Tag Archive: Tao of Gamer

The Joys of Alpha Testing

A friend of mine recently invited me to join him in the “new” SWGEMU alpha test server.  It’s been nearly a decade since I did any alpha testing so I figured I might as well join in for a while… even against my current policy generally prohibiting MMOs that aren’t Aardwolf.

I had forgotten what an interesting experience alpha testing was.  Lots of server down time, bugs, glitches, exploits, and lag spikes that last upwards of 2 minutes.  In such a chaotic and hostile environment one wouldn’t expect to have much fun, but it’s an oddly enjoyable experience.  Watching the player dynamic shift and change as things are patched and tweaked, seeing the workarounds people come up with to avoid bugs or missing content, and, most of all, mocking the people who whine about how unstable everything is.

It’s been a long time since I did an alpha test, and frankly, I can’t believe I didn’t come back to alphaing sooner.  There’s something magical about watching a game develop through the chaos of glitches.  It isn’t for everyone for sure, the sheer amount of whining on the SWGEMU forums is evidence enough of that, but if you have the right mindset and know what you’re getting into, then it can be one hell of a ride.  Heck, playing the alpha of a game might be even more fun than playing the stable Beta or release build.

Though I don’t know what it says about me that I’m thriving on chaos…

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

Important Service Announcement

Dearest readers, I’m here to talk to you about something that’s close to my heart; an issue of profound meaning and importance to the video game geek.  Today I would like to talk to you about saving.

Many gamers, especially the newer generation, probably don’t realize how far saving has evolved in the past 25 years.  But, looking back, it’s come a long way.

In the early days of video games, there typically wasn’t any saving at all.  Games were just simple tasks of skill and timing that racked up points.  Eventually you’d lose all your lives and your score would be entered into the top score table or similar.  Then, around the time that the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came around, things began to change.  Games were getting longer and more sophisticated, both at the console and on the computer and there needed to be a way to retain progress across gaming sessions.  Initially there were two ways to accomplish this:

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You may have noticed that I’m pretty quiet on the front of modern video games, to the point where I rarely mention them. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, everyone and their brother talks about modern games. You can’t go two pages on the internet without hearing about the latest release of Mass Effect, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, etc. Anything I could say about those games would be hugely redundant and, frankly, just add to the chaotic din surrounding these games. On my side of things, I’d rather talk about games that see less face time these days. These tend to be either old-school games (such as the NES games I talk about a lot), “casual” games (internet flash games and so forth), or the occasional independently released game (SPAZ). I certainly play a lot of the modern games you hear about in other places, but frankly I’d rather talk about the games you may not have heard about. And that’s more interesting to me, and I think gets my message out to more of a niche audience. Certainly my impressions of Mass Effect 3 are likely to get lost in the tens of thousands of websites that are talking about it, many of which are professional journalists who have inside scoops and whatnot. However, not many people are extolling the virtues of Terranigma these days, so competition is lighter and my voice is slightly more likely to be heard.

Second, I don’t get as much time as I used to for video games. When I was a younger person I could easily spend 6+ hours in a day playing video games, and a rainy weekend could see that number easily double (though if the weather was nice, I’d likely be out fishing or doing yard work instead). These days I get between 2 and 3 hours on a daily basis in which to play modern games. The rest of my time is pretty well taken up by home-ownership, parenting, craft and woodworking projects, blogging, and any other hobby that I want to spend time on. Games that used to take two to three days to finish up now take two to three weeks. As such, I’m far more picky about what games I chose to play. I purchase far fewer new releases, and focus more on games that have been out a few months and have established reputations of being good (plus, by that time the good games are cheaper and often have player’s choice version with packaged DLC included; not to mention those buggy releases have a chance to be cleaned up *coughBethesdacough*). I just don’t have the kind of time to invest in what might turn out to be an awful game. Nor can I just take a day off from work and do a 24 hours power gaming shift. If I take a day off work, I still have to be a parent and a homeowner. And, since many of the modern games I like are violent, I’ve chosen not play them in front of Tron. As such, I don’t usually get any extra play time on my days off (unless Tron takes a nap, which doesn’t happen that often anymore). I get more time to play ‘casual’ games and MUDs because they aren’t objectionable to the young eyes and can be dropped at a moments notice if Tron wants to wrestle with me on the floor for a few minutes.

