Archive | August 2012

The Beauty of the Barcade

Our culture is obsessed with things returning from the dead. Why not the video arcade? About a month ago, Ars Technica published an article that almost sounded too good to be true–and, reading it, I was somewhat skeptical. I have fond memories of time spent in arcades as a youth, but I was never privy to the true heyday of the video arcade in the ’80s. I wasn’t willing to believe that arcades could make a comeback, for one reason and one reason only: I wanted it to be true, and so of course it was never going to happen.

Then one opened a mile from my house.

Last night, I took a couple of my friends and went to check out the Joystick Gamebar, and after a night of cocktails, quarters, and aching wrists, I’ve changed my tune.

To borrow a line from my personal friend Fox Mulder: I want to believe.

Joystick proved to me, in a few short hours, that establishments like this really have a shot at success, and there are a handful of factors that make me believe that we’re going to see more and more barcades pop up in the next couple of years.

First, booze goes a long way toward making an establishment profitable. Let’s face it: a place like Joystick isn’t going to be making its money from quarters, especially when they do the honorable thing and keep the price of a game cheap. (X-Men arcade? 25 cents. Galaga? 25 cents. Street Fighter II? 25 cents. In fact, the only game that cost more than a quarter was Rampage: World Tour, which clocked in at a hefty 50 cents.)

Beer and cocktails, however, can bring in the money at a respectable rate. Joystick has several original cocktails (including one with homemade chai soda!) and a very palatable beer selection (Brooklyn Lager on tap!). By ensuring that an individual could come for the drinks and the friendly atmosphere and have a good time without inserting a single coin, a barcade can ensure that its livelihood isn’t dependent on the games it has to offer, even if those are a big part of attracting its clientele.

Pictured: Profit.

Some of the arcade owners in the Ars Technica article seem to attribute the recent revival of the arcade to the fact that nostalgic gamers are now old enough to be drinking, and that the bar/arcade model is viable now in a way that it didn’t used to be–but I don’t think that nostalgia entirely explains this transition. After all, haven’t huge numbers of gamers been old enough to drink for a decade (or two)? Sure, I’ve got fond memories of my uncle’s Space Invaders cocktail cabinet, but that thing was an artifact even when I was a kid. I’ve got a different theory.

I think that the rise of mobile gaming has created a sea change in the way our culture as a whole (and not just gaming culture, but pop culture in its entirety) views the gaming experience. Over the last three or four years, buying a game for a buck and playing it for twenty minutes or so before letting it sit, forgotten, at the back of your iPhone has become the norm–and this isn’t just something gamers do. It’s something everybody does.

That’s right. I think that you can thank Angry Birds for the resurgence of the arcade.

Arcades died off in droves in the mid-to-late ’90s, when the calculus of price-to-enjoyment-ratio shifted as a result of the increasing complexity of consoles. As prices rose to catch up, gamers started asking themselves: “Do I really want to drop a buck on six minutes of Tekken 2 when I could have an infinite number of minutes for fifty bucks?” If you were going to fool around with Yoshimitsu more than a couple of matches, you started to think that maybe it might be more worth your time to invest in a PSX copy. Eventually, the only way that arcades could entice people to spend was by giving them things they couldn’t possible get in their living room, like motion sensing technology, big dancing mats, or plastic guitar controllers.

Oh. Wait. Hm.

With the rise of smartphones, however, something changed. Games became cheap–woefully cheap–and the touch screen interface immediately suggested to developers a simplistic mode of play. Whether you think Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Tilt to Live are simplistic and boring or pure and beautiful, there’s no denying that their gameplay aesthetics harken back much more to the arcade games of old than they do the AAA console titles into which we invest our big bucks.

And it’s not just gamers playing mobile games, as I said–it’s everyone. I teach middle school students that have never picked up an Xbox or Playstation controller in their lives, but they come into class decked out in Angry Birds gear like that flippin’ red avian was Mickey Mouse.

