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Dungeon Keeper Mobile: A Game Greedy Companies Play

And the brouhaha around EA’s mobile Dungeon Keeper remake continues.

For those unfamiliar with Dungeon Keeper, it originally appeared as a PC game in 1997. The player assumes the role of a fantasy villain who designs and maintains a dungeon, protecting treasure against invading heroes. A sequel came out in 1999. Recently, Electronic Arts revived the franchise with a mobile version created by recently-defunct Mythic Entertainment.

To the dismay and outrage of Dungeon Keeper fans and game enthusiasts alike, the latest iteration in the franchise relies heavily on microtransactions. The game itself is available for free download; however in order to obtain the resources necessary to build and maintain a dungeon the game effectively forces users to continue to pay real money. Otherwise, players have to sit through exorbitantly long waiting times while resources are mined (Jim Sterling of The Escapist aptly described this model as “Free to Wait”) It is the microtransaction model taken to the Nth degree.

More like "Dollars.  Dollars. Dollars."

More like “Dollars. Dollars. Dollars.”

To make matters worse, Electronic Arts have stacked additional layers to the steaming pile, including blocking the ability to give the game less than a 5-star rating and deflecting criticism as just the nerd-rage of nostalgic longtime DK fans. It is the textbook example of the Free-2-Play business model at its absolute worst and has justifiably become the target of intense criticism. Even Peter Molyneux, creator of the original Dungeon Keeper, expressed his dismay over the direction EA has taken the series. In February he told the BBC: “I felt myself turning round saying, ‘What? This is ridiculous. I just want to make a dungeon. I don’t want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped.”

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority even recently told EA they could no longer market Dungeon Keeper as a free game.

An element of that debate hinges on whether or not Dungeon Keeper qualifies as a game at all, and there have been arguments made on both sides of the issue. For example, Mike Fahey at Kotaku observed that Dungeon Keeper was not a game for the “hardcore” game enthusiast but rather the casual mobile player accustomed to microtransactions and short play sessions (see also here and here for those who say no, and here for one who says yes).

If we follow the basic characteristics of games, I argue Dungeon Keeper and similar Free-2-Play games like Farmville and Final Fantasy: All the Bravest are in fact games. They are games in the sense they have clearly-defined players, rules, and objectives. However, the players are neither the irate “hardcore” game fans nor the casual mobile crowd.

The players in the Free-2-Play game scene are the publishers themselves.

Let me be clear that this is not the case in all Free-2-Play games. Jetpack Joyride is an entertaining free game on its own as is Tiny Tower. In each the player has the option to either earn coins for in-game purchases or pay real money to buy more coins. The choice lies with the player. These games make it possible to enjoy the experience without costing the player a nickel; instead offering it as an option to change or enhance gameplay. The pay model for players can also be a vote of affirmation to the developers, a sign they made something enjoyable and worthwhile.

Games like Dungeon Keeper and Final Fantasy and the rest of their ilk however fall on the opposite end of the F2P spectrum: they are games designed with the sole purpose of siphoning money to greedy developers who see these games as the direct means to the end of optimizing their cashflow by any means. In the metagame that is the Free-2-Play model, the objective is to develop a product that will quickly generate as much money as possible. The player uses all the techniques at their disposal to maximize their profits, including but not limited to downloadable content or paywalls barring users from effectively continuing without periodic admissions fees, manipulating review scores make their games seem better, or even leveraging the name of an established franchise to bilk fans into shelling out cash. In this game the user serves as the means toward the ultimate end of a larger bottom line.

In this model the end-user is no more a player than the Space Marines in Starcraft are players. They are pawns, means to the greater end of drawing in as much money as possible. To push the Starcraft metaphor even further, the users are SCV’s: expendable and interchangeable units designed to generate resources, mining their wallets to funnel cash into the publisher machine.

Now go out there and mine those minerals! Or alternatively go on GoG and buy the original Dungeon Keeper games: .

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Dissertation Notes: Put ‘Er, um, there: The Atari Secret Handshake

“Dissertation Notes” is the oh-so-clever name of my (semi) regular segment briefly highlighting the interesting, unusual, or thought-provoking materials I have come across while working on my dissertation.

Are you a true Atari fanatic?

A real one?

Come on, be honest?

Let’s put it to the test. Show me the handshake!

Video game companies and enthusiasts laid the foundation for our modern game fan culture during the early eighties by launching “fan club” magazines. Official fan club magazines, such as Atari Age, Activisions, Odyssey2 Adventure, and Intellivision Game Club News were basically extensions of the various companies’ marketing departments, but they represent the early cultivation of video game fan culture. They provided “insider” information on current and upcoming titles, sponsored contests (one of which will be the subject of a later “Dissertation Notes”), and encouraged readers to submit high scores and fan-created materials such as poems and fan art. None of the early magazines survived the Crash in 1983-4, but Nintendo picked up where they left off when it launched Nintendo Fun Club News (later renamed Nintendo Power) in 1987.

One of the stranger materials to come out of one of these fan club magazines appeared in the December 1982 issue of Atari Age (Vol. 1, No. 4): The Atari Secret Handshake.

According to an article dramatically revealing the secret handshake:

“We met recently with an Atari Vice President (who prefers to remain anonymous), and in the course of our conversation, she let slip the secret of the ‘official’ Atari handshake which has been making the rounds at Atari headquarters. It’s too good to keep to ourselves, so we’ll share it with you–but remember, we’re swearing all of you to secrecy on this!”

I’ll let the following diagram speak for itself:

The Atari Handshake, Atari Age, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Nov-Dec 1982), pg. 7

The Atari Handshake, Atari Age, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Nov-Dec 1982), pg. 7

So tell your friends, the secret appears to be out. See if they are a true fan as well.

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Mothers Month: Part 3 – Mother 3

“Speaking of waiting, next time we’ll wrap up the series with a look at Mother 3, a game that was in development for nine years.”

Little did I know nearly nine months would pass before I brought the last installment. It’s funny how your words sometimes gain new meaning over time. And so here it is, the third and final installment of my “month long” look at the Mother series. Watch them together and it will seem like they were all brought out around the same time.

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The December 9, 1993 Video Game Hearing, a Look Back

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the hearings on violent video games that led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Led by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, lawmakers and a panel of alarmed experts denounced video games for encouraging or desensitizing children to violence (you can view the entire hearing here).

The December hearing was the culmination of two major social and technological movements at work during the early nineties.

One the one hand, the late eighties and early nineties brought a wave of technological fads as various entrepreneurs attempted to combine the resurgent popularity of video games with other forms of established media, such as television and film, to create some kind of interactive supermedium.

This was the most fervent period of the VR craze. Led in no small part by Jaron Lanier. Lanier, a former programmer who had previously worked for arcade manufacturer Exidy, founded his own company–VPL–in the late 1980s as a virtual reality firm. Their flagship product was the DataGlove, a glove that allowed users to interact with computer environments with simple hand movements. Many readers may recognize the technology as that which inspired Mattel’s PowerGlove. The flamboyant Lanier took the DataGlove on the road, professing to the popular press of the coming of a technological utopia where people interacted with virtual worlds. He was by no means the only one. Even Timothy Leary, the spokesman of the wild sixties jumped on the VR bandwagon, demonstrating the technology at trade shows and news programs in the US and abroad. The world of science fiction crossed into the mainstream as words like “cyberspace,” “virtual,” and the “information highway” entered the popular lexicon.

The FMV or interactive movie game also had its brief moment in the sun. There was a wave of games utilizing live actors that promised to bridge the gap between video games and film. Initially introduced by Sega with Astron Belt in 1982, games that utilized canned film sequences fell in and out of fashion with various storage media. The success of Dragon’s Lair in 1983 brought a wave of “laserdisc games” that lasted through 1984; a few companies such as ViewMaster and Worlds of Wonder attempted VHS-based systems in the late eighties; and CD-ROM became the format of choice for the early nineties through systems such as 3DO, Cd-i, and Sega CD.

Hollywood also attempted to get in on the action with “I’m Your Man.” Released on December 18, 1992, by Controlled Entropy as an “Intervision” movie (company president Bob Bejan dubbed it a “cinematic game”) viewers could press one of three buttons on a controller attached to their seat to vote on actions that took place in the film, which the actors then carried out on-screen.

On the other hand, America was in a growing state of unease in 1993 as the country fell into the grips of a panic over violence. It is difficult to say what exactly sparked the controversy but Americans found themselves inundated by stories of violent crime in the press and declarations of an “epidemic of violence” among reporters, politicians, and pundits. In reality, statistics show that violent crime was actually on the decline (According to an FBI report, following a high in 1992, crime rates in the United States began a steady decline that continued through 2009); nevertheless, popular attention to violence reached frenzied proportions.

The popular press funneled in a steady stream of reports of random acts of violence into American living rooms. Stories that received significant airtime included the kidnapping and murder of Paula Claas and the December 7 mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train that killed five and wounded twenty-three. Following the Long Island shooting, the cover of Time ran a picture of a larger-than-life image of a handgun under the headline “ENOUGH!” Television specials aired throughout the latter months of 1993 and into 1994 on such topics as guns, drugs, and gang violence, such as MTV’s “Generation Under the Gun” which aired on December 9, 1993. In news stories the underlying questions were “Who/What is responsible” and “What is to be done?”

Congress responded with a wave of new legislation targeted at law enforcement and gun control. Two significant bills that came out of the panic were the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Signed into law on November 30, 1993, The “Brady Bill” called for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases pending a criminal background check. The “Crime bill” meanwhile was a broad-sweeping piece of legislation. Introduced in October 1993 and passed in August 1994, the 356 page bill instituted tougher penalties for violent crime and expanded the use of the death penalty among its numerous other provisions.

Activists branched out in all directions searching for a cause for the supposed wave of violence, including urban gangs, the proliferation of drugs, and gun culture. Invariably, others turned to moral issues. As is typical, some cited the outbreak to the decline of “traditional family values.” It should come as no surprise then that their efforts shifted toward the media as either reflecting violence in society or actively causing it. After a young boy set fire to his family’s mobile home, killing his younger sister, parents and law enforcement officials blamed Beavis and Butthead; in response, MTV removed all instances of Beavis’ “Fire, fire” catchphrase and preceded the show with a disclaimer. Others blamed the death of Pennsylvania teenager Michael Shingledecker on the movie “The Program,” arguing he was reenacting a scene from the film when he lay down in the middle of a busy street and was fatally run over.

It was in the midst of this environment that moral activists directed their ire toward video games. Sen. Joseph Lieberman emerged as their spokesman when on December 1, 1993, he held a press conference denouncing what he called “violent video games.” Flanked by members of the National PTA and former Captain Kangaroo star Bob Keeshan, Lieberman called out games for promoting violence and sex, especially violence toward women.

Lieberman singled out two games in particular: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Mortal Kombat was the breakaway arcade hit of 1992 with its use of digitized actors and its stylized violence, including the now-famous “Fatalities.” Acclaim released home versions for all the major systems on September 13, 1993 (“Mortal Monday”). Night Trap, meanwhile, was less of a household name. Developed by Digital Pictures, Night Trap had players portray a surveillance officer observing a slumber party through closed circuit cameras and protecting the partygoers from shambling black-clad vampires. Night Trap involved little skill beyond memorization, its live-action scenes were hammy and drawn out, and it came out for the Sega CD, an expensive add-on for the Sega Genesis. It is hard to determine just how Lieberman discovered Night Trap, and it is not much of a stretch to say had he not given it so much attention, it would have died in obscurity among Sewer Shark, Ground Zero: Texas, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, and the rest of the legion of bad FMV games from the early 1990s . Nevertheless, Lieberman set Night Trap up as the symbol of a video game industry threatening to corrupt America’s children and threatened legislation against the games industry.

The stage was set for the first of three hearings. On December 9, 1993, Lieberman, joined by Sens. Herbert Kohl and Byron Dorgan, denounced the video game industry for peddling violence to children. They pointed to Night Trap as the symbol of everything wrong with video games. He and a panel of educators and child psychologists described a game, as Lieberman described, designed to ensnare women (the objective in reality was actually the opposite), where women were strung up on meat hooks and had their blood decanted into wine bottles, neither of which were features available in the game. Experts cited conjecture and limited findings based on television violence research, including a controversial study by the American Medical Association which cited television as responsible for half the murders in America, as the definitive proof of the negative effects of video games on children. They pointed to the rise of VR as an example of how video games were becoming an even greater threat than traditional media and cited interactive movie games as the harbinger of dark days to come.

The representatives of the video game industry offered little resistance to the activists’ assertions. Howard Lincoln of Nintendo and Bill White of Sega brought their industry feud (epitomized by Sega’s slogan: “Sega Does What Nintendon’t”) into the halls of Congress. Lincoln, the former trial lawyer, successfully deflected congressional ire toward his counterpart at Sega, seasoned with some personal attacks directed at White, a former employee of Nintendo. He repeatedly cited Nintendo’s strict restrictions on content and their decision to not release Night Trap (which was probably motivated more by Nintendo’s lack of a system capable of playing the CD-rom-based game). White repeatedly found himself as the target of legislative outrage.

After the hearings, Lieberman introduced the Video Game Rating Act in February 1994. The bill called for an executive-appointed panel to develop a ratings system for the video game industry. Meanwhile, the video game manufacturers established the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), the industry’s first trade organization (now known as the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA), and developed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a letter-based ratings system present on all video game materials .

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Notes from the Game Presentation Circuit

PrimarySourceCode is not dead and neither am I.

Far from it, I have been making excellent progress on my research and I have been delivering talks on video games.

At the end of October, I had the privilege of speaking before the Delaware Valley Archivist Group’s “Archivists Being Awesome” on the subject of video game preservation (you can check out an interview I did with DVAG here). Bookending my talk were two excellent presentations: Lisa Gensel of the University of Delaware gave an interesting talk on emergency preparedness and how it relates to archives and Matt Shoemaker of Temple University’s Paley Library recounted his experience as part of a Kickstarter-funded history of Dungeons and Dragons.

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Cultural Association (MAPACA) to deliver a talk on my research into the 1993-1994 congressional hearings on video game violence. I was fortunate enough to be paired with a comprehensive project analyzing the moral panic against video games in the aftermath of last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A lively discussion of the role of video games in greater American culture followed the presentations. The two talks complemented each other extremely well and I was fortunate to be a part of it.

The following day of the conference brought a great set of game studies presentations under the heading “Gaming: New Frontiers.” Alana Staiti, a former UD colleague who is now studying at Cornell, gave a fascinating talk on the character design of Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. Fanny Ramirez from Rutgers examined the ambitious crowdfunded game Star Citizen and the benefits and pitfalls of funding a game through nontraditional means. Robert Spicer and Karl Babij rounded out the panel with a survey of users of Zynga’s messaging system in Words with Friends. The discussion that followed was as lively as you would expect from game scholars.

With conferences over (for now) expect to find more quality video game and history material here at PrimarySourceCode. I have found some exciting materials I am eager to share with you.

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Saving Games: Code4lib Mid-Atlantic

Last Thursday I had the privilege to deliver a presentation for the August monthly meetup for Code4lib Mid-Atlantic.   I talked about the challenges facing video game preservation and what they mean for people in cultural institutions.  I want to thank everyone who attended for all of your great questions and feedback.  For those weren’t able to make the trip out to Temple University’s Paley Library, I have attached a copy of my notes along with a hopefully useful bibliography here (Impellizeri Code4Lib Talk).  I will also be conducting an expanded version of this talk at the upcoming October meeting of Archivists Being Awesome.

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Five Video Game Franchises in Need of a Sequel

A few weeks ago during E3, Double Helix announced this September would mark the return of Killer Instinct.  The new free-to-play game for the upcoming Xbox One is the first game in the franchise since KI: Gold graced the Nintendo 64 as a launch title way back in 1996.

Killer Instinct is by no means the only series suffering from neglect in recent years, so as we prepare for the return of Jago, Glacius, Fulgore, and the rest, here are five other franchises I’d like to see make a return in the upcoming generation.

