Sunday, 29 January 2012

I fail at FIFA 12 because I play like a footballer, and not like a gamer

I'm a huge football fan. I spend much of my free time watching whatever match I can find on TV, and a good portion of my gaming time is spent with EA's FIFA series. The FIFA games have strived, year-on-year, to improve the franchise and immerse players in an engrossing football experience. The latest instalment, FIFA 12, continues this trope but its improvements maybe too clever for its own good.

Overall, the game is a fantastic sports title. The game modes, gameplay, graphics and animation are all a step up from last year's title. The seamless transition from play to cut scene, as well as player gestures and reactions complement each other and make you feel like you're watching a match. Head-to-head seasons give new incentives for success in online gameplay with divisions to progress through and relegation to avoid. For the first time in the series, FIFA 12 introduces tactical defending to give players a greater degree of control when not on the ball. Rather than just running back alongside advancing opponents and trying to bully or slide the ball away from them, players are now able to turn and cover attackers if they can keep goal-side of them. This serves to draw you into the intricate tactics of defending and makes them think more like a footballer about covering and moving into space when not on the ball.

This is all well and good, football fans can emulate the sport they love more closely than ever before. We can see what our on-field hero's look like playing in a style we dictate and we're drawn more deeply into an experience that increasingly looks like what you'd expect to see at a real match. However, the shift in tactical thinking hasn't been supported by the AI programming, which lets me down regularly and causes me to fail at FIFA 12.

Off-ball players are controlled by AI and you can change which player you control with a quick tap of a button or flick of an analogue stick, however, doing so can have unexpected consequences. For example, an AI controlled defender may be running back just ahead of an attacker and you wish to take control of that player to see off the danger. Taping your button you stare aghast as the player who was so capably tracking his marker stops dead for split second, even if your aiming correctly for him to continue his run, and allows the opponent through for a shot at goal. The game's intricate defensive tactics have lulled me into a false sense of security, making me believe my AI controlled players will react exactly how I would expect a professional footballer to. This isn't the case. It fails to anticipate.

This is just one example, others include AI players failing to close down obvious loose balls in favour of maintaining their formation, to the detriment of their team's effort. The clever player animations that add depth occasionally cause a player on the break to raise his hands in frustration at a tackle rather than chasing down the ball and recovering it, like a professional would. When a number of the opposition are playing high up field and you get the ball, a quick counter attack can often be snubbed out by your strikers choice not to start a run while you still hold the ball with another player. This leads to frustration and, often, failure.

FIFA 12 is a great game, but the level of control it affords leads to an assumed empathy between the players that simply doesn't exist. When I fail to score or I defend pitifully it isn't for the want of trying, it's because I'm thinking like a footballer and not like a gamer. If I expect the avatars to act like computer controlled sprites, adjust my play style accordingly and remember that I'm simply reacting to on screen stimuli, then the gamer in me can get back to responding to the situation and shaping the game as I want it. I need to rely on my actions, not the assumed understanding of an algorithm. I must remember it is just a video game, and I should approach the play as a gamer, and not as a footballer.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Pre-owned re-moaned: gamers must use their economic power to prevent unwanted changes to how they pay for games

Gaming sites across the Internet are reporting rumours first shared by Kotaku suggesting that the next Xbox console “may not play used games”. It rears an ugly and, in my opinion, pointless argument about pre-owned game sales and their effect on the video game industry. I can categorically prove that far from impacting upon sales, pre-owned games actually boost developers' incomes: I would never have paid full price for Mass Effect. I knew nothing about it at its release - as I was abroad and missed the launch PR drive - and it simply didn't appear on my radar. A friend tried to convince me to buy it so I purchased a pre-owned copy at a reduced price. I became hooked on what is still one of my favourite games of all time. It lead me to buy the second game at launch and my pre-order for the third instalment of the series sits on the system of my local retailer. Bioware didn't lose £20 by my pre-owned purchase, it gained £90. Preowned games aren't killing the industry, they supplement it; they boost it.

The argument is in vain though, because despite the awesome buying power of gamers – we spent $1bn in 16 days on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 - we do not wield our influence effectively to prevent changes to the industry that we, as consumers, simply don't want. Pre-owned is one example. EA are dominating in the war against the pre-owned market, implementing online passes as a way to force pre-owned buyers to pay again to access online content that the original owner had full use of. Most of EA's flagship titles hinge on online content and gameplay. Without multiplayer access the FIFA, Tiger Woods PGA and Battlefield series are just shells of games. Having to purchase a pass after buying a game from the pre-owned section negates any financial bonus of the sale. Gamers might as well buy new. EA are winning that battle.

Another example of gaming taking a heading at odds with the wishes of consumers is pay-to-play. With multiplayer in games such as Halo and the Call of Duty and Battlefield series being such a big draw to the franchises, businesses – and lets not forget that is what developers are – are noticing a potentially lucrative revenue stream. Rather than giving gamers unlimited access to as many multiplayer matches as they want for as long as they own the game, there are worrying rumblings of a tectonic shift to subscriptions and pay-to-play. The first steps toward a pay-to-play future have been taken in the form of Call Of Duty Elite, a subscription service for more dedicated CoD players. The service isn't compulsory, or even necessary to have a great online experience, but it is a move in a direction which was being discussed by people like industry expert Michael Pachter two years ago. The crux of Pachter's comments was that multiplayer is such a huge portion of the game market, unlimited plays on games such as CoD and EA's sports titles are directly detrimental to new sales. You'll excuse me if I rile at this, but If I pay for a game and pay an annual subscription to use Xbox LIVE, I'm quite certain that I don't want to pay a further subscription to access online gaming within a franchise.

Video game sales may not be what they were in 2008, but nor is housing or anything else. We are still in the throes of a global economic crisis and consumers have less disposable income. This doesn't mean that gamers should be punished for finding cheaper ways to enjoy their chosen pass-time, or milked for more cash to supplement the industry's coffers in the bad times. Gamers posses a massive economic weapon and, if we choose to wield it, we should seriously consider using our right not to buy in order to prevent an irreversible change to how we access and pay for gaming.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Filibuster: Skyrim reveals my in-game political immaturity

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda's latest mammoth title, has me reflecting on political choice in games and how that relates to real-world political thinking. I like to think of myself as a politically savvy person. I keep abreast of current affairs and try to weigh arguments before making judgements. I get my news from a variety of sources spanning the political spectrum to ensure I don't fall foul to party political bias or spin. I even allow myself to be swayed in my opinion by the weight of a convincing argument. However, as Skyrim has shown me, when it comes to in-game politics, I'm best described as immature.

Personal politics and voting tendencies are largely a compromise. Voters tend to align themselves to a party or an ideal that best fits their value system, or vote depending on which manifesto they believe will best benefit themselves. My game politics depart from this established, sensible mantra. In the gaming world, if my views don't completely align with the politics of any faction or character then I don't participate. My game ego doesn't allow me to settle for the best of a bad bunch - it causes me to strike out on my own, to shape the world as I would have it.

Although there are numerous political factions present in Skyrim, the story is anchored in the turmoil of the civil war waged by two major parties: the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. From the outset, the game has you choosing between the two and ushers you to pick a side as the story evolves. This is where my political immaturity came to light. I found it difficult to choose. Despite playing as a Nord character native to the land, and their separatist ideals being based on Skyrim for the Nords or similar rhetoric, I found it difficult to subscribe to the Stormcloaks' view of the world. I felt that the borderline racist rants of the faction's leaders and their unwillingness to compromise made it impossible for me to join their ranks. Yes, I'm a Nord. Yes, I think the Nords' homeland should be shaped by its natives. Yes, I believe people should be free to worship as they see fit but no, I cannot and will not abide prejudice on racial grounds – and in the case of the Stormcloaks, this prejudice runs deep.

So then, to the Imperials? I like that they are holding together an eclectic and inclusive society. I like that they see the Empire as stronger united than divided and I believe that a separated Skyrim would see both the diminished Empire and the lone province more susceptible to invasion or influence from outside parties. So surely my allegiance should lie with the Empire? Well, no. I can't make peace with the idea that they would give up their subjects' rights to worship to the demands of the Thalmor, the High Elf supremacist leaders of the Aldmeri Dominion. I don't like how they appear to be the puppets of these invaders. I can't reconcile their heavy-handed approach to those who would seek political change, but mostly, I can't forgive them for trying to hack off my head without trial or due procedure at the genesis of my quest.

This uncompromising gameplay trait has reared its head in other games too. Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series all stand out to me as examples of choice-driven games in which I have been unable to compromise my sense of right and wrong to align myself politically. In New Vegas, my choice seemed to be between the “evil” Legion, or the “meddling” republic; I chose neither and my god complex led me to find my own solution. In Mass Effect, my personal politics and sense of right and wrong lead me to unleash a deadly insect race upon a Galaxy it once threatened, whilst I myself struggled to save it from another great danger. My feelings on the warlike Krogan and the genophage plague used to control the species' numbers left me struggling to trust Krogan, Turian or Salarian characters on either side of the argument.

My experience in my first play-though of most games is usually a “how would I handle it” approach, and it is in my first play-though that I struggle with political immaturity. Subsequent plays will see me acting as a shining beacon of goodness, or a despicable example of evil, and in these games I care not for the worries of politics. But when I'm approaching the game as I would – or as I would like to believe I would – a real-life situation, I find myself hamstrung by my code, my compass and the overwhelming sense of self-importance that any game engenders when it makes you the protagonist.

Is this political immaturity though, or is my reluctance to compromise a result of the fact that I don't have to? In the games I've described, players have the luxury of choice and an abundance of avenues of action, and ultimately thats what politics is: a choice between different ways of interacting with and seeing the world. Games that afford less choice, or even no choice beyond “shoot the guy in your iron-sights, or don't”, have a much less blurred political landscape. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's campaign, there is little by the way of choice, but the plot is steeped in political intrigue and interactions on a global scale. Regardless of player politics, the game will play out the same way. In Batman: Arkham Asylum you adopt the politics of the costumed vigilante and you will bring down the Joker, or you simply won't complete the game. Your choice is limited to which tactic you'll use to pummel the bad guys as you close on your target. That's not to say the run-on-rails nature of games like these makes them bad - far from it - but the lack of player choice doesn't allow for player politics to add a new dimension to the game play.

When it comes to more open world, choice driven role-playing or sandbox games, the freedom of choice and action seeds my political immaturity - because to believe you can solve the world's problems on your own and not have to forge alliances to do so is naive. In any alliance there is compromise and my inability to do so in Skyrim would have major ramifications to the provinces' inhabitants. Skyrim won't run itself and for me to leave it suffering a civil war that I could end by picking a side is politically irresponsible.

My choice is the third way: I will shape Skyrim as I see fit. And why can I do this? Because unlike real life, my limitless respawns, vast power and moral compass won't let me settle for a less than perfect affiliation between my view of the world and that of a faction I support. I don't have have the maturity to compromise and am doomed to struggle against all factions in the game - at least in my first play-through.

**This article was written for Game Kudos and can be viewed in its edited format here**

Sunday, 8 January 2012

We interrupt this silence...

I have been criminally negligent with regard to my writing over the past few months. As you can see, this blog hasn't been updated for a while and I've submitted nothing new to any of the outlets I write for since August. This post simply serves to say that this drought will be ending shortly. My latest article is with my editor and when ready will be posted here and elsewhere.

By way of mitigation for my lack of content I should mention that I have spent a considerable amount time at sea during the past 6 months and 7 weeks ago my wife gave birth to our beautiful baby daughter – so it's not like I've been sat on my hands since August. Anyway, watch this space for updates shortly.