Our whole culture has come to value simple, pure gaming experiences for a very low entry fee. And I know that mathematically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a huge difference between the following comparisons in a person’s mind:

$1.00/play vs. $50.00/infinite plays

and

$0.25/play vs. $0.99/infinite plays

You can buy Galaga on your iPhone for $2.99, or, for the same price, you can have twelve plays in the arcade. Which gives you more value? The answer to the question isn’t really the point–the point is that your answer to the question doesn’t automatically paint you as either “gamer” or “uninterested.” When games are simple and cheap, anyone can invest a little time in them, “gamer” or not–especially if they’ve had a couple specialty cocktails.

Hopefully, between the booze and the changes in gaming aesthetic that have occurred over the last couple years, these barcades/gamebars/arcade-taverns that are starting to emerge in cities across the nation are a permanent fixture in the urban landscape–but I, for one, am not willing to leave this to chance. I submit, dear gamers, that we need to get out to our local game bar and give them our quarters!

If anyone wants to meet me at Joystick, I’ll be the guy at the Galaga machine in the corner.

 

 

The Multiplayer Scheduling Problem

Here’s a little story.

Last Saturday, I got an email in my inbox from my good friend Player 1. It was a short note, and to the point: P1 wanted myself (hereafter referred to as “Player 2”) and our mutual buddies Players 3 and 4 to set aside time in our schedule to finally finish the campaign of a co-op game we’d all been wanting to knock off our lists for some time. The game was Double Fine’s Iron Brigade (nee Trenched), an absolutely delightful tower-defense/third-person shooter with a whole lot of character.

The four of us had purchased this game on the day of its release with the express purpose of completing the campaign together. All four of us. No man left behind.

Trenched was released June 22, 2011.

When I got this email from Player 1, we were a little over halfway through the campaign.

Surely we are not the only group of friends who’ve been in this situation. With the rise of online multiplayer and the advent of several AAA titles with entirely cooperative campaigns, we can’t be the only gamers to sit down and say “this one–this one we’re going to play together as a team.”

And yet we run up against the inevitable fact– we’re adults now, living adult lives with adult schedules, and it is monstrously difficult to coordinate four people to be free on the same evening when those four people live in four separate major metropolitan areas across the country.

In his email, Player 1 admitted that he was booked both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (photography class and a social event), but was free for most other nights. Player 4 had theater rehearsals every weekday evening, but knew that he would be free for the weekend. Player 3 and his wife were helping a family member move house on Friday and Saturday, which was just as well for me, because I had two separate parties to go to on Saturday night (and nothing to wear!).

By some miracle, we all happened to be free on Sunday evening, so we quickly set a date. I made sure on Sunday morning to text my friends and try to coordinate times, and in the evening, after dinner, I sat down in front of the Xbox and booted up the game. I was ready to commit two to four solid hours of play so we could finish off Iron Brigade and try to put our efforts toward something else when I got a text from Player 4.

“I brought my Xbox to my girlfriend’s, but she doesn’t have an ethernet cable. I think we’re boned, guys.”

Classic Player 4.

And that was it! Iron Brigade got put by the wayside, and the other two gents and I played a couple rounds of Mass Effect 3 and called it a night.

As I drifted off to bed, I began to brainstorm solutions to this problem. Here are some general points of advice that I can offer to the community:

1. Set aside a regular evening in your schedule.

The problem of scheduling isn’t just for video games– folks who roll dice have been dealing with this problem for decades before Xbox Live was a glimmer in Joe Microsoft’s eye. I’m nowhere near as experienced with pen and paper as I am with a controller, but the few campaigns I’ve been a part of have always benefited from having a regular “game night” set aside in everyone’s schedule, like the “poker nights” of old–and the key here is regular. If every Friday is game night, or every other Friday, then it’s much less tempting to throw that out on a whim because Jimmy Co-Worker wants to hit up a bar after work on Friday.

I guess you could compromise…?

I’m no stranger to the fact that it can be a little difficult to pass up an offer like that in favor of going home and putting on the headset–but it’s a lot easier to say “sorry, I have a thing I do on Fridays” than it is to say “sorry, I promised my friends we’d have some quality time over the internet tonight.”

2. Have an alt ready.

Having a group of three other guys with whom you game regularly sounds like an ideal scenario: if they’re all available, then you’ve got a full team: Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole; Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael; Spengler, Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddemore. Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered, getting all four together is sometimes a difficult endeavor–but that’s not the only problem this poses.

