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24: A Fan’s Retrospective

Something I have talked about very often on this blog is my love of 24. Well, it outlived LOST by 24 hours. What more could you ask for?

Honestly, I could have asked for a stronger Season 8. I watched the first four episodes and felt I could predict the whole rest of the season. Jack kills people, there’s a mole in CTU, someone tries to kill the/a president, nuclear threats (this was an even-numbered season after all), and an over-reliance on the dangling plot threads of Season 5, now not even arguably the greatest season of 24, as the writers could NEVER get over it.

Season 6 all linked back to Season 5. Season 7 was doing great on its own, and then all linked back to Season 5. Season 8? Well, I’ll give you three guesses. Even the final ending is like a mix of Season 4’s and Season 5’s. Jack leaves the country, he’s not under arrest, but every nation on the planet is after him for his ridiculous killing spree this season. Where does one such as Jack Bauer go from here?

Well, to the big screen no less! I am looking forward to the 24 movie, but the creators need to do a few things to refresh the formula:

  1. Keep it real time, but raise the stakes. Give us Jack Bauer’s final mission, to take down the organization that’s been funding all these terrorist attacks since at LEAST Nina Meyers.
  2. Make it darker than the show. I mean this both in terms of content and chroma. Make this a movie about Jack on a stealth operation, and keep us on the edge of our seat.
  3. Cut the political mumbo jumbo. You have two hours, and two sides: Jack and the Bad Guys. You don’t have time to be messing with the President having to make a choice between letting Jack Bauer do what he does best and stopping him for some really stupid reason.
  4. Don’t put it in America. Honestly, America only lives to keep Jack Bauer from doing what he does best. We only want the bad guys to do that. When America does that, America is the bad guy. Have the movie take place in some fictional, Ex-Soviet, Eastern European Nation on the verge of collapse or something, and put Jack right in the middle of it attempting to take down these masonic psychos who even had the balls to recruit his own brother, his father, one or two of his lovers, President Charles Logan, and even almost Tony Almeida.
  5. Speaking of which, finally, bring back Tony. We know he’s alive. We know he’s in jail, for now, but if Tony can escape death he can escape jail. While you’re at it, make sure all the surviving, core cast returns, mainly Tony, Chloe, and Kim (it wouldn’t be a complete 24 movie if Kim wasn’t kidnapped at some point and someone said “We have your daughter!”).

I have enjoyed watching 24 these past four years and will continue to look back on it fondly. The writing may not have always been the strongest, and the reliance on per-episode plot twists definitely fizzled after the triumphant Season 5, but overall it was good, smart, violent fun. Plus, Jack Bauer survived to fight another day, which means I think I may owe someone $5.

Made in MA, PAX, and Children of Liberty

I’m sure Ichiro won’t mind me using his handsome mug in this post, nor will Eitan mind me showing off this photo in general because it is free publicity for Fire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers.

Well, I am now past possibly most amazing fortnight of my career as an indie. We showed off the prototype level for our new game Children of Liberty at the Made in MA party at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge. I pitched the game easily more than 50 times during the night, not to mention the number of times everyone else on the Lantana Games team pitched it. Overall it must have made a huge impression because I have been receiving lots of positive emails over the last week and a bit about it. People are even looking for jobs at Lantana Games! Protip: we have none. Save those emails for when we are funded, or if you are willing to work for free until we are.

Tired as my feet were after that day, had to wake up bright and early the next morning to get to PAX. The lines were HUGE! Then after they finally let us through the lines, we were guided right back to the front hall. What a pointless lineup. Luckily it got better from there. The show floor was fantastic, with sensory-intensive showings from Ubisoft, Turbine, Alienware, nVidia, MIT Gambit, The Behemoth, Klei, too many to count. I shook more hands than I care to count and got out of the expo without falling ill! I will certainly never be so lucky in the future. Besides the expo floor, which was obviously my favorite place to be (ever), the gaming rooms were also amazing and had every 360, PS3, and Wii game you could imagine. Also got to test out Green Day: Rock Band! Much thanks to Chris Foster for getting that going, even though we were technically going to play Phoenix – 1901. It is truly turning out to be a great game, and much more difficult than you’d expect. Gotta say, though, once you’ve used the Mat Catz full-size/full-weight Fender Strat Controller, it’s a sad experience to go back to the default toys that come with the game.

Most of the talks I went to that were put on by people actually involved in the gaming industry were great. Indie Developers Will Shoot You in the Knees and An Awkward Hour with Harmonix Designers were especially great, particularly because the former was moderated by friends of mine (always awesome), and the latter was pure hilarity. The Sequelitis panel was also very informative and I got to tell Jeff Gerstmann about Children of Liberty. That was especially cool.

