Nothing Gold

A week ago, Justin Carmical, better known to his fans as JewWario, took his own life.

A popular Internet game reviewer, Justin was best known for his video series You Can Play This, a series dedicated to introducing Western gamers to Japanese titles that they could import, play and enjoy with no knowledge of the language. He was a former member of ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com, and also produced cross-over videos with other reviewers on that site, and co-starred in the site’s annual cross-over movies, Kickassia, Knights of Suburbia, and To Boldly Flee.

Justin has already been eulogized by people far more qualified to speak on his behalf than me. I never met him, and to tell the truth, I was really only a casual fan of his work up until very recently. So, I’ll leave the task of memorializing him to others who are better-equipped to do so.

The reason I bring this up is because of how taken aback I was. There are very few events in my life that have literally made my jaw drop, but the news of Justin’s death did. It was so unexpected, and it hit me so hard that for about an hour, I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. And for a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on why that was.

After hearing the news, I found myself watching Justin’s work in earnest. At the time, I couldn’t have really told you why. In the beginning, I think it was a mix of curiosity and guilt, the same mix that prompted me to purchase a Michael Jackson album for the first time in my life after I learned of the singer’s passing. But as I continued to watch his videos (and if you have any interest in Japanese games at all, I highly recommend his work) I realized that I wasn’t just watching them for entertainment, I was searching for answers.

I realized that I wanted to know why he had done it.

Watching his work, and reading accounts from friends and colleagues, I just couldn’t make sense of it. Justin seemed like such a happy, upbeat person, a man who loved his wife, his friends and his fans. I just couldn’t picture the man in those videos, the man described in all the tributes blog posts, putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that depression, the kind of depression that would drive a person with so much to live for to take his own life, isn’t logical. I’ve dealt with clinical depression. I know how insidious it can be, how subtly it can color every thought and action without the affected person even knowing it.

It’s hard to realize when your own mind turns on you. And that’s the terrifying part.

I was lucky enough that my wife saw the change in my behavior and urged me to seek help. But sometimes there aren’t any outward signs. Sometimes a person suffering from depression can act perfectly normal and happy around friends and loved ones, only to have his thoughts turn against him in his still, lonely hours. And the sufferer may not even realize that these thoughts are abnormal, that his life shouldn’t be that way.

There is still such a stigma surrounding mental illness of any kind, and so many misconceptions about what depression is, that it can be hard for a person to recognize when he or she is in trouble and needs to seek help. And it can be equally hard for others to recognize it for those same reasons.

Justin’s life didn’t have to end last Thursday, and it’s saddening and chilling to look at this event and see a dark reflection of how my own life could have ended, had circumstances been different.

I hope that something good can come out of this, that perhaps Justin’s death will cause people to reflect on themselves, and be mindful of their friends and loved ones. If this causes people in need of help to seek it, or to urge friends in need to seek help, maybe there is a silver lining to be found in this sad news.

My sincerest condolences go out to all those affected by Justin’s passing. And for my part, I hope he found some of the peace he was looking for. He will be missed.

Game Over?

I mentioned in my last post that Nintendo had kind of a rough year in 2013. I was going to leave it at that, but after Nintendo adjusted their annual forecasts to predict another operating loss, everybody from SonyFanboy69 to gaming news sites to venerated mainstream news outlets like Forbes and the New York Times collectively lost their marbles. So I figure that if Forbes and the Times are taking potshots at Nintendo, I can take one post to speak my piece in their defense.

Yes, Nintendo has been struggling. Their newest console, the Wii U, had a promising start with a strong launch, but sales quickly dropped off to the point where they didn’t even sell one million systems globally in the following nine months. The system’s software release schedule for 2013 was barren, to put it kindly, with only 45 retail releases during that time. Third-party developers publicly withdrew support for the system, sometimes unprofessionally bashing it in the process. And while their handheld system, the 3DS, has been doing much better after its own rocky launch, it’s underperforming Nintendo’s expectations for hardware and software sales.

And naturally, these struggles have prompted a number of armchair analysts (and a few professional ones) to offer up their opinions for what Nintendo needs to do in order to right the ship. Most of these suggestions boil down to the rote response of releasing games on mobile platforms like iOS and Android, though there are a few more…imaginative suggestions. The most noteworthy of these (and the one that prompted me to write this post) comes from game industry financial analyst/professional troll Michael Pachter, who claims that Nintendo should “get out of the Wii U business.”

