2006 in review: Games and gadgets

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight PrincessI wouldn’t say that we’re obsessed with gaming in our household, but we did somehow manage to acquire four new games consoles in 2006. Okay, so two of them were handhelds, but still:

  • a GameBoy Advance for Fiona
  • a shiny new DS Lite for me
  • an XBox 360 for the family (honest)
  • a Wii

The tipping point for the XBox 360 came in September, when Lego Star Wars Lego II came out. We had bought a new “HD ready” LCD TV (720p only, not 1080) over the summer, but we didn’t have any HD sources for it yet. We had to get Lego Star Wars II, of course, and the 360 version was in HD, and so was reported to be the best-looking of all the multi-platform versions. So it was just common sense to buy a 360 to play it on.

Game of the year, though, is without a doubt Zelda: Twilight Princess. I got a Wii at launch, and Zelda kept the whole family occupied over the entire Christmas and New Year period. We finally finished it early in January after clocking up about 200 hours of play time on our various save games.

Other games that were fun during the year were New Super Mario Bros on the DS, and Geometry Wars on the 360. I finally finished Halo 2 as well, which was tedious and had an annoying cliffhanger ending. But nothing else even came close to Lego Star Wars or Zelda.

I’m going to be facing an interesting choice over the next week or so, as various shops in the UK start taking pre-orders for the PlayStation 3. There’s no way I’m going to camp out in front of a real-world shop to get one, nor do I have any intention of buying one on eBay for more than the standard retail price. But if I could get my hands on a pre-ordered one from an online retailer? Hmm.

Arguments in favour:

  • It would replace our (old, noisy) PS2 with a quieter console with wireless controllers. (Apart from the N64, the PS2 is the last bastion of tangle-friendly wired controllers.)
  • It would give us a high-def video player without having to buy an HD-DVD add-on for the 360. And seeing as we’ve got one of the loud 360s (even without a disc in it, it sounds like a Tornado on take-off), I don’t think I want to use it as a player, anyway.
  • We could afford it right now, whereas money is likely to be tighter after the summer and the move to NL.
  • High resale value of it doesn’t work, or if I fancy a sudden infusion of cash.

Arguments against:

  • There isn’t a single PS3 exclusive either at launch or on the horizon that I want to play.
  • By the time there are PS3 titles I want to play, the console will be cheaper.

Hmm. Brain says no. Gadget Fever says OOH OOH SHINY WANT.

Gadget Fever needs a slap.

(And this is finally the last of the “best of 2006” entries. I’ll move on to talking about some of the interesting things we’ll be doing in 2007 soon.)

Virtual worlds

Play MoneyI started reading Julian Dibbell’s “Play Money” blog back in 2003, probably as a result of a pointer from Edge magazine. It was a chronicle of his attempt to make real money from his trading activities in a virtual world–primarily the on-line role-playing game Ultima Online. He had originally set himself the challenge of making more money from trading than from his work as a writer, but he adjusted his goals downwards as the year progressed. He concluded his experiment in April 2004, and in his final month of trading managed to clear just under $4,000 in profit. That’s 4,000 real-world dollars.

In fact, this kind of money isn’t even unusual these days: Second Life now boasts its first millionaire (with a few caveats). The more interesting matter is how it is possible to make money in a virtual world at all. If you’re not plugged into the buzz surrounding them, it’s easy to see Second Life as an overgrown chat room, and World of Warcraft and its ilk as mere hack-and-slash fantasy games. Sure, the people who run the worlds can make money by charging monthly subscriptions, but how do the participants do it?

In simple terms, people are willing to pay to acquire goods they don’t have enough time (or skills) to build themselves. It’s just that in the case of virtual worlds, the goods have no physical substance. But that doesn’t make them any less real to the people who use them day in, day out in these electronic communities.

With his Play Money book, Julian Dibbell provides the background behind the blog. It’s uncomfortable reading in places. His game time and trading become an obsession, and although he says that they weren’t the cause of it, they certainly weren’t helping out when his marriage started to break up. But as well as the personal aspects, he also digs deeper into the economics of virtual worlds, and the sometimes cut-throat businesses that are growing up to service the demands of their inhabitants.

I have to admit to being endlessly fascinated by this, and the issues that flow from it. For example, there are figures that suggest that the average inhabitant of Second Life consumes roughly much power as a Brazilian. These numbers are heavily debated, but the fact is that a virtual person has a carbon footprint–a measurable effect–in the real world. And of course, as soon as real money starts to flow, the tax man is not far behind.

