New Youtube Channel

Posted: June 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

Hi Everyone, 

I’ve started a new youtube channel to talk about games (Video games and Tabletop RPGs). The channel is called WASD20 (WASD for PC games, D20 for RPGs).  Check out and subscribe if you don’t mind!  :)  Peace.  

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQOmmyopiTzH9dlThm8hbwQ/videos

 

Lenten Reflections on Gaming

Posted: February 18, 2013 in gaming, relationships, religion
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Last week I observed Ash Wednesday. On the Christian calendar this marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day period leading up to Easter in which Christians take a look inward and reflect on their need for Christ. Christians often select something from which to fast during Lent as a way of reminding them of Christ’s sacrifice and walking with Christ as he fasted for 40 days in the wilderness (the exact reasons and origins of Christian fasting during Lent are a little murky). They may fast from sweets, from meat, from alcohol or caffeine, or any number of other luxuries that we indulge in on a daily basis.  Some folks even choose to fast from . . . video games.  Not me, though. I have to admit I’ve never fasted from anything during Lent, or not that I can remember. I won’t get into the reasons, but I will say when it comes around every year I briefly think about giving up video games, and very quickly dismiss the thought. Still, I have decided to take the opportunity during this Lenten season to be more introspective. To examine myself and to ask God to examine me. In light of that call to examination I do want to turn a critical eye toward my gaming habit. So, here we go!

I want to give credit to this post by Jordan Ekeroth over at gamechurch.com for inspiring my thoughts here. The article had a lot of interesting points, but mainly I’m grateful that he pointed me to an article by Dr. Mark Klein on the Escapist. You can (and should) read that one over here: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/ask-dr-mark/10177-Issues-Gamers-Should-Think-About

In the above article Dr. Klein is responding to a question about the seemingly knee jerk reaction of the gaming community to accusations that video games are having a detrimental effect on our culture and are a factor in real world violence. I, like Jordan Ekroth over at game church, believe we should react strongly to these accusations and should reasonably and passionately defend the medium. As both Jordan and Dr. Klein express, however, there are concerns with gaming that we should probably be more honest and thoughtful about.  Dr. Klein points out seven concerns, and I’d here like to highlight a couple of them that rang true to me. Understand that these are not research-based concerns, but are concerns he expresses that I feel are validated by my own life experiences.

Gaming and Intimacy — Does gaming influence intimacy with my wife? It sure can – if I let it. I have to admit that I rarely go to bed at the same time as my wife, because a) she goes to bed way too early sometimes (8 or 9 pm), and b) I stay up pretty late playing games some nights. While Dr. Klein also talks about the decrease in sex drive from excessive gaming, I have no intention of getting that personal here with you, dear internet stranger. I will note that going to bed at the same time as my wife provides at least a few minutes to emotionally connect with each other before we fall asleep. We can share anything we haven’t had a chance to during the day, bring up random thoughts or questions, and I suppose there’s probably something to just lying next to someone as you both fall asleep. It seems that can build intimacy. Right? Maybe? Anyway, I’m making a goal to go to bed at the same time as my wife more often, especially on nights when she’s going to bed after 10 pm. I can do that. I should do that. It would be good for us.

Reality had a hard time competing with Skyrim at times.

Gaming and Pleasure – Dr. Klein asks whether or not the pleasure we derive from games might supersede that found in real world experiences. While I personally have a wonderful family, a job I genuinely enjoy, solid church community, and a comfortable material life (albeit stressful at times), I have at times bought into the lie that what I experience in games is greater than my routine, unexciting daily life. There are moments in games that can transport you and give you an amazing rush of emotion. While I wouldn’t say my experience in games makes my outside life pale in comparison and I don’t honestly think this is a huge struggle for me, I have experienced it enough and spoken to others who have that I am slightly concerned about it. I don’t think it’s healthy when we deeply long to escape reality for more enjoyable virtual worlds. Games might be a meaningful and healthy escape at times, just as a good book can be, but that word escape does make me wonder.

