For charity

October 19th, 2014

Pardon the abbreviated post this week, but I’m in the midst of gearing up to hold a charity gaming marathon on October 25-26 as a part of the Extra Life initiative. We had a blast last year and raised a few bucks for my local Children’s Miracle Network hospital: Riley Hospital for children.

We’ll be streaming the whole shebang over at Rejected Screens if you want to take a look.

Oh, and I also am wrapped up in a Secret Project ™ that should be launching in the relatively near future, so there’s that.

Know Your Onions

October 12th, 2014

One of my English teachers in high school liked to say that at that level, we’re not actually learning history, we’re actually just learning History’s Greatest Hits. At the time I just laughed it off as a silly joke (he made lots of those), but, over time, I realized he was right. You go through school and get an overview of history (and just about every subject) by hitting the high points so you’re not completely ignorant of how the world and the US got where they are today. But the thing is, there’s so much history (and more of it all the time!) that it’s impossible to know it all. If you’re interested, though, you will go beyond the bare minimum required to pass your high school (and even college) classes. Most of us, though, probably don’t care about that kind of history enough to do more than watch the occasional documentary on PBS, or whatever Drunk History counts as. So, we know some history, but historians, people who love history, know lots more. That sounds obvious, but they do more than watch documentaries in order to feel smart. They do research: they read books (the horror!), they talk to other historians, they visit historic places, and so on. They know that there is more to history than everyone was required to learn in school, and they know that knowledge is out there, they just have to go get it. A lot of times they’ll specialize in one particular area and learn everything they can about it.

You probably think that being a hardcore historian is probably not for you, though. You may not care if Shakespeare actually wrote all his plays or not. You may think that Socrates is just some dead Greek dude who was the subject of a few jokes in the first Bill & Ted movie. Besides, you like video games (well, if you’re reading this site, there’s a pretty good chance that you like video games). Video games are way better than boring old history any day of the week.

But what about video game history?

Felipe Pepe wrote an intresting article on Gamasutra the other day lamenting that a lot of so-called ‘hardcore gamers’ don’t know much about the history of video games past five or ten years or so ago.

That is a disappointing realization.

Video games are becoming (or maybe have already become) a mainstream form of entertainment for everyone, but they’ve been around in one form another since at least the late 1940s. No, that’s not a typo.

Warning: From this point on, I’m going to probably sound like either a hipster or an old man yelling at a butt. You have been warned.

When I say “retro gaming” or “old video games” what do you think of? I’m going to guess that it’s Super Mario Bros or The Legend of Zelda. Maybe just the NES, Super NES, and maybe even the Genesis. Possibly Pong. You may even know that Pong was a big deal in the 80’s. It was, but it was an even bigger deal when it came out in 1972.

You may have heard about the Commodore 64, but do you know anything about it? Can you name five games for it without looking them up? Have you ever heard of the VIC-20? The PET? The Commodore 16? The Commodore 128? The Amiga? Do you know who Jack Tramiel was? Do you know why Bill Cosby is an important figure in Commodore’s history?

You might have heard about the Atari 2600, but what about the reissued Atari 2600 Jr.? The Atari 7800? The Atari 8-bit line? Do you know who Nolan Bushnell is?

Did you know that Texas Instruments had a line of computers that played games? Did you know that the TI-99/4A is actually a revised model of the TI-99/4? Did you know it supported a voice module to enable real actual speech? Do you know who its spokesperson was and why that’s important?

Do you know why games like Diablo are called ‘rogue-like’?

More importantly, have you ever actually played these games that are more than 5 years old? How about 10? 20? Further back? I don’t mean ‘load them up in an emulator and fart around with one for five minutes’, I mean actually play them for a decent amount of time. Try to finish one or set a high score (without abusing savestates, natch). Did you play something outside of the games you’ve heard of (the ‘video games greatest hits’)?

The Problem

While doing some independent research on Ironsword, the game infamous for having Fabio on the label, Wikipedia cites a GameSpy article that says:

You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but IronSword is actually a sequel to Wizards & Warriors. But thanks to the presence of Fabio on the cover, gamers got confused and thought they had accidentally picked up one of their mom’s romance novels.

It also posts a cropped picture of the label (with Fabio’s Fabulous Hair) with the caption that “Anything Fabio is involved in becomes automatically bad.”

