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Category Archives: Opinion Piece

Goodnight, Sweet Princess

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2016 has been a rough year for fandom.  We have lost some of the most iconic actors and artists from some of the best that geekdom cherishes.  Of all of the losses this past year, I think I am the hardest hit by the death of Carrie Fisher.  Of course our grief isn’t nearly as profound as that of her family, especially with the passing of her mother shortly after.  Having lost my own mother this year, I can empathize with what they are going through, and I know that what we feel as fans is nowhere close.  Our grief is real, though, and, while different, it is a sign of just how much Carrie meant to all of us.

Carrie was young when she landed the role that would forever place her among the stars.  In her life, she fought substance abuse and mental illness.  She battled internally and externally to find a healthy balance in her life, and is a real inspiration for people who are suffering from the same struggles.  She was a daughter, and mother, writer, and actress.  Of all the things she’s done, what most of us will recognize her for is her role in the iconic Star Wars saga.  It’s easy to forget the real trials she went through, and focus on the screen image we have of her, but I think for many these go hand in hand.  Neither should be discounted, since each is equally as important for different reasons.

“She was my first hero,” my wife sent me in a text when we got the news.  That is a powerful thing in geekdom.  We tend to choose our heroes a little differently than most people.  We look at fantasy worlds, and the people that inhabit them, and choose characters we would most want to be like.  Carrie, as Princess Leia, was just that for a lot of people of my generation.  She was a hero, for boys, but probably for a lot more girls.  She was a leader, a rebel, and a graceful woman.  She rescued the rescuers, didn’t take any flak from anyone, and gave as good as she got.  When her lover was captured, she put herself in danger to help and when she was captured herself, she took matters into her own hands and got herself free.  Eventually she would become a symbol of hope for the future Jedi, and finally a General.

In her most iconic role, and in her life, Carrie is a symbol of strength.  When the world – or the Empire – beat her down, she got back up and kept on fighting.  When drugs -or a giant space slug – enslaved her, she took that chain in her hands and strangled them.  She had a rough life, but I’m thankful that the last images we do have of our Princess, and our General, is again one of beauty and grace.  She will continue to be an example to people who struggle.  Her writing and her work will live on for generations.  She’ll be missed, but as many popular images are going around, she may be more powerful now than she was in life.

We will miss you, Carrie.  You are our hero.

Wonder Woman Honored then Snubbed by the U.N.

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The United Nations, famous (infamous?) for having Saudi Arabia on the human rights council, recently appointing Wonder Woman as the honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.  Then, even more recently enough, people threw a fit that it was reversed.  Strangely enough of the people who complained aren’t who you think.  UN staffers, feminists, and non-fans of the character were vocal about their opposition.  Even written in the petition:

Although the original creators may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent warrior woman with a feminist message, the reality is that the character’s current iteration is that of a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots –the epitome of a pin-up girl.

What this says about women who do look like Wonder Woman is a bit of a double standard in my opinion.  While every woman is different, there are probably a great many women who look like her and girls who will look like her.  Saying they are abnormal is just as bad as saying any other body type is abnormal.  Saying she’s a ‘white woman’ shows the ignorance of people who cannot tell the difference between the wide range of  European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern people, as much as the ignorance of people who think all Asians are the same.  And what’s wrong with pin-up girls?  It’s a job just like any other, and there are highly talented, and successful burlesque dancers, pin-up models, and dancers and if we are empowering women that means accepting whatever job it is they decide is best for them, right?  Who are we to shame any of these aspects of real women?

If a woman of Greek descent, who saves people all around the world and immigrates to America is too American, then which fictional character would work?  What other fictional female character is as well known, especially with the upcoming DC movie?  How many little girls, and even adults, cosplay as Diana every year?  What message does the UN send to these woman and girls, and even boys, when they say Wonder Woman isn’t womaning well enough to be an example for girls to look up to?

And current iteration?  Did they even google Wonder Woman before writing that?  Take a look.  Wonder Woman art is as varied as the artists who’ve drawn her.  Just in the top few results, we have her in the traditional red, white and blue, decked out in armor, wearing pants, and covered from neck to toe in an armored body suit.  She’s drawn as athletic and slender, or muscular and curvy, large chested or smaller, and everything in between.  The current iteration of this immigrant super heroine is quite diverse really, and it seems to me she shows that women can be whatever they want, and look however they want when they do it.