By that, he means that Nintendo should immediately cease supporting the Wii U and develop games for the PS4 and Xbox One until they can release a new console, and then shift support back to that platform. That statement is one of the more stunningly ill-informed remarks I’ve heard in the past few months, but that hasn’t stopped many people from echoing it.

So, the general consensus of these analysts seems to be that Nintendo needs to drop the Wii U like a bad habit and immediately start releasing iPhone games. Here are my responses to that conventional “wisdom:”

1. Dropping support for the Wii U would kill Nintendo.

The Wii U has had a bad first year, there’s no denying it. Sales were abysmal, third-party support is at an all-time low (even by Nintendo standards) and Nintendo’s own game output was slowed down by the unexpected difficulties of developing HD games. Nintendo was not prepared, and the launch suffered as a result. So naturally, that means that they should scrap the whole system and go back to the drawing board, right?

Wrong. I realize that many of the people who play and talk about video games are probably too young to have owned a game console in the ’90s, and the Internet as a whole seems to have a very short memory, but I would think that at least some of these analysts and reporters would remember what happened to Sega.

For those who don’t recall, Sega used to be Nintendo’s primary competitor in the video game console market. The Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, outside of the US) had about a 50% market share for most of the ’90s, not only competing with Nintendo, but thriving, something that NEC, Atari, Philips, SNK and 3DO all failed to do. Nintendo still managed to sell more consoles in the end, but just barely.

But Sega, in their attempt to gain an edge on the competition, kept releasing poorly thought-out add-ons to their console, and dropping them shortly after introduction due to poor sales. The Sega CD and 32X, both of which cost more than the Genesis itself when they were released, were introduced and abandoned in 3 years and 11 months, respectively. Then, after the failed North American launch of their successor system, the Saturn, Sega dropped support for that console just 3 years after it launched.

By the time Sega launched their successor to the Saturn, the Dreamcast, consumer confidence in Sega was in tatters, and sales were slow. Most people opted to wait for Sony’s Playstation 2 to come out, as both the hardware and Sony’s track record were better than Sega’s at that point. Hemorrhaging money, Sega was forced to withdraw from the console business and become a third-party developer and publisher. Their body of work has suffered since then, and many of their published projects have underperformed and suffered, leaving the company teetering on the verge of financial ruin.

That is the future that awaits Nintendo if they drop support for the Wii U. It would be more merciful for Nintendo to close their doors right now and pay out on everyone’s shares than to follow Sega’s path, and thankfully, Nintendo knows that, even if many supposed experts don’t seem to.

2. iPhone games aren’t “easy money.”

Pop quiz time! How many active games are there in the iOS App Store?

The answer is roughly 186,000. Now, how many of those games have you ever heard of? I’d guess twenty or thirty at most. Those are the most popular titles, the Angry Birds and the Cut the Ropes and the Candy Crush Sagas of the industry. All told, less than 1% of the total games on the App Store, and they’re the ones raking in the majority of the revenue. The rest of those games are left to fight over the scraps left behind by the big dogs, and those scraps likely don’t amount to much.There’s little chance that the developers making those games are going to hit on a title that lets them rise above the rest of the crowd and join the elite that are making millions of dollars, 99 cents at a time.

This is the market that analysts are proposing that Nintendo enter. A market where most of their game concepts simply would not work due to the control limitations imposed by touch-screens. A market that other known game companies like EA and Square-Enix are trying, and failing, to thrive in. And a market that is in semi-direct competition with handheld gaming, the one area where Nintendo is currently doing rather well.

So, what part of Nintendo making iPhone games seems like a good idea, exactly?

3. Nintendo’s prospects aren’t as bleak as people make them out to be.

I’ve outlined why Nintendo’s financial prospects are suffering at the moment, and no doubt the picture looks pretty grim from that description. But what I haven’t talked about is what’s going right for Nintendo, and that’s the aspect that most of these analysts are overlooking.

First off, while the Wii U’s first year of sales was pretty miserable, its last two months were looking much better. Remember when I said that the Wii U failed to sell a million units worldwide in the first nine months of 2013? Well, if you look at the sales numbers for November and December (admittedly, those numbers can be hard to piece together, but a few minutes of Googling will give you most of the pieces of the puzzle), you’ll realize that, between Japan and North America alone, Nintendo sold 1 million Wii Us over the course of eight weeks.

