October 2007 Archives

A Tale of Two Consoles

When it comes to home electronics, I'm used to surfing the technological tail instead of racing out along the bleeding edge. It's all a matter of perceived value. I'm frugal, and it irks me to spend $40-60 on a new video or computer game that might give me fewer than 20 hours of enjoyment. Dollar for dollar better than a movie? Sure, but don't get me started on movie ticket (and concession) prices. I've read that our idea of what things "should" cost gets fixed around the time we get our first job. In my case, that means bagels should cost a quarter (35 cents for cinnamon raisin), comic books should be "still only 35 cents!" (they'd reached 75 cents by the time I stopped buying them), and computer games should top out at $29.95. Those days are long gone, and I'm doomed to be the crotchety old man griping about how in my day, ordering a "tall" drink got you the largest size and you could actually "drop a dime" on someone.

When I finally got an XBox, it was second-hand for $100. I only bought one title-- Dance Dance Revolution. The rest I borrowed from friends who had long since turned them into dust collectors. That's the advantage of surfing the tail. And like NBC tried to remind us, all those games were new to me. Win!

But now I work in the video game industry. In fact, after our recent reorganization, I'm in the XBox group-- the very belly of the beast itself. And while I can't talk about what I actually do, it's important for me to be fluent in the current state of the art. The tail is no longer good enough. The XBox has been banished to the closet, its land in the living room expropriated by the state for the greater good.

My living room now hosts two consoles. I got them by stepping through some kind of Bizarro world where my team provided the Wii, but I had to purchase the 360 Elite myself. I half expect everyone to eat with forked tongues while donuts rain from the sky. The value proposition for the 360, however, was just too good to ignore. One of the perks of the job, y'see, is free access to all titles published by Microsoft. Halo 3, Gears of War, Project Gotham Racing 4, the upcoming Mass Effect, etc-- all mine for nothing. Even better, that includes all first-party content on XBox Live Arcade (about 65 titles right now). It's as if I purchased a Sub-Zero refrigerator with a magical drawer that dispensed fresh organic produce on command. You have to suck it up on the razor, but they're giving away the blades. So the decision was a no-brainer. It would have been crazy not to get a 360.

I've got to know the competition, however, so it was important to also get a Wii. This pleased the f, who was hooked the first time we bowled at a friend's house and she beat me (important tip to guys out there-- let your sig other win the first time!) (not that I let the f win, she won fair and square) (which I'd say even if it wasn't true, because I know what's good for me) (but it's true).

So far, the 360 wins. I'm still exploring Wii titles, but so far I've found only 2 that are worth buying-- Wii Sports (for the bowling, which has got to be the least likely killer app in history), and Big Brain Academy. The latter doesn't even use the Wiimote as anything other than a pointer-- it's just got really fun activities and good game design (except for the excessive text that must be clicked through between games). The 360, on the other hand, has tons of great content on Live Arcade. I'm even playing through Zuma again, despite having finished it on the PC when it was first released (the f is also completely obsessed with it). Why?

Achievements.

The genius of the 360 is that Microsoft requires ALL titles released for the platform to include 1000 points (or 200 for Arcade titles) of achievements that can be earned by accomplishing various in-game feats. The poorest designs just reward you for things you'd do anyway in the normal course of play, like beating the first boss or finishing chapter 1. Far more entertaining are the things that you'd never otherwise attempt if it weren't for the achievement points, like surviving a shoot-em-up for 60 seconds without using your weapon. Achievements are tied to your identity, so the more you play 360 games, the higher your overall "gamer score." And with Xbox Live built into the console, you can compare your gamer score against your friends'. Genius. And for anal-retentive sorts like me and the f, utterly compelling.

If you've got a 360 and want to friend me, I'm "psarrett". I know, I know-- but through a freak accident involving a gamma ray explosion, lightning striking volatile chemicals at my top-secret research lab, and a radioactive spider's teething pains, I accidentally tied that gamertag to my Passport account and now I'm stuck with it (at least, until I pony up the 800 points to change it-- which, sadly, I don't get for free).

Meanwhile, what are the killer Wii titles I've got to check out?

Comments (10) | last by AS_ST, Nov 1, 9:40 AM

Survivors Ready... Screwed!

I'm all for mixing it up a little, but this week's twist was colossally ill-considered. Tribes have gotten shuffled in all sorts of ways in the past, most commonly by random draw or a draft. The former, being random, is by definition completely fair. The outcome may wind up favoring some and disadvantaging others, but nobody is predisposed to wind up in either group. The draft is weighted toward the people doing the draft, but so much can change afterward that the advantage is relatively weak. Taking the two strongest members from each tribe and sending them over to the other side, on the other hand, is virtually guaranteed to punish the players who have arguably been the best players thus far.

At that stage of the game, the defectors are going to be outnumbered by the old guard in their new tribe. If that tribe loses an immunity challenge, it's a no-brainer to decide to pick off the defectors instead of eating their own-- especially because it happened late enough in the game that players can reasonably expect a merge to come before too long. Peigee's decision to throw the challenge and dump a strong competitor, as loathesome as it was, was spot-on correct. Assuming a merge is coming, it's downright brilliant. She's killing two birds with one stone, knocking out the strongest individual competitors while preserving the numbers on her original tribe. If that tribe holds together post-merge, it puts them in a position of great advantage. If her theory is wrong and the merge doesn't happen, it could be trouble-- but the merge has always happened in the 8-10 player range (and most often at the high end), so it's a reasonable gamble.

The problem is that the producers should have seen this coming. This shuffle was GUARANTEED to screw the players deemed the strongest. As a viewer I find it abhorrent. As a player, I might even find it actionable. I detest twists like this that arbitrarily screw a player's game. I'd rather players be allowed to pursue their strategies and play them out to their natural conclusions. But this twist is even worse-- it seems calculated to undermine or eliminate the players who are most dominant and threatening to the rest. And since those players didn't know it was coming, they had no chance to consider changing their play style beforehand to adapt to it. A strong player always runs the risk of being voted out prematurely, but they compensate for it by building alliances and winning immunities. This twist nullified those options and left the strong players to hang in the wind.

Mark Burnett, let the contestants play the game. Don't play them.

Comments (8) | last by alexsim, Nov 10, 1:40 PM

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