The one thing that bothered me was the diva-like attitude of some people at the conference. I won’t name names, but saying “indies never approach us so we don’t hear about their games until later” and then setting up a limited-size autograph line when an indie DOES want to approach you with something, not just get you to sign his show information booklet , seems a little hypocritical. Some of us aren’t always couch-glued gamers. Some of us make our lives out of entertaining couch-glued gamers, technically yourself included. Hell, even Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the guys RUNNING the damn show, were out shaking hands and meeting people and talking to me about Children of Liberty (well Jerry/Tycho did at least). I know there are a lot of people who want to meet you, so just make yourself available after your talk. Half of them will disperse due to the size of the crowd anyway, and then just wander around and meet people. The point is, some people have more to tell you than just “I love your show/website/podcast/comic/game.” It is never worth missing out on those who have something legitimately conversation-worthy to say.

My one regret from PAX is not being able to go drinking with more industry peeps, but that will be rectified very soon, come the next Post Mortem/Boston Indies meeting. Otherwise, what an experience!

Oh and did I mention I was on NPR?

So after a week of vacation time, I am already back to working on Children of Liberty. In one day I have managed to debug all the AI, thus proving that if I had just a couple more hours before the Made in MA Party we could have shown off an even stronger product. Such is life, but a few bugs didn’t stop us from getting an overwhelmingly positive response. We are aiming to get a revised build done for the Business in Games Conference coming up, and then we’ll be shooting for a new, major build at some point during the summer, either for E3 (yeah, right) or for Boston Gameloop (MUCH more likely).

I must now adjourn to a burger and a beer. Yeah, that sounds perfect right now.

The Hypocrisy of the Art Game

The Experimental Games Workshop at GDC has been canceled. The official reason from TIGSource, as it stands now, is:

The EGW organizers were ultimately unhappy they could do a full session this year with the submitted games.

What this boils down to is skepticism. Over the last several years, EGW has been showing off some great games from the experimental game scene, and big names in the industry have been shouting that they want to see more games do what the experimental games are doing. Well, we listened. There are a lot of cheap and even free resources for creating games nowadays: Game Maker, Multimedia Fusion, Flixel, Unreal, Unity… nearly every single engine is starting to cater more toward indie development. Just recently, the fine folks over at modDB.com released Desura, a Steam-like distribution platform for indie games and mods.

So while the niche art-game community was crying out for more games to be art, they thought only AAA developers were hearing their pleas. What happened instead? We got more indie games. 2009 was the year of the indie game. XBLIG started rough (see my previous post on the subject) by has finally turned into a viable place for finding some decent games. People started flooding the TIGSource forums with screenshots and youtube from new experimental games. The Global Game Jam twice challenged high schoolers, college kids, and professionals alike to create a game in 48 hours, and then those games, like GNILLEY, were posted all over Kotaku. So while people cried out for mainstream games to be art, the last thing they expected was for art games to be mainstream.

I, for one, find this extremely hypocritical. Yes, AAA games are finally starting to come around to the indie way of doing things, but canceling the EGW for the reason given, after begging for more art games, is like inviting us out to dinner and then being upset when we show up.

So, by flooding the internet with art games, have we killed the art game? I for one vote a strong and resounding maybe. On the one hand, we will hold onto these lessons for the rest of time and more than likely people will continue to make games about birth or a piece of red meat floating through a sick man’s colon (I’m trademarking that one, btw), and multi-million dollar games will start taking more risks since, hell, every game coming out on Facebook and iPhone is exactly the same as every other one, so maybe some originality is worth the risk. As far as I am concerned, the debate is over. Games are art, and the game development community was willing to prove it. So what if they’re not all Passage? They have the same right to be played.

And This Joke of an Award Goes To…

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your 2009 Best Performance by a Human Female Voice (as opposed to…) winner from the Spike Video Game Awards. The most talentless actress to ever grace the silver screen since the invention of the prop. This is what happens when you have community voting for what should theoretically be a coveted game awards ceremony, especially when your community is built up of the Spike TV crowd, aka the Madden and Halo types. Which makes this even more confusing because Tricia Helfer was nominated for her work in Halo 3: ODST. Considering she worked alongside Nathan Fillion in that, the choice should have been obvious. In fact, according to comments posted on the Spike webpage as of this posting, there have been no comments concerning Megan Fox’s winning, and yet Tricia seems to be the preferred candidate amongst the community. It’s as if nobody cares, including the judges. Megan Fox has Jolie-esque lips, that’s good enough.

