquer. It’s not every day that a racing game is considered to be challenging for me. I don’t mean that in an arrogant, “I can drive” way, but rather my experience playing many games within the genre means that generally speaking, most don’t really pose a challenge anymore. PGR 2 did and as a result, I fully committed to overcoming that challenge and obtaining every single Platinum medal. The picture above proves that I achieved this and, consequently, the game remains in my memory as one of my favourite racing experiences I have ever had, just like F-Zero GX does. Going beyond its difficulty -- which, I might add, was balanced beautifully -- PGR 2 was also about its online capabilities, introducing me to the idea of playing against strangers over the Internet, as well as how positive such an experience can be. I made friends playing that game online and, eventually, it became a nightly affair. Dry or wet; short tracks or long; Hong Kong or Sydney -- the details didn’t matter because I was having a blast, sharing that enjoyment with my (new found) friends, and celebrating everything that was good about the game: fast cars, style, substance and -- a personal favourite of mine -- street circuits. Move onto the next generation and it became about high definition graphics. This was both a blessing and a curse as far as I am concerned, the cars and tracks in PGR 3 looking absolutely stunning -- I distinctly remember sitting there for hours just admiring them -- but the game as a whole being somewhat of a letdown. It’s not that it wasn’t great or lacked in exciting features, it just wasn’t PGR 2 and that left me feeling a little lost. This was soon forgotten about with the release of PGR 4, however, as that game felt like PGR 2 in the new generation and brought with it what is still, in my eyes, some of the best weather effects gaming has ever produced. The best thing about it, though, was that it wasn’t just a superficial “look at me and what I can do” inclusion: the weather affected the gameplay and completely changed the dynamics of the races. Weather existed in PGR 2 before it, but in Project Gotham Racing 4 the need to avoid puddles on a wet track, be extremely careful on snow and ice, and the visibility issues (playing in the in-car view) these conditions caused provided one intense racing experience, and definitely changed the approach to my driving -- especially when it came to obtaining those Platinum medals. And it is this wonderful weather implementation that gave me my best memory from the series, too: racing along the Nurburgring Nordschléife, the longest track in the world, as it was completely covered in snow. That track, for anyone who knows about it or has driven on it (in real life or in a videogame) knows all too well just how difficult it is to drive in the dry, so to do it on an extremely slippery surface where it was hard to see the racing line, where the apexes were (again, in-car view) and to discover just how cautious you truly needed to be, was the most exhilarating challenge of my racing game life. Obtaining the Platinum medal for that event wasn’t necessarily hard, but the idea of going for it -- of having to drive this circuit as best you can, with such difficult conditions -- put a level of pressure on me that no other racing game had, and only F1 2010 has recently (but even then that’s more because of my approach to the game than any actual challenge it poses). It was incredible, it stands out as one of my all time favourite gaming moments, and it’s the reason why I really wish games would take advantage of weather more often than they do, and not for superficial reasons only. Another fond memory involves cruising around in St. Petersburg while it was cloudy and sleet was falling, with Lupe Fiasco’s song The Instrumental playing on one of the game’s many radio stations. The soundtrack was sublime -- something that can be said for the other games in the series, too -- and, surprisingly, accentuated the moments of bliss that the weather, car variety and gorgeous tracks provided.

Oh and PGR brought us Geometry Wars, too, which I’m now going to talk about.

A Sequence Of Shapes

Completely different to their racing roots, Geometry Wars is Bizarre’s other primary claim to fame, the top-down shooter bringing the joys of retro arcade shooters into the modern day with flashy visuals, a pumping soundtrack and a ‘just one more go’ mentality that so many games strive to obtain, but so few actually achieve. Originally a bonus found in the garages of the PGR franchise, the Geometry Wars series went on to find success as a downloadable title, showing the potential of digital distribution early and helping Microsoft by showing players that their Xbox Live Arcade service was worth a look. Word of mouth and an instantly enjoyable, accessible trial version sold the game to what seemed like, at the time, anyone who owned an Xbox 360, and such success spawned installments on the Wii and DS (Geometry Wars: Galaxies), a sequel and even iterations on mobile platforms. Speaking of the sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 took the brilliant gameplay of the original Retro Evolved, refined it and altered the formula by adding new modes and abilities, and ensured competition with friends by placing leaderboards in obvious, prominent locations, continuing the addictive qualities that made it so endearing in the first place. Pacifism was born from an achievement in the original game -- last a minute without dying or shooting a bullet -- and utilised the new addition of gates as a method of survival against the ever increasing, always overwhelming shapes. King offered safety circles, pockets of brief security in which to shoot the enclosing shapes before having to go out once more and fight. Sequence provided various and brief challenges where reflex and quick reactions were even more important than in the ‘main’ game, and had a goal -- a unique difference to the other modes -- of surviving until the very end. All of these amounted to an arcade experience that could be played for five minutes or five hours, and one that reinvigorated the arcade shooter in a medium otherwise obsessed with guns and explosions. It was accessible, fast-paced and insanely crazy, but it was fun the entire time and continues to be today while so many other small gems remain mere memories.

