Thursday, July 31, 2008

Not everything needs to be news

I'm so utterly tired of one of the best football players of all time right now.

Brett Favre has created a hurricane of interest in the past few months, and the eye is now settled directly on Wisconsin. I think ESPN is running a news update every time Favre sneezes or goes to the bathroom (I think John Clayton is on that beat for the World-Wide Leader). He has single-handedly stolen all of the attention away from every other team in the NFL, which is almost unfathomable.

I'm just tired of it. I'm tired of the hyper-analysis of every move in this chess game, I don't care about every single detail, and I hate that it can hijack sports news coverage so easily. I hate that there's an almost-constant "FAVRE" ticker on ESPN. I hate that I'm writing this column.

With all due respect to all the incredibly talented athletes out there, please, please, please take your contract squabbles out of the media's eye. I just don't care anymore, and I'm sure even the most hardened NFL junkies are starting to get soured. If the people around Favre hadn't started squawking to the press, if Favre himself had come out and said "I'm going to go negotiate with the team and we'll talk when I'm done," if the agents hadn't whipped everyone into a frenzy, I'd have much more sympathy of the plight of the ancient quarterback.

As it stands, this is a black mark on his legacy and a sad way to keep a fanbase chasing its tail.

It isn't just the NFL that is falling prey to this. European soccer is rife with players going to the press and trying to work their way out of deals and hogging the sports pages. Manny Ramirez just earned about two weeks worth of press coverage leading up to his deadline-day trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's ridiculous.

I'm all for the freedom of player movement and in now way would I ever advocate to a return of the pre-free agency days, but come on, have some respect for your teams. I'd have more sympathy for Favre if he had kept the talk in the board rooms and between himself, his agent and the Green Bay Packers. As it is, it just stinks of attention grabbing, with the dogs baying for blood up in Bristol, CT.

I can't wait for real, meaningful football news to get started.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why we play video games

I love sports. This is not a secret. I love to try and play sports, but - shock of shocks - like 99% of the world, I'll never be good enough of an athlete to play at the top level. Kicking around a soccer ball in the backyard pretending to win the World Cup, or taking a free throw and imagining it's to seal Game 7 of the NBA Finals for my hometown Blazers; these sort of moments are dreams, and will be nothing more.

Or, hell, the dream of being able to play like this:

On my to-buy-and-read list: the biography of Pistol Pete, called "MARAVICH."

I can't do those moves. Certainly not in a game, and I'd probably pull muscles I never knew I had stumbling over myself trying even one of them on a playground.

Video games can help you live the fantasy, live the dream. I'm not going to pretend that spending time learning a sports game is even equatable to the hard work athletes have, but damn if it isn't satisfying to pick up a game, improve, and win virtual championships, titles, score goals, dunk a basketball, throw a long-bomb touchdown pass. It's armchair virtuosity at its finest. Make-believe to the nth degree.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pile of Shame: The shameful update

Woo boy, this whole "play through the games I need to finish" thing isn't quite going to plan.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is done and dusted, but that's the most I can lay claim to. I have put a TON of time in on both Forza 2 and Rock Band, but as for the rest...nothing. I thought about FFVII for a little while, but ended up putting Winning Eleven 9 back into my PS2 instead.

Forza 2 brings up such a problem I see a lot with games like this: there's a stretch really early in the game where you struggle and it's not much fun, then you eventually get a ton of money and have no motivation to continue. I can build a car for pretty much any class or race I want right now in Forza 2, but it's all a grind. Build best car for the class, smash through class, take winnings; rinse, wash, repeat.


Rock Band, well, is still Me vs. "Green Grass and High Tides Forever" on Expert. 'Still' being the keyword. I am undeniably better at guitar by now, and drums, too - I am, on Nick's recommendation, going through earlier songs and working on technique and trying to get 5 stars. Which is working...but I still can't get over the hill.

As for the rest of the games...well, to get into a bigger discussion about my lazy gaming habits, I tend to play the shit out of a few sports games and end it there. Winning Eleven is the prime suspect here; I must have 200 hours on WE9 on the PS2, easily. Somehow I can justify turning the system on for "just one game," which turns into a couple hours, guaranteed. I need to diversify!

As for the DS/GBA games I have, well, at least I have my Japanese denshi jisho 'game' out of my DS Lite, which is a start. Just need to find chances to take my DS along with me and break it out.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sports game mentality and a review of NCAA 09

I can’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu when I’m playing NCAA 09. No, not just because I’ve played the demo that was released on Xbox Live ahead of the game’s launch; it’s because there’s so much the same as last year’s version, and the year before that’s version, and on and on.

NCAA 09: different covers for each version. Xbox 360 gamers get former Arkansas running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Darren McFadden.