Gaming and Community – It’s really easy to get involved in gaming communities online, and it’s actually quite hard to avoid for serious gamers. But are those online communities a decent substitute for other relationships? Of course not. I hope we can all agree on that. In my case, gaming is not a hobby that is conducive to me reaching out to my neighbors. Being a husband, father, teacher, student, an active church member, and playing video games on a regular basis keeps me pretty busy. If there are any relationships in my life that suffer because of my hobby, it is likely those neighbor relationships. While others are out making sure their lawn is well kept, walking their dogs, and generally getting out around town, I’m playing video games. I mow the lawn, I go to the block party, I walk a lot of places in the neighborhood. Still, were it not for a hobby that keeps me in the house quite a bit, I might be out there more getting to know my neighbors. While I don’t intend to sacrifice my habit to get to know my neighbors better, this is a reminder for me to be more active and intentional in building relationships with my neighbors with the time I do have out on the block.

Eastown, Grand Rapids. One of the most walkable neighborhoods I’ve ever seen, and I live right in the heart.

Microtransactions in games have been around for a couple years now, and by the looks of it we’ll only be seeing more of them in years to come. Xbox live was one of the first to popularize this model, selling t-shirts for your avatar and new themes for your dashboard. Facebook games and Apple’s App Store have proven to be environments in which microtransactions flourish. While the model makes big bucks (just look at the consistent top earners on the App Store), to many of us it all feels a little dirty, perhaps even predatory. These companies are very good at getting our money, bit by bit. Frighteningly good.

There are, however, quite a few bright spots in the free-to-play space.  More and more actual video games are using the model and allowing gamers to have really good, complete play experiences without having to spend any money on microtransactions, and without being constantly hounded to throw down some cash for a more complete experience. To name a couple – I was thoroughly impressed by Age of Empires Online’s offerings, and over the summer I had a really good experience with Tribes: Ascend. I didn’t drop a penny in either game. Even more impressive to me is the game Path of Exile, an action role playing game in the style of Diablo. Coming from New Zealand developer, Grinding Gear Games, the game just entered open beta a few weeks ago. For the legion of fans disappointed by Diablo 3 last summer, Path of Exile has provided much of what they’ve been looking for. The game caters to the hardcore player with its darker setting, gameplay designed for hours and hours loot-hoarding and leveling up, and its utterly insane passive skill tree. Personally, I can’t say I love the game. I am not that hardcore action RPG fan, heartbroken by Diablo III and hungry for a more lasting experience. Still, we’re here to talk about the microtransactions, and I think that’s where I find POE setting itself apart from most other free-to-play games.

Here’s the description straight from POE’s website:

Completely free to download and play. Supported by ethical microtransactions.

Path of Exile is completely free to play – no upfront costs or monthly fees are required to enjoy 100% of the game content.

To fund the development and maintenance costs of the project, we plan to let players purchase aesthetic perks for their characters such as:

  • Additional character animations (for example, taunts or PvP victory animations)
  • Dyes and item skins
  • Alternate spell effects
  • Social pets

We will also offer some optional paid services such as:

  • Inter-realm/inter-account character transfers
  • Character renaming

You’ll notice nothing in the list above confers an actual gameplay advantage.

