Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sane Gaming: Market Misconceptions

Monday night blogtime. I'm mostly over my illness from this past week, and this week's going to be a blogging catchup week. I'm opening my usual Monday night post with the Sane Gaming installment I intended to finish and post two weeks ago. I'm still looking for an interesting non-gaming related topic (And open to suggestions) for another post in the next 24 hours, and I plan on doing another Sane Gaming post for a third later this week so I can finally finish the series next week. (After having intended to finish that series at the end of this week.)

After all that catchup, it'll be back to the usual couple of weekly varied posts on a variety of subjects (I'm starting to plan a couple more comedy pieces for the first time in a while), so those of you not so interested in video gaming blogging can look forward to that.

Without further ado, the first installment for this week's topic is the issue of market misconceptions, as there are many regularly spouted by both third parties this generation by third parties, the blogging media (Which is, frankly, anything but objective - especially the biggest sites, Kotaku and Joystiq), and market "analysts." (Who more often than not display a complete and utter cluelessness about the market they're supposedly "experts" in analyzing, coming off as little more than paid shills for Sony and Microsoft in particular, who know nothing about the industry, medium, or how to recognize actual sales trends and the reasons behind them. It says a lot when some random nerd like myself can pick up on patterns more easily after simply having been a gamer for a couple of decades and paid attention to market changes.)

The most important pack-in game since Super Mario Bros. on the NES.The Wii itself in particular - and to a lesser degree the DS - has been a victim of a clear fallacy in regard to the idea of "casual" gamers, the new mass market crowd that Nintendo's "blue ocean" strategy has successfully targeted. The "casuals" are essentially all the newcomers to the gaming industry that the platforms have brought in - the people who were never keen to be part of the whole basement-dwelling gamer stereotype, obsessively playing the latest role-playing game or first person shooter. Many third parties have looked at this market, however, and decided that it's completely and cleanly divorced from the traditional or "core" gamer, and sought to cash in on this audience largely by developing knockoffs of hit first person Nintendo titles with this crowd. (See: The "Brain Age" brain training series on the DS, and Wii Sports and Wii Fit on the Wii.) These knockoffs in turn are often produced with less thought involved - under the assumption that these "casual" gamers are a pack of clueless suckers who have no idea how to discern between a well-made game and a poor quality one - and tend to sell quite poorly. And on the whole, traditional/core games tend to outsell "casual" games, with only a few exceptions sprinkled here and there.

Many of these developers don't - or it could be interpreted that they don't want to, under pressure from competitors - look at strong core software sales and acknowledge the presence of a strong demand for "core" games on the Wii - and to a lesser degree, some developers ignore this demand on the DS. (At this point, it's not as much of an issue on the DS, but we do occasionally see publishers like Capcom heap a larger variety of titles on the PSP where they won't turn a profit when they would've been a better fit for the DS user base. Capcom themselves reduced a lot of their portable support for Nintendo this generation following the launch of the PSP in a very questionable shift in focus, simply bringing the DS a mixed bag in an oversaturation of Mega Man series titles and excellent Ace Attorney series titles, which at least somewhat redeem their efforts.) Capcom is also guilty of openly announcing that they "need" to focus their efforts on the Xbox 360 in order to remain a strong, viable presence in the market - especially in the west - this generation. This is demonstrably false, and an ideology largely rooted in fanatics and the media's efforts to declare Microsoft the "winner" of this generation within a year of the system's launch, prior to PS3 and Wii hitting the market. Many still haven't shaken this mindset, outright detached from the reality of the industry and market these days. The PS3 is in many capacities catching up to the 360 in sales, while both are generally slowing and plateauing in market presence and appeal, crystallizing their general unprofitability for the majority of developers who've released software on the platforms due to their ridiculously high development costs and limited user bases that tend to only make the most overhyped of blockbuster titles profitable - and even then, nowhere near the kind of profitability these companies built their business model around on the PSX and PS2 in focusing development on the market-leading hardware, as is industry common sense. Both the high definition systems suffer from a overly graphics-obsessed user bases with a slant against Japanese-developed games and a fixation on a very small subset of genres - largely those that revolve around shooting at one another online. Capcom as a publisher has in many ways detached from reality and sustainable market strategy out of a developed apparent ridiculous loyalty to Sony and Microsoft. (Which was likely in part bankrolled by both companies - it speaks in volumes of a lack of wisdom in gaming business these days when many developers are willing to take money to develop extremely expensive games for unprofitable hardware for financial gain in the short term in exchange for heavier losses in the long term. It's short-sighted and self-destructive, and after becoming complacent over a decade of Sony dominance of the market, many publishers seem to have completely forgotten how to be competitive.)

Capcom's best on the DS.
Bethesda Software - best known for their PC and Xbox 360 Elder Scrolls series games - is also guilty of Capcom-level cluelessness in having described the Wii as a "toy" in comparison to the expensive high-definition consoles. Another company - or at least an individual at said company - that doesn't get it. (Though a larger scale of ignorance seems evident in their developing a minigame collection for the Wii - a genre the system's plenty saturated in already - instead of paying attention to demand from the Wii crowd for a high end massive-scale western role-playing game, like they've provided on the PC and other consoles.) It's also funny in general that they would call the Wii a "toy" in order to marginalize it, when no matter how you look at it, video games in general are toys. Whether you're a kid or an adult, if you're playing a video game, you are still in essence playing with an electronic toy, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that - it comes off as both immature and insecure when people try to sugarcoat it.

Many developers and publishers continue to ignore the strong traditional software sales - when games actually have a budget, attempt to use the Wii capabilities well, and are actually advertised (As many developers, Capcom again included, seem to think their advertising budgets should be focused solely on the high definition consoles, while their Wii offerings aren't worth advertising on TV. Rather hypocritical after the bulk of gaming advertising was focused on PS2 games - a similarly dominant market-leading console over the losing two - last generation. When game sales suffer as a result of a lack of actual promotion efforts, it comes off as an attempt to rationalize marginalizing the Wii in simply not trying to be successful on the most important console of the generation. There is, after all, a tremendous amount of pressure from Sony and Microsoft to focus "core" titles on their platforms, even if they frequently don't turn a profit on releases on those platforms, let alone as much as could be made on the Wii with a proper, well-advertised effort catering to the same, larger market segment on the Wii.) - undoubtedly under pressure from Sony and Microsoft to push the image that the Wii is cleanly a "casuals-only" console. This is something many paid analysts - including Michael Pachter, who's only consistent in being wrong on virtually every prediction he makes, having spent years trying to date a sudden and abrupt Wii downfall and meteoric explosion in popularity for the failing HD consoles, which themselves are effectively a more expensive retread of last generation with graphics that require an expensive television to properly display - have attempted to echo, and only appeared clueless and unprofessional as a result. There's no such thing as a clean-cut "casual" and "hardcore" gamer divide in the industry, let alone on the Wii or HD consoles. (Most "casual" consumers buy some traditional games too - especially the well-advertised mainstream ones, such as Nintendo's own first party offerings.) You have the mass market on Nintendo's platforms, and a much more expensive, niche market on the HD platforms and PSP. There's an incredible gap in sales and profitability between the two as a result that many seem to be consciously avoiding acknowledging, undoubtedly as a result of pressure from Sony and Microsoft, which in turn are increasingly making it clear that they don't belong in this industry, with neither an understanding of how to honestly succeed in the market, let alone get software support without greasing the wheels at every turn.

This fallacy has been addressed far better than I'm going to in this post by Sean Malstrom in an article he wrote last year that addresses the problem of the "casual" fallacy in impressive depth and detail. Well worth reading for any curious about more details on this particular issue.

Elitism has been a problem in video gaming culture for decades as well. Back in the days of Atari and Coleco, the companies' respective fanbases had a great deal of hatred for one another. Growing up with Nintendo and Sega myself, the same situation repeated - each side attacking the other's brand based on personal preference and shouting hardware specs as though they determined the actual quality of games themselves. I largely stayed out of this, myself, having been fortunate enough to grow up playing the NES, Sega Master System II, SNES, and Genesis throughout my childhood - all of which had a lot of great games. Sony and Microsoft, on other hand, seem to have cultivated a base of fanatic followers this generation that make the Atari/Coleco and Nintendo/Sega rivalries look like old friendships by comparison.

Some classic nasty advertising from Sega.
As Nintendo continues to dominate this generation - and rightly so, in producing far more affordable and innovative hardware, geared towards appealing to both consumers and developers alike - the ongoing chorus from the Sony and Microsoft fanatics amounts to no more than "But I'm a better gamer than you!" Far worse than the brand name-based rivalries of gaming generations past is today's ongoing still-brand-name-based rivalry, which has largely amounted to the self-proclaimed "hardcore" who largely came into the hobby being taught to hate Nintendo and everything they stand for by Sony and Microsoft and buying desperately into their expensive rehash of the previous generation's gameplay experiences screeching that the massive new gaming base Nintendo's brought into the industry is populated by people who "aren't gamers." (When by definition, anyone who plays and enjoys any kind of video or computer game is, in fact, a gamer. A huge part of the world populace with access to electronic entertainment is made up of gamers of varying tastes and degrees, after all.)

