This Is Why Marvel Is Better Than Star Wars

Marvel Is Beating the Pants Off Star Wars – Admit It

Marvel Comics and Star Wars have always been the polestars of my geekdom, but things have changed and now we have to admit that cinematically, Marvel is better than Star Wars, for some really obvious reasons.


Star Wars came to greatness by taking chances. It had a cast of virtual unknowns, wacky creatures and locations, and a story based on Japanese archetype that blended fantasy and scifi elements.

Now, after a whole trilogy’s worth of cringe-rife agony brought on by George Lucas’ egotism and inability to innovate, Star Wars is trying to regain its mojo, but in the worst possible way. Star Wars: Force Awakens summarizes the dilemma in a nutshell. They hired a hotshot director and were so busy trying to please the fanboys that they remade Star Wars: A New Hope with a less-compelling protagonist with no weaknesses or interesting flaws. (Aptly named, Rey, which is “King” in Spanish, enters the franchise able to fix spaceships better than Chewie, fly and shoot better than Han, mind-control better than Obi Wan, and swordfight better than Luke, but is as interesting as a cardboard cutout.) The whole thing felt more like a salute to a dead franchise than a new chapter in a living one.

Meanwhile, In a Marvel Franchise Far, Far Away

Marvel has its own set of issues, as it introduces more and jankier heroes and muddies the waters of public consciousness as it tries to combine storylines and build team adventures while still maintaining a logical universe (not exactly its forte). Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’d be better off keeping each character’s arc as separate as possible, a.k.a., not digging into the Civil War storyline while the Avengers thread is still running.

And then Thor: Ragnarok comes out with a totally new approach. Folks, Marvel reached out to Taika Waititi, not the other way around. And this indie director, best known for the hilarious Flight of the Conchords vampire spoof What We Do In the Shadows, is destroying Thor in just the right way.

This is a movie where Thor and the Hulk have a fight and then the next scene is the two of them sitting on a bed, talking about their feelings. Would this scene ever have been pre-approved by committees and fanboy screenings? Hell no! But are the fans loving it? Hell yes! We don’t want crowdsourced entertainment. We want new ideas, and the two are antithetical.

It’s different and fresh and irreverent, but also attuned to character and Marvel’s rich history. Marvel has always been the anti-comic universe, the funny universe, the reality that counterpunched Superman’s sanctimoniousness with Spiderman’s sass and humanity. And Thor has been Marvel’s Superman in the previous movies, noble and distant and sterile.

That’s right: the Marvel handlers wanted a Cannonball Run-style wacky romp with Thor at the wheel. They knew that Thor was boring and stiff and needed a revamp. The MCU vision remains clear, echoing the blast of fresh creativity and fun that was Iron Man. Rather than strangling out new approaches and slavishly trying to recreate its past, it is charting a new and vibrant future.

This is the kind of vision that I admire as a game writer. This is why Marvel is better than Star Wars. All hail Marvel.

And what is Waititi doing next? Why, a stop-motion retelling of the Michael Jackson story from the point of view of Bubbles, his pet monkey. Depending on your point of view, it’s either trash or genius, but apparently it’s one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood.


PewDiePie Makes $15M/Year and Is a Racist


I haven’t watched much PewDiePie but occasionally I’ve enjoyed one of his playthroughs as a way to get a sense for a game. Now, after he’s been dropped by Disney and YouTube, I realize from the reports that he’s a dirty scumbag and a hero to neo-Nazi hate groups. (I also realize he was pulling in $15M per year for his goofball videos. WHAT?!?!)

This is yet another sign that the Internet is making it so we can’t have nice things. It used to be that you could watch baseball, play videogames, and pretend for a few isolated moments every day that we can all coexist without hating each other based on superficialities.

But no, that’s no longer the case. Baseball’s now political (I cite the congressional hearings where Democrats and Republicans lined up on party lines to support or criticize Roger Clemens for PED use). Choosing a home improvement store or a pizza delivery service is now political. And watching a freaking game playthrough is political.

I blame you, PewDiePie. Die, PewDiePie, die.


JRPGs versus Western RPGs

I just posted on Quora in answer to an interesting question: what do I prefer, JRPGs or Western-style RPGs, and why?

Since David Nguyen and I just published the JRPG Crimson Sword Saga: The Peloran Wars on Steam, you’d think I’d prefer JRPGs, but you’d be wrong. I’m a Western guy, and David is the JRPG fan. But I see the appeal of JRPGs and I’ve played and enjoyed both flavors.

Why am I disenchanted (ha ha) with JRPGs?

  1. There are always exceptions, but I feel JRPGs are more character-focused and dialog-focused, with the dialog word count often doubling or tripling equivalent Western RPGs. This wears on me, even if it’s a game with a storyline I enjoyed, like FF VII. I want to know about the major threads, but I don’t want to listen to a tertiary sidekick vent about how their ingrown toenail reminds them of some traumatic childhood incident (exaggeration, but only a slight exaggeration). Skyrim and Fable are more my style. Exception: I enjoyed Planescape Torment but the incessant dialog rivaled the talkiest JRPG, and they made no effort to distinguish between primary quest interactions and “color” interactions with inconsequential NPCs.
  2. JRPGs tend to be a little more colorful and fantastic. JRPGs are high fantasy where a team of plucky teens in fanciful costumes is fighting to save the world from the ultimate evil. Western RPGs lean toward low fantasy, a little grittier and more… um… adult. The characters are older, their stories a little less fanciful, and their experiences more equivalent to medieval history (although I don’t think anyone would confuse an RPG with history). I prefer the latter.
  3. Did I mention those fashions and costumes? Yeah. I can pass on the bright yellow rain slickers and the pompadours. They’re great for distinctive cosplay, which is also not my thing.
  4. Some JRPGs overdo it on the replayability and depth thing. I enjoy a minigame as much as the next guy, but I don’t want an RPG to force me into a 40-hour-long racing tournament with subpar gameplay. Nor do I want it to inundate me with dozens of half-baked minigames that should’ve been whittled down to one or two strