Advice to Writers?

This is a response to a fairly strong calling out of games writing the other day on bitmob. I like it. I’m sharing here.

The original post is here.
A follow-up post is here.

Gamerly Musings

This is an incredibly sad thing to read: an aspiring writer is forced to reconsider their passion as a career. Though perhaps what is more sad is how often it happens without any blog post to mark the occasion. Having questioned the viability of writing as a career choice more times than I can count over the past 2 years (heck, I think just yesterday was the last time I did so), I feel for him. And considering the caliber of the average “help for aspiring writers” advice being offered, I feel for him even more.

This is difficult, because I want more than anything to respond to his piece, but I fear that any attempt to do so will be seen as arrogant, condescending, mean-spirited, and just downright rude. But he raises some interesting issues that I would at the very least like to provide a second perspective to. I have…

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Sony’s New PlayStation Handheld Shows Some Vitality

Sorry for the awful pun in the headline, but, well, you know. Sometimes it has to happen.

I purchased the Playstation Vita the other day, after a long process of swearing I’d never get one. Of promising myself that the PSPGo would be the last Sony folly I’d purchase.

But there was a DSi, a PSP 3000, and a PSPGo sitting on my desk, mocking me. They’d been there for a while, wishing they were an iPhone or an iPad, or perhaps both. “I don’t want a handheld console anymore,” I declared, fruitlessly as it turns out. “I’ve got my iPhone with me all the time.”

When all was said and done, though, two of my handhelds and a bunch of games traded in later, I have a Vita. And, wow, I hate to say it, but this is a pretty amazing little gaming device.


Little is more of a figure of speech. The screen on this bad boy is the same dimensions as my iPhone. The entire iPhone, not just the screen portion. If I were to cut out the PS Vita screen with an Xacto knife, I’d be able to slot the iPhone in there.

The screen resolution is nice–not new iPad nice, but the same chip is at play here–but tons have been said about that already. It’s pretty, yeah, ok. It makes PSP resolution games look a bit hazy. But still, this isn’t a console replacement. The iPad can do almost console-quality graphic performance, if my observations are true. The PS Vita, on the other hand, still looks a bit less than console awesome. Of course, the tech is new and all that, but still. If Epic can make Infinity Blade II on the iPad look that good? Someone should have been able to do so on the Vita.

But that’s not my point here. My point is that Sony has obviously taken some cues from other successful products. The two I notice most now after a few days? The touchscreen and the, well, whatever they’re calling the XMB area. The place with all the apps.

I thought the touchscreen would be a gimmick, something bootstrapped onto a PSP for stupid handheld tricks. Not so. The touchscreen makes this baby sing. Typing, for one, is finally usable. If I never see another ridiculous three letters and a number per space typing interface again, it’ll be too soon. Typing on this is how typing should be. THere’s even a rudimentary word-prediction feature that’s pretty nice.

The Vita interface is slick, and obviously designed with a touchscreen in mind. Games and other apps seem to pause when the PS home button is pressed, shrinking down into sheets that can be swiped left or right, or diagonally down fromt eh upper right corner to dismiss. It’s got a bit of WebOS feel to it in this sense. Great way to have it work. Tap the PS home button, freeze the app, move it aside for another. It feels like multitasking. Bravo, Sony. I thing the circular app icons are a bit too “not-apple-at-all-no-way” for my taste, but they are easily moved, and app pages are easily added. All in all, a great effort.

The Vita, so far, is a slick piece of kit, just like the original PSP was lo those many moons ago. I miss my original PSP. It felt like a quality piece of hardware, and the Vita has a similar solidity. The power button is (FINALLY) moved away from my clutching right hand, and the dual analog-esque sticks are great. The D-Pad is a little wonky with it’s single piece of plastic design, but I suppose Sony couldn’t get it ALL right.

