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Column: The Z Axis

COLUMN: The Z-Axis: 'Hardware Constraints Are Player Shackles'

July 12, 2008 4:00 PM |

['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This week, he crankily denounces beautiful graphics in favor of focusing on other aspects of game development]

The modern face of game development is like that of Janus, the two-faced god. Out of one side game developers and industry commentators praise modern storytelling techniques, cheering on the fledgling stages of an up-and-coming art form. The other face (voiced by those same developers and commenters) is bellowing buzzwords and systems specs to a crowd of slavering graphics-porn aficionados.

Not only do both of these faces let slip a lie or two as they wail, they're working very much at cross purposes. In trying to work both sides of the coin, developers harm themselves, their audience, and ultimately their game. Ultimately the drive for more realistic graphics is a fool's errand, a tilting-at-windmills crusade undertaken by companies more interested in making a buck than in creating a compelling experience.

Today I'd like to explore how the drive for graphical excellence has forever muddied the waters of game creation. While PC game developers are particularly guilty of this, console developers bear just as much of the guilt.

There is hope, of course, as some developers turn their backs on the siren song of "moar pretty". Still, the laundry list of titles released too little or too late because game-makers listened to Janus is far, far too long.

COLUMN: The Z-Axis: 'Lust for the New'

June 29, 2008 12:00 AM |

piechartsidebar.jpg['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This week, he offers an alternative viewpoint on excess and quality in the modern gaming industry.]

On the surface, this is the best time going to be a gamer. The industry is booming, with the ‘next gen’ consoles now really hitting their stride. PC gaming is so dead it’s getting cool to develop for again, and the online game industry is threatening to grow its own consciousness and take over, Skynet-style.

PSPs and DSes seem to be everywhere, and grannies are happily showing their grandchildren how to play Wii Bowling at the senior center. The problem: what’s good for the industry is not the same thing as what’s good for the gamer.

I’d argue that, in fact, it’s becoming increasingly hard to be a gamer.

The sheer torrential pressure of game releases over the last three years has made it extremely difficult to ‘keep up with the flow.‘ As gaming continues along the path to mainstream acceptance, the constant lust for the new (and the resulting dismissal of the ‘old’) will be one of its biggest obstacles.

How can we really take seriously an artform which deprecates and dismisses work so quickly? How can we even track the artform when this week’s hot new release is next week’s bottom-of-the-pile forgotten pearl? Let’s tackle the thorny problem of why too many games could be - in truth - a bad thing(TM).

COLUMN: The Z-Axis: 'Extending Pure Moments With G&T'

June 13, 2008 8:00 AM |

pacut1.jpg['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This first week, he finds out how the folks from Penny Arcade laid their web strip end to end to make a deftly simple episodic game.]

Games are escapism. At their core, games offer the player a way to experience a place or moment in time which would otherwise be unattainable. Whether that moment is impossible (exploring a ruined dome city on the floor of the ocean) or merely highly improbable (living the life of a night vision goggle-wearing super-spy), games take us out of our time and place and put us into a new one.

The written word has done this for centuries, and over the years this has been concretized into the literal virtual worlds we now inhabit every day.

What I find fascinating is how modern gaming, having now turned many thorny design and technology issues into “solved problems”, has returned to the roots of the medium. The popularity of “all you can eat” gaming is ever on the rise, with titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Just the same, pure moments are quickly becoming the bread and butter of modern gaming - in the same way they were at the beginning of the pastime’s history.

Pac-Man and Asteroids don’t get much simpler, and games once again seek to once again offer that clarity of experience. Strung-together chunks of directed gameplay offer this up on the moment-to-moment level, while episodic gaming seeks to offer this sort of pure experience over a longer timeframe.

Nowhere is this vision or purity more visible than in last month’s release of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. The new title is the perfect example of an extended moment, a point in time distilled and spread throughout a greater whole.