Storytelling in multiple media

I recently have been engrossed by storytelling. Finding stories everywhere has been awesome.

My fascination started with joining a book club about 2 years ago. Before book club, I hadn’t read fiction since high school, and most of that was mandatory. In between, I read various nonfiction and enjoyed the epiphanies and moments of wonder. That type of engagement was very different, however, from what I experienced when I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitizer Prize winner for fiction. I couldn’t put it back down, as the suspense and pulled me through the (digital) pages. I had forgotten how compelling a good story can be and what it was like to really live in another world, another life.

Around then, I got back into tabletop roleplaying games and began running my own games. As a dungeon master, I was responsible for creating the adventures for my players. I had a hard time at first: I was so focused on creating a big, inhabitable world filled with its own vitality that I couldn’t add enough detail about what might happen during an actual session. My next campaign was set in the world of Tekumel, and I wanted to scope it better. In that world, I crafted an epic story arc as a framework to progress through each session. In learning how to DM, I read this post from The Angry DM, which suggested that a boss fight could use a three-act structure to add drama to typically monotonous processes. It was a revelation that storytelling techniques could drive a game.

Then came “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast about a fictional town where surreal and horrific things happen and are presented in a fake radio show. It has a Lovecraftian sense of psychological horror but presents it in a humorous way. The different stories in each podcast are ostensibly unrelated, but there’s often a common thread between them and between episodes. Julie and I listen while we do laundry, and we laugh and puzzle together about it. As a purely audio format, so much is conveyed in Cecil’s (the narrator) voice, and we can only imagine what horrors he talks about.

I recently posted about how my video game preferences had changed to put greater emphasis on stories rather than gameplay itself. I just finished Alan Wake, a survival horror video game. You play Alan Wake, a horror writer who goes on vacation but finds out that the story he is writing is coming true. As you play through the game, you find pages of the novel along the path, either describing things that have happened from a different perspective or foreshadowing future events. It was brilliant: the overall presentation had a very cinematic feel to it, but I felt even closer to the characters because I controlled Alan through the events. Minute for minute, it was slower than reading an equivalent novel or watching an equivalent movie, but the interactivity and immersion of playing it was phenomenal. And even the time itself was well-spent as I became more invested in Alan himself.

Most recently, I picked up Marvel Unlimited because I have been absorbed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe of movies and tv shows and wanted more background. I haven’t read comics since high school, and even then, I was reading scattered comics that I found at used bookstores rather than working sequentially through story arcs. I read through several major events, then got into Captain America, reading at least a half-dozen comics every day. With issues coming monthly and spread over years, the comics strung together story arcs that both had the satisfaction of resolution while also immediately pulling me into the next one. I foolishly kept reading to find a stopping point but always ended up reading another when the last page left me hanging.

Once I started to see storytelling in several different forms, I began to pay more attention to it in the regular media I consume, like movies and television. There are the shared elements of storytelling, but the different media add allowances and constrains as well. The format, whether written, audio, or visual obviously has a huge impact. Whether it’s a one-shot, like a movie, or serial, like a TV show, affects how the storyteller keeps their audience’s attention. And with video and roleplaying games, the interactivity adds immersion and unpredictability to the story.

There’s something about storytelling that really resonates with us as humans, and I’m somewhat amazed at how well I had distanced myself from it during college. Even so, the nature and influence of storytelling is somewhat troubling to me and my recent ways of thinking.

But that is a story for my next post.

My Pivot Away from Video Game RPGs

A few weeks ago, I started playing Mass Effect 2 and was instantly sucked into it. Well, instantly after playing the initial, 15 minute, unskippable cut scene sequence 3 or 4 times because I couldn’t get the controller working in Windows properly. Anyways, I was instantly sucked into the giant universe and cinematic feel. I knew there was an epic story ahead for me to be invested in. Within 2 weeks and maybe 4 hours of gameplay, however, I was over it.

Despite having grown up on computer role-playing games (RPGs), I have been turned off by them recently. RPGs are different from strict action or adventure games in that the player character grows stronger over the course of the game. Games typically accomplish this with either an experience or loot system. Along the way, an overarching plot and a variety of side quests fill out the game.

Recently, I have found myself wanting more out of the story and my investment into my character. Instead, I have found most games to be a grind, which I quickly become bored of. Today, consumers expect at least 30 hours of gameplay out of RPGs, and although developers do their best to vary the content, most of it ends up being somewhat similar. To contrast, a season of a TV show may not even last 20 hours, and there’s plenty of filler in that.

It’s interesting how increased player choices also seems to decrease variability in games. I have 2 examples in mind. First, many RPGs allow players to pick one of a few possible playable classes, each with different gameplay strategies, such as brawlers, snipers, magic users, etc. This choice, however, means that enemies and encounters must be designed in a way that allows different techniques for success. And the easiest way to do this is to make all enemies bland since unique challenges would be imbalanced against different classes.

The second example is the open-world RPG, where the player is allowed to roam around a big world and loosely follow their own path through the story. Although it sounds liberating, the lack of “railroading” means that game developers have to account for a lot of different cases. Again, the result typically isn’t detail into specific encounters and enemies: the content instead ends up being generic so that all paths end up roughly the same.

The last point I’ll make is that the RPG and action genres have crossed over in modern action RPGs like Diablo and first-person RPGs like Borderlands, which really mix the genres up. Again, I have found these games something of a grind because they usually based on similar, known gameplay and interfaces (FPS or clickfests) but also mix in extended game content through grinding for experience or equipment.

Of course, these are all opinions based on my changing preferences in games. I once was happy to spend night after night running the same Diablo 2 boss to hopefully get loot. Nowadays, I’m looking to get the most story per hour of gameplay and cut out the grind. Although I appreciate the cinematic feel of AAA roleplaying games, they are hard to justify the hours spent compared to, say, reading a book or watching a movie if I wanted a story.

In writing this post, I have realized I should be playing more adventure games. They’re usually tighter and closer to 10-15 hours and have some novel gameplay. And they’re made for the story instead of trying to just generate content for one to grow and grind through.

I have Alan Wake on steam: I’ll give that a shot and follow up on how that goes.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

“The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts

These days, most of my gaming is spent looking down and controlling large armies of space marines in epic, strategic battles. My favorite genre of games, however, typically involves playing a single hero (and maybe a few companions) embarking on an epic quest in some fantasy world where my character grows stronger and find magical equipment and loot. Among these games, known as western (as opposed to eastern or Japanese) role-playing games (RPGs), there are several well-known franchises, such as Baldur’s GateDiablo, and Mass Effect. One important franchise that I came late to is The Elder Scrolls,. Most recently, I have been playing the 5th installement, Skyrim, but thanks to the generosity of my friend Tom, I had the chance to play in the open beta for The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) this past weekend. Continue reading ““The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts”

Why I Think StarCraft is Awesome

I play, watch, read, write, and think a lot of StarCraft. Specifically, since StarCraft 2 came out in July 2010, I have played at least 653 games of StarCraft (source: battle.net); watch on average a half hour to an hour of StarCraft a day via online streams like Twitch; read /r/starcraft first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and at least a dozen times in-between; write a StarCraft blog; and think about StarCraft a lot.

Looking at my blog history, I haven’t shared very much about StarCraft at all given how passionate I am about it, and with the upcoming release of Heart of the Swarm, the first expansion to StarCraft 2, I want to share why I think StarCraft is so awesome.

Like with books, video games can engage people in many different ways, depending on both the game and the person*. For me, StarCraft is all about the challenge of making quick, strategic decisions while managing many tasks simultaneously.

StarCraft is like Chess come to life in a sci-fi setting between humans (Terran), bugs (Zerg), and psionic warriors (Protoss). You and an opponent each start with a base and need to mine resources to build an army to destroy each other. The strategy and quick reflexes come in at several different levels, all of which must be maintained simultaneously.

At the lowest level, you control individual army units, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. With good dexterity, you can guide a flamethrower buggy (a “Hellion”) into your opponents base and kill lots of workers when they aren’t looking. Or maybe you need to split up your clump of Marines when explosive, suicide Banelings waddle up. These require careful attention to individual units to make each of them as effective as possible.

Going a level up, you need control your whole army that may be as many as 200 units. Typically, most of your units are in one main army, and how you position that depends on where your opponent’s main army is and what you think they’re going to do. Your strategy, however, might be to attack in multiple places at the same time, and professional players can control attacks on up to 4 different places simultaneously.

Going up another level, you need to be building your army. Depending on what units your opponent has and what your strategy is, you might want slightly different compositions of units. If your opponent has lots of flying units, you should probably have anti-air units, but if you also get some invisible units, you can force your opponent to build detectors or possibly take a lot of damage. To ensure that your army is at full strength, you must constantly be queuing up more units to be built at various buildings, while controlling your army and individual units in it.

Up one more level, you need to control your economy as a whole. Although you start with one base, you need to build various types of buildings to get access to different units and different technology. Additionally, you can also take more bases around the map to get more resources faster. It can be hard to know which bases are safe to take and when to take them. It’s even harder to figure that out while constantly building up your army, managing your existing army, and all of the units in your army.

At the highest level, you need a game plan. Will you build an army really quickly and try to destroy your opponent before they have defenses ready? Or will you try to take a bunch of bases to mine more resources to build a bigger, stronger army later? Of will you build up defenses and try to develop technology as quickly as possible to get advanced army units very quickly? As the game progresses, you constantly need to readjust your strategy between army, economy, and technology. This strategizing is happening while you’re figuring out how your economy works, training a bigger army, moving your army about the map, and controlling individual units.

So at the highest level, there’s a lot of strategy and little physical work, but as you move down, the focus shifts more and more to reflexes. Different players have different strengths among all of those tasks, but regardless, StarCraft is a constantly demanding, both mental and physical, game. In fact, I think it’s the hardest video game out there. Like chess openings and football plays, StarCraft games start with a plan (known as a “build order”), but soon, the game is alive. Professional players can perform upwards of 300 clicks and key presses per minute to do everything they need to, and they practice as their full-time job (40+ hours a week) to understand the game and learn strategies.

So beyond playing, I also follow professional StarCraft, which is now an eSport. Watching professional StarCraft players is amazing. Many players stream their practice sessions so you can follow your favorite players as they play everyday. They compete in a regular tournaments where commentators talk through all the games played in big brackets. Between the strategic depth of the game, the storylines of individual players, serious mindgames between familiar players, and crazy highlight plays, following and watching tournaments are always engaging. And there’s a vibrant online community to make the game accessible and fun for everyone.

So back to the original prompt for this post: Heart of the Swarm is coming out. Many people only play the story-driven single player, which plays through a sequence of different missions. I often forget about lore and only see the concrete gameplay (it’s kind of like just seeing the green code for the world in The Matrix), but the story alone is a great experience. Take 2 minutes to watch the cinematic trailer for the game. Hopefully you think that part is pretty cool as well.

Okay, the final part of this post is the pitch: please try out StarCraft**. I would love to have more friends to play with (we can play together on a team), and despite focusing on how hard the game is, I think anyone can have fun with it. For example, Julie played few video games beforehand, but I got her playing a bit of StarCraft 2 summers ago, and we’re both hooked. We play every week or 2, but we’re both frequently watching StarCraft, and it comes up almost every time we talk.

So that’s why I think StarCraft is so interesting to follow and play for several years. I hope you give it a shot if you haven’t already.

 

* We read to learn new skills (technical books), learn (history, science), engage with deep moral questions (philosophy), laugh over something ridiculous (humor), put ourselves in other people’s shoes (fiction, fantasy), figure out what all the hubbub is about (50 Shades of Grey), and more.

We play video games to test our twitch reflexes (shooters), engage in social situations (MMOs), challenge ourselves (puzzles), make us think tactically (strategy games), fill time (many mobile games), experience a story (roleplaying games), and more.

** If you want to skip the $20 for StarCraft 2 and $40 for Heart of the Swarm, you can try the free starter edition first

Crumbs

I have a few things to share that I considered writing full posts on. When I thought through the result, however, the result would likely be tedious and overanalyzed, so I’m bunching them instead.

Return to Baldur’s Gate

My favorite video game series is Baldur’s Gate, and the first game has been re-released as “Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition” by a new team doing an overhaul. The updates are minor, though, and the real benefit is a reason to play the game again. It’s a roleplaying game based on the rules of Dungeons & Dragons where you control an adventuring party of humans, dwarves, elves, and the like to go on quests, kill monsters, and follow along the main story.

A lot of my enthusiasm for the game is nostalgia, but the game is works differently than RPGs being developed today. One trend recently has been more towards action RPGs, which rely more on twitchy reflexes to hit monsters or trigger abilities. Another trend has been towards open worlds and customization, where you can freely explore expansive planets and countrysides and play the game as you like. For me, both of these changes result in less interesting gameplay. Action RPGs often become repetitive as you find one way to kill monsters and do it over and over. Open worlds tend to have more bland interactions since the game can’t refine a particular path to something unique.

I would describe Baldur’s Gate more, but I think it would be more meaningful if you just found a gameplay video online somewhere if you really care. Definitely give it a shot if either of my thoughts above resonates with you.

Superstition at the Pac-12 Championship Game

Stanford football will be returning to the Rose Bowl this season after a hard-fought game against UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship. Thanks to my friends who are better fans than I am, I did end up attending the game, which was nerve-wracking enough to make it worth watching in-person.

We had just played UCLA the week before and won by a large margin, but this game was more back-and-forth. Through the first 3 quarters, I became very superstitious. Somehow, I determined that things were going better for us when I had my raincoat on instead of off. Then I determined that my raincoat just favored the team on offense, so I was taking it on and off a lot. Then I determined that I had actually gotten it backwards and needed my raincoat off.