Star Shooter

When Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved hit the Xbox Live Arcade, it was overwhelming because of its intensity, and seemingly impossible to be any good at due to the sheer amount of objects on the screen. What was a pleasant surprise while playing, however, was how easily it was to improve your skills the more you played. Like the learning curve of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, practice was crucial to learning how to play properly and with this experience became a skill level that was not only surprising, initially, but one that I could be confident enough to push. This made obtaining all of the game’s Achievements -- back in the days when those mattered to me, when I hid behind my completionist tendencies as the reason why I tried getting as many as I could -- a reality, changing the game from being one to get better at to one that I absolutely had to conquer (sound familiar?). For weeks on end I sat there, night after night, playing Geometry Wars with the sole intention of surviving for 1 million points, the game’s hardest and most notorious Achievement. Eventually (and perhaps ironically) I did manage this feat and did so while talking to a friend -- not the most ideal conditions for achieving a difficult goal. Absolutely ecstatic, the game changed from being a simple delight to play to being one of the best experiences of my gaming life, and I still feel proud all these years later. More importantly than that, though, was that it inspired me to keep on playing, improve my skills as a player, and work on obtaining higher and higher scores. At first it was about being ahead of all of my friends -- something I already felt like I had achieved when acquiring that Achievement, but something not reflected in terms of high score -- before moving on to beating strangers, and eventually just rising up and up the leaderboards. Interestingly the game’s sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, didn’t see the same kind of dedication but it still satisfied my addiction (and continues to today), and acts as the “go to” game whenever I can’t decide what to play, or want an accessible but extremely exciting and enjoyable experience. It’s arcade action at its finest, appeals to the old school gamer inside of me with its high scores, and, when the two games are combined, exists as the series I’ve spent the most time with, on any console. Most critics believe that no game is perfect -- I can safely say that Geometry Wars is.


Bizarre Creations were also known for their experiments, two games in particular attempting new things when so many others were determined to copy what had come before. These games, The Club and Boom Boom Rocket, didn’t appeal to everyone and definitely didn’t see the success that Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars did, but both were worth a try and both epitomize what Bizarre is about: arcade thrills mixed in with serious style and a pursuit of fun and pleasure in an industry that, for now at least, seems more interested in war and depression. They took elements of videogame tradition -- such as high scores -- and twisted them in unpredictable ways, and did so because it might be fun to, not because it was something different to try. Boom Boom Rocket combined Geometry Wars’ glitzy visuals with the rhythm matching genre, while The Club took the points system and style of PGR and added it to a third person shooter, the result of both being unique experiences formed by an amalgamation of other elements but made coherent by their commitment to fun and dedication to accessibility. Then we have their Activision titles, Blur and 007: Blood Stone, which flopped commercially -- according to Activision at least, since they closed the studio -- but still remain worth considering for different reasons. Blur has a strong social focus which is unique (though granted, Criterion’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit did as well) for a racer, while Blood Stone was seemingly trying to be the next installment in that cross-media franchise, particularly since the next movie was on uncertain ground at the time. Whether these titles are good or not is something I can’t speak to as, out of the four, I’ve only played Boom Boom Rocket (which is awesome!). I do own The Club and Blur, however, and expect to find the same thrills and excitement, the same commitment to sheer fun, and the same flamboyance that Bizarre are known for when I do finally get to play them. As for Blood Stone, their pedigree alone makes me want to investigate the title but I’d be lying if I said I was interested in the Bond franchise.

Overall I loved Bizarre Creations’ games because they loved the medium. Their passion was clear and evident in the products they created, as was their talent and creativity, and this key fact doesn’t just earn my respect, it’s the kind of thing that earns developers the kind of respect that the likes of Valve, Rockstar and Nintendo have -- no mean feat when you consider what that actually means, and what it could have meant were Bizarre to remain alive. The studio is closed, however, meaning that the Liverpool based company remains in the medium’s history and my memory -- and what a memory that is.