These individuals violently offended by Nintendo's success this generation rally under the idea that gaming itself shouldn't exist beyond the narrow scope of their personal tastes with the handful of types of games they buy. (See: First-person shooters with minimal single player and a heavy focus on online combat coupled with voice chat trash-talking and expensive graphics in varying shades of black, gray, and brown. While the gorgeous, colorful sandbox-gameplay oriented ocean exploration Wii title, Endless Ocean, received a great deal of "This isn't a game at all!" from that crowd in its blogging coverage, simply because there's no violence, though the core gameplay is about doing what you want when you want of all the things you can do - searching for treasures, training dolphins, interacting with undersea life, exploring ruins, furthering story events, taking others on guided undersea dives, and more - in a manner not at all unlike the "hardcore"-beloved Grand Theft Auto series. Endless Ocean is a lot more relaxing, though, certainly.) These same people also largely believe that they, in turn, should be looked up to as "hardcore" appreciators of "great art" (See: Gears of War) in playing things like games about shooting zombies and terrorists. A branch of gamers that also resents and gets offended at the tired old negative gamer stereotypes (See: Living in their parents' basement, being unable to talk to women, never bathing, etc.) despite still embodying some of the worst personality traits in those negative stereotypes about gamers - lack of healthy perspective, insecurity (And hostility stemming from that), and general self-identity issues. It's a rather adolescent mindset that's come to dominate gaming and this particular branch of gamers for some time, right in line with the stereotypes.

Market expansion means the demolishing of that precious little sandcastle they'd built up, while it also means growth of both the industry and medium into something new and better. Something everyone can enjoy, like film, literature, and television. These people simply oppose its growth because they want what they like (As well as the brand names they've blindly attached themselves to) and the immature products of an industry and medium still in its infancy to be held up as timeless masterworks.

Change and innovation are absolutely crucial for an industry and medium like video games - this is something both Sony and Microsoft are rather actively working against through their own agendas in an industry they don't understand. Unfortunately, many third parties have completely detached from the current state of the industry and are going to suffer - and some even collapse (As Working Designs did as a result of rather blind Sony loyalty last generation, when Sony made it clear they didn't want their localizations hitting their platforms in the west anymore. Thankfully, now that Vic Ireland's back with his new GaijinWorks localization company, he's turned to Nintendo, where there's plenty of software for him and his team to dig into and an audience ravenous for the kind of stuff they used to release as Working Designs back in the day.) - as a result of these companies losing sight of competitiveness and sustainability in this changing industry where gameplay is growing and evolving, and neither Sony nor Microsoft has any kind of market majority to cater to. Those blindly loyal to those brand names are going to find themselves falling only further behind the times and eventually without much in the way of the software they demand coming to their platforms of preference as developers continue to adapt to refocusing on the Wii. When you get down to it, it's either time for that crowd to "outgrow" the hobby, or open their minds and expand their horizons beyond blind brand loyalty.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spring is for Nerds (Except the Allergy Part)

Hey there again, internet world.

Where was I this past week, you ask?

Focused on other things, of course, so I kinda took an impromptu week's vacation from updating here. (I've also been a bit under the weather since Saturday, so I haven't been feeling too motivated in regards to blogging.) I got started on part 3 of "Sane Gaming" and plan to have that up later this week, no worries. (For the few of you keeping up with that.) Part 4 will be up perhaps sometime this weekend, I'm hoping, in time to conclude the series late next week in early April. (Much to the relief of those of you ready to get back to two entries a week that aren't gaming-related.)

This past week, I kept myself pretty distracted with - aside from the ongoing novel revision process - an addiction to the Nintendo DS interactive detective novel Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and the Battlestar Galactica series finale this past Friday. (I also finally picked up a copy of NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams on the Wii, the long-awaited sequel to the classic Sega Saturn game, NiGHTS Into Dreams. The game had a mixed and frankly often undeservingly brutal reception from a fairly unpleasable fanbase (Basically, they could've kept the game effectively the same as the original and they would've been shredded for not doing anything new, and so they did some new things with the series and got criticized for that.), but for what it is and the 20 bucks it goes for now, it's a really fun game and quality Sega title in general. It's pretty short - I already finished a first run with one of the two main characters - but well worth what it goes for these days.) Good time to be a Wii gamer in general, now that Rune Factory Frontier and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time are out as of the past couple of weeks. And just earlier in the past 24 hours, Nintendo released the long-awaited storage solution firmware update following their press conference at the Game Developer's Conference, so with that update, you can now buy up to 30+ gigabyte SD cards to vastly expand the amount of internal space you can work with on the Wii for downloaded games, channels, save files for games, and so forth.

In general, this Spring's been a good time to be a science fiction nerd as well, so I thought I'd spend this week's first entry discussing that.

Battlestar Galactica: A Powerful Conclusion

Ganked from Battlestarwiki
As I mentioned before, the Battlestar Galactica series finale aired nearly a week ago now. I first got into the series back over summer 2006 when I was home on break before my final year of college. I caught up on the first two seasons of the show on DVD then before catching season 3 onward as the episodes broadcast. (Including the Razor TV movie back in November 2007.) It's made for thoroughly enjoyable viewing over the end of college and into these first couple of years since I moved home. (It's hard to believe it's almost been two years already. Yikes. I feel like I haven't accomplished nearly enough in that time.) Definitely a show I'd recommend, even if you're not as big on science fiction TV, given its focus on people in difficult situations over following the more explicitly geeky tradition of space opera writing. Easily the best series in the genre to date.

The ending was actually a lot lighter than I expected, though fairly bittersweet, as the reimagining's creators - Ronald D. Moore and David Eick - took the Galactica and much of the remaining main cast through a seemingly suicidal mission to confront the last faction of Cylons, who'd abducted a crucial Human-Cylon hybrid child from the fleet in episodes prior. With the twists and turns the show had taken in regards to the ship's durability, I expected things to go far worse than they did, with the Galactica itself exploding and breaking apart at some point, but the old ship managed to avoid that much. (Though its durability issues still played a key role in the final events.) Some characters died, some characters lived, and they really kept you on the edge of your seat. They did a good job integrating the series' usual elements of spirituality into the conclusion, to in many ways that aspect of the writing served to leave us with a lot of questions in the end, with less than entirely satisfactory answers otherwise. But on the whole, it was an incredible two-hour event, well worth the wait and all the build-up.

Now all that remains of the series is The Plan, the second TV movie, which broadcasts this fall. The film's going to retell the story of the miniseries at the beginning of the show, but from the Cylon perspective, as we only saw the Cylon genocide of the thirteen colonies from the human perspective in the original miniseries. It wasn't until season 3 that Moore and Eick began to give us a look into Cylon society and baseships directly.

Next month, the pilot of Moore and Eick's prequel series - Caprica - will hit DVD and online digital download. Set 50 years prior to the genocide and events that led up to the remaining human fleet's search for Earth in Battlestar Galactica, Caprica's going to tell the story of two important families on the planet and an artificial intelligence breakthrough they make with the changes that brings to their world. (The AI advances naturally precipitating the creation of the Cylons.) The main TV series itself will begin either later this year or something in 2010 - I'm not entirely certain - but considering the high quality of Battlestar Galactica, it should be something to anticipate.

Reaper Returns

After nearly a year's wait since the first season of Reaper concluded on CW last spring, the show returned at the beginning of the month to begin its thirteen-episode second season. The show continues the first season's weekly antics centered around a group of geeky slackers acting as bounty hunters for the Devil, returning escaped souls from hell. Since the series' Kevin Smith-directed premiere back in September 2007, it's managed to maintain its Ghostbusters/Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque humor and appeal.

With a bit of an awkward start, the trio of lead characters returned from an unannounced road trip they'd abruptly taken following the events that concluded season one - with the protagonist, Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison), discovering that he was the son of the Devil. Following an especially challenging first assigned reap - which seemed to be the Devil attempting to kill Sam as punishment for skipping town - Sam learned from another soul that there was a way to recover one's soul from the Devil's possession, but that particular escaped soul wasn't cooperative and disappeared before Sam could get any answers. Resolving the ongoing conflict of whether or not to tell Sam's romantic interest (And eventually girlfriend) Andi (Missy Peregrym) about their work for the Devil in season one, Andi's fully accepted what it is Sam and his friends do, though she hasn't gotten too involved so far herself. (And in the third season, she ended up taking over as the manager of The Work Bench - the Home Depot style home improvement store where the main characters work - after their previous boss, Ted (Donavon Stinson), was fired for hitting on a secret shopper from corporate.)

Several new characters have joined the regular cast in season 2 as well. Sam's friend Ben (Rick Gonzalez) is dating a demon named Nina (Jenny Wade) who usually takes on a very attractive human form. Considering the ongoing storyline of the demon rebellion against the Devil (Ray Wise) and their efforts to assassinate Sam as well, I'm expecting they'll be doing some interesting things with her character as the season progresses. The conflict between her demon nature and efforts to seem human has made for an amusing character to watch so far. After being evicted from their apartment, Sam, Ben, and Bert "Sock" Wysocki (Tyler Labine) moved into Sock's mother's house while she was off on her honeymoon with her new husband. (She'd gotten remarried as a subplot late in the first season.) Living there, they've had Sock deal with his attraction to his new step-sister, Kristen (Eriko Tamura), while she sees him as nothing more than the brother she'd always wanted. And most recently in this week's episode, Sam had to start training Morgan (Armie Hammer), the Devil's other - and favorite - son, who lives a charismatically selfish life without a hint of conscience, seeming an ideal right-hand man for the Devil if not for his self-absorbed ineptitude.

Sam's father who'd raised him (Andrew Airlie) and had been involved in the original selling of Sam's soul that prompted the beginning of his bounty hunting work in the first season made his first appearance of the season this week as well. By now, he was looking more grayed and decayed after having been buried alive in a cage intended to trap the Devil in the season 1 finale, making it clear that neither of Sam's fathers is exactly human. There was some definite concern early on in the season about what they were going to do with the plot threads involving Sam's parents and the demon rebellion following the climactic events in the season 1 finale, as they took a good several episodes to really start getting back to those parts of the story. It's a relief to see them not dropping anything so critical to the ongoing narrative, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the show goes next with its remaining nine episodes of the season. Here's hoping the show maintains this level of quality and CW renews it for a third season - it'd be a shame to see the entire network sink down into programming for teenage girls.

