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Posts Tagged ‘movie’

“Video Games” run a theoretical spectrum from almost purely mechanical beasties like FoldIt to barely interactive… things, like Dear Esther, Trauma or one of those atrocious “Full Motion Video” games from days best forgotten.  I’m not certain that you could ever have something purely mechanical with no context, and something purely narrative with no input wanders off into “Movie” territory.  I’ve written before on some of what I think games are and what they perhaps should be, even specifically about narrative in games.  There’s a blog devoted entirely to the notion, and many others that are quite eloquent about game design.

So… yeah, nothing really new to offer on that count, but I did want to highlight a post from Tobold today.  He’s writing about skill requirements in WoW over thisaway.

I was going to comment there, but it got long and linky, so I brought it here.  I think that putting level, group size and skill gates on content that completes the WoW narrative is asking for angst.  I see two major avenues to relieve the stress:

1. Give raids several levels of difficulty for the same content, from an uncapped zergfest to solo.

2. Pull the narrative out of raids.  (Alternatively, drop dev narrative, but that’s not going to happen.)

In any discussion of raiding and the dichotomy between the elites (self-defined, of course) and the unwashed hordes (the other guys, no matter their actual skill level), I think it’s also crucial to split the discussion of playing content from receiving rewards.  (It’s also worth noting that I say “playing content”, not “watching content on YouTube”; they aren’t the same thing.)

I am all for special rewards for demonstrating skill.  To me, that’s the essence of gaming, developing skills, learning game systems, and being rewarded for it with further tools to explore the game systems.  The whole “play for a while, watch a cutscene, repeat ad nauseum” design we see in a Final Fantasy RPG uses narrative as a lure and reward for grinding through the game, which is far less satisfying to me than expanding the gameplay itself.  I do love most Final Fantasies and many other RPGs, but that’s usually because there’s some good gaming under the hood.  The story is only tangential to what I think of when I play these games.

…and yet, I do like the story and characters sometimes.  I’m one of those that bought Advent Children and actually like it (yes, it’s cheesy, yes, it has problems, yes, I still like it).  I don’t want to go back and play through Final Fantasy VII to see that story, but I’d probably happily go through a tour of the cutscenes and crucial story points.  Yeah, I had fun with the chocobo racing and materia wrangling when I played the game, but I won’t do it again just for the story.

Maybe that makes me a terrible, no good, awful tourist or consumer or something, but hey, I did buy Advent Children, and I bought almost every Final Fantasy, so I’m a customer.

Point being, these “game” things we play tend to be a mishmash of interaction and passive fluff.  If the fluff is going to be important to all of your players, they need to be able to get to it.  I see no problem gating loot and even some game mechanics behind skill tests, because that’s what gaming pretty much is.  I’m not a fan of gating fluff behind skill checks, especially if you’re trying to build up a narrative that you want players to care about.

RPGs tend to alleviate that by letting players overlevel content, RTS games allow cheat codes and so on… MMOs have no such release valve for raiding.  Even the much-vaunted (or vilified) Looking For Raid doesn’t open the gates much, and what it does do tends to just mash together more people with different gameplay goals, always a stressful thing.

I’m not convinced that dev narrative needs to be the “fourth pillar” or dev focus for MMOs, but if it’s going to be important, it has to be accessible to as many players as possible.

Oh, and latebreaking but oh-so-relevant, Mass Effect 3 and multiplayer… apparently, the “best” ending demands multiplayer.  Ick.  Bad designer, no twinkie.

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Ed Catmull, resident genius and president of Disney and Pixar animation (yes, the guy behind Catmull-Rom splines, beautiful tools for computer animators everywhere) gave an address at my alma mater a while back, describing how his companies were trying to create a third Golden Age for Disney animation.  I wish I had the talk on tape, since there were a LOT of great thoughts in it.  For the moment, though, a few words on his comments about goodwill and B-work.

The Disney Direct to DVD division (DDTDD?)  has been able to make money from such fare as Cinderella 2 and Jungle Book 2… but they just aren’t much to speak of as far as movies go.  (Let’s also offer a moment of silence for the Land Before Time Neverending Sequelitis, shall we?  It’s not Disney, but the same principle applies.)  That’s what Mr. Catmull calls “B-work”, and not only is it bad for the soul of the artists and producers, but also the audience.  Unnecessary sequels of beloved movies can taint the rose-tinted glasses that are a core component of our goodwill.  I’m sorry, but John Goodman just can’t compare to Phil Harris as Baloo, and Herbie the Love Bug should have stayed in the 60s.  (Not that it was all that fantastic to start with… but Lindsay Lohan?  Really?)

