Saturday, March 27, 2010

Food, Food, and... almost food.

I have three things to report in the food arena. Two of them are undoubtedly, unquestionably, food. The third thing, I'm feeling like it's not really food, even though it's something I write on the grocery list on a regular basis.

On the way home from work the other night, I asked my youngest child what he wanted for dinner. Typically, there are only two answers. On weekends, he seems to ask for macaroni & cheese with SPAM in it. The other answer is "Hangurgers". Yes, that is how my three-year old pronounces it. I am going to have to call Steve Martin about that and see if that gag in the sub-mediocre "Pink Panther" remake was his or the other writer's gag.

In an effort to appease both the adults and the children, I did the unthinkable in this economy, I applied the "separate but equal" treatment. It was not my original intention, but I didn't really think that I wanted plain old greasy french fries, and I spotted something in the freezer section that made me think that doing a separate dinner for the adults would work.

Alexia spicy sweet potato fries.

They were good by themselves, as long as they were just crispy enough (don't kill them in the oven, though). They were also good with mayo. The chipotle flavor doesn't make sense with ketchup, though. The kids had tater tots instead - sweet potato fries are 'weird' and chipotle is too spicy for them anyway. These fries I will definitely get again.

The second thing I would like to report in the food arena is Taco Bell Shrimp Tacos. Six shrimp, lettuce, mayo, and pico de gallo. Overall, the flavor was very balanced - the shrimp worked very well with the pico sauce. There was nothing spectacular about the shrimp, but they also were not as small as I had heard from initial reports from elsewhere on the web. In this particular instance, it make the steak soft taco that I had with it not seem as good. The person I was eating with commented that he had steak soft tacos from that same location a few days before and they were better, so maybe we just got a bum part of the cow, making for an unfair comparison. I don't know if the shrimp tacos are going to be a limited time item or not, but it may limit my ability to go to Taco Bell with my steak-loving wife, as there are lots of allergy warnings about shellfish and my wife is one of the afflicted in this case. Most of the time we don't have cross-contamination problems unless it's someplace like Long John Silver's where everything ends up in the fryer. OK, enough with the allergy talk. To sum up - not bad, not good enough to make up for the potential inconvenience to my spouse.

The third thing, and arguably not a food thing although I consider it so, is -
Metal Gear Solid Mountain Dew Game Fuel.

You will probably notice that most of the writing on the carton in the article I linked to is in Japanese - who knows if this promotion is coming to the states? Maybe everyone here will still be too busy with the God of War III promotion. The number of people that I know that have played the Metal Gear games is few, and the number that own a PSP is even fewer. I can only presume that this is an attempt to bring stealth action to a new generation. Since there are several collectible cans, and I only see one color, I assume it's only one flavor. Judging from the can, it's the one I wasn't as fond of from the World of Warcraft promotion. I guess we will find out sometime in June?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Social Gaming for the Antisocial gamer

Welcome to SuperMonkeyCube's magical circus of broad generalizations.

"FarmVille is a giant waste of time and seems like work. "

See how easy that was? I will admit that that generalization is only true for some groups of people.

For my next trick, I will now lump everyone that reads these words into three categories. Watch carefully, as my fingers do not leave my hands. The first category is people who are reading this on my blog page, and with whom I do not interact with on Facebook. These people probably don't play FarmVille. They may not even know about it, or have only gotten sketchy information. The second category is people who are reading this on Facebook and may or may not know that they could read this somewhere else, but they are very aware of FarmVille because every third update on their Facebook home page is "'#FriendName' has just '#event' in FarmVille!". The third category are the people who are generating all those FarmVille updates on everyone else's pages and only stopped to read this because I put 'FarmVille' in the title.

At the Game Developer's Conference this past weekend in San Francisco, the two Facebook games that were mentioned the most were FarmVille and Bejeweled Blitz. Both games are doing something similar to a game model that is practically the standard in South Korea. The game is free to play. If you want cooler stuff for the game, you can either play the game a lot and get in-game rewards, or you can spend real money to reap the benefits right away. Typically, the numbers quoted for this sort of game is that 10 percent of the players actually fund the game for the other 90 percent that just play for free. (I'm sure it's another broad generalization.) Most of the reason that they were mentioned is that they are standout success stories, especially in light of the fact that they're free to play, and developers are talking about what it takes to make games in this space that are successful.