Dollhouse Confounds

Nearly seven years after Firefly's brilliant debut and swift cancellation on Fox, Joss Whedon's back with a new TV series in Dollhouse, which premiered back in mid-February. One would initially question the wisdom of returning to Fox after their incredibly poor treatment of Firefly, but more so than Whedon's series, it's Eliza Dushku's, whose contract with Fox led to the show's inception. She's not the most stellar actress in the world by a long shot, but thanks to her past with Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she's one of the many geek icons Whedon's helped create, and she's certainly enthusiastic about the show, as she showed in her appearance on one of the last Late Night with Conan O'Brien shows. Surprisingly, Fox actually seems to be fully and properly advertising and backing the series - unlike Firefly - so it may have at least some shot at getting a second season. (Which would be ideal, given that there's only 7 episodes left of this season, and the first 6 basically serve as a slow-developing prologue.)

The show's centered around the Los Angeles Dollhouse - an organization attractive young men and women "volunteer" for and have their identities wiped to become like living programmable action figures. Eliza Dushku stars as one of these dolls - or "actives," as they're referred to in Adelle DeWitt's (Olivia Williams) organization - Echo. The supporting cast includes Harry Lennix as Boyd Langdon, Echo's handler; Fran Kranz as Topher Brink; the awkward genius behind the doll memory and personality imprinting and programming; Tahmoh Penikett (Best known as Helo of Battlestar Galactica) as Paul Ballard, an FBI agent searching for the Dollhouse; Enver Gjokaj as Victor, another active; Dichen Lachman as Sierra, yet another active; Amy Acker as Dr. Claire Saunders, the Dollhouse's doctor; and Miracle Laurie as Mellie, Ballard's neighbor, recently outed as a fourth active. It's been leaked online recently that Alan Tudyk (Who played Wash on Firefly) will be joining the cast later in the season as Alpha, an escaped rogue active who'd massacred the Dollhouse in the past and chosen to spare Echo.

Amongst Whedon's fans, the show's been controversial and seen no shortage of negativity as of far. With the actives essentially becoming blank-minded children when they're wiped and effectively prostituted in episode after episode to various ends for the Dollhouse's clients, the show's extremely dark, morally speaking. There's been a lot of focus on sex appeal with these perfect doll characters being prostituted by a largely unsympathetic Dollhouse organization - though some of its members seem to have some carefully guarded misgivings about the nature of what they do - and this has turned off and angered a large part of Whedon's fanbase. It's not light and fun in the same way as his previous shows - no clearer-cut lines of good and evil like with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, or clear sympathies with the browncoats as in Firefly. Episode after episode, we watch these mind-wiped young people get reprogrammed, prostituted, and completely exploited in general. But as sickening as this is in the early episodes, with each episode, we watch as the actives gradually become more self-aware of one another, their connections, and who they are - retaining bits of their programmed memories - and start to grow up, in a manner of speaking. It's once the actives become fully aware of how they're being used and work against the Dollhouse - as they seem to be setting up - that the show's really going to take off in full force. It's kind of sad seeing how fickle so many Whedon fans have been over the dark prologue to the series, though, considering how important it is to be outraged at what the actives are being put through in experiencing the story to its fullest. As the show's progressed, we've only seen Whedon gain more control of the series from Fox too, bringing in more and more of his famous "Whedonisms" in the form of his style of quirky, witty dialogue known for driving his previous works.

Unlike with Firefly, Fox has actually been making an effort to promote Dollhouse, despite its suicidal time slot of 9 PM on Fridays. But by including it in a block with The Sarah Connor Chronicles Terminator spin-off series (Which stars Summer Glau, who was fantastic on Firefly), the show may have a shot. But like the show itself, its advertising has also drawn criticism from Whedon's fans. The advertising largely drips with sexual appeal - which Eliza Dushku's certainly not lacking in - and that comes off as contradictory (Like the human trafficking and prostitution themes of the series itself) to Whedon's known feminism. He's always been about empowering the women in his series - something admirable and refreshing, considering how much misogyny is present in most shows. Fox produced the ads themselves, wanting very much to use sex to sell Dollhouse - which definitely seems tasteless considering the subject matter of the show itself - but Whedon himself has approved of the approach, largely in that he's exploring something different and much darker than the fans like with the show. He's talked about being interested in looking at how people use each other, making one another into objects. Understanding Dollhouse from this perspective seems to be important in fully enjoying the show, as there's a great deal worth saying that Whedon's trying to explore with the show.

It's just a shame that so many of Joss Whedon's fans are so resistant to the moral exploration being conducted with the show, since it doesn't present you with clearly drawn lines of good and evil from the get-go and pat you on the back with constant jokes. Granted, I've missed the witty dialogue myself, but I've got nothing but good feelings about where the series is going, having watched all the episodes so far. Despite the dark nature of the show, the humor elements and witty dialogue have been stepped up each successive week, and it's clear the story's going some very interesting places. When we finally meet Alpha and see Echo, Sierra, and any of the others escape from the Dollhouse and start to work against it - as well as some more development and humanizing of the people working for the Dollhouse - the show may very well transform itself into something fans of Whedon's former works could love. It's just sad that so many were willing to give up on and write the show off after its first couple of weeks despite the seeds for far more interesting future plot development that Joss and the other writers were sowing throughout those episodes.

Let's hope Fox doesn't rush to kill this one off.

Important Things, Flaming Swords, Local Government

In addition to these midseason programming additions to the airwaves, there's some others worth noting and coming up. Back in February, Comedy Central premiered Important Things with Demetri Martin, a very quirky, geeky sort of observational humor variety stand-up/sketch-mix comedy show not conceptually unlike the brilliant Chappelle's Show (And Carlos Mencia's vastly worse Mind of Mencia, as well as David Alan Grier's Chocolate News, which I never watched beyond the first episode so I can't really comment on its quality.). That's been airing on Wednesday nights at 10:30 Eastern on Comedy Central - just before the Daily Show - and I personally recommend it. Coming in early April, Comedy Central's going to be premiering Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire (Which is also coming to BBC2), a comedy series parodying fantasy epics. I'm not sure how that'll turn out yet - from the trailer, it could go either way, especially given Comedy Central's hit-and-miss track record with shows (And often canceling their best, like Upright Citizens Brigade, Dog Bites Man, Stella, and Halfway Home. Even Drawn Togethr was funnier than South Park has been in about a decade. They don't even air reruns of Kids in the Hall anymore, sadly.) - but it looks potentially entertaining, so I'm definitely tuning in to the premiere next month. Earlier the same night (April 9th), NBC's premiering Parks and Recreation, a new mockumentary style sitcom from people behind the American version of The Office, imbued with a similar style of uncomfortable dry humor. It stars Amy Poehler (Who I'm glad to see left SNL, she was completely wasted on there after how funny she was on UCB) and Rashida Jones (Who was a regular on The Office season 3, and has a great comedy track record in general.), amongst others. Focusing on small local government for its comedy, Parks and Recreation looks like a nice break from The Office, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it turns out. (They basically delayed the mysterious and still rather detail-less "The Office Spin-Off" they've been talking about for a couple of years now for this. The spin-off itself is still said to be on the way in 2010 or so, I believe. It'll be interesting when they finally give us some more information about that.)

At any rate, if you're a geeky individual with an interest in sci-fi TV, I definitely recommend checking all three of these shows out. (In BSG's and Reaper's case, the DVDs being well worth a purchase or rent - another of those situations where things like Netflix and the iTunes store are your friend.) They're all pretty different, but plenty of fun to watch. And undoubtedly better written than Heroes (Which I can definitely say speaking firsthand, as hammy and goofy as Heroes can be) and Lost (Which I haven't watched, but from what I've heard, much of the suspense and hype comes from incredibly messy writing as a result of the writers basically making everything up as they go along instead of really planning things out.).

Spring may be upon us with all the pollen, allergies, and sharp increases in temperature (At least here in the south - another reason I'm hoping to get out of here one of these years), but it's certainly a good time to be a nerd.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

America: Can the Human Being and the Happy Coexist?

A new week, a new blog post. It's been pleasantly chillier here the past few days, and we've been enjoying a few fires in our fireplace. With the vernal equinox approaching this coming weekend, winter's nearly over. As for our national discontent, its winter seems to still be far off on the horizon.

Interestingly enough, this particular American unhappiness seems to vary by locale across the nation. At least, according to a recent report by Gallup and disease management company Healthways. The report was based on a year-long random-dial telephone survey of 355,000 Americans. Sample sizes varied by state, but were controlled to reflect population demographics. The survey was conducted in the interest of drawing attention to people's quality of life beyond the standard, expected indicators. (ie: median income, poverty rates, life expectancy.) In attempting to examine people as a whole through all facets of their lives, they found that in many parts of the country, we're seeing shifts in what people consider essential to happiness.

The life quality measures the Gallup-Healthway team came up with are: life satisfaction, work quality, healthy behavior, physical health, emotional health, and basic access to necessities like food and shelter. Participants were asked a variety of questions on each subject, focusing on matters like job satisfaction, health insurance, and if they'd laughed or smiled in the past day. The survey's strength is regarded as being in the mix of subjective and objective elements in its conception. Though this mix can also potentially produce misleading results - particularly if all elements were interpreted the same way.

Unemployment map by the Washington, DC Bureau of Labor Statistics

Utah reportedly has the happiest populace, its residents satisfied with their work environments, emotional health, and local communities, amongst other aspects of life. The state also enjoys a lower unemployment rate - 4.6% - than the current national rate at 7.6%. Hawaii, Wyoming, Colorado, and Minnesota made up the rest of the top five in that order.

