Saturday, October 29, 2011

. . . The Gaming Season

In addition to being the periodical of recreational reading preferred by people whose interests include investing, finances, and business, Forbes Magazine fills a number of niche interests, from defining just what it means to be wealthy and who is, by those standards, wealthy...

It should not be much of a surprise that the subject of video games and gaming -- as well as gamers -- has slowly ninja'd its way into the magazine as, after all, the world of games and gaming easily fits into that special interest publication thanks to it applying among several subject headings -- from investment (a lot of game studios and some of the major game publishers are publicly- held companies) to recreation.

A lot of wealthy people (and people who would like to be wealthy) happen to be gamers -- I am not going to make hay on the notion that following the stock market and the process of investing in and speculating on stocks is often referred to by the participants as "playing the game" -- or the connection between competitiveness among gamers and that typically encountered in the world of investing and brokerages. Acknowledging it here should be sufficient to bring it to our attention.

In the Tech Section on the web-version of Forbes Magazine yesterday there is an article whose title is "Nike Says Video Games Like 2K Sports' NBA 2K12 Helps Sell Basketball Shoes" by games journo and contributing writer John Gaudiosi that, within the body, mentions the past performance in sales for the game and its expected sales, which have been severely impacted by the player strike in the NBA presently underway.

This is interesting largely because it demonstrates the relationship between what most people think of as regular seasons with the unique and completely unconnected Game Season, and specifically how the fiscal side of it relates to real-world events.

In the world of video games when a games journo references the 'season' they are not talking about the four divisions of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter) marked by particular weather patterns and daylight hours, or even the Financial Seasons that are typically defined as Financial Winters -- a period in which money is in low supply, Financial Springs -- a period in which there is money but its flow is reduced, Financial Summers -- a period in which the flow of money is increased, or Financial Falls -- a period during which cash flow and investments in a company tends to be increased.

The Gaming Season is defined as a standard 12-month period -- independent of the calendar year -- within which there are three distinct sub-seasons: The Holiday Season, Prime Season, and Summer Doldrums. Based upon their names you should be able to deduce with some accuracy the thematic score for this trio of sub-seasons, but to fully appreciate them it really is necessary to dedicate some effort in understanding -- and appreciating -- their unique natures.

Breaking Down the Sub-Seasons of Gaming

The first thing you should accept is that the gaming season violate the calendar, which we can loosely define as a typical year which runs from January through December, contains 52 weeks and any number of holidays, and is a logical way to define time, dates, and within it, seasons. The Gaming Season does not begin in January, it begins in September, with all of the events that take place prior to the magic date of September 1st being part of the previous Game Season.

We are presently in the 2011/2012 Game Season -- that is how we identify them by the way, using the two regular years in which they take place in order to indicate the package that we call the Game Season and that contains the aforementioned trio of sub-seasons.

The Gaming Sub-Seasons consist of:
  • The Holiday Gaming Season
  • The Prime Gaming Season
  • The Summer Doldrums
The Holiday Gaming Season
September 01 thru December 24

As the name implies the first sub-season in gaming also comprises the first four months of the New Gaming Year, and is neatly divided into a pair of ranges, with the first half consisting mostly of games being released partly as a celebration of the end of the traditional final sub-season of the previous gaming year, and partly as a result of time -- more on that n a bit.

The second half of the Holiday Season is just what it sounds like: the period of time in which games that are being intentionally positioned for Christmas sales are released, and promoted.

A question of Time is what largely determined the designation of September as the kick-off point for the New Gaming Year. Several events occur in September of each year, starting with the wholly unofficial but still easily identified rebirth of the working year, the resumption of the education season (which incidentally shares a lot of common characteristics with the gaming seasons) and the cessation of the many elective activities that largely occupy the typical person's weekend leisure activities.

As the physical season winds down and Fall approaches, there is a perception that gamers have more time to play games, and that more than anything else is behind the designation of September as the star for the New Gaming Year.

Games that actually completed the development process in the first Quarter of the previous year have sat on the figurative shelves waiting for the new gaming year to begin so that they could make their way into the traditional starting point and, with luck and judgement of their merits, hopefully find there way into gamer hands, be the subject of much buzz, and claw their way through the cadre that makes up the short list for the competition for the title of Game of the Year.

Around mid-October the pre-release PR process begins for the games that have been held back for release with an eye on the Christmas shopping season emerge from their warm and safe cocoons, and the emphasis in presentation is largely geared towards appealing to the people who buy presents each Christmas (parents, grand parents, that sort of consumer) whose interest is largely limited towards comprehension of the potential value of a game as a gift -- and that translate roughly to convincing them that Junior or Sissy will really like this game!

Throughout this first sub-season there are sprinkled a handful of AAA titles that are cross-marketed to obtain the attention of the Xmas crowd (who we just discussed) and the gamers themselves, who naturally use a completely different criteria for judging the advisability of purchasing a game and, subsequently, receive a very different focus and pitch from the PR's.

That presents the basic picture for the first Sub-Season of the New Gaming Year and Season.

The Prime Gaming Season
January 01 thru May 31

This is the core of the gaming year -- and it is during this period that the major titles are released, as well as the games that the studios expect you to spend most of the Summer playing. Naturally the games that are targeted for release during the Prime Sub-Season tend to consist of the more complex and deeper (think large) games, and those that have a bigger-than-average online side to them.

The entire focus of PR efforts during this period is directed at gamers, not parents or grand parents, so there is a much more enthusiastic approach to the process.

These five months tend to be the period in which the major share of profits are obtained for the game studios and publishers, and it is during this period that most of the gamer poling takes place that will translate into DLC expansions in the next Game Year.

The Summer Doldrums
June 01 thru August 31

That unfortunate period in each year in which, typically, annual personal holidays take place and during which the majority of gamers have less time and pay less attention to gaming because there are a lot of other things that they do.

The less that is said about these three months the better.

Most gamers spend the Summer Doldrums catching up on the games that they own that they never finished for whatever reason.

Interrupt Driven
Web definitions:
Used to describe someone who moves through the a workday responding
to a series of interruptions rather than the work goals originally set...

So welcome to the New Gaming Year!

As we progress into the hot-phase of the Holiday Sub-Season, you will be happy to learn that the 2011/2012 Gaming Year is shaping up to be a good one!

Here is what you can enjoy now, and what you have to look forward to for the 2011 Holiday Sub-Season:

  • Warhammer 40,000: Space Marines (6 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Dead Island (9 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • NHL 12 (13 Sept) PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Resident Evil 4 HD (20 Sept) PS3 / Xbox 360
  • F1 (23 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • FIFA 12 (27 Sept) PC / PS2 / PS3 / PSP / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • Resident Evil Code: Veronica X HD (27 Sept) PS3 / Xbox 360
  • NBA 2K12 (04 Oct) PC / PS2 / PS3 / PSP / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • RAGE (04 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Dead Rising 2: Off the Record (11 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • PES 2012 (14 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Spider Man: Edge of Time (14 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • X-Men Destiny (14 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • The Sims 3: Pets (18 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Batman: Arkham City (Oct 20) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Battlefield 3 (Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • NCIS (Oct 31) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Puss in Boots (01 Nov) PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • Call of Duty: MW3 (08 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (11 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Assassins Creed: Revelations (15 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Saints Row: The Third (15 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 (18 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • Need for Speed: The Run (18 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • WWE '12 (22 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (25 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
There are more of course, but the above is the highlight of the AAA titles that are set to rock your New Gaming Year.

Friday, October 21, 2011

. . . Fearful Computing Events

Most of the time computers are something that we use for work and entertainment, find fun, and explore the vast world of online media and social networking... When everything is going right, we rarely even think about the inner workings of our computer, but when things start to go wrong, we have no choice but to think upon it and worry.

The worse thing that can happen is for your PC to die...

Conventional wisdom suggests that as long as you have a recent backup, having your PC die is no big deal. Yeah, right... No big deal? You still have to replace it or have it fixed (or if you are me, fix it yourself), and then there is the dreaded process of first installing the OS and then every... Single... App... and... Game... again. Gah.


Which is why when I replaced my main PC last year I constructed what I considered to be the best high-end system that I could manage, starting with spending a bit extra on an ASUS motherboard with robust RAID support. I then bought a matched set of 2TB hard drives and used them to create a single 1TB mirrored array.

If you are not up on the tech -- RAID means Redundant Array of Inexpensive Devices -- which basically means you take two or more hard drives and install them into a system that has a RAID controller in it, then create a system with built-in data backup because it maintains a copy of the entire contents of the main drive in live mode. If that drive fails, the second drive in the array automatically becomes the boot drive, and you lose nothing.

Knowing that you have that sort of protection means that you can reduce your backups to once a week instead of daily. Considering that the hard drive is the most common failure point in a system, it also means you have insurance mates!

Once the system was built, all the apps were installed, and it took its place as my main work machine for graphics and video production -- two critical resources that are important to my work -- I had nothing to worry about. Until...


On Monday when I booted my system to shoot some game videos for a guide I was working on, I saw something that I had never seen before -- a warning screen during the boot told me that my RAID Array has degraded. The system booted and as soon as I logged into Win 7 I got another warning -- the RAID is Degraded!

