Friday, 20 August 2010

Some Like It Hard

You might not have heard of Demon’s Souls before and I would understand if you hadn’t. Released in Japan in early 2009 and the US in late 2009, it quickly gained a cult following and was heavily imported into Europe until a European version was released on June 25 2010.


Demon’s Souls is a fantasy action-RPG set in a Medieval European-esque world called Boleteria and the player is tasked with slaying a variety of demons in order to buy equipment, improve stats etc. So far, so familiar.


Aside from some fairly innovative online content (one example is that players can leave notes on the ground for other players to warn them of dangers ahead), one of the most reported upon aspects of the game is its difficulty.

Demon’s Souls takes an old school approach to gaming where you learn through trial and error and, ultimately, repeated deaths. And it is unforgiving in this approach, removing such staples as mid-level save points and the ability to pause the game. If you sit down to play, you are going to complete an entire section and you are not going to move until it is done.

This approach flies in the face of what modern gamers have come to expect, and Demon’s Souls makes no apologies for it. Indeed, the challenge appears to be what has endeared it to gamers, with many reviewers commenting on the satisfaction one feels when one completes a particularly tricky level.

Difficulty in computer games is a delicate thing. Sure you can make a fiendishly hard game, but if it isn’t well designed, it will be an exercise in frustration. There are a few games I have switched off in anger because the difficulty was too great and success seemed to be based purely on luck, or other arbitrary factors.

One example that comes loosely to mind is a level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where you have to get to and then protect the ‘Warpig’ tank. On the harder difficulties, I would die repeatedly, sometimes at the start of the section, at times towards the end. I tried a variety of different approaches and still couldn’t manage it. When I finally did complete the section, it was with a method I had tried a few times and luck seemed to be the main factor in my success. This, in my opinion, was poor design. A well designed level should encompass both player ability AND a measure of luck, something which Demon’s Souls seemingly hits perfectly.

Which got me thinking on some of the hardest games that have been released, in terms of both good and bad design.

Mike Tyson’s Punchout

Before he developed a taste for human ears and sexual assault (though not necessarily in that order), Mike had his name attached to a NES boxing game called Punch Out. Punch Out wasn’t horrendously difficult; in fact its difficulty was moderate and the game was fun. Up until you came to the last boss, Mr Tyson himself. The fighters you had met previously could not prepare you for the Biter from the Bronx. He had these very oddly timed uppercuts that could knock you out in one hit, plus a bucket load of health making him very difficult to down. These factors made defeating Tyson nearly impossible. However, with hours of practice, it was doable. So, while being the first (but not last) game where the final boss is jarringly difficult compared to what came before, I’m going to mark this one down as well designed, only extremely difficult. Also, the quote below is attributed to Mr. Tyson, and its awesomeness is enough to balance out any complaints:

"One morning I woke up and found my favorite pigeon, Julius, had died. I was devastated and was gonna use his crate as my stickball bat to honor him. I left the crate on my stoop and went in to get something and I returned to see the sanitation man put the crate into the crusher. I rushed him and caught him flush on the temple with a titanic right hand. He was out cold, convulsing on the floor like an infantile retard."

Bayou Billy

I never played Bayou Billy, and I’m glad I didn’t because it looks fucking shit. A prime example of difficulty by bad design, Bayou Billy’s controls were apparently as fluid as a swimming pool filled with glass, the levels were overlong and the enemies had as much health as you did. Check out this video. Look at those fuckers! They don’t stop getting up. Stay down, you Australian bastards! The bayou is in Australia, right? Yeah, course it is. Not only that, but after watching the intro, I wonder what Godfather Gordon wanted with Annabelle? With that moustache, I think we can safely assume he has no sexual interest in her. Later on, the game branched out and featured driving sections that were even more overlong and difficult that the side-scrolling stuff. Sounds fucking A. Really. The one positive that stands out from that video is the soundtrack. It’s funky!! It’s funky like George Clinton took a dump on a sound chip. That’s the soundtrack to my life and it’s playing in my head ALL THE TIME.

