November 2009

During the first, beta season of Xbox Live’s 1 vs. 100, I probably played about two dozen rounds of the game’s half-hour, 37-question Extended Play mode, which pits thousands of live participants against one another in a straight up battle for trivia supremacy. In that time, despite having some pretty strong trivia knowledge (if I do say so myself), I didn’t once make it onto the prominently displayed list of top-10 scorers available throughout each round. It didn’t matter if I started the round with a string of quick, correct answers — there always seemed to be at least 10 other perfect players whose faster answers gave them at least a few dozen more points than me. I would often skirt the edges of the top-10 list for 10 or 15 questions before inevitably missing an answer and watching my chances of seeing my name in lights fall away for the rest of the round.

I thought more than once that the people putting up these top scores must be cheating somehow. Their answers were too perfect, their timing bonuses too high, their consistency too … consistent (the same Gamertags seemed to clog up the list throughout multiple Extended Play rounds). I figured these top scorers must be exploiting a glitch in the game, or using a group of trivia experts and super-fast Google searches to feed them correct answers, or something. There’s no way they could do that well without cheating, I thought.

I no longer think that way, because last night, between 11 and 11:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, I managed to defeat all but two of my over 34,000 trivia competitors to secure a third-place finish in the “Video Game Trivia” round of 1 vs. 100.

*Holds for applause*

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In general, gamers aren’t very effective at organizing to effect change in the game industry. Sure, there are hundreds of online petitions demanding everything from a “Full House” game to a generalized end to game hacking, but the vast majority fail to garner much attention or support. Even well-organized and well-publicized efforts, like those seeking LAN support in StarCraft 2 or further support for the Earthbound games are met with official responses ranging from polite refusal to teasing hints, and rarely with real change.

But this year, many gamers took a different tack to protest what they saw as a betrayal of a publisher’s past promises. Mere hours after Valve announced the planned November release of Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) at June’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, a group calling for an L4D2 boycott popped up on Valve’s own Steam user community. The group’s first public message asked a simple question that would come to define its cause: “Where’s all the content and the updates you promised for [the original] L4D, Valve?”

By casting their disagreement in the form of a boycott, the tens of thousands of gamers that joined the L4D2 boycott group immediately set themselves apart from the Internet petitioners that came before them. A petition is just a polite request for someone to change their mind, if they would, please. A boycott, by definition, is a statement of collective action — a way for a group to flex its economic power to force change. It’s a way for a community to effectively put its money where its mouth is and demand that its case be heard. It’s a cause that brings up images of patriotic movements, civil rights struggles, international incidents and other momentous events that seem much more important than a silly argument over the timing of the release of a videogame sequel.

But, in the end, was this boycott any more effective than any of the other failed grassroots petition efforts undertaken by gamers over the years? Now that Left 4 Dead 2 is actually available for sale, can those that took part in the boycott argue they achieved their goals? Did Valve change its plans to gain the approval of the masses, or did it effectively pacify the Internet throngs with nothing more than a couple of plane tickets and a hotel reservation?

In other words, was the boycott successful?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “successful.”

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Videogame news need not speak. When it is gone, the world will speak for it.

In this issue:

  • Electronic Arts fires final employee as “cost-cutting measure”
  • Local game store surprised, saddened over failure of Pop’n Music midnight launch event
  • Nintendo announces “ultra-portable” DSi XS

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In the nearly 25 years since the first Super Mario Bros., the series has remained the Platonic ideal of the single-player platforming game. Sure, you could always hand the controller off to a second player in-between levels or lives, and Super Mario Galaxy added the ability for a second player to use the Wii Remote pointer to assist as a helper, but the Mario games were always primarily a solitary experience. Even as the industry shifted more and more toward a multiplayer focus — first with the popularity of one-on-one fighting games and more recently with the perfunctory cooperative and deathmatch modes that seem to be infecting and overtaking the cinematic single-player scenarios they’re built around — the Mario games were still tales of a man against his environment, of the struggle to get from point A to the princess at point B while avoiding the varied and imaginative pitfalls in between.

But even a series as old as Mario isn’t immune to the winds of change, and so we get New Super Mario Bros. Wii — a game that finally adds a man-vs.-man element to the man-vs.-environment simplicity, with support for “UP TO 4 PLAYERS!” as the box screams. The results are far from awful, but more than anything, New Super Mario Bros. Wii proves that when you mess with a Platonic ideal, the results may be less than ideal.

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What parts of this war were hell the second time around? We look through the effusive reviews and find the negative points that were easy to miss.

