Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Who decides what games YOU play?

Looking at the title of this article, you probably think "Well gee Nathan... I do!". Sure you do, I say. You go to the store, or you go to, or if you have a new iPod (iTouch?) or iPhone, the iTunes App Store, you browse the selections, and you buy what you want. Right? Right? Of course there's the ESRB - the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, who rate games, and granting a game the legendary AO rating (which means Adults Only) means it won't get sold in stores, but that doesn't mean you can't get it. By far the most popular AO title was, on a re-review, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, after the ESRB discovered that Rockstar had included sex scenes without telling anybody, and a tiny patch to flip an on/off switch inside the game inaccessible to the players otherwise was all that was needed to get at the sex scenes. (Nevermind that the patch also broke the game; after the first lowrider/dance challenge, the player was unable to continue the game's story.) But nevermind the ESRB, I'm looking past them. Who's past the store, even past the ESRB, who decides what you can play?

I gave a hint... no, actually, I named one such entity above, when I mentioned the iTunes App Store. I'm talking about publishers - specifically, publishers with exclusive rights to a platform, such as an iPod/iPhone, or Nintendo with the DS and Wii platforms. As a gamer you give thanks to these people - they bring you your games. As a developer, however, you see them in a different light. Games cost money to make, and they take time to develop, which in turn costs more money. At least that's what Nintendo would have you believe when they tell you to buy their games, rather than play their older (and some of their newer - up to the Nintendo 64 on the home side and all the way up through the DS on the handheld side) games on your PC or download DS and Wii games for use on modified versions of their consoles. They will tell you that they invest millions of dollars in developing and publishing their games, and in this trying economy, downloading games forces them to lay off gamers and reduce their ability to entertain you in the years to come. Never mind that the same economy hurts the gamers worse, because most of them aren't working for a high-tech company like Nintendo or Apple; most of them don't have a profit-sharing program, have much less benefits and far less pay.

I don't know how easy it is to modify a Wii, but apparently it's been done, and a modified Wii will play burned DVDs of Wii games. A DS can be modified by using a "flashcart", a DS cartridge with a memory card slot - it takes the same microSD cards cell phones use, up to 2GB for the most common device (though more advanced units support bigger cards) - and the games are downloaded from the Net. A flashcart can contain dozens of DS games. And an iPod/iPhone can be "jailbroke", which as I understand it, lets you use programs not approved by Apple. You can pirate the ones they offer or you can use ones they don't offer, which is known as "homebrew". (Likewise, the DS and Wii have homebrew available, in addition to commercial games.)

So, in short, you can buy a console or handheld for a couple hundred bucks, but then you can get the games for next to nothing if you're tech savvy, but Nintendo and Apple would rather you didn't, since they pay their game developers well and want to continue to do so, so they will continue to make you games.

Pretty picture, eh? But what happens when someone makes a game that people would love to play, they spend all that time and money developing the game - and the publisher tells them no? Of course, Nintendo and Apple would never acknowledge that ever happens. They continue on with their story that buying games supports the poor developers who need you to buy their games to continue putting food on their tables to feed their young children - all the while, unknown to most, telling developers, who want to make games to put food on their table, that their game isn't good enough, even when bloggers and forum posters the world over voice their support for the game (albeit just based on what they read online).

I should take a minute to note two things here. First, Nintendo, Apple, and other publishers have a right to protect their gaming device's image, and if your game sucks, and they feel that releasing it would cheapen their image, they're well within their rights to not publish the game. Business is business and crap is crap. Second, and more importantly, before even sending a game to the ESRB, publishers must maintain a status quo of content they allow. It's entirely within the abilities of today's game programming environments to make a game where you play a rapist, chasing women down, luring them into dark areas, or drugging them at parties, and then taking advantage, at times forcefully, in graphic detail. Or taking guns into elementary schools and shooting as many children as you can, with bonus points for kindergartners and developmentally disabled kids. Sure, it can be done. But it shouldn't. Some think Grand Theft Auto games are explicit and obscene. They really aren't; they're not doing anything the movies don't. GTA lets you live an action movie. That's cool. That sells. GTA does absolutely nothing negative to the image of the console it comes on. But if Nintendo were to publish a game about rape or Apple were to publish a game about school shootings, it would look bad for the systems, for the company, and in the end it would cost them a whole boatload of money.

(If the above paragraph offended you in the least, then I have made my point. Because just imagine if it really happened. You would feel dirty touching those game systems, even if you'd never played the games in question.)

