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Column: The Game Anthropologist

The Game Anthropologist: Heroes of Newerth vs. League of Legends

October 21, 2009 12:00 PM |

honvslol.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week is about the rise of the unaptly-named MOBA genre and the intense rivalry between two of its titles in beta, Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends.]

It is not the first time it has happened with a new game and its community, but perhaps it has never been so obvious: the player-base for Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends is clearly composed of transplants, particularly fans of the Warcraft 3 mod, Defense of the Ancients. While both games’ developers have made it no secret that they have strong links to DoTA, the question still remains as to what difference that makes to the actual players.

But first, a review: Defense of the Ancients and the games it has inspired (including this years’ DemiGod) combines RPG battling with an RTS interface in a tower-defense world. Basically, you are playing an RTS where you control only one character that levels up, earns money and purchases consumable and equippable items. Teams consist of five player-controlled heroes on each side, with computer-controlled towers and creeps assisting, usually in controlled paths called “lanes” by players.

At the beginning of the game, the creeps and towers are much more powerful than the heroes, but by the end it is the heroes that will make the difference for victory, ending the game by destroying the main building in their opponents’ base. The term Multiplayer Online Battle Arena has been coined for the genre, but isn’t widely used (yet), perhaps partially because it doesn’t recognize any of the genres it came out of and partially because it doesn’t sound cool enough to most gamers (really).

The Game Anthropologist: EVO 2009 --You Just Don't Know

July 21, 2009 4:00 PM |

evo.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. He was in attendance for his first EVO fighting game tournament in Vegas this weekend and now realizes why, prior to his attendance, he just didn't know.]

“I think they’re having some sort of Dungeons and Dragons convention,” a dumpy man in his 40s muttered to his wife.

I’m walking past the line to join a table of fighting mates at the Sao Paolo café inside the Rio in Vegas, where the Evolution Championship Series is being held. It’s the biggest fighting game tournament in the U.S., perhaps the world. It is about ten years old, and 2009 is the biggest yet with over 1,000 participants, largely due to the success of Street Fighter IV.

Within an hour, half of what we call Team Utah will need to report for the initial pools for Street Fighter IV, the event’s biggest game. Andy is the most responsible for coordinating Utah competition, and the discussion always centers around his comments. One of the most notable players in his pool is Phatsaqs, considered the best Rose player in the U.S. “What’s her armor breaker again?” Andy asks.

“Soul drill,” one of us says. “Soul spiral. It’s the quarter circle move,” another says simultaneously.

Andy nods. He would later go on to win three matches and almost get out of the pools and into semifinals. His second loss would be to Phatsaqs, a knuckle biter that would go to the third round of the third match, with low health remaining.

I don’t realize people don’t lend sticks and don’t have a PS3 stick, so I go without registering to play. I know I’m going to write on this, so I distract myself by talking to others, asking questions. “Is there a noticeable difference between this year’s EVO and the EVOs of previous years?” I ask someone.

“Yes,” he replies. “There’s a ----ton more people this time.”

There indeed are a lot, and not just your D+D types, either. The mix of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian players seems so even it doesn’t seem like anyone is a minority anymore. And also unlike most game-centered events, long hair, tattoos, piercings, and muscles (that’s real muscles, not in-game ones) abound. There aren’t very many overweight people. The view down the wall makes the players at over 2 dozen monitors look like a NASA crew. Each station has a dozen or two people crowding around, players waiting to hear their names be called, supporters not wanting to miss the match of a friend.

The Game Anthropologist: Battlefield Heroes & The Price Of Freedom

July 9, 2009 4:00 PM |

battlefieldheroes.jpg[The 'Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week, he digs into Battlefield Heroes and how its pricing affects its playerbase.]

What to make of EA/DICE's Battlefield Heroes? Well, it looks like Team Fortress 2, and keeps the “team” part. Competition and stats like Quake Live. Leveling and revenue models are like Korean MMOs. These all have large differences, even if two of these titles are FPS games, yet Battlefield Heroes shares much in common with them all.

Before I get started on the community side of things, the actual game is pretty good. I find it impressive that I’ll never have to pay a cent for a game that’s 400-500 megabytes to download, has quality gameplay, and free servers with a decent ping.

I don’t know if it’s EA’s intent, but the community needs work. It’s strange to be in a team-based game that encourages players to go solo and be highflying hotshots, but that’s precisely what happens. This is likely due to the limited ability to communicate coupled with the grind of leveling.

The Game Anthropologist: Examining Massively Single Player Online Games

June 5, 2009 8:00 AM |

forumwarzbot.jpg
[The 'Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week he notes the commonalities in Massively Single Player Online games.]

Lately some have been arguing that, as far as games are concerned, content is not always king. In the April 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, Steve Theodore discussed alternative conceptions of games as art. After noting John Carmack's "We're doing entertainment" quote, Theodore writes: "Honestly, not many games can live up to the Romantic ideal [of art].

Recently, Chris Remo pointed out that many games seem to shoot to become epic, and Leigh Alexander suggested that perhaps it's time we stop looking for a “Citizen Kane”. In short: games are games first and foremost, and anything else is incidental.

There is an area of gamingdom that contests the point of content, at least, (though not necessarily art). I refer not to gaming critics, i.e. the “Brainysphere” (which this column has already covered), but to Massively Single Player Online games. The first place I saw the term printed was in the game ForumWarz, though it is certainly not the first of its kind.

The Game Anthropologist: 'Shoryuken! How SFIV Made Its Niche More Mainstream'

March 15, 2009 4:00 PM |

[The 'Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week features the real life adventure of going to a complete stranger's house just to find a challenge in Street Fighter IV.]

Recently I found myself going to a stranger’s house to play video games with a bunch of other strangers. No one knowing anyone. This is not a typical occurrence, not even for someone who writes about the way gamers organize themselves, but here it happened.

I really think there’s only one kind of digital game that has that intense of a driving force to make a bunch of awkward nerds come out of their crawling places to meet someone, anyone who will play the game they play.

Fighting games, especially Street Fighter, have the peculiar property of turning its most devoted players into the subject material, and I say this with all seriousness. Pokemon fanatics might actually strategize like some of the characters, but they don’t spend their lives like the characters or Pokemon.

Those who admire science fiction and fantasy characters are often subject to ridicule because they don’t know how little they resemble the characters when they imitate them. But fighting game fans become like the characters: glory is important, and they do anything to find a good fight.

Opinion: 'Quake Live's Vault Into Immortality'

February 25, 2009 8:00 AM |

[We originally - and accidentally - ran this 'Game Anthropologist' column on Quake Live before the embargo was up. Now that the game is officially launched - and we have comments from John Carmack over at Gamasutra, with a bigger interview to follow, we're re-running Mike Walbridge's piece.]

“Man, it has been a long time since I played THIS game,” I wrote, hoping to break the ice.
“Welcome to 1999,” someone replied.
“The crazy thing is...some people never left,” another said.

We were all dead, waiting our turn; we're playing Quake Live's clan arena, a mode where the teams square off and each player's death merits no respawn until the next round. We call get maximum armor, health, and weapons, pounding each other into oblivion.

There's also duel, which pits players one on one while the rest wait in line to face the challenger. The list of spectators is a virtual list of quarters lined up on arcade machine. The atmosphere of the site, with its ladders and stats, is almost like a chess club. Quake Live is a bold and new move—it is absolutely free, and it is better than the Quake 3 I repaid twenty dollars for about five years ago.

The download did not take very long; while I waited for the full installation I was offered to do the tutorial level. A woman with a calm mellow voice introduced herself as Crash, whom I recognized from Quake 3.

She walked me through a small level and explained all the weapons and powerups. She was talking in the tone an elementary school teacher might take with a child who tries hard but is failing and needs extra attention and explanation.

“Okay, now let's practice!” Crash said. “You shoot me, I shoot you. Simple, right?”

The Game Anthropologist: 'Inside The Penny Arcade Forums'

February 15, 2009 4:00 PM |

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week, he examines and appreciates the togetherness created by the online forums of a popular game-related webcomic.]

Forum moderators only have control over what can’t happen. It’s up to regular forum posters (and hosting needs) to mold the forums into what they are.

So when one thinks of Penny Arcade, it is defined as one of two things: the artistry and writing of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins or the people who follow it. The Penny Arcade forums are property of Penny Arcade but only in the strictest technical sense of the word; it has become a beautiful monster, a living, breathing, curious creature that, while not necessarily obedient, is forever loyal.

The Penny Arcade forums are almost a decade old; originally managed Mike, Kara, and other close friends, the forums quickly grew into something to large for them to handle. Both the software and the people became issues that were too complicated, and moderators volunteered to take over (future moderators can no longer come from volunteers; they must be asked).

Over time, the various moderators and administrators have changed. Since 2003, Kevin Hamilton has been the admin that handles coding and programming, while Patrick Groome has been the admin that handles policy and posters for the last two years. I spoke to them about what makes Penny Arcade’s forums so unique.

I asked Kevin Hamilton and Patrick Groome about what makes the forums work so well and they are modest, giving a lot of credit to its members rather than to administration.

The Game Anthropologist: Left 4 Dead: "Let's Do This!"

December 6, 2008 4:00 PM |

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he argues that Left 4 Dead represents bigger changes for co-op gaming than, say, Gears of War 2.]

Co-op gaming is older than most gamers; while examination of co-op gaming has always existed (Co-Optimus.com, for instance, is an entire site dedicated to co-op gaming), many recent releases have prompted players everywhere to think about the state of co-op and its capabilities.

In fact, one might argue that Epic's Gears of War 2 is the culmination of what co-op gaming always was, while Valve's Left 4 Dead and its unique game mechanics are truly a step toward the future.

Gears of War 2 followed a formula, and did it very well. It is a shooter complete with content, a campaign, and various multiplayer modes. One of these modes, horde mode, brings the players together in co-operation, a first for a title like Gears of War.

In Gears of War 2, co-op is doing what it has always done: adding even more value and longetivity to the game, creating incentive not only for consumers to buy the game, but to keep it; also, the more players that keep the game, the fewer that have the option to buy used. From the side of production, there was always the incentive to provide co-op modes so that more people would purchase the game.

Turtle Rock and Valve, on the other hand, saw that co-op could have other uses; instead of making co-op an added feature, why not make significantly different design decisions based on co-op principles?

They are not necessarily the first to do this (Army of Two attempted to do the same thing), but they are the first to design a full-priced game around co-op while achieving impressive sales and, at the same time, omitting traditional content!

The Game Anthropologist: Fable II and World Mixing

November 23, 2008 4:00 PM |

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he explores how Fable II lacks clarity at first, and how an early multiplayer experience powerfully changed his own journey through the main storyline, among other things.]

(Spoiler notification: if you've heard nothing about Fable II's ending or the characters you meet in it and don't want to yet, you will want to stop reading.)

Most games, even bad ones, at least have plain and simple goals. Fable II does not; even if one includes the many unedited, uncoached musings of Peter Molyneux, there are still some design decisions in the game that are not easily understood by the player. Is it an RPG? Is it like the Sims? Both? Fable II can't make up its mind. Maybe the Fable II-related announcement due this Monday the 24th will let us know, whatever it is.

For example, it seems apparent even from both sides of the box cover ("Who will you become?") that Fable II is a place to explore morality, but the consequences of choices seem weak. I started off playing the game with a friend I know from college, wondering if the world would be a place that is shared together, but it is not. It is just one player playing the role of visitor to another; worlds cannot be shared, and this makes Fable II a mostly solitary game even if there is a multiplayer option.

And the multiplayer actually changed the outcome of my own world! The friend I played with was ahead of me; I earned almost 100,000 gold from his real estate empire by playing with him for just two hours. Where was the challenge in that? Then again, the game wasn't meant to be challenging; it's easy to chop, shoot, and explode enemies away, though admittedly very enjoyable.

Still, it powered me through by enabling to purchase powerful weapons early in my own story. I didn't have to take the time to be a blacksmith or bartender and feel like I'd worked hard; Fable II gives you more money from buying businesses and buildings and by playing tiresome mini-games, but without working I'd earned plenty of money. So the multiplayer aspect, the community aspect, seems like a choice that is made for the benefit of the gamers, but not the game.

When I beat the game, I was faced with the choice to choose the needs of many, the needs of my few loved ones, or to just be selfish and choose a wad of cash. Because everyone thought the latter boring and I'd heard nothing about it, I decided to take the wealth. I was disappointed and not planning on playing the game anymore anyway.

The Game Anthropologist: The Gaming Family Habit

November 10, 2008 4:00 PM |

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he explores the impact gaming decisions have on marriage.]

My wife, Amanda, will spend two weekdays and a weekend playing a new release that's coming out; she even wanted to preorder it and get it at midnight. I am not as excited about this as she is. In fact, for a while I was dreading it. This is because she wants the new World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, and I had become converted to Warhammer Online.

My friend Bill (real name), a friend of mine since I was 10, had leveled up in World of Warcraft while I was in college. I got a review copy of Warhammer Online. "Tell me how it is," he says. "It looks pretty cool." My first verdict was "I don't know", and my second was "I'm not sure but I'm guessing Amanda won't be into it since it's more PVP-oriented".

He comes over to my house to play it for a while. He is not so sure either. I spend a lot more time with it, analyzing it with intent to not only write about it but to give an accurate report to my childhood friend and my wife. Are we going to go over to it?