What does that mean? It means one of the drives failed. Yeah, that is not good. But thanks to the magic of RAID I still had a fully-functioning system and was able to work. But now I had no insurance -- and I did not have a backup drive ready to go into the system. Jumping instantly into action, I checked the model number for my drives and ordered two replacements, with overnight shipping -- two because one needed to go right into the array, and the second, so that I had a drive on-hand in case I get another failure.

So I had two forms of insurance on the way. As expected, on Tuesday afternoon the drives arrived, but I couldn't actually do the repair until last night because of the video shoots I needed to do. Time is the enemy, and missing a few hours of sleep to fix this problem is worth it.

So how hard is it to replace a failed drive in your RAID mirror?

Easier than you might think -- as all that was required was to remove the bad drive, replace it with a good drive, go into the RAID Controller Boot Menu and tell it to add the new drive to the array and rebuild it, and then boot Win 7, at which point the system automagically detected the rebuild order and commenced to do it!

Well, not instantly... Initially the status message said it would take 25 hours to rebuild the array, but once it actually started doing it, the timer corrected down to 7 hours. Hey, 7 hours is not bad compared to 25!

So as I write this, the array is rebuilding, there is a spare drive in my closet, and all is right with the world. How was your week?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

. . . Steve Jobs

Steven Paul "Steve" Jobs was something of a legend in many circles -- computers, music, movies, animation, and the phone phreak scene. Being a phone phreak myself, that is where I know him the best, and it was his zest for exploration, tech, and turning a buck, that he is most remembered in that scene.

His death at such a young age is regrettable. He clearly had more to offer the world and, had he had the time in which to do it, I am absolutely certain that his vision for consumer tech would have easily opened up entire new lines of technology. He was, in the words of John Perry Barlow, "lightning in a bottle."

Can't really sum it up better than that. I never respected Steve's attraction for mind-altering drugs, which I have long considered to be his major weakness. But I really liked his NeXT hardware design and I am happy to have the memories of those conversations.

Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

. . . Judging Video Games

Considering that part of what I do for a living is judge the relative merits and the "goodness" of video games, you would think that being asked exactly how I tell whether a game is any good or not would be a question that I should be able to instantly snap off a brief answer that is to the point and easy to understand, right? Well... Not so much, really.

This morning among the two-dozen new email messages that I usually get on a Saturday was one that asked me simply how I can tell when a game is any good? I should explain that I have a fairly complex set of filters and scripts on my email program so that the messages are sorted before I ever see them, with games related mail going in one folder, email from friends and relatives (and flagged as such) into another, with a cascading list of other folders sorted by the information in the subject line.

That filter system is why I always instruct the readers of my game guides to include the name of the game in the subject, since otherwise my email program is very likely to put their email into the "general > unsorted" folder, which is also where a lot of the span and unsolicited mail goes and which is the last folder I read each day, if I read it at all...

Back on the subject, the email was from a regular reader of my newspaper column, but they also read my game reviews and my articles on Gaming Update, and they mentioned that they liked my guides on SuperCheats and GameFaqs, so I either have a stalker or they really are simply following my writing...

As I sat and re-read the question I felt the urge to giggle in a very unmanly way. How do I tell if a game is good? How do I tell if a game is good?? To be fair that is an interesting question. It is also a difficult one to answer as I soon discovered.

If email was like writing on real paper, what you would have seen if you had come into my office this afternoon was me sitting at my desk surrounded by crumpled up balls of paper that represent the dozens of attempts that I made at trying to answer the question. Of course it is not like real paper, so there were no balled up torn-off sheets of paper surrounding me, but you get the idea.

How do I tell when a game is Good?

The easy answer to that question -- and a total cop-out -- would be to paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his answer to the question of how to describe his threshold test for obscenity, which he wrote in his summary of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

That explanation has become one of the most famous phrases in the entire history of the Supreme Court, and even distilled down to a bare quote of "I know it when I see it" leaves it easily identified as Justice Stewart's infamous words.

It would be so easy to say I know a good game when I see one and leave it at that, but doing so would not only be disingenuous but it would also be avoiding answering the question at all.

Judging a Games "Goodness"

While it is by no means an official road map to the determining if a game is good, the right place to start is always with evaluating the story, plots, and the sub-plots that make up the story portion of the game. A good, well-constructed main story line is always a plus, even for games whose story is not its strongest point. Characters and their development is next -- obviously we are not very likely to end up immersed in a game when there is nothing for us to care about in it, and liking the character that you play (the protagonist) is a great place to start.

The next obvious point is the challenge level of play. It should be interesting, it should be original, and it must not simply recycle the same basic play over and over because that is the fastest path to boredom that I can imagine.