I suppose the author was trying to be funny, I get that. But it’s pretty clear that the image was cropped to make that joke, since the full image clearly has, “Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II” at the top of the label. And, I guess I could mistake a video game for a book if I had never seen a book or a video game before. And the game itself is actually pretty good.

The problem is threefold:

  1. Old consoles are hard to find, take up room to store, and emulating games is questionably legal.
  2. A lot of writers for big sites are in their 20s. That’s not necessarily a problem, but a lot of these games came out before they were born, and since old consoles are tough to find, they probably won’t bother. They just rely on Wikipedia, cruddy Youtube videos, and other sources of second-hand (or even third-hand and fourth-hand) information.
  3. Since old consoles are hard to find, and a lot of people won’t bother trying to find or buy them anyway, the echo-chamber effect starts to take over. For instance, Phalanx for SNES usually gets lambasted as having a dumb box featuring a hillbilly playing a banjo. The game must be terrible, whatever it is, right? Wrong. It’s a passable shoot-em-up. Or, ET for the Atari 2600 is the worst game ever made, right? Nope. ET isn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600 (Sneak ‘n’ Peek, for example). Custer’s Revenge gets a bad rap as one of the worst games ever made (and it is bad, don’t get me wrong), but it was one of those porno games, like Bubble Bath Babes on the NES (don’t Search for these games at work). It was never sitting on the shelf at your local Hills next to Kaboom and Chopper Command.

What all this means is that we have a lot of people writing authoritatively on things that they know very little about. It’s like if you were writing for a music website, but the only thing you knew about music older than 10 years is the songs from your local radio station’s 80’s dance mix, and you just assume that everything pre-1970 is either The Twist or the Foxtrot.

So, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, I can’t demand that everyone writing about video games broaden their horizons in any meaningful way (if only). But what I can do is demand excellence, both from myself, and from the publications that I read. At the risk of being labeled a pedant and a hipster and a fogey, I can point out why your top whatever list is dumb and wrong, like this list of the 100 best games of all time that only has one game made before 1990 on it (which is Mega Man II. That’s not even the best Mega Man game on the NES).

I don’t want the industry, the consumers, or the media to forget what got us here. I don’t want the past 50+ years of games distilled down to Pong, Pac-Man, some NES stuff, and then everything else. I want to be able to discuss Pix the Cat as being a cross between Pac-Man Championship Edition and Flicky without someone not knowing what I’m talking about. We need to have one eye on the past and another on the future. And a video camera on the present, I guess? I’m not good with metaphors. Video games have a vibrant history, and a lot of that history directly shapes what we have today. Several of those experiences have not been duplicated. They may have been refined or cast off as the medium evolves, but when we study them, it helps us to know why things are now the way they are.

Glitchi-NES

October 5th, 2014

Some time back I slapped together some hardware for the express purpose of capturing and streaming video game footage, which I’ve done a fair amount of (and I even managed to raise a couple of dollars for charity).

Lately, though, I’ve been going through some of my old NES games, getting them cleaned and testing them, and capturing some short clips for one reason or another, and then this happened.

The picture started freaking out. I played it anyway for a few minutes just to check out the scrambled mess that resulted, put it on Youtube, shared it around, and had some fun with it.

Then, the next night, I moved on to Castlevania III, and it happened again, worse, somehow.

So, why is this happening? Well, my NES is about 30 years old now, so the age of the hardware could be an issue, but that’s only a part of the problem.

Problem #1 – A worn out internal connector. The ‘Toaster’-style NES is probably the one most recognized by just about everyone who has even a passing interest in the NES. It had a funky method of inserting the games where you inserted the cartridge, and then locked it in the ‘down’ position via some internal hardware. This bends the receiving pins slightly every time you insert a cartridge, and, thanks to metal fatigue, they eventually don’t spring back into place as well any more. This means that eventually, those pins will fail completely and no games will work. Before that, though, they’ll just get intermittent.

Problem #2 – The 10NES lockout chip is fussy. You may not have heard about the 10NES lockout chip, but if you’ve spent a lot of time with the NES hardware, you’re probably familiar with one of the tell-tale symptoms of it being fussy: the flashing title screen. There’s lots of information about it on the Internet if you want to look it up, but most of the information seems to imply that you should just disable the chip completely, which I may do someday (sorry, Nintendo).