December of 2013 was the system’s best month of sales to date; in North America alone, they sold a minimum of five hundred thousand units. That’s more than sixteen times what the system was averaging from January through September. Granted, five hundred thousand is still on the low end of the sales spectrum, but going from thirty thousand units sold in a month to five hundred thousand is nothing short of miraculous. The Wii U has a long way to go, but it’s on the comeback trail.

As for the 3DS, even though it underperformed Nintendo’s expectations, it was still the top-selling console of 2013, selling a million units in North America in the December 2013 alone. And this is from a system that analysts were calling dead in the water back in 2011, a system that analysts said would be killed off by tablets and smartphones. It may not be selling as fast as Nintendo would like, but the 3DS is far from a flop.

Bottom line, it’s in Nintendo’s best interest to stay the course for now. The Wii U is finally picking up momentum, and while it will probably never become the runaway success that the Wii was, it’s likely to become profitable in short order. And the 3DS is going strong by any reasonable standard.

That’s not to say that Nintendo shouldn’t look to the future and where they can fit in and thrive. Iwata himself admitted as much. They need to take this time to lick their wounds, to re-evaluate the market and their own approach to business, and they need to crack open the vast war chest they built up during the halcyon years of the Wii and DS and start making some changes. Nintendo needs to repair their relationship with third-party developers, and start to look at how they can appeal to the Western market again.

The console market is changing, and Nintendo needs to change with it and find out where and how they can succeed. What that new course will mean for Nintendo, I can’t pretend to know. One of Nintendo’s greatest strengths as a company has always been their innovation and unpredictability; they’re at their most successful when they’re being themselves and doing something nobody would ever expect. I don’t know what that will mean this time around, but I do know this; it’ll be different and exciting, and I can’t wait to see what happens.

Dracula Defanged

A few days ago, I was browsing a video game forum I frequent, and I came across a thread regarding an article about the upcoming game Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. The writer describes her experience at a preview event of watching a scene from the game where Dracula (who is the game’s main character), starving after years of isolation, attacks and feeds on an innocent family. In the article, the author says that the scene disturbed her because of its “blatant allusions to rape,” and drew a parallel between the visuals of the scene (which takes place in first-person) and the deplorable “erotic game” Rapelay, an infamous rape simulator.

The author then closes out the article by asking that the game’s developer, MercurySteam, censor or remove the scene in question.

There are a few problems with this article. There are clearly some questions of interpretation at play here, as other reporters have described the scene very differently from how this author describes it. Additionally, the author’s invocation of the infamous Rapelay comes off as both forced and deliberately provocative. Why is a relatively obscure Japanese computer “game” (I’m not sure if Rapelay qualifies as a game, but I’m not prepared to stomach that analysis right now) from 2006 the first thing that came to mind when she saw this scene?

Despite her claims of being aware of the trope, the author’s reaction makes her come across as ignorant of the lengthy history and analysis of the sexual overtones that have always been a part of the vampire mythos, particularly the aspect of feeding. Vampires have always been, both symbolically and sometimes literally, seducers and rapists. That is part of what makes the vampire both fascinating and horrifying as a figure of lore.

The scene, as it’s described by both the author of this article and by other journalists, is intended to be disturbing. It is intended, by the admission of Dave Cox, the producer of Lords of Shadow 2, to drive home the point to the player that Dracula is a monster. He may be the protagonist, but he’s not a good guy by any measure. And the fact that the scene is shown through Dracula’s eyes is meant to make it more off-putting for any player who might begin to identify with the character.

In short, it’s showing us a monstrous vampire, something that hasn’t been present in popular culture for a long time. Many writers have explored vampires as characters in the past, fleshing them out beyond simply needing to kill and eat, but recently the sexual overtones surrounding vampires became the primary subject matter of vampire stories.

Suddenly the shelves are full of vampire romance novels targeted at teenagers. Every vampire is a tortured soul who just feels so very, very guilty about having to drink blood to live, despite the fact that they rarely seem to kill anyone, and despite all the “woe is me” monologuing, there doesn’t seem to be a real downside to being a vampire. Few members of this new breed of vampire writer include any of the traditional weaknesses vampires suffer from (no reflection, garlic, crosses, running water, etc.), and many of them don’t even incorporate the most basic flaw vampires have always been associated with, their vulnerability to sunlight!