Every game is not going to have the depth of Final Fantasy XIII or the immersion of Fallout: New Vegas, but that does not mean that it cannot find its own way towards those two goals. It is interesting to note that sometimes when a developer is making a game that they know will not be able to hold up any story or plot using the foundation of its characters, the most obvious alternative is to find a gimmick to rely upon.

Take Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball as an example (AKA DOAX) and you have a game that relies almost completely upon a gimmick (near-nudity) as its primary vehicle. That it is a complete and total departure from the games in the DoA series that proceeded it to the point that it is largely viewed with rampant speculation by gamers the world over as something of a scam, and who not surprisingly, are convinced that its release as part of the DoA series was really a bald attempt at capitalizing upon the previous successes of the series to take what would otherwise be a lackluster beach volleyball game whose only attraction when it is judged purely on its own is the very well-drawn umm... Scenery?Well, you see the point?

It should be noted that the DoA series is a game series solidly embedded in the Fighting genre, and its following was largely teenagers into fighting games. Viewed that way, it makes complete sense for Tecmo to take this sexually-focused beach volleyball and present it to the traditional audience for the Dead or Alive games! The fact that DOAX is the first game in the series to obtain a Mature rating from the ESRB pretty much tells the rest of that story.

For the record what little actual nudity there was in the game occurs very early in the opening scene and is not an interactive part of the game. The ability of the player to zoom in and out, and position the center focus of the screen where they like when combined with the characters of the game who, save for a few exceptions, all pretty much sport uniforms that consist of the skimpiest of bikini’s pretty much illustrates the prurient focus of the game.

So here we have a game that uses a gimmick -- sex and scantily clad young girls -- and whose focus is not what the previous games in the series focused upon. It has a story -- the player selects a character and plays them through the two weeks of the fake tournament that the focal character Zack has organized in order to surround himself with scantily clad women athletes, and whose plot largely comes in two parts -- the awkwardness of the situation that Zack engineered followed by surviving the eruption of the volcano on 'Zack Island' immediately following the end of the fake tournament.

Is this a good game?

Well, reviewers and players overwhelmingly thought that it was! I never had the opportunity to review it because our reviews are reader-driven, and the readers evidently did not see the need for it to be reviewed and so never requested it, but games journo Aaron Boulding writing for the website IGN gave it a rating of 9.2 out of 10 with the note "Amazing" while Gamespot gave it a less enamored 6.0 out of 10 with the comment that it was "Fair."

A quick and dirty review of the reviews that the game received that contributed to its Meta ranking as well as its cumulative ranking on the website reveals that the title was one of those games that tended to get favorable reviews, with most of the reviewers agreeing that it was a pretty good beach volleyball game. Add in the nearly nude girls and the guns, and it is pretty obvious that the International Amateur Athletics Union that oversees the criteria used to judge the standards for games in the Olympics has clearly missed a sure thing. Yeah, that was rather sarcastic humor...

Still this is a good game to use to illustrate the question -- because it was a game that gamers (and critics) either really liked a lot, or despised. When you read the negative reviews that it received very few of them actually addressed the game play, simply because they could not get past the near-nudity and obvious objectification of women to see the game play.

The critics that were able to see past the obvious and offensive nature of the presentation of the characters agree that it is a pretty good beach volleyball game -- though of course this was in 2003. I played it recently and I can say without reservations that the stilted and very simplistic game engine would instantly get this game slammed by players and critics alike, and thanks to modern video games like the last few games in the Grand Theft Auto series, the last Duke Nukem game, and even the last few Tomb Raider games, the near-nudity of DOAX would simply not be enough even as a gimmick to save the game rating today.

. . . I Judge . . .

Since the end of the Summer Doldrums there have been some really good games hitting store shelves and gamer consoles, not the least of which are Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Driver: San Francisco, and Gears of War 3, and some notable DLC expansions like The Lonesome Road (for the established dashingly successful Fallout: New Vegas) and a few interesting expansions in the form of additional cases for the cult classic L.A. Noir.

With respect to the DLC, these were good game expansions laid on top of good games, though just because a base game is classified as a AAA title does not necessarily mean it is a good game or is going to be one.

One interesting system for determining whether a game is good or not is the system that is used by one of my good friends Jeremy Clark -- a veteran games journo who has been writing about and reviewing games for nearly 30 years. His personal system is very simple:

"If I have a hard time saving and quitting the game, then it is a good game. If I cannot bring myself to stop playing no matter how exhausted I am, it is a great game!""

Sadly that system and most of the one I use largely brings us full circle to the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.

And there you have it. Now if you will excuse me I am going to get back to finishing up The Lonesome Road so I can write the review for this very good DLC Expansion to a Very Good Game!