Bejeweled Blitz is a one-minute version of Popcap's game Bejeweled, a puzzle game where you swap two adjacent pieces in a large grid to get 3, 4, or 5 or the same kind of piece in a row. Unlike the regular Bejeweled, there is no fear of not having an available move. One is always available, so the trick is just to rack up score as fast as possible in the allotted time. In addition to your score, some pieces when cleared off the board yield coins that can then be used for power-ups in subsequent games. It is also possible to purchase coins with real money to get the same power-ups. This game, I like. Each game is self-contained. If I don't play it for a week, nothing bad happens in-game. I have noticed that among my friends, a surprising number of women are playing it, and they tend to be better than the men. I'm sure that has a lot to do with a self-selecting population - women who might only be mediocre at it may not tend to play as much or at all and would rather play something like Farmville where there isn't a score or a ranking ladder. Alternately, it might have something to do with the part of the brain that does pattern recognition being different in women, but I'm in no position to start funding a clinical trial.

FarmVille, on the other hand is structured around planting, raising, and harvesting crops, animal husbandry, and real estate improvement. If you neglect crops, they go bad. If you don't work on your field, it doesn't do anything for you. It does have the advantage of letting your virtual neighbors help you out, and a great deal of bartering and cooperation happens between people. The only console video games that this reminds me of are the Harvest Moon games, with a touch of Animal Crossing thrown in. After seeing what this was about, I opted not to play it. I didn't play it long enough to find out what you can do with real money. I can attest to the fact that easily 10 percent of my Facebook friends have played it at some point, and most of those people are not people that I would consider traditional gamers. Clearly it's more popular than something like Street Fighter - even though it's a flagship Capcom fighting game that just released a new version, I think I have a better chance at walking up to a random person under 40 that has played FarmVille than I do finding a person that's played Street Fighter IV.

This is not to say that people really want farming games. I don't think that's the driving force here. FarmVille is simple to operate, inherently networked, and easy to understand the concepts of. The last thing I want to see is the XBox and Playstation teams feeling like they need to get a farming simulator by fourth quarter this year, because that's wrong on so many levels. Nintendo has tried to make this work, since they have a fairly recent release of Animal Crossing for the Wii which includes a "Wii Speak" accessory - but Nintendo's online system is cumbersome for most. Connecting on most Nintendo games online involves having to obtain a "Friend Code" from your friends so you can connect to them, except that this code is different for every single game. Only the most dedicated Animal Crossing players will involve themselves. The "Wii Speak" allows people playing Animal Crossing online together to talk to each other over the Nintendo WFC connection. I don't think that this will help foster the same sense of cooperation that Facebook lends itself so easily to.

As usual, what I think that people that don't normally play games look for in games is a new experience. People that involve themselves in 'gaming culture' already have their preferences, and gravitate towards genres that they're already familiar with. Amongst those people, it takes a really standout game to get them out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, the novice gamer has fewer expectations, and has less reservation about throwing themselves in a new experience. Framed that way, it makes perfect sense that I would play Bejeweled Blitz over FarmVille - if I had wanted a farming game, I would have already played Harvest Moon and might even have thought FarmVille was inferior and not bothered with it. On the other hand, having played Tetris, Bust-A-Move, Chainz, and Collapse!, Bejeweled Blitz makes perfect sense and meshes well with my existing genre preferences.

So after writing this, I've decided to go easy on my Facebook friends that are playing FarmVille. While I've seen a bunch of people joining groups that sound like "I don't care about your farm, your mafia, or your cafe", I'm going to give that a pass. Besides, what's happening is that they're becoming social gamers.

(Is that like social consumption of adult beverages?)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Motion Sickness, or, Controlling Interest

I had the most horrible dream Saturday night.