Super Monkey Ball

A more recent release, Monkey Ball likely deserves to be recognised as a rather difficult game.


Let’s start off by saying that the title of the game is misleading. First of all, the monkey has nothing to do with it, other than being inside the ball. So the game should be called Super Ball. But there is nothing particularly ‘super’ about the ball. So the game should be called Ball. But then, when you play it, you realise that you don’t actually move the ball with the controller, you move the level.

So the game should really be called Level.

With that out of the way, the reason this is on the list is that due to the physics, various collectables and obstacles, the task of staying on the level in Level is quite a challenge. Furthermore the difficulty increases with the player. The levels can be stressful, and that stress only serves to make the game harder, with the player needing absolute focus and care to complete some of the later stages. It is telling that many players never graduated beyond the easy levels due to the ‘easy’ levels being very difficult.

Not my friends though. They stayed in at weekends and made Level their bitch.

Ninja Gaiden

True story: A guy in an old guild of mine in World of Warcraft thought this game was called Ninja Garden. Ninja Garden sounds like a fucking amazing game. I’d love to grow my own organic ninjas.

Ninja Gaiden was a revolutionary game and also its place on a list such as this is considered controversial by some.

It was revolutionary in that it introduced cutscenes and narrative to drive the gameplay, a cornerstone of modern gaming as well as sharp, extremely responsive controls.

Controversial because it was possible to beat the game by memorising routines.

Either way, the boss fights in Ninja Gaiden were very tough, with the player often dying upwards of 20 times in order to beat them. And if you died during the boss fight, you would be ported right back to the beginning of the level to try again. As well, environmental challenges were ever present, with the jumps and leaps becoming larger and more complex as the levels progressed. However, it was possible to beat this game simply by playing it a lot and memorising level patterns and boss sequences, even if it took you many nights alone in your bedroom.

Ninja Gaiden sequels have followed and they have remained notable for their difficulty, but few games can bring gamers out in a cold sweat the way the original can.

Battletoads

Another one that I haven’t played unfortunately, and considered by many to be the hardest game produced in 20 years.

Right, so there are these toads that fight evil, the Battletoads. What? They hit and punch evil, that’s how. Amphibian? I dunno, they spray themselves with water or something. It isn’t explicitly stated. Shut up, that’s not the point.

A standard 2D beat ‘em up affair, it also featured horrifically excessive obstacle course sections, an example of which is here. You would need to have the reflexes of a Jedi Mr. Miyagi catching a fly with chopsticks made from a single strand of human hair in order to successfully navigate these shitters.

Throw into the mix an underwater section (which should have been pretty easy because, let’s face it, you’re a fucking toad), a climbing section plus only three continues and no saves, and you have yourself a game that is harder than Gandalf’s staff.

The reprieve Battletoads gets is because of its co-op play, during which friendly fire cannot be turned off. So if your little brother accidentally killed you, you could at least vent some frustration by smashing his face off with your controller.

The interesting observation here is that it is difficult to source more recent games that would be on par in terms of difficulty with the likes of Battletoads etc. Whilst many old fart gamers would point to this as being a sign of modern games being made for idiots, this isn’t entirely true. Most of the above games would have seen an arcade release before being released onto home consoles. The onus was on ensuring customers would keep pumping their change into the machine to get their name on the high score board. If the player could complete the game on only 25 cents it wasn’t fulfilling its purpose. The only way of ensuring this was to make the games a lot more difficult than they need to be nowadays. I, for one, am glad, because I’m fucking shit at video games.

So, yeah, that was a fun stroll down Difficulty Lane. If you’ve got anything to add, please do so in the comments. I’ve overlooked a bunch of games, Contra, Ghosts and Goblins, blah blah but then I don’t get paid for this shit, I do it out of the goodness of my black, dead heart.

In other news, Xbuttonkill will hopefully be moving to a new, hosted site in the next month or so, so keep your eyes open. There is now also an xbuttonkill twitter feed, so feel free to follow me like a rapist on a dark night.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Google and Verizon: The end of net neutrality?

