Gamers are More Divided Than Ever…And That’s a Good Thing

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Become enthralled by one thing long enough and regardless of whatever the thing itself may be, the same set of questions tends to present themselves when you began to look back on it.

While the questions are too varied to cover in full, a host of them will inevitably concern comparing that thing as it once was, to how the thing is now. When doing so it’s often essential to use your experience to properly separate the past as it actually occurred, and the past as you perceive it through the eyes of nostalgia.

That’s a distinction that’s been running through my mind recently as I look at how games have changed from both the day one origins of the medium, and from my personal start as a gamer, to where they are now. In doing so, it’s interesting to discover and distinguish the things that have actually changed, as opposed to the things that you heart tells you are different.

Specifically, lately I’ve been wondering if the gaming community really is more hostile to each other and divided than it has been ever before.

My heart tells me the answer is yes. After all, it seemed like the cultural divide among gamers when I was young didn’t extend far past Sega v.s. Nintendo. Now, though, we have issues like AAA v.s. indies, Digital Rights Management, the treatment of women in video games, the validity of YouTube gaming as a career, the ethics of micro-transactions, gaming as art, and many, many, more. All of those issues cause a nigh infinite series of divides among the gamers of the world, and that’s before you even get into the traditional Xbox, PS4, Wii U, and PC debates.

The question then is, are we really more divided as a gaming community than ever before? Is there really more of a hostile environment between gamers everywhere than there was back in the old days? Or instead, has this always been the case and its only the rapid speed the internet carries information and opinions at from all corners that causes the perception that there is more arguments than ever before?

Even when you approach that topic from an unbiased perspective, the answer will almost always be yes. Gamers are more divided and hostile than ever. The once popular idea of a community of gamers united against the rest of the world’s upturned noses at the very idea of gaming, has given way to a civil war with infighting on nearly every front. While you could argue if the embodiment of a gaming community with an “us against the world” mentality ever did truly exist at all, there’s little doubt that certainly isn’t the case now.

And you know what? In many ways we’re better off this way.

Well…Most of the Time Anyway

Oh sure from time to time I see a topic or viewpoint that I personally consider to be outlandish get very heated, and want to cite the always popular (yet rarely practical) “Can’t we all just get along?” belief, but for the most part I’ve come to accept the constant presence of various heated debates to be a good thing for gaming, and not a detriment.

The reason being is that complacency in any industry is never a good thing. No matter what else you can say against the average gamer, one this that’s for sure is that they are not a complacent lot. Not only are they quick to turn against something the moment it becomes a little too commonplace and comfortable, but they are always seeking out and confronting hot button issues without much in the way of fear hindering them. These may not always lead to the most sophisticated and intelligent debates mind you, but they are debates nonetheless.

It’s that constant stream of debate that ensures that developers, publishers, journalists, bloggers, websites, and anyone else on the creation side of the industry can never rest on their laurels. If there weren’t the dissension that exists on so many topics that we currently enjoy today, it’s possible that many of those in gaming wouldn’t feel the pressure (or even obligation) to create a variety of experiences that can cater to any number of personal tastes, preferences and beliefs.

There is a real passion behind many of the various viewpoints in the gaming world that is more and more leading to gamers from all walks of life getting creative and making something that perfectly represents their own particular set of thoughts. That not only serves as great entertainment for those that agree, but  fuel for those who do not to do the same and create something of their own in opposition.

Sure its a general attitude that doesn’t really lead to a perfect gaming world (and there are, perhaps, some topics we would be better off being unified on), but its never really been a perfect world has it? The one we have now, though where gaming is essentially forced to constantly mature, re-invent itself, and provide a variety of experiences precisely because the role and image of a gamer is no longer a caricature, but rather a group of  increasingly outspoken and discerning individuals is a pretty damn exciting one to live in, at least in lieu of perfection.

If there is one warning that all divided gamers need to heed though, its that we should all be careful to remember that at the end of the day, games are first and foremost meant for enjoyment and to be experienced. In that regard, it’s important to never be afraid to challenge your own views by actively seeking a variety of games in order to ensure that your beliefs (whatever they may be, on whatever topic or whatever style) are ones formed by trying all of the different experiences that games have to offer, and not limit yourself at all times to those that only serve your particular notions, thus undoing all of the good the current sometimes hostile and divided culture we enjoy as gamers is actually doing.