At some point in the second half, I realized that my sudden superstition was really just me exhibiting anxiety about the game. In a scary situation where we might have come so close to the Rose Bowl and then lost it, I was trying to find something that I could control and change the result in my favor. Until then, I didn’t trust the team to do it on their own, and that was a problem, so for the rest of the game, I left my raincoat on and put my confidence in the team. That was confidence well-placed.

Benefits of Living Alone

My place is still mostly unfurnished at the moment, which means that I’m not in a position to be welcoming roommates yet. It’s strange, but it’s also liberating to be entirely and only responsible to myself in my living space. Here are a few things I have been able to do that I would be able to otherwise:

  • Leaving candy wrappers on the floor because no one else is around to step on them or get annoyed
  • Moving an end table into the washroom for 10 minutes so I can use my laptop while on the john
  • Never closing my bedroom door, even when I’m sleeping
  • Dragging my mattress into my living room to lie in bed and watch StarCraft being projected onto a blank wall, then going to bed

Overall, it’s not that bad, though I may become very eccentric if left alone for too long.

My Thoughts on the Diablo 3 Beta

Hopefully those of you who also spent years in Diablo 2 didn’t miss the big news last weekend that Diablo 3 was in open beta for stress testing. The servers were up and down as Blizzard presumably was testing various capacities and training staff responses, but it was a tremendous opportunity for many fans of the series, like me, to jump in and try out the game.

For the unfamiliar, Diablo 3 is the 3rd installment in a fantasy hack-n-slash RPG. It’s set in a medieval world full of magic, where you wield swords, bows, fireballs, and more in a series of dungeons to defeat the Lords of Hell. The basic gameplay involves killing lots of monsters, which, to an inexperienced observers, looks like running around and clicking on monsters until they die. The slightly more observant will note that the game takes place from an top-down 3rd person view, and to defeat the monsters, you must run up to them and click them until they die. The final component to the game is roleplaying: you focus on developing a single hero over the course of the game and becoming stronger (by killing monsters) so that your character has more skills, better statistics, and better equipment, so you can kill more monsters.

Despite the relatively simple premise, the game is tremendously addictive. Although there are major quests to complete, the world map transitions you from one area to the next, where hordes of monsters have nothing better to do than to wait around for you to walk past. Moreover, the game is constantly rewarding you for playing: every monster killed means more experience (to get you stronger) and possible dropped items that make be useful to you.

As I mentioned, Diablo 2 had a large influence on my development, so I sprung at the opportunity to play this weekend. In the beginning, I was hoping to play through all 5 available classes (Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Wizard, and Witch Doctor), though I fortunately had better things to do with my time. I started with the Barbarian and quickly became comfortable with the format. Thanks to things such as reddit, work, and email, my clicking skills remained top notch despite being out of the game for years, and I had no problem with that.

Blizzard tweaked the gameplay to make some things easier: gold is automatically picked up when dropped by nearby monsters, statistics about your character are presented in a useful manner, and potions are largely replaced by health orbs that appear from dead monsters. They also changed gameplay aspects to focus more upon gameplay choices: skills are automatically gained (with builds being dependent on “loadouts” of  currently available skills), the environment like falling chandeliers can be triggered to deal damage, and crafting items has become much more relevant. Overall, Blizzard has done a good job of cleaning up the game and making changes that may seem detrimental, but actually really improve the experience.

But let’s face it: most of the time is spent clicking monsters, and in that respect, this game is a solid follow-up to its predecessors. And it’s for precisely that reason that I think I’ll pass on playing Diablo 3.

Unlike in “MacGruber”, the game is the same, but the players have changed. As snobby as it sounds, Diablo just doesn’t have quite enough to it to make me feel that it’s worth my time. Among my current interests, video games should be a low priority. And among video games, it doesn’t have the plot line of other RPGs like Mass Effect or the strategic depth that makes you feel like you’re learning like StarCraft. Out of Diablo, I get slightly better stats on my character and a worn-out mouse. Walking away from a game of Diablo frankly feels a little worse than I started because I’m only left with the desire to keep playing and feel the incremental improvement of a game that is purely grinding (that’s video game “grinding”. You better hope there’s no dancing grinding in this game).

The one thing that might convince me to jump back in is if there’s sufficient desire from my friends to play: it’s a half-decent social experience. But given the choice, I might push to do something else.

Overall, well done, Blizzard: you’ve improved the experience of a tried and true game. Sorry that I’m no longer part of your target audience.

The Katamari Itch

A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting little project that turns a webpage into a game of Katamari. It takes any page (preferably one with a lot of text) and adds a ball that can be rolled around on the page using the mouse. Whenever it runs over a piece of text, it picks the text up off the page, creating a bigger and bigger ball. Although I appreciated the novelty of the idea and the cleverness of execution, I was mostly struck with nostalgia. I insisted on showing the “Katamari Hack” to all of my friends and telling them about my chance encounter with the game just over 5 years ago.

During my junior year of high school, Hurricane Rita threatened to hit Houston, which caused panic. Suddenly, everyone was talking about “evacuating” (being the simple term for “leaving” or even just “vacating”), and my mom and I left for Austin, where my sisters went to school. Family friends also came along, and that totaled 3 somewhat bored boys. I technically should have been reading “All The King’s Men” for AP English, but I was not nearly so motivated. Instead, my sister’s boyfriend brought over his Playstation 2 and games to my sisters’ apartment, and we were no longer just vacating. We were vacationing.

Although we had a library of games, we quickly became addicted to “Katamari Damacy.” Roughly, the game was about rolling a giant ball around, having items stick to the ball, having the ball, and picking up more stuff. Between us, the game was on pretty much continuously for those 3ish days, and although we switched off playing, everyone else was still in the room, watching, unable to pull ourselves away.

Since then, I haven’t played it at all or even thought about it much, until I came across the “browser version” above. Since then, I have thought about it quite a bit, and since my friend George happens to have a PS2 here, I finally found a copy at the library and sat down this evening to play it again. About an hour and a half later, I was convinced that it was as good as ever.

It’s simple. There are two controls (the two analog sticks), and those let you roll your Katamari around in a world. You start out small, picking up candies, then pick up bigger and bigger things as the ball grows. You, however, can’t just start out picking up cars. When you’re small, large objects are obstacles, but these soon become new targets for your Katamari.

It’s quirky. The plot of the game is that your dad, the King of All Cosmos, got drunk and destroys all of the stars. You, a little prince, have to roll these Katamari to form new stars because, as we all know, stars are formed out of thumb tacks, batteries, flowers, fences, people, memory cards, and maybe even buildings. In addition to the very strange dialog, the plot is driven in 2-line cut scenes of two children discussing the events of the game. The game is goofy. Thank goodness it’s also hilarious.

It’s catchy. The Katamari Hack has a snippet of the music, and the rest is similar. And the gameplay itself is addictive. The game doesn’t really become anymore complicated over time, but it’s always so satisfying to explore environments and grow that Katamari.

And I think it’s that last part that really hooked me in. It’s a casual game, but there’s great cleverness in its design to make it work. For example, the levels are laid ou to path you through different areas. Your starting area has many bite-sized pieces to grab, but it also has larger obstacles or animals that can ram into you and make pieces fall off of your Katamari. As your Katamari grows, you realize that you can now get over a certain wall, or that you can roll up the pieces that were blocking a new area. Or something that was previously a ramp becomes another piece to be attached to your Katamari.

Over the course of 10 minutes, the Katamari grows quickly, and that really gives you a sense of accomplishment. My personal history in gaming is largely focused around the western-style (DnD inspired) computer RPG, where character development happens over maybe 100 hours, and the satisfying improvement in a character’s abilities stretches over weeks of playing. Katamari does that in minutes. With a starting Katamari, mice can run into your Katamari and wreck havoc upon you, but maybe 2 minutes later, they become fodder for your Katamari as you roll them up with ease. That’s what triumph feels like.

I was sad to read in researching right before this post that they actually had made a poorly-executed iPhone version of the game called “I Love Katamari.” The iPhone really does seem like the right venue for it: the accelerometer works as well as the analog sticks, and it’s a casual game that can be played in short spurts.

In any case, I have to return the game to the library tomorrow. The one-day checkout is probably for the best since perhaps the game may not have the staying power I imagine. I think I’m happier with the belief that the game is timeless and endlessly amusing anyways.

(PS: Since I’m talking about gaming, if you played Portal, you should check out the trailers for Portal 2 where they show off new mechanics. It looks awesome, if really hard.)

A Little Beta about Starcraft 2

Thursday morning, I woke up, bumbled my way down the ladder, popped out my retainer, threw some water in my face, and sat down at my desk to check my email. One of the something silly my mom forwarded along. The other was from my drawmate George, and when he knocked on my door literally 2 minutes later, I was pretty excited. It might look like the email just had some instructions and a meaningless string of characters, but that’s a beta key for Starcraft 2. Allow me to explain for the uninitiated.

Starcraft was a real-time strategy (RTS) game released by Blizzard in 1998 for PCs. The premise of the game is that you pick one of three races, and you start out with a base. You have some basic resource gathering units, and you use those to build buildings, which build units that you use to destroy your opponent’s base. There are lots of RTS games out there, but Starcraft is particularly notable for being very well balanced. The interactions between different units are complex, and all of the different races play very differently, but end up being roughly equal in power.