1) Turok

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

First Game: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (Iguana: Nintendo 64, 1997)
Last Game: Turok (Propaganda Games; Xbox 360, PS3, 2008)

Based on a Valiant comic series, the Turok FPS franchise is equal parts dinosaurs and wacky sci-fi weapons, one of which is a probe that bores into an enemy’s head and drains the brains inside like a medieval surgeonTurok: Dinosaur Hunter was an early title for the Nintendo 64; an entertaining, albeit flawed sequel appeared the next year, followed by several sequels of varying quality.  After publisher Acclaim folded, new owner Propaganda Games took over the rights to the franchise and managed to turn a game about a time-traveling Native American battling dinosaurs and aliens with sci-fi weapons into a bland, boring, generic shooter.

If left in the hands of creative developers more interested in making a fun game than convincing people to name their children after Turok, this franchise could be fun again.

2) Vectorman

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

First Game: Vectorman (Blue Sky Software: Sega Genesis, 1995)
Last Game: Vectorman 2 (Blue Sky Software: Sega Genesis, 1996)

I could go on for a while focusing on just series Sega could work on instead of finding new ways to ruin Sonic the Hedgehog.  Vectorman starred the eponymous robot made of green spheres as he battled War Head, a robot with a nuclear bomb for a head.  The game was a fun platformer and featured some of the best use of shading of the 16-bit generation.  It was also a game with a lot of variety: in one stage you are a runaway train barreling over a bridge while another casts you as a top spinning through a disco parlor.  Blue Sky released a sequel in 1996.

In 2003 Sega attempted to revive Vectorman as a third-person shooter for the PlayStation 2.  However, apart from some screenshots and alpha videos, the game never saw the light of day.

3) Viewtiful Joe

Image Source: IGN

Image Source: IGN

First Game: Viewtiful Joe (Clover Studio: GameCube 2003, PS2, 2004)
Last Game: Viewtiful Joe: Double Trouble (Clover Studio; Nintendo DS, 2005)

Viewtiful Joe was a unique 2D beat ‘em up with stunning cell-shaded visuals, great music and a sometimes punishing difficulty (hello, four boss fights in a row without a save point).  Borrowing its plot from Last Action Hero, Viewtiful Joe cast players as Joe, a film buff who jumps into his favorite movie to rescue his girlfriend.  Capcom and Clover set up Joe’s adventure as a trilogy; however, only parts one and two ended up getting released before Clover closed shop in 2007.

Joe has since run the Capcom crossover fighter circuit, making appearances in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

4) Perfect Dark

Image Source: IGN

Image Source: IGN

First game: Perfect Dark (Rare: Nintendo 64, 2000)
Last game: Perfect Dark Zero (Rare: Xbox 360, 2005)

Released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000, Perfect Dark was a more-than-worthy follow-up to the classic FPS GoldenEye 007; some go as far to say Perfect Dark, with its creative weapons and dramatically expanded multiplayer, was the better game.  For a time it appeared the adventures of Joanna Dark were destined to expand beyond the game with plans for TV show by Fireworks Entertainment and possibly a feature film.  Those plans never materialized; to make matters worse, Perfect Dark Zero proved a lackluster sequel when it came out as a launch title for the Xbox 360.

An HD remake of the original came out on Xbox Live in 2010; since then Rare has been content to focus on Kinect games.

5) Mutant League

Image Source: Amazon

Image Source: Amazon

First Game: Mutant League Football (Electronic Arts: Genesis, 1993)
Last Game: Mutant League Hockey (Electronic Arts: Genesis, 1994)

Another great franchise that debuted on the Genesis, Mutant League Football and the sequel Mutant League Hockey pitted teams of aliens, trolls, skeletons, and other horrors in literal blood sport on the gridiron and on the ice.  In addition to being visceral and damn fun both games were graphically impressive, especially compared to more traditional games like NHL and John Madden Football, and fans have been clamoring for more mutated mayhem ever since.  The series even spawned a toy line and an animated series.

The appearance of the Mutant League logo on the zombie team in the recent NFL Blitz left some wondering if EA would re-animate the franchise.

Which neglected or down-on-its-luck series would you like see make a return?  Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section!


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