Sports gamers are really good at buying and playing the same game over and over. However, this becomes problematic when applied too liberally to the process of creating a sports video game. Tweak a few things, add some new features that can be slapped on the back box (or, gratingly, add back features that were taken away a year or two ago), update the rosters and uniforms and boom! Quicker than John Madden on a turducken, you’ve got yourself a yearly sports update.

Take, for instance, the home-field advantage system being advertised in NCAA 09. This was originally introduced in NCAA 06, and in the Xbox version of the game you could cause some serious havoc in multiplayer by jamming on the white button (I think it was L1 for the PS2). Controllers vibrate, stadiums shake, all well and good. After a two-year hiatus it’s back for 09 – and causes just as many problems. However, it’s being advertised as another new addition to the series for 09, when in reality it’s adding in a feature that was cut for the first two next-gen versions.

Further proof that more and more insidious people are working in PR, I suppose.

A sort of perfectionist streak regarding gameplay makes sense – sports are all about perfecting technique of a set game. Unlike going from the ice level to the forest level to the cave level in a platformer or RPG, the game stays the same in sports. It’s just the nature of the beast; therefore, an inherent part of sports gaming is the pursuit of perfection, of getting better, upping the difficulty, adapting, and growing.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily sell units on a yearly basis.

If the sports game market were to go the way some consumers and fans suggest – offer yearly roster updates for a small cost (as that’s really about 50% of the reason to buy a new yearly sports game) and patch in some extra features – companies like EA Sports would go bankrupt in a heartbeat. You’d buy a product once and it’d last the life-cycle of a system; that doesn’t pay the bills.

Who is #30 for Oregon? It can change from year to year, and that is a high priority to sports gamers.

However, the current system of roster updates, graphic spit-shine, a few new features and a new package for $60 is really a horrible thing for consumers. Yet, if you look at your Xbox Live friends list or on a thread on a forum where a bunch of your sports-fan friends are buying the latest and greatest, what are you gong to do? Stick to the older copy that nobody plays? Buy last year’s version for all of $15 from EB or GameStop as opposed to the new one for four times the price?

And this isn’t just limited to NCAA Football, either; since EA Sports bought the NFL license exclusively a few years ago, Madden NFL has fallen under harsh criticism, and despite competition, many sports games – including soccer, basketball, hockey, baseball, and golf – make minor updates to the existing game in their yearly iterations. Besides obligatory graphics updates and new rosters, there isn’t too much happening in many of these games – sometimes there’s a meaningful update, but it’s rare. Maybe two games last year – NHL 08 and FIFA 08 – made real strides to advance, improve upon and make revolutionary steps in their gameplay.

Why is it that sports gamers accept this? I have my theories on this. One, sports gamers are very often sports fans first, hardcore gamers second. I’ve got a whole other post’s worth of thoughts on why this separation exists, but that’s for another time. Two, because of this difference, the value systems of what is looked for in a new version of a game are completely different. Fans of all genres of games love “more of the same, but improved,” and that runs the gamut from Metal Gear to Halo to everything else. However, what falls under that “improved” tag for sports games is usually led by rosters.

Rosters are a huge matter to sports fans, because it affects so much of the game – balance, accuracy, etc. If your team in NCAA Football is missing it’s stud recruit, then you’re missing out on a player who’ll make an impact for four years. When I fire up my old copy of Winning Eleven 9 and see the default rosters for Arsenal, now four seasons out-of-date, I see very few players who are on the current team – and none of the ones who are still there are at an “accurate” place in their careers right now.

Without going into too much of a tangent, that’s why having roster updates mid-season is such a big deal for sports games – take Madden for instance. Last year, the Cleveland Browns and their starting quarterback, Derek Anderson, became one of the hottest teams in the league. Based on pre-season ratings, in Madden they sucked, especially Anderson, a journeyman backup quarterback who played college ball at Oregon State. Anderson got a huge bump in ratings, as did other Browns, and it reflected real life.

If NCAA had roster updates last year, the Ducks would have gone from average in the pre-season to an absolutely monstrous team – Dennis Dixon had one hand on the Heisman Trophy until he blew out his knee against Arizona State and was gone for good in the Arizona game. But, in the ‘basic’ roster, he’s rated only an 85 or 88 – far from the best player in the Pacific-10 Conference, let alone the country.

Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this whole issue, but from one point of view I see “horses for courses” – different types of gamers expect different things from their games – whereas, on the other hand, I see a line of sports-crazy sheep buying the product for minimal improvement and simply feeding the machine. But one thing’s for certain: until there’s a major change in the sports games business, companies like EA Sports and 2K Sports are going to keep riding the cash cow until the money runs out.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Sweet christ my fingers hurt. It kinda hurts to type. I started trying to work on playing "Green Grass and High Tides Forever" in Rock Band on my Expert Guitar tour again tonight, the last song between myself and some sweet, sweet gamer points - not to mention being able to hold my arms high in victory over this goddamned game.

