Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Enter the Swapfu

Posted: July 14, 2014 in Thoughts

Let’s face it, video games are expensive and not many forms of video game exchanging exist. The ones that do exist are all viable options, each having their own pros and cons. It’s up to the consumer to decide what’s best for them. With that being said, there is a new player in the video game exchange scene that brings some consumer friendly options to light.

Enter Swapfu:

Swapfu is an online trading community for video games. The site, which officially launched in May, is a place for gamers to trade their games with other site users. If this sounds vaguely familiar to you it’s because the idea is not entirely orginal.

Long ago there was a service called Goozex, short for goods exchange. It was an online trading community that used a points system as currency. These points could be bought and redeemed (which Goozex took a commission fee from) for games and/or movies . The site eventually went down under its own weight since everyone saved their points for new games and the demand was larger than the supply. Ultimately, users were left with lots of points and nothing they wanted to use them on.

What makes Swapfu a little more consumer friendly than its predecessor is the fact that no money is ever involved, as long as you don’t count the shipping, when trading games. Just create a username, add what you want in addition to what you have and trading is ready to begin.

One of the aspects that is really intriguing is the fact that no game has a particular value per se. The value is in the eye of the trader. What I mean by this is if the trader is willing to part with a game he/she has for another one and both party’s accept, then it is an even trade. It’s all about what the trader wants not necessarily if a game is old or new.

My personal experience with the site is a great example of this. I put Battlefield 4 for the PS4 up. I do not play that game anymore and if I get a hankering for some first person shooting than I would rather play Titanfall. To me, BF4 had little value and was collecting dust. Now, I could’ve traded it in to GameStop for some paltry amount of credit, but I decided against it. The next day I initiated a trade with another user for FIFA 14. With World Cup fever going around I wanted to play a soccer game and figured FIFA would be a good choice. The trades were accepted, games were shipped off and in a matter of days I was playing FIFA.

The site is still growing with users; therefore more games are constantly being added. The mobile site works well as does the desktop site. New features are still around the corner from being implemented such as local chat and a live feed of what traders want on the homepage, but for the most part all the essential components for trading games have been implemented.

Swapfu is a fresh breath of air in a world where video game exchanging is almost non existent.


Kinect-ing the Dots

Posted: May 14, 2014 in Thoughts
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It finally happened.  After a long and arduous road plagued with back tracking of previous statements and apologies, Microsoft is putting Kinect in the back seat, so to speak.  With the recent price drop announced coming on a Kinect-less Xbox One, we can only wonder what the future holds for the much PR maligned peripheral.

The Vision:

Since the Xbox One’s inception, Microsoft has been trying to market a centralized entertainment unit for the living room.  Hence the One in Xbox One.  How would they do this?  Accessibility.  This new console would need to be easily accessible to a wider audience, not just hardcore gamers, but people that were casual and possibly even non-gamers.  To accomplish this monumental feat they needed this next console to be able to be used quickly and easily by all.  Enter Kinect 2.0.  With advanced voice recognition and gesture control the most non tech-savvy person would be able to use this machine successfully.  Now with that in place add in HDMI in support for cable boxes, a slew of entertainment apps with more along the way courtesy of similar app development architecture for Windows 8 and Xbox One and a Blu-ray player  This machine was ready for the masses.  This shift to a centralized entertainment unit was a long time coming for Microsoft.  Many forget Microsoft pioneered having apps such as Netflix on a console.  The Xbox 360 had it long before any other platform did.  The 360 and Microsoft in general also drew in larger crowds of consumers than Sony, for example, with its superior online experience and much coveted exclusives like Gears of War and Halo.  Bigger franchises than any of Sony’s combined.  Microsoft had a large portion of the hardcore crowd and was on the cusp of drawing in an untapped demographic for consoles as well.  The vision for the Xbox One was realized and set in motion.

 Communication Breakdown:

Any great product needs two things for it to deeply penetrate the collective conscious: great features and great marketing.  Just ask Apple.  While the Xbox One has impressive features that its competitors don’t, the message that was delivered at E3 in June of last year had left much to be desired and they been stumbling since.  Even now, those same announcements that were made almost a year ago still resonate with that same crowd Microsoft, ironically, is trying to attract; the casual and non-gamers.  Announcements of always-on DRM and the console not being able to work without the Kinect left a bad taste in that collective conscious.  The damage had been done.  After those statements were rescinded and reversed, Microsoft never seemed to be able to fully get that crowd back.  All the while, hardcore gamers felt alienated by this talk of entertainment options, but not much in the gaming department.  After all, this is a video game console.  Where were the games?!  Topping off all this is the recent Microsoft management structural shake up.  Which takes us to present times.  The Xbox One is ready to play hardball while also taking a page from Sony’s playbook.  Price point parity with the PS4, a revamped Games for Gold program much in the same vain as PlayStation Plus and the removing of apps such as Netflix and Hulu Plus from behind the Xbox Live pay wall.

It’s fitting and in many ways unfortunate where we are at right now with the Kinect.  The price cut means so much  without any words.  One of the biggest problems in selling the original Kinect was the fact that not many people felt there was a need for it.  When the need was almost non existent, so where developers willing to incorporate it with their games.  That was supposed to change with the Xbox One.  By including it with every console, as a developer you knew the consumer would have one.  Why not incorporate it and produce something the competition would have trouble replicating?  Last generation the 360 was on the cutting edge of online offerings and destroyed a competing console with better hardware.  This generation the Xbox One finds itself in a similar position, but without the advantages of last gen.  The PS4 is more powerful and has all those offerings…minus a powerful peripheral like a Kinect, but if the console is $399 now why bother with it at all.  The Xbox One without Kinect is a neutered console.  It becomes just another console.  Sure the Kinect isn’t perfect, what cutting edge tech is, but the fact of the matter is part of what makes the Xbox One that “One” in all entertainment unit is the accessibility.  We are barely six months out from the release of next gen consoles and Microsoft has already gone back, again, on a core component of the console. Maybe this could be much ado about nothing.  The PlayStation Camera has been selling like crazy as a separate component to the PS4, so that may also be telling to the wants and needs of consumers.  Still, I can’t help but think that Microsoft, in an attempt to regain footing now, has forgone a cutting edge approach much like they did with discontinuing an always-on DRM future.
The optimist in me thinks with these big changes, the Xbox One will begin to gain back that market share it lost and really begin to compete with the PS4.  The pessimist in me thinks this is just another blunder in a long line of them that will ultimately lead to Microsoft chasing Sony all generation long.  It’s definitely much too early to tell, but these changes could very well be indicators.  All I know is navigating that whole interface controller free, albeit being clunky at times, is awesome and definitely feels next gen.  I can only hope more next gen experiences are on the way.

Ryse-ing to the Occasion

Posted: April 8, 2014 in Thoughts
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A retrospective look on Ryse and video game reviews shaping our opinions

In this day and age instant information and analysis is the name of the game.  Video games have  have become increasingly scrutinized because of a more informed gaming community which, therefore leads to being more selective over the games they purchase.  Critic reviews in a way, have taken precedent over user experiences by letting our opinions be formed vicariously through their words, thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes we fail to even try something that we may personally like because of others’ views or even the general consensus.  With this all being said, reviews have always been a tricky business.  Do you review with objectivity?  Or do you review based on your own personal likes and dislikes that may or may not have been swayed by other factors? Obviously, there are certain broad strokes you can paint with, but still certain aspects of an experience are going to bring someone closer or alienate them to the product purely based on what that person personally likes or doesn’t like.

Case in point: Ryse’s metacritic score is 60 based on critic scores.  As a consumer, if I were to see this kind of score I would instantly steer clear of purchasing let alone even trying the game in question.  Ryse, the Xbox One launch title that came out in November of last year, has been marred with mediocre reviews since its release.  I was one of those people, surely among many others that just wrote the game off as a tech demo and nothing more.  The combat was basic, too much QTE, no substance and micro transactions a plenty.  These complaints along with the campaigns brevity all came together to deliver a message that was a bit lackluster to say the least.  I myself even thought while playing through it that this game came to fruition in a boardroom full of suits, brainstorming together to come up with a title that will show off next gen graphics…and nothing else.  After about a week with Ryse my feelings toward it became a perfect storm of change.

Once I completed it and stared at the credits rolling I kind of felt like I wanted to keep playing.  I couldn’t understand it.  Why was this?  After giving it some thought I came to a few conclusions.  I highly enjoyed the visual aesthetics partly due to the fact that it was just a representation of ancient Rome, which is a time period I have great interest in.  The voice acting was amazing and even coupled well with the characters faces, mo capped and all.  I enjoyed all the cutscenes which were beautifully rendered and the story was not bad albeit predictable and historically inaccurate in spots.  Visuals aside the “Legendary” difficulty proved to be a great test of rolling through areas as perfectly as possible.  High difficulty in games is right up my alley and playing Ryse on this setting was satisfying.  Yes, it’s all just timing based in a simplistic combat system, but when you have to perfectly execute moves to advance it became more fun for me and the simplistic combat was welcomed, for it was difficult enough without needing more complexity to it.  Afterwards, I tried the multiplayer which I assumed was going to be terrible and it was actually much better than it had any business being.  A dynamic, co-op PVE match with the proverbial carrot on a stick being leveling to attain new gear.  Innovative and fun.

After having these experiences with Ryse I realized how much external reviews and opinions shaped the way I looked at certain games.  Reviews in themselves are still a work in progress, I think.  I sometimes find it hard to imagine (even though it’s reality) that a game like Titanfall can be on the same scoring system as a game like Infamous: Second Son.  How do you account for what different goals those games are trying to accomplish?  This, coupled with the fact that certain reviews have personal opinions on what a person liked and didn’t, begin to paint a conflicting image of what a game has to offer.  Should genre based scoring systems be adopted?  I don’t know (probably not), but what I do know is that reviews are an imperfect grading system to judge games by.  Yes, one may use Metacritic and get an average of several scores in one convenient score, but this still does not solve the problem of how games are being graded and the opinions that went into those scores.  If anything Metacritic compounds the problems of our flawed system by corralling all of these varied opinions and attempting to generalize it into a single digit number.

Now, make no mistake about it; Ryse is by no means a masterpiece, but what was a sub par gaming experience for many, morphed into something entirely different for me based on my time with it.  So, why are such scores anticipated and taken so incontrovertibly by so many?  One is with this age of information we must know everything about something before we truly know anything about it.  It’s ingrained in our culture to review, blog, tweet or post our thoughts and/or opinions on a whim.  Secondly, it’s a convenient reference point to bolster our point of view in regards to how we feel about a game whether we have played it or not.  Reviews are helpful and damaging at the same time, but no other form of critiquing a game has come around since these reviews were being printed in magazines decades ago.

There very well may be no answer to this dilemma.  Sometimes, certain games just get a bad rap.  Today will be a week that I’ve had with Ryse and last night I found myself perusing the DLC available and doing Google searches for future map and mode releases.  I even gave some thought to the season pass.  Some thought.  Maybe it’s just me and my particular tastes, maybe I am partial to it given its setting, maybe I have been wanting a third person action game set in Roman times.  Whatever it is, Ryse has gained a place in my heart.  However small that place may be.

Xsus’ top ten games of 2013

Posted: January 3, 2014 in Thoughts

10: Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

FE would probably be much higher on my list if I had finished it, but to be honest I recently got my 3DS and just have not had enough time to play it.  What I have played from it is incredible though.  What FE does so spectacularly from other strategy games is the relationships your characters form with each other and how that impacts your battles with the forces of evil as the game progresses.  A full on trait system per character (which is on full display when coupling and having offspring  to add to your party), nice visual design, permadeath to spice things up and an impactful score all come together very well in, what should be, a higher placed game on this list.

9: Devil May Cry (360)

I lost interest in this franchise basically after the first game.  I really enjoyed my time with it, but just didn’t really care when the subsequent sequels came out.  I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I heard a reboot was being done, but to my surprise it reviewed very well.  Aside from the reviews I was really intrigued to see what Ninja Theory did with the franchise and took the plunge.  What a splash this over the top game made.  The story is still exactly what you would expect from a DMC game, nothing to write home about, BUT the gameplay is where it all shines.  Plain and simple: the combat is intensely fun and just works.  The seamless switching between normal, angel and devil attacks felt right, combos were just so fun to pull off.  The outrageous enemy and level designs were also a huge plus.  On board for a sequel.

