Category Archives: Video Games

Why Video Games Can be Addictive

There has always been a certain addictive quality to video games.  After all, the industry began as a scheme to get kids into arcades and empty their pockets.  Getting the high score in Pac-Man or Space Invaders was enough to sustain coin-operated games until home consoles and PC’s slowly made them obsolete, save for the occasional Dave and Buster’s.

Arcade games weren’t necessarily all that addictive.  Once you ran out of quarters you were kind of done with them.  It wasn’t like a slot machine at a casino, offering potential monetary rewards.  Instead, it was merely a way to pass the time until you ran out of money.

Once games moved from arcades into the living room, the “beat the high score” motivation became essentially meaningless.  Sure games like the Super Mario Brothers series still had “scores,” but no one cared because you weren’t playing against dozens of other opponents drawn from members of the public.  Instead it became about “beating” the game, or “beating” an opponent sitting next to you.

Early 8 or 16 bit games couldn’t handle a lot of complexity, so beating the game usually meant finishing a set of progressively difficult levels or puzzles.  Sports games employed “rubber-band AI,” which caused the computer to essentially cheat if you got too good against it.

This basic paradigm of gaming continued for quite some time.  The biggest problem was that if the game got too hard, a lot of players would simply give up on it.  I never beat the majority of my NES games because I just stopped trying.  If the top levels got too hard, it was frustrating to continue.

There were two exceptions to this – sports games and role-playing games.  Once NES games like Tecmo Super Bowl licensed the names and trademarks of real players and teams, the allure of sports games increased.  It no longer meant just playing against friends and siblings, it meant playing as the real players in a sort of fantasy world where you could win games 63-0 (at least until the rubber-band AI caught up to you).

Early RPG’s like The Legend of Zelda and Crystalis weren’t nearly as difficult as the average NES platformers.  However, the story and the ability to “level” up your character kept you engaged.  Often the two were intertwined.  For example, I would spend hours leveling up on Crystalis just to be able to get to the next part of the story.

That gives us five elements of an addictive game:

  1. Progressively difficult, but not insurmountable, obstacles.
  2. Fulfilling a common fantasy.
  3. Engaging with human players.
  4. A reward system, such as leveling up.
  5. A compelling story.

Not all addictive games have all of these elements, but all addictive games have at least one of them.  Arguably, MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft have all five elements.  Likewise, popular cell phone games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga may only have #1 and/or #4.  Therefore, a video game can become addictive if it has multiple elements, or if it masters one or two.

Anyway, the next time you wonder why you got sucked into a video game, that’s why.  Several decades of game evolution landed on some pretty straightforward rules to keep you playing.  Understanding those rules may help you pull yourself away.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe


The Assassin’s Creed Series (Wherein I Can’t be the Only One Who Thinks this Way)

By D.G. McCabe

I like the Assassin’s Creed series.  Sure, the first one had some repetition issues, and I hear that Unity had some pretty major bugs upon release, but Assassin’s Creed II and IV are fantastic games, and IV is near perfect.

Let’s use Assassin’s Creed IV as an example.  You’re sailing the high seas taking ships from the Spanish and British navies.  Or you’re embarking on exciting missions of stealth and/or action.  There are buried treasures to find and sharks to harpoon.

Then, all of a sudden it stops.  You’re back in the present day.  Exciting pirate action has been put on hold for the time being, and you have another exciting task.  Walk around an office building!  Attend boring meetings!  Read boring documents on computer screens!  Hear eight different bosses drone on about a convoluted story that doesn’t make sense!

Jarring, isn’t it?  One minute you’re sailing the high seas doing all sorts of pirating.  The next minute you’re having all the fun of a particularly boring day at work.  Unfortunately this isn’t a problem specific to Assassin’s Creed IV – every game in the series has some version of this.

You’re living it up in the exciting past, then all of a sudden you’re in the near future because you’ve really been in something called an “animus” essentially dreaming this up.  Well it’s worse than that actually, you’re experiencing the “genetic memories” of your ancestors, which makes absolutely no sense when you stop and think about it, but hey, time travel!

Oh, and it turns out the Greek gods were real and they want to destroy us.  Also the Knights Templar secretly control the world.  And some other pointless blah blah blah can’t I go back to being a pirate?

If I wanted to walk around an office building, attending boring meetings and hearing people drone on about things I don’t care about, I would just go to work.  Oh I’m sorry, I actually like my job for the most part.  The near future backstory of Assassin’s Creed is like working at f’n Initech and having Bill Lumbergh ask you to come in on Sunday.

The near future backstory of every Assassin’s Creed game is annoying at best, but usually just ridiculously convoluted and frustrating, inserted into the games at the worst possible times.  Can Ubisoft just get rid of it?  Please?

I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week – Sequels

One thing that video games do not have in common with movies is that sequels are usually better than the original.  Video game sequels tend to build on the concepts that make the original game successful while discarding the failures that annoyed players.

Unfortunately this does not always hold true for subsequent sequels (the III’s and IV’s of the gaming world), especially when migrating a franchise to a new operating system.  There is far too great a temptation on the part of developers to utilize the bells and whistles of the new systems while forgetting important aspects such as enjoyable gameplay.

Here are my five favorite, and five most disappointing, sequels:

Favorite Sequels:

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

With the exception of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, every Legend of Zelda sequel has been a phenomenal success both critically and commercially.  N64’s Ocarina of Time is considered by many critics to be the best of the series (and by some, the best video game of all time), but Game Boy’s Link’s Awakening is my personal favorite.