West Virginia, on the other hand, came in dead last. States with manufacturing-reliant economies like Michigan and Ohio appeared in the bottom 10 as well.

As difficult as it is to compile a numbered list based on a mix that includes subjective elements, even the top state wasn't without its problems. Hawaii was in the top 10 for every category but work environment, where it fell to dead last. From that, it was concluded that Hawaiians have an excellent quality of life in regard to physical and emotional health, life satisfaction, and basic needs, but suffered greatly in regards to job prospects with its 6.1% unemployment rate hitting a ten-year high.

States at the bottom of the list saw similar lopsided trends with Ohio and Michigan's work environments ranking 44th and 47th respectively, but 30th and 23rd in the basic necessities category. West Virginia ranked last in life satisfaction, physical health, and emotional health, but managed to come in 13th in regards to its work environment with its 5.3% unemployment rate. The West Virginia governor's office communications director also said that the rankings failed to reflect matters there like the declining youth obesity rates and increased infrastructure spending.

University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of business and public policy Betsey Stevenson interprets the differences across the states as potentially reflective of a number of factors: policy, social services, and the types of people choosing to live there.

Social scientists linked per capita gross domestic product with happiness long ago as well, and median incomes in the top and bottom three states actually reinforce that point. Stevenson warns against relying on that indicator, citing that there's a lot more to happiness than your income. that particular vein of social scientific thinking seems fairly dated by today's standards in looking at all the complex factors contributing to happiness.

The Gallup-Healthways survey and other recent polls seem to indicate that Americans are starting to focus on other factors of life often neglected in past years when the economy was in a better place. A MetLife online survey of 2,200 people this past week featured participants expressing changing opinions on what the "American dream" now was. Senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Metlife Beth Hirschhorn says that financial security took precedence over family by a large margin in the past. This year, 44% of their respondents said that spending time with friends and family was most important. And the trend's breaking generational barriers, with over a quarter of Gen-Xers saying that marriage was important to achieving the American dream, an increase from the 18% who said so in 2008.

Despite the nation's track record of obsessive consumerism and materialism, there's evidence of an American trend towards a new attitude in regards to consumption with four in ten respondents expressing buyer's remorse about past purchases, wishing they had spent less and saved more. The Baby Boomer generation largely reported that pressure to acquire material possessions had dropped significantly since the past year.

A Northwestern Mutual survey this past week also found similar results. In their online poll of 1,000 Americans, they found that more people found that spending time with family and being healthy were now more important than "owning the home of your dreams" or "earning a high income."

The Gallup-Healthway team plans to continue this yearly survey for 25 years, tracking the changes and trends in Americans' feelings on their well-being. It's certainly an interesting - if nonetheless flawed - study, to say the least. But in these times of economic crisis, we're seeing a shift away from our consumeristic and materially-obsessed way of life by which this country defined itself for so long. If anything, that seems like a silver lining, so to speak, in the heavy cloud of serious recession and economic downfall. Personally, I'm curious as to how many of my fellow Gen-Yers are coping with the economic crisis' interference with "leaving the nest" and moving out into "the real world," with those of us newer to the workforce being regarded as even less ideal employees in a time where money and employment opportunities are tight, not generally having massive, attractive resumes.

You can check out the full ranking list here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sane Gaming: State of the Industry

Thursday night's arrived at last, and with that, the likely not particularly awaited second part of my "Sane Gaming" post series. This time, of course, we take a look at the current state of the industry. We've got three major companies producing hardware for a market that has historically struggled to support so much as two consoles, and seems incapable of making more than one portable into a real success.

For the impatient, at least, this entry shouldn't be quite as long and rambling as the previous one, in keeping its focus on where each of the three major hardware producers are this generation, and issues that have resulted from that.

Sony: Playstation 3 and PSP

After a decade of completely dominating the market and becoming a near monopoly in the console market, Sony began to wear their arrogance on their sleeve. When the PSP released in 2005, it came under heavy criticism for a number of design flaws. The system's screen was - and still is - unprotected. It was known for its serious lack of durability, control issues due to a couple of shoddy buttons and an easily broken analog nub, as well as directional pad issues and some problems with the system ejecting its UMD discs. A considerably shorter battery life than Nintendo's DS, coupled with its lack of durability, also weakened its appeal as a portable device.

Naturally, Sony didn't take these criticisms lying down - Ken Kutaragi fired back that problems with the system's functionality were "features," stating that (to paraphrase), "you don't criticize a famous architect's designs because a door is badly placed." The gaming public generally responded to Kutaragi's bravado by stating that you would if said architect's door slammed on your fingers half the time.

Sony continued to embarrass themselves over the years with repeated embarrassing and controversial advertising campaigns. From borderline-racist American TV commercials to outright insulting attempts at viral campaigns in "All I want for Christmas is a PSP," and even fairly openly racially charged advertising on billboards in Europe. Not exactly the brightest way to market your product to the general public.

The PSP's UMD TV show and movie line eventually collapsed because there was little market for the discs in a market dominated by DVD. The prevalence of piracy on the platform also kept it from being much in the way of a force in software sales - especially in the face of the already massively successful DS, which had been released months before. The system did ultimately become successful - and continues to enjoy software sales - on the hardware end, while its software largely sits on shelves, since the system works as an ideal, highly hackable and modifiable portable multimedia device on which piracy thrives. Not quite the way Sony intended for things to turn out, as it turned out the gaming populace really didn't care about Sony's wellbeing or specific brandname in the market - and graphics weren't as crucial as they'd bet on.

Of course, like their previous platforms, its profitability has been cannibalized by the Playstation 3 - or PS3 - which has largely established itself as a reminder that Sony doesn't really know what they're doing in gaming hardware. After a decade of market dominance largely through following Nintendo's NES-SNES strategy and moving things into 3D alongside the N64 and Saturn, Sony decided that the praise Microsoft received in the wake of the Xbox 360's launch meant that it was the new industry big dog to mold themselves after.

The mistake here, of course, was that the original Xbox failed to turn a profit and develop more of a market foothold than being a dedicated Halo machine for most of its owners. And the Xbox 360 had more than its fair share of market challenges that it wasn't overcoming, either - the mass market isn't interested in buying an expensive console geared towards rehashing the previous generation's gameplay and control experiences, requiring an expensive high definition television. (Which most people don't have, can't afford, and most who do don't have set up properly.) Like Microsoft, Sony bet on an unquenchable market demand for extremely expensive high-end graphics that doesn't exist. The gaming market has never made market leaders of the best graphics or most expensive hardware. But in following their own corporate hubris, both Sony and Microsoft assumed their companies' brandnames allowed them to tell the public what they wanted, instead of doing market research and building gaming hardware to the market's interests.

When Sony first announced that the PS3 would cost $600, the public laughed in their faces. They then went on to insist that people should "work extra hard" to afford one, and announced that they didn't need games in order to be successful and sell their first 5 million units. Technically, they weren't entirely wrong about that second claim - in Sony's decade of market dominance, they developed an obsessively devoted and obnoxious segment of their following into fanatics hostile to all other brands, as all gaming brands seem to whether they actively attempt to or not - and they managed to get enough fanatics to blindly throw their cash behind the system from early on, despite a lackluster software library.

This is something that hasn't particularly changed since, as Sony's continued to attempt to sell the PS3 as their take on the Xbox 360, all the way down to an overt focus on graphic intensive first person shooters - perhaps the most stagnant and overrepresented genre in the market these days. After the initial release window holiday season, PS3 hardware and software sales slipped into a relative freefall, with only occasional bumps here and there upon the release of a very few higher demand games. And even its most beloved title - Metal Gear Solid IV - is more movie than game (With even the best of this generation's programmers struggling to work with the PS3's hellish multi-core Cell processor technology, which doesn't work well for gaming), with much of the system's gameplay being rehashed from last generation. (And forgiven for its faults for more as a result of buyer's remorse and desperate fanaticism around the console and its brand.) Even MGS4 relied on copious amounts of in-game advertising for real life products to turn a profit as well. Most games on the system don't make money, and following the hardware's current trajectory, they won't.

After entering the industry largely out of spite toward Nintendo in the mid-'90s, Sony's shown themselves largely to be a one-trick pony. Gaming itself is a market that relies heavily on innovation and originality, and Sony's been at the forefront of the industry's stagnation. For three generations now, they've used the exact same basic controller - extremely lazy design on their part, considering that at its core, it's basically a Super Nintendo controller with a couple more shoulder buttons and awkwardly placed analog sticks - which only looks even more unintuitive this generation next to what the Wii does for game controls. Rather than providing a solid centralized online system for third parties like Microsoft and Nintendo, they've provided a system solely for their first party releases (On which the system thrives, which says something considering how lackluster and derivative the vast majority of their first party offerings have always been. It says something when Sony - which has always relied on tremendous numbers of third party exclusives - has to fend for itself on the software front in so many capacities.), leaving third parties to put together their own online gameplay server setups.

And to provide additional content in response to Nintendo's extras, Sony's begun putting out an extremely advertisement-laden digital magazine with demos called "Qore," which they actually charge for and require that you watch commercials throughout. In addition to that, they launched an effectively useless, microtransaction oriented response to Nintendo's Mii avatars - naturally minus the entire creative aspect of Miis, as well as the flexibility and functionality in actual game software - which encourages you to spend money on for virtual clothes and furniture for your zombie-like ultra-realistic avatar. In response to Microsoft's achievement system, you fill an apartment with furniture purchased with real money as well as a clumsy trophy display conceived to copy achievements conceptually as best they could figure. In the virtual mall setting of this program - Home - you can run around and wait in lines to play games like bowling, which aren't instanced by design, making for some incredibly poor design decisions for a setting intended for use by huge numbers of people. And the userbase is largely comprised of the most obnoxious of Sony's fanatics, openly harassing anyone who makes the mistake of logging in with a female avatar. Conceptually, Home's something that could have been neat, but it's completely ruined by terrible execution on Sony's part and their abhorrent userbase.