I dig playing around in the interface. i like “Near,” the answer to Nintendo’s StreetPass system. I like the idea of near, and even in my small city suburb, I’ve found a few other folks playing the same Uncharted and Rayman demos I am. It’s a clever idea, well-enough implemented.

Speaking of Nintendo, while Sony took its cue from Apple in designing the touchscreen, they definitely hired the Nintendo Shopping dude to create their music. Whenever I’m browsing the PSN store or goofing around in Near, the music sounds like the Wii music. There’s no denying the friendly atmosphere of that music. Fascinating choice, there.

Overall? I haven’t bought any games yet, and have only downloaded PSP games I already own, and the demos available for Vita launch titles. But this is a slick piece of kit that I’m fairly happy I picked up. At least it’ll look better on my desk gathering dust than the last three systems that sat there.

Top 10 iOS Games from Last Year

I wrote this up for GamesBeat early on in my time with them as a freelance writer. I had fun putting it together, and learning how to write to a more “Top Ten” crowd than ever before. Here is part of it, and be sure to link through for the whole thing.


What makes a great mobile game? Eye popping visuals? Solid gameplay and controls? Ease of entry, pick up and play features? Are casual games the best suited for Apple’s disruptive gaming device? What about core gaming, is it yet possible on these magical devices? What about social games, shooters, platformers?

The answer: Yes. All of these make great games, and the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad will play them.

Apple’s iOS devices and operating system have proven to be a popular and disruptive force in gaming. Games of all stripe compete in the same marketplace; there are games for just about every type of gamer – and non-gamer – out there. From simple to complex, intuitive to intelligent, iOS games are the next big thing to happen in the gaming world. Since there are more than 100,000 titles to choose from, we thought it might be fun to take a moment here to look at our picks for the top ten iOS games from 2011.

READ THE WHOLE POST TO SEE MY 10 PICKS

Been A While

Right?

Last post I wrote here was from GDC 2010. I’ve been to two more GDCs since then. I’m writing for payment now (woohoo!) and loving the hell out of every minute. I’d like to start using this space, ordinary swords, again, to start showcasing my gaming and tech writing, as well as write a bit about stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

So, welcome back!

Here’s a review I wrote up for VentureBeat’s lastest push, GamesBeat. It was my first review for their site.

Infinity Blade II

Infinity Blade II is debuting today, and the mobile game reminds us of the attractions of iterative game development. The risk is low, the potential for gain is high. While an innovative game can change the course of development in its own right and become the fastest selling game in iOS history, a well done sequel can polish what the first game got right to a high gleam, and add just the right amount of extras and enrichment to become something even sweeter. We’ve seen it with a series like Games of War, another Epic Games property, and now we can see it again with Infinity Blade II, my pick for the most console-like experience on the iOS platform to date.

Infinity Blade II (Epic Games & Chair Entertainment) is out for the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S [update: Chair informs me the game is also compatible with the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad, iPod
Touch 3 (16GB+) and iPod Touch 4].

There’s something primal about the way combat happens in this game. It would seem as though, on paper at least, that swiping and tapping on a glass screen wouldn’t feel so damn, well, tactile. Infinity Blade, the first game, gave us all a sense of place and a sense of impact with stabbing, blocking, dodging and slashing our way through the same path of evil warrior beasts and humanoids again and again, only to die at the hands of the God King at the end of each hard-fought road. Death became us, though, as we were reborn after each successive death at the hands of our arch-nemesis, and we again picked up the heavy mantle of hero, trudging ever onward to our doom.

READ THE FULL REVIEW

I’m In Trouble Now

Seriously – I went to GDC expecting to enjoy it and have fun connecting with people I’ve been working with since August of 2008. I didn’t expect to get addicted while I was there.

I met folks from real media outlets. Paste Magazine, LA Times, Edge Magazine, etc. all had representatives at GDC and I got to meet them and talk with them and find out how brilliant they all actually really are.

Aside from the hero-worship I got to engage in with the above folks, I got to meet many of my favorite games bloggers: Michael Abbot and his crew are a stunningly diverse group of amazingly smart folks who think and write about games.

I got to chat with folks from other websites like GrE and TPG, only bigger. Chris from Pocket Gamer, Jeff from 148Apps, and other like-minded entrepeneurs generously treated me like one of their own and it felt good. The number of times someone said “OH! I’ve heard of Games Are Evil. EXCELLENT domain name!” was much greater than I even could have hoped for.

So, obviously, I’m high. High as hell on this games writing, critical thinking, sweet spot of games and journalism. Yeah, some of the bigger bloggers are young, attractive, and wear skinny jeans with aplomb, but I think us older dudes have as much to contribute to the field.

I want to work in this industry. Not as a full time starving freelancer, but as a guy who can contract for work in some way across all these sites and outlets. Actually make some money from this passion. Learn from the best to help my own outlets grow in size and stature. Build relationships and connections with other like minded folks to further ALL of our goals and dreams.

Big thoughts, I know. But then again, I’m high.

Shin Megami Tensei Review, all Three Parts

I wrote this in 3 parts over at ThePortableGamer, and I’m reposting it here so put it all together, and maybe get some of your thoughts on the piece and the game, from a more “brainy” perspective.🙂 As you’ll see, this is a game I really wanted to play and like. What has your experience with it been like? Feel free to comment when you’ve had a chance to play it, of course.🙂 I also want to open the discussion to the idea of pre-release hype and how it affects us as reviewers, consumers, and ultimately gamers.

THE REVIEW:

Game: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Publisher: Atlus
Platform/Price: PSP / $39.99
Pros: Delicious storyline, honors the original Japanese version, excellent music and soundtrack
Cons: Isometric viewpoint controls strangely, difficulty ramp and learning curve is steep, ultimately a slog

In this first of hopefully weekly preview posts about Persona for PSP, I want to take you inside the game to help you get a sense of what it is that I find interesting, annoying, and ultimately fascinating about this ground-up remake of a classic game from the days of old (in gaming culture, that’s in the late 90s).

But first, some history.

Persona for the PSP is a remake of Revelations: Persona. Note the use of the word ‘remake’ and not the use of the word ‘port.’ This will become important later. Revelations: Persona was released for the Playstation in 1996, and saw a version make its way to the PC in 1999. The North American localization of this title saw many changes in characters and settings, to suggest that it took place in a more Western nation than Japan. Revelations: Persona was the first in the Persona series, which was a spin-off of the Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner series, which was itself a spin off of the original Megami Tensei series based on a book series called the Digital Devil Story. Perhaps to clarify this a bit, or to add to the confusion, Atlus has re-named the release for the PSP as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

The new game has been recreated for the PSP. Not ported, but created anew from the ground up. Cut scenes are newly animated and voiced, the resolution is now the native PSP resolution at 480×27, and the soundtrack, released on two CDs with every launch copy, is completely redone by the game’s director, Shoji Meguro. The title track is completely new, as well, and is well worth the listen, as it contains musical elements from throughout the game.

I just started playing this much-anticipated portable game. Let me tell you, it’s pretty fascinating. And complex. And not your typical JRPG. As with Class of Heroes, Atlus has taken the honest route: delivered a true-to-form classic RPG and brought it to life for modern audiences. This is not a hand-holder of a game.