If you look at any of what I lovingly refer to as the geek press, (Ars Technica, Wired etc.), you'll see a lot of chatter involving Google, the American telco Verizon and the words 'net neutrality'.

You might have heard the term before, but if you haven't, it's a fairly simple concept.

The internet was designed to accommodate the 'end-to-end' principle, which basically states that control of the internet is in the hands of the users and that all traffic on the internet is treated equally. Upholding this rule has become known as 'net neutrality', and it has been one of the guiding principles of the internet for as long as it has existed.

This principle was considered acceptable throughout the early days of the internet, when the traffic it carried was of a fairly low volume and websites were relatively simple affairs. However, as the internet became a major contributor to both economic growth and content-holder revenue, certain parties, ISPs in particular, began to resent the concept of net neutrality as a self-imposed rule that diminished their potential to generate money.

For the past decade, a storm has been fomenting as ISPs jealously watch developers and content holders/collators such as Youtube, Facebook, and Skype make millions from operations which require internet access in order to be viable.

What many ISPs would like to do is bring an end to net neutrality, and wring more money out of users and content managers alike. The rough idea would be similar to a paid TV service.

Think of Sky. You can pay for a basic Sky package which gets you the standard channels, but if you want to watch movies or sports, you pay a premium.

Similarly, you could reasonably expect ISPs to charge extra for music streaming (Spotify), VoIP (Skype) and other things such as downloading large files, or online gaming.

This proposal is coming to a head. In 2007, Americas largest ISP, Comcast blocked the BitTorrent file transfer protocol. This was challenged by the Federal Communications Commission, with the then FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin saying '...the order was meant to set a precedent that Internet providers, and indeed all communications companies, could not prevent customers from using their networks the way they see fit unless there is a good reason.'

Unfortunately, this ruling was challenged and overturned in court with the judge finding that the FCC had no legal basis on which to punish ISPs for trying to limit network neutrality. As a result, the FCC has found itself unable to properly mediate in matters of net neutrality and large corporations have simply began devising their own rules. The FCC could form a sound legal basis for its authority, but it faces a lot of pressure from ISPs and wealthy lobbying groups to allow telcos to act unimpeded.

The latest event in this saga is last weeks announcement of a 'traffic prioritisation agreement' between Google and another of the US' largest ISPs, Verizon. On the surface, the proprsed agreement doesn't seem like a piece of pure evil. However, whilst conceding that net neutrality principles should remain in place for wired networks, excluded from these proposals are 'differentiated or additional services'. What exactly 'differentiated or additional services' means, I don't know and your guess is as good as mine, but from the vague detail given, it could refer to anything that that an ISP wants. Also, the proposal specifically excludes wireless services, and given that more commentators consider wireless internet service to become commonplace in future, it doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Most disturbing of all, Google and Verizon have called for advisory groups led by telcos to write the rules of the internet in the future. When it comes down to matters of consumer protection and internet traffic management, the FCC would be subject to approval from the very companies it is meant to oversee.

It's easy to see why this is attractive to companies. ISPs would be able to charge users and content providers with access to internet 'fast lanes' and a company as large as Google could easily pay millions to ensure their content is delivered faster. Using Google to carry out a web search would deliver fast results, but if you wanted to use the less well funded, and sometimes better, Metacrawler, you would have to wait. And if you found out that your ISP was blocking BitTorrent, you could write a letter of complaint to the FCC or Ofcom, but they would be powerless to act.

Personally, it sickens me. And for a variety of reasons.

First of all, that Google have, if not reversed, then retraced their steps in relation to net neutrality is saddening. Oh yeah, Google, the 'nice guys' of the internet. We're cool! Look at our headquarters! We didn't change our minds on net neutrality because it allows us to prioritise our content over others! We did it 'in the spirit of compromise'! We were just trying to be fair!

Net neutrality is one of the last remaining pillars of an open internet, and it is crumbling.

