Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The aging process

At some point I am going to sit down and write a long, cathartic post about what it feels like to be getting older, to see a show on TV called "Men of a Certain Age" that's about a buncha older dudes about to turn 50 and realize that is exactly what I am...but today is not that day.

Instead, I just want to mull over the photographic evidence. On a thread on the Internet today someone posted an old photo of me, and, looking at it just now, it made me realize something: LIFE IS SHORT AND OMG I AM NOT THE GUY I USED TO BE.

Cuz here's that guy:

And here's the same guy about 5 minutes ago:

WTF happened?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Rant about the Spike VGAs

I kind of didn't want to write this, first, because it's such a bummer of a topic for an otherwise pleasant Sunday, and, second, because it seems like a fairly pedestrian point to make for anyone unfortunate enough to have seen the show. But, the truth is, if I didn't write this, it'd be sitting in my gut anyway, like a rotten bologna sandwich, and so I'd rather get it out on this blog than in some other more disgusting way.

So here's what I want to say: The Spike 2010 Video Game Awards Show was a fucking disgrace. It was an embarrassment and an insult to the industry it is supposedly saluting. Everyone involved should really take a moment, in the quiet of their own head to think about the kind of message they're sending--to game makers and game players both-- and whether this is really something they feel they should be proud of.

So let's acknowledge one thing first. We can take it as a given that almost every awards show in every medium sucks. The bar is extremely low. People can and do make the same kind of rant after every Oscar telecast, Grammy show, and so on. And I'll say this, too, in defense of the VGAs (and unlike, say, the Emmys, who impossibly never gave The Wire one stinkin' award): A good chunk of the awards handed out hold up to scrutiny. I mean, it's all subjective, of course, but no one is really going to deny that Red Dead Redemption is a credible choice for Game of the Year.

So the embarrassment and disgrace is not with the actual awards. It is with the show. If you've never heard of this event, it takes place on Spike TV. And if you've never heard of Spike TV, it is a television station whose website ("the premier online destination for men!"), at this very moment, has an article on its home page entitled "Denise Richards Discusses Her Boobs With Alex." So that pretty much gives you all the information you need. It's a TV station for guys, and for "guys" they pretty much mean the kind of neanderthal-like fratboy dudebro douchebag lunkhead who thinks a good use of his limited time here on Earth would be to click on an article in which Denise Richards discusses her boobs.

So, really, when you think about it, what else was there to expect? If you're on a TV station dedicated to pandering to every dumb guy's basest, most lowbrow taste, why would your awards show be any different! It's not like Spike TV is going to start showing reruns of "Upstairs, Downstairs" any time soon. One caters to one's own audience.

But here's the problem: The videogame community--those who make them, those who play them--encompasses a much larger, broader base than the Spike TV dudebro douchebag contingent. Really, saying the "videogame community" at this point is all but archaic, anyway. Because it seems that, with FaceBook and Angry Birds and Kinect and every other industry-broadening milestone, everyone is playing games now. There are people who love games, who care about games from all walks of life, both male and female. So when you aim your show at the station's primary demographic, rather than those who love gaming in general, you are alienating and insulting all the rest of us who would like to participate in and enjoy the event too.

I'll say this: It's been worse. And Neil Patrick Harris, slumming as he was, was still the best host I've seen in the times I've watched this. It doesn't hurt that he seems to be functionally incapable of not being completely cool and charming and funny no matter what situation he's in, but, on the other hand, you didn't need to be a psychic to see in his face, at times, embarrassment over some of the drivel he was presiding over, and he even made offhand comments to that extent over the course of the show. As for the rest of the presenters, probably the less said the better, though, as most of them looked like they either didn't want to be or know why they were there, except for Olivia Munn, who knew exactly why she was there, which is to show her boobs, which she did.

But, really, complaining about the lame presenters and even the tone of the show is me mostly missing the point of the entire affair, to those complicit in its making, which is the exclusive game trailers and announcements. Because really, that's what this is: One two-hour commercial for the big game publishers to plug their upcoming games. You can bet your ass that most of the behind-the scenes "editorial" work that goes into the making of this show is the wheeling-and-dealing with the EAs and Ubisofts and Bethesdas and the like to get those exclusive trailers on the show. And the game publishers, still dazzled like the little children they are in the bigger universe of the entertainment industry, get seduced by the idea of being on TV, of the "glamor" and "prestige" of it all. Think of the numbers! Never mind that it's a bottom-feeding station that most people over the age and/or IQ of 12 would never turn to in a million years! We're on TV, bro! Look at all those cameras and lights! We have a red carpet, just like at the Oscars! And, hey, look, over there--it's Nathan Fillion! We got him to show up! That makes us almost celebrities now too...right!? And of course the folks running the show need the trailers, too, because without them they've got about 15 minutes of content, tops, and content that in their hearts they have to know isn't that great or interesting. And by running announcements like Bethesda's new Elder Scrolls game (and, yep, I'm as excited as you guys are for it), they give themselves the veneer of importance simply be serving as the vehicle for a commercial. The publishers get their free ads, the awards show gets its exclusives: Everybody wins! Everybody, that is, except for the poor gamer, who may have naively turned on the show expecting to see something with a modicum of respect and sincerity for the industry it was supposedly saluting. I watched this show by myself and was still embarrassed, and was monitoring the remote control in case my wife or kid came down and saw me watching. And, yeah, I know exactly what that sounds like.

Fortunately, the gaming industry has other awards shows, like the Game Developers Choice Awards and http://www.bafta.org/awards/video-games/, that actually know how to salute the industry without relying entirely on Olivia Munn's boobs and marketing-department-produced TV commercials to do so. But it would be great if, in the coming year, the folks behind the Spike VGAs could look into their hearts, look around at the vast, multigenerational, multicultural, gaming landscape and come up with a show that truly celebrates all of gaming for all gamers, that treats videogames not as things to be laughed at or apologized for, but as the incredibly complex and sophisticated pieces of entertainment they are. Way more sophisticated, at the very least, than the sophomoric, tacky spectacle that you put on to "honor" us.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Cataclysm Eve, A WoW blog.

As I write this, it's less than 4 hours to go until World of WarCraft: Cataclysm launches, and, yes, I, a man dangerously close to the age of 50, am actually counting the hours. Some might call this sad--I call it a testament to the power of WoW, six years after its launch.

Think about that for a second. Because, in videogame time, 6 years is an eternity. For reference, the year that WoW launched, 2004, was also the year of Half-Life 2, Ninja Gaiden, and Halo 2--one console generation behind. Even more significant, most MMOs flatten out or just slowly die of attrition after a few years. But WoW, incredibly, just keeps getting bigger.

And, yes, like everyone else, I've had long periods (sometimes over a year at a time) in which I burn out and bail and swear I'm never coming back. And during those periods when I *am* out, I always feel a sense of liberation, because I can *finally* play all those games that WoW prevented me from playing. Because WoW is a cruel and demanding mistress. You can't be heavily into WoW *and* be playing other games, because there is always simply to much to do in WoW once you willingly invest yourself. Playing other games feels like a betrayal, as well as a waste of time, when, really, you should be in WoW working on your gear--or whatever.

But the reason we keep coming back--or at least the reason *I* keep coming back--is just that it's just such a goddamn good game. And, yeah yeah, MMOs might not be yer cuppa joe, and that's all good. If you're not convinced yet, I certainly can't and won't now. I'm mainly talking to the converted here. And yeah, it's gotten easier over the years too, even though, for certain really old-school folks (and I'm not talking about myself, because I lived through the hell that was earlier MMOs) it already started out too easy. But for those of us already in the congregation, you know what I'm talking about. WoW is the Disneyland of MMOs. And some of us happen to love Disneyland. Even when we're pushing 50.

This particular expansion is drawing many of us back (and until a month ago I had been off for about 16 months), because Blizzard's Chris Metzen and gang are fulfilling a promise that they announced years ago, before they had even figured out a way to make it possible: They're fundamentally changing the entire old game world, forever. If you've already patched up the game prior to tonight's launch, you've actually seen a great chunk of it already: Almost all the old zones are redone, revamped, changed forever, thanks to the cataclysmic event of the expansion's title--and changed, of course, with all the things that Blizzard learned about how to make their game better over the course of the past 6 years. As a design decision, it's a simple but brilliant one. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to want to quest again in Wetlands, The Barrens, and, god forbid, Stranglethorn Vale again. But now? I can't wait to see what they've done with it all.

When I first wrote about World of WarCraft way before it first launched, in the first magazine story ever published about it (see what I did there--I'm bragging!), I was marveling at how Blizzard was so smartly rewriting the rules of what an MMO could do by actually making it easy and accessible for its players, with such then-revolutionary and now seemingly banal ideas as the now-ubiquitous question marks over quest givers in-game zone maps. In the old days, ya see, you had to figure all that out for yourself. Even the notion of "quests," while present in some MMOs, was not really fleshed out. Mostly you just logged into the world and, well, good luck to you. Was that fun? Often, yes. Very much so. Some of my experiences in EverQuest, the long-ago former king of MMOs, remain among my fondest gaming memories, exactly because of the kind of hardcore, unforgiving bullshit it put us through. For you players who "grew up" on WoW, EverQuest was---well, I'm not going to say it was our "'Nam", because that would be both moronic and disrespectful, but let's just say it makes WoW look like just the kind of "baby game" its detractors accuse it of being.

But the proof is in the numbers. WoW beat them all back then, and continues to beat them all now. The number of MMOs (many of them dubbed "WoW killers" either by their creators, publishers, or the media) that have come and gone in the 6 years of WoW's unrivaled reign is long and sad. What's amazing is not one of them--including the ones still fumbling along with whatever loyal fanbase they've scrounged together--has ever even come close to competing on WoW's level. And what's even more amazing than that is that WoW has deserved it. Blizzard has kept the game alive and vibrant and fun and funny for six long years, and, with Cataclysm, they're doing it again. It's a dangerous drug, this WoW thing. But, me? I'm lining up with the rest of the addicts, happily waiting for my new fix.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

GreenSpeak: The Season Premiere!

Hey everybody! Welcome back to the Greenspeak blog! It's been a long break since the heart-pounding season finale back in September, and you may recall we left on quite the cliffhanger! I was heading off to the PAX convention in Seattle to attend a bunch of panels, and secretly to interview for a new job, though you couldn't have known it at the time. Well, I mean, I did. But you didn't.

So many questions were left unanswered in that finale! Did I even make it to PAX? How did my panels go? Did I get reamed by EA's lawyers and cadre of PR thought police for saying things I shouldn't? Did any PAX attendees accuse me of being their father?

Well, now. Here we are with a brand new season, and like any truly annoying television show, I'm not even going to begin to answer any of those questions, other than to say that, yes, I made it to PAX, and yes, I *did* get that new job, which, ya know, is the real reason there's been a season break anyway! Funny how that happens! (And I was just kidding about EA. They were just peachy. Ya know. Relatively.)

So I work at PopCap now. My official title is Director of Editorial and Social Media. Though honestly we kind of made that up. I mean, I didn't replace anybody. We created the position 1) so that I could work there and 2) to hopefully add value in areas that PopCap is keen to explore. My love affair with PopCap is a long and very public one. I'd written about them numerous times at Computer Gaming World, and blabbed enthusiastically on various podcasts and video shows about my love of all things Bejeweled, Bookworm, Peggle, and, most recently, Plants Vs Zombies.