Problem #3 – Blowing in the cartridges. This is something that everyone (really, everyone) who played video games in the NES heyday knew about: game not working? Blow into it to ‘get the dust out’. Which, it happens, did work. For a while. Eventually, it stopped working, or it took more and more tries to blow out the ‘dust’. It turns out that blowing in the cartridges wasn’t such a great idea. It worked in the short term because the breath from your lungs contains some moisture, which got on the contacts, and that made them more electrically conductive, to the 10NES chip was satisfied and you went down the road playing whatever. But, electricity plus moisture can equal corrosion, and that’s what a lot of NES games are suffering from now.

Problem #4 – Improper cleaning. Since a lot of these cartridges are now quite old and many have not been maintained well, it’s not uncommon to find one with lots of corrosion or dirt or worse fouling up the pins. So, you’ll, of course, want to clean them to give them the best chance (and to not foul your system). The cleaner that I’ve always used and recommend is some isopropyl alcohol, a cotton swab, and some elbow grease (maybe also a screwdriver with a security bit, for good measure). That will take care of most forms of gunk that accumulates on cartridges. If you come across something that that won’t handle, you can work your way up to stronger stuff like pencil erasers, and even high-grit sand paper(!) in extreme cases. Some people advocate using things like stove cleaner as a routine step, but that makes me extremely nervous. I’m a huge advocate of using the least-potentially-damaging material first, and then working my way up to the tougher stuff if needed. Some people like shortcuts, though, and I get that. So, it’s possible that I got a cartridge that belonged to an overzealous cleaner who damaged some of the connecting pins on the cartridges.

Now that I look back on it, with the possibilities of everything that could and did go wrong, I’m impressed that I could even get the NES to work at all. Then or now.

Indie, Indie, Indie (Games)

September 28th, 2014

We live in a weird time for video games. They’re becoming (and some might say, have already become) mainstream entertainment, and as they grow and mature, and grow, and then grow some more, we start to see some interesting things happen. The barriers to enter the video game market are as low as they’ve ever been, anyone with a computer, programming reference materials, time and passion, can make a game and get it to market, but budgets for so-called “AAA” games are bigger than they’ve ever been, and are getting bigger all the time. Bigger budgets mean that there’s more of a needs to recoup any costs, and doing that means playing it safe. Do what worked in the past, tweak it a little bit, increment the version counter, and then sell it again.

The downside to this is that there is less risk-taking, less variety, and more homogenization. This is good, if you like the current blockbustery flavor-of-the-month game, which I usually don’t. If you’re anything like me, and I’m starting to think that very few of you are, then you want something new once in a while. Something with new characters, new settings, new gameplay ideas, and new concepts.

This is where ‘indie’ games have started to step up their game. Apparently, the only real qualification to be an idie game is that it is developed without backing from a publisher. In the traditional model, a game company would either have an idea, get it to a prototype stage, and search for a publisher to fund the remaining development of the game, or they would be approached by a publisher about making something and then they would get funding to make it. This is weird, since a big-name developer can develop a game and technically it would still be ‘indie’, even though the idea of ‘indie’ seems to be a small team slaving away in a tiny studio somewhere, that’s not always the case.

*I feel like I should note at this point that indie game developers have been around since removable media was invented. You might remember something called ‘shareware‘.

So, what all this means is that, if you want to look for them, there are lots of games being released outside the traditional channels. They won’t necessarily show up in stores or on your favorite video game “news” site. But they’re out there. In fact, there are so many indie games out in the wild now that it’s quickly becoming impossible to even attempt to play them all. And, if you want to develop and release something into the Indie World(tm) you’re going to almost immediately get lost in the shuffle. Unless, of course, you generate buzz.

How do you generate buzz? Word of mouth works, if your game is truly amazing, and you can get a critical mass of people playing about it in the first place, and those people actually tell other people about it, and those people actually download the game and like it, and then continue the cycle (which is much harder than it sounds). Or you can try to get some coverage on one of the millions of game blogs out there. Or you can try to get your game into one of the dozens of ‘indie bundles‘ floating around the internet. Or, etc., etc. All while combating piracy, providing technical support, and maybe trying to work on whatever’s next, all while trying to put food on the table and make sure bills are getting paid.

This means that for every Minecraft or World of Goo or <insert_favorite_indie_game_here> there are dozens of games like Kairo, Goat Simulator, or Dungeon Hearts that just aren’t very good (if you liked them, fine, I’m not here to start an argument), and finding the gems in the firehose of mediocrity is extremely difficult.

