Editorials/Columns


The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently being debated in Congress is quite clearly a massive overreach. It gives the government the potential authority to effectively shut down major, largely legitimate web sites for hosting a minuscule amount of pirated content. It could threaten the very existence of sites that host a wide range of used-submitted content, and could easily be used by the government to stifle Americans’ free speech rights. The bill’s potential effects on the very structure of the Internet make it much too broad a cudgel for a problem like online piracy.

Yet online piracy is still a problem. And despite the myriad flaws with the legislation, I have to say I can kind of see where the Entertainment Software Association industry trade group is coming from when they say they support the law.

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While politicians routinely cite video games as a contributing cause for everything from childhood obesity and lower test scores to youth violence, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently labeled a video game museum as something else — a waste of taxpayer funds.
At No. 9 on Sen. Coburn’s “Wastebook 2011″ list of 100 federal programs he sees as frivolous is over $113,000 in funding for the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG), an outgrowth of the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.

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Since Microsoft first announced vague plans to add live TV optionsto its Xbox Live service at E3 this year, industry watchers have been heralding the move as a potential death-blow for standalone cable boxes, and even for separate pay TV service itself.

Those cries have only increased with Microsoft’s announcement today of dozens of major partnerships with various media companies to bring video content to Microsoft’s online service.

Microsoft itself is selling it as “the best way for you to interact with TV, video, movies, sports and music” and “a WHOLE LOT more enjoyable and engaging” than current TV options.

As announced today, though, Microsoft’s Xbox Live TV plans seem like a squandered opportunity to extend the company’s strong position in online gaming into a foothold in the burgeoning IPTV market.

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I’m beginning to think Nintendo has swung like a pendulum from extreme over-confidence in the 3DS prior to its launch to extreme under-confidence in the system’s quality now that it’s actually available.

Think back to last summer, when the 3DS was the surprise hit of the 2010 E3 show. Press and analysts couldn’t stop marveling at the quality and simple wow-factor of the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D technology.

The impressive gimmick, combined with Nintendo’s unblemished track record in dominating the portable gaming market for decades, led many inside and outside Nintendo to think the 3DS would be as big or bigger than the insanely successful DS.

Fast forward to March, when initial sales for the 3DS came in much lower than expected worldwide. Nintendo’s first reaction, afteracknowledging the problem, was cutting the price by nearly a third much sooner than anyone expected, and offering a parcel of free, downloadable games by way of apology to early adopters.

The move may have been prudent, but coming from a company that was very recently arguing that consumers should be willing to spend extra money for “high-value” games, it’s a move that didn’t reflect confidence in the hardware.

Then came today’s revelation, via a Famitsu article, that Nintendo is planning to release an optional “expansion slide pad” attachment that adds a second slide pad along the right side of the system. It’s as if Nintendo is telling consumers, “Not only was the hardware we released a few months ago too expensive, but it’s also not well-suited to control today’s games as is. BUY IT TODAY!”

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The way competitive video games are supposed to work is simple: the person who is better at achieving the game’s stated objective is the winner. This means the person with the better strategy, or the better reflexes, or the better visual acuity will be the victor, absent any confounding factors of luck.

But with many games, there’s a largely unseen factor in determining the winner, one that’s not directly related to the game’s stated rules and objective. This game behind the game — the metagame — is where a lot of the emergent fun can be found in today’s competitive titles, and designers would do well to keep it in mind when creating competitive systems.

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Everything that makes Super Mario Bros. 3 truly special is exemplified, for me, by a single image: A chain chomp breaking free of his bonds and bouncing off the screen.

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that chain chomps – the toothy, black, ball-on-a-chain cum guard dogs that first appear in level 2-5 – could actually break free from their eponymous chains. A chomp has to lunge a full 47 times for its silver chain to start flashing a distressing red, and three more lunges for the chomp to finally break free and bounce towards Mario. The entire process takes about 175 ticks of the in-game timer, depending on how much Mario goads the chomp. That’s easily seven times as long as even the slowest of players usually takes to jump past those snapping teeth and on to the next challenge, without a second thought for the poor, imprisoned enemy they’re leaving behind.

On first glance, this hidden extra seems like a relatively meaningless addition to the game, the kind of pointless Easter egg a bored programmer might have thrown together during a coffee break without anybody else noticing. But taken in the context of the game as a whole, that chain chomp’s potential for freedom is emblematic of the way Super Mario Bros. 3 subverts players’ expectations to make a game that feels truly magical.

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Today, when my colleagues see console fanboys arguing fruitlessly in comment threads, they see a group of illogically territorial misanthropes more concerned with winning an argument than enjoying games. But that’s not what I see. When I see a fanboy, I see someone eager to relive the joy of their first exposure to videogames by sticking with the company that brought it to them. I see someone who’s invested an important part of their identity into what a videogame company has come to represent to them. I see someone trying with all their might to convince themselves that they’re not missing out on anything over the rich kids whose parents can buy them all three major consoles and dozens of games every year.

When I see a fanboy, I see the person I was – someone trying to recapture a simpler time, when videogames meant only one thing and also meant everything.

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In the vast majority of games, the story and the gameplay and inextricably intertwined.

Whether the game presents a sprawling, branching narrative based on player choice or simply implies some sort of background motivation for the action (“Once upon a time, a team of Giants from New York really wanted to go to the Super Bowl…) it’s usually impossible to completely remove the idea of the story from the idea of playing the game.

Level-5′s Professor Layton series of Nintendo DS puzzle games provides a rare exception to this rule. In these games, the storyline and gameplay progress almost entirely in parallel, with the happenings in one having little to no relationship to the happenings in the other.

Each game in the series could quite easily be split into two wholly independent parts –- one an animated movie of the story, the other a collection of dozens of unconnected puzzles -– without being much worse off. In fact, in many ways, the separated products would be more focused and satisfying.

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Don’t get me wrong, I understand why Apple doesn’t just go the Android route and allow any app written by some yahoo with a developer account onto its iOS devices. Apple has an interest in guaranteeing that the apps it allows its users to download won’t be destructive, unusable, or misrepresentative of Apple or any other companies or entities.

The majority of Apple’s newly-revealed App Store Review Guidelines, which deal with these kinds of issues, are perfectly understandable.

But like so many other content reviewers before them, Apple has taken this little bit of reasonable restrictive power and extended it to unreasonable levels.

The company’s App Store Review Guidelines have the air of soundness and comprehensiveness about them, but the seven-page document is full of hypocritical, inconsistent and vague restrictions that limit App developers’ rights to free expression.

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Here at Game Theory, we’ve already discussed the topic of used games and their effect on the industry several times. But with a recent Penny Arcade cartoon and news post bringing the issue to the forefront of discussion yet again, we felt it was worth exploring some of the misconceptions about the market effects of used game sales.

Wednesday’s Penny Arcade comic refers to the used game market as “a kind of parallel economy.” This implies that the used game market and the new game market operate completely independently of each other, never crossing paths. In reality, the two markets are closely tied. In fact, the mere presence of the used game market can help prop up game prices in the new game market.

(full article)


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