Since then, Starcraft has gotten kind of big, beyond just a game. It’s a very popular and fun game to play, but it’s almost become way bigger than just a couple teenagers sitting in a basement all night: it’s basically the national sport of South Korea. Evidence?

I want to discuss that last point a little more. One common metric for Starcraft players is “actions per minute” or APM, which is a count of how many times you click or press a key in a minute. Professional players have APMs above 200. I myself have played Starcraft on and off for years now and play okay among my group of friends, and just looking at a recent replay, my APM is about 60. So yes, most people are capable of clicking and hitting buttons very fast, but the most impressive part about what pros do is that they do everything intentionally. There’s a huge cognitive load in keeping track of everything that’s going on, and it takes a lot of practice to get that good.

In any case, Starcraft 2 has been highly anticipated for a very long time. Blizzard is known for making very good games, but they’re also known for missing a lot of deadlines and not releasing a game until it is perfect. When Blizzard announced in 2007 that they had been working on it, no one was surprised, but everyone (read: South Korea) was very excited. Since then, people have been guessing about release dates and been constantly proven wrong.

About a month ago, Blizzard began closed beta testing, releasing the game to a select number of people to test out the game for bugs and balance. Prices for invites have dropped, but people were paying up to $400 to get into beta testing and try out Starcraft 2. I don’t know if I’d pay $400 for it, but I can tell you that this game is a lot of fun.

For all of you original Starcraft players, Starcraft 2 is at least as good. The races all have the same general principles, though the unit mixes are definitely fresh and something fun to try to figure out. The improvements, however, do a lot to make the game a lot more fun.

First, the graphics look great, and the game runs smoothly on my 2007 Macbook Pro. If your gripe with Starcraft was the 640×480 resolution and 256 colors, I think you’ll be impressed, especially with the detail in making buildings explode.

Second, the matchmaking system and friends bit for battle.net is also much improved. The matchmaking service also pairs you with players of about the same talent so that you aren’t getting crushed by insane Korean players on the US servers. The process of getting everyone together to play in a closed game also isn’t nearly as convoluted.

Third, the game is generally less annoying. Depending on how much time you put into Starcraft, you might know about a lot of the micromanaging you need to do to optimize the game. For example, trying to control groups of zerglings to surround a unit, or clicking each worker to a different mineral patch so that they gather faster. In Starcraft 2, much of that is simplified. Workers automatically spread, you can set workers to automatically mine when created, pathfinding for units is much better, and perhaps the biggest news, control groups can be of any size. No longer limited to only 12 units selected at a time, you can gather up all of your marine and just go for it.

The strategies for the game are still being developed, and I don’t think people even necessarily know the right build orders for the races. The moral of the story is that the game is wide open, and it’ll be more fun in general for any player, from casual players to pros, to sit down and knock down a couple games.

I’m not really sure who my audience is, but let me know if you’re more interested in details, and I’ll write more about specifics of the units and such.

Blizzcon 2009

It’s not often that one inadvertently ends up at an Ozzy Osbourne concert.

This past weekend, I roadtripped with 3 of my friends down to LA to go to Blizzcon and visit the area. Consistently making the best PC games, Blizzard has a huge fanbase, and those fanatics can buy up 20,000 tickets in less than a minute. It’s actually tragic to think that I’m one of them.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roadtrip or to a convention before. Perhaps the closest I came was going to a TubaChristmas with my section, but that’s a half-day event to play a tuba less than an hour’s drive away. This time, we drove 6 hours to spend 2 days at a convention center full of costumes, raffles, goody bags, panels, demos, and more. Because I can’t think of a better way to organize this, though, we’ll start with the drive.

To get from the Bay Area to LA, you can either take 101 or I-5. 101 follows the coast in a curve, so while you get the scenic view of the ocean, you also lose about an hour compared to the beeline of I-5. Since we left around 7 in the evening, we were much more anxious to arrive than to squint out to see the complete darkness of the ocean at night, so we took the very barren I-5.

That really didn’t matter, though, since we were more interested in talking to one another than looking out the window. All four of us–George, Ben, Jordan, and me–live fairly close together, but we see each once maybe once a week. With a variety of details to catch up on, we went back and forth on bizarre details, anecdotes, observation, and gossip. And like all good friends, we know each others’ feats and faults, boasts and buttons, stylings and stupidity, so 6 hours turns into a blur of mindless banter.

Oh, and if a town smells like cow dung, don’t stop for food.