Beyond these immediate implications, there are also some enormous long-term issues to consider. Some of these worlds have millions of inhabitants. The people there are building houses, forming communities, participating in great deeds, and creating distinct cultures. What happens when the next big thing comes along, and people start to jump ship? What happens to the remnants of these civilizations? Is it important from a cultural and anthropological perspective to preserve what we can of these worlds?

World of WarcraftThe biggest online worlds may seem well-developed compared to their predecessors, but they are in still in their infancy with regard to user interaction and freedom of action. Despite being larger than any MMORPG before it, it is likely that World of Warcraft will have its number one spot taken from it by something bigger and better. But it’s possible that it, or one of the many others out there will stay ahead of the fickle curve of consumer demand, and will grow and evolve over the course of years and even decades.

And this is really interesting. Virtual worlds aren’t going away, and they are only going to get bigger and more populous. Business are opening offices in Second Life. If you catch the right world, and make the right investments (my guess would be virtual real estate), you may find yourself owning a tremendously valuable piece of some future metropolis.

I have created an avatar in Second Life, but I haven’t done much with him. I have a copy of WoW sitting on my desk, but I haven’t signed up for an account yet. Self-knowledge tells me that I could quite easily spend an unhealthy amount of time in these worlds, and right now I’m finding little enough time in my life for sleep as it is. But I also know that I immensely enjoy the total immersion of a good RPG, and despite the poor experience I had with Everquest a few years ago, I can see myself dipping my toes in the water again fairly soon. The possibilities are just too intriguing to ignore.

2005 in review: Games

In terms of games, 2005 was quite a telling year, in terms of illustrating the types of game I play most:

Let’s see…that would be four cartoonish “kids” games, one silly extreme sports title, and a story-based first person shooter. Picking a favourite is easy–Ratchet: Gladiator.

In its latest incarnation, R&C has finally become what is has been been evolving into since the first game: the perfect three-dimensional translation of an old school shoot-em-up. You’ve got your power-ups, your health packs, ever-increasing firepower, complex enemy attack patterns, and tough boss battles. The “levels” are linked by a story that is every bit as fun as the three previous games, but the platforming element is gone, and what is left is distilled essence of manic combat. The amount of explosive graphic detail the game engine renders without any slowdown whatsoever is mind-blowing. The controls are perfectly tuned, providing a sensation of fluidity and total immersion in the moment. Psychologically, the game provides quick bursts of action, peppered with small yet significant rewards at every turn. It has the “just one more” factor down to a T. I love this game.

At the other extreme of my game-playing lay Half-Life 2 on the PC. I enjoyed it, but I can’t say that it was a life-altering experience. It had some intense moments, and many thrilling and memorable sequences, but is it a game I would ever go back to? No. I am simply not an FPS kind of guy any more.

Nor am I a PC gamer any more. I appreciate that the PC is going to continue offering the best graphics of any platform, but that doesn’t really interest me. I’ll choose a fun, bright, cartoonish world over a perfectly rendered environment any day. I want simple gameplay. I don’t generally enjoy realistic violence. (Cartoon violence is a different matter, and more is generally better.) Bring on the Revolution.

In fact, I’ve even got to the point where I’m considering selling my XBox. The only games I have for it right now are Halo, Halo 2, and Burnout 3. The Burnout series is cross-platform, so I could get it on the PS2 or the Cube if I wanted to play it again. Halo was excellent, and it’s a game I might well go back to. Halo 2 I never finished, and, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever will. (I got bogged down on the levels where I had to play as the aliens, and I got bored of having to hack through the Flood again. I’ve been keeping it around on an “I know I should play this, but…” basis.) I know of no XBox-only titles currently available or in development that interest me. Given that I will probably buy myself an XBox 360 at some point in the future (“it’s the sound of…inevitability”), I’ll be able to play these games in backwards-compatibility mode should I ever feel the need.

(Yeah, I think that’s decided. The XBox goes. I can use the money from selling it to fund some games I am really looking forward to, all of which are due to land in February: We Love Katamari, Shadow Of The Colossus, and Psychonauts.)