Modern Warfare 2 is a “rather simplistic shooter”1. From “the spectacle and silliness of its single-player campaign”2 to “the issues over the single player campaign length,”3 “don’t expect the game of the year.”1 “This game just doesn’t boast the set-pieces … that made the first game stand out so memorably.”9

“Where Modern Warfare 2’s campaign drops the ball … is in its actual storytelling.”6 “The storyline certainly isn’t going to win any Oscars.”9 It “rambles along with holes you could drive a truck through,”5 and “the story beats are absurd (at one point you find yourself firing upon insurgents holed up in the Department of Justice).”2 “There’s little of that gruff camaraderie that made the first time around really special.”5 Instead, this time around, there’s “a cast of characters more expendable than a minivan-full of American teens visiting that log cabin with the eerie music coming from it, where that serial killer is rumoured to have died.”9

“What plot there is is all pretty poorly and confusingly delivered.”9 “The game often expects you to already know the characters, extrapolate on one line of dialogue or a quick cut-scene, and then figure out the story from there.”6 “We’ve played it through and we’d struggle to relate to man or beast more than 50 per cent of what’s supposed to have happened “9 “At the end, it just gives up altogether and turns into a Bond movie,”5 “and, even more worrying, still haven’t a Scooby why the main plot twist in the game happens or the motivation behind it.”9 “In the end … there’s no real weight to anything you’re doing. … you never get a true feel for scale, or any actual emotional attachment to the events. … It just doesn’t stack up against some of the previous Call of Duty story modes, where single player was the obvious focus throughout the entire package.”6

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Can a review-aggregation site actually shift the focus away from numerical scores and toward the critics themselves? CriticDNA aims to find out.

Review aggregators like Metacritic and GameRankings have a bit of a mixed reputation in and around the game industry. Millions of gamers love aggregators for distilling dozens of reviews into a single number that can aid in their purchasing decisions (and their message-board arguments). Publishers love aggregators for providing a concrete metric by which to rate the quality of their developers and PR units. Those same developers and PR units, of course, often hate aggregators for passing judgment on months of hard work with no real context. And the critics often hate aggregators for reducing hundreds of words full of personality into just another statistic to be lost in the crowd.

A new Web site is looking to solve that last problem, at least, by helping people get to know the critics behind the numbers a little better.

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It’s sometimes comforting to think that the way things are is just the way they were meant to be — that events were simply fated to turn out the way they did. But any honest look at history shows that changing just a few small decisions at key moments would have had a profound impact on the state of the world today. This is no less true in the 40-odd-year history of the videogame industry, which has already had its share of truly momentous moments. In this feature, I examine what might have happened if those moments had turned out just a little bit differently.

For each hypothetical here, I tried to imagine a semi-plausible situation that could have caused these seminal events to turn out differently. While not all of these situations are entirely believable given the state of the industry, I tried to give each “What If?” at least a minimal grounding in reality. These stories are meant to be entertaining thought experiments, not definitive historical takes.

With that, let’s take a trip into an alternate universe where nothing is quite as we know it.

  • What if there was a single, standardized videogame system?
  • What if Sony developed the SNES-CD for Nintendo, as originally planned, rather than the PlayStation?

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Looking back from the end of the decade, the rhythm-game market of 2002 is practically unrecognizable. This was a time before Rock Band, before Guitar Hero, before even Karaoke Revolution pushed the genre toward the actual performance of recent, popular music. In 2002, rhythm games were dominated by follow-along gameplay and quirky Japanese musical influences. The J-pop-heavy Dance Dance Revolution series was at the top of its popularity, and occasional press-the-button-in-time-with-the-music Japanese imports like Parappa the Rapper, Space Channel 5 and Gitaroo Man dotted the landscape. In each case, following along to the beat of unfamiliar Japanese-inspired music served to limit the genre’s appeal to a small niche.

Eidos’ Mad Maestro!, a budget $20 release under the company’s short-lived “Fresh Games” label, wasn’t destined to explode this niche. How could it, with a focus on classical music, one of the only musical genres even less accessible to an American audience than J-pop? But for those paying attention, it was a unique and exciting take on a young genre that has had some subtle but profound influences on its future direction.

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There were Spider-Man games before Neversoft’s 2000 release Spider-Man. Most of them resembled the cookie-cutter brawlers of the day, with Spider-Man simply standing in for the street-tough protagonists, walking awkwardly down urban environments and punching and kicking anything that moved.

There have been plenty of Spider-Man games since Neversoft’s 2000 release. Most of them resemble Neversoft’s 2000 release.

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