We arrived at Tom’s house in east LA sometime past midnight and got the tour. It was a comfy enough spot, though we immediately fell into our old ways and began playing Magic and Super Smash Bros. At first, it seemed a little cheesy that we should do the same thing as we did in the dorm, but smash is what we do when we live together. So when we’re all sleeping over at Tom’s, it’s only fair that we should play more Smash.

About 4 hours of sleep later, we drove the 20 minutes down to Anaheim for Blizzcon 2009. We arrived around 8, and after parking and getting our badges and goody bags, we decided to get in line around 9 for a 10 am opening. We saw the line down the side of the building and followed it. As it led into park-like area, we were amazed by the snake-like shape the line had taken in and around a hill and some walkways. Walking around the outside of that, we ended up behind the convention center and finally got in at the end of the line 12 minutes later. And we were fortunate; we were only in the third row in the parking lot, which filled up and had the line come back out of it almost back to the front of the building.

We scoped out the floor first, which might have been a mistake. When we got to the hall for the opening ceremonies, we couldn’t find any seats and instead had to stand on the side. It was absolutely worth being, there, though. I guess it’s similar to the keynote presentation for most other conferences/conventions, as that’s when Blizzard unveils all of the new content for their games. Currently, Blizzard is working on 3 major titles: Diablo 3 (D3), Starcraft 2 (SC2), and World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW is their biggest cash cow with over 10 million players, each paying a monthly fee to explore Azeroth. As such, the room went ballistic when they announced the newest expansion for that.

The reaction to that announcement felt somewhat crazy to me. Although I’m familiar with the game, I, unlike the majority of people there, have never actually played WoW. A fan of Blizzard’s other games, I missed out on a lot of jokes and excitement, which many attendees got very excited about. I couldn’t immediately relate to their mania, but I can somewhat relate to their passion. Seeing as WoW is coming up on its fifth-year anniversary, I bet quite a few of them have spent more than a fifth of their life playing this game, so when they announce that attack power no longer exists, that probably affects them quite a bit. And Magic: the Gathering actually just went through the biggest rule change in 10 years, to which I freaked out about for the first minute or so. I guess I can’t ridicule them too much about their dedication.

During that first day, I went to a couple panels about the new games to see what content they were putting out. In-between those, I got to play demo versions of D3 and SC2. I won’t get too much into the details, since I’m sure many of you don’t care, but it suffices to say that I had a lot of fun with both of them. Like everything else at Blizzcon, there was quite a line, but with projections of the panels and events above all of the lines, the 20 minute wait to play for 20 minutes didn’t seem so long. Even though it took awhile, the system was surprisingly efficient with a large number of computers set up just to play on.

That first night, the headline event was the costume, sound-alike, and dance competition, MC-ed by Jay Mohr. I’m not sure how applicable this is to other conventions, but at just about all geeky conventions, cosplay is a big thing. Whether it’s  as Mario, Link, Goku, or just a generic dragon, people will show up to GenCon (a gaming convention), Comic-Con, and E3 is some very, very impressive costume of characters from the lore. At Blizzcon, everything was from the Starcraft, Diablo, or Warcraft universe, mostly from Warcraft. Combined with some shtick, the costume contest was very entertaining and impressive to watch. The sound-alike contest: not so much. I don’t find it particularly impressive that people are able to mimic the voice of a voice actor. And the dance contest was all WoW content, so nothing to speak of there.

We left around 10-1030 and went back to Tom’s. Since we were unwilling to pay for convention food, we only had dinner then, going to a Tommy’s a few blocks from his house. If you happen to like chili burgers or dogs, I recommend it.

Day 2 was mostly filled with playing games. That afternoon, though, I did get to watch the Blizzcon Starcraft Invitational finals, which was something of a big deal. Here in the United States, everyone crowds around the TV for the SuperBowl because football is the big American sport. In South Korea, Starcraft is probably the national sport. Both guys and girls will go to tournaments, where 2 players will be on-stage, and the audience will be watching live matches with 6 digits on the line. George happens to pay attention to the professional Starcraft scene, and he insisted that I watch the finals for it. It’s a little silly to think that a huge crowd started cheering when one of the players moved their mouse hand a millimeter and clicked, but that’s how the sport is played.

And to cap off the closing ceremonies, Blizzard brought in Ozzy Osbourne for a show. Although he might sound like a  random pick, there’s apparently an inside joke with him and WoW. Ozzy is known as the “Prince of Darkness”, which also happens to be attributed to the villain, the Lich King. To be honest, his appearance doesn’t mean much to me, so I watched most of his performance on a screen while in line to play D3 again. I did go over to that hall for about 3 minutes just so I couldn’t be faulted for not having taken the chance to see him live. He was surprisingly coherent and lively during the performance, so I’m betting he takes stimulants to get through his acts. That doesn’t change the fact that spraying the mosh pit with a foam hose is kind of weird, but it seemed like he gave them all a decent show.

