Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Carebear confessions: Thrills, heartache await online tournament players

Think of a world before the Internet; when you had to leave the house or make a phone call to put someone in a state of incoherent rage.

In the old days you had to cause an accident, steal a parking space or cut somebody off on the freeway to make them want to kill you. These days, you can inspire outrage and thoughts of murder without even leaving your chair.

The Internet is a nested collection of new frontiers, and each new activity offers a new way to ruin someone’s day.

It’s easy to find a dance partner if you’re willing to fight about politics or religion. Just find an online forum and let your inner child loose.

Forums are enough for most of us, but if you really want to provoke people you can go for extra credit in the world of online games. There’s nothing quite like the thrill, or the level of anger that can be achieved, in player vs. player combat.

In the old days, arcade games pitted you against the machine. But even the best computer opponent can eventually be conquered by a human player.

Human opponents are much harder to deal with, and now that we have the Internet, they are much easier to find. The purest form of player vs. player combat can be found in games like “Doom,” “Quake,” “Counter-Strike” and “Half Life.”

You can customize your avatar and select equipment to match your style, but each player starts with the same basic chance of success. Games like this are a true test of skill. You might get frustrated when opponents gang up on you or use cheap tactics to win, but those losses don’t really cost you anything.

Just hit the reset button and start again.

But what if you couldn’t? What if your equipment didn’t respawn out of thin air every time you got killed? What if every simulated “death” cost you hours of tedious work?

That was the world of online role playing in 1997. The first graphical MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) was “Ultima Online,” created by Origin.

I bought “Ultima Online” immediately after launch and experienced all the early bugs. But the worst aspects of the game weren’t bugs. They were put there on purpose by a team of programmers who (I can only assume) enjoyed beating up geeks in high school and fed like vampires off the power of human suffering.

“Ultima Online” was a uniquely “realistic” simulation of a fantasy world. The early game allowed you to take up hunting, farming, tailoring, cooking, leatherworking and a host of other professions using objects that looked like real world tools.

Here’s how most characters started life in “Ultima Online.” First, you pick a template based on characters from high fantasy. You could be a warrior, a wizard, a thief or pick from a dozen other fantasy stereotypes.

You’d pick your starting skills, get familiar with your newbie equipment and hit the road, ready to tame the wilderness with steel and magic. You’d emerge from the safety of a major city …

… and immediately get jumped by a pack of bandits controlled by other players. The bandits would hit you with four or five precisely timed spells, drain your life to zero and stand over your cartoon corpse. Then they would laugh at you and take your stuff, leaving you naked, cold and dead.

You’d run back to town for a free resurrection and realize you had no money, no equipment and no way to earn anything.

So you delete that character and start again. But this time you decide to play it smart. You start with a crafting profession and earn some money before venturing into the big bad world.

You start a brand new tailor/swordsman, buy a bolt of cloth with your newbie gold and spend the next four hours making cartoon hats. You make 20 hats, sell them to the vendor and earn enough to make 20 more. The cycle continues, your skill increases and after four or five hours of tedious clicking, you finally have enough to buy a suit of armor.

You buy the best equipment you can and head for the wilderness … where you are jumped by the same five bandits who killed you the first time. They hit you with five simultaneous spells and you’re dead again. If you’re playing on dialup, you were probably dead before you had time to react.

The bandits say, “Hey, this guy actually had stuff!” and you get to watch while they strip your corpse and distribute your armor between them.

In 1997 this was called “entertainment” and companies could actually make money doing it to people.

Origin ended up fixing most of these problems by 2000, but in the early days, “Ultima Online” was like an interactive “Lord of the Flies.” These days, player vs. player combat is planned and consensual and losing doesn’t really cost you anything.

Players who lose a fight in “World of Warcraft” don’t lose money or equipment and it’s relatively hard to die by accident. PvP combat is restricted to special servers and to people who deliberately make themselves eligible for it.

But there’s one popular game that still does things the old-fashioned way. It’s called “Eve Online,” a sprawling space simulation that allows players to buy spaceships and forge realistic careers as miners, warriors and captains of industry.

“Eve Online” lets you start your career in protected zones, but the real money (and the real fun) are waiting in no man’s land – waiting in areas controlled by pirates and mercenary corporations.

“Eve Online” believes in real challenge, real combat and real loss. Just like in the early days of “Ultima Online” you build up your starting money in the safe zones and take your chances in the shark tank.

Successful “Eve” players have to band together to achieve any kind of success, selling their souls (or at least their play time) to player controlled corporations that provide starting money and rudimentary protection for new players.

This element of real world cooperation makes “Eve” more challenging, and more rewarding, than other games of this kind. Once a year these player organizations meet on the field of battle to compete in a grand tournament, and unlike most video game events, the losses suffered in this tournament represent real investments of time and energy.

It costs a tremendous amount of in-game money to finance participation in these tournaments and if your fleet is destroyed, there’s no friendly Game Master waiting to give it back.

That means a tournament victory is as much a testament to financial management and organizational skill as it is a measure of real combat prowess.

This element of real world risk adds a level of drama to “Eve” that no mere dungeon raid can match. The monetary units may be fictional, but the time invested is very real. The ships lost in tournaments can represent hundreds of hours of collective play time.

So remember “Eve” and “Ultima” next time somebody ganks you in “World of Warcraft” or gets the drop on you in “Call of Duty.” This play style is not for everybody, but I’ve seen enough PvP to respect it. I may be a “carebear” who spends his time running missions in safe zones but the latest round of tournament videos were so cool, I’m considering a walk on the wild side.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 3, 2009 at 18:27

Posted in Columns, Games

Jeff Goldblum wants you to get a life

When you finish Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Jeff Goldblum actually tells you to turn the game off and go outside.


Written by Michael B. Duff

December 18, 2008 at 17:45

Posted in Games

Eidos orders journalists to hold bad reviews

A year ago this week, game reviewer Jeff Gerstmann lost his job. After 11 years of overseeing editorial content at GameSpot, after earning a reputation as one of the most honest and most entertaining reviewers in the video game industry, he was let go.

The gaming community thinks Jeff lost his job because he gave Kane & Lynch — a shallow, foul-mouthed travesty of a game, a 6.0 review, at a time when its publisher, Eidos, had just spent thousands on an elaborate wall-to-wall advertising campaign.

The story seems simple enough. Jeff embarrassed a major GameSpot advertiser and lost his job. But a year later, it’s still just a story. Eidos assures us that Jeff’s firing “was purely for internal reasons” and was not related to any publisher or advertiser.

Both parties have signed legal agreements that keep them from talking. Gerstmann and GameSpot have moved on, but gamer suspicions remain.

Eidos was widely regarded as a bullying, sleazy company, but there was no hard evidence to prove it.

With legal agreements in place, we’ll never really know if Eidos was involved in Gerstmann’s termination, but this time we’ve caught them red-handed.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

December 3, 2008 at 14:21

Posted in Games

It's time to tell the truth about Dungeons & Dragons

Geek hobbies take a lot of heat these days, but it’s hard to think of a hobby that has been maligned as thoroughly as Dungeons and Dragons.

The largest gaming convention in the world is GenCon, originally held in Lake Geneva, Wis. – the birthplace of D&D. Lake Geneva was home to the game’s creator, Gary Gygax. This year GenCon decided to honor Gary by collecting money for his favorite charity, specifically the Christian Children’s Fund.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

November 21, 2008 at 13:56

Posted in Games

Stores fear Hot Pocket shortage as Blizzard reinvents Warcraft

Warn your boss and make peace with your girlfriend; World of Warcraft has an expansion coming and it looks really good.

Dangerously good. Take a week off work good. Stay up until 3 a.m. and wonder where your life went good.

Blizzard released its 3.02 patch on Oct. 14, giving us a preview of what we can expect from Wrath of the Lich King. Warcraft maintains its popularity by reinventing itself every so often, and 3.02 looks like the biggest change yet.

Blizzard has altered game mechanics and revamped talent trees to an unprecedented degree. Most of the changes are good. Characters have become cooler, sleeker, and more powerful, while many raid bosses have been nerfed.

These changes have generated a wave of euphoria in the community, and relatively few complaints. The changes have a rough, unfinished feel to them right now as we wait for the full expansion, but people are already flocking back to play with the new toys.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 22, 2008 at 12:13

Posted in Games, Warcraft

A touching tale of geek romance

I have to share this great story I just heard on Fear the Boot.

FTB is a podcast about roleplaying games. With a great cast and a wonderful tongue-in-cheek presentation of the subject, these guys veer effortlessly from serious philosophical discussion of the genre to childish junior high-style hazing of cast members.

This story occurs somewhere in-between.

Somewhere around 1996, Chris Hussey got heavy into the community and wrote a Battletech sourcebook

On their latest podcast, Chris tells the story of how he romanced his wife with a series of in-character emails, written as if they were both characters in this game.

(Warning: This episode will be very confusing to non-geeks in the audience and it contains some adult language.)