Super Mario Brothers 3

3D graphics, cinematic storytelling, and online multiplayer still have nothing on the third Super Mario game.   As a pure gameplay experience, it might be the masterpiece of the NES.  It still holds up over twenty years later.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

GTA: SA took all of the elements that made classic gangster films like Casino and Goodfellas great, added them to what worked in GTA III and GTA: Vice City, and created what is still the pinnacle of sandbox games.  I recently re-played this one all the way through, and it’s still a lot of fun.

Assassin’s Creed II

The original Assassin’s Creed had a lot going for it, but the fighting mechanics, repetitive street missions, and the impossible end missions sucked the life out of the game for me.  Fortunately Assassin’s Creed II took the best parts of the original and updated the worst parts to make a nearly perfect game.

Wing Commander II

Boy was this an upgrade.  The characters were deeper, the gameplay was smoother, and the story was more compelling than the original.  It did everything the first Wing Commander did well and took it to the next level.  I spent days playing this game in the 90’s.

Most Disappointing Sequels

Civilization V

I love this game – now.  The problem was when it was shipped it was buggy, incomplete, and way too easy.  After dozens of tweaks, updates, and expansion packs we now have a game worthy of its predecessors.  My point in listing it here is that it should have came shipped that way instead of making the consumer essentially beta test it.

Grand Theft Auto IV

I’ve already written extensively about this miserable failure of a game.

Madden ’06

The 2004 and 2005 versions of Madden may still be the finest versions of the game.  So for 2006 they decided to add the worst feature of any sports game ever – the passing cone.  Thankfully you could disable it.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Here.  Let’s take everything you loved about the first game, and throw it out in favor of making a half-ass game that can’t decide if it’s a repetitive platform game or a cheesy RPG.  The worst part is that this would be an average, forgettable NES game if it weren’t part of most successful console adventure series of all time.

Sim City 4

I should like this game.  I’ve tried to like this game.  I’ve given it multiple chances.  Theoretically it’s an improvement on Sim City 3, with more diverse features and deeper gameplay.  So why is it that every time I play it I feel like I’m pushing a rock up a hill?

What are some of your sequel experiences?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week Survey – Golden Era

Video game history is tinted by nostalgia.  There also isn’t very much of it.  As an experiment for Video Game Preservation week, I’m going to ask the following question in a survey – what do you think is the golden era of video games?  Placing the cutoff at the release of the PS3 in 2006 (since it’s too early to judge), the candidates are:

1. Pre-Crash Era (Before 1983)

Notable Games:

  • Pac-Man (Atari)
  • Pong (Arcade)
  • Oregon Trail (Apple II)
  • Missile Command (Atari)
  • Space Invaders (Arcade)

2. The NES Era (1985-1992)

Notable Games:

  • Final Fantasy (NES)
  • The Legend of Zelda (NES)
  • Super Mario Brothers 3 (NES)
  • Wing Commander II (DOS)
  • Wolfenstein, 3D (DOS)

3. The SNES and Genesis Era (1992-1996)

Notable Games

  • Alone in the Dark (DOS)
  • Doom (DOS)
  • Mortal Kombat (SNES/Genesis)
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)
  • Starfox (SNES)

4. The Early 3D Era (1996-2001)

Notable Games

  • Civilization II (Windows)
  • Goldeneye (N64)
  • Gran Turismo (PS1)
  • Quake (DOS/Windows)
  • Resident Evil (PS1)

5. The Second 3D Era (2001-2006)

Notable Games

  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
  • In the Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)
  • Halo (XBox)
  • Madden 2005 (PS2/XBox)
  • World of Warcraft (Windows)

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Video Game Preservation Week – Computer Games

I was a PC gamer for a long time.  I got an NES in 1992, a PC in 1994, and then a Playstation 2 in 2005.  That’s eleven years of primarily playing games on PC.  Other than the Civilization series, I switched back to consoles for two reasons.  First, PC games require incessant, often expensive, hardware upgrades.  Second, other than a handful of RPG’s and strategy games, the gaming experience in almost all genres is now better on consoles than on PC’s.

The hardware issues with PC games has always been with us, but the second factor – gaming experience – wasn’t always so clear cut.  Until recently PC games were always a generation ahead of their console brethren.  When there was NES, PC’s had 16 bit games.  During the SNES/Genesis wars, PC’s were up to 32 and 64 bits.  Really until the PS3/XBox 360/Wii era, PC’s were always one generation ahead.

Let’s review some of the more important computer games:

1. Oregon Trail

Once in a while someone may have had an Atari at home, but we were always envious of the copies of Oregon Trail in the school computer lab.  When most video games were of the classic arcade style (Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc.), here was a strategy game where we could make dozens of choices and be creative.  Never has dysentery been so hilarious.

2. Civilization and Civilization II

The Civ series is the most successful turn-based strategy series of all time.  The scope of these games is no less than the entire written history of humankind.  Civilization was a great game, but Civilization II was the most advanced one for its time.  Just one more turn…

3. Wing Commander II

Space sims, and flight sims in general, have gone out of fashion.  Wing Commander II, however, was more than a space sim in that it was the first video game to take its story seriously.  It set the bar for the three interactive movie sequels, and every game that we have today with any cutscenes whatsoever.

4. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake

The first person shooter genre, complete with online multiplayer, was being developed on PC when consoles still relied on platform games.  Wolfenstein brought us the concept, Doom expanded it to include multiplayer, and Quake arguably set the standard for every first person shooter that came after it.

5. World of Warcraft

No discussion of computer games would be complete without a mention of World of Warcraft.  It wasn’t the first MMORPG, but it was by far the most successful.  At a time when console hardware had finally caught up to computers, World of Warcraft demonstrated that there was still a place for computer games, mainly RPG and strategy games.

What are some of your favorite PC games?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe