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04/01/2007 - 04/07/2007

Just How Powerful Are Games?

April 05, 2007


My green cartoon shirt needs to be washed. I hope you're wearing a hat, because I've got a brain-buster for ya. Let's start with the anger, specifically this article in Newsweek warning of the dangers of Guitar Hero. The author (Steven Levy, who I normally like) wonders why anyone would bother to master a real instrument when they can jam like Van Halen in ten minutes with a videogame. That's right: Guitar Hero will turn our country into a nation of people who won't bother learning to play music.

My gut-reaction was one of outrage -- Levy's premise was demonstrably wrong. In fact, after getting the original Guitar Hero, I actually borrowed a sweet Gibson guitar and not-so-sweet Fender amp from a friend in order to try my hand at the real thing. I learned a couple chords and how to pluck out the song "Jingle Bells," albeit at the approximate tempo of a funeral dirge. And while I, personally, didn't stick with it, it was easy to imagine a gamer with more time -- probably unmarried and looking to score with the chicks -- mastering the guitar after being inspired by the game. Helping people discover the joy of music is the whole mission of game developer Harmonix!

It's hard to win Guitar Hero when you spend the whole song staring at the fret board buttons

Of course I commented earlier in the year about games as an educational tool, and I'm always referencing how much I learned about business by playing that Lemonade game as a kid (Yeah, the graphics aren't so hot in this version but you get the idea). Games are a powerful way to influence people... right?

But now, here's where I'm going to bend your noodle: if games can move people to learn guitar, and games can teach us things about the real world, then how can we also argue at the same time that Grand Theft Auto doesn't teach people the joys of crime? Can we really have it both ways? Studies about the effects of games on violent behavior are going on all the time, and nowadays either side of the debate can point to studies proving their own agenda.

There's a whole 'Serious Games' movement is dedicated to using games for health, education, and social change. (The gaming media doesn't do much coverage of Serious Games, but there are actually a lot of great things going on in that space.) Meanwhile, we gamers (myself included) always argue that ridiculous over-the-top games like good ol' whipping boy Grand Theft Auto are just harmless entertainment. Which is it?

Of course, the answer is, "It all depends on the context..." But that's a squirm. How do YOU draw the line? Mail me your thoughts! Also, I'd love to hear any of your stories about something you learned -- or were inspired to learn -- from gaming. Let's hear it!

      -Fargo

[P.S. While we're on the topic, Danc from the excellent Lost Garden Blog posted a cool game design challenge: create a game where players will eventually, despite a competitive environment, learn to cooperate to win. He's got some neat ideas of his own drawn up, which triggers off a discussion of using games as a learning tool. A great read!]

Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 10:00 AM PDT
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So Just What Is SmartMatch?

April 04, 2007


Does my cartoon make me look fat? The team working on GameSpy Comrade are always trying to figure out ways to help you get more out of gaming. First, they took the best elements of our previous software and rolled it up into a nice, sleek little (advertising free!) app that lets you chat with buddies and allows you to instantly join a game server that any of your friends join. If you haven't downloaded Comrade yet, you should give it a try.

Nowadays the Comrade engineers -- and when I say that I want you to imagine that they all wear lab coats and hard hats, because I've been pushing for that for years -- have developed a new tool for quickly getting into a game. Instead of forcing you to scan through a massive list of servers (or instead of picking one for you), the "SmartMatch" tool uses some basic criteria to give you a 'short list' of the four or five servers you'll probably care about the most. It gets you into a good game, quick.

Who do you want to pwn today?

Download the GameSpy Comrade with SmartMatch Beta!

Back in "the day," it used to be that the only thing you cared about when finding a server was ping time. Now that we all have solid broadband connections, and now that so many games are team-based, we're a little more picky. SmartMatch has some quick filters to help you find a server with at least 25 players, that's ranked, playing one of your favorite maps, and has at least 3 spots open. Instead of trying to figure this out through a giant spreadsheet of servers, SmartMatch does all the heavy lifting for you and just shows you a few servers that you care about.

The Comrade developers need your feedback, so Download that sucker and jump into a few games!

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 9:52 AM PDT
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Requiem for the Dreamcast

April 03, 2007


Does my cartoon make me look fat? The date? 9-9-99. The console? The Sega Dreamcast. It's one of the saddest chapters in gaming history. Sega, struggling from the failure of the Sega Saturn, needed to score an absolutely brilliant comeback with a killer gaming system. Within the company the Sega Dreamcast was known by the codename Katana: It would either be the weapon Sega used to cut Sony to ribbons, or it would be the instrument the company used to commit seppuku.

Unlike the Saturn, the Sega Dreamcast had a lot going for it. It was powerful, but not too complicated to code. It had nice, comfortable controllers and memory cards with gimmicky LCD readouts. It had a rudimentary online system, including web browsing. And it was coming out in North America a full year before Sony's PlayStation 2.

On September 9th, 1999, the system launched in North America and we in the gaming community were blown away. Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast was such an amazing game that it still looks good and plays great today, eight years later. Crazy Taxi was a hoot. This was a fantastic gaming system!

But the cold, harsh reality of the gaming business is that it takes more than a great system to succeed. The marketing has to click into place, and dozens of third-party developers have to get on board... It's a strange soup you have to brew, a mix of consumer expectations and publisher support that has to feed off of itself in order for a console to take off. Sega learned this in 2000: games matching the quality of Soul Calibur were few and far between, and the system stopped selling. People held off, waiting to see what the PlayStation 2 would offer. The Dreamcast started to slump, then went into a freefall, and was irrelevant within a couple of years.

I bring this up now because according to SegaNerds.com, Sega has announced it will discontinue hardware support for the Dreamcast. The system had a small die-hard fanbase, and even occasional game releases, until very recently. It looks like this might be the final blow. Farewell, Dreamcast. You always had friends here.

In the meantime, in my house today, there's a grey custom-molded briefcase containing a Dreamcast, two controllers, a VMU, and a copy of Soul Calibur. Yep, it's a dedicated Soul Calibur machine, ready to be busted out at parties. I'd better take care of that sucker.

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 11:47 AM PDT
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Are You Ready to Rock?

April 02, 2007


Does my cartoon make me look fat? At the annual DICE Summit a couple of months ago, I blogged about a speech given by Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos about the trials his company went through on the long road from founding until the success of Guitar Hero. One of Alex's main messages was this: once you've created a huge success, where do you go from there? The answer is you pull out all the stops and you try to top yourself.

And it looks like that's just what Harmonix is up to. The company, now a part of MTV, has partnered with EA to bust out an ambitious new music game entitled Rock Band. New Rock Band Details were announced this morning (See GameSpy's writeup or this GamaSutra Story). The Official Website has also launched...

But despite the news we know teasingly little about the game to come. It appears it'll feature two guitar controllers, a microphone, and probably a drum set. You and your friends will be able to jam with licensed music (the weight that MTV and EA bring to the scene can't be underestimated -- the original bands will provide the multitrack recordings). You'll also be able to go online and form an Internet band. Rigopulos promises some nifty new technology to make playing music over the 'net possible despite the lag.

But the most exciting promise of Rock Band is that it won't just be a game, but a platform for showing off your musical talent. Will it make the careers of budding artists, like a digital American Idol? Will downloadable songs help break new bands, turning this videogame into the Ed Sullivan Show of the twenty-first century? It's too early to say, but given that I threw a party at my house this weekend where once again Guitar Hero was a huge hit with my guests, I can't wait to see what Harmonix has cooking. Rock Band is expected to hit shelves this holiday season.

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 10:50 AM PDT
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