08 February 2010

Hidden Potential (And Why the Wii Doesn't Have Any)

I watched the Super Bowl yesterday with a friend of mine who works as a game developer here in Vancouver.

One of the many benefits of living in Vancouver, besides near constant rain and high taxes and all the natural beauty your eyes can take: Becoming friends with developers.

A couple of things about watching the Super Bowl in Canada:

1. The commercials are completely different here and, for the most part, lame. (I had to watch all the "real" commercials online after the fact, including the Dante's Inferno commercial.)

2. It's very difficult to find anyone who genuinely gives a rat's ass about the Super Bowl in Canada.

My friend, who I will refer to as "Thumb-Blaster" in order to protect his identity, is probably the only person on earth to have finished No More Heroes (the man found every damn collectible in the game) and to also suffer from a pathological Modern Warfare 2 obsession. He's a terrific human being, full of curiosity, neuroses and savvy insights into life, and more importantly, how games are made.

As you've probably guessed, Thumb-Blaster isn't much of a football fan. To keep Thumb-Blaster engaged, I did my best to make nerd-centric small talk during the game's idle moments (i.e. during the Canadian commercials). We discussed Battlestar, the merits of The Saboteur, The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess (he loved it; I'd rather have my taxes done than play it again), and so forth.

Yes, it was an old fashioned, boot-stomping, nerd-style hoedown.

During halftime, as we consumed sausages at an almost alarming rate, I asked Thumb-Blaster why Wii games haven't evolved the way that games typically evolve over the lifecycle of a console. In other words, Twilight Princess (2006) and, to an even greater degree Metroid Prime 3 (2007), looked terrific, but more recent Wii games don't necessarily look, or play, any better than those first-generation Wii titles. Early games for the PS2, 360, and PS3 have all made significant strides over time. Yet the Wii appears to have stalled out. How come?

Thumb-Blaster's response: "It's because the Wii just kind of laid it all out there."

Explanation: "It's an easy machine to understand, and to program for. Therefore, there are no hidden possibilities in the hardware to be uncovered. Basically, with the Wii, what you see is what you get."

On the other hand, Thumb-Blaster continued, the nuances of both the 360 and the PS3 are still being sussed out. "We don't really know what [these machines] are capable of yet. We're still trying to figure them out. Truth is, no one really knows what to do with the cell processors yet. Nobody really knows how to use them. People are starting to experiment, but we're still a long way from having a handle on them."

I went back to my sausage sandwich. I'd never thought of these machines as being mysterious before. I liked the idea that both machines hold some hidden, unrealized potential. Neither machine seems even remotely tapped out yet. (Hell, I'm still convinced that the PS2 has some life left in it.)

I once loved my consoles. The Super Nintendo? Man, I would have married that thing, and kissed it and loved it all night long in the honeymoon suite at the Radisson.

I've never been in love with the 360 or the PS3; not like that, anyway. Both seem a little cold and distant and distant and alien. They're like attractive women at a party who won't talk to me, but instead prefer only to peer at me askance. I've never loved them as objects; I don't think I ever could. I need them, but I'm indifferent towards them. If either one broke down, I wouldn't mourn the loss. I'd simply head to the nearest store and buy a new one.

Still, after Thumb-Blaster's words of wisdom--Thumb-Blaster is so very wise--I'm not exactly ready to rent out the Radisson honeymoon suite just yet, but I am just a tad more fond of both machines today.

01 February 2010

The Fallacy of "Being Good" at Videogames

A friend recently described a mutual friend as "being good" at videogames. Here are his exact words: "[Person X] is really awesome at videogames," he said.

I've heard people use this expression before. "So-and-so is awesome at games," etc. For some reason this expression never fails to give me a case of third-degree red ass.

Blame it on my competitive nature. I grew up with a brother who was a year younger than me. We were peers, always working to out-do--and undo--the other throughout our childhoods.

Whenever I hear that so-and-so is good at videogames, I always want to 1. disprove this notion immediately, preferably by destroying and/or humiliating whoever this so-called good-at-videogames so-and-so is in some game-centric showdown, and 2. have myself immediately declared "good," "great," or perhaps even "awesome" at videogames via an impromptu ceremony that would involve a dais and a large trophy of some kind.

But the truth is this: I'm not good, great, or awesome at videogames.

What I am is persistent.

Even as a child, I was always the one who would stay up late at night, the sound turned so low on the television that it was inaudible (our house was very small), desperately trying over and over again to make it into the second round with Mike Tyson (Punch-Out!!), or to get the golden armor and the moon shield (Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts).

One of the core reasons that I fell in love with the medium to begin with is the democratic notion that anybody can eventually beat any game--yes, even Demon's Souls--as long as they are willing to roll up their sleeves and put in the time.

I wrote a story a few years back about the burgeoning industry of Halo coaching. In the name of research, I hired a coach for a series of lessons. He and I met online. "OK, show me what you got," he said.

I crouched behind a rock. I waited.

Suddenly, my shield was depleted. Health was waning. I spun in a circle firing into the sky.

I was dead.


I never saw him, never knew what hit me.

This was the way things continued during our "show me what you got" session: crouch, shields depleted, spin, fire at sky, panic, dead, re-spawn.

The coach was a competitive Halo player. He was, according to his biography, among the best Halo players in the world. He taught me a few things, showed me how to access areas of maps that most players assume aren't accessible; taught me techniques for depleting someone's shield instantly through various combinations of melee attacks and gun fire.

I improved. I got better. I learned to hold my own.

Once the lessons and the story were behind me, I had tangible proof that there were ways to be "good" at Halo.

If I was willing to put in the time, if I was willing to learn the nuances of the maps, I could most likely turn myself into a respectable Halo player. (My coach, someone who you would most definitely describe as "being good at videogames," told me that he typically practices between four and six hours a day. Now, that's what I call persistent.)

I realize there are exceptions out there. Exhibit A: Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel.

Exhibit B: I have a friend who told me a story about a colleague who picked up Guitar Hero for the first time in his life at an office party and ripped through the entire game on Expert and didn't miss a note. Unfortunately, this guy also suffered from Asperger's Disorder.

What I'm trying to say is this: If you have a friend who is "good" at Modern Warfare 2 or Rock Band, or who can do a speed run through Super Mario 64, most of the time--hell, almost all of the time--it's because he or she put in the hours. Nothing more, nothing less.