These vampires aren’t soulless monsters; they have the choice to be good or evil, and only the bad, un-sexy vampires choose the latter. Really, there is no downside to being a vampire in most of these fictional universes, which really makes the dramatic core of the Twilight “saga” (Will Edward make Bella into a vampire?) an anticlimactic non-issue. This is where vampires in fiction have gone in the last decade; they’ve become a race of self-pitying Mary Sues with all the flawless beauty and grace of Tolkien elves.

And now that we have a prominent example of a piece of vampire fiction that’s returning to its roots, making the vampire a monster again, we have a writer who is so disturbed by it that she’s drawing comparisons to a universally-condemned rape simulator, rather than connecting it with Dracula, Nosferatu, or hell, even Buffy. That’s how far this once-fearsome creature has fallen, and it’s time writers everywhere changed that.

Stories of horror are meant to be cautionary tales for people to learn from. If monsters are neutered and turned in to nothing more than “bad-boys”, the young women who read these books are being taught that these fiends are merely misguided youths that need help. These readers are practically being set up to become possible victims of a real-life predators.

So let’s bring back the monster. Give the audiences something to fear and be wary of.  Let’s shake the fluffy romance and teach readers to dread the demons once again.

What’s in a Game?

Well, it’s a new year. And among other things, a new generation of video games is now in full swing. Nintendo’s Wii U has been out for over a year now (though that year did not go very smoothly for Nintendo), and Sony and Microsoft have released the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, respectively. PC game developer Valve is even throwing their hat into the ring, announcing the release of their operating system for gaming, Steam OS, and partnering with hardware companies to release a line of gaming PCs for the living room, dubbed “Steam Machines.”

It’s with this in mind that I’ve decided to examine what has been an ongoing debate among video and computer game enthusiasts for quite some time; namely, how do we define what a “game” is? This seems like a strange question, but for years video and computer games fell into a handful of categories and were easily identifiable as games.

You could win or lose at them, and a player’s skill and ability to play within and utilize the rules of the game to their advantage determined how successful they were. Regardless of how complex they became, video games weren’t too fundamentally dissimilar from early titles like Pong, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man or Asteroids. 

However, as time went on and hardware became complex enough to offer different experiences, more and more games started to be released that didn’t match the mold of what had come before. Games that had no clear goal, no winning condition, and sometimes no losing condition. Games that weren’t as driven by skill, where gameplay served to advance or explore a narrative rather than to get the most points.

And in time, the successors to these games evolved to the point where many of their most “game-like” trappings were entirely gone. Thus, the question was raised; are these “games” truly games, or are they something else entirely?

Now, before I dive into my opinion on this subject, I should address something. Many self-identified “hardcore gamers” use the “what is a game” debate as a kind of backhanded way of dismissing games that they feel are “casual” or not worthwhile. The web series Extra Credits already devoted an episode to this topic, so I won’t delve into that issue too much, save to say that it is not my intention to categorically dismiss any games I don’t like by examining this issue.

I’m merely doing it because the matter of this definition is interesting to me. I’m not using it as an excuse to say that people who play Farmville or Candy Crush Saga aren’t “gamers;” as I’ve said before, I don’t like the term “gamer” in the first place, and I have no desire to include or exclude people from it.

But I do think the term “video game” has a lot of baggage associated with it, not all of it positive. And I believe that unnecessarily labeling certain experiences as video games does a disservice to them, in that it sets up false expectations on the part of potential players, and it obfuscates what these “games” are actually trying to do and be. I also think that more precise nomenclature could help to bury the ongoing debate among enthusiasts about who is and isn’t a “real gamer,” an argument that is incredibly tiresome and often serves to mask deeper issues like gender inclusiveness.

So, to that end, what is a game?

I would define a game as an activity that meets the following conditions:

  1. It is performed primarily for pleasure or entertainment by the majority of people who participate in it (though a handful of people might participate for a living, such as in professional sports).
  2. It is governed by a set of rules and regulations that exist separately from the normal rules of society.
  3. It usually (though not always) has one or more conditions under which one or more of the participants can win.
  4. It always has conditions under which one or more of the participants can lose.

