Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I can't hear you

I've noticed a bad trend in the FPS these days: I can't seem to hear what the hell is going on. Oh, I can hear the action all right. The sound of the gun rattling off. That grenade detonating right next to me (whoops). Those I can hear just fine. But that guy standing next to me giving me important plot details? Mumble mumble mumble. The guy on my radio telling me what to do next? No clue what he just said.

There are two main causes of this:

1) 3D Sound

Sounds fancy, doesn't it? Games have this sound engine to make sure that when a rocket whizzes right by your virtual ear you hear the path via your speakers. Cool for rockets, bad for dialogue. If there's some guy in-game talking to you, in many shooters you won't be able to hear what they're saying unless you're standing right next to and looking directly at them. I don't know about you, but I'm capable of hearing someone talking to me even if they're behind me and across the room. Our ears are actually very capable receivers. And optimizing over the whiz bang effect leaves a poor experience for dialogue.

I appreciate now the wisdom of Bungie for putting Cortana in the Master Chief's head.

2) No independent speech volume control

It's so simple. It's a nob in settings that assigns a volume level for speech and only speech. Most games already have a category for "Music" versus "Effects". And to be fair some games were smart enough to call out a "Speech" category. But far too few.

Maybe it's my sound setup. It's true, I had to neuter my 7.1 sound setup to 7.0. I live in the city, where neighbors are separated by walls, not fences. Removing the sub woofer wasn't quite enough - I also have to keep the volume at a reasonable level while I game. The catch is that people have a much higher tolerance for continuous sound over burst sound. That's why alarms beep in intervals to wake you up. Speech fits in the continuous sound bucket, which is why it's possible to tune someone out even as they're talking to you (not a good idea to let them know, however). The sounds of TV are accepted much more by neighbors than the sporadic explosion. I could happily crank up the speech volume in the game while leaving the rest of the sound low and not disturb anyone. If only someone gave me the option.

Another option is subtitling. Which is certainly functional, but it has the side effect of being the most anti-immersive thing ever. Plus nothing really highlights the poor voice acting in so many games like being able to read the script side by side with them.

The saving grace is that most shooters are light on plot as is, so you're probably not going to have your experienced ruined by missing out on the dialogue. But that's a trend I'd wouldn't exactly encourage. Either do it right or take the silent cue and do it Gordon Freeman style.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fun with trailers

So you may have seen some of these, but hopefully you haven't seen them all:

Also very related is the recent South Park episode: Stanley's Cup. Which is basically the same concept as the above parodies, but over and over throughout hte entire episode. Very funny.

What's truly amazing is how in this modern age of movie trailers, where basically any footage can be made to look like anything, there are still trailers that don't elicit any excitement whatsoever.

Monday, January 29, 2007

How to make WoW even more addictive

My name is Chris, and I'm addicted to WoW.

There, I've said it. At least I'm not alone; WoW is up to eight million subscribers. We're all willing participants, but there's no getting around the fact that we are also addicts.

It's not like WoW doesn't put out. Aesthetically WoW is very satisfying: the world is pleasing on the eyes and the monsters look appropriately fierce. By RPG standards the gameplay is actually pretty deep and entertaining. And there's certainly no end of things to do.

But WoW is just a glorified Skinner Box, and we're all sitting there pulling the lever hoping for another pellet. I know this. So why is it that lately I've been thinking of how great it would be to combine two of my addictions?

WoW, meet Achievement Points. Achievement Points, meet WoW.

One of WoW's main problems is that everything boils down to gear. You kill stuff to get better gear so that you can see new places and kill bigger stuff. Your ability to proceed through the content of the game is gated by how good of stuff you have. Skill has something to do with it, definitely. But you're dead in the water without good gear.

So what's the problem? Well, not only is gear the means to explore new content, it's also your reward. For a little while after you finish an instance, you're so excited to troll around with your new thingamajig so that everyone can see where you've been. But inevitably you'll go somewhere cooler and your fancy thingamajig will become obsolete. You have to throw it away. Where's your memento of journeys past? The game actually discourages you from holding on to the nifty stuff that you collect along the way. Gone is your visible badge of honor that you slew the mighty whosiwhatsit.