It begins with a fully amazing intro movie, with a main song so full of j-Pop goodness, your head might asplode. Here it is in all it’s internet video glory:

Can you dig it? I figured you could. This does set the stage for what is proving to be a mind bender of a game. There are 5 characters I’m playing right now, all high school students. For some reason, the town has been taken over by demons. It’s hinted that the corporation in town is responsible, bu I’m only at the beginning of that story arc. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

personapsp_screens_17The dialogue is what you’d expect for a Japanese RPG starring high school kids, but it’s fairly tolerable. The battles have so much strategy and options in them, I know I’m just scratching the surface. You can hit them with weapons, shoot them with guns, guard against them, use your Persona skill (magic spirit power), guard, run away, and talk to the demons. Yes, I said talk to them. If you talk to them, you’ll try to match the type of responses you can give to the type of demon. A happy demon may enjoy a song, for instance, while a timid demon may do better with some taunting or bossing around. Don’t piss them off, though, or the battle will get that much harder. There’s a much-appreciated “Skip animations” setting that can be accessed with teh Start key. It makes battles go much faster, though, so I don’t use it as often, yet, as I may in later stages.

The “dungeons” are really buildings and corridors, from hospitals to schools, and the save system is accessed by talking to lovely purple trees arranged around town and in buildings. As you move from place to place, you may hit a random battle; it’s like going between towns in the early Final Fantasy games.

All in all, this game has its hooks in me, and I’m dying to keep playing it. Next week, I’ll give an update on how it’s going for me, as well as let you in on the different systems around demons, like cards, fusion, and creating new Persona skills to battle with.

Until then, make sure you go visit the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona website and grab some wallpapers for your PSP, some video for your computer, and read up on the characters and story. I need to get back to my PSP, though, so I’ll say goodbye for now.

Well, it’s come to my attention that I have all of one week to play as much of this game as I can and give a thorough and well-reasoned review. So, I’d like to focus on a couple of things here in the second and last installment of my preview of this fascinating and unlike-many-other-games-I’ve-played PSP title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

Like I said in part one, the Persona series is one of a larger franchise by publisher Atlus, originally based on a book written in Japan. The storyline follows a group of teens in a private school, St. Hamelin, in a Tokyo overrun by demons.

As in many RPGs I’ve played, I’ve finally hit the sweet spot. About 3 hours in, my characters are leveled up enough to make short work of the demons they encounter, and only rarely do battles take much longer than a minute or two, even with multiple foes. Battle takes place on an isometric playing field with your team and the demons layed out in opposition, facing each other. Some weapons and Skills are only viable within certain areas on the board, and if your character’s Skill or Weapon reach isn’t able to hit an opponent, you’ll need to just have them Guard or use an item to help the rest of the team.

personapsp_characterart_ellyI’m enjoying two things in the battle system, both just right for a non-hardcore player like myself. One, the Skip ability, is accessed by hitting the Select button and not having to watch all the little Persona and Magic effect animations that can eat up a lot of time in battle. The second feature is my favorite, “Auto.” This allows you to choose how your characters will act during battle, and it’s fairly extensive. You can, for example, have all your characters use guns, or all use weapons, or all guard. You can have it Replay the last actions each character took – a valuable time saver when you’ve figured out the right balance of gun/weapon/Skill usage for a particular set of demons.

Another fine feature is the Analyze option, in which you can check to see what each Demon you are facing is weak against, or what their personality is. Different Demon personalities will react differently to your Contact moves, so choosing the right conversational gambit will depend on your close analysis of each Demon type. One time, I made a certain Demon so happy, that it gave me a special card that I’ll be able to use later to create a new Persona. w00t!

That’s all I want to say now, as my review will be coming out sometime in the next week or so, and I want to spend as much time playing the game, rather than writing about it. While you wait for your pre-order to show up, or the retail version to arrive in stores, make sure you visit the official site. There are videos, music previews, forums, and game info that you won’t find anywhere else. Well, except for here.

I have a motto in life, and that’s this: if you aren’t enjoying what you do on some level, stop doing it. I don’t mean to say that every moment in life should be a box of kittens or all peaches and cream, because we all know that a little adversity and humility go a long way.Most people are more enjoyable to be around if they’ve had to work at getting what they have, where they’re at, and who they’ve become. If it’s all too easy, it’s not enjoyable.

The flip side of that is that when it’s all too hard, life becomes a slog.