Thankfully fans are speaking out, with one 14 year old girl starting a petition to reinstate her.  Even Phil Jimenez shared this great tweet with art from Catherine and Sarah Satrun:

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Quite honestly, at the end of the day, if the point is to pick a woman who will fit everyone’s definition of a role-model, you’ll fail.  You’re not going to find a single fictional female, or male character, that everyone will think is a perfect example.  It’s simply not possible.  What I do know is when I see the faces of little girls dressed as Wonder Woman, they look like they’re having the time of their lives.  Do little girls really care what she’s wearing, or do they care that they feel like goddesses when they put on a costume and pretend to be Diana for a few hours?  Should we be focusing on what a woman wears (I’m told that’s really bad), or what she does?  Should our message be that a woman can do whatever she wants, and dress however she likes when she does it, or she can do it as long as she dresses in an acceptable manner?  I may just be one of those silly guys, but it seems like a damn confusing message to me.

Set Nostalgia to Maximum with the NES Classic

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So I managed to land a NES Classic recently through pure luck.  Walmart found some stock, or had some left over, and was running a deal every day for a week or so.  Log in at 5 PM central, click buy, and if you were the first of 25 or 50 you got one.  I managed to get on the site on the last day, right on time and get one.  So it arrived two days ago (as of this writing), and of course, like a little kid on Christmas morning, I couldn’t wait to plug it in.

The ‘console’ itself fits in the palm of your hand.  Hookup is easy, just an HDMI cord and power.  The nice thing is the power is like a USB/standard power cord similar to what some cell phones have.  That way you can plug it into an outlet or a power USB port.  Between that and the 3 ft controller, I think they intended people to hook this up to their desktop monitor and play it there.  Like the old-school gamer that I am, I hooked it up to my TV.  Then I proceeded to sit close, probably just like I did back in 80-whatever when we got our NES for Christmas, and got to playing.

Scrolling through the 30 games pre-installed on the little replica was a trip through memory lane, but firing up the first game was like being ten again.  I fired up Punch-Out and proceeded to play with the biggest dopey grin on my face.  It was shameless, laughing and mashing the two red buttons for all I was worth.  The music and graphics took me back to a time when video games were still a fairly new wonder.  I didn’t get far, because I had long forgotten how to beat some of the fighters from all those years ago.

Just last night I played about 45 minutes of Legend of Zelda, one of the first games we had on our old NES.  I’ll be doing a lot of playing of that one, but it was actually the few minutes I spent on Dr. Mario that hit me the most.  It wasn’t my favorite game, but it was fun.  The music was kind of annoying, and the gameplay a bit repetitive, but it was my mother’s favorite game.  Ever since we lost her back in April, I’ve been looking for every little connection I can to the good memories stored away after all these years.  This is definitely one of them.

My brother and I thought it was so cool that our parents liked video games.  They bought us our first consoles of course, actually buying the Atari 5200 probably more for themselves.  Watching, and playing Dr. Mario with my mom is one of those good memories.  It probably sticks with me the most because of the music.  Completely unforgettable, ingrained in our consciousness almost, is music from those old games we love.  Like the Super Mario Bros theme, Legend of Zelda, or the classical music from Tetris, they just stick with us much more than a lot of modern games.

Games have had a huge impact on people’s lives, right down to creating memories that we carry with us for years.  Some people like to discount nostalgia, or the affect it can have on a person.  All I can say is cherish those memories you make while gaming.  Hold on tight to the afternoons playing 4 player split FPS on the TV with your friends or playing head-to-head Super Mario with your sibling to see how fast you can beat it.  Those memories are just as important as any part of our lives and can sometimes bring a smile to your face when you need it most.  It certainly did for me.

Nintendo, Scalpers, and Retailers Fail the NES Classic Release

 

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Every once in awhile a company, or store, fails spectacularly in anticipating consumer demand for a product.  This time it was the NES Classic Edition, hyped like crazy for months now, and sold out in minutes at every retailer.  This time it was like a perfect storm, a trifecta of fails that left expectant gamers without their NES Classic.  Nintendo failed to ship enough, the retailers failed to anticipate an issue and put a limit on purchases, but worse is scalpers took advantage of the situation to make a huge profit.  Some people were reporting units going for as much as $1000 or more on eBay.

Of course it’s natural to want to blame Nintendo, they should have shipped more.  Why they didn’t anticipate demand, I don’t know.  Chris Grant at Polygon says there’s only two reasons…incompetent or underhanded.  Well, I’m not so cynical.  First, we all know Nintendo’s not incompetent.  They’ve managed to become one of the most well-known names in gaming, and have been around longer than most gaming companies.  You don’t accomplish that if you’re incompetent.  As for underhanded?  What’s the benefit?  Doing something underhanded implies that you have ill-intent toward someone which is to your benefit.  How exactly does it benefit Nintendo to only sell a fraction of the units they would have sold had they produced more?  Fact is we don’t know why.  Maybe retailers didn’t order enough, or production issues kept them from reaching a goal before release, or a number of other reasons that they could have failed.  Contrary to what Chris says, there are more than two options.