This is why I can never get through that damned Pile of Shame.

I am getting better, I am finding it easier to get through the first 70% of the song, but clearly I need to go back to practice the trills at the 72% mark some more again. That's Solo 2F for those keeping score at home. And when I've gotten through there, I get held up at Solo 2H's scaling zig-zags. I can't do it with my left hand on the regular buttons, and I keep fucking up every time I switch to the solo buttons down the neck.

I will conquer this damned thing, and soon. It will happen. But I'll have to put another two or three hours into it, easily. Easily.

For now, though, I'll sleep on it and wake up in the morning. If the fingers still burn, then that'll be a good reminder of what I have left to do.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Justifying losing money; or, how GameStop is printing its own profits

Very rarely can you feel good about giving things up and getting much less for your money value than you should, but I honestly feel like that right now after a trip to GameStop to return some games for store credit. I traded in three games I'm not playing much right now - NBA 2K8, NCAA Football 08, and FIFA 08 - in exchange for $43 worth of in-store credit, which I turned into a brand new copy of Major League Baseball 2k8 and a scant $3 worth of a card.

In theory, selling games back to retailers makes sense. I had three sports games I didn't play much (and, in the case of NCAA 08, a game that was about to see its trade-in value nose-dive - its replacement NCAA 09 is due in a week, two max), the store gets to buy them back and re-sell them at a lower price then new, and it's a profit margin for the store. Makes sense, right?

The problem is the profit margins GameStop makes. They're obviously a very big company with many stores, but they're keeping themselves out of the recession, according to Forbes, by being in the second-hand market and making so much. In fact, from an article on, GameStop is making 50 cents of pure profit on the dollar on their used sales. GameStop is raking in $650 million per year on used games.

I added to the 2008 totals tonight, even though my friend Nick and I got there just before the store was supposed to be closed - and even though the manager and the other goober clearly wanted to leave, badly.

So how is this $650 million made? Simple: mark up the price on hot used games, and quite seriously low-ball gamers on their sales. Like, "here's some lube, you'll need it" low-ball on the amount of money you get back (oh, and if you want it in cash, that's a certain percentage less that you get. It's a fucking racket).

Let's take my turn-ins for the night as an example. I received $43 for my efforts. I don't know the specific breakdown of how much money each was worth, but I do know that FIFA 08 was probably the most out of the three I got. I also got an extra $10 for turning in three "next-gen" (re: PS3, 360 or Wii) games, which is clearly another indication that three is the magic number. So, without bringing the De La Soul-style bonus, I got $33.

How much do these games retail for used from EB? According to (same parent company as GameStop), the PS3 version of NCAA 08 is $19.99 (no 360 version and the prices are usually the same), the 360 version of NBA 2k8 is $26.99, and the 360 version of FIFA 08 is $44.99.

GameStop paid me $43, including a $10 bonus, for games they will turn around and sell for a grand total of $91.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how $650 million of profit is made. Somehow, I can still justify it - I mean, those games were just lying around, right? Might as well get something new - but I still feel horrible knowing that I am nothing but $.50 profit on the dollar to GameStop.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

sports are cruel

Money makes the world go 'round.

Despite making no legitimate effort to find a solution in Seattle, Clay Bennett has weaseled a way out of the Key Arena lease for his ownership group and the Seattle SuperSonics will be no more starting next season.

Even though I'm a diehard Trail Blazers fan, I just can't be happy about this at all. Seattle has won a championship, the Sonics are the city's oldest sports franchise, and, oh yeah, there's stacks of evidence that Bennett's ownership group never attempted to reconcile their arena "problem." Never mind that Key Arena is less than 15 years old in its current incarnation (which is just older than Portland's Rose Garden, for what it's worth), and that it wouldn't take much to improve the arena to "current NBA standards," whatever those are.

I care, but it's frustrating. Sports are a business, and a rather expensive one at that. People want to make money from this. I get it. But after seeing the way Portland has turned around its franchise - namely, rebuilding ties to the community and not letting burned bridges stand in disrepair - and seeing Bennett and his set of flyover state carpetbaggers gleefully holding torches while they exit stage east, I can't help but get a bit frustrated by it all.

Oh well. I can rest assured knowing that, at the NBA owner's meeting vote back a couple months ago to let Bennett take the franchise to Oklahoma City, Portland owner Paul Allen was one of just two dissenting voices. The other? Mark Cuban. I guess my respect for the Mavericks' owner has gone up as well.

Goodbye, Sonics; I hope to see you again some day. And fuck you to whatever this franchise will be called from here on out. I hope they get a shitty nickname, it'll make them easier to hate.