Such is the story of many of us older gamers. As we find ourselves more deeply entrenched into the roles and pursuits of the adult person, the less time we have for video games. Between full time jobs, parenting, and home repairs, we just have too much else on our plate to sit down and play for as long as we used to. Our passion still burns, we’re just too busy to put in the hours that our 14-year-old selves used to. I’ve certainly found that where I’d “perfect” a game when I was younger (get all the endings, do all the difficulty levels, do the bonus dungeons/levels, and do all the various extra stuff), these days I’m more likely to just play through the game and call it good.

But, it’s certainly not a bad thing by any means. Having one’s priorities change is just a part of life. Even so, there are days when I just want to spend the whole day wallowing in unbridled hedonism. Days where I’d really just like to pop myself down into my gaming chair and play 24 hours straight of Disgaea 4 instead of shouldering parental and other adult responsibilities. I’m sure one day, when the wife and child are away visiting her parents and I’m home alone on a rainy day, I’ll get up from bed, see the day stretch out before me all full of possibility, and make it only as far as my gaming chair*. It’s those small, attainable dreams that keep a man going.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

*The last time I had this opportunity, I got a weird rush of productivity and ended up working furiously on projects, cleaning the kitchen, mowing and weeding the lawn, and then going to bed an hour early because of how exhausted I was from all the productivity.

As an aside update, I’m sitting at and even 10 unfinished console games in my queue. This comes after the Christmas influx of games which saw five games get added to my queue, most of which I’ve already tackled and put in my finished pile (Winter is always better for getting those few extra moments here and there to play). I feel I’m doing very well of reaching my goal of 5 or less by the end of the year, but I’ve still got to get past my birthday and several awesome releases this year (such as Diablo 3, Bioshock Infinite, and a few others).

Loving the Freaks

A few years ago I was at a gaming convention with my wife and one of our friends. While we were waiting in line for… something (badge collection maybe), we met a couple of guys who we took the opportunity to chew the fat with. They were nice enough guys and we had a nice chat in a line that was really, really long. It helped pass the time and we got to gab about gaming.

The next day we ran into them again and they invited us to lunch. So we headed out to a bar and grill, noted for embracing the geek/gaming culture during the convention (they were playing Lord of the Rings on their big-screen when we walked in and advertising their D&D hot-wing special, so we knew we had the right place). During our lunch and conversation with them one of the guys made a comment that stuck in my craw, and ultimately led to me “losing” their contact information:

“I really enjoy [convention], but I don’t know why they allow the furries in there. We don’t need those freaks running around. It’s as bad as when they started letting the Anime people use the small basement rooms to play their crap.”

This struck me as rather hypocritical to say the least. Here we were, a group of 5 twenty and thirty-somethings, going to a convention based around a style of game that is really just glorified make-believe. I didn’t break it to him at the time, but really the whole lot of us are freaks. I’m certainly a freak, my wife is a freak, my friends are all freaks, the only normal one among us is Tron… because he’s too young to really be a decent freak. It seems that if you’re a freak you might as well hang out with them, even if they’re a different brand of freak. As long as both parties are amicable, there’s no issue. There’s plenty of space at the convention to have a few devoted to playing anime, and seeing a guy walking around in bear costume doesn’t really bother me. I’ve been to Disneyland and there are tons of people running around in costumes there, and lines of people waiting to get pictures of it. Similarly, I like Anime, and cartoons in general. A lot of the geek/gaming people double dip into anime/cartoons, so it only makes sense to have it available at the convention. More revenue and more happy customers.

Let’s back up a bit though: Between the grades of 3 and 10, I was about as popular as a mouth ulcer. I played video games, D&D, and wore clothes based on comfort rather than how cool they were. Back in those days that made me unpopular kid number 2, right behind that one kid who always smelled like urine. I had few friends growing up because I bore, rather proudly, the geek label (the same label that is so popular right now… *sigh*). As such, I know very well that it’s difficult and rather lonely being the freak, and that freaks crave company of their same ilk, or at least those who can relate.

As such, the inclusion of the Furry, Anime, and Cosplay societies within the gaming convention always made sense to me. It’s a convention devoted to the freaks who loved make-believe so much that they had to create a massive collection of rule sets for it. We wear costumes, we make foam weapons, we create characters with more vibrant backgrounds than you’re like to see in even a novel, and we even have paintings made of our favored characters. We. Are. Freaks. Putting on an animal costume (for whatever reason) or loving to watch Japanese cartoons and dress up as the characters does not seem all that out of place; it never did. Some of the practices within those groups I find a little… yucky, but as long as they’re keeping that stuff private, they can do what they want. If everything is consensual and nobody is getting hurt, all the power to them; just don’t ask me to watch.

