Monday, May 31, 2010


floating from one game to another is a little bit too easy. i spend my time attacking one game, exploring it to its conclusion, then before i remember to reflect, another game pops into the disc tray. the previous game’s universe collapses into a .sav – the next one expands onto the hard drive.

i finished Prototype about a month ago. I didn’t hear much about it besides the fact that it was based on the Incredible Hulk game where you could drop-kick tanks, so I snatched it up for $20. The plot was as sparse or as intricate as I wanted it to be – I could glide from story mission to story mission, I could only play challenges testing my ability to mow down 100 Infected in 30 seconds, or I could stalk the city for people who knew about the plague settling on NYC. It was actually very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed –  surprisingly faithful to its real-world setting, intricate conspiracy theories to explore or ignore, interesting ways to move around the city. GTA, as a comparison within the genre of open-world games, was never very good at either of those issues – salient plot points are either doled out meticulously by story missions or not at all, transportation is either conventional and pedestrian (can cars be pedestrian?) or unforgivingly sparse. Gliding from Times Square to the top of the Chrysler Building, hijacking a miltary helicopter in midair and taking out several tanks before bailing above ‘Whichcraft, while whipping scientists out of the crowd and consuming their memories doesn’t compare to “running over a bunch of pedestrians in a car and then ramming into other cars until my car sets on fire and explodes” in my book.

I also concluded my experience with Resonance of Fate – not as in “completed”, but “had one of my party members removed for a mission in a game whose central mechanic is that all your party members need to work together”. it’s a fun game, i will probably pick it up again in a month or so after my indignation subsides. like random battles (also in this game!) or escort missions (the mission right before this), removing a party member is a sacred RPG trope dating all the way back to FF1, whose existence is a crutch for gamedevs to lean on when they run out of ideas. Resonance of Fate seemed to work fairly hard to shed Squenix cliches, giving us a battle system without menus, characters with reasonable hair, no MP system with fire/ice/water/air/life/death spells. It’s unfortunate that despite the vastly different mechanics, RoF ended up with the same old tropes – simply because the genre has a history of that trope.

Starcraft, though. Jesus.

Part of the reason I posted a partial history of online gaming was because the PC was once, unquestionably, dominant. Around the time of the Playstation and N64 (and even the Dreamcast, PS2 and GameCube), some enthusiasts were tolling the death knell for the PC. but there were 2 factors working in the PCs favor: (1) online connectivity, which was horribly implemented or outright ignored by everyone except the dreamcast (lol) (2) PC hardware was still expanding rapidly since the heat wall of Moore’s Law hadn’t yet been hit. The chart below shows how dramatic this wall is – you still don’t see CPUs hitting more than 3gHz without dramatic cooling aparatusususussim (I don’t care what the plural of “apparatus” is)

moore's law capped out around 2005


And if you correlate with the previous timeline, you can see 2005 is the beginning of the end – Xbox Live launches a popular online gaming service, getting it completely right to the point where Microsoft can charge a monthly fee and get customers for it.



StarCraft is the penultimate PC game – something that requires delicate controls only a PC can provide, a multiplayer component that can’t be played split-screen, and a deep, thoughtful, immaculately balanced player-versus-player matchup that only Blizzard can provide and mantain. Add in a dedicated community using public tools to create entirely new genres – Tower Defense? Started as a StarCraft custom map. Defense of the Ancients games? Started as a Warcraft3 custom map. Farmville? Started as a – okay, that’s a lie (But for the record, Farmville inherits heavily from browser-based MMORPGS created before “social networking” – or even “Web 2.0” – was ever a thing).

I chose the word “conclusion” extremely carefully in the first paragraph of this endlessly massive post. StarCraft is so finely tuned that, like many of the finest FPS’ (which are, of course, the flagship of digital graphics, smart twists on old formulas, and online play in the gaming world), its appeal seems nearly endless, impossible to conclude. Yes, you can “finish” the single-player campaign, but like Half-Life, single player is barely the beginning. StarCraft’s multiplayer world is so rich it has developed its own language. Learning the language, improving your play, watching players comment on their games and share knowledge – I won’t get tired of this anytime soon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

history lessons

1996 - (Indpt) QSpy first launches to make it easier for gamers to find Quake (an early FPS) servers for online play. As it expands to matchmaking for other games, it is acquired by investors and renamed GameSpy.

1997 – (Blizzard) Battle.Net is launched, making it easy for people to play Diablo (an action game) online with complete strangers, and friends. Hacking abounds, but it’s a small price to pay for a centralized server system.

1998 - (Valve) Half-Life is launched. It’s the first first-person shooter to attempt an immersive story without taking control away from the player at any point. It is backed by an extremely easy-to-modify engine.

(Blizzard) StarCraft (a strategy game inheriting from Blizzard’s previous WarCraft titles) launches, using for online match-making. A huge “pro-gamer” competitive scene launches a year later

1999 – (Indpt) 2 college students who cut their teeth on Quake mods release a mod for Half-Life called Counter Strike. It becomes insanely popular, and the go-to competitive game in the FPS genre.

2002 – (Valve) Steam, a content distribution & matchmaking tool  is packaged with the new version of Counter-Strike, ensuring up to 300,000 new users.

2002 - (Microsoft) Xbox Live is launched with the original Xbox, and brags a unified friends list, a single user identity regardless of game, and basic voice chat . Although Ventrillo also launched in this timeframe and eventually became extremely popular on the PC, a single identity becomes the most flexible and powerful tool Microsoft offers. At this time, Microsoft’s Xbox is the only console with such a powerful online presence. It is also the only platform requiring users to pay for online services.

2004 - (Valve) Half-Life 2 is released and requires a Steam account to activate. Although technical issues bring the authentication system to its knees, Valve sticks with it.

(Microsoft) Xbox Live Arcade is announced, a digital distribution service for the Xbox.

2005 - (Valve) Steam has its first 3rd-party software ready for distribution.

(Microsoft) The Xbox 360 launches. Xbox Live Arcade is re-launched, now integrated into the 360’s interface.

2006 - (Microsoft) Games for Windows is announced, an effort coinciding with the launch of Windows Vista to make it easier for customers to identify and install games suited for their computer.

2007 - (Valve) Major publishers begin to publish their content through Steam. Almost all major PC releases are now found on Steam’s digital distribution network.

(Microsoft) Games for Windows adds a “Live” onto the end of its name, signifying its entrance into the online world. However, it keeps the Xbox’s pricing structure, which pushed users towards titles with free online play (which is basically “every other title in existence”). Adaptation is still low, and isn’t helped by Vista’s abject failure.

2008 (Microsoft) – Late to the game, and struggling heavily in the PC market, Microsoft makes Games for Windows Live free to play online.

2009 (Microsoft) – The 360 gets digital distribution for new release games, on top of its ever-growing online catalog of Arcade and Indie games. Games for Windows Live finally brings digital distribution to the PC, except for the fact that Steam beat it to the punch years ago.


The evolution is incredible. In 10 years we went from the first matchmaking tool to a nearly complete digital ecosystem. Microsoft made incredible pushes on the Xbox, and completely neglected to show the PC any love at all – leaving the gap open for Valve to completely dominate the scene.