That’s a rather broad definition, and deliberately so, because in the context of video games, the “what is a game” debate often focuses not on finding a definition, but rather on excluding games due to a lack of complexity. However, complex or not, a game is still a game if it meets the right conditions.

For example, take three non-video games that most of us learned as children, tic-tac-toe, checkers and chess. All three games meet the four conditions I set forth above, and they’re similar in that they are played on a grid of uniform squares where players move/place pieces or icons.

However, their complexity varies greatly. Tic-tac-toe is an exceedingly simple game without much depth, to such a degree that people rarely play it beyond a certain age because, once both players have hit a certain level of experience, every game will end in a stalemate (i.e., a double loss). Checkers is more complex and has a greater degree of strategy involved, but all the pieces move in the same fashion, and almost always in one direction across the board, so strategy is still somewhat limited. Chess, on the other hand, is extremely complex, with unique rules governing the properties of each piece, pieces that can move backwards and forwards, and a much more specific condition for winning the game.

The argument that most often crops up around video games and complexity is akin to saying that of those three games, only chess is an actual game, because checkers and tic-tac-toe are not as complex, which is simply ridiculous.

So, many of the video games that are dismissed in this fashion are games, they’re just much simpler. But they do meet the conditions I outlined above. It is possible to both win and lose The Secret of Monkey Island, Jurassic Park, Asura’s Wrath, and many other games that get picked on for their lack of complexity.

However, there are “games” that don’t meet the four conditions I laid out above. Heavy Rain, for instance, doesn’t have a loss condition; if you fail at a particular event, it simply alters the outcome of the story the game is telling, but it isn’t possible to truly “lose” the game. Simulator games like The Sims and Sim City don’t truly have win or loss conditions (but simulation/strategy hybrid games like Civilization do). Many hidden object games or “visual novels” don’t have loss conditions. So I would argue that those “games,” and others like them are not truly games, but interactive experiences, more akin to a “Choose your Own Adventure” book or a jigsaw puzzle than checkers or chess.

That’s not to say that these interactive experiences (side note: we need to find a better term for this) aren’t worthwhile or good just because they don’t meet these criteria (though I don’t personally like all the titles I listed above). But describing them with the same term we would use to describe Doom or Mario is doing them a disservice, and frankly, many of these titles deserve the chance to shine on their own terms, free of the expectations that come with the label of “video game.”

And finally, ending this debate would be doing a favor to video game enthusiasts and designers everywhere; instead of arguing about whether or not something is a game, we can discuss why something is a bad game. And that’s a discussion worth having.

Publishing News

Good news, everyone! The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship is now an official NOOK Book! You can find it here on Barnes & Noble’s website, or purchase it directly from your NOOK-compatible device.

I’ll have more exciting announcements as the year goes on regarding bringing the novel to new formats and the status of the upcoming sequel. Stay tuned for further developments, and enjoy!

Spirit of the Season

Season’s greetings, everybody! I hope you’ve all enjoyed your Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, and any other holiday you choose to celebrate around this time of year.

This year I was fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time with family, friends and loved ones. It was just what I needed to close out a year that was full of challenges and hardships, but exciting successes as well. And I hope all of you were fortunate enough to do the same.

As I’ve gotten older the holiday season has become less about getting presents and getting wasted; the real joy of this time for me is the spirit of fellowship.

I feel it at every seasonal party I go to, every dinner with family, even when making errands around town and seeing people going about their business. There’s something in the air, something that prompts people to be a little nicer than they might otherwise be, to be just a little kinder and friendlier.

Maybe it’s a sense of spirituality, or maybe it’s the realization that another year is about to come to a close, but people seem to try harder at being kind and decent. They seem to appreciate other people more, and it genuinely is inspiring.

At the same time, it’s also rather sad; this notable spirit of fellowship that surrounds the holidays seems absent during the “off-months.”

That’s not to say that people who act nice around this season act like jerks the rest of the year, but that this sort of kindness and sense of charity just doesn’t seem to come as readily to most people other times of the year. And yes, I am including myself in that statement.

So this year, one of my resolutions is to keep the spirit of the season–that sense of fellowship and good will–in my mind and heart as much as I can through the rest of the year, and to try to be just a little better than I otherwise might be. I hope you will join me.