Battletech is a game of the far future, where soldiers in a (fairly) realistic military simulation fight tactical battles while driving tanks shaped like giant robots. It is much cooler, and much more complicated, than I make it sound.

Chris wrote letters to his wife as if he were a soldier in this world and she wrote back as if she was waiting for him back home. The other guys on the podcast tease Chris as if this were some kind of sex thing but ultimately the hottest thing they did was have an in-character dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

This is all the more remarkable because Chris’s wife is not a gamer.

The tone of this story is very sweet, very romantic and very very geeky.

As they said on the show: “This woman is not a dork, but she loved her geek so much she was willing to get in with his perverse LARPing fantasies.”

Non-geeks probably think this kind of thing is common, but as one host said, “Honestly Chris, I’m a gamer and you couldn’t ask me to do this. His wife went above and beyond the call of duty. That’s a good woman right there.”

Which led to the question, “Isn’t that what every gamer out there wants?”



Written by Michael B. Duff

July 6, 2008 at 00:52

Posted in Games

Duff reviews Grand Theft Auto 4

Most of you will have heard of Grand Theft Auto 4 by now, the quintessential “urban sandbox” game where players can steal cars, shoot cops, perform ridiculous stunts and generally live out violent fantasies with no consequence.

Many journalists have condemned this game, but I was determined to keep an open mind. Sure, the drones at NBC and CNN might be stuck in their suburban middle class paradigm, but I am an educated, enlightened member of the digerati.

They might look on the GTA release as an excuse to drum up parental outrage, but I was going to look past the stereotypes and judge this game on its artistic merit.

I fired up the game, grasped the controller and cleared my mind of all prejudice. Five minutes later, I was ready to march on Washington.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

June 30, 2008 at 15:13

Posted in Games

Duff: Rumor mill says GameSpot critic lost his job over bad review

Duff: Rumor mill says GameSpot critic lost his job over bad review

Jeff Gerstmann lost his job last week. Jeff was editorial director at GameSpot, one of the most popular (and most profitable) game sites on the Web.

Jeff worked at Game-Spot for 11 years, churning out hundreds of high-quality reviews, building his reputation as a guy who knew his stuff and didn’t pull punches.

Jeff was at the top of his game – one of the most respected figures in gaming journalism. Then he lost everything in a very public (and very suspicious) firing.

The rumor mill says Jeff was fired for giving a bad review to a game called “Kane & Lynch,” a product that Eidos had just spent six figures to advertise on GameSpot itself.

Every corner of GameSpot was plastered with “Kane & Lynch” ads when Gerstmann’s review went up, giving it 6.0 on a scale of 10. Jeff’s video review (available on YouTube but quickly pulled by GameSpot) is absolutely devastating.

Jeff tears this game apart, using a crisp, authoritative tone that leaves no room for doubt.

“There’s no one to root for here,” Jeff says, “not even in a cool anti-hero sort of way.”

He calls “Kayne and Lynch” “an ugly, ugly game” and warns us that “every third word out of every character’s mouth is the f-word.”

This looks like a classic example of a company using nihilism and profanity to cover up lazy design. Jeff’s review makes that crystal clear.

GameSpot eventually restored the video and released a statement categorically denying the rumors, but the damage had already been done.

The remaining GameSpot editors sound like they have guns to their heads, praising Jeff in careful, measured tones, quickly retracting statements that sound critical of management, hiding behind legal agreements that keep the principals from talking.

The Eidos message boards are under siege from an army of angry gamers, convinced that pressure from their marketing department got Jeff fired.

CNET execs are implying that Jeff was fired for the unprofessional tone of his reviews, but the “Kane & Lynch” review is effective precisely because it is professional.

It looks like GameSpot is bowing to pressure from advertisers here. To quote the guys at Penny Arcade, “It’s the firm belief internally that Jeff was sacrificed. And it had to be Jeff precisely because of his stature and longevity. It made for a dramatic public execution that left the editorial staff in disarray.”

Pulling the video makes it look like Jeff was fired for his virtues, and the weak denials from CNET are just making it worse.

Game review sites walk a fine line in the best of circumstances. Their livelihood depends on the good will of the people they’re reviewing. There’s a constant battle between sales staff and editorial, and in this case, it looks like the sales guys won.

I’d like to propose a solution that will help GameSpot untangle this knot. They already use a graduated 10-point scale for reviews – just assign a dollar value to each point.

Drop a hundred grand on advertising and we’ll give you a guaranteed 8. Or maybe just replace every rating with a dollar value and skip the point system entirely.

