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Apr03

I <3 Charts: a data nerd tries Fitbit

I’ve already talked here about my compulsion to be efficient in games, usually by creating elaborate charts about totally useless things. It probably comes as no surprise, then, that I can also be a litte strange about “min-maxing” in real life, too.

Why just play on the computer when I can play on the computer and watch a movie at the same time? Why walk through the house twice to accomplish chores when I can plan the most efficient single route? I frequently will eat the same food item 5 days in a row because I want to track the optimal cooking time. Basically I’m a colossal nerd, and like most nerds I love data.

I use Raptr to track my games, and Last.fm to track my music, and so on.. but once I step away from the computer, how can I track what I’m doing? Huh? HUH?! And that is how I ended up buying a Fitbit this past weekend.

Fitbit has been producing personal metric trackers since 2008, and mine in particular is a Fitbit One. It will track how many steps I make in a day, how many flights of stairs I walk up, and my sleeping habits. I can also manually add in data like food or complicated exercise. The result is that I can collect a great deal of information about my day, which I find fascinating. (It’s easy to wear, too — I just clip it on in the morning and forget about it.)

fitbitdatas I <3 Charts: a data nerd tries Fitbit

How often do I wake up in my sleep? How many steps is it from home to work in the morning? Oh, the datas. My nerdy self is really enjoying getting an informed perspective on my daily routine.

Of course the touted benefit of the Fitbit is not just quantifying information from your life, despite my love of charts, but encouraging you to reach certain milestones. There are achievements, like with everything else that was created in the last five years, and I have to admit that since I got the dang thing I find myself stepping in place and taking the stairs more because I know it’s being “counted”. Yes, it counted before in the general scheme of being healthy, but now it’s for real. Stepping in place when I’m waiting in line somewhere suddenly became quantifiably OPTIMAL.

I’m sure the novelty of the Fitbit will wear off eventually after a few months of collecting data, but if you’re a numbers geek who likes gadgets and is interested in learning more about how your body works, I’d recommend checking it out.

Bioshock Infinite: cover is still bad, but the game’s pretty great
Apr01

Bioshock Infinite: cover is still bad, but the game’s pretty great

The Cat Context podcast is turning one year old later this month, and to celebrate we’re goin’ live! On Saturday, April 20th at 2pm PST we will be live on stream from sunny Las Vegas with myself and Ellyndrial and a number of other previous guests (and potentially a phone visit from Arolaide) to talk about the last year of gaming. Save the date, and more details to come! :)

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Way back in December I wrote a post on Bioshock Infinite’s bland cover art, which developers said was purposefully generic to attract the “frat boy” console shooter market. I had two big problems with that decision. First, it betrayed the uniqueness of the Bioshock series and made me worry about what else might have been softened to appeal to a wider audience. Second, for obvious reasons I am not a fan of the gaming industry’s rush to cater to the “generic” audience, which inevitably means straight white college dudes, and I don’t think that will change until studios make it change.

Bioshock Infinite Bioshock Infinite: cover is still bad, but the games pretty great

 

After playing about half of Bioshock Infinite (don’t worry, no story spoilers here), I’m pleased to say that while the cover is bland none of that generic attitude made it to the game itself. I spend most of my playtime with my jaw dropped, either from the story, or the clever historical references, or scenery, or the crazy action sequences.

In some ways it makes the cover issue even more irritating. Bioshock Infinite is a really interesting game with really interesting features and, as with previous games in the series, an examination of certain aspects of American history and culture. It has been getting glowing reviews, and if my Steam list is a reasonable representation of current PC market then a lot of people are playing it. It comes from a known and beloved series of games with a fairly infamous auteur at the helm in Ken Levine. It was poised in a perfect position to show that games can be great and sell well by celebrating their uniqueness, not joining the herd of interchangeable dudes-with-guns games. Dumbing down the box art is extra depressing when the cover belies such great content, and makes plain the complete absence of Elizabeth, who is both critical to the plot and delightfully written.

Don’t mistake my griping about the advertising as an indictment of the game itself, though. If you like Bioshock, if you like games with thought behind them, if you like single-player shooters with crazy settings… ignore the cover, and get this game!

(More on the specifics of Bioshock Infinite in a few days after I finish it.)

In Praise of Kerrigan
Mar20

In Praise of Kerrigan

Note: Here there be Heart of the Swarm story spoilers.

Hello! I have briefly escaped from the office to tell you a very important thing, and that thing is that Kerrigan is super cool.

One of the activities I’ve been doing lately after work is watching Jesse Cox and Husky play through Heart of the Swarm, otherwise known as Starcraft 2B. Although I’ve never played Starcraft before I’ve watched a live game or two in the past, and of course as a WoW player I was certainly aware of its existence.  I didn’t know much about the story, though, other than there being a space badass and an evil chick.

Heart of the Swarm is the Zerg chapter of Starcraft 2 and focuses on Sarah Kerrigan, previously a tough Terran fighter who had been corrupted into leading the creepy buggy zerg. (Think Locutus of Borg.) Kerrigan starts out 2B as mostly Terran, thanks to the actions of afore-mentioned badass Jim Raynor, but.. well let’s just say she goes on a journey of exploration over the course of the 26 new story missions. Up until now Kerrigan has arguably been a cypher in the Starcraft series, a character who primarily exists to be Raynor’s ill-fated love interest. Heart of the Swarm, though, is really her story, and it’s surprisingly good.

First things first: Kerrigan does not take any shit. She fights, she leads squadrons, she makes hard decisions. Sometimes she is a jerk and sometimes she is considerate. She’s not afraid to get dirty (or buggy). She doesn’t need rescuing, but she does need friends. Kerrigan is certainly no damsel.

She also has tight pants. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily. Blizzard dressed Kerrigan in skin tight but combat-appropriate outfits throughout the game, and it never felt too pandering. It helps that Blizzard isn’t afraid to make her hideous in some ways — by the end of Heart of the Swarm she still has a pretty face and curvy bod, but they’re somewhat tempered by her sprouting bizarre bone wings and artificial hair. If we have to accept some modicum of “sex sells” in games (which I’m not sure we do, but whatever), then I guess I’m okay with half-bug women competently leading an invasion of killer worms in tight Tron armor.

sc2 kerrigan 500x281 In Praise of Kerrigan

Oh aye, I’m dead sexy.

In the midst of a bunch of controversy over games with women as lead characters, it strikes me that Blizzard just slipped one right by us. Heart of the Swarm is told from Kerrigan’s point of view and we play her between missions while she talks to her crew. Although Starcraft has a top-down combat system that puts the player at a distance, Kerrigan is frequently the most important piece on the battlefield. She is indisputably the main character of the campaign.

I mean, it’s a Blizzard game so it has amazing cinematics and a ham-fisted but loveable storyline. The characterization isn’t on a “Cart Life” level or anything, but I’m genuinely surprised to see it from the same company that also just added two busty bikini-clad stone lady “consorts” in WoW as a raid encounter.

The best selling games from last week were, in order, Tomb Raider, God of War Ascension, and Heart of the Swarm. Two of those games have women as main characters: Lara Croft and Kerrigan. And while people are buying Heart of the Swarm for the multiplayer as much as for the campaign, it supports what we folks have been saying all along — if you make a good game, the gender of the lead character won’t be a limitation.

After watching Heart of the Swarm and becoming a Kerrigan fangirl I picked up Wings of Liberty (aka Starcraft 2A) and started reading up on newbie multiplayer strategy. Props to Blizzard: they have created a new SC fan.

How a Free-to-Play Game Got My Money

EA resolution update: Still holding firm! On the one hand I am really not sorry I missed the Sim City debacle, but on the other I am sad to be missing out on the new Mass Effect 3 DLC, which has been getting rave reviews from ME fans. NO EA in 2013!

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Last week TERA managed to separate me from some of my hard-earned cash. It’s not the first cash shop to lure me in — I, too, know the shame of owning WoW’s sparklepony — but it’s certainly the first time I’ve ever spent money in a free-to-play multiplayer game. I swore this day would never come, so what happened?

Don’t Nag Me!

You can ask my Mom or any employer I’ve ever had — I do not like being nagged and micromanaged. I was playing LotRO when they switched to the free-to-play model and even with a subscription I never could get past the coin symbols all over the interface. It was immersion-breaking for sure (and that’s coming from someone who usually doesn’t notice that kind of thing) and just felt like nagging. Did you know you could pay real money to take this horse now? Or try this quest? Or visit this zone? Or… GOD STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO, GAME.

Tera, on the other hand, puts its cash shop behind an icon in the main menu and otherwise never mentions it. Heck, the shop wasn’t even in the game for the first week of f2p. I appreciate that relaxed attitude. In fact, the closest TERA gets to nagging is reminding players how long they’ve played every hour, which is a holdover from its South Korean design roots.

Don’t Limit Me!

The most popular free-to-play payment model for online multiplayer seems to require limiting gameplay to prompt people to buy things. SWTOR has limits on how many dungeons you can run as a free player, EQII limits the quality of equipment that free players can wear, and Age of Conan requires people to subscribe to access last year’s expansion. It’s difficult to play many of these games for free without being made to feel like you’re a second class citizen. (“Please sir, can I have some more hotbars?”)

TERA, on the other hand, has a model closer to buy-to-play* titles like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, although you no longer purchase anything up front. The entire game, from 1-60, is available to free players. There are no limits on content, all races and classes are available, all dungeons, and so on. The result is that I’ve been able to get a thorough look a the game over the last month.

Instead of limiting free players, TERA and other positive F2P models add value for paid/subscribing players. Don’t remove access to content if I’m playing for free — give me bonuses. Elite (subscriber) level in TERA gives things like broker house posts with no fees, instant teleports, and a fancy pony, all of which are totally sweet, but my actual core gameplay changes very little.

Take My Money!

So the game doesn’t nag me and I can access all the content without spending a penny. Why did I spend money?

Convenience, certainly. Once it became clear to me that TERA is my new “dabblin’” MMO, I went for the time-saving measures of the Elite subscription. (Seriously, unlimited instant teleports to major cities makes my game-life a lot more awesome.)

Cosmetics are also a big draw, although I know that not everyone likes playing dress-up. I haven’t yet bought any costume gear, but I have my eye on a pair of black hipster glasses for my elf the next time I get the urge to spend money. Buying a month of Elite also gave me a shiny pony and a flaming halo that is totally useless for anything except looking awesome, and I am certainly not immune to looking awesome in games.

The final motivator, though, was just really liking their F2P model. I don’t want games to nag me. I don’t want them to create content gateways for freeloaders. I voted with my dollars, and me and my fancy halo regret nothing.

 

* “Buy-to-play”, or as we used to call it, “buying a game”. *roll eyes*

“Because Money, That’s Why”

Last week I wrote about my disappointment over the initial Wildstar character options and their overuse of broad-chested guys and big-chested ladies (and ladybots). Someone suggested to me via Twitter that the reason we constantly see “hot chicks and cool dudes” as character models is that they’re the most economically successful choices. We, the gaming public, like to be sexy and cool in our video games.

No slight to the fellow on Twitter, but man, as a whole I’m starting to make a face whenever a current game development habit is defended purely for being the profitable option.

First, that response neatly removes all responsibility from the marketplace and places it all on the player. If we’re overwhelmingly offered the option to play generically sexy humanoids, to use an example from the Wildstar post, is it really surprising that people overwhelmingly play generically sexy humanoids? And what about marketing? Player preferences certainly seem less organic and democratic when you consider that close to a billion dollars* is spent each year by the game industry in the hopes of influencing our playtime decisions.

In fact, while games featuring only male protagonists sell 25% better than games with both male and female character options, on average the latter game will get a smaller marketing budget. Apparently having a female protagonist in an action game is “tough to justify”, but is this the will of the people, or a self-fufilling prophecy?

I also have concerns about money being a grand arbiter of game development and publishing because it seems like a slippery slope that historically we are not good at avoiding. Bioshock Infinite is downplaying both the character of Elizabeth and its unique retro steampunk vibe in its advertising to appeal more to the “frat boys” because that’s where the big money is apparently, and while on its surface that might not seem so bad it also seems to set a boundless precident.

When the driving question is “what will appeal to a larger market”, the answer can almost never end. What if the Bioshock Infinite folks took out a bit of story in the middle and put in another shooting level? What if they put Elizabeth in a bikini on the front cover? No wait, what if they got rid of Elizabeth completely and instead gave lead character Booker a posse of wise-cracking white dudes with big guns? Hey, the market gets what it wants, baby!

And exactly how small does a gamer market segment have to be to not earn the attention of developers and publishers, anyway? Perhaps generically pretty character models do statistically attract the most players, but at the same time approximately 32% of Guild Wars 2 characters are the tiny dog-faced Asura or weird giant cat Charr. Shortly after it launched, roughly 21% of WoW players played a decidedly unsexy gnome. Heck, Star Wars Galaxies had one human option and a bunch of weirdass aliens and it still hit 200k subscribers at its peak, which is not an amazing number but certainly not peanuts for 2004.

Developers and publishers can probably wring the most profit out of their game by avoiding innovation. So what? Once you factor in things like the industry’s own marketing efforts, the (lack of) availability of alternative options, and fact that games that offer something different have an existing audience and receive higher critical scores.. well, I don’t think “because money, that’s why” is a reasonable argument.

 

* That’s an estimate based on the fact that game marketers spent 824 million in 2008, the only hard number I could find.

Abridged Version of the Playstation 4 Announcement

I’m not much of a console person, but I watched a good bit of Sony’s Playstation 4 presentation on Wednesday because.. well, it was there. And I get really bored at work sometimes, okay?

Anyway, I probably should have waited because this 3 minute abridged version by “VideoGamerTV” is amazing and way more entertaining than the real thing. Enjoy the video, and have a great weekend!

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