Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

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

Duff: When a person is flirting with addiction, praise can be harmful

Duff: When a person is flirting with addiction, praise can be harmful

This is the third installment in my continuing series about gamers and game addiction. You can find previous columns, along with links and supplemental materials at the Internet Buzz blog on Lubbockonline.com.

Last week we talked about Eloy, a well-known podcaster who, inspired by Morgan Spurlock, forced himself to play Warcraft 10 hours a day for 30 days.

Eloy won’t use the word addiction to describe how he felt in the second and third weeks of his experiment. He thinks of addiction as “something you can’t walk away from” and ultimately, he did walk away.

After 17 days of constant play, Eloy gave up. There was no single moment of clarity here, no grand event that made him quit. Thinking back on it, Eloy says it may have been as mundane as looking in a mirror.

Eloy had always been an active person – running, hiking and exercising regularly. The sedentary gamer lifestyle caused rapid weight gain and took a real toll on him physically. Eloy suffered headaches, backaches and muscle twitches before he decided to quit.

That’s what drew me to this story in the first place, the notion that a group of active, healthy people – people who didn’t necessarily fit the gamer stereotype – could devote so much of their time and energy to a video game.

Everybody expects this behavior from introverts and computer geeks, and Eloy is quick to defend his nerd cred. He’s proud to be the kind of guy who can discuss both “beer and Star Trek,” crossing between worlds that most people get stuck in.

So with all this going for him in real life, how did Eloy get stuck in the game? There was clearly a point in the latter stages of his experiment when the goal (leveling a character to 60) took on a life of its own. What started out as a matter of scientific curiosity started to consume his life.

Eloy gave up his active lifestyle, stopped returning phone calls from family and friends, and kept himself rooted to a chair, even when back pain caused him to take handfuls of ibubrofen.

What could make a person do something like this? Eloy says the games are designed to be addictive, and they are designed very well. World of Warcraft is a perfect feedback loop, a perfect balance of effort and reward.

The game is set to give you exciting new rewards, just when you start to get bored. In Warcraft, there’s always a pot of gold over that next rainbow. The victories come fast when you play fast, and with a guild, those victories are shared.

There’s always a comrade to congratulate you when you reach a new level, always a well-meaning friend who will urge you to clean out one more camp or earn one more bar of experience. This culture of shared accomplishment can be very powerful, and very destructive.

The congratulations come from genuine affection and goodwill, but when a person is flirting with game addiction, that praise can be the hook that keeps them in. Words that are meant to be lighthearted cheerleading can lead a person deeper into denial and self-destruction.

Eloy is careful to draw a line here and make a distinction between group and personal responsibility. People are ultimately responsible for their own decisions. The game has an off switch, and no one can force you to turn it on.

But there’s a strong group component here, and a player who falls behind the curve or misses an important raid can feel like he’s letting his friends down. Ultimately, Eloy thinks people need to keep a closer watch on their friends, and be willing to call them out when their gameplay seems to be excessive or destructive.

Next week we’ll talk about how Eloy’s experiment affected his friends and about what you can do if you suspect one of your friends is developing an addiction.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 2, 2007 at 14:07

Posted in Columns, Games, Warcraft