Action Button Dot Net

I want to give a little shout-out (a whisper-out?) to a little site I've discovered called Action Button Dot Net. It is the video game review site I have always wanted to exist, and, as I have now discovered, does. There are two reasons why this site deserves my attention:

1) Their sense of humor and style of writing is what I strive for on a daily basis in this blog - Humorous, witty, entertaining, intelligent, biting, sometimes long-winded criticism (and sometimes praise) for the hobby they love the most.
2) Their approach to Video Games is 'Don't drink the kool-aid'.

Let me explain #2.

Video Game design is one part art and one part tedious exercise in programming and engineering. There has always been a struggle in balancing the art of creating a fun place for players to play in, and the technical limitations and quirks of the platform you're programming for. Sometimes, the balance is struck perfectly. Like the original Super Mario Bros. for NES. It wasn't just a technical marvel that reached what many would call the pinnacle of 8-bit programming. It was fun. Fun has nothing to do with technical limitations or governed by the presentation ability of any system. Because guess what? Pong is still fun. Game Design is about taking the fun-making parts of game design, and allowing it to shine on the technical limitations of your platform.

That said, Action Button Dot Net hates 99% of the games they play. Their standards of quality in a video game are not corrupted and sullied by modern buzzwords like "graphics" and "immersion". They judge the games based on the solidity of their design, and by how much fun it is to play. One of the metrics they use in determining design quality is how long a game can last without them making it look ridiculous. For example, Saint's Row, a sandbox crime game in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series, broke the record by lasting 3 seconds. Within 3 seconds of the game giving control to the player, they were able to jump on a car and ride around the city for 45 minutes without any consequences. That's not technical limitation; it's shoddy design. In the recent survival horror game Dead Space, the game tries to startle you by having enemies sneak up behind you and attack you swiftly, catching you off guard. The reviewer at Action Button Dot Net walked into that room backwards, so he was facing the entrance as he walked forward, and the enemy simply appeared out of thin air to 'surprise' him. The designers now look ridiculous. This is how they review games. It is an objective, harsh look at the horrid state of video game design today, and a sad testament to the players that are being coerced into spending money to further the malaise. And I love every second of it.

Just a little snippet of how things typically go down:

This is the opening of a long (3,370 words) review to the original Doom for the PC:
Here’s the short of it: Last night I had a dream that I was a poet on the Starship Enterprise. Captain Picard commissioned me to write a poem in honor a dead crew member. I went to the holodeck for inspiration, but I was interrupted when a bikini wearing female ninja attacked me. I killed her by slicing her in half through the torso with a samurai sword, when I heard a knock on the door. Was it another scantily-clad kunoichi, after my life? Or perhaps it was Captain Picard, with an important message! I felt the sting of a bead of sweat trickling into my eye.

Then I woke up, and realized that the only thing better than that dream was DOOM.
This is what Action Button Dot Net is all about, and I cannot get enough of it.


I Bought A Video Game At Full Price Today

It was a traumatizing experience.

And I not only bought it at full retail price, brand new, but I pre-ordered it. That's how excited I am. Typically, I wait awhile before buying a game, until it is safely in the bargain bin where my wallet has better access. Not today. Today, I took the plunge and put down by hard-earned money (Ok, so a $50 Best Buy gift card was involved in the transaction, but this was still a big step for me) and bought a game before it came out, and before anybody could review it. What game could be so good that I would put $60 (Ok, so it really ended up being $10. Shut up, K?) on it's claims to quality entertainment?

That game would be Borderlands, by Gearbox Entertainment, Inc.

I've been waiting for this game for 3 years. The moment I read about the concept in a gaming magazine artice previewing an early press announcement, I knew this game and I would go far. Three years, a marriage, two jobs and one child later, we can finally be together.

Ok, let me give you some backstory.

Ever since I was a young padawan of video games, I was always designing games in my head. well, not really. I was really designing better versions of games that I loved. I remember designing custom maps for Warcraft on notebook paper (and then Warcraft II came with a map editor, and I was in love), I was always designing better weapons for Mario Kart, bigger and better swords for my RPG characters, and better special moves for my fighters. I always wanted games to live up to the potential that their genre promised, instead of restricting possibility and ingenuity due to technical and /or budget constraints. When a game takes an idea and truly achieves maximum possible potential (see Scribblenauts), I fall in love. Not only is it a testament to the quality of the development, but it makes for a very fun game.

One genre that I always thought was heading in the wrong direction in this respect was the first-person shooter. Sure, the graphics and physics have gotten to near-realistic levels, and the cinematic quality of the firefights have increased the tension by orders of magnitude. The gameplay has become less linear, the guns shoot better, the AI has gotten smarter, but one aspect was always missing. Your character always stayed the same. His guns might change from time to time, and the story may change, but I always thought that there were many RPG elements that the FPS genre could be capitalizing on. There doesn't seem to be any kind of serious character development other than a series (usually less than 20) of steadily stronger guns that give you a sense of growing strength. The main characters in a n FPS are usually the enemies, and the environment.

I had an idea years ago to design an FPS where the main characters are the guns. The guns in this game would not be simply a weapon. The guns in this game would be a status symbol representative of the character who wields it. It's along the same lines as the magic wand system in Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling elevated the nature of the magic wand to more than just a conduit of magical energy. She made a culture (albeit an underdeveloped one. I always thought she meant to do more with the idea, and then gave up) out of the complex nature of the materials, manufacturing, and uniqueness of the wands, and each wand said something about its owner. i wanted to do this guns. Inherent in such a culture is the complexity of the guns. Guns in my game would be made up of parts. Parts would be interchangeable based on different categories of weapons (scopes for rifles, clips for automatics, etc.) and the parts would vary in value, strength, durability, beauty, and other attributes. This would make for an unbelievably flexible weapon system where you could craft a weapon to what you want it to look like, feel like, and shoot like. Your stature in society would be easily recognized simply by looking at the gun a person carried. Kinda like sports cars, now that I think about it. They all drive, but some are obviously better than others. Character attributes, other than basic looks and personality traits, would be minimized, because honestly, when I see character's strength broken down into hard numbers, some immersion is lost. Physical objects are allowed to have numerical stats, and are expected to.

Obviously, the plot would revolve around guns, and the effect that this world's guns have on its people and culture. In fiction, especially in fantasy fiction, readers respond very well to the idea of a constant and unique companion. A perfect example of this is the daemon system in Philip Pullman's The Magic Compass, where every person has an animal companion that reflects their personality and is a constant companion throughout life. People can't live without them, and feel naked and alone without their faery. I don't really understand the psychology behind it, but it resonates well with readers. The gun in my game would have the same status. Everyone has a gun. It defines you as much as you define it.Stephen King's The Dark Tower does a lot with this idea, but only for one group of people (The Gunslingers).

Acquiring parts for your gun would progress much like the hack 'n slash formula so popularized by the Diablo game series. Enemies drop loot when felled, and you can take that loot and use it yourself. Kill powerfull enemies, get powerful loot. Since the guns themselves are highly compartmental and customizable, looting will play a huge role in the gameplay. However, I want it to be an FPS at heart. When you build your dream, I want the player to be able to look down those sights and really feel the consequences of the decisions he/she has made in crafting the current weapon. No other viewpoint would really work. Fallout 3 was the first game to really try and mix the RPG and FPS genres, but ultimately failed to deliver on the action inherent in an FPS, and stat-heavy character development effectively made the game inaccessible to the non-RPG crowd. My game would be decidedly an FPS with a lot of RPG elements, and it could be appreciated by casual and hard-core players alike. I think taking the emphasis off the player and putting it on the weapons makes the character development more accessible.

But enough about my game. Let's talk about Borderlands.

Actually, I just did. Borderlands is basically the game design I've had in my head since I was in grade school. When I read about it 3 years ago, I couldn't believe what I was reading. I felt like the developers were reading my mind. Everything I just wrote before, that's what Borderlands is. There are some slight differences, but that's OK. Infinitely customizable guns? Check. Early stats suggests literally millions of part combinations and unique weapons. guns with personality? Check. The game has an automatic naming system for those millions of guns, and doesn't to "shotgun lv.1"and "shotgun lv. 2". One machine gun will be called the "Obliterator" while a better version will be called a "Bad-Ass Obliterator". The game also has computer generated summaries of the guns. For example, one preview featured a gun that had a rocket attachment. The description was "Holy Shit! It shoots Rockets!" Guns as main character? Check. The environment is a anarchy-ridden wasteland where you need firepower to survive. If you don't have a weapon, you're as good as dead. Limited character development? Check. Aside from minor health bar growth, you're limited to four basic character templates, each with their own special abilities and looks, so you can focus on the guns. FPS action? Check. The developers specifically veered away from similar titles like mass Effect and Fallout 3 by limiting accuracy to character development/stats. Accuracy is based on weapon quality and player skill, like any self-respecting FPS. The action extends to vehicular combat (where the vehicles are almost as customizable as the guns themselves) which is promised to play a big role in both gameplay and storyline.