Additional problems with the system have come down to countless different versions of the system being released at different price points - none of which are really worth the money to ordinary people, who should always be your focused target audience in the industry - with all sorts of backward compatibility issues. Sony spent quite a while making up their mind up about backward compatibility this generation before ultimately deciding to scrap the ability to play PS2 games - a pretty huge mistake on their part. Forced installs to play many games - essentially wasting the potential better uses for the system's internal hard drive - limit the convenience of playing games on the PS3, since you can't just pop any game in and play it at any time like in previous generations, when that's the whole appeal of console gaming over PC gaming to begin with - both Sony and Microsoft lost sight of that console gamers are not looking for a return to the confusion and inconvenience of PC gaming that led to the rise of console gaming over PC gaming. And in general, installations were only made necessary to compensate for the abysmal loading times of its mediocre Blu-Ray disc drive - half the system's cost, and simply a cheap effort to act as a trojan horse and push Blu-Ray disc media into households in a time when no one was asking for an even more expensive variety of disc media to try to replace DVD.

Sony's lost a tremendous amount of money overall as a result of the PS3's failure to catch on as anything close to market leading. It's currently locked in a battle with Microsoft over a distant second place position in the market, but Sony's future in the industry - as well as that of the Playstation brand in general - is speculative at best. Since its failure, Ken Kutaragi was effectively removed from that branch of Sony and pulled from the spotlight, and just recently, Sony Computer Entertainment - the branch that handles the Playstation line - was merged into Sony proper to be headed by Howard Stringer, as the system and company continue to struggle, with no idea how to appeal to the masses, and continuing to openly treat the market with arrogance and condescension, insisting they're doing just fine. Odds are very likely that we won't be hearing from them in the industry for too much longer, as they don't have the resources to sustain a failure of this capacity that Microsoft does, and at the rate it's going, the PS3 will eventually become a threat to Sony as a whole, which already isn't in the most stable of places.

Microsoft: Xbox 360

Microsoft first entered the industry last generation with the Xbox, carrying themselves with an attitude not unlike Sony's: that a specialized industry like that would be cake for such a major corporation like them to break into and monopolize. Not exactly shocking, given Microsoft's established history of aspiration to monopolizing every industry they possibly can.

The Xbox was ostracized by the masses - only selling a little more overall than the Gamecube, but built on high end hardware that they couldn't turn a profit on. (As opposed to the Gamecube, which was high end in and of itself, but well-built and designed as so to be both cheap to make and extremely durable, geared towards high profitability, like Nintendo's systems tend to be.) It simply managed to set itself apart from the competition as the first console with a solid (though paid) online system, and drew a base in with that feature, largely through the Halo series, sports franchises, and the Elder Scrolls: Morrowind game. Western games sold. Japanese games did not.

This is a sales trend that has continued on the Xbox 360. The 360 hit the market to a mix of praise and criticism. From its very first 24 hours on the market, the Xbox 360 started suffering from serious hardware problems, commonly known as "Red Rings of Doom," in which internal problems would turn the 360's green ring of light red, and it would cease to function. Microsoft has lost millions to repairs and replacements as a result of this problem, which still hasn't been completely resolved. They've released revisions of the hardware that reduce its failure rate, but there's still a failure rate higher than a successful mainstream console has ever seen before.

Despite its issues, the Xbox 360 strangely still quickly became a media darling and celebrated as "the system for hardcore gamers" in an almost suspicious manner despite its initially slow start on the market. Microsoft went out of their way to court Japanese developers, recognizing the need to establish their console's brand there after failing to do so in the previous generation. As a result, they've gotten plenty of paid Japanese exclusive games - and occasionally helped to bankroll some, as they did with the founding of former Squaresoft president Hironobu Sakaguchi's new developer, Mistwalker. The problem? The brand still isn't taking off in Japan. Western gamers aren't buying Japanese Xbox 360 games, and Japanese gamers largely aren't buying the Xbox 360. So for all of Microsoft's efforts, they've failed largely in trying to win what maybe an unwinnable uphill battle in Japan - where consoles in general are in sales decline in recent years, with most just owning DSes there - and attempting to diversify what sells in America, where the HD crowd in their fixation on "realistic" graphics has caused them to largely reject Japanese games this generation on those platforms, with few actually turning a profit after the huge financial investment necessary to develop for either of the two HD systems.

At its core, while more of a mainstream darling than it deserves to be in many capacities, the Xbox 360 is largely simply an upgrade to their previous console. They improved their online services and expanded into larger scale profiles to track "achievements" - essentially little pats on the back for doing different things in games, an extremely popular and fairly controversial feature in games these days - and corresponding "gamerscores." (Essentially, a numerical score that crowd tends to use to say "Hey, I'm a better gamer than you!" when it means nothing at its core. A much less useful feature than achievements themselves.) They introduced Xbox Live Arcade on the system - updated gaming classics with new features and original software, all for download - which led to competitive responses in the less successful original PSN titles on the PS3, and even more successful WiiWare service on the Wii. But despite using a player-to-player connection oriented online system with plenty of problems and downtime here and there virtually identical to Nintendo's on a functional level, they continue to charge for yearly Xbox Live subscriptions to actually play online, which is only getting harder for Microsoft to justify.

Trying to remain competitive, Microsoft looked to both the Wii and PS3 this past fall in releasing a new major system update that had some people cheering and others pulling their hair. They completely redesigned the system's main menu in order to give it a more Wii-like appeal, having been open as they have about their wanting to tap into the Wii's audience - which isn't working, so far, as like Sony, they're completely out of touch with the market and why the Wii is a hit. At this rate, nothing is going to turn the Xbox 360 or PS3 into "the next Wii." Fans weren't happy with the unwanted menu redesign that they hadn't asked for, and they threw in an avatar system that was clearly meant to be their version of the Wii's Miis, but with far less room for creativity in design. (And now they're looking to charge actual money for accessories to by which to customize those avatars as well.) They plug into a few games like Miis, and unlike the PS3's Home avatars, but nowhere to the level that Miis do, since they weren't designed for full-on in-game integration. In most cases, they're just there to be a face somewhere on screen in the few XBLA games that use them so far to represent the player, and nothing more. They also took Sony's game installation feature - though they made it optional, at least - which the 360 needs far less than the PS3 to begin with.

In taking the huge losses they are on Red Ring of Doom repairs and system replacements, Microsoft's future in gaming is somewhat questionable too. Whenever this is publicly suggested online, this tends to be met with a lot of kicking and screaming, backed up by insistence that Microsoft will keep funding the Xbox line and keep releasing new systems because they can afford to, regardless of the millions in losses. But this is a pretty blind, ridiculous statement. Microsoft's a hypercompetitive company largely known for their efforts to conquer any industry they can and push out the competition - they aren't succeeding in gaming, and instead, are taking massive losses on it. Nothing that they can't theoretically keep supporting for a long time, but the question is, why should they? Shareholders in general aren't going to keep the Xbox line on life support forever if they can't turn them into profitable products. Having a stake in the video game industry isn't worth anything if you're losing millions on it each year. And at this point, it's going to take a lot of turnarounds and major reevaluation of their entire strategy in video games if Microsoft ever wants to be competitive. Their current hardware route isn't going to take them to the top, despite the amount of love the self-proclaimed "hardcore" heap upon them. Nor is bankrolling exclusive games, since more often than not, taking money for exclusive support ends up being a bad business decision for the developers who go along with that. Only a very narrow subset of disc games tends to turn a profit on the 360 - it's all about western gamers and their dark, competitive online play-oriented shooters.

Nintendo: Wii and DS

Lastly, we get to Nintendo's hardware, the only fully and truly successful hardware on the market this generation, and the only ones to achieve widespread mainstream success, much to the chagrin of Sony and Microsoft's fanatics. The DS has around the processing power of an N64 - as opposed to the PSP's not-quite-PS2 power - and the Wii has roughly twice the Gamecube's power, four times or so the PS2's. More than enough to make for affordable hardware production - even with their reliance on unique control features between the DS's touchscreen and microphone and the Wii's motion controls. In breaking with the status quo and opting to be very powerful - reasonably so, unlike their competitors - pieces of hardware in comparison to their predecessors and focusing on new control styles and "blue ocean" marketing strategies geared towards normal people rather than the established gaming audience, both systems have easily crushed their industry rivals.

The mass market isn't fixated on expensive high-end graphics and never has been. They don't want games getting even more expensive - while new game prices shot up another $10 to $60 on the PS3 and 360 - when $50 is fairly prohibitive for most people to begin with. And they weren't asking for the exact same thing as the previous generation all over again with fancier graphics. Nor were they calling for a focus on online play in lieu of a meatier single player or local multiplayer experience, when it's become a common trend on the HD consoles this generation to see truncated single player games in the name of focusing on shooting at each other online.

Video games as a medium are all about an interactive experience. Sony and Microsoft are trying to appeal to a very conservative audience that doesn't want the same basic experience they've been enjoying since the mid-'90s or early 2000s to chance - just to get prettier, as their hardware focuses on smashing into that graphical ceiling as soon as possible at the expense of the improvement of gameplay experiences. This is a conservative crowd that wants the pretty online shooters they play to become the industry standard and for the masses to fall in love with those, when that isn't going to happen.