But the view has to be more than that. It’s all well and good to accept the groups that don’t really weird me out that much (and who do have redeeming crafts/interests that I like), but it’s another, harder thing to accept those groups that I find truly bizzar. Technosexuals, Smurfs, Emos, and Juggalos to name a few. If I’m really going to accept the freaks, I’ve got to go the whole way and accept those who I wouldn’t even be comfortable being seen with in public. I have to be better than that, and it’s hard.

It all comes down to understanding why these things make us so uncomfortable, and really, it’s a pretty easy thing to grasp: We are uncomfortable with that which we don’t understand. I can’t fathom why somebody would want to paint themselves blue or dress up like a crazy clown. Because I don’t understand it, and I can’t really relate to it, I naturally shy away from it. Many, like those I lunched with, instantly take the path of hateful exclusion because it’s easy and helps build a sense of worth in your own camp (whatever it may be). By excluding those who are weird, and denouncing them, you declare how normal you must be and how good you are. You get double duty by spacing yourself from that which makes you uncomfortable while at the same time feeding your own ego. It’s an, unfortunately, natural response to what is different. It is why change is so hard for humans, and why social progress takes so long. But, what if you want people to accept what you are? Can you really defend yourself from those hatefully distancing their camps from you if you’re doing the same thing to another?

No, you really can’t. And that’s where loving the freak comes into play. If I really, really want to defend my obsession with games, then I must defend the freak as well. I have to point at the Juggalo and the Emo and say “I don’t like or understand that, but there’s nothing wrong with them wanting to do it.” In the end, all the freaks are in it together; even if we don’t understand each other.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

NOTE: By the same token this is why groups entirely DEVOTED to hateful separation don’t have a leg to stand on. For instance: the KKK is about the biggest group of hypocrites I can think of. They hate those who are different but they are shocked, confused, and angry when people hate them. Seems that they aren’t fond of getting dished out exactly what they are serving. Loving the freak is all well and good, but when the “freaks” in question are hate-mongering douchebags, they’re on their own.

Hardcore and Casual Video Games

A lot of zing words have been added to the video gaming world since it got trendy in the last few years.  Two that keep coming up are Casual and Hardcore when referring to the type of game.  Aside from being woefully limiting, I’ve never felt that either category is really an appropriate one.  But let me unpack it.

*Grabs his old-man cane*  Back in my era of gaming there were generally 8 well accepted categories of video games:  RPG, Platformer, Beat-em-up, Sports, Puzzle, Shooter, Simulation, and Adventure.  Often games would fall into multiple categories, especially as the complexity of games started to increase around the time the SNES and Genesis came into the picture.  But as we move into the trendy gaming era, these categories seem to have taken a backseat to the more fuzzy and limiting Hardcore vs. Casual games.  But really, since it’s a trendy argument, the real classification is: First Person Shooters and games with lots of swearing/violence vs. all the other kinds of games.  Or to be even more snide: Games on the Xbox 360 and games not on the Xbox360.

But, stepping away from those more sarcastic arguments I think there is a good case why these two categories are, though sometimes appropriate, ultimately useless to classify games.

Let’s deconstruct them from the casual side, since this is a far easier side to defeat.  Casual games are generally referring to any short play games, usually aimed at the mini-game collections you’ll find on the Wii (Cooking Mama, Wii Sports, Wii Resort, etc).  But it is also applied to pretty much all flash games and many of the smaller company games you’ll see in the digital download section of your favorite internet ready system (such as the ever popular “Angry Birds”). The general theme seems to suggest that a casual game is something that you can just sit down and play for a few minutes and not really have to sink any time into it.  The absence of a story line also seems to enter into getting classified as casual.  But lets look at that some more.  99% of games made before the SNES had no plot or need to save data; and most could be played for a few minutes and then just dropped.  Further, over half before the Nintendo64/Playstation era didn’t require any of that, and most didn’t have much of a plot.  Are we now suggesting that really no games before that era could be considered anything but casual?  Was Frogger casual?  Spy hunter? Were  Joust, Centipede, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Tron, Ninja Turtles, Pitfall, Star Fox and Blaster Master all just casual games?  By the definitions that I’ve seen used to define casual games, yes, they all are.  Which is why the term is worthless.