So, where does all of this leave us? On one hand, we have formulaic games coming out at a rapid clip with high production values, high cost, and high marketing budgets, and on the other we have games that come out and absolutely insane pace, have production values all over the place, cost a bit less (usually), and have marketing budgets so small that you couldn’t use it to buy a Big Mac. The signal to noise ratio is about the same, but “news” about blockbuster games falls into my lap, and I have to work to find an indie game I might like.

I don’t really know what the solution to all of this is. Maybe there is none. But I do know that the video game landscape is changing faster than the media covering it has been. Weren’t blogs supposed to be faster, and more agile than print media, without the physical limitations? Weren’t they supposed to be able to react and adapt to change, while still covering what’s important?

I’ll tackle that can of worms next time.

Video Board Gaming

September 21st, 2014

Making video games from board games always seemed weird to me. You can either buy and play the board game, or you can spend the equivalent of two or three times the cost of the board game (not including the cost of the console to play it on) to play the exact same game on a television instead of on a table.

For instance, the cost of the analog version of Monopoly is about $16, and the price of the video-game adaptation is about $30.

So, I’ve decided to run down a few of the differences to see why buying one over the other might be the better deal.

Video game versions are (usually) smaller – There are always exceptions, of course, but in general the video game version of some board game these days is going to be in a container that’s roughly the size of a DVD case. The board-game version, though, is going to be the size of several DVD cases. I’m discounting things like card games because a deck of cards or something like Uno or Rook might technically take up less room, a collectible card game might very well take up a great deal more room, so I say it’s a wash. +1 point video game versions

Video game versions have AI or Internet opponents – If you have a hankering to play a board game, but don’t have anyone handy to play with, you can always go up against computer-controlled players. Sure, it’s not the same, it’s hard to trash talk the computer or beg for favors or team up on whoever the winner is, but it will generally do in a pinch. And if a game is playable over the Internet, there’s a good chance that someone out in the world is ready to play right now. +1 point video game versions.

Analog versions let you bend the rules – Most people who have played Monopoly have a house rule about Free Parking: money collected from fines goes there and is collected when someone lands on it, is the one that I’ve heard the most. But, the thing is, that’s not a part of the official rules. House rules can make things more fun, can make things more interesting, and can make things balanced in the case of a skilled player going up against novices. They can also make the game longer, more boring, and less fun if used improperly, but so can a bad choice of radio station to listen to while the game is going on. +1 point analog games.

Analog games are cheaper and more portable – Of course, there are exceptions to everything (collector’s editions, themed editions, etc), but, in general, $20 or so will get you the full experience of the board game. On the other hand, to play the electronic version, you need the game, a console, some extra controllers, a television, and electricity. You may argue that you already had all of that stuff to make the game work, but if you take your electronic copy somewhere else, those things might not be available. But the traditional version will work in the middle of the Mojave desert, although, you need to ensure that the jackrabbits don’t abscond with your pieces. +2 points analog video games

It’s harder to lose the pieces to a video game – Getting deep into a game of Mousetrap and realizing that the rubber band has gone missing, so you can’t actually complete its setup and the game is unwinnable is disappointing. Trying to play anything with a deck of 51 cards is a non-starter. +1 point to video game versions.

That brings our grand total to:

  • Analog board games – 3
  • Video board games – 3

This isn’t as cut and dried as I expected it to be. I’d say that having a mix is probably the best way to go. Video games are great (no, really!), but it’s nice to unplug once in a while, too. Besides, nothing beats an evening with good people, good food, good music, and friendly competition in the same room at the same time.

Backlog, Schmacklog

September 14th, 2014

As recently as a month ago, I was making grand proclamations about how I was going to knuckle down and get my backlog under control. I was going to pare down that list bit by bit and eliminate it once and for all. That was a good idea, in theory, and I am still making progress toward that goal, but I very quickly came to a realization: No matter what I do, my backlog is probably never going to be zero.

And I’m okay with that.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m giving up and am going to let myself drown under an ever-growing pile of unfinished games. That would be crazy. But I did go through my backlog and I identified three kinds of games in there and my likeliness to get them finished as a good first step.