8: Dishonored DLC- The Knife of Dunwall & The Brigmore Witches (360)

Wait, what?  Why is DLC on this list?  Because it was awesome.  Now, I know a lot of people were down on Dishonored last year, but those people are monsters.  No, seriously though Dishonored was one of my favorite games of last year, so naturally I couldn’t wait to play the DLC and let me tell you it did not disappoint.  In my humble opinion the DLC was better than the actual game.  The blink ability was modified in a game changing way, the main character, Daud (voiced by none other than Michael Madsen), is infinitely more interesting than the mute Korvo was, the story was much more fascinating than Dishonored‘s unimaginative revenge plot and all the little extras were a welcome addition like the “favors” and additional abilities.  All in all I felt like The Knife of Duwall and The Brigmore Witches really showcased what Dishonored could be which says a lot considering it was already a really good game.

7: Tomb Raider (360)

I have a confession: I have never played a Tomb Raider game.  Although, I am not counting the demo of it I played on those old demo discs that came in video game magazines…those were the best, but I digress.  I don’t really know why, but I just never have.  Well, this one was a hell of a one to start on.  I really enjoyed actually being a female protagonist in this male protagonist dominated world minus the horrible ways Crystal Dynamics made her death scenes.  Horrific.  Aside that I had a great time with the game.  It certainly wasn’t perfect; their were some minor things I would have liked to see changed, but the combat was fun, I enjoyed the puzzle aspects of it (even if they should have added more) and the Uncharted-esque scaling went well with the flow of the game.  I am officially waiting on a sequel for this rebooted franchise.

6: Grand Theft Auto V (360)

We all knew this game would be amazing, but wow!  Rockstar knows exactly how to raise the bar and GTA V is no exception.  I suppose I should start with the likeness to Los Angeles and the visual fidelity at which it shows it because it’s an impressive showcase.  The amount of detail is stunning and lest us not forget it is running on “old gen” consoles.  Visuals aside though I was also very impressed with the three main characters.  At first it sounded like an odd way to play GTA, but in classic Rockstar fashion it worked, both on the gameplay and story side of things.  A  revamped cover and weapon select system was also a welcome addition.  Trevor.

5: Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag (PS4)

I could never quite put my finger on it, but I never truly like the AC franchise.  I thought it had some promise gameplay wise and the story was mildly entertaining, but it just never panned out for me.  Yet, every year I always managed to get psyched for the next installment.  AC3 finally pushed me over the edge with the full force of all it’s mediocrity and I thought I was done with the franchise.  Then pirates were introduced.  Damn it.  Black Flag is everything the other games in the franchise are not: fun.  Ridiculously fun.  It would be higher on this list, but the parts that keep this game down are basically everything related to the AC franchise.  This game has loads to do and would take some time to get 100% “sync”, but it’s mostly all fun.  To boot it looks very nice and oh did I mention pirate shanties??  Yes, please.

4: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

Who better than Nintendo to make a game that taps into your nostalgic senses while also adding an incredible new twist?  A Link Between Worlds does this magnificently and is also a fitting title.  Why you ask?  Well, ALBW takes the best of A Link to the Past and merges it with this very unique playing Zelda game unlike any before it.  Nintendo basically completely changed the formula of how Zelda games work and masqueraded it in this nostalgic inducing package.  See why the title fits now?  This game is just amazing.  The renting of your gear, the unlimited rupee wallet and insanely simple yet extremely effective merging with walls mechanic are all outstanding new features to this franchise.  The 3D works great, especially on the puzzle sequences and all the classic music is remixed in an impressive way considering how iconic those songs are.  I mean how can you not love a game with a track like this?