It’s called prestige pricing. If it costs more, it must be worth more, so a company that’s willing to spend 100 grand is obviously making better games than a company that can only spend 20.

Jeff is a talented guy who will land on his feet after this. GameSpot and Eidos may not be so lucky.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 14, 2007 at 13:44

Posted in Columns, Games

Ghostbusters, baby!

Who you gonna call? Sierra games has announced Ghostbusters: The Video Game — a beautiful series of words. Strikes that perfect note of nostalgia and anticipation. Ghostbusters was one of the best movies of the 80s, a great idea that quickly lost steam in the sequel and died an early death.

Now it's back, on the only platform that might be able to handle it, with a story written by its original creators.

One can't help but wonder, what other Bill Murray hits might make good games? I want to play Rushmore: The Video Game — managing a massive aquarium project while dodging cruel traps from my teenage rival.

Or how about The Game Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Lots of action in that one. Shooting pirates, tracking sharks, equipping speedos with different stat bonuses.

Or even Lost in Translation: The Video Game. Work your way through a minefield of dialog as you manage a platonic love affair with Scarlett Johansson. Too cold and she'll wander off. Too hot you'll come off like a creepy old man.

I'm picturing a relationship temperature graph with warning animations at both ends. Manage it right and the game will grant you a no-fault divorce.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 19, 2007 at 12:46

Posted in Games, Movies

Confessions of a gender-switch gamer

My name is Michael Duff, and I am a gender-switch gamer.

That means although I am a man, I frequently create (and play) video game characters who are female.

I can imagine an army of amateur psychologists now, nodding their heads sagely as they smirk. “He's a guy who likes to pretend he's a chick, and we all know what that means.”

But it's not quite that simple. Most male gamers have “crossed the digital divide” once or twice, for a variety of reasons. The stock answer is to blame it on aesthetics, in a way that reinforces the masculinity of the gamer. Most video game characters are viewed from the back, so men naturally prefer looking at female backsides while they play.

This is a great answer, because it throws the insinuation back on the questioner. “So you really like looking at male buttocks all day? Maybe you're the one with the problem!”

Although the majority of game players are male (84 percent according to one World of Warcraft survey) the character distribution is much more even. So for whatever reason, a lot of men are out there playing female characters.

I can't answer for all of them, but I'll tell you why I do it.

The first thing to realize is that I don't think of my character as me. My character isn't really a stand-in for Michael Duff. I don't picture myself doing all these cool things as I play. It's more like a story I'm watching, the same way you'd watch a movie or a play. I think of my character as an actor in need of direction. I watch her about her the same way you'd watch Luke Skywalker or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

My character isn't a costume I wear; it's more like a car I drive. And just like a car, I want my character to look cool, move fast and run over anything that gets in my way. I pick out equipment and fine tune all kinds of settings to make my character perform better.

So when you ask me why I prefer female characters, it's kind of like asking why do you drive a Corvette instead of a Jeep?

On one level it's a pure aesthetic choice, and on another level, I like watching female heroes kill stuff. Probably the same reason Joss Wedon writes “Buffy.” You don't have to be female to appreciate female heroes, just like you don't have to be male to enjoy “Star Wars.”

I don't have any deep psychological reason for choosing female avatars, but I've certainly learned a lot. All the stereotypes are true. Male players treat you better when you're wearing a female face. I've had random strangers whistle at me, flirt with me, invite me to groups and give me free stuff, just because I was playing a female. I still get very uncomfortable when this happens. Usually I just say, “Sorry, I'm a guy.”

I've been hit on while playing a male, too, but this is much less common.

World of Warcraft has been widely criticized for the way it presents female avatars – with exaggerated body types and revealing clothes. As you climb up in levels you realize the more powerful the armor is, the more skin it is likely to show when you put it on.

I always thought people who complained about this stuff were nitpicking, until it happened to me. The first time I took my female warlock to Outland, I got some outstanding quest rewards that were much better than my previous equipment. I put on my new magic pants and looked like I was adventuring in a piece of sexy lingerie. My regal, dignified warlock character was walking around with her hips exposed, attracting whistles and catcalls from all across the zone.

It got so bad I actually sacrificed some attack power and put on a weaker pair of pants, just so I could cover myself.

I've always been a quiet supporter of women's rights, but I didn't really understand the issue until I put myself in a woman's shoes. The game experience has made me more careful about how I talk to women online and made me more conscious of women's issues in real life.

Don't believe me? Roll up a female blood elf and walk around Orgrimmar for a while. You'll see what I mean.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 16, 2007 at 09:15

Posted in Games, Warcraft