Then we have the stores.  Retailers like Target, Wal-Mart and Amazon didn’t put a limit on the number a person can buy.  So people could buy 5, keep 1, and put 4 on eBay to let the bidding get to ridiculous highs.  It’s similar to the failure with the Nuka Cola that was being bought up by employees at Target, and often resold online for a higher price.  Then again, did they even anticipate a run on the console?  Without spending a lot of time crunching numbers about a novelty legacy console releasing a couple of months before Christmas, I can’t possibly know what would have been expected.  Hell, did anyone at either Nintendo or the big retailers know how popular retro gaming has become? Obviously they had some idea or why release the console in the first place, but retro gaming is making a pretty big comeback.  Maybe they just didn’t have any idea how big.

I can’t really fault either of these two groups for anything more than not paying attention to the market and failing to anticipate demand.  Scalpers though, those people intentionally took advantage of the situation, and if you ask me that’s pretty damn underhanded.  Sure, free market and all that, but I’m not saying they don’t have the right to be jerks about it.  Just noting that this kind of crap sucks.  We see it with ticket sales more and more now.  I recently tried to get tickets to an upcoming concert, but a ticket scalping company had bought all the general admission tickets and were selling them at a much higher price.  Even setting their website name to be similar to the concert venue so it looked like you were buying tickets right from the convention center.

That’s really what bugs me the most about this situation.  This wasn’t a mistake, or a failure in judgement.  This was an intentional act to make a profit on gamers who rushed to the store only to find the console sold out.  That’s an awful thing to do if you ask me, and I hope with the units coming soon, the retailers handle it a little better next time.

That’s the silver lining to this thing.  Just this week Wal-Mart had more units that they put on sale each day at a particular time, and Nintendo has promised to ship more before Christmas.  I know I am looking forward to getting mine, so I hope everyone does a better job.  As for the scalpers, don’t buy those consoles for that price.  Let those guys sit on the units, hopefully for a long time, until they’re worthless because the market is flooded with them.

There’s Something for Everyone in Gaming but Everything Isn’t for You

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That statement is pretty blunt, “There’s something for everyone in gaming, but everything isn’t for you.”  I imagine you’ve had one of three reactions reading it:  you either, one, nod your head and get it right away, two, give your computer screen a confused look because you aren’t sure if you should be upset by it, or, three, get upset and start to formulate a rebuttal to tell me how offensive this is.  Bear with me for a minute while I lay this out for you.

As I write this, there is another article being written about how games need to become less violent, more this, less that, and so on and so on.  There’s always someone, somewhere, trying to make the case that games are bad for us.  There are people, whether they are being honest or not, that think every game should fit into their own set of morals and standards.  Sounds a little nuts, doesn’t it?  I do hope you think so, because, if you don’t, you probably won’t like the rest of this.

Gaming has been evolving for decades now, growing from a niche novelty item into the largest entertainment industry in the world.  We’ve gone from just a couple of consoles and PC to countless platforms including handhelds and VR.  Where once your selection of games was fairly limited with just three games released in 1972, we’ve had about 680 games released this year.  The genres available to you are more than I can list, and just about anyone can find something to play.  Maybe that’s why it is estimated that 44% of the world is playing some sort of video game.

The beauty of gaming is it has those niches.  It has genres within genres, all of which appeal to someone.  The reality is they don’t appeal to everyone, and they shouldn’t.  Every one of us has a genre we don’t like, or type of game we think is awful.  There are games we won’t even try because of platform, publisher, subject matter, or genre.  That’s absolutely normal, and we shouldn’t do anything to change it.  Just like we all have book categories we don’t like.  Do we actually consider changing those to fit our tastes?  I wouldn’t pick up a romance novel any more than I’d play a Japanese dating simulator.  I couldn’t imagine demanding romance writers start writing their books more like fantasy adventures so I would find them more entertaining.

What it boils down to is there are definitely games out there for me, but not every game is for me.  That’s actually pretty great because it means more people will have games to play.  If every game fit my tastes, I can assure you many gamers wouldn’t find something they liked.  Our tastes are different.  I like FPS games, RPGs and MMOs, and I play just one mobile game.  I know a lot of people that don’t like any of those genres.  For FPS games, I play military sims almost exclusively, but thousands and thousands like Overwatch, a type of FPS I don’t care for.

Hopefully it’s making a lot more sense now.  But what’s the point?  Point is, when you see people saying “this game shouldn’t exist,” or “I don’t like that, change it,” keep one thing in mind.  Even if you agree with their dislike of whatever game they’re talking about, the next person may say it about a game you like.  As a matter of fact, I can guarantee that whatever game you do like, there’s people out there who don’t.  Imagine if we all stood up and said “I’m offended by that, ban it,” or started a petition to pull a game from store shelves.  How many games would we be left with?  So, when someone says a game shouldn’t exist, even if we don’t like it, we have to say, “yes, it should.”  Otherwise, we can’t really say much if someone comes after the games we like.

Please, Stop.

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Lords, ladies, lads, and lassies, I am Max Urso and I implore you: Please, stop.

This is not a rant, this is a plea.

The gaming industry is inundated with pre-ordered, crowd-funded, early-access betas that fill the internet with hatred and vitriol when they fail to appease. We’re so addicted to instant gratification that we can’t wait for a finished product to come out. The game developers are more than happy to take our money to fund their unfinished products. It’s a dysfunctional relationship, and I’m not sure who the abuser is and who is the enabler.

Mind you, I’m as guilty as the next guy of feeding into this destructive behavior. My Steam library is full of early-access games that I’ve booted up maybe once or twice, only to toss them aside in favor of the next new game that’s not quite ready for the light of day. I have over 100 games in there that aren’t getting played because I’ve drifted back to World of Warcraft and Diablo III. That will change in an instant though, bets are already placed as to how long I’ll stick with my WoW subscription this time. All it will take is a shiny new game on the horizon to catch my eye.

Then, there’s the case of games that are blatant lies. No Man’s Sky sold itself on false promises. There were over 200,000 players on launch day on Steam alone, and today there’s slightly over 2,000. That’s a 90% loss due to features not present in the finished product but talked of in the promotional media leading up to it’s release. These remaining few die hard fans who read between the lines, ignored the hype, and knew what they were buying are the only ones still playing it.

My gaming habits aside, I still play NMS. I like it, but I made it my own (The Lost Files 1). I don’t play it everyday, but I do enjoy it. My point is that we, as consumers, are obligated to think before we spend our money. It’s too easy to click-click-click and purchase a game without thinking of the consequences, but we must. The game developers will keep offering pre-orders if we keep buying into it.

Day one patches, and paid DLCs (that years ago would have been free) are more of the same bad relationship symptoms between us and them. If nobody bought DLCs, then would they still make them? Would they instead offer them for free or as part of the initial content?

Use the power of your wallet intelligently. Wait for the release. Wait for reviews. Sure, most critics seemed biased or possibly even show a preference, but that’s why we need to do our research. Stop giving the game developers an excuse to release a shoddy game. It is the responsibility of the developers to put out a finished, polished product, and it is our responsibility to hold them accountable by not paying for anything less.

 

Video Game Voice Actor’s Strike and Support is Mixed

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In case you didn’t know SAG-AFTRA, the two unions that support voice actors, announced a strike on Friday citing an inability to reach an agreement with several video game publishers.  Among their demands are a pay raise, safer working conditions, and bonuses for games that reach certain sales markers.  I’m not the only one that doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for this move, but everyone has a different reason for thinking this is uncalled for.  Social media is uncharacteristically calm on this issue, but the people who are talking about it in my feed seem to be generally in agreement that voice actors are already paid well for what they do, worried about how this will affect pricing, and that the focus of pay and labor issues should be on developers and not actors.

Voice actors are comparing their role in voicing video games to actors who make movies.  In the movie industry, contracts usually include bonuses if a movie brings in a certain amount of money.  Actors get paid more when a movie hits it big, which makes sense.  I know a lot of people that will go see a movie just because their favorite actor is in it.  The lead casting has a huge impact on sales, especially first day sales.

On the other hand I don’t think I’ve heard a single person say they’re going to go buy a video game because X did the voice for the lead character.  For me, the case would have to be made that the voice actors make a relative impact on sales for this to be a consideration.  Maybe other gamers value this more, but none that I’ve talked to.

Of course good voice acting is important, we can all tell the difference, but I couldn’t name a single voice actor in any of the games I own except for maybe Ron Perlman from Fall Out: New Vegas.  It’s just not something I look for or remember.  To me they’re part of a larger whole that doesn’t stand out as much as the other elements that make a game a game.  While bad voice acting can certainly break a game, the absence of it doesn’t have the same impact.  I’ve played plenty of games with no voice acting at all and found them just as fun as games that have it.