Whilst originally intended to be a forum for sharing ideas and enhancing education, it wasn't long before people realised the internet was equally suited providing people with far more pornography than they would ever need and pictures of cats with cheezburgers.

Then the commercial possibilities were exploited and the internet became another route through which advertisers could force their shite down our throats, helped along by developments like Google Ads.

And now we get to the stage where ISPs, the middlemen of the internet, envious of the profits of others, intend to remove the enduring character of the web in order to pursue greater profits for their shareholders, and also eviscerate the power of those government agencies that would have oversight.

The ISPs, of course, are being disingenuous in regards to their desire to end net neutrality. If you ask them, they will say it is down to networks being congested and that operating a multi-tiered service will allow people who only need to browse the web slower, smaller bandwidth access with heavy users able to pay a premium for better, wider access. Of course, that's exactly how it works now only without a paid premium, with all users of the internet using the same tier and, you know what, it works pretty well.

We have bandwidth throttling in the UK, as well as download caps, and while I like neither, at least there is a technical reason for their existence that doesn't involve fucking the customer over for more money.

As simple analogy that I have read somewhere(?) that disproves the suggestion that the ISPs are doing this in the interests of their customers.

If you have a stretch of road that is constantly getting jammed with cars, you widen the lanes for everyone. You don't start letting people pay to drive over the top of everyone else.

Either way, I believe it is only a matter of time before we see the end of net neutrality and a paid-for, tiered-service will become standard.

Why?

Because this battle is being fought in America. Aside from Liberal or Conservative, the overriding ideology is that of corporatism. Big business holds all the cards and it calls all the shots. Politicians do not have the power or the bank balance needed to resist companies the size of Google or Verizon. Against this backdrop of economic crisis, ISPs have an avenue through which to pursue profits and that magic word 'growth'. The US government will not be able to deflect the opportunity for telecommunications growth for much longer, and capitalism abhors a financially exploitable vacuum.

And when it happens in the US, there will be no logical reason ISPs in the UK won't follow suit.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gaymer-friendly Environments: Homophobia in online games

If you've spent a significant amount of time playing online games, you'll have encountered it at least once.

And if you haven't, then this video will provide a good idea of what I'm talking about.

The video I have linked above relates to a specific game on a specific platform with homophobic comments coming exclusively from American gamers, but this is by no means unique. Personal experience playing Call of Duty on the PS3 has illustrated the fact that homophobic speech patterns are almost an accepted part of online gaming. I have never heard anyone dissenting over such remarks.

It can range from the fairly timid 'That's so gay' right the way through to the more vitriolic 'Fuck you, you fucking faggot.'

Whatever the words used, homophobia appears to be rife in the world of online gaming.

A survey carried out in 2007 made for some interesting reading:
88% of respondents said they had heard the phrase “that’s so gay” while 84% said they had heard ‘gay’ used in a derogatory fashion. Over 50% said they felt that games portray gay people in a stereotypical way, while 42% believe gays are under-represented in games. 15% said the industry creates a culture where gay employees “feel like they must stay in the closet”. 52% believed that the gaming community is hostile to gay and lesbian gamers. Only 9% said they “never” encounter anti-gay sentiments from online gamers.

 The Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, as well as The Consumerist have both reported on the lack of recognition for LGBT gamers from the main console manufacturers. GLAAD, in fact, continues to work with both Sony and Microsoft in order to ensure their online policies do not discriminate against the LGBT community.

It's interesting to see just how wrong both Microsoft and Sony were originally getting it.

The Consumerist reported that, initially at least, Microsoft would ban anyone who had the word 'gay' in their Gamertag. They also included a letter from a gamer, identified only as Teresa, who was banned from the service for identifying herself as a lesbian in her profile. Furthermore, there was a mention of a player called Richard Gaywood being banned from the Xbox Live because, despite being part of his actual name, the word 'gay' was obviously so offensive that it couldn't appear in any context.