So it should come really as no surprise to anyone who's followed my career in either a stalker-like way or even in a casual, disinterested way that I should end up here. Humor-wise, I've always felt a deep affinity for PopCap. There's always been a subversive, wiseass quality about all their games, even if it isn't always readily apparent to some of their core demographic. Clearly those dayglo, Teletubby-like cute animals in Peggle aren't meant to be taken at face value---or are they? And the quality of their games has always spoken for itself. Back when I was still a civilian and had nothing invested in PopCap, career-wise, I argued on the Area 5 show, upon the release of PvZ, that it was time for the gaming industry to start thinking of PopCap like the best of the AAA developers---the Blizzards, Biowares, and Bungies---who consistently deliver quality product each and every time out of the gate. And that it was only PopCap's position as a "casual" game developer that prevented it. But the truth is, at this point, when a new PopCap game comes out, everybody that *I* know who is a gamer gets just as excited--and addicted--as with games that cost 3 times as much to buy and 100 times as much to make.

Anyway, yeah. I'm here now. And if I sound happy about it, well, yeah--you betcha. I am. And really, it's kind of like this: Fucking finally. Finally I'm at a place where I have nothing but respect for the people in charge, and finally I'm at a place where I feel like they "get" me and what I have to offer. Because I'll admit I was gun shy. At the end of the interview/hiring process, they were doing a hard sell on me. Because I was a bit loathe to take another game company job. I had a pretty sweet press job kinda/sorta/almost mine (though we hadn't gotten to a formal offer yet), and for awhile there I definitely thought that's the way I was going to go. "Back where I belong" as lots of folks were telling me. I'll tell you, at the end of my time at EA, I was practically dreaming about being back in the press, I wanted it so bad.

But, as much as I think that press job could have been great (and I guess we'll never know), I think my desire to get back was less about that than about my utter unhappiness amd wretched emotional condition to my then-current status. And I'm not going to start belatedly ragging on EA now, because, well, who cares? It's over. The thing is, it's not necessarily that anyone there did anything "wrong", it's just that, in retrospect, and from the position now of being at a place I actually fit in and like, it's clear how utterly mismatched and out of place I was there. It was just such the wrong environment for me, both on The Sims group and later in the online group, that the real lingering feeling that I have is one of anger at myself for stubbornly trying to make it work for so long. I was there for 2 years but should have bailed, seriously, after 2 months. Because I already knew. I just kept trying to convince myself that if I hung in there long enough, somehow things would turn around for me there. Kids, it really can't be said often and emphatically enough: Your gut is almost always right.

So now I'm at PopCap and I am fucking loving life. As I've said to friends and family, for awhile I kept waiting for a "shoe to drop" after I signed on. Like, okay, they SEEM cool, but, really, there's gotta be a bad side, right? But we're up to 2.5 months and I haven't had one single bad day--or hour, or meeting, or conversation--yet. Everyone is as cool on the inside as their games appear from the outside. This is why their games are cool.
The stress I feel now--and the reason this blog has been on hiatus---is the stress of wanting to give it my all and show them I am worthy of belonging. I've got my hands (and brains) in a dozen different projects, and they're all ones I *want* to be working on, and they're all with people I *want* to work with. Not many people ever get to say that, and lord knows, it's been a long time since I have. Some of these are just now starting to see the light of day, like the live videostreams I started doing, but mostly they're all works in progress still that I can't wait to reveal. But it's been draining--even physically, as I'm commuting weekly from Berkeley to Seattle and back---and it hasn't left me time for much else. I've wanted to give my all to a job that I'm truly thrilled to have.

I still am going to do that. But now that the dust has settled *a little* and I feel a bit more sure of myself (I had been telling my boss and others that I was like a battered dog for awhile, flinching and twitching until I was sure they weren't going to bite my head off every time I, say, posted a tweet), I am ready to cue up the theme music to this here blog o' mine (What is the theme song anyway? The Hustle? Mr Roboto? I'm open to suggestions.) I have a lot on my mind these days and more shit to get off my chest. So I hope you all have had as good a three months as I have since I last said hi here. Welcome to the new season!