Is there a certain appeal to a utopian world where gamers come together to form a “Pleasantville” like community based on shared essential beliefs? Perhaps. But there’s also an appeal in a more gotham like gaming community where hostility and divided beliefs may rule the day, but they ultimately come together to form an impressive world that can only be forged from the fires of such a variety of passions.

Whether that’s your idea gaming world or not, it’s time we all stood back and appreciated the beauty and quality that world can so often lead to.

Five Goals Gaming Still Has Left to Pursue

As we approach 2014, it’s hard to not feel proud of the gaming industry and how far it’s come. Every year it seems that gaming is knocking down pre-conceived limitations, and defying the expectations of naysayers who thought that certain gaming accomplishments would never be realized.

That being said, though, its important to remember that there is always more ground to cover. While everyone’s personal industry wide wishlists for the future are sure to vary wildly, here are five goals both minor and major that I feel that gaming as a whole still has left to achieve.

Establish a True Comedy Genre

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Comedy, as a genre, has been around for essentially as long as the act of storytelling has. While it rarely gets the same level of critical or artistic praise that drama does, anyone who knows even the basics of storytelling knows that the two have a yin and yang relationship where the absence of one tends to throw the other out of balance.

Gaming’s relationship with comedy is somewhat less traditional. While there have been funny games before, and there have been plenty of funny moments in video games, there isn’t really a recognized independent comedy genre in gaming, as there isn’t really a steady enough stream of pure comedy game to justify its existence.

While you can’t fairly make a blanket statement on why that is, in general I feel that the underlying issue is similar to the one that faces the pure horror genre. By that I mean that there is a growing feeling among major publishers that comedy games aren’t viable financial investments. In the increasingly more expensive world of AAA game design, that’s pretty much the kiss of death.

It’s also an incredible shame as comedy is one of the most essential aspects of any entertainment medium, and gaming seems to be trending in a way that is discouraging the pursuit of it as a primary concept more and more. While modern titles like “The Stanley Parable,” give hope that indie developers may give new life to the creative pursuit of this idea, should that prove to not be the case then you have to consider gaming’s inability to really establish a true recognized comedy genre to be among the industry’s more notable failures.

Make Sports Announcers Sound Human

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Man, this one just irks me.

We’ve come a long, long way in the world of gaming technology to the point that the law of diminishing returns is becoming a more and more popular citation when addressing the subject. Yet despite those innovations, modern sports game announcers still sound like a group of particularly antisocial robot reading lines off the sweaty palms of someone just barely in their range of sight.

I understand that as many sports announcers are pre-recorded personalities its incredibly difficult for them to account for the many variables that can occur during a typical game. However, you can’t convince me that the quality of video game sports announcers today is the apex of the technology.

What’s really needed is greater incorporation of  some dynamic commentary elements. For instance, if my quarterback in “Madden” is having a bad year and throws another interception, it’d be nice to hear the announcers mention a potential QB controversy brewing. Similarly, if a QB is in a contract year and putting up career numbers, there should be some acknowledgment of the situation.

Regardless of the specifics, the general idea is that announcers need to start occasionally sounding like human beings. Some games are better than others (the WWE games are a great example of video game announcers at their worst), but in general this is a flaw that has plagued gaming for far too long.

Mature the Incorporation of Sex In Games

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See, gaming has actually done historically well with the subjects of romance and relationships over the years. However, once things start to go beyond a platonic level, the quality of the subject gets more and more murky.

Historically speaking many games have either treated the subject of sex with the maturity of a particularly horny teenage male, or with the prudishness of a wasp couple. There haven’t really been many attempts to incorporate sex into a game (even one that would seem to naturally include it) in a way that feels organic.

It’s a bit of an embarrassment, honestly. There is still an unfortunate perception amongst the casual observer regarding the maturity and social skills of the average gamer, and the fact that there haven’t been many titles that handle such a basic topic in a mature, non-exploitative, yet still entertaining way does that image no favors.

Now, I could be wrong on this matter and there could be some game, or games, out there that actually covers sex in a way similar to what I’ve described. However, even if that is the case, the absence of that approach as a standard is the larger issue as it concerns gaming and sex.

Create or Discover the “Citizen Kane” of Gaming

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I’m hesitant to include this entry because of the vague nature of the entire idea behind it. However, since this is among the most popular topics of discussion as it concerns the advancement of gaming, I’ll play devil’s advocate and give it a shot.

The basic idea behind the “Citizen Kane” of video games is that a game will come along that will make the average game fan (and society at large) recognize games as a legitimate potential art form, in the same way that “Citizen Kane” is recognized as the film that helped movies get established as a legitimate potential art form.

It’s a fundamentally faulty notion, but the spirit of the idea does have an air of truth to it. The average person doesn’t typically view gaming as an art form, and elements of gaming in mass media coverage tend to be about gaming controversies, or are otherwise cheap and insulting attention grabbers like the VGX awards, which actively harm the idea that there is a higher calling in gaming as a potential art form among more casual, or even indifferent, users.

Of course, what people tend to forget is that “Citizen Kane” was not an overnight game changer for many. Instead it would only fulfill that role in hindsight after a flood of ambitious, artistic, and financially successful titles that were directly influenced by it would make “Citizen Kane” the generally accepted turning point.

So perhaps instead the question of whether of not gaming will get its “Citizen Kane” shouldn’t just be a lookout for an individual release on the horizon, but a careful examination of the past to see if it’s already been released.

Improve the Current Video Game Property and Licensing System, or Create a New One

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Have you ever wondered why a certain favorite game has never seen a sequel, or why that original game no longer seems to be available for digital download? Well it could honestly be for any number of reasons, but more often than not the problem is one of licensing.

Gaming has long had serious issues with property licensing. While this is sometimes tied into the inclusion of a third party property (like the one that faced “The Simpsons” Konami games), there are a disturbing amount of completely independent properties that are handcuffed by archaic, or even non-existent, laws.

The entire system regarding property video game rights and license acquisition is one of the most convoluted and mysterious in all of entertainment. While many might think it’s a simple matter of contacting the right party and offering the right figure, the truth is rarely so simple.

Good Old Games shed some light on this issue earlier in the year when they revealed that the process to acquire “System Shock 2” for digital distribution took years of concentrated effort, most of which involved navigating a system shrouded in confusion where even the people who were the right ones to contact, didn’t know they were the ones who should be contacted. During the course of their lengthy legal battles they were often working without a net, as precedent for such an effort is almost non-existent.

In some cases, the situation surrounding property rights of games would be hilarious if they weren’t so sad. For example, the popular “No One Lives Forever” series has long been unavailable to modern users due to the simple fact that no one knows who has the rights to it, even among the small group of people that potentially could. In other words, under the current system, entire game licenses can be lost as easy as a set of car keys.

It’s an embarrassing mess of bureaucracy and incompetence. Recent years have seen some major improvements in this area, but unless a concise and through overhaul of this entire system is undergone, we run the risk of making a sizable part of gaming history inaccessible.

The Popular (and Absolutely Insane) Just Cause 2 Multiplayer Mod is About to Get a Steam Release

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While I have no problem calling “Just Cause 2” a good game, I’m hesitant when it comes to giving it praise beyond that.

See if you attend the open world game design school, there’s really only two classes you can go to. One preaches using the large in-game world to provide a more intensely cinematic experience, while the other teaches the idea of using that same space to let players just go nuts with few (if any) design boundaries to limit or guide them.

While neither is inherently a wrong pursuit, “Just Cause 2′s” firm attendance and devotion to the latter design philosophy meant that while the game was insanely large and incredibly fun to just mess around in, elements like mission quality and story structure were either limited or non-existent.

Some time ago, however, a dedicated group of modders found a way to capitalize off of the built-in strengths of the game and give it a longevity that even a more cohesive and engaging storyline structure couldn’t do by simply adding a true online multiplayer mode to the game.

It’s not an unprecedented occurrence for a single player only game to get a modded multiplayer component, but when you consider that this particular mod allows for up to 600 players at once within the absolutely gigantic world of “Just Cause 2,” and factor in the game’s already zany and ridiculously fast paced nature, perhaps you can see why this drew so much attention from users who would have otherwise most likely stopped regularly playing the game some time ago.

Now it turns out it was not only individual users whose attention was caught by the mod, but the folks at Valve as well as it was recently announced that Steam will soon be making the popular multiplayer mod available for download as an official Steam release. This not only makes the mod much more accessible to the average person, but rightfully legitimizes it as an essential component of the “Just Cause 2” experience.

While the only available release date is still 2013, regardless of whenever this does actually hit Steam it’s already a big win for everyone involved. This is especially true for us, the players, who will now get an even easier chance to experience a sandbox action multiplayer game that is without chaotic equal. Expect to see a popular new wave of insane YouTube videos and jaws on floors when “Just Cause 2′s” multiplayer mode is released by the end of the month

If Gaming is To Evolve In The Next Generation, It’s Time to Start Ditching the Cinema

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Not getting my Playstation in time for the “Final Fantasy VII” craze, my first experience with the series was “Final Fantasy VIII.” While I could make the argument that I got the better game of the deal, that is a topic of heated debate best saved for another day.

Instead the point in mentioning my first exposure to a “Final Fantasy” on Playstation is to reference that moment we all experienced when playing that series for the first time on that platform when you first saw one of the games cinematics. Though I’m not an expert on human behavior by any means, I still feel fairly confident in suggesting that the majority of people’s immediate reaction to viewing one of those beauties was to pick their jaw up off the floor so they were able to better articulate to anyone that would listen how it was “Just like a movie,” and to wonder “When all video games will look that good.”

Now “FF:VIII” may have been my personal exposure to the wonders of the video game cinema, but it would be far from the last. In fact, you could argue that the PS1 was the heyday of the video game cinema, as console developers began to realize the incredible (at the time) graphical potential in these scripted sequences, and just how much they could add to the basic video game story which previously was viewed by even the most intense fans of the medium as a sort of inevitable handicap thats few exceptions of excellence were best treated as anomalies.

Simply put, cinemas on the Playstation were nearly universally thrilling exhibitions that showcased levels of potential out of gaming that may have been dreamed of, but never really considered in earnest as a viable progression.

However, the Playstation came out in 1994 and hasn’t really been actively developed for in about 12-13 years. Cinemas though, in a format that strongly resembles that which they debuted under, remain.

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“But,” you say, sensing where I’m going from both context clues and the headline, “cinemas have improved greatly since then, and exercise a level of quality that makes those PS1 examples look archaic and pathetic.

On that point, I don’t disagree. There is a film like quality in the modern cinematic that even during the mind expanding origins of the PS1 cinemas I wouldn’t have been able to properly envision. What’s more is, cinemas of that quality are so prolific now that they’ve reached a point where their construction and implementation can, from a user stand point, be viewed as effortless.

The ability for a modern game to use cinemas in order to make their stories more in line with the presentation style of films may have reached their awe inspiring peak in the days of the Playstation, but in terms of overall quality you can’t argue that every subsequent year makes them better and better.

However, I hate them. Hate them, hate them, hate them. Hate them nearly every time I see them, and have had the experience of several otherwise great ,or at least enjoyable, titles ruined almost entirely by their presence.

To understand the problem with the modern cinema, you really have to look back at why they came to be in the first place. They existed to invoke the aforementioned reactions of “Wow this looks like a movie” and “When will games look this good?” and gave gaming a needed crutch to improve the outward appeal of its storytelling.

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However, gaming no longer needs that crutch and is becoming weaker and weaker by relying on it. The idea of a video game being able to mimic a film may have once been a fantastic notion, but can now be accomplished by nearly any reasonable budget.

As such, that same idea is now insulting. While there may have been a time when films were the only known effective way to tell a visual story, that time is no more. To suggest that is the case is to ignore the tremendous strides that certain ambitious developers have made in the field when it comes to finding a way to present a story that is uniquely told by the abilities of video games.

Yet again and again, game developers from all walks of life see no problem in creating a tightly scripted, high graphical sequence that allows you to do absolutely nothing but put the controller down and watch. When you consider that the one universally defining characteristic of video games is interactivity, putting the player in a position where they are either entirely unable to interact with the game, or mostly unable to do so, is crippling and converts the experience from game to digitally animated film instantaneously.

What’s more, the use of cinemas to such an insane degree have also spawned a number of other flaws in gaming. Among them, the most consistently annoying of which would have to be the rise of the QTE. These sequenced button presses are, on occasion, a well done way to add a level of interactivity to story segments, but for the most part are used as a sort of begrudging solution developers offer to anyone who may balk at why they aren’t able to actually play the game they purchased instead of just watch it for its presumed technological grandeur and “epic” story.