This is where achievement points come in. WoW needs non-gear related rewards for special achievements. Nothing that affects gameplay; just a badge of honor that says that you successfully downed Hogger. It's probably just another tab on your character sheet - nothing fancy. But that little piece of permanence would motivate many players (myself included) to drill into a larger percentage of the content that the WoW developers worked so hard on. Sure there would be a achievements for the obvious things, like finishing some major instance. But things get really fun when you pull out the really in-depth achievements, like soloing a boss, clearing an instance under a time limit, getting a killing spree in PvP, or exploring every zone. Blizzard has already taken some interesting ideas like this and turned them into quests, but the problem is that there's nobody to appreciate that you finished that quest except for yourself. Which is totally missing the whole point of us all playing this RPG together.

C'mon Blizzard. Give me something else to shoot for, because I'm growing tired of the endless cycle for "better stuff."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Most Wanted Games of 2007

GameSpy posted their list of Most Wanted Games of 2007. Some selections:

Holy poo that's a lot of solid games to look forward too. If only half of those games make it in 2007, and only half of the remainder are actually as good as they should be... that's still one hell of a selection for gaming in 2007. And I'm not even listing some of the more unknown titles that may turn it out and become instant classics.

It's really hard to pick a most anticipated game from a stellar list like that, but if I had to pick one it'd have to be Spore. Most of the games above are rehashes of old concepts (not that I have a problem with rehashes, mind you). Spore looks like it's going to be something truly different.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

All my love to G.Love

Last night I went down to the Showbox to see one of my favorite bands, G. Love & Special Sauce. It was my first time seeing them in person, and they didn't disappoint. Yes, they're a motley band of dorks, but that's how I like my musicians. Few bands that I know of put out such irresistibly danceable stuff as G.Love. And I love how in their crazy blues/hip-hop genre (which I'm pretty sure there isn't a lot of competition over) they manage to sing about stuff that matters. G.Love tells us about how he likes his beverages cold, sleeps in his jammies, knows the best way to get downtown... you know, earth-shattering important lyrics. Which I'm all about. I don't need my music to be negative and angry. Unfortunately if you look at the music charts I seem to be the minority.

G.Love did not disappoint, but once again the Showbox did. The venue is actually pretty nice inside - that isn't the problem. It's the people. Somehow, magically, regardless of the artist performing, the Showbox manages to attract all the stereotypical concert assholes into one place. There was "Girl-Whose-Boobs-Make-Her-Ticket-Worth-More-Than-Yours", "Guy-Who-ODs-And-Falls-On-You", "Mrs-Talks-Over-Music", "Homophobic-Giant-Bobblehead", "Mr-The-World-Is-My-Trashcan". And of course they all make me have to become "Elbow-Ninja" in order to protect what little square of space I have left.

Why do people go to concerts? Please, tell me. I know why I go to concerts (hint: it has something to do with music). I just don't understand the rest of the crowd who all insist on gathering in one place to ignore the show and be rude to each other.

In my mind, there are three acceptable purposes for live music:
* Dance: You enjoy the presence of some great band by getting your groove on
* Listen: You sit and listen to the music while watching the band, but doing nothing else
* Ambient: You are doing some other activity (dinner, talking, whatever) while a band makes it that much more pleasant

Unfortunately, these can not all coexist. For example, the white noise caused by Ambients can ruin the experience of Listeners. Likewise the space required to support Dancers leaves no room for Ambients. And to make things even more difficult, there are those people who don't fit into any logical category. In no way does standing yet not dancing for hours make any sense. If you're doing that out of some confused notion that you're there to see the band, here's a hint: that works much better if everyone sits, not stands.

I'd think you could solve the problem by partitioning the space based on people's intentions, but it only takes one confused person in the wrong place to completly disrupt the rest of the crowd. The Showbox seems to always result in the worst situation through some combination of no seating plus cheap tickets (which amplifies the number of directionless drop-ins). But despite my dislike of the Showbox, I'll probably end up there again. Because who doesn't like seeing their favorite bands for cheap?