So, my dream game arrives on the 20th. I hope it turns out to be the game I really, really, really, hope it was going to be. 'Cause I paid full price for it, and I never do that.

Edit: Apparently, I was mistaken about the weapon customization idea. According to a Gearbox rep, the player is a gunslinger, not a gunsmith. Therefore, no parts upgrades, or weapons. However, rest assured that any gun you can think of exists in the engine. In their own words, if you want the shotgun from doom, it's there. If you want the shotgun from halflife, it's there too.Basically, any combination of parts and qualities you can think of exists somewhere in the game. It's up to you to find the perfect weapon tailored to fit your playing style. So, it isn't exactly what I had in mind, but it's still close enough that I'm extremely stoked to play this game.


Somebody Has Prophesied My Rise to Power...

And made a trucker hat to commemorate that fateful and glorious day. They thought the Interwebs was singular, and they will pay dearly for their blaspheming ways. But until then, the line starts here for prostrating thineself before your Ruler.

If you really want to buy one (and you should - these will become rare and valuable cultural artifacts after ), simply click where text magically becomes underlined and colorful.


Taking Irony To New And Previously Unexplored Levels Of Sweet Ironic Fantasticalness

In the most ironic twist of events ever recorded in the annals of history, a classified 2,400 page British Governement document called JSP 440, instructing government officials in the ways of Information Security and Integrity....

has been leaked to the Interwebs.

And that's all that needs to be said.


iPhone Too Awesome For Flash

In an exciting move for mobile phones everywhere, Adobe announced today partnerships with nineteen smartphone makers worldwide in an effort to get their Flash player 10.1 on to mobile phones in 2010. This is good news for everybody, consumers and advertisers alike, as Flash is the program used to display complex ad banners, as well as every video on YouTube. As big as Flash is, it will effectively usher in the next generation of mobile web content delivery, as well as the next era of productivity-crushing free games sites.

However, one company is staying away from the agreement. Apple, in a completely predictable and un-shocking statement, has effectively deemed it's flagship iPhone too technologically advanced for Adobe's juggernaut of content delivery. The basic gist of the argument is that the iPhone's ARM architecture, which optimizes battery life and heat distribution, will buckle under the strain of Flash's resource consumption. Which basically translates to "Adobe will not be able to optimize their product to the standards  of the iPhone." This is the same elitist box-out of third party market penetration for which Apple is infamous. It's why iPod only works with iTunes, and why you can't upgrade the hardware of an Apple computer without pulling teeth and voiding your warranty. It's what the business types call "customer lock-in." The practice is both a blessing and a curse for Apple, as it allows them to build tight, controlled, efficient devices using proprietary technology, while the same practice is a crushing restriction on product saturation and market share.

But restricting flash is going one step too far. For one, the whole point of Flash 10.1 is battery life efficiency and resource consumption efficiency using the innately under-powered graphics chips of mobile platforms. If nineteen other big smartphone firms think it's worth a try, do you really think you're that much better? I would understand Apple's decision if they came out and said that it goes against their policy of in-house development with proprietary coding tools. To claim technology dominance seems elitist and downright false.

I would say that this is an ultimately business move on Apple's part, but I've read various news sources saying that Apple has an ulterior agenda regarding the future of web content delivery. Many believe that Apple's excuses regarding Flash are just a smokescreen for a new delivery platform that Apple will eventually release to compete with Flash. I don't know how feasible an option like that would be, but it would be a huge undertaking if anything. More probable is Apple's backing of HTML 5 as the content delivery standard, as it would allow them to stick with their proprietary systems while investing in a stable, consumer friendly platform that will eventually grow to encompass the entire content delivery industry.

Whatever happens, I have always had mixed feelings about Apple's stance on third-party component compatibility. Sometimes I wonder if they're taking it too far, but they always manage to come out ahead. I wonder how they're going to keynote themselves out of this one.