Oddly, though I don’t like Goodman’s Baloo, I actually liked TaleSpin.  It was on the tail end (ha!) of the golden age of Disney TV (DuckTales is still the best TV cartoon I’ve ever seen), and thoroughly enjoyable.  I’d have loved to have a cloud surfer… thing.  Well, that, and a parachute.  Perhaps TV is “B-work” compared to film, but in their realm, DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, Gargoyles and TaleSpin were A-list productions.  Modern animated fare doesn’t even compare; it’s like Yogi Bear vs. Scrooge McDuck, George McFly vs. Mike Tyson, Runescape vs. WoW.

B-Work can be profitable, to be sure… but it is soul-destroying mediocrity.  In Mr. Catmull’s words:  “B-work is bad for the soul.”

One of the key ideas that Mr. Catmull noted is that despite being decidedly subpar, B-work can still be profitable.  Cinderella fans buy the sequels for their children on the strength of the name.  Slapping “Disney” on the side of a movie almost guarantees sales… at least, for a while.  Mr. Catmull suggested that those B-work sales are active withdrawals against the goodwill banked in the Disney name.  The spectacular successes of Beauty and the Beast or the emotional heft of Up increase the value of the Disney name. Tarzan 2 callously cashes in on the appeal of the original and contributes nothing to the brand or parent name.  It makes money because the original succeeded, and wouldn’t stand on its own as anything but the B-work that it is.

I’ve seen more than a few pundits suggest that Blizzard could put horse feces in a box and sell it for $60.  They can sell a digital horse for $25 without even selling a box with it, and time will tell if StarCraft 2 is crap (only $100 for the Collector’s Edition of 1/3 of the game), so there’s some truth to the joke.  Blizzard can bank on the goodwill generated by its history.  It might be noted that they could have sold WarCraft Adventures, probably in record numbers… but they decided to scrap it because it wasn’t up to their internal demands.  It’s hard to cut something like that with promise, but like pruning a slightly rotting branch on a tree, sometimes it’s necessary to maintain company health and brand reputation.  People would still have bought the game, but it might have wound up being profitable in spite of its own quality, by withdrawing money from the goodwill banked in the Blizzard and WarCraft names.  Blizzard did salvage the story from the game, both in a novel and as canon to the setting of WoW, so they didn’t totally throw that work away, but the choice to kill the game release was likely a hard one.

We can’t be sure, true, but it’s an interesting case study and comparison to the awful offal that sometimes comes out of the Disney Direct to DVD grindhouse.

We might also look at Turbine’s DDO “offer wall” slipup and subsequent retraction, as well as Mythic’s WAR billing fiasco and apparently repentant offerings to those affected.  Compare that to Allods Online and their item shop pricing sucker punch… and how it wasn’t fully retracted and went downhill from there.  (Yes, yes, the shop prices are merely economic Darwinism in action, and not really evil in themselves, but they weren’t managed well despite some glowing beta testing reports.  That’s where the goodwill broke down.)

Goodwill is a currency, albeit a fuzzy one, and managing it can be the backbone of a company’s health.  Daniel James of Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) has argued that love is the heart of modern game sales in this article that I’ve cited more than once for good reason.  (Tangentially, Mr. James was also writing about DRM, and for one great example of how DRM affects goodwill, need we look further than Ubisoft?)

The trick is to make great products that are profitable and deposits to the goodwill bank.  Pixar has managed to do this very well, without a stinker in their library.  Sure, some of their movies will appeal to some people more than others (I still don’t particularly like Finding Nemo, but I like it better than 90% of other movies), but I don’t think that any of their offerings have been an active withdrawal against the Pixar and Disney names.

It’s no accident that Pixar and Blizzard are giants in their fields.  They deposit more than they withdraw from the goodwill bank.

…there are all sorts of political, sociological and interpersonal parallels that could be explored there, but I’ll leave that to the imagination.

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TRON 3.0

I know, I know, it’s actually TRON Legacy.  Still, it can’t be TRON 2.0, since that name was taken by the fantastic FPS game from a few years back.  (It’s still my favorite shooter, actually.)  And yes, “legacy” is a loaded word, appropriate for the movie, I’m sure.  And maybe this is really more like version 20.0… or something… but this is the third major TRON story.  Mmmmmmm…

TRON Legacy

It’s like a love letter to the geeks who embraced the first TRON, and who later became the generation obsessed with making it real in one way or another.  The throwback “neon white rocker” should have been left on the cutting floor, though.  *shudder*  Some things are best left in the 80s.