The game that really highlighted the gravity of this problem to me would have to be “The Last of Us.” While “The Last of Us,” has one of the greatest stories in gaming history, it is made nearly unbearable at times because of its reliance on traditional cinemas to tell the tale. The cinemas themselves may be better scripted and acted out than nearly all others out there, yet still manage to be groan worthy if for no other reason than they force you to stop playing the very game itself. A game that relies heavily on keeping you in the moment, and gains much effectiveness from its tense atmosphere which instantly dissipates the moment a cinema appears.

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What’s even worse in that instance is that Naughty Dog exhibits, in the same game no less, the ability to effectively tell a story with nearly no reliance on cinemas. That’s evident both in the banter between Joel and Ellie during levels which does more to enhance both individual characters and their relationship than any cinematic in the game can possibly do, and in the opening moments of the game which show perhaps the most gut wrenching and effective moments of the entire experience and afford you at least some level of interactivity with consequence.

Now even as I type this, I feel a twinge of hypocrisy as I’m among the biggest supporters of Telltale and their “Walking Dead” series, which is more or less an experience made up entirely of cinemas and quick time events. However, the very key difference there is that the “Walking Dead” series openly presents itself as that type of experience. It is a point and click adventure game, which are traditionally expected to be lighter on gameplay, and high on scripted sequences. You know to expect that when you go into it, and the developers are able to put extra work and importance into them since they are the majority focus of the game.

Instead my real problem with the whole idea of the modern cinema, is its appearance in games that otherwise feature an extremely active pace. It’s in those games where I sign up for the action and gameplay, and are instead spoon fed cinema after cinema that, regardless of the overall quality of the individual examples, are with few exceptions nowhere near as thrilling, effective, or certainly enjoyable as the very game they are apart of and, ideally, are only in place to enhance.

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There was a time when the cinematic was a useful, exciting tool that showcased the potential for gaming to reach new heights of storytelling excellence. That time has passed, and the entire reason the average pre-rendered scripted cinematic remains is based on nothing more than laziness and an unwillingness, or creative inability, to pursue a viable storytelling evolution that can recreate the feeling and effect of the first time we viewed an elaborate cinema in a game, without harming the game in the process.

Much like 2D gaming or other tropes of the medium once born out of technological necessity, there will always be a place for the video game cinematic, regardless of whether or not it is still universally desired. However developers everywhere, particularly those with budget to spare, need to really sit down and think when designing their next titles if the use of a cinema is actually enhancing the experience in a meaningful way, or is merely preventing the player from actually being able to play and only serving to help the graphic and storytelling teams flex their creative muscles without purpose like the design equivalent of a professional bodybuilder.

Do that, and I think that many of them will come to the same conclusion on cinemas that many gamers have been exercising for years, which is to just skip them all together.

Huge Sales Are Coming to the Xbox 360 Just in Time for the Holidays

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Not able to get in early on the next generation by purchasing an Xbox One, Wii U, or PS4? Don’t worry because with the holidays approaching, you happen to be in luck.

No I don’t mean insane deals are coming on one of those systems (though that certainly is possible), but rather that the previous gen console you own is about to see some serious drops in game prices, allowing you to go back and play some of those great games you may have missed the first time around.

While PC holiday deals started on Amazon and other outlets some time ago, it looks like the Xbox 360 is the first console to throw its hat into the holiday sale madness ring by offering up a host of hugely discounted titles starting today through Xbox Live.

What’s available? Well for now you can get a host of Arcade greats such as “Mark of the Ninja,” “Dust,” and “The Cave,” while some AAA greats like “Fallout 3” (and all the available DLC’s), “Tomb Raider,” “Sleeping Dogs,” and “Skyrim” for 50% – 75% off.

However, it appears that the real deals are coming later in the week, as one day only sales are available on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This is particularly true of the Cyber Monday collection which features some best of generation titles like “Red Dead Redemption,” “Dark Souls,” “The Witcher 2,” “L.A. Noire,” and “Far Cry: Blood Dragon,” all for 75% off.

The full list of games can be found here and, while this is quite honestly nothing in comparison to the PC sales available this time of year, for 360 owners who aren’t ready to make the next gen jump and need some truly great games to play around with during the holidays, this is a sale you absolutely have to take advantage of.

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