Monday, October 24, 2005

One More Turn of Civilization

In a few hours, I should be sitting at home losing myself inside the world of Civilization IV. Fall and Civilization addiction has been a tradition for me for quite a few years now as Firaxis has had a penchant of releasing Civilization games and its expansion packs in three of the last four years during the October-November frame.

This fall I get to play with a new game. But it’s actually not all that new to me at all. I was lucky enough to have been invited by Firaxis to help test the game in its early stages and give them feedback. Although I was ultimately not able to participate as fully as I had hoped, what I saw in the few months around May and July excited me. This is why I’m so eager to get my hands on the completed final build and to continue giving feedback back to Firaxis in the post-release phase and beyond.

Playing Civilization games is an all-consuming passion for me. Like the history of civilizations, my passion waxes and wanes with time. I’m not always playing the games, but I am always a fan. Being a fan of Civilization is a bit like being a fan of a sports team. It’s an obsession in itself especially when the season is open and every other fan is going crazy. In the many active on-line communities, players debate over strategy, unit strengths and game balance in the same way a sports fan would talk about rival line-ups and play fantasy leagues. Others pour in countless hours of testing to discover the underlying mathematical algorithms that govern the games functions, and still others play the games in ways that push the boundaries of strategy and applying realpolitik into the game world.

Players also invest time into creating elaborate historical accounts of their games. Some are so well written that they rival in scope if not in quality real history texts. What these historical after-game-reports accomplish is in their ability to humanize the game’s many actors. The traditional Civilization game is a solitary single player experience played against a complex if ultimately predictable artificial intelligence where individual turns may take as long as an hour to complete. By putting the game into prose, the gamers give life and context to these game turns.

Rather than a series of uninteresting moves and countermoves between the player and the AI, the turns emerges as a story about clashing ambitions of rival nations fighting over pieces of land and resources, attempts at containment, alliances, cold wars, hot wars, historical enmities and the rise and fall of civilizations itself. These stories mirror real history but one that is taking place in a virtual planet.

In Civilization, players finish their games with a real sense of accomplishment. This isn’t Pinky and the Brain ‘conquer the world’ stuff. This game allows players to do immense good by unifying peoples, create great wealth, build wonders of the worlds and hold together a genuine lasting peace for eons, the likes of which our world has never seen. On the same coin, it also allows players to do immense evil.

Ultimately it is also about where the player’s intentions ultimately lay. The game certainly cannot recognize the subtle difference between abstract human concepts such as a warmongering player that rampages through neighbours in search of ultimate power, a peaceful defensive builder or a pragmatic player seeking to ‘win’ and grant its people prosperity and peace through limited wars and aggressive diplomacy. These are concepts only the human players can understand and apply in their games.

The wide-open nature of Civilization is its true genius. It allows players an open canvas in which they can repaint and reshape history in their own unique ways. Perhaps, in a small way, it also satisfies a little bit of the player’s own hubris. Everyone of us have a need to take control and to do what we consider is ‘good’ in our own way, rather than petitioning far off politicians or casting an insignificant vote in the electoral system. In Civilization, the players command populations, economies and armies. When all is said and done, the most successful players hold the fate of hundreds of millions of people in their hands. These may be mere numbers on the computer screen, but did Alexander, Emperor Qin, Caesar and Salahadin see their civilizations any differently? Theirs were also a civilization of numbers.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Nintendogs Day 4

Nintendogs is a great game. As I noted in my earlier post, the game sold 200,000 units in its first week in North America, it sold a further 250,000 units in all of September, putting its cumulative total on September 31st at 450,000 units sold. In Japan the game’s sell through is fast approaching 700,000 units and the game did reasonably well in Europe after its late launch with 150,000 units sold.

I was lucky enough to not only be alive but mentally cogent and aware when Bandai’s Tamagotchi virtual pet craze swept through North America in the late 90s. Heck, I actually had one of those things, or it could have been a cheap knock off…well it doesn’t matter. The point is virtual pet games have been a mainstay for many years now.

It’s surprising that after all these years, virtual pet sims can still surprise us when many thought the fad had passed. I was never big on the virtual pet phenomenon the first time around and for me it was the simple reason of design. The first generation of virtual pets were dumb, stupid and got boring quickly. My Tamagotchi pet went uncared for after about two days, and the Dogs and Cats type PC virtual pet games looked interesting but were more like advanced versions of Tamagotchi games, only with prettier graphics.

This brings me back to my opening paragraph. Why all this interest in a dog/pet simulator now? The answer is quite simple. Nintendogs isn’t a cheap high margin $30 toy. Nor is it a half hearted one-sized fits all PC game that tries to shoehorn the concept of a virtual pet game into an existing platform.

Nintendogs is built for the Nintendo DS. The two native features on the DS, the touch screen and the microphone makes a world of difference. Players no longer need to learn complicated button combinations to access the right menu to play, pet or feed their pets. With Nintendogs, what you see is what you get. If I see the dog, I can reach out pet it with the stylus. Rather than accessing a command to call the dog to attention, players call out the dog’s name.

And the voice recognition aspect of the game the real deal sealer for me. While the voice recognition software is far from perfect, it works well. The dog will learn the user’s voice and learn its name after a few tries. A few days on, even the slightest call will get the dog to react to its name and it will leap happily towards me.

The harder part is getting it to recognize all the different commands for tricks and getting it to remember everything. This may be due in part to the built-in mic being place slightly off centre while the natural tendency of the player is to speak to the puppy face to face. The programmers at Nintendo also implemented a nice ‘real-life’ dilemma to players. Rather than having a robot dog for a pet where everything taught is learned and mirrored, the dogs in Nintendogs forget tricks, mix them up, and will sometimes stubbornly refuse to participate in training when they are tired or hungry.