I’ll take silver blue neon tech warriors over nearly any other movie, though.  And the vehicles?  Forget Batman’s Tumbler, I want one of those TRON racers.  December will be a good month.

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My wife and I went to James Cameron’s Avatar for her birthday recently.  I just had a couple of things to mention about it:

  1. My wife liked it.  She really liked the 3D aspect; it reminded her of the fun of experiencing 3D movies as a kid in Disneyland.  She’d like to visit Pandora, albeit via an Avatar, perhaps, for safety’s sake.
  2. tvtropes has plenty to say about it.
  3. I consider it to be Art, but don’t think highly of it as a film.  I still like it.

Let me expand on 3 a little.

I really like what they did with the visuals of the movie.  The 3D was good when it wasn’t broken, since it was more atmospheric and spatial than a mere gimmick.  The art direction is solid, with consistent visual appeal.  The world is lush and interesting.  The characters are actually my favorite part, because they feel plausible.  The animation and characterization is excellent; they don’t feel animated, they feel alive.

Compare the characters to those in the Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within movie.  The difference in static appearance isn’t much (stills from either film read pretty well compared to each other), but the Avatar characters move more plausibly, complete with imbalances, personality and body language.  I’m not sure whether this is a leap in motion capture or animation technique and technology (or just more money thrown at an issue), but there is a marked difference between Jake Sully’s Big Blue and Aki Ross.  Dodging the Uncanny Valley by using not-quite-human characters also probably helped significantly.  Either way, this is why I tend to stress that animation itself is more important to selling the sense of life than high resolution textures and 3D glasses.  The Disney animators tend to believe similarly.

Pandora, the movie’s fictional world out thataway somewhere in Plot Space, looks like it could be a real place.  It’s interesting and pretty.  The floating mountains are especially awesome in my eyes, though the biophosphorous neon jungle might be more appealing to some.  I can only imagine that an IMAX viewing of the show would be rather exhilarating, especially in the flight scenes.

So… it’s all very pretty.  The story is almost paint-by-the-numbers, though, and it really clashed for me.  It’s been compared to Dances With Wolves, albeit with blue body paint and technogeek body swapping (the titular “avatar” technology).  I could certainly nitpick a LOT of things in the film, but it’s not really worth it.  It’s not a bad story, exactly, but it’s nothing all that spectacular, innovative or interesting.

Then again, one might wonder if the market really wants innovation?

I had a similar reaction to Cameron’s Titanic, actually.  It was pretty, and the visuals of the boat sinking were spectacularly crafted.  The story, though… cut it out, and I might like the film as a whole.  It would have made a great documentary or historic dramatization, sans DiCraprio and the naked chick.  (Is it terrible of me to find it funny that Global Warming nut DiCaprio effectively froze to death in that film?)

Similarly, Avatar would have been a great artistic tech demo (Picasso’s early Cubism could be considered a tech demo, and it’s considered Art), or even a fantastic game, sans the caricature story and almost-romance with blue almost-naked almost-people.  It’s not a terrible film, and it’s a pretty good “experience”.  It looks really good.

I guess that’s enough to make money, though.  Why do we even care about innovation, again?

I mean, there’s got to be something more importan… ooh, sparkly blue thingy!!!


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9 UP

I just watched 9 and UP back to back in theaters a mile or so apart.  It has been an interesting few hours.

One is about soulless machines and puppets with pieces of a soul, the other lifts your soul if there’s a piece of it left to be found.

One is a post-apocalyptic nightmare, the other is a whimsical dream.

One is a study in browns and fire, the other is all about color and clouds.

One embraces gritty realism and pseudoscientific magic, the other throws realism out the window and works its own magic.

One is at its best when it’s loudest, the other is at its best when it’s quiet.

One viewing of one will last me a lifetime, the other will be a cherished DVD that I view many times.

One is bitter and freaky, the other is bittersweet and weepy.

One tries to hammer a Message home, the other unabashedly embraces emotion, often about a home.

I hesitatingly recommend one, and heartily recommend the other.

Both are visually excellent, deeply creative and fiercely unique.

Each is a master work in its own way, and well worth seeing if you have any interest whatsoever in the subject matter.

Each, in its own way, embraces the message of looking forward and living life while learning from the past, even as you let go.

Funny how that works out.

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