Paint by Numbers

Watch this video on teaching arithmetic.

The best thing a teacher can do when a student is struggling with a problem is show them another way to think about it. Once the "aha!" moment has been hit and the student gets it one way, you've opened the doors to understanding it from other angles. But you're not going to get anywhere unless you make some kind of connection first.

My concern about only teaching the standard algorithm is that it's... well... an algorithm. And an algorithm is just another calculator, except it's hopefully in your brain and not in the box where you sealed away your physical calculator after you realized that you'd never ever use it again (calc.exe doesn't count).

Math is all about reasoning, and if you're just turning another crank on the number machine then you're not building up to anything. I like that some of the other methods revolve around taking simple things that you know and working towards your answer using what you've got. That in a nutshell is the only way I stumbled through math in college. When all else fails, take stock of what you do know and see what it gets you. If you're dependant on an algorithm that you don't really understand, you can too easily find yourself in unknown territory and feeling completely helpless (which is how 90% of students in math class feel).

That said, proficiency with basic skills (like arithmetic) is too darn critical to be lost in a sea of touchy feely. Teaching other methods for arithmetic: good. Not teaching the algorithmic standard for arithmetic at all: bad!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Quake 4 (Xbox 360)

Considering that Quake 3 opted out of a singleplayer campaign entirely, I wasn't expecting much from the Quake 4 singleplayer campaign. But it wasn't half bad. It's a title you'd want to rent, not buy, but at least I was entertained the whole way through.

The aspect that keeps Quake interesting is its variety of fun weapons. I've been on a FPS singleplayer kick lately, and I've gotta say that the weapon selection in the games out there is boring me to tears. I don't care if the rate of fire is different and the clip size is larger - it's still just another freaking machine gun! Quake 4 has a machine gun, but it only has one. And it's got a lot of other weapons that are, you know, fun.

Killing someone with lightning is fun. Creating a dark matter vortex is fun. Gleefully lobbing grenades everywhere is fun. Shooting hundreds of tiny exploding nails is fun.

Well, it's not all fun. Getting stuck with a crappy save where you have 25 health is no fun. I'm not sure why in this day and age shooters are still struggling with health/armor systems. Halo solved this problem years ago: give the player regenerative shields. As long as you survive an encounter, you're reset to a known-good state of health. It makes game balancing way easier, and less obvious for that matter ("Hey, here's a big unattended cache of health packs and armor! I wonder if there's a boss encounter coming up..."). The downside of course is that with no health system at all (as Halo 2 opted to do) you lose the sense of being "worn down" over some long epic encounter. I'm not saying ditch health entirely - I'm saying get with the times and start thinking about "out of combat" health resets/regeneration. And obviously "shields" don't fit into every shooter's lore, but the same idea can be applied anywhere. Hell, if you're already in the business that saying that health packs can heal the protagonist's bullet-riddled body, you should be flexible on spontaneous regeneration.

But ignore the antiquated health system and long load times (which you may get very familiar with due to said health system). I applaud Quake 4 for not trying to be too serious. Sure the whole space marine motif is almost as tired as WW2 shooters. But at least Quake 4 doesn't waste effort trying to make too much sense. These are games people, not combat simulators.

The one inexcusable aspect of Quake 4? The frame rate. This is a console, not some random PC with a bargain bin video card. Get with the program.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

5000 Gamerscore!

I've slowly become obsessed with Xbox 360 achievement points. They add a bit of permanence to your gaming. They give you more goals to aim for while playing. And they give you this little blip in game that says "You just did something cool!" And all of that makes gaming just that much more fun.

Last night was a milestone, as that I hit 5000 achievement points. Well to say that I did it isn't technically correct - Jessica pushed it to 5000 with a couple spectacular games of Lumines. Between Zuma and Lumines she's contributed somewhere around 200 of my total points. Considering that she also beat two DS games over the last month (New Super Mario Bros. and Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis), I think it's safe to say that she's on a roll.