3: Splinter Cell: Blacklist (360)

Who would’ve thought that I would be having heated debates for ALBW and Blacklist for the number three spot?  Trust me it was a very close call.  Very. In the end I would still possibly switch them up, but for the sake of not having a 3A and 3B I put Blacklist at three.  Stealth games are one of my favorite genres and Blacklist was hugely underrated.  This game took everything that made SC: Conviction so good and made it even better.  The insane amount of customization on your character was awesome and the controls, although quirky at times, for the most part made you feel like a bad ass.  The level designs were expansive to say the least which really fit with the versatility of that game.  I mostly used stealth, but all out chaos was also a viable option.  All the extra stuff was really fun too such as the side missions and the puzzle like Gone Dark missions which were like a scavenger hunt of information of Google.

2: Bioshock Infinite (360)

After I finished Infinite I was in a daze.  That fantastical ending is one of my favorite of all time (almost as good as my number one game) and I just knew no matter what came out for the rest of the year, Infinite would be in my top two even though it came out in March.  This was a game where some people were down on the combat, but I found it highly entertaining.  The mix of powers and guns was very Bioshock-y, but the addition of the skylines was enough to freshen things up for me.  Plus it looked cool.  The visuals were nice, but the story…well the story was nothing short of incredible.  I couldn’t sleep that night and the next day I scoured forums for hours discussing the ending to take in every single point of view.  It’s one I won’t soon forget.  Lastly, the animation and sound of getting money from Elizabeth is just so damn satisfying!

1: The Last of Us (PS3)

Let me start off by saying one thing:  this game is miles ahead of anything on this list.  The closest game that comes to perfection and I don’t throw that around lightly.  The Last of Us transcends gaming in general due to how extraordinary it is.  Other game have had great visuals or an outstanding story or maybe even all of it, but the package that is The Last of Us is just so tight and perfect that it just blows everything away.  Anything you could rate a game on The Last of Us does it exceptionally.  The visuals are sublime, the original score is endearing, the gameplay is very fun whether it’s crafting supplies or the combat against the infected and humans which are both very different.  Even the multiplayer is good!

If only one thing could shine from this total package though that one thing would be the story.  The most gut wrenching story I have ever experienced in a game with an amazing ending to top it off.  All done with top of the line voice acting which is supremely impactful on the overall performance of the characters.  The way everything is depicted in The Last of Us from characters to the world is simply phenomenal.  The Last of Us I salute you.

Don Mattrick, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas

Don Mattrick, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas

Back in June there was a panel at USC in which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Don Mattrick sat in.  They discussed several topics, but one in particular ruffled my feathers a bit.  They both (the directors) made a case for videogames not being able to truly be art.  Now before I delve into this I would like to mention I am a huge fan of both Spielberg and Lucas.  These filmmakers have revolutionized the film industry in their own, very distinct ways.  Spielberg has been the eye behind the lens of countless great films and what more can be said about Lucas’ Star Wars?  Or their amazing collaboration for the Indiana Jones films?  These gentleman’s opinions deserve to be heard and taken into account, but I digress.

Now, videogames do differ from film for several reasons, but the biggest one being videogames are interactive.  When watching a film, the viewer only engages visually and mentally.  The interactivity in itself, as stated by Spielberg, is a determining factor for videogames to not quite be there on the level of film or literature as art; “the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart. And it becomes a sport”.  What is art then?  Literature and film make us strongly feel emotions through what is being presented to us.  The content we are absorbing scratches at our soul.  We cry when the main character courageously dies for the noble cause, we wince when a character is experiencing excruciating pain and we laugh when a joke is planted just right.  We take in the beautiful visuals of a Picasso or Vincent van Gogh with our hearts because when they pressed those paint brushes to the canvas they did so with love and care.  All these representations of art have a common denominator:  They emanate emotion.

So, do video games emanate emotion?  That depends on the game in question.  Just the same as only certain films speaking to your emotions.  Not every film is a testament of human creativity.  With that being said the propensity for bad games is still high because of their structure which Spielberg eluded to.  Games are meant to be played and unfortunately more often than not character and plot take a back seat to gameplay mechanics.  Gameplay, is not something I think can be artful and will agree with the esteemed directors in that regard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the contents as a whole should be disregarded.  According to Lucas “storytelling is about two things, it’s about character and plot”, but I think he missed something and that’s in the execution of those two components.

One only needs to look at these last two years to see the maturation of videogames as a legitimate story telling and visually artful medium.  Let’s look at some examples I think fit the description of film or even literature caliber stories.  Three games stand out to me above all others when it comes to “character and plot”.  Those are The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite and the sublime The Last of Us.  These three games are all about “character and plot”.  The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are story driven emotional roller coasters that tell the story of survival in a bleak world while also entrusting you in the care of a young lady.  Throughout the journey strong paternal feelings are developed for the supporting characters who, at times, just steal the show.  These are feelings that can not be duplicated in a film or literature because you’re not a part of it, it’s more of a journey.  Bioshock Infinite is a tour de force of creative storytelling that spans everything from racism, politics and even a heavy religious backdrop.  Not to mention the setting of the floating city of Colombia is simply breathtaking.  As far as visually appealing, one would have to look no further than Journey.  This game is basically poetry in motion as you make your way through the desert to a mysterious mountain.  This game’s has no real story, I mean the main character doesn’t even have a name, but that’s not the appeal for this game.  It’s the visual direction.  The slight undulations of the sand and the sun shining give the desert almost a vast ocean quality.  The camera work only accentuates the experience by giving players breathtaking views of this enigmatic world.

There are many more examples of titles that give you so much more than just a standard gameplay experience, but those last games I touched on are trail blazing a new path to deeply emotional artful games.  Again, just the way their are movies that don’t do much for you their are also games that fall in that category, their is just more of them since video games are still a very young medium.  It hasn’t had enough time to flourish yet.  Film, art and literature have been around significantly longer and are much more mature mediums.  With that I leave you with one recommendation: play The Last of Us.  This “videogame” is strong enough to hold up to a good book or film and is also visually appealing.   I guarantee it will elicit strong emotions from you and if that’s a sign of things to come then we have much to be excited about.

Remember the five star rating system the Xbox 360 had?  If you had to take some time to think about it, don’t be alarmed.  It was rarely used and the implementation was not a tangible result you could check on.  The concept behind the five star rating system for the Xbox 360 was innovative yet flawed.  By giving someone a low rating you would not be paired with that person in future Xbox Live matchmaking.  The problem with this was most likely you would have to do this with every multiplayer session you participated in because of the repulsive etiquette a lot of players demonstrated.  This is, unfortunately, a byproduct of the anonymity the internet grants you, a sort of faceless badgering.  So, what most players turned to (myself included) is the party chat mode.  This prevented dealing with the “miscreants” of Xbox Live, but a new problem arose: teamwork was a lot harder to come by in the multiplayer sessions because of the fragmentation of the chat.  No one would win.

This is the very problem Microsoft wants to solve with the Xbox One.  In a recent interview with OXM, Microsoft’s Senior Product Manager, Mike Lavin, discussed some idea on how this new reputation system wil affect future Xbox Live users.  This Reputation system will be displayed on your profile just as prominently as your Gamerscore was on the Xbox 360.  Exactly, how does this system work?  According to Mike Lavin, this system will essentially separate the people who play nice with the ones who don’t.  This will be based on a rating a person is given following a multiplayer match, similar to the old Xbox 360 system.  In matches which include several players to a team, the person with the lowest score will be the dictating score of their respective team.  Basically, putting pressure on that individual to conform to the play style of that team.  Why would that player want to conform?  Well, unless they don’t mind playing with other equally reprehensible offenders of etiquette, they will be in Xbox Live purgatory.

Imagine that.  Like a virtual insane asylum.

Aside from gaining reputation in gaming, it may also be increased by joining Microsoft’s community programs.  Xbox Live Rewards being one of those such programs.  It is not yet known whether this system will be based on numbers, stars, etc.

I feel like this is a grand step for Microsoft.  Online gaming needs to be more accessible and just generally friendlier for a person to want to be a part of it on a consistent basis, competing.  It’s a lot more fun to play with others who are trying to play the game right or want to play on the teamwork aspects.  This does seem like a bit of a daunting task to say the least, but if Microsoft pulls it off they might be able to establish a barometer for future reputation systems on other platforms.