The Wii and DS brought the gameplay experience growth and changes - as well as the much larger variety of software - the industry has needed to experience significant growth, now that Sony and Microsoft's sole focal market segment is observably shrinking and making themselves into a less relevant crowd in the industry. Those of them that openly antagonize the Wii - as many of them do - are only helping to further undermine their presence as consumers in the industry, when they could instead be influencing the industry to focus on evolving their preferred genres on the Wii. But they're too focused on their preferred brandnames to even consider that. Rather sad two-dimensional thinking, that.

The DS and Wii are far and above the most successful hardware this generation, the Wii on track to establish itself as this generation's equivalent of the PS2 in terms of success, with the potential to even surpass the PS2 in time. The DS is already very close to surpassing the PS2, and has already established itself as the best-selling portable game system of all time.

The DS is poised to see its sales explode even higher with the launch of the DSi in Japan late last year, which arrives in the west this spring. It will include features such as a lower resolution built-in camera that can have its photos downloaded to the Wii's Photo Channel, a new Wii-like main menu interface, SD card support, and internal storage space for downloadable games and software like the Wii's Virtual Console and WiiWare, in the form of DSiWare. Use of Nintendo's creative Mii plug-in software avatars has also been confirmed in DSi software. Though all this comes at the expense of the original DS and DS Lite's Gameboy Advance cartridge slot.

The Wii, for all it's earned its massive mainstream success, isn't without its problems and flaws. The controllers themselves - the Wii remotes - require the use of 2 AA batteries, lacking the internal rechargeable batteries of the rival systems' controllers. But this is something easily remedied through the purchase of a set of rechargeable AA batteries. With some good ones, a pair can easily last half a year or so before they stop holding much of a charge. The system's internal storage space is lacking compared to the PS3 and 360's as well - though at least there isn't a huge amount simply being wasted by multi-gigabyte disc game installs - and larger Virtual Console and WiiWare games can add up quickly, as can the system's channels. A solution to this issue is in the pipeline, however, with Nintendo having announced expansion of the Wii's SD card use through a firmware update coming this month, which will allow Wii users to play Virtual Console and WiiWare games directly from SD cards, as well as access save files on them. This will allow Wii users to expand their Wii's available storage space by gigabytes - which will allow for a tremendous amount of content storage on the Wii - for the small cost of an SD card itself.

To get this update, of course, you have to be connected to the internet. And while it's very popular to troll the Wii's online features on the internet, comparatively, the system has a very adequate online setup with many enjoyable bells and whistles. The Wii was a bit behind the game in that Nintendo didn't have their Nintendo WiFi service working with any games until over half a year after the system's launch - just as the DS had to wait about a year before it started seeing online games as well - but they had plenty of other features right out the door. Each Wii gets a system number - as opposed to a specific username - which players can exchange with friends online to send Wiimail to one another's Wii message boards through the system's great free email service. (A nice Gmail-esque touch to the system.) Players could also exchange their Mii avatars, and by keeping their systems connected to the internet when even in sleep mode - as opposed to simply powering down completely - via WiiConnect24, they could build a Mii Parade of up to thousands of others' Miis to check out through the Mii Channel. The Photo Channel allows for some playful Mario Paint-style photo-editing and slideshows using photos posted to the Wii message board or stored on an SD card, which can also be shared with friends via Wiimail. You can also log onto the Wii Shop Channel to purchase classic video games for the Virtual Console emulation feature - the selection presently including games for the NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis, Sega Master System, NeoGeo, TurboGrafx-16, TurboCD/TurboDuo, N64, and most recently the Commodore 64, with new games released every monday - as well as new weekly WiiWare game releases and the occasional new channel. With its regular weekly updates, the Wii Shop Channel gets more downloadable content - and frequently higher quality content - on a consistent basis than the PS3 or Xbox 360. You can also get local weather forecasts through the Forecast Channel, the latest news through the News Channel, and surf the internet on your Wii if you opt to pay 5 bucks for the Internet Channel. Other free channels include the Everybody Votes Channel - through which you can vote in various polls and guess their outcome, attaching stats and votes to up to 6 Miis - as well as the Check Mii Out Channel, through which you can look at others' uploaded Miis, vote on them, participate in contests, and upload your own Miis. The Nintendo Channel functions like a sort of digital video magazine, allowing you through look through a full database of Wii, DS, WiiWare, and Virtual Console games, watch all sorts of preview videos and trailers, behind the scenes and commercial materials, and even stream DS demo downloads to your DS, like the demos found on retailer display DS units. If you buy the Wii Speak voice chat accessory, you can also download the Wii Speak Channel and set up fairly large voice chat conferences with friends, as well as send them Wii Voice Mail.

There aren't as many games with online play on the Wii as there are on the other two as of yet - a point of complaint often being the separate friend codes you have to exchange in order to ararnge to play with friends, though despite the nuisance they are, they're better than paying for an online system functionally just like Microsoft's. Another point of complaint is the lack of voice chat as a standard feature, with Animal Crossing: City Folk being the only game that uses Wii Speak at this point, though the highly anticipated online first-person shooter coming this summer, The Conduit, will sport voice chat as well. But with any luck, we should start seeing some online WiiWare games update to add some amount of voice chat functionality eventually, and see Wii Speak integration become more of a standard in disc games with online play, seeing as the accessory was only just released late in 2008. In the least, while there aren't as many games to play online on the Wii, there's more variety to them than the shooter-centric high-definition consoles.

Third party support in general is still one of the biggest hurdles the Wii has yet to overcome. First party software alone is frankly more than enough to sell the system, Nintendo's released so much great stuff on the system already. But there's a lot of great third party games that don't get the support they're due - more often than not due to a lack of actual advertisement. Third parties have a rather misguided view of the Wii this generation, especially when compared to its rivals, which are willing to pay for exclusive games - Nintendo doesn't actually need to do this, and you'd think more third parties would have the business sense to realize that the much lower development costs coupled with much higher software sales on the Wii when you actually advertise your games is a much smarter and more sustainable alternative way to approach the market than effectively taking bribes from companies whose consoles don't have reliable software sales outside of massively hyped blockbuster titles in a very limited selection of genres. At this point, ignoring the Wii is akin to ignoring the PS2 last generation, but it seems that in the decade of Sony's market dominance, many third parties simply forgot how to be competitive in getting used to financial kickbacks for exclusive support.

Overall, the Wii and DS are in the strongest positions in the market. They completely disrupted people's previous conceptions of gaming and previous success in the gaming market. From what president Satoru Iwata's said, their next goal is going to be to find a way to disrupt the Wii next generation. I can't even begin to tell you what that could mean, but suffice to say, with Nintendo on top of the market again and leading the way with the first truly innovative hardware in decades, it's an exciting time to be a gamer, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do next. I just hope third parties wise up soon.

Okay, this ended up being much longer and more rambling than I intended for it to be. Once I start rambling, it's hard to stop. Hopefully this information will be of use to somebody.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cheer Up or Die

Hey, it's Monday night/Tuesday morning, so you know what that means! That's right, it's time for Snack and a Commercial!

Also, it's been in the low 80s here lately (Yes, after it snowed here just a week ago), and I live in the stuffiest room in the house. Even with a couple of fans on, it's still more or less an oven in here, so I haven't exactly slept well these past couple of nights. But that isn't stopping me from your expected first weekly blog post from me - one that isn't rambling about video games, no less - so there's your cue to take a moment to bask in my dedication. (And also hope that I don't make too many typos in my exhaustion.)

The focus of this week's lovely non-nerdy-rambling post? Yes, science again! In the least, a study I recently read about on MSNBC on the health and lifespans of optimists versus those of pessimists. As a self-identifying realist - which is a "pessimist" in most people's books - you can imagine my amusement at a study on the matter.

According to the study - unshockingly - optimists lead longer and healthier lives than pessimists. University of Pittsburgh researchers arrived at this conclusion by looking at death and chronic health problem rates amongst participants in the Women's Health Initiative study. (Said study has followed over 100,000 women from age 50+ since 1994.) Optimists were simply defined as people who expected good things to happen rather than bad, and found to be 14% less likely to die from any cause than pessimists, and 30% less likely to die from heart disease after eight years of study followup. Optimists were also found to be less likely to suffer high blood pressure, diabetes, or smoke cigarettes.

The team behind the study - led by Dr. Hilary Tindle - also took into consideration women highly mistrustful of other people, who they referred to as "cynically hostile." This group was compared with more trusting women. They found that women in the "cynically hostile" group were 16% more likely to die (Within the frame of the study period itself) than the women who thought that way the least. They were also 23% more likely to die of cancer. But while negative thinking certainly does seem to wear people down, Tindle also noted that the study doesn't actually prove that negative attitudes necessarily cause negative health health effects, though there seems to be a link. She ultimately concluded that more research is necessary to design methods of therapy oriented towards attitude modification beneficial to health.

And if you're a pessimist, Tindle encourages you not to slip into a defeatist mindset. Have hope! (Even if there might not necessarily be much reason to.)

The power of positive thinking versus the power of negative thinking. Of course, realistic thinking calls for a rational analysis of each set of circumstances and adopting an appropriate mindset as such - whether positive or negative. There are times when it's just absurd to blindly think positively, and even the most optimistic of the world's walking-sunshine-buckets in humanity have their limits. Likewise, as human beings, even pessimists have things that make them smile.

In the least, there's certainly hope to be had in the medical world, with breakthrough after breakthrough and the ongoing development of life-saving technologies each year. And this week, Obama seems to be planning to lift George W. Bush's embryonic stem cell research ban, in recognizing the important link between scientific research and free thought. Eight years later, we'll be seeing an end to the significant halt the medical research community has endured here in America. And in Japan? Scientists recently identified a cancer-suppressing enzyme, which could potentially lead to some sort of cure for breast cancer in particular.