But this is not even the tip of the iceberg. As Cliff Bleszinski posted on his Twitter last night: “EA wins the best EA Sports Category.” Literally every single nomination in the sports category was an EA game. What happened to the 2K Sports games? Also, quick question, but why must Indie Games alone be fueled by Mountain Dew? Where’s the “Best AAA Title Fueled by Dew?” category? I love Code Red as much as the next guy but I make no claims as to whether or not I fuel my coding on Dew (I’ll be honest: I don’t, and I don’t care if I don’t ever win that award). While we’re at it, why not have some more complete jokes of categories? I mentioned earlier that the awards for actors are “Best Performance by a Human Female/Male,” so why not give some credit to the male and female animals that may have loaned their roars/squawks/mews to a game’s production? Howabout an award for the Most Brotastic Game? While we’re at it, isn’t this Spike? Shouldn’t ALL the awards be Brolated in some way?

Spike, I am going to do you a huge favor and rename all your awards for you. Please use these next year instead of the vanilla awards you’ve been giving out:

  • Game Of the Year -> Most Browesome Game
  • Studio of the Year -> Studibro of the Year
  • Best Independent Game Fueled by Mountain Dew -> Best Indebrodent Game Built By Bros
  • Best XBox 360 -> Best XBox Bro-60 Game
  • Best PS3 -> Best Brostation 3 Game
  • Best Wii -> No Bro Owns a Wii, so we’re not offering an award here. Moving on…
  • Best PC -> Best Winbros Game
  • Best Handheld -> Best Brotable Game
  • Best Shooter -> Best Habro Wannabe Game
  • Best Fighting -> Best Bro on Bro Combat Game
  • Best Action Adventure -> Best Action Broventure Game
  • Best RPG -> Best Game That No One in Our Audience Will Play
  • Best Multiplayer -> Best Game That Has a Multiplayer Mode
  • Best Sports -> Best EA Sports Game
  • Best Driving -> Fastest Cars Game
  • Best Music Game -> Most Expensive Game
  • Best Soundtrack -> Brotastic Tunes, Bro
  • Best Original Score -> Best Game With Music You Don’t Care About
  • Best Graphics -> Most, Like, Polygons
  • Best Game Based on Movie/TV Show -> Best Game Based on Things We’ve Shown on Spike
  • Best Performance by a Human Female -> Hot Chick of the Year
  • Best Performance by a Human Male -> Most Awesome Dude Who Watches Spike TV
  • Best Cast -> Best Cast That Spends Half the Recording Time Watching Spike TV
  • Best Voice -> One Extra Voice Award for the Hell of It
  • Best Downloadable Game -> Best Game You’ll Never Buy, Even Though You Said You Would
  • Best DLC -> Fallout 3 versus GTA 4 Award
  • Most Anticipated Game -> Best Game That Could Still Potentially Be a Total Brolocaust

Five REAL Steps

So there was today’s post on Kotaku, Five Steps to Total Pwnage of a Gamer Girl’s Heart. From the title alone, you should infer not to take the subject matter too seriously, lest you be swept up in five minutes of passive aggressive nerd-bashing and general facepalm-worthy writing. Then there was Leigh Alexander’s response over at SexyVideoGameLand, which was much better written and pointed out that sometimes these things are all about business, especially when the article gets over 50,000 views.

So let’s recap. Ms. Raven Alexis’s suggestions were:

1. Talk to her about her rig. “Don’t assume that she doesn’t know her stuff – she could probably describe the differences in AGP vs. PCI slot architecture better than most guys you know.” That’s true, until you bring that very exact topic up and she realizes you haven’t seen the sun in over a year. Using the opening line “So is that a PCI-Express X16 graphics card you’re running or are you just happy to see me?” may seem like a good idea at the time but trust me, it won’t do you any favors. This is a topic for later discussion, not opening discussion.

2. Offer her food. A nice gesture, worded terribly in the article. “There is nothing more romantic than offering a girl a nice, refreshing taste of your Bawls…or Red Bull.” Very smooth. Plus apparently all gamers try to carry on a conversation with their mouths full. If that’s true, and you claim to be a nerd, then you are just as guilty as the rest of us. Suddenly Ms. Alexis isn’t quite as appealing anymore, is she?

3. Message her in-game. Okay, two things. One, if you distract her while she is trying to snipe someone on the red team and she is killed because of it, she will never forgive you. Two, she may not even see your message in the first place, or may ignore it entirely, which leads to the major tip of not seeming creepy: never overpersist. You wouldn’t call somebody ten times in one day if they didn’t answer their phone, the same goes for texts/IM’s/in-game messages. This could very easily backfire and force her to find somebody she thinks is cute to continuously backstab your avatar for the rest of the LAN party. Or she’ll take matters into her own hands and backstab you herself. And no, this does not mean she is paying attention to you now, this means she hates you.