To Bizarre Creations: bizarre in name, brilliant in development, beautiful in history.

*If they fail to find positions elsewhere.

**Activision attempting to sell them and eventually closing their doors is confusing; the fact no one jumped at the opportunity to buy them is baffling.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lasting Appeal

A good game is a good game forever

The above quote comes from a post written by fellow blogger and good friend Michelle Baldwin which discussed her recent disdain with the pace that this industry travels at, and the incessant focus everybody has on playing the newest and brightest game. It’s a feeling I can understand because I too struggle to keep up and because I am, quite frankly, sick of the always looking forward mentality that permeates the medium. Furthermore, the above quote resonates with me because of how straight to the point and honest it is: a good game is good forever, and nothing will ever change that.

It also stands out to me because it correlates with some feelings I have been having lately. There’s no denying that over my time blogging I have expressed frustration: firstly, with myself for taking on far too many games and overwhelming myself in the process; secondly to a disconnect with fellow gamers and their seemingly always looking forward mentality; and, finally, with the emphasis on shooting, combat and violence in general that our medium has become synonymous with. Whatever the reason for my frustrations, a core theme applied throughout: the way I feel does not appear to be the way the majority of gamers feel, leaving me with the implication that I’m out of the loop.

But I’m not. Like many gamers, I’m fully engaged with the medium and what takes place within it. I’m aware of news as it breaks, I look forward to upcoming games with as much anticipation as others and -- despite my desire to slow down and focus on individual games a little more closely -- I still buy games as they release much to the detriment of my backlog. I’m informed, I’m keeping up and, therefore, I have the capacity to be a part of the conversation -- something that gamers, hardcore in particular, seem to want to be involved with, even if they won’t readily admit it. So why do I feel excluded, and why should I care anyway?

Those are questions I’ve been asking myself lately and pondering even more. Videogames as a medium are moving along so fast -- exacerbated by the aforementioned looking forward mentality, as well as the incredible pace with which things continue to evolve -- that it’s easy to want to keep up and see where the unknown will lead. But that act is exhaustive and frankly, unnecessary, because what we have now and what we got in the past are just as good, if not better, than what may come in the future. No one seems interested in stopping, taking a breath and looking at what’s in front of them. Nobody seems to care that Super Mario Galaxy, a game that released in 2007, still has a lot to say about the status of the platformer genre, or where Mario as a franchise currently sits. In some respects, why should they? That game has a sequel and practically everything else does these days too. But that attitude, that approach to the medium where only the current -- which gets forgotten about once the next big thing arrives -- and future matter, is dangerous and is one I wish would change. It won’t, however, because we as gamers and the industry who caters to us won’t let it. But I can change and it’s something I’ve been attempting ever since I wanted to chew my food (that analogy still resonates with me, all these years later) way back in early 2009. Thinking about my current gaming situation and how, for example, I only just recently played Mass Effect 2 and finished Red Dead Redemption (many months after their release), suggests that I’m finally reaching a position where that change is starting to bear fruit. With each day that passes I find myself contemplating what I have rather than what is to come. 2011, like every year, is set to bring us some absolute delights but personally, I’m more interested in the pleasures that still sit on my shelf. Instead of buying the 20-plus games that I’m attracted to this year, I’m settling on buying just four (I hope). This doesn’t mean anything to any of you who may be reading this, but to me it’s cathartic in the sense that, I’m playing games on my terms and refuse to be influenced by my friends or, indeed, the industry as a whole. I think it’s great that Portal 2 is coming out this month, wonderful that there’s a new Zelda game on the way, and excited about what E3 may bring (particularly after last year), but I can be enthusiastic about these things whilst ensuring that I’m not being pressured by them, and that’s a crucial thing that I had to personally realise.

This post doesn’t really have a meaning and contains me mostly just rambling, but they are thoughts that have been boiling for some time and it feels wonderful to finally get them out. A good game is a good game forever and time, pressure or a desire to keep up should not dictate the way in which we engage the medium we love. If we are truly passionate about videogames in all forms, their age will not matter: we will still read about them because they mean something to us. As a writer, I will still write about them because they mean something to me. Together, their release should be the farthest thing from our mind because we’ll be so engrossed in our passion that it simply won’t mean a thing.