There were rumors at some point that the PS3 would adopt a point system, but in the end it looks like it didn't. And I'm pretty sure the Wii didn't either. Which is too bad for them, because there will always be that little voice in my head urging me to prefer the 360 because it tells me I'm cool.

So You Think You're America's Next Top Idol

I finally got around to watching the Seattle auditions for American Idol. I generally don't follow the show, although I have caught a couple other season's audition portions. When the show starts becoming about actual talent, I lose interest. Which may seem odd, because it's the same format as So You Think You Can Dance, which I enjoy. But it turns out that dancing is infinitely more entertaining to watch than singing.

Anyway, I was recently having a discussion with a friend about whether the fact that the show was just a thin cover for making fun of these people was okay or not. I say yes, it is.

These judges are not coming to you while you sing in the shower. Nor are they even criticizing your performance in Karaoke Revolution (although if you get the latest PS2 version, maybe they will). They're not even heckling you at your favorite karaoke bar. No. You decided that you were such hot shit that you flew from Kansas to audition on television in front of them, full well knowing that they got famous for saying nasty things to people just like you. The real problem? You don't know that you suck. Thank god we have a show where people finally get told just how much they suck.

The people auditioning for American Idol come from a generation that has grown up under the curtain of political correctness. In this fantasy world nobody ever says anything mean about anyone else. Ever. Somehow in the land of free speech unwelcome opinions have become the next WMDs. The result? Mobs of people whose self perception is so screwed up that they fly thousands of miles to audition for a singing competion where they're expected to be good enough to inspire millions of voters in order to win... when they're completely tone deaf.

For next time, here's your pre-flight checklist:

  • Have you ever sung in front of other people before?
  • Did these people enjoy your performance?
  • Are any of the people who enjoyed your performance not your mother?
  • Are you even slightly photogenic?
  • Do you now or have you ever had any friends?

The show's name is American Idol. As in something worth worshipping. If you've got the balls to claim that you're worthy of America worshipping you, you'd better be ready for some criticism. Alas, it seems that 90% of our would-be demigods are freakishly disfigured trolls with no social skills, no taste in music, think being on key is "subjective," and can't tell that everyone else is laughing at them until some English guy says something mean.

More laughing at ourselves, less taking everything too seriously. kthx

Friday, January 19, 2007

Celebrating Insobriety

Watch this Paula Abdul interview.

This is a trend I'd like to see more of. Celebrities being interviewed while in a state of... well, whatever that is. In her own words: "Any publicity is good publicity."

I recorded the Seattle American Idol auditions but I haven't watched them yet. I'm waiting to give it my full attention so I can ask that guy on the bus what possessed him to audition with I Can't Fight This Feeling?

Who I'm Not

While I may dominate the search results for PapasNewBag, I seem to be having more difficulty with my real name. There's some new competition on the block. What's the problem with that, you say? Confusion. Some old flame is going to look me up some day and think I got hooked up with NASA. Okay, maybe that's not such a bad thing. It certainly sounds more grandiose on paper than what I do. Well, if they knew me before they'd know that this is not me. But he went to my alma mater, muddling things even more.

I could take some consolation that if you search on instead of Google the top 5 are relevant to me. But inside I know that that's because just isn't quite as good at nailing the most relevant result. Example, if you search for PapasNewBag on you get some random "RTFM" post that I don't remember making. If you do the same search with Google you get my S&I profile. GG

Wow, this entire post comes off as really egotistical. No really, I'm not this self centered. It's just that as I establish this blog I'm curious what else is out there as you search around.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Meta-Reality Show

I wouldn't call myself a fan of the whole reality television thing. But it has become such a large category that it's really hard to ignore. So I find myself stopping to think about what differentiates a reality show that makes me want to throw up and one that sucks me in and won't let go.

The obvious answer is that the ones that I like are the ones with real people. But how do you know which shows have real people and which don't. The trick is looking at what the "goal" is of the show. Is it a cash prize? Bring on the gold diggers.

No one wants to be crowned America's Next Top Model and get a modelling contract unless they, you know, want to be a model. It's not like you can trade that contract in for cash. That's not to say that there aren't drama queens that dominate the show's content, nor that the show itself is anything but trash. But for better or worse, those are in fact real people.