4. Plant a fake virus on a friend’s computer and then pretend to be a hero by getting rid of it. Okay, wow, there’s just far too many variables here to work. One, this assumes you have a “fake virus” lying around or know how to program a “fake virus.” This also assumes she cares and isn’t too busy racking up gamerscore while you heroically rescue your friend’s computer from your fake little worm. So you might assume, “I could just plant the worm on her computer then?” Theoretically there’s nothing stopping you, except for the fact that when she finds out it was you (and she will) this will once again lead to much backstabbage against you.

5. Go and talk to her. The one good suggestion here. Unfortunately the suggestion to “just play with her” was used as a pun when really, in an enclosed gamer setting, this is the thing to do. Give her cover fire. Pull aggro. If she is a good gamer she will return the favor in the next round, and suddenly you have a rapport, something to talk about during break time. I honestly can’t even take this part of the article seriously, as it is implied that playing with the girl is just a pun. Hardy har. In the real world, nobody goes to LAN parties to get laid. If they did, Gamer Culture would be nearly identical to the Nightclub scene.

In this place called the real world it doesn’t matter who you are, nerd or player, these are the five real ways to meet any person:

  1. Bathe. For the love of God. No one likes a stinker. This includes your clothes and your body. Staying clean is the key to being confident.
  2. Brush your teeth. The only thing worse than BO is morning breath. Brush twice a day. Floss and mouthwash never hurt anyone either. And if you don’t feel like bringing a toothbrush to the LAN party, bring gum. On top of keeping your breath fresh, it never hurts to offer a piece.
  3. Go outside. Vitamin D keeps your skin healthy and keeps your energy level up. There are lots of places to go in this world, even just a few blocks from your house. Half an hour outside on a sunny day can make all the difference.
  4. Go to the gym. This isn’t a “body image” thing. You can go to the gym and still go home fat. Sure you can slim up if you put some real effort into it, but just going and doing an hour’s worth of cardio every day or two can have major effects on how you feel about yourself, which in turn will affect how well you are at conversing with others.
  5. Eat right. Go ahead and be that one guy at the party who gets a veggie pizza and not bacon. Have a grilled chicken sub for lunch and not bacon. Eat cereal for breakfast and not bacon. See where I’m going with this?

What it really comes down to is that gaming is a hobby and should be treated as such. Even if you take your gaming seriously, please be aware that there are in fact other things in life. If you feel like you lack real social interaction (not via headset), buy games that encourage it like Rock Band or even board games. If you honestly feel like your ability to talk to women is severely low level, go make some friends before you try to find anything more serious.

Looking to Music for Inspiration

I tend to talk about two things a lot on this blog: music and games. As much as I consider myself a game designer, the only thing I have been for longer is a musician. Sure I made my first board game when I was 4, but I was banging on things to make rhythm when I just a toddler. I’ve gone from recorder to piano, to trumpet, to bass guitar in my lifetime, and recently some six-string (although bass has been my favorite out of the bunch). Interestingly, I find creating a game and creating a song to be in a very similar category artistically, and have found that if you run your team like a band as opposed to like a movie studio, what you come up with in the end tends to be a much more original product where you really have an appreciation for everyone’s contributions.

Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies EP was recorded in one week after they had been evicted for not paying rent. That is the inspiration I keep with me whenever I make a game. Whether you are a fan of Alice in Chains or not, that is an accomplishment, especially when that EP spawned two hit singles and hit #1 on the US Billboard Top 200. Some masterpieces take a lifetime to complete, some take a week. Keep that in mind.

My latest game, entitled Zombie Slaughter Tour 2009, will be releasing soon. I started it on October 23rd, coincidently the last time I updated this blog. It will have been in development for less than a month and I couldn’t be prouder of that fact. The game runs great, has been described as being “oddly addictive” by Ichiro of Dejobaan, and I kept Jar of Flies on as inspiration the whole time. I created the game as a birthday present for my sister’s birthday, who also happens to be the star of the game, and continued to polish it for the next couple of weeks afterward. This game also features an online leaderboard to add to the addictiveness, and learning how to program that was definitely an adventure. So really, this was my first foray into the world of network coding, hardware acceleration, data parsing, and all in less than a month.