But then again, Nintendo doesn't really have much of an image to protect. Not really. I mean, just browse the Nintendo DS section at Walmart or Gamestop and see what they've allowed the system to become. The games that make the DS a good handheld, such as the Zelda game, the Mario game, Mario Kart, the Castlevania games, are mostly hard to find. You can get them, but most of the games you'll see end in Z and are about pets (Horsez, Hamsterz, Ponyz, or Nintendogs); or they're called "Imagine (something)" and are targeted to little girls, or they're crappy, second-rate puzzle games. Not good ones like The New York Times Crosswords or Planet Puzzle League (previously published on the Super NES as Tetris Attack), but stuff like CrossworDS or Clubhouse Games. Neither of those two are bad, per se, but they're far from great. The DS has become a toy for kids, and there is really much more to it.

So when I saw the YouTube video for "Bob's Game", I thought "Hey, this might have potential." Bob's Game may or may not be a hoax, though. Blogger Robert Pelloni has apparently sunk 5 years of his life developing this game; based on the timeline I'd guess he started developing for the Game Boy Advance, but since the DS has been out, he's been aiming for that system. The YouTube video says nothing at all about what the game is actually about, but it's littered with those pop-up captions which provide information about what you see. And what you see is a guy he calls "Yuu" (and replaces "you" with "yuu" all over his site), who is often compared to Crono from Chrono Trigger, walking and running around a 16-bit town, kind of like a Pokemon setting, but in realtime rather than turn-based, with cars driving and people walking around. He shows off mostly design elements, pointing out that all the graphics are original and handmade (and, admittedly, it does look sharp). Then you read the story on his site, and he's talked about how he's gone through all the motions to get a developer's license from Nintendo, and they've given him the runaround. He reportedly registered a business, leased a small office, bought equipment, and ended up satisfying all of their requirements. Still rejected, he then staged a protest, locking himself in his office and sitting in front of a webcam, cut off from the world otherwise. Apparently there was a fire, I think at one point aliens abducted him - yeah, it got pretty silly. At one point he said his antics were authorized by Nintendo to promote the game, but at another he said that he was the best developer in the world, far surpassing those at Konami, Capcom, Square, Nintendo, and others. He seems rather crazy, and maybe it is a viral website raising interest in a forthcoming game, or maybe he's just mad, but there does remain the issue of his game. That video showed something, and that something had promise.

Now, if there's something there and I (and thousands of others) say I want to play that, and I'd pay for it, how can Nintendo on one hand tell him no and refuse to sell him his developer kit, and then on the other hand tell us, the gamers, that we need to pay for games to support the hard-working developers? It just doesn't make sense. But then, the entry-level TopToyDS flashcart costs about $10. You can get a small (512MB) microSD card for around $5. If Bob were serious, he could buy up a whole crapload of TTDS's, 512MB microSD cards, and sell his game for $25 a pop. You'd get, in the mail, a flashcart with memory card preloaded, you pop it in, and there's his game, right in the root of the folder, and maybe some other DS homebrew. Then, you like the game so much, as an F-U to Nintendo, you turn around and download the Mario and Zelda games to your memory card. Well, maybe. To make a point. To tell Nintendo that if they won't let this guy make money on his hard work, you'll not spend money on theirs. But yeah, your mother was correct, two wrongs don't make a right. Piracy as a protest doesn't accomplish anything.

Going back to Apple, PC World has published a list of ten iPhone apps that Apple rejected for various reasons. Granted, none of them are all that impressive, and none come close to the promises made by the Bob's Game video linked above, but hey, we're talking about a cellphone here. You don't expect great things out of cell phone applications. Quick functions on the go, sure, but nothing too spectacular. The South Park one looks good, combining episode clips, information, and fun stuff like wallpapers. What's wrong with that? And hey, #6 looks nice, if nothing else. The politicians-on-a-trampoline looks like decent fun, and who wouldn't like to toss a virtual shoe at a virtual Bush? Bad economy and all.

And then there's Rock Band, with coming up on 600 songs available (and we have close to 300! go us!), one just has to wonder, what makes a song OK to play on Rock Band? I'd have thought, since the game came out, that it would be a good challenge for the hardcore players to play Nightwish, but I always thought that that would be too hard, might void the warranties of the instruments, as it would push them all to the limits (imagine Enya singing for Iron Maiden - but heavier), but then they went and released Yngwie Malmsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, with some of the hardest songs for the game so far, effectively erasing my theory.

So, we're back to where we started. Who decides? And, as the one paying, how do you feel that it isn't you?

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