A less trashy example would be So You Think You Can Dance. That show has people with real talent. Yes, they need money. Yes, they need a job. But the point of the show is about how well they can leverage their talent. Not how much they love money.

Anyway, what brought about this particular round of thought is Beauty and the Geek. What makes this show really interesting is that it is half filled with honest people looking for self improvement, and half filled with money grubbing ho's. It's the perfect meta-reality show.

The geeks are sometimes extreme characters, but more often they're scarily familiar (at least if you run in the circles I do). They couldn't care less about the cash prize, because honestly they're all on the path to make lots of money anyway. The geeks are there to better themselves. And as a result they don't game the show. Instead they make friends.

The beauties, on the other hand... well... they're horrible. They form alliances, back stab each other, disrespect their geek partners, sunbathe through anything interesting, and generally just drool over the money.

The point of the show is to see if even one of the beauties can pull herself out of her superficial shame spiral and become a human being, or if all the other girls will cannibalize her first, leaving the Queen Bitch as the victor. And it's hard not to find that entertaining.

Far Cry Evolution (Xbox 360)

The second campaign in Far Cry Instincts Predator for the Xbox 360, called Evolution, managed to suck a lot less.

Evolution starts off with the return of the big open island environments that used to be Far Cry's trademark. You're given multiple objective blips on your radar, a boat, a gun, and you're supposed to figure out the rest on your own. And given that you begin this campaign with all the feral powers from the previous campaign, romping through the jungle is a lot more fun. I found the super jump from Instincts to be a nice gimmick; in Evolution it was my bread and butter. I felt that there were more encounters where jumping was a viable stategy and there were definitely more routes through the jungle that took advantage of your increased mobility. There still wasn't much motivation to sneak around, but at least leaping around through the jungle like a bloodthirsty monkey was much more satisfying. Which is why I enjoyed the second campaign so much more: the level design actually matched the gameplay features.

After actually having an opportunity to take advantage of the crazy feral powers, I started to think about some potential synergy with Science & Industry. There are four primary buckets of research items in S&I: weapons, armor, devices, and implants. The feral powers in Far Cry felt like a good fit in S&I's implants branch. There's the powerful melee attack (Muscle Fiber Replacements), super speed/jump (Leg Implants), and super smell/sight (Ocular Implants). So the powers themselves felt right at home, but there was some nice details to Far Cry's implementation that made it just that much better. The melee attack had the same touch as Halo 2's plasma sword where it also leaps you towards the target. The super jump had a nice mechanic for charging it up and letting it fly, but without being disorienting. And the super smell had these nice glowing trails to help you track enemies. Now if we could just get some traction on S&I2, it'd be great to see a little Far Cry in the implant system.

I'm certainly glad that I only rented this game. I hit multiple nasty crashing bugs and the first campaign bored me to tears. But it did have its moments. Cruising around the islands in a boat while enjoying the gorgeous water. Leaping through the jungle and pouncing right on top of a couple of unsuspecting guards. Having some guards inexplicably spawn right behind me, defying even the most dubious video game logic. Wait, maybe I don't want to remember that last one...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Far Cry Instincts (Xbox 360)

I finished the two campaigns in Far Cry Instincts Predator (Xbox 360) (GameSpy, GameSpot) and sent the game back to GameFly with mixed feelings. In many ways, the game was thoroughly disappointing. But in other ways it was inspiring.

The first campaign (Instincts) really sucked. You're this charter boat captain turned jungle ninja. You get to prowl the jungle, backstab unsuspecting guards, plant traps for them to stumble on, and eventually get animal traits of crazy speed, super jumps, and smell-o-vision. You'd think it'd be like being Richard in The Beach, but it's not. I wasted lots of time trying to set up traps and lurk in the brush, but it's vastly more efficient to just run and gun through the whole game. That's okay by me - my inner Serious Sam loves unrealistically blowing the hell out of everything. But the gameplay features in Far Cry are screaming at you to sneak. For example, not only can you go prone, but you can then flip onto your back when prone so you can shoot guards through the floorboards of their stilted beach shack. Too bad you'll never ever use it. I weep for the poor developer who built that feature for no reason.