For me, one of the most difficult things about scheduling game time with my bros is that any time we sit down to shoot some bad guys, my wife is usually sitting next to me on the couch with a P5 symbol floating above her head, blinking. She would be all too happy to press start and join in.

For some games, that’s not an option (Trenched is one of them), but there are a handful of excellent games that offer split-screen and online functionality simultaneously: Dungeon Defenders, Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and, thank goodness, Borderlands 2. (You should check out Co-Optimus if you’re looking for an exhaustive list–search by system and tick the box for “Local with Online”.)

Though we’ve sometimes played Horde Mode with five people, my wife has been adamant that she’s not going to substitute herself for one of the guys in the campaign of Gears 3 (an act she explained would be a “bro-trayal” on my part), but this almost certainly means that we’re never going to get through the campaign. Ever. Remember when I said that we were halfway through the campaign of Iron Brigade? That campaign’s about 10 hours long. Tops. What’s the run time on Gears 3? 20 hours? 25? (I wouldn’t know! I haven’t finished it!) We’ve played about ninety minutes.

Look at him! He’s ashamed of me.

If you happen to be lucky enough to have a player pool that’s greater than the player cap on whatever game you’re playing, you should agree as a group that you can proceed if you’ve got a quorum of players. If you’ve got four people ready to use those lancers, then you should go ahead and slaughter some locust.

3. Dedicate yourself to smaller fellowships.

My best experiences with co-op in the age of online gaming have something in common: I’ve played with one dedicated partner and, when circumstances have allowed for it, invited others to join us. (No innuendo is intended with that statement.)

I played Borderlands with Player 1, and, occasionally, Player 4 would join us. Most of my time playing the multi of Mass Effect 3 has been spent with Player 4, as has a lot of Left 4 Dead. Resident Evil 5 was entirely with my wife, and I never hopped online to defend any dungeons unless she was available. (Did you know that Final Fantasy IX allows for two controllers? That’s an excellent game to play with your significant other.) I played through the campaigns of the Halo trilogy and the first two Gears of War titles with Player 1, though Players 3 and 4 popped in for Horde Mode or online multiplayer on occasion.

My point is that if you’d like to save the campaign of a game to be a shared experience with someone (and I wholeheartedly endorse that objective), it’s a lot easier to coordinate two schedules than four, and the experience will probably not be diminished by a dramatic amount. Maybe you should take your Band of Bros and pair it up, so that people with compatible schedules can share the adventure and no one will be really left out.

So, in any case, those are my recommendations. I’d love to hear what sort of scheduling conflicts you all have run into and what solutions you’ve come up with. Are there obvious solutions that are just passing me by? Let’s hear it!

I’ll let you know if we ever finish Trenched.

The One Final Fantasy You Should Play

So! It’s been nearly two weeks since I posted a new blog entry, and this is due to two (2) separate factors: Firstly, I packed up my whole apartment and moved across town, and secondly, I spent a week in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, communing with nature and restoring my soul.

Ha ha! Just kidding! I played a whole lot of Dissidia: Final Fantasy.

Not pictured: nature, relaxation.

Alright, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I went on some hikes. I saw some sights. But I did manage to fit in some gaming time when I wasn’t hanging out with my family, and I may or may not have stayed up into the night on a couple of occasions because, well, Cloud Strife wasn’t about to win all those battles by himself.

Dissidia isn’t a game for everybody. It’s a game for people who like Final Fantasy. As someone who’s beaten each of them save for V, XI, and XIII, I am particularly susceptible to fan service of this nature. I like the subtle differences in the way that the different characters play. I like that the game asks you to play as each of them in turn and learn their different styles. I like that I can call down a satellite laser as Laguna.

The battles feel like a mix of Power Stone and Bushido Blade, and it’s satisfying both to win a match in less than 8 seconds and to win a long, hard-fought battle of attrition against a foe of much greater level. The RPG elements which are laid atop the combat system are mostly well-executed and add to the fun. It occupies a space somewhere between the blissful simplicity of Super Smash Bros. and the layered complexity of Street Fighter.