In response, Stephen Toulouse, in charge of policy and enforcement for Xbox Live, tweeted:
Expression of any sexual orientation (straight or gay or otherswise) is not allowed in gamertags. However we’ve heard from the user base they want that capability, so I am examining how we can provide it in a way that wont get misused. I can’t say any more at the moment, except to say I’m working right now in finding a way to safely express relationship preference.
Riiiiight, so I can see what you are trying to do here. I just don't think it works.

Basically, to prevent people from creating a Gamertag that says 'IH8GAYS' or some other equally puerile derivative, Microsoft has simply banned any expression of sexual preference from the Xbox Live service. Interesting. I wonder could they not have implemented a more specific policy that allowed someone to identify themselves as belonging to a particular sexual persuasion and still protect against plainly offensive Gamertags? You know, like they do with existing Gamertags. Try creating a profile called '1sh1tmypant5' on Xbox live and see how long it takes to get suspended. It won't take long.

Sony had a similar policy for player interactions during the beta for their Playstation Home service. Words such as 'gay' or 'lesbian' would be blanked out with asterixs and a message like 'I am gay' would come through as 'I am ***'.

Now, we are all familiar with the Internet Fuckwad rule, and it does seem that Microsoft and Sony have implemented these policies with the best of intentions, ie. to prevent harrassment and defamtion of LGBT players using their online services. But the methods used so far are akin to using a machete to cut your toenails. Instead of simply limiting harrassment, it makes these companies look as if they are behaving in a discriminatory manner.

For some reason, this topic always generates a lot of discussion amongst gamers. I remember a conversation on the World of Warcraft forums regarding a guild that had started up that only accepted LGBT gamers. There was widespread condemnation from other players, who argued that the admission policy was unfair and discriminated against non-LGBT gamers. Was this discrimination? Possibly. Was there anything inherently wrong with a LGBT-only guild? I don't think so.

Indeed, after the creator of the guild dismissed the criticism, players asked for an official 'blue' response and Blizzard basically stated that as they have no role in the creation of guilds, and as players are accepting of guilds that were 'Swedish-only' or 'English-speaking-only', there was no precedent for banning a guild that catered for specific sexual preferences. The question was posed as to what the response would be for a 'whites-only' guild. Again, Blizzard stated that there were no specific rules against it, but that they would expect such a guild to find life very difficult when it came to their reputation and dealing with other players. Ultimately it was a question of letting the community police itself, and in some ways, I can't help but think that it might have been a better route for Microsoft/Sony to follow.

During this whole debate, there were a number of players who questioned whether or not sexual identity had a place in online games. Something like the US military, they advocated for a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach. And there was me thinking that one of the positive aspects of online gaming was encountering people who came from different walks of life, had different political views, values, tastes etc. Apparently this is ok, but the small matter of sexuality wasn't included in this list and therefore inappropriate for discussion. My feelings on this line of thought can be summarized in a quote from a GLAAD report into homophobia in games: 'And with new technologies, come new challenges. LGBT people have fought hard for years to come out of real-world closets – we’re not willing to accept virtual ones.'

On a personal level, I actively try and avoid playing with people who use terms like 'faggot' to mock their opponents. My last guild in WoW, before I stopped playing, had strict rules on using this kind of abusive language. Similarly, alot of the servers I play FPS games on will also have strict rules on racism, homophobia, etc.

There is one area where I would be guilty, however. And that is use of the word 'gay', not as a direct insult, but often in a pejorative sense. This actually applies to day-to-day to life moreso than online gaming.

'That's so gay' is an utterance that you might hear from me on any number of occasions. Even in the examples mentioned above, where homophobic language was not tolerated, describing something as 'gay' wouldn't have fallen foul of the rules.

I can't speak for others, but personally, I have always divorced my meaning of the word from its association with homosexuality and with being jolly. For me it can mean both of those things, but also mean something that is just not very cool, or something that is great in a bad sort of way, like...er...Mean Girls.

And it seems that I'm not alone. Nine times out of ten, when I hear someone use that expression, they do so in the way I have described, not as a pure insult based on a certain sexuality.

It could be simply a case of evolution of language, or it could be me trying to justify my ignorance. Who can say for sure?