Okay, so this is a "shoot first" and "to hell with who hears it" game. I can dig it. Then why do the guns all feel the same? They might as well have saved time by just calling it Machinegun #3 and used the same weapon model. It's particularly bad because the enemies' health seems to scale up at the same time your weapon's damage does, making it feel like there's no change at all. The only weapon that felt good was the shotgun (which is great for me because I love a good shotgun). But the open environments and lack of ammo makes it not very useful.

My largest complaint with Far Cry Instincts is with the unbelievably obvious spawning system. The critics all seem to love Far Cry's open environments where you can "choose" the way you get from point A to point B. The reality is that the game is very linear and heavily scripted. Scripting isn't inherently bad (case and point, Half-Life), but this is really bad scripting. Example: So you're going along, creeping through this generic facility. You crawl through some ducts (the shooter's superhighway) and pop out in an office. There are some guards hanging out there in the dark (don't ask why) and you dispatch them (they're evil, duh). There's only one door out of this room, so you head out that way. As soon as you exit the door into the hallway... two new guards come out of the room you just left! There was no other entrance to the room! I guess you could explain it by saying that they came in the vent, just like you, but come on! Events like this happen constantly, completely breaking the realism of your environment.

I finished off the Instincts campaign thoroughly disatisfied. But I'm an achievement point whore, and that first campaign left me with a paltry 15 points, so I decided to keep going and do the second campaign. Thank god, because that one was much much better. More on that later.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Where to blog?

Once I had decided to actually start a blog the next questions were of course how and where.

I've arrived at Blogspot, but that's not to say that I've necessarily settled here. There are about a bajillion different blog software/hosting options, and hell if I know which ones are good and which ones aren't. But I figured that Google's blogging solution wouldn't completely tank, so that's where I've started.

Actually, my initial half-hearted attempt landed me in MSN Spaces given that my friend OBsIV had recently set up his new blog there. I've left an empty husk of a web page there as proof of my passing. It's not so much that I was displeased with MSN Spaces. It's more that I was blitzkrieged with features, got distracted, and never came back. I'm not looking to birth yet another unwanted eye-raping MySpace page to the world (where the whole notion of contrast for readability seems to lost). I just want a blog.

Even within each blog solution there seems to be fierce competition over address space. My historic handle for many years has been "PapasNewBag," and for the first time ever I actually found that name already in use when I went to secure a blog address. Nobody has ever shared that name. Sure, I understand that the shortened "PNB" form will already be taken. And I would never even hope at a chance to nab my more recent "PeaNutButter" variant. But somewhere out there someone is using (privately, no less), and I have no idea why.

Maybe if my callsign was good I'd understand. It's not like I'm surprised to be forced into SexyRobot2407 because everything through SexyRobot2406 was taken. Everybody wants to be a sexy robot. Nobody wants to name themselves after half of the title of random James Brown song.

As far as I'm concerned if you dominate your google search results, you should own the word and be able to persecute others who use it in vain. Damn you mystery squatter for forcing me to be respectable and use my real name! Oh well, I guess the cherry's already popped given my Flickr page, but for some reason disclosing words seems so much more personal than pictures. I think I'm backwards that way.

Why blog?

It seems a bit late to get into the world of blogging. I think what has discouraged me from doing this kind of thing is the knowledge that I can't do it retroactively. I can't magically gather up all my thoughts from the last couple years and have them instantly appear in a nice catalogued format. Which is unfortunate, because I could use exactly that. My memory is terrible.

Which brings me to the question: why blog?

I assure you, my intentions are purely selfish. If I don't start establishing some sort of digital pensieve, my thoughts from last week are doomed to oblivion. Oh god - did I just open up my blog with a Harry Potter reference? Am I that far gone?

The intended target of my blogging is singular: post my thoughts on games and movies as I experience them. Bonus points if I have anything interesting to say beyond that.

My blogging is effective from now onward, but hopefully I'll retroactively squeeze in whatever earth-shattering thoughts I was having during that elusive "last week."