Having pretty much experienced all of Blizzcon, we left around 9 and this time headed towards Ben’s house on the other side of LA. We geeked out for the evening playing Magic until about 3 in the morning and woke up around 11. We went on a walk and saw a Trump golf course right by the water. It’s a little ridiculous, but I guess the money has to go somewhere. After that, we went back to Ben’s and played board games with some of his friends. After dinner, we left to drive back. Some good signage let us dodge a 2-hour delay along I-5, and we ended up taking the 101 back up. We were pretty tired, but the radio was good bonding. We were constantly scanning the stations as we passed through different towns and got a good dose of 90s pop. While I’ve snubbed 90s music for awhile now, I guess there’s no point in pretending not to like fun music, so we shared a couple sing-alongs between naps all the way back to campus.

Sorry if that ended up sounding like a play-by-play, but maybe I’ll try to be more insightful next time. Instead of leaving you with a thought, I’ll instead give some details on SC2 and D3, if you care. Most of you probably don’t, but I can’t do a Blizzcon report without talking about the games.

So, Diablo 3 first. Diablo 3 is good. They gave us something like level 12 characters put in the middle of a desert (very much like act 2 of D2). The playable classes were the barbarian, witch doctor, sorcerer, and monk. The gameplay was pretty close to D2, which is probably a good thing. Now that I think about it, I didn’t feel like things have changed a lot. They eliminated potion spamming by putting a cooldown on that, but it’s compensated for by monsters dropping healing orbs. Playing each of the classes felt pretty simplistic. The caster classes were somewhat dissatisfying for me, since it was mostly just spamming ranged attacks. Although the barbarian is also just a click-fest, there was something a lot more satisfying about going toe-to-toe. The monk was probably the most fun to play. He chains together attacks, not unlike the assassin from D2. Instead of it being charges for a finisher, though, each of the 3 strikes has a unique effect. It was definitely the most interactive of the 4 classes. And the game is much better multi-player than single-player. It’s actually a little depressing to play by yourself.

Starcraft 2 was amazing. I got to play 2 campaign missions, including the on-ship briefing stuff. They weren’t that hard, but the action is varied enough that the objectives aren’t quite as trivial as in the first game. The main heft of the game, though, is in the multi-player. It’s going to take awhile to adjust to all the new units, but I promise they’re a lot of fun. There’s probably going to be some more balancing before it comes out; as it was, the colossus (think strider from hl2 or the walkers from war of the worlds) was pretty devastating. I’ll definitely be playing zerg, but I thought the protoss was a lot of fun to play. Lots of new abilities are probably going to be overload for awhile, but I think it’ll be easy to get used to. Things like queens pumping out larva and warpgates add fun mechanics without a lot more cognitive load, so the game remains fun. I was worried that additional complexity in SC2 would make it less fun for casual players who don’t practice their micro, but they’ve made lots of changes to simplify those as well. For example, you can rally workers to mineral patches automtically command-groups have icons on the bottom, you can control up to (I want to say) 32 at a time, and you can select multiple buildings at once to build. So more strategies, less fuss.

So overall, I’m a lot more excited about SC2, and a little less excited about D3. My concerns about SC2 were dealt with, but D3 didn’t show me anything special about the new classes. In the end, while they’re certainly doing a lot to add more to these games, they both very much retain the feel of their predecessors. As such, I played D3 and found it not as fun as I thought it would be. At the same time, I couldn’t think of any way that it was worse than D2. I realized that it just wasn’t as much fun because I’m not so pumped about playing more D2. I’ve pretty much exhausted that game, so while I’ll certainly buy D3 immediately and play it, it’s not something I need. As it is, I actually do want to play more SC, though. I just wish it had better graphics, ran more smoothly, and had more interesting mechanics, all of which SC2 provides.

So the bottom line: both SC2 and D3 follow their predecessors heavily. Be as excited as you are about playing those games.

(Edit) I was reminded by a FB comment about one of the big things that I forgot. If you remember, an important part about SC was the “Use Map Settings” maps. In this originated Tower Defense games, and in the Warcraft 3 custom games came DotA. Blizzard is smart, and they realized that people were extending their editor far beyond its original intentions, so at a gameplay panel, they demoed what you can do with the new map editor. And I have to say, it’s insane. It’s not just a SC2 editor; it’s a game development platform. They showed 3 clips, all of which are absolutely amazing. You have to watch it as you won’t believe it until you see it.