Type 1 – Games I got as a part of a bundle that I didn’t really want in the first place. There are way, way too many game bundles floating around on the Internet. Lots of these game bundles are ‘pay what you want’ with special plums if you pay over a certain dollar amount. The big problem is that you get a game that you want, that is maybe pretty good, and you also get four or five (or more) other games that you’ve never heard of, didn’t really want, and may never play. I have lots of these artificially inflating the number of games in my backlog, so it looks worse than it actually is. It’s tempting to get rid of a lot of these games, but since most of them are digital-only, I’m stuck with them.

Type 2 – Games that looked interesting or were recommended, but it turns out that I didn’t like. Games like 3D-Dot Game Heroes get moderately favorable reviews, and look interesting enough for a try (or were in the bargain bin), but on putting them in, it turns out that they’re just not very good. I’m sure that to someone somewhere these games are good, but I’m not going to waste my time slogging through them if I’m not having any fun doing it.

Type 3 – Games that are just too long. Probably until I either retire or hit the lottery, my time for playing games is limited, and even when I do get a chance to play, I may not be able to play in long stretches. Some weeks I can manage six or eight hours, and other weeks it’s a bit less (like zero). That time may not be in big chunks, either. Some days I might only have a few ten or twenty minute chunks of time that I can devote to a game, other days it might be two or three hours. If I can’t pick up a game and put it down after a few minutes, I may end up putting it down and coming back to it just after never. If a game takes 40 or more hours to complete, and I can work in 10 hours a week playing it, it’s still going to take me a month or so to get to the end.

What are the odds that I’m going to finish these up? Type 1 is very unlikely. I might play it once to see what it’s all about, or I might never look at it. I didn’t really want it in the first place, so these don’t count toward my backlog. I can write them off.

Type 2 games can also be written off. I’m not going to force myself to play something I didn’t like. If I gave it a try and didn’t like it enough to finish it, or at all, then I’m knocking it out of the backlog.

Type 3 games are an interesting category. Games that I liked, probably, but took so long to play that I just got tired of playing them every free evening for a month or more. These games I’d like to get back to, but the odds of me doing that are directly related to how long it’s been since I played it last. A game that I last played a month ago? There’s a decent chance I’ll give it another go in a couple of weeks after I’ve played something short to ‘cleanse my palate’, so to speak. Something I stopped playing in 2007 two consoles ago? Assuming I remember that I have a saved game, and the console is still hooked up to my television, I might play again. But, realistically, we can take these off the list, too, if they haven’t been played in the last year.

And, just like that, my backlog goes from insane and completely unmanageable to slightly off-kilter and kind of manageable.

It’s a start. I’ll take it.

Chasing Dreams

September 6th, 2014

Regardless how the last few entries to this site have appeared, I don’t usually like to be maudlin. But I wanted to touch on a subject that I’ve talked about before: the aim of this site, and where it goes from here. But that requires a brief history lesson.

I registered the domain name crummysocks.com on December 17, 2001 on a lark. I was in the midst of finals in college and we were learning all about web programming languages, scripting languages, databases, and lots of etc. I figured it would be fun to grab a domain name and do some of that for myself. At that time, services like Bust A Name didn’t really exist (or if they did, I didn’t know anything about them), so I drew inspiration from my surroundings, saw that I was wearing threadbare socks that day, found that crummysocks.com was available and registered it, put together an old computer in my kitchen running Debian GNU/Linux, downloaded PHP-Nuke, and boom, I had (more or less) had a website.

I didn’t really have much of a goal at first. I just wanted to learn about putting together a website, and I think that I’ve succeeded in that (plus lots of other things). But my goals were ever changing, and I could never fully dedicate myself to a concrete vision for a long enough length of time. I would even spin up a sister site for a while once an idea struck, but intereste tended to fall off for any of them after too long, which left me discouraged. I also tried lots of things with this site, most of which didn’t really pan out. Like that failed attempt at turning this site from a regular ol’ blog way back in ought-three, to doing gamy-style blog-posts-masquerading-as-news, for a few weeks in ’07, right after I finished my short stint in the video game industry.

Image showing an uptick in the numbers of articles written from June through July of 2007

That was a productive two months

Yes, a lot of this material was covered a couple of years ago, so I won’t really be retreading that old ground again, but this site is important to me. It’s one of the first things that I created that I actually stuck with and added to and experimented with and learned from. So, it’s not going to go away any time soon, but I have to seriously look at it and decide what I want to do with it, where I want to go, and if maybe something is holding me back.

At one time I wanted to be come a professional web-guy that talked about video games, technology, and various other techy-related-things, and I have made some half-hearted attempts to crowbar this site into that mold, but that didn’t happen. In fact, very few of the things I’ve done here have even been seen by more than a handful of people (with a couple of exceptions).

So, why does this site struggle to find anything to ‘stick’? I have a few theories, and a lot of data, but I’ve narrowed down a few reasons that might not be the whole reason, but are enough to give me pause:

  1. This site has struggled with its identity for nearly 13 years. I never really had much of a focus for it, and whenever I did think I had a great idea, I shunted it off to another site where it never really gained much traction, and this one suffered from neglect in the meantime.
  2. I don’t market my site enough. When I first registered this site, I would go around to computers on campus and navigate as many computers as I could to crummysocks.com, and leave the browsers there. I wouldn’t set it as their home page, but I would try to make it look like someone was browsing the site, lost track of time, and then just left the browser open to something I had written. It didn’t really work very well, but these days I might spend a half a day writing some article or another, and might give out a feeble, “Hey, I wrote something, check it out, I guess” on Twitter… and that’s it.
  3. It’s possible that the things I write here just aren’t that interesting to anyone but me. I don’t really have any hard statistics on how many people I have subscribed via RSS, but I’m pretty sure it’s not many. Any time I post something, I get a brief uptick in views, but little to no feedback. I might get a comment or two from a friend or family member (which is appreciated, mind), but content here doesn’t seem to get traction anywhere, which is concerning. That leads to frustration, which leads to a content drought, which leads to even fewer visits, etc.
  4. I admit it. Crummysocks is embarrassing to say. It was a cute flight of fancy when I was a struggling college student, but now, well, it’s kind of less cute. I don’t really think about it any more, until I am confirming some information over the phone with a real actual person. When they’re verifying my email address I can hear them trying to hold back the, “Crummy Socks? What on earth is that about?” in their voice, and then I’m embarrassed. I don’t even like telling people I know about the name of this site because it sounds kind of dumb any more.

I could go on and on, but I think there’s a lot of good takeaway here. I need to re-envision what it is I want for my website to be. It’s probably time to de-emphasize this site (hey, 13 years is a good run) and put my full effort behind something a little more… respectable, I guess?

Not that this site is going to go away any time soon. You don’t just work on something off and on for thirteen years and then just casually discard it like… something funny… that you casually discard. No, now is the time to focus. To take all of the things I’ve learned from my failures, creating a YouTube series, running a video game marathon, and all of the disparate things that I’ve learned to do, and put them all together to make… something.

Okay, I haven’t actually figured out what that thing is yet. But these weekly updates are to help me shake off some of the writer’s rust (that’s a thing, right), which is definitely a step in the direction that I want to go.

LAN Party Redux

August 31st, 2014

A little bit over a year ago, I wrote about how I was going to the first actual LAN party that I had been to in several years. My intention was to write a followup to that article after the event, but I kind of got sidetracked and didn’t actually remember to do that until right now.

In the older piece, I expressed some concern that LAN Parties might be a relic of a time when broadband internet access was something that was nigh unattainable, and online gaming was tough to organize. Now that broadband internet access is (relatively) cheap and (relatively) ubiquitous, tearing your computer down, driving 100 miles, setting it back up, playing video games constantly while taking breaks to sleep in your car, a LAN Party just seems like a solution for a problem that no longer exists.

So, I took my four days off work, tore down the computer, packed it up and drove to Louisville, KY to see whatever became of the LAN party where I spent so many of my weekends during my college years. And to my surprise, I learned that almost nothing had changed. I don’t mean that in any good way. I’m just going to run down a few of my recollections from the event:

  • There was a projector projecting mostly short videos on the wall with audio being piped over the house speakers. The videos being shown were mostly from the early 2000s, when I went last, with a few newish ones mixed in. One of the videos that got a lot of play was a kind of mean-spirited video where a young kid ran his mouth about his Unreal Tournament skills, and got ‘put in his place’ by one of the ‘pros’. I’m not going to link it here, but the footage from that video was recorded in March of 2002 and the video came about some time around that same time. We were reliving a moment of history that was only mildly interesting to a portion of the 200 people that attended 11 years prior. If any of those guys even attended, do any of them still think it’s funny?
  • There were very few LAN games being played. I figured as much in the leadup article to this one, where I speculated that most gaming was moving toward MMORPGs and Free To Play titles that you played over the Internet. Even Diablo III did away with LAN play that was a huge part of its predecessors. You play games while connected to the server on the Internet at all times. Period. To curb piracy, or stop resales, or whatever reason you want to subscribe to. So I had to look around to see if I found any games that people were playing that I could join. And I found lots of DOTA, lots of LoL, lots of MMORPGs of several flavors, lots of Team Fortress 2, and not a lot not being played offline. But that’s not too bad, we had a connection to the Internet2 backbone, and speeds were good, until people started showing up. And anyway, I could always hop in IRC to see what people were talking about and shoot the breeze for a bit during downtime
  • The IRC server was practically dead. I might be showing my age, but I spent a lot of time in college fooling around on IRC, or Internet Relay Chat for you whippersnappers out there. There were usually a few dozen people in IRC that were in the channels between games or taking a break or whatever, so you could talk about just about anything that you wanted: what was going on during a tournament, comment on the video playing, make requests for food or whatever you wanted. Basically, it was something to do that didn’t involve losing whatever game you were playing. Except that the IRC server was practically empty. There were a few people in there talking about what servers they had up on the network that were hosting games nobody was playing, or hosting files for trade (ahem), but very few actual people having very little conversation about just about anything. The biggest issue I saw was that some person was expressing some concern that there were naughty words in the chat, and that there were children present, so they shouldn’t be seeing that. The staff member poo-poohed these concerns by saying that the event was not and had never been family-friendly, and seemed to indicate that if parents had a problem with it, well maybe they shouldn’t have brought kids to the place in the first place, since it’s really not an event for them. I pointed out that not only were several of the attendants that had been coming for years old enough to have kids who, themselves, are old enough to come to the event now, but the organizer of the event, President LAN Party himself, had his kids in attendance, working the snack table. So, maybe considering making the event more family-friendly wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing. But that, of course, was not acceptable.

And so on, and so on. It turns out that I requested four days off of work and paid to attend for four days, but only stayed for about 36 hours. In those 36 hours, I played a lot of RIFT, I played a lot of Team Fortress 2 on the Internet, and I used the 100mb/100mb to download a lot of the titles in my Steam library that I had been putting off doing. I wanted to be able to say that the magic was still there, that the few hundred attendees that make the semiannual trek to keep the party going are keeping a piece of history alive. But what I found was a shell of a party. Going through the motions of the event that they’ve done a hundred times before. Every strand of cable is in place, and every mark is hit with expert timing. But the passion just isn’t there. The sense of community isn’t there. An event that needed to change with the times, but just didn’t. A time capsule that’s only been maintained in the very barest sense of the word that continues to exist just because it’s been going on this long, and maybe some people can’t imagine life without it (or they bought a lot of networking equipment that will go unused otherwise). Either way, I’m glad I went back to check on it. It reaffirmed that I may not have outgrown LAN Parties in general, but I’ve certainly grown away from this one.

I don’t have any gaming guilty pleasures

August 24th, 2014

Every once in a while, probably to foster discussion, I see a website or a twitter account ask what gaming guilty pleasures that I have, and my answer is always the same: I don’t have any.

So, what is a guilty pleasure, anyway? A guilty pleasure is something that you enjoy (game, music, movie, activity, whatever) that you feel guilty about liking, and maybe want other people to not know that you do.

That’s odd, right? It’s not just me, is it? You have a thing that you like, but you have to keep it a secret so that other people don’t find out about it, because if they do find out about you liking the thing, then they’re going to think you’re weird. Especially if they all dislike the thing. Then you’ll be the only one in the group that likes the thing that everyone else doesn’t.

Which is not that big of a deal.

Maybe it’s because I grew up at a time where video games weren’t as mainstream as they are today. It was a time where having an interest in computers and video games was something that weird outcasts did, so it didn’t really matter what I liked. The other outcasts and I would talk about whatever games we liked amongst ourselves, and that was pretty much that. We liked a lot of the same games, sure, but we also liked games that the others didn’t, or even that the others had never heard of. But that meant we had more games to try and like or not like as appropriate.

Or maybe it’s because I’m comfortable in forming my own opinions without worrying what other people are going to think. Especially on matters as trivial as the kind of entertainment I like. I realize that this might sound like I’m being preachy or like a chapter out of a self-help book, but I don’t have a problem telling people what kinds of games I like because my friends don’t mind if like something that they don’t. Sure, they might think it’s a little weird that I don’t like the newest Shootymans 3 game or whatever, but I think it’s just as weird that they do like it. Besides, with friends lists, always online consoles, and game collections and activity being on the public Internet, trying to hide a game you’re enjoying playing from your friends is borderline impossible:

Oh, look, I spent 12 hours playing Faerie Solitaire, or I played a video game based on professional wrestling on the Xbox 360, or I imported a cutesy puzzler from Japan to play on my PS3.