Finally, my 2005 games roundup would not be complete without mentioning a non-videogame highlight, namely Poker. I bought myself a set of poker chips at the beginning of the year, and I’ve been getting together with a small gang of buddies every now and then for an evening of Hold’em, booze, junk food, and much hilarity. I was playing on-line for a while earlier in the year, and according to my statistics spreadsheet, I managed to get over 50 hours of raked hands and 100 tournaments out of my initial $50 stake before going bust. Not bad. I haven’t reloaded yet, because I found it was swallowing too much time in the evenings. Our gang has been talking about a real-life casino trip for a while, and maybe we’ll make that happen in 2006.

Some games played

I finally finished playing Half-Life 2 last week, a year after I first bought it. When I started playing it last year, I got about two chapters into the game, and lost interest, or never really had the time to take it any further. In the two week break from work I’ve just had, one of my goals (despite setting out to achieve as little as possible in this time) was to play the game through. And it was good. Excellent, in fact. It’s tremendously atmospheric, mixing dystopian science fiction with zombie horror, with gameplay ranging from mindless all-guns-blazing assaults to physics-based puzzles. Beautiful graphics and (relatively) lifelike animated characters contribute to a feeling of total immersion throughout the game. I was glad I had long stretches of time to devote to it completely, because it tended to suck me in for hours.

I think that Half-Life 2 will probably one of the last games I will ever play on the PC, though. The PC is the platform of choice for first-person shooters, strategy games, which I don’t tend to like any more; and on-line role-playing games, for which I don’t have the time. Most of the games I really enjoy, like Star Wars Lego, the Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank series, are console games. We have four consoles sitting under our TV, and I much prefer switching on one of those than firing up something on my PC. It’s partly the games, but partly also the experience: I can sit on a comfortable sofa rather than on my desk chair, and even though it may be a single-player game, it’s more pleasant for Abi or the kids to sit and watch.

The console game that is stirring up my interest at the moment is SSX On Tour, which Julian brought up with him while he was staying with us this weekend. SSX Tricky was one of the first games I bought for the PS2, and I must have spent well over a hundred hours playing it–it’s one of my all-time favourite games. SSX 3, the follow-up, wasn’t nearly so enjoyable. I felt that it lacked character, the very thing that made Tricky so entertaining.

In SSX On Tour, though, a lot of that character is back. It’s interface is streamlined, which makes it easier to flip from event to event. It has lots of little challenges, ranging from amusing to seriously tough, that kept me coming back for more. And even though you can’t choose pre-defined personalities to play with and build up over time, the tour ranking table looked like it would provide me with a challenging long term goal to aim towards.

Jules and I played it a lot over the weekend, and I’m kinda missing it now that he’s taken it back home with him. Good thing my birthday’s on the way 🙂

2004 in review: Games

To borrow and misapply a term from John Scalzi, 2004 was a meh year for my videogaming habit. Sure, there were plenty of good games around, but I didn’t do much actual playing of them.

Burnout 3: TakedownOf the “completable” games I bought, I ended up finishing only two of them: Halo and Jak 3. Others, like Galleon, Riddick, Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Ratchet & Clank 3, and Rainbow Six 3 have slipped into and out of their various loading slots with varying levels of enjoyment, but only moderate amounts of long-term interest. Of the infinitely replayable kind of game, only Burnout 3 has lasted beyond its initial thrill.

In my own mind I picture myself as a fairly dedicated videogamer, so this lack of follow-through and persistence bothers me. But if I look back on the last twelve months and ask myself if I’ve regretted not spending more of my free time on games, the answer is no. My leisure time is limited, and I enjoy spending it on activities I’m interested in. Games just happened to be near the bottom of the pile of things I fancied doing in 2004. (The acquisition of a new XBox and a subscription to XBox Live notwithstanding.)

This lack of real interest seems to have two other consequences:

  • The rare occasions when I get together with friends in real life or on-line to play some games, I enjoy all the more because I don’t play much the rest of the time…
  • …but I also tend to suck because I haven’t put in much practice time. Head shots in Halo 2? I should be so lucky.

I suppose the advantage of this is that I now have a stockpile of games to choose from as soon as the videogaming urge is upon me again.

Time keeps on slipping

It’s 11 o’clock. We’re all packed and backed up. Only four and a half hours until we have to get up, get dressed, and head out the door to catch our plane. It would be foolish of me to get in a quick half hour of Halo 2, wouldn’t it?

On the other hand, I’m going to be sleep-deprived anyway. And what with Ratchet & Clank 3 arriving on Friday, me being sick over the weekend, and all of the busying around we’ve had to do this week, I haven’t actually played H2 at all since my first session last Thursday…and I’m not going to get another chance for another two weeks…

Yeah, foolish.