Would I love to keep going on it? Sure. I have other obligations to get back to that I have been neglecting, but I made sure to get my team’s permission to make this. Remember that if you want to go and do your own thing, whether it’ll take a week, a month, or a year, get the right permissions, especially if there’s money involved or you owe someone else something. If you’re ever ahead of schedule, like so far ahead of schedule that it’s going to take a while for the rest of your team to catch up, that’s a good time to stretch and do something different. This project not only allowed me to expand my programming horizons, but also got me to set my recording equipment back up to record voice work and guitar tracks. So far this has been my favorite experience in game development.

Layne Staley on Jar of Flies: “They gave him two jars full of flies. One of the jars they overfed, the other jar they underfed. The one they overfed flourished for a while, then all the flies died from overpopulation. The one they underfed had most of the flies survive all year. I guess there’s a message in there somewhere.” That’s how art is. Sometimes you’re overfed on one thing and you die putting so much effort into that one thing, never branching out, and in the end the effort was futile. Then sometimes you take just a small bite, and ration that bite out for as long as you can, and in the end you deliver a masterpiece. So which Jar of Flies are you going to live in?

For Those About to Rock

So I finally got around to ordering a copy of Rock Band via the RockBand79.com deal, which comes with Rock Band, RB2, and RB1 era equipment (but boo hoo, right?). Then after reading this article on Gamasutra, I finally understood why they could do this. EA, MTV, and Harmonix are making so much bank on this franchise that they can pretty much give it away at this point.

The major comment at the bottom, however, got me thinking. David Wesley claims that music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band will eventually move less and less product and that once you own one there is less incentive to buy another. That may be true for an individual player. The problem with that argument is that Rock Band and Guitar Hero are party games. They are built to be played in a highly social environment, not just among friends, but also at parties or with family. On top of that, the games appeal to men, women, kids, and adults alike. Even though the games are rated Teen, they can seriously be played by anyone, and I dare any Gamestop salesman from selling a copy to a 10 year who’s got the money. All the swears are silenced out anyway.

Is there less incentive to buy the equipment once you have it? Absolutely. The guitar controllers, drums, and microphones are here to stay. Adding new features like 3 part singing harmonies ala The Beatles: Rock Band only encourages the purchase of an extra microphone or two. The same would go to purchasing any individual extra peripherals should any ever be added, like wind instruments or pianos, but certainly not the whole $150 set.

I believe it is many, many years too early to say the games themselves will die off, especially when they have begun opening up to community development ala Rock Band Network, development for which will only get easier as time goes on and mod-community-made tools become available. Eventually we may even see Rock Band/Guitar Hero become a standalone system, but I highly doubt it as that would be a major investment by EA/Activision, not to mention the consumers. The consoles already have hard drives, and it’s the consoles’ hard drives that are sustaining these games. As of this post, there are currently 722 available songs for download in the main Rock Band Store alone. That number is only going to grow as the years continue. Add to that the songs that will be available in the Rock Band Network, especially if lesser known but still major-label bands take it upon themselves to put their music up there, and there is no end to Rock Band in sight as long as it keeps making money, and as long as people like music, it WILL keep making money.

Are they a fad? Sure. But they are a fad in the same way blue jeans are. Everyone has them, even when there are other kinds of pants, er, games out there. When the original Guitar Hero came out, it was loved by all who had it, but it was yet to spread virally. The disease really started spreading at Guitar Hero 2, and it was around this time that if you played it at someone’s house you were like, “Hmm, I think I want this for myself.” The trend exploded with Rock Band when you could play drums and sing too, thus attracting everybody to the fad. Considering how these games continue to innovate with each iteration, I don’t see sales slipping any time soon. If the games features didn’t innovate at all, sales would slow down. Having your game be entirely devoted to The Beatles is one thing, but welcoming in up to 7 players is another (assuming the people playing an instrument aren’t badass like me and won’t play guitar and sing at the same time). I’d honestly be surprised if we didn’t see compatibility for up to 3-part harmonies in Rock Band 3, as it also applies to bands such as Fleetwood Mac, Alice in Chains, and countless other bands with multiple singers, and it would be great to see some old songs updated to include multiple harmony tracks if you import them into Rock Band 3 (totally worth the $5 right there).

Without innovations in each iteration, there’s no reason to go beyond buying new DLC, and in that case I can understand Mr. Wesley’s argument, but it will be a cold day in hell before the teams at Harmonix and Neversoft decide to phone in a title in their respective music game franchises. Beyond simply dominating the industry, they’ve brought the multiplayer back to one television. It’s not just the games, it’s the welcoming social environment the games create, and until gamers and/or musicians become totally sick of each other, Rock Band and Guitar Hero will continue to thrive.