So, I’m going to continue on, liking what I want to, and disliking what I want to without feeling bad about it in the slightest or worrying about what other people might think of something as trivial as my preferred video games.

I used to love video games

August 17th, 2014

Given the material on this website, you may be surprised to learn that I have a few bits of video-game-related clothing in my wardrobe. No, really. Occasionally, when I wear something that features something from the 80’s, I get the reaction of someone who seems to be around my age or a little bit older that goes something like, “Oh, Super Mario Bros! I used to love that game! I haven’t played it in forever!” I’ll sometimes ask these people if they still play video games, and usually I’ll get a blank stare, or they’ll get a little crestfallen and admit that they haven’t played a video game in years. If I prod a little deeper, I find that most people have the same common excuses: they don’t have the time they once did, they went off to school/work/military and never circled back around to playing games as a leisure activity, games are only for kids, so their kids play them, or something like that. But one woman who I talked to yesterday and seemed to be about my age gave a more honest answer that I don’t hear much anymore: she loved playing the NES, but all the new games are just too complicated.

I didn’t really get to dig into the nitty gritty of her position since it was just idle chitchat while we were standing in line, so I don’t really know all the particulars, but it’s not hard to see where she’s coming from. If you played some games as a kid and cut your teeth on something like the NES’s controller and then, many years later, remembered how much you liked playing a few games to pass the time, but the controllers now looked like the control panel of a nuclear submarine in comparison, then you might be put off even trying to use one. Or if you used to like games like Super Mario Bros that had some backstory, but it was largely inconsequential (go right, kill things, rescue princess) to games that have their own website, strategy guides, book series, and so on, and it’s easy to see that a lot of games have lost that ‘sit down and play for 30 minutes or so’ quality that a lot of those early games had.

To which you’d probably say, “Yeah, that’s true, games are more complicated now, but that means that they’re so much better! We have rich worlds with engaging characters, we have graphics that look so realistic that you can hardly tell if you’re watching live television or playing a game. Games are better now than they’ve ever been, and they’re only getting better!”.

And you wouldn’t be completely wrong. Even though the games industry is trying to emulate the movie industry with its products (which I’m not a fan of) a lot of games now are good. If you’re willing to take the time to play them, and given the length of some games these days, that’s not always easy. Also, you can’t just pick up a copy of, say, the latest Battlefield game and play something in Single Player for 15-20 minutes while you’re in between doing Grownup Stuff(tm). Heck, you might not even be able to learn how to work the controls to the game in 15-20 minutes, much less learn how to play something.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I think Nintendo was partially on the right track with the Wii. They catered to the market of people like my friend above. The people who used to play games, Nintendo game, but now games are too complicated for them. People who want an easy, pick-up-and-play experience that recaptures a piece of their youth. They’ve kind of misfired since then (which is another topic for another day), but the general idea was sound. Unfortunately, a lot of the people I talk to about the old games they played as a kid seem to be completely unaware that a lot of these games are available again, right now, without having to track down an old console (which is becoming difficult to do) and finessing it into working correctly. And if I do make them aware, they just kind of dismiss it for the usual reasons, and that’s the end of it.

That makes me sad that there are people out there who would probably enjoy playing a video game now and again, but don’t really know that there are games out there that they would like, or even that the games that they already like are likely still out there. That there are short, enjoyable, pick-up-and-play experiences to be had outside of Facebook. That the video game console doesn’t have to be a toy in the kids’ room that only they play, but it can be an entertainment device in the living room that everyone can enjoy at the same time. Or even something that the adults can enjoy while the kids are occupied with something else, or vice-versa. Instead, we have a stigma that games are for kids and immature manchildren, and anyone else who plays games is a weirdo. That’s been tough to shake, and I really would like for us to get past that. And, hey, comic book movies are box-office gold right now, and comic book lovers have been dealing with similar problems for years. So maybe there’s hope, yet.

Until then I’ll keep wearing my 80’s game tees to give lapsed gamers of my generation a bit of (hopefully) happy nostalgia.