The actors are citing safety issues as well, and I believe that was something that was agreed on.  That’s certainly an important issue when it comes to how their voices are used over long periods of time.  Screaming, yelling, and the like should be taken into consideration.  Whether it be breaks, voice coaches, or shorter work hours, I’m sure something can be done to make sure the tool these actors use isn’t damaged.  Vocalists and screen actors generally have vocal coaches who almost act like physical therapists for the voice.  I remember in Some Kind of Monster James Hetfield admitted to using a voice coach because he was told he wouldn’t be able to sing for much longer if he didn’t start taking care of his voice.  Also mentioned is stunt work with motion capture and a lack of stunt work and training.  It’s not mentioned in the strike document, but is being talked about by the voice actors.  Some balance could be found here, and like I said, I think it has been.

The big sticking point seems to be compensation.  Specifically the voice actors are looking for secondary compensation, either in the way of an up-front bonus, or residual payment should a game sell over 2 million copies.  According to everything I’ve read a voice actor averages $825.00 for a 4 hour session.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  That’s just $200 shy of the national average income for a family…for a week.  While the average family makes $25.90 an hour, a voice actor makes 206.25.

For comparison the average salary for a game developer is just 31.90 an hour at 4o hours a week, and from all reports they put in between 60-80 a week during a development cycle and possibly more if a game is running behind.  There is an enormous disparity between the money a consumer has to buy a game, and the cost it takes to make one, and one of the highest paid 1% wants to get paid more money.  Trust me, the comparison isn’t lost on me when the 1% is asking for more when they already make over 6 times what the 99% does in this situation.

Of course there are two sides to this, and I imagine not every voice actor is making big bucks doing video games exclusively.  Being a writer and freelance journalist, I’m well aware that having a ‘real job’ is a necessity when my dream jobs don’t pay what I need to live on.  I’m sure there’s some balance to be had here, but unfortunately we, the consumer, don’t get much consideration in this at all.  Remember the television writer’s strike back in 07-08?  I do, and we lost a lot of good shows to it, had delays in others, and some good shows took an awful turn and were eventually cancelled.

In that case, there was no worry of a price increase to the consumer, but here there is.  We all know how publishers recoup cost increases for production.  They either raise the price of a game, or they cut corners to save money, and give us a sub-par product.  We already know they’re willing to cut corners when deadlines are looming, and while devs catch the blame it’s ultimately the publisher’s call to cut out a feature or part of a story to get a game to market on time.  They won’t have any qualms cutting if it means keeping production costs down.

Now, with the strike official, we will most likely see delays.  Not immediately because the strike stipulates any games started before February of 2015 can continue, but it’s probably going to effect any games coming middle to late next year.  After this is all sorted out, we could be looking at some sort of price increase to cover the rise in potential costs.  The games industry, despite still being the largest entertainment industry in the world, has been seeing loss of sales for over a year now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a price hike was already on the way.

We’ve been paying about the same amount for games for the last several years, but there’s been an increase in paid DLC, season passes, microtransactions, and subscription models coming along with that.  Talking to gamers on social media, it’s evident that a lot of gamers are simply priced out of the market and opt to wait for sales rather than buy on day one, and many have chosen to go with indie games exclusively because they tend to run cheaper than AAA titles.

It’s not just the consumer that will feel the brunt of this, I imagine.  The strike is against larger companies like Activision, EA, and Disney, but a lot of smaller development firms produce games under those companies.  For a new, small, or indie development firm, delays in a game, or cancellation of a project, can put them under before they even get a chance to start.  A lot of companies throw everything they have into their first game and if it fails, they’re never heard from again.

Take Visceral Games, a subsidiary of EA.  They have a Star Wars game set to release in 2017, which may actually fall in the time frame of the strike, and I imagine has a great deal of voice acting.  Being the only game we know for sure they’re currently working on, what happens if that project gets delayed indefinitely or worse, cancelled?  Do the devs go unpaid while production halts, or do they keep working unsure, whether the game will go to market at all?  It throws a lot of uncertainty on the market and looks a lot like the little guys, us, and the devs, get to bear the brunt of what amounts to an argument between two groups of people that make more money than any of us wanting more money.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a person making as much money as they can make in their chosen profession, I just don’t much like the tactics used here.

At the end of it all, we really don’t know how long this will go on or what effect it will eventually have.  I hope none.  In a perfect world, everyone will walk away happy, no one will have to spend more on games, and we won’t have to wait for delayed releases.  This is a complicated issue with some real concerns that should be addressed, and others I’m not convinced on myself.  I think there is a larger discussion to be had here about working conditions and compensation, but I think it’s being had by, and about, the wrong people in this scenario.  I don’t think union is the answer for devs, but I certainly think they could stand to get some support from the community and consideration from the companies that hire them.

Metro City Boys podcast talked with the narrator of Darkest Dungeon, Wayne June