So there you have it – No gameplay advantage. Obviously this is a reaction to the “pay to win” reputation of many free-to-play games. I really respect this decision, and find it refreshing that they aren’t offering an easy way out ($) for overly challenging gameplay. They legitimately want a game with a level of integrity to each character. You can’t buy your way to double XP, better weapons, or a new character class. In this world your character and loot are products of your effort, time investment, and possibly skill, and there’s no way around it.  That said, they still have to make money. So, if you feel like customizing some of the look of your character they give you some options, and when and if you spring for it they get paid. Sounds good, right? Personally, I think it mostly is good. Still, I have some concerns.
First off, I do wonder if they’ll make it. Will people spend enough money on these aesthetic changes to pay for the the development team, years of development, and ongoing support they need to provide?  I suspect it’s possible.  In 35 weeks of closed beta, the team made 2.5 million dollars off this stuff (granted, you had to pay $10 just to get into the closed beta).  Secondly, I’m concerned about the price of these virtual goods. Since I really did appreciate the approach Grinding Gears was taking with this game, I wanted to pay them something to help contribute to their quality work. As I headed over to the store, however, I was pretty disappointed with the offerings. 5 dollars was enough for me to buy a lavender glow for one of my weapons (the cheapest color) and … that’s it. I’ve got 21 points left, which is about 2 bucks. The only thing that will buy me is the ability to rename and re-color two of the tabs in my “stash” or buy one simple spell effect (changes the look of a spell). Thanks, but no thanks. It’s easy to spend $20 dollars on a pet to follow you around, or a cool looking weapon effect. About $8 will buy you a new character animation. You get the point. I’ve enjoyed the game so far, and I want to give the developers my money, but I’m going to find it hard to spend much more when the return is so trivial. I suppose in a way, I’m treating my contribution as the virtual tip jar. “Fun game guys. Thanks for giving it away for free. Here’s a little something for the effort.”

I think it’s great that Grinding Gears is taking such an “ethical” (to use their word) approach to microtransactions. However, it seems that by making the items for sale so downright un-impactful, they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Damned if you, damned if you don’t, I suppose. I do sincerely hope this game is a success for them and I hope this microtransaction model can work. It would also be great if others took note of what Grinding Gears is doing here and began to question the less ethical ways microtransactions are being implemented in games across the industry, from EA to Zynga.
To conclude, Path of Exile is a fine game that has already been satisfying the appetites of hardcore gamers as well as more casual passers-by like myself. If I sink a dozen hours more into the game I’ll likely drop another five or ten bucks to show my support. Again, I just wish that five or ten dollars was getting me something I actually wanted. Grinding Gears has come really close to nailing the microtransaction model, but there’s still room for improvement here.

(story spoilers ahead)

Spec Ops: The Line came out last summer and I finally picked it up last month. The only reason I was even remotely interested in playing it was because I’d heard the story took some unique turns that set it apart from the (very crowded) modern military shooter genre.  That story did not disappoint, for the most part. While I expected it to start out a little more heroically and deteriorate over time, I instead found it taking a pretty dark turn within the first half hour so. Instead of going from macho hero to murderous soldier, I found it more like a deterioration from murderous soldier to complete psychopath. That deterioration was indeed something to behold and made wading through the rather average shooting worthwhile.  The one aspect of the story that turned me off was when Walker (the main character), reaches his goal and we realize much of what he’s been seeing along his path of destruction is not real, but is simply a creation of his clearly damaged mind. Maybe I’m off base, but ever since Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, and other films pulled this trick (feel free to help me out with some others here), I’ve been in a “been there, done that” place whenever I see it done again. Did it surprise me? Yes. I was surprised that they were using that tired out trick. Oh well.

The environments in the game added to the experience, and while games are rife with post-nuclear blast, post-alien invasion, and generally post-apocalyptic environments, a city swallowed up in a sandstorm is a new one that figured into the actual game play in some moderately interesting ways. More than that, though, it was a lot of fun to take in the vistas of the incredible city of Dubai in such a state.

As I’d heard the reason to play this game was the story, I played the game on easy and plowed through it in about 5 hours. While there is multiplayer, reading this article over on Polygon convinced me to steer clear of that tacked-on mess.  The length of the campaign makes the game a hard sale at full price, but as I paid $7.50 for it I definitely got my money’s worth.

In the aftermath of playing through this game in 2 sittings, I’m not overly interested in another shooter this week. Walker’s PTSD has rubbed off on me a bit too much (a testament to the power of this journey) so I’m trying to cheer myself up with Mario Galaxy this week. That’s doing the trick  so far.

My goal

Posted: February 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

I’ve been inspired to start writing more. My goal is to write at least once a week here. I’ll openly admit that could be a challenge in the busier times in life, but maybe I’ll make once a week my average for the next year? That sounds manageable. Here goes!