Just try not to lead a constructed life like this guy.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sane Gaming: Online Communities

We begin our odyssey of gaming commentary with a look at online communities these days. They're easily summed up in a single question: "Where's the fun?" It's no secret that online gaming communities are ruled by negativity today. You don't have to look far to see it between all the mainstream gaming media sites, blogs, and message boards. Gaming - in particular, self-proclaimed serious/"hardcore" gaming - is nothing but negative.

A History Lesson in Bias and Brand Fanaticism

Ganked from Atariage.comBrand fanaticism has always been an issue in home console video gaming, whether the conflicts between Atari and Colecovision, Nintendo and Sega, and now Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Each time a new brand comes about, the minute it achieves any measure of success, you'll find a growing crowd insisting that that particular brand is the only one that matters, and that all others - as well as those who play those brands' consoles - are inferior.

When Nintendo changed console gaming in the years following the massive industry crash at the end of the Atari/Coleco days, gamers from that era scoffed at the new controllers and types of gameplay they brought in, with directional pads and a few more buttons rather than the traditional joystick. After Sega entered the market, they began a fierce brand battle with Nintendo which lasted around a decade - making more progress in the west than Japan, presenting themselves as the "cool" alternative to Nintendo. (While both companies produced high quality hardware with interesting controllers and excellent software, making it well worth your time to own both sides' consoles if you could afford them.)

When Sony entered the market in the mid-'90s, the Playstation having been developed by the openly egomaniacal Ken Kutaragi - with an effective "Anything you can do, I can do better, you're just a specialist company, not an electronics powerhouse like Sony" attitude - following the rejection of a business deal between Sony and Nintendo. (Sony was to develop a CD drive add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System - which ultimately became the original Playstation - but in exchange, wanted Nintendo to become part of Sony. An extremely lopsided proposal.) While you wouldn't expect a console essentially birthed out of spite to do as well as the Playstation did, it filled a crucial gap in the industry left by Nintendo and Sega that generation. Nintendo's president at the time - Hiroshi Yamauchi - was known for his domineering personality and outright bullying of third parties into exclusive support of Nintendo hardware. After two generations of this, most third parties were understandably looking for an alternative. The N64 was designed to be a graphical powerhouse, but in sticking with cartridges lacked the CD drive that developers had deemed necessary to move the industry forward. And so, they turned to Sega's Saturn - which saw far more success in Japan than the west, due to Sega's having killed a great deal of their brandname's goodwill after the Genesis with the flops that were the Sega CD (Which still had a fair number of excellent games) and 32X - and found their efforts hampered by extremely cumbersome internal architecture, which made programming hell. Sony came along with their Playstation, which despite having weaker hardware than the Saturn, was easier to program for and still had a CD drive. It had a slow start, but after Squaresoft released the meteorically successful Final Fantasy VII (Which, sadly, was a sharp reversal from its predecessor in terms of quality), the rest of Sony's success with the Playstation brand is well known. Nintendo was rather summarily abandoned by the third parties, and after the Saturn, Sega released their final console in the Dreamcast, which also failed, despite being an excellent, forward-thinking platform by design.

That industry history lesson serves a purpose here, of course: After Sony's own meteoric rise to domination of the industry, with a lot of 8 and 16-bit era gamers from the Nintendo/Sega days "outgrowing" the hobby, Sony focused on courting their own new demographic and over the course of the Playstation and PS2 years, they expanded the market far beyond the reach achieved in previous generations. (Though it took them a while to get anywhere near NES levels - Nintendo's initial foray into the console world set sales records extremely difficult to touch.) But in bringing in their own generation of gamers, Sony took an approach not unlike Sega's, essentially spitting on the entire gaming industry prior to their presence and doing so more and more openly as they developed more of a near-monopoly on the console business. They basically taught an entire generation of gamers that everything Nintendo and Sega is terrible by default, and to look down upon non-3D games - and anything not on their hardware - as garbage. (Eventually adopting rather rigid anti-2D graphic policies on the PS2 and setting standards of content to censor - even to the point of blocking games, as Atlus saw in their efforts to localize Shin Megami Tensei series games on the original PSX - in a time when Nintendo was relaxing their censorship standards and starting to more openly support adult-oriented content on their consoles. All that under Nintendo's new president, Satoru Iwata formerly of the second party developer HAL Laboratory, who sought to correct many of Yamauchi's mistakes and attitudes toward the market and developers, as a former game designer himself.) This led to a new segment of gamers that ultimately developed an intense loyalty to Sony - and ultimately Microsoft as well - with a hostility towards anything not of their brand of choice that made the Nintendo/Sega rivalry of the late '80s and early '90s look like a tea party.

Microsoft entered the industry last generation with the Xbox as a laughingstock, failed to make any money, and the system sold largely on their popular Halo series first-person shooters and paid subscription online play service. They only started to gain more traction this generation with the Xbox 360, their second console, popular for its even deeper - though still costly - online gameplay service and otherwise mostly for its violent shooting and action oriented games. It received a great deal of love simply for launching first - oddly unlike the reproach Sega largely received over the Dreamcast, which never found more than a niche market - and was ultimately copied in basic design by Sony with their PS3.

The difference is, neither of these major corporations - Sony or Microsoft - understands how the console gaming industry works, and has treated it as though they can simply dictate what they want to the market, and the market will serve them. (Not the attitudes you want to see coming from any corporation, let alone ones seeking to provide entertainment.) Nintendo took some major risks this generation, in looking at a stagnant market - after the Gamecube only started to dabble in gameplay innovation with some of its peripherals and odder games, achieving a great deal of profitability due to a good business plan (Like the N64) but failing to break out of third place in the hardware war - and asking how they could change things and bring gaming further to the masses.

This generation, Sony and Microsoft essentially offered nothing more than a far more expensive - and at times less reliable, looking at Microsoft's hardware failure rates - version of last generation's gaming. We're essentially seeing the same exact kinds of games and gameplay experiences that defined the previous generation with the PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox being played on similar controllers (Or in Sony's case, exactly the same, as they've shown they have no idea how to make a new controller, when new controllers are crucial, as is change in general in an entertainment industry that needs innovation to grow and survive, as gaming does.), and in many cases the same kinds of games with less overall content in exchange for a focus on online play and extremely expensive graphics. The mass market understandably chose the Wii and DS as this generation's hardware victors, bringing Nintendo back to the top of the industry, with their new kinds of controls that, when implemented well, can do far more for anyone's gameplay experience than the same old controllers the PS3 and Xbox 360 rely on. The motion controls and simpler main controller in the Wii Remote and touchscreen on the DS make for new, even more intuitive ways to interact with games than were ever in the mainstream before, appealing to the majority of people far more than a controller with 10+ buttons and two analog sticks could. We've effectively hit a wall in regards to what overly complicated traditional controllers can do for video games as a medium, and with Nintendo returning to the forefront in the wake of that - and expanding the industry considerably in making gaming accessible to far more people than Sony did, especially now that they're trying to push the industry into a shrinking direction with Microsoft in their focus on extremely high budget graphics and stagnant gameplay experiences - we're seeing the ugly attitudes Sony and Microsoft fostered in their brand fanatics rearing their heads all over the internet on a regular basis.

Media Unbalance

An eerily accurate depiction of angry gamersInherent biases towards Sony and Microsoft because they're praised as representing "traditional" / "core" games - largely out of poorly founded paranoia that we're somehow going to lose the older types of games as a result of the successes of pick-up-and-play Wii titles such as Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Wii music with the masses - have infected most gaming blogs and mainstream websites and magazines. The media's sought to cater to this angry Sony/Microsoft fanatic crowd in constantly asking sensationalistic questions like "IS NINTENDO RUINING GAMING!?" simply for their succeeding in bringing the hobby to the masses at last with appealing, intuitive hardware. In the decade of Sony's rule, most had grown very comfortable with the idea of Nintendo being this declawed underdog good for a Mario or Zelda game here and there, but otherwise irrelevant. And as such, we've seen a painful loss of objectivity in the gaming media - not that it ever had much in the way of journalistic integrity to begin with.

With these angry biases against the new market leader having poisoned the mainstream media, the question is raised of whether or not it's better to be an "informed" gamer, or to simply play what games appeal to you. (As many reviews these days are colored almost entirely by reviewer biases, whether against a brandname or specific genre. If you aren't interested in one genre or another and can't keep an open mind, you've got no objective basis for writing a review - a considerable number of Wii games have taken hits on their average scores on aggregate review sites simply because they were reviewed by individuals who hated the Wii in general and as a result weren't even trying to have fun with the games they were assigned to review.) Looking at the trends in gaming mass media these days, I'd personally advise looking at most Wii game scores - if you feel like bothering with such websites at all - and add a point or two to get a score that's likely closer to the reality of the title's quality. (You could also drink yourself to death on the use of "waggle" in Wii reviews - a term coined solely to undermine the importance of what the Wii brings to the medium and industry with its motion controls and insinuate that they're always inferior to stagnant, less precise d-pad and analog stick controls.) Likewise, you'd want to remove a point or two with most PS3 and Xbox 360 games, considering how commonplace the bankrolling of positive reviews has become this generation - it's essentially a standard marketing practice now. If you're releasing an ultra-hyped, highly anticipated game - and especially since it's not on the market-leading Wii - you want to pay the press to call it one of the greatest games ever made and attempt to get the masses to buy the more expensive, less successful hardware it's on. As a result, we're seeing two consoles on which most games don't turn a profit receiving an inordinately high number of "greatest games ever made!" in reviews of their high profile titles every year, which makes it crystal clear that there is zero objectivity left in the gaming mass media.