This isn’t really a review of Dissidia (or its pseudo-sequel, Duodecim, which is actually what I was playing)– it’s easy to recommend or not recommend the game (“do you like Final Fantasy?”), but more of an introduction to a matter that playing the game for hours on end led me to consider: If you haven’t played a Final Fantasy, if, somehow, you’ve managed to avoid it for the twenty-five years of its existence, if this is true about you and you wanted an introduction… which game ought you to pick up first?

You’ve, uh… You’ve got some choices.

I’ve thought about this for a fair bit now. The initial inclination might be to suggest one of the two extremes of the series: Final Fantasy XIII, which is by far the prettiest (and easiest to acquire, as it’s the only one on current-gen consoles), or the original Final Fantasy, whence the series began (and has received a fairly nice makeover in its port to iOS).

Of course, FFXIII is (rightly) maligned for its linearity and sluggishness, and FFI is a little dry and bare-bones in this day and age. Certainly it contains the essence of all that comes after it, but I’m not convinced that you can experience all the series has to offer just by playing through the original (this from a guy who has the Four Warriors of Light hanging in his bedroom).

Some of the games have strayed further from the series’ core experience than others– FFII has a really wonky battle/experience system, FFVIII had that business with the junctioning, and FFXII… well, FFXII has issues of its own.

Some might argue that Final Fantasy X, released on a last-gen system, would be the perfect mix of old and new for someone to introduce themselves to the series. There’s merit to that argument, especially when one considers the emotional wallop that the game can pack in the latter stages if one is invested in the characters (I think my wife may have cried for fully an hour after finishing the game). FFX, however, could potentially be annoying for someone not familiar with the series: the voice acting can be grating, and the protagonist isn’t immediately likable in his own right.

Here’s where I’m going to make a bold claim: I think that if you were to only play a single Final Fantasy, you shouldn’t pick it solely on the strength of its narrative. The best stories in the series aren’t necessarily representative of the core Final Fantasy experience, despite narrative being one of the driving forces of these games. When I talk about the best stories, I’m referring specifically here to FFVI and FFVII, which most fans of the franchise concede have the most mature, complex, and operatic plotlines.

Pretty good villains, too.

Do I think every gamer ought to experience the mid-game climax atop the Floating Continent in Final Fantasy VI? Absolutely. Do I think that leaving Midgar for the first time and seeing the breadth of FFVII’s world is a breath-taking experience? You bet.

But do I think that it’s hard to get characters to emote with 16-bit sprites? Yes, probably. Do I think that FFVII’s translation is weak compared to some of the other entries in the series? Yeah, I do. These games are classics, but they’re not without their flaws. Minor flaws, I think– but, importantly, flaws which might be barriers to entry for a gamer who has no experience with the series.

If you were only ever to play one Final Fantasy, you know which one I think it should be?

This one.

Yep. Final Fantasy IX.

I’m not about to make the claim that FFIX is the best in the series. As engaging as its story is, it doesn’t nearly approach the pathos of FFVI or even the bittersweet beauty of FFX. Its cast is a lot of fun (Steiner? Freya? Vivi? Delightful!), but it certainly doesn’t have the best characters in the series (take your pick–there are a million good ones).

Despite not being the best in the series at anything, FFIX is brilliant, and it’s brilliant because each of its elements is very strong. It’s got a solid narrative, engaging characters, a simple but compelling battle system and leveling mechanics, and graphics which, while admittedly 32-bit, are almost certainly the most attractive on the system. What’s more, Final Fantasy IX shares the spirit of the first five games in the series while also dipping its toes into the complex character evolutions of the later entries.

FFIX also has a lot of little quirks that make it appealing: having the ability-learning system tied to equipment makes it very compelling to steal new items from bosses, the Active Time Event system gives you windows into the stories of side characters and makes the game feel more like it has an ensemble cast (without the 14-person party of FFVI), and anyone who is familiar with the rest of the series will find tiny nods to other games hidden in every nook and cranny.

If you happen to be a gamer who doesn’t know Final Fantasy, I would encourage you to give Final Fantasy IX (and indeed, the whole Final Fantasy series) a try. They are all charming, compelling games that will put a smile on your face and keep you busy for many hours.

(Final Fantasy IX just happens to be a PSOne Classic, so it’s easily accessible if you have any Sony hardware. Now you’ve got no excuse not to educate yourself!)