To go another step, many flash games don’t really fit in the “casual category” anyway. Sonny being a prime example.  There’s a game that has a plot, requires saving, and can take hours to complete; and the main character is a zombie, how awesome is that?!  True you can pick up and drop it quickly, but anymore that’s true of a whole slew of games.  Most modern games have check points and save points every few minutes, so picking one up and playing for a few minutes would be pretty easy (Batman: Arkham Asylum being a good example of a game that saves extemely often).  On the other side are games like GemCraft, which don’t have much of a plot, but certainly require saving and can take a huge amount of time to complete.  Putting nearly 100 hours into a game doesn’t seem all that casual to me, even if it is only 15 minutes at a time.

And lets look at more modern games that fit this casual classification as stated:  Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Counter Strike, Team Fortress, and Modern Warfare 2 all can be picked up, played for a bit and then dropped without much issue.  None of them have much in the way of plot, and, other than medal collecting, don’t really require a save feature.  Yet all of these are considered hardcore games.

So it appears the distinction is less functional and more image based.  Those games are cool, so they get to be considered hardcore.  It’s a hipster argument at its core that’s really trying to separate the cool gamers from everyone else.  The problem is, gaming isn’t really cool to begin with.  It’s geeky, dorky, and really just a more visually stimulating version of make believe than you get playing with action figures.  It needlessly limits the spectrum of games a person is willing to play to those most accepted by the hip crowd without giving any consideration to the more important qualities of the game.

It’s not a new mentality by any means.  I had friends in middle school who wouldn’t play Secret of Mana because the graphics were too cutesy.  A real shame too, since it was one of what I would call the “Essential Plays” for the SNES.  It was an awesome and fun game that was overlooked simply because my friends didn’t like the image they would have if they played it.  Their loss, really.  The game was fantastic in just about every respect, and they couldn’t get over the cute graphical style.

Thus I am replacing this system with one that makes more sense, but is equally subjective:  Games that ARE fun to play and games that ARE NOT fun to play.  It’s the system I’ve used since the age of four, and I think it’s the only system that matters.  If you can produce a fairy princess min-game compendium that’s fun to play, I’ll friggin’ play it.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?

The Gamer Test

So, a lot of the new era video game junkies like to toss around the term “Hardcore Gamer” without seeming to put any thought into what it is they are claiming to be.  As an individual who has gamed obsessively in its many forms for a quarter century I try, unsuccessfully, to not be offended by these little upstarts who come along, play 10 different FPS video games for their Xbox and wants to claim the title.

Sorry, kid.  But you need more than that to join us over in the hardcore lobby.

But, “Hardcore Gamer” is such a subjective term, I think it’s time I narrow things down for everyone.

When you think of what is “Hardcore” you think of something that is extreme, or above and beyond what most would consider reasonable.  As somebody who has obsessively played all manner of games since I was 4 years old, I think I can approach this.  I mean seriously, a grown man of nearly 30 playing Pokémon at the Toyota dealership while waiting for an oil change is pretty unreasonable.  Yup, that’s hardcore.  You can play a “child’s” game in full public and not give a damn what people think about it.  Why?  Because you frickin enjoy playing Pokémon.  Why is there shame in that?

However, playing the latest game that’s all the rage doesn’t likely qualify.  All your friends are playing it, all the “cool” people are playing it.  The TV is telling you it’s hardcore to play it.  Doesn’t really seem hardcore anymore does it?

So, how does one know when they’re a hardcore gamer?  Forgiving the fact that I’ve used video games as my examples thus far, the community of gaming is pretty wide.  So, we need a simple, quick test to determine if you can even qualify for being hardcore.

Hardcore Gaming Disqualification Test

Have you ever been to a gaming convention?

Do you regularly play more than 1 style of game (IE Video Games, Pen&Paper, Card, Board, Live Action, Text Based, Miniatures, etc)?

Do you own an “embarrassing” game?  Have you played it in public or around your friends?

If you were trapped in a room and the only game in the room was “My Little Ponies Starlight Express” (could be for any of the styles above) would you try it?

There you go.  If you can’t answer yes to all of those, then you don’t qualify for being hardcore.  You are most likely a different flavor of gamer; but a flavor that isn’t over-the-top obsessed with gaming to the Hardcore extreme.

However, if you said yes to everything, you at least qualify for the next test.  Which I’ve not come up with yet.

So it goes.