Are Games Art?

Not a meaningful work of art.Another popular conversation in online gaming communities these days is also the matter of whether or not video games qualify as art. Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski wants us to take his popular Gears of War Xbox 360 series seriously and think of it as a work of art. In reality, Gears of War is basically Rambo in Space, or a science fiction Contra of sorts. It's about tough-talking, ultra-manly space marines (One of the worst, most completely beaten-to-death cliches that western game developers can't seem to get over) fighting aliens on other worlds with big guns. It isn't high art, it isn't remarkable writing, and conceptually, it isn't brilliant game making. At best, it's derivative. Sure, it's something fun for the series' millions of fans, and if that sort of game appeals to you, no one should stop you from having fun with it. But it says and accomplishes nothing from the artistic perspective beyond very base, crass entertainment. The sort of attitude we've seen about the series from CliffyB is a good indication of the lack of awareness of just how bad the writing and concepts are behind mainstream games these days - especially when compared to quality film and literature, as gaming tries to emulate both and continues to consistently fail at pulling off anything of the sort.

Metal Gear Solid 4, as popular as it was when it hit the PS3 last year, is an excellent example of such a trainwreck of a game. Revered Konami director Hideo Kojima was never going to develop the game to begin with, until death threats started rolling in from fans. (Generally, that's the part where you're supposed to say "How about I never make another title in the series again, ever? This is why you can't have nice things.") As a long-time fan of Kojima - though not so much his Tom Clancy on acid Metal Gear series, which just never appealed to me personally - it was disappointing to see his writing and approach to game design strike new lows with that title, after having thoroughly enjoyed the anime-esque Zone of the Enders PS2 games, stealth vampire-hunting Gameboy Advance Boktai game, and his masterpiece Blade Runner homage, Snatcher. After years of being hyped as "the game that would make the PS3" and prove the supposed "necessity" of its ridiculous hardware power (Ignoring the fact that a multi-core cell processor isn't hardware well-oriented towards video game design at all. The PS3 makes the Sega Saturn look like a dream to program for, which is a contributing factor in the PS3's continuing failure on the market.), it ended up being an extremely long, meandering CGI movie with plenty of cliche plot twists and a lot of evidence that Kojima's simply become creatively bankrupt with the series, in abruptly bringing a bunch of characters he'd permanently killed off in previous games back to life without explanation. Tacked on to that was a very clunky PS2 game with more expensive grahpics and roughly 5-6 hours of gameplay, with unlockables in the game for beating it in so little time. It was a game that showed how difficult it was for even Kojima to make a full PS3 game, and how far Sony's philosophy had moved away from gaming to simply focusing on high definition movies. (Though they made no secret of that, since the system was half-intended to be a market trojan for the Blu-Ray HD movie disc media, which despite defeating HD-DVD in the war between the two HD formats, isn't breaking into the mainstream market or so much as putting a dent into the DVD market in this global recession where, after DVD's only been the mainstream market replacement for VHS for roughly a decade now, it's far too soon - as well as coming off as unnecessary and greedy, given that DVDs aren't exactly cheap either and HDTVs aren't in any way a mainstream or affordable thing for most people - to even be thinking about replacing DVD with more expensive disc media aimed at the HDTV crowd, when high definition television isn't anywhere remotely near being mainstream.)

Grand Theft Auto IV, after all the insane "No! THIS is the best game of all time!" hype it received in response to 2007's Super Mario Galaxy in the first half of 2008, eventually saw the majority of gamers agreeing that it was nowhere near as good as the critics had been paid to call it. And why was that? Because it fell victim to the "Let's make this game high art!" trap developers have started trending towards on those platforms these days, in trying to tell a rough, crime-oriented story of an immigrant's arrival in America. An incredibly cliched story that's been told many times before - and far better - in both cinema and literature. GTA fans love the series for how humorous it is, and how much freedom the player receives to simply go out and create chaos. GTA4 imposed many restrictions on players' freedoms to be chaotic from previous titles, and lost most of its sense of humor in taking a much more heavy-handed approach to the narrative it told. In both story presentation and gameplay, it was GTA minus the fun in the name of "realism" - another common theme we've seen in the commonplace obsession with making "realistic" games on the high definition consoles.

Okami on the PS2 and Wii, gorgeous and Japanese mythology-basedNarratives like this could potentially be made far more interesting if they were framed in a way only video games could tell them - the problem is, developers aren't interested in taking advantage of what the interactive nature of video games in telling their story. Instead, they simply create linear plot structures filled with pre-rendered videos and have the player constantly going from point A to point B to further the plot and get through the game, but they're not interacting with the story in any meaningful sense. The players are just observers, like filmgoers and readers. And this is essentially where the video game industry seems hellbent on staying worlds behind cinema and literature - they want to essentially model games after them instead of exploring what games can do differently by the very natuer of their interactivity that books and movies lack. If they ever want to achieve something of meaningful artistic value instead of "Let's try to do what they're doing even though we're not making movies and writing books and pretend we can do it better even though that's not even the main focus of the medium!" developers need to get more talented writers involved - as even decent writing in video games is extremely scarce - and rethink how they approach narratives in video games. Otherwise, they'll simply continue to nip at the heels of far more developed art forms that video games themselves are not, in being centered on interaction by definition.

Also observably, the trend tends to be that games that take themselves too seriously are much worse in terms of story and narrative than those with a sense of humor as well - a self-aware video game that can laugh at itself and has fun with what it is can be a joyful experience to play. A game that wants to convince you it's some deep artistic statement or piece of cinematic art (Virtually always centered around manly badasses with guns!) isn't.

Unfortunately, whenever you see discussion of video games as art online, it's always one extreme or the other. The most popular viewpoint tends to amount to: "Shut up, all video games are art! Gears of War is badass art and I'm a more cultured person for playing it so people should look up to me for playing video games." When in the end, while video games are a creative medium, we rarely see truly fresh or original games these days - even if they're fun, most are incredibly derivative, and at best, extremely low level art, like a terrible Hollywood blockbuster or bad TV sitcom. Nothing of meaningful artistic merit. But video gamers - like most people on the internet - like to try to boil their arguments entirely down to black-and-white me-vs.-you back-and-forth conflicts instead of thinking in critical, complex terms. Of course, the cliche "traditional" video gamer who thinks Gears of War is a stroke of genius is, more likely than not, not someone who's studied art, ever critically thought about it, or ever spent much time in an art museum. And frankly, critical thinking, understanding, and appreciation of art for what it is are all things that anyone can benefit from.

Solving the Negativity Problem

The Wii menu, courtesy of WikipediaComing full circle in the discussion, there's the issue of how exactly we can deal with the problem of the intense negativity - especially towards Nintendo's system and all the newer gamers who've only recently gotten into the hobby through the Wii and DS (The aggressive crowd choosing to forget that they were once new gamers too, albeit with a different brand of hardware, which they're convinced everyone should be playing, even as that side of the market turns into a sinking ship in how expensive it is for everyone involved.) - and corruption that are so hard to get away from in their pervasiveness. These kinds of attitudes can make dealing with the mainstream online media exhausting and extremely jading to longtime gamers who love and simply want to keep having fun with their hobby. And they can simply drive off newer gamers, since they're being openly antagonized as though they don't "deserve" to be in the hobby if they dare to enjoy something like Wii Sports or Brain Age.

The only real solution seems to be to take advantage of the abundance of social-networking options available today to counter this sort of mentality and carve out one's own personal gaming niche on the internet. By trading friend codes with those in your social circle on the Wii and using the WiiMail Wii Message Board email system, you can create your own social network through the Wii itself. You can also communicate even more directly through the Wii Speak peripheral (Which I'm thinking myself about potentially using for future small scale readings as an interesting alternative sort of thing. Far, far too early to say if I'll be doing anything like that for certain.), and I believe the Xbox 360 and PS3 have some sort of message systems as well in addition to their voice chat features.

Beyond the gaming hardware social networking capabilities, one could start a less aggressive message board system, or groups on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, blogs that celebrate gaming rather than looking to tear it down and thrive on trolling and flame wars as so many do these days, and things like that. Creativity is key in finding a healthier social environment in gaming these days than you could by trying to immerse yourself in the popular hostility. Building up a social network of friendly people to have fun with in online games or talk about the hobby with through such grassroots means is really the most effective these days - making the most of what can be done with the internet and popularity of social networking these days, as it's both all about keeping up with friends and making new ones. Of course, you should also always be wary of predators.

With the number of people who play video games these days growing at astonishing rates largely thanks to the accessibility of the Wii and DS, new gamers don't deserve the antagonism they receive from the crowd that came in on Sony's consoles and hold a ridiculously blind loyalty to Sony and Microsoft, despite the negatives their latest hardware bring to the industry. Newer gamers deserve to find an healthy environment in which to socialize about gaming as much as anyone else. But in genearl, the hostile gaming crowd needs to either come to grips with the reality of the industry this generation or at least stop taking their hobby so seriously. There's no one who doesn't deserve to have fun with any kind of games that appeal to them - just as people can read whatever books and watch whatever movies they like. Gaming will never be a mainstream, respected medium following Sony and Microsoft's current path, as they'd prefer. They will never walk down the street and see people react in awe, "Oh my god! That guy's a HARDCORE GAMER! He's so much better than me," as so many seem to desire. But we can disperse the negative stereotypes and improve the unpleasant sides of gaming and associations with those who game as ordinary people continue to pick up the hobby and have fun with it too.

Whoo, that did end up being very rambling in the end. Hopefully it was coherent enough for any of you who were interested, anyway. I'll try to make the next ones less meandering - there was just a lot to say here.