For me, the greatest innovation with Nintendogs isn’t the idea of the virtual pet, but rather the idea of a virtual life living inside a bundle of chips, motherboards and electrons. This effect on the heart and brain is something the clunky Tamagotchi and the first generation virtual pet software never truly achieved. Nintendo had really nailed down the illusion of a real living pet with in this game, sans the physical touching, although the touch screen is a welcome substitute.

And for all the flack Nintendo get about how the DS is underpowered, Nintendogs is a great game to play and look at. The 3-D world is silky smooth, perfectly textured and dare I say beautiful. It is all seen through the dog’s eye view of course. The dogs are slightly stylized but look realistic and do not betray the real puppies they are based on. It is also clear Nintendo designers studied real dogs to capture how they play, sleep, react to toys and even how they go to the toilet. Everything is modeled with a kind of whimsy and realism that makes coming home to the game such a great thing. And finally, the game isn’t time consuming. Fifteen minutes here and there is enough to maintain a healthy dog and keep the dog trained for the game’s various competitions.

Monday, October 10, 2005

ROME Episode VII: Pharsalus

It has been several weeks since I wrote a review of HBO’s Rome.  That’s not to say I have lost interest.  In the weeks since my last entry, HBO announced ROME  would be renewed for a second 12 episode season and the first season of the show is moving along quite nicely.

I have to admit though at being at little disappointed with the overall direction of the series.  I don’t mean it as a deal breaker in terms of my liking of the show.  It is by all accounts, superior to pretty much every single recent historical epic put on film, and nothing on TV, save HBO’s Band of Brothers comes close to it as a historical drama.

That said, ROME suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.  On one hand, there are these great historical figures and giant battles that were fought between Pompey and Caesar.  And on the other hand, you have the two fictional characters of Vorenus and Pullo that has a more personal dramatic story.  The creators were going for the right mix of drama and historical storytelling.  In Band of Brothers, they ignored the historical giants of the time and focused on a company of soldiers.  In ROME, they try to focus on both aspects of the story.

On some episodes, especially the last couple of episodes leading up to Episode VII, I thought they had done a decent job of balancing the grand historical events and the fictional drama.   However, after all the pent up anticipation for the decisive battle, it is not shown in Episode VII.  It is rather anti-climactic that the episode entitled Pharsalus, doesn’t show the battle of Pharsalus, but rather the events right before and after the battle.

I was hoping for this show to be dedicated to showing the duel between Caesar and Pompey.  There needn’t be lots of digital ants and elaborate scenes where thousand men extras march towards war.  But Pharsalus itself was a battle where Pompey had a decisive advantage in military men and it had looked like he was going to win.  How he lost that advantage and how things went so wrong for him is important.  There is certainly abundant human drama to be told in the battle itself.  A series of vignettes showing Caesar and Pompey making the strategic choices on the battlefield, their reactions to each other and the ultimate outcome are things this episode missed out on.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Square Fantasies Makes the World Go Round

What a day. Final Fantasy III, the long rumoured but never shown Nintendo DS game was finally shown to the public today and it will in fact be a complete remake. The tiny press photos published by Famitsu reveal a colourful pre-rendered world with what appears to be 3-D characters. As if that wasn’t enough, Final Fantasy V and VI were announced for the GameBoy Advance/Micro.

The announcements come in the heels of a weak Square-Enix showing at the Tokyo Game Show last month, where its presence was noticeably scaled back with no major announcements, leading some to speculate it may have been planning to hold an announcement of its own. Few people expected the announcement to happen inside a Nintendo DS event.

For weeks prior today’s major revelation the company had been dropping hints of its renewed partnership with its old business partner. Children of Mana, the spiritual remake of the popular Seiken Densetsu 2 (aka Secret of Mana) was announced for the Nintendo DS. At around the same time, Nintendo of America announced Final Fantasy IV by confirming that it would publish the game for GameBoy Advance in North America this December. Mere days ago, Square-Enix launched Final Fantasy IV’s official website. In it, it was revealed Square-Enix will be heavily supporting the GameBoy Micro with a game exclusive faceplate with art by Yoshitaka Amano, the graphic artist who designed the characters for all the Nintendo generation Final Fantasies and the logos for every Final Fantasy game. The tagline Final Fantasy IV Advance on the teaser website also spawned speculations from fans that more games would be on the way for GameBoy. Today’s announcement had proven them right.

Square-Enix’s slow creep back to Nintendo and more importantly, its handheld line-up is one of the most interesting industry developments in the past year. These gestures come at a critical point for Nintendo itself as the NDS and the PSP continue to battle for dominance on the market. It also comes at a time when Sony’s image of invincibility seems to have been shattered by a tarnished brand in its consumer electronics, years of pent up consumer frustration over poor game hardware design and the lucklustre performance of the PSP in living up to consumer expectations.

Final Fantasy III in 3-D

The historical irony in all this is that just a mere decade ago, at the twilight of the Super Nintendo era, Squaresoft was secretly preparing its Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation ending its exclusivity with Nintendo and spending the next seven years making games for everyone but Nintendo. That fateful announcement was made in February of 1996. Nearly ten years later, all the hard feelings seem to have been forgotten and the business and reciprocal partnership that had lasted with such vigour during the 80s and 90s seem positively revived in a renewed push by both Nintendo and Square-Enix to tap a goldmine of good memories and make a ton of money.

Children of Mana