It is years in the future. I am in the upstairs press room in an old movie theater, typing up a movie review on a thin black laptop. It used to be the projection booth, but digital movie projection has gotten so small that the new projection booth is a closet in the press room with a rack full of servers . There are a few folding chairs and tables, a low ceiling, a great wireless internet connection, and a projectionist who is babysitting the press, the data rack, and a couple of security monitors. The projectionist answers a knock on the door, and greets someone presumably familiar to him and tells him to go to theater seven. After he shuts the door again, he tells me that it was the EA sales rep and the newest Madden football game has been released for press events. I'm supposed to go down to theater seven and play against one of the sports writers from my media group's website. Not only are we going to have the game projected onto the screen, but the new game comes with a new controller. When I get down to theater seven, I am relieved that no one is wearing 3-D glasses. The EA rep greets me and hands me a pair of clear polycarbonate glasses, and I get worried again.

"Don't worry. They're just safety glasses."

Why the crap do I need safety glasses to get my butt handed to me on a football video game?

"In case you're wondering, here's why you need safety glasses. Legal said if there are flying objects, you gotta wear 'em." He tosses me a foam football, which feels like it's got a controller embedded inside the foam.

The game isn't too bad, but I end up sticking to a running game after a few plays because pass plays require me to be able to throw the controller at the correct speed and direction. If I don't throw a perfect spiral, I get a wobbly football on the screen. Lucky for me, the sportswriter is having just as hard a time.

This is not the part where I tell you that the future is now, although most of the things in my dream were possible technologically. This is only a possible outcome in a world where game design sometimes gets driven by the marketing department.

This is what I fear - when virtual reality is embedded into video games so far that they become too much actual work. Don't get me wrong - the right kind of feedback is helpful. A force feedback steering wheel is a lot more helpful to drive with than the plastic Wii wheel, where you're just driving with the tilt sensor. I just don't want to get knocked out of my chair if I have to nudge the car next to me. I don't want my ability to make free throws in real life to impair my ability to make free throws in the next NBA Jam, NBA Street, or whatever it is that they might call it in the future.

I guess the thing that set me off on this rant is that there is a new Sony motion controller available for the PS3 called the Move. Since it uses the PlayStation Eye camera, it does a better job of locating the controller in space than the Wii does. It has a big lighted sphere on the end of the controller that alters its color to maintain contrast from its surroundings. It also has the advantage of recharging the same way that the PS3 controllers do, via a USB cable. But, I don't know if this was something that Sony needed to do, and it's not like that this has replaced the standard controller in any way. I fear that the Move has a real risk of becoming another marginalized product along with the DJ Hero turntable controller and the Tony Hawk Ride virtual skateboard. Not only is it an optional accessory, but it itself has its own optional accessory called the sub-controller that looks surprisingly like the Nunchuck for the Wiimote and serves a similar, if not identical, purpose. And, unlike the DJ Hero controller or the Ride skateboard, $100 bucks only gets you an Eye, a controller and a demo disk. (Sub-controller is extra.) At least DJ Hero and Ride are supposed to be full-game experiences at that price point.

Microsoft has gone one more step past Sony - with their Natal system, they're allowing an infrared camera to watch the player's movements and forgo a traditional controller entirely. If you are at the correct distance from the camera, it is able to determine independent position of each of your fingers. You could be typing in the air like Officer John Anderton of the Precrime division before you know it. (Philip K. Dick? "Minority Report"? Some crazy-pants couch-jumper played him in the movie version?)

I appreciate that Sony and Microsoft are trying to capture some of what has made the Wii a big success, but this will be an uphill battle for them. Right now, they are both presumably getting software lined up that will take advantage of the new controllers. Neither of them has been able to make much of a dent in the casual gaming demographic so far, even with the XBox 360 being as cheap as the Wii. Even if one of their software titles turns out to be better than sliced bread or hotcakes or whatever it is that will announce the second wave of new casual gaming that's not on Facebook, it still isn't going to gain ground against the Wii this generation. Once you add all the costs of the new motion controllers to a console bundle, it's not at the Wii's price point any more. I also don't think that too many families that have a XBox360 or a PS3 already are using it as their main, family friendly, game night console. I'd hazard a guess that the Wii leads in that regard, followed with the PS2!

So, in case I haven't said it enough - Move and Natal are capable tech, but run a very real risk of being another overpriced peripheral with little software to take advantage of it. If you want waggle, that's what your Wii is for.