I really wanted Persona for PSP to be the perfect combination of difficulty and enjoyment. I wanted it to be just the right mix of challenging and rewarding. Unfortunately, for me, this turned out not to be the case. I’m not panning this game by any means; it’s a quality game on a quality platform, by a quality publisher. I just cannot find in my heart, however, to want to recommend this wholeheardedly to everyone.

As many other Atlus games have shown me, there are a whole lot of games out there that do not conform to my Western-bred, modern video game perspective. I can find enjoyment in hardcore RPGs and in unclassifiable amalgams of games I’ve barely even begun to experience. The first two parts of my look at this game are fairly glowing, and I think that makes sense, coming from where I’m sitting right now: this game starts out with a TON of promise, flash, and bang. It ultimately gets weighted down, however, by it’s old-schoool mechanics and gameplay, which needn’t be a bad thing.

Persona begins amazingly well. When I say begin, I mean the first couple of hours. The intro movie and the beautifully made cut scene movies are of the highest quality I’ve seen to date. The story is well-set up, and mysteries are hinted at that typically entice me to keep playing a game. The music is well done, and there are some certifiable pop-hits among the tracks on the included CD, one that will come with every physical launch copy. Persona releases on UMD today, September 22nd, 2009, and will be downloadable via the PSN Store beginning October 1st. I applaud Atlus for being one of the first full game downloads for the new PSP Store. That alone might be worth the purchase.

Unfortunately, I think more of us purchase games for our consoles that we actively wish to play to completion. Regardless of the statistics showing that most of us do NOT, in fact, finish a majority of the games we buy, I think we all get them with enough starry-eyed fervor that we THINK we will, and I’d like to think that I really only purchase games that I feel will motivate and engage me enough to at least attempt to do so.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona was not that game for me. It may be for you. The whole package is well designed, attractive, and I’m sure a fantastic peek into the franchise’s beginnings. I don’t believe it has enough power, however, as a game in its own right, to be called an unqualified hit. The isometric battle screens and complex menu system to engage in battles are interesting at first, but ultimately become frustrating after a time, as moving battle participants around can be cumbersome, but is often needed. The Persona ability is interesting at first, but really just becomes another menu to navigate, in choosing the right spell to match the weaknesses of the demons being faced. All demons have weaknesses (except those damn Yakuza), and choosing the right attack type and Persona skill is an endlessly rotating kaleidoscope of menu choice making. In the final analysis, though, I feel that the complexity hinders the game play and slows down an already slow process.

The map system, while omnipresent on the screen, feels constrained and difficult to navigate. Slowing things even more is the random battle instances, happening frequently enough to provoke eye-rolling and heavy sighs, rather than the rush of adrenaline at the prospect of battle. The save system is elegant and can be found in many areas, but the fact that random, annihilating battles can occur just a few steps from a save point is ultimately heart-wrenching.

Again, I really want to rejoice in this game. I just cannot get past the actual game mechanics to fully appreciate the story in all its mysterious glory, and the switch between well-animated cutscene, and difficult-to-navigate isometric perspective on-screen interactions are jarring, as is the switch from and to first person in the hallways and corridors of this game’s dungeons. I would have much rather had my hand held a little through the old school JRPG elements, or had some sort of difficulty-smoothing system in place to not have to slog as hard through many many many battles that really all begin to look and feel the same, I might stick with it a little longer.

Bottom line, if you are a hardcore JRPG fan, and want to challenge yourself to bring your group of characters through this well-made and appealing portable game, or you want to re-experience the joy of the Playstation hit from 1996 with better animation and widescreen graphics, this is the game for you. If you are, however, like me and prefer a less “beat me over the head” sort of approach for your handheld gaming joy, you might want to give this one a pass for now.

a funny thing happened to me on the way to the blog

infamous_01
Hi there! Ya miss me? I’ve missed writing here. Here’s the big irony: I haven’t been a “gamer” for very long, and I’m running a network of gaming sites and podcasts. Odd, right?

A couple weeks ago, my partner and co-founder of the Games Are Evil and The Portable Gamer websites emailed me and said he needed to move on. Aside from the obvious reaction (how the hell do I do all this on my own?!?!?!?), I’m glad for Jason, and I notice that he’s getting back on track as the main driving force behind Insomnia Radio. I wish him all the best.

But now, here I am, running some serious sites, with serious traffic, serious growth potential, and serious staff. I’ve got Wii, PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, DS and iPhone games to solicit from developers and get to staff reviewers. I’ve got advertisers to network with, publishers to notify when game reviews go live, news to cover and website issues to deal with, graphics, layouts, CSS, plugins, posts, updates, and the like.

For the past week, I’ve gotten a new game in the mail every day. I’ve sent tons of email to publishers, developers, and staff members. I’ve mailed out a game daily, as well, and provided promo codes across platforms. I track each and every transaction in a spreadsheet, using google docs and google email for domains.

Suddenly, I’m the guy with the podcast cred on the team, as well. I can do audio, use GarageBand, tag stuff, upload stuff, post stuff. Make sure it all works across Feedburner and iTunes. Then promote it all, on twitter, reddit, digg, etc.

I have a staff of 22 writers, 4 of whom are editors. I’ve got one guy per site to run things and make stuff go when I can’t be directly involved. You know, like when I sleep. Carter and Cory do an AWESOME job of keeping the reviews flowing, the news posting, and the random volunteer staff happy. Two other folks fill out the editorial staff, but aren’t quite as confident as my two main dudes, so there’s a lot of gentle and not so gentle prodding and requesting.

That leaves 18 folks to do the reviewing and the writing. You’d think that getting free games would be a motivator to keep writing. It’s not. Getting free games that writers WANT seems to be the secret. An iPhone game review of a $.99 game is also fairly different than even a $20 DS game, let alone a full on triple A title for the big consoles, which tend to come in at $60 a pop. We have some folks who can write iPhone reviews like a machine, and folks that write an amazing review of a big game, then disappear from the email for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, we’re getting games in, games that need to go out to be reviewed. I can’t review them all on my own. No sir.

So I’m rushing around, spending far more of my time off from being an education technologist on the internet instead of outside in the sunshine with my family, and my wife asks, “so, why do you do this?”

And that stopped me. Why DO I do this? Why not go back to the guy who had one console and a PSP, content to play through games because they were fun, not because he needs to get enough info to fairly review it? It’s a question I’ll still continue to answer, I hope, here in this blog as I help create the network of sites and podcasts that The Games Are Evil comprises.

For now, though, my immediate answer was, “It’s a ton. Of. Fun.” Because it is. I’m learning about games, how they work, what makes them compelling. I’m learning about the many consoles and their strengths and weaknesses as platforms. I’m playing games I get for free in return for a few hundred to a thousand words written on the internet. I’m learning all about advertising, how it works and new terminology. I’m checking site stats and finding new ways to reach our readers and find new readers and make them all come back a second, third, hundredth time.

I’m involved in one of the big cultural shifts of our time. Film is a grand old daddy compared to television, but even that is old-guard compared to video games. Gaming accounts for more and more time and money spent by our current and future leaders and every day folk. Why is it that a large group of people would rather spend their time in alternate worlds, playing games? What sweet ambrosia is created by the fusion of social gaming, high definition graphics and sound, and a controller nestled in our hands?

I’m getting to be a part of all this. I’m getting to not only contribute to, but help steer the discussion, in my own small way. That’s why I do this. That, and hopefully help folks find intelligence and connection among the bits and bytes of the internet and gaming journalism.

I’ll write more on this soon, but as my role changes in this wild ride, I thought it important to mention it, as well as begin to reflect on what that new role means to me as a gamer, a writer, a business person, and a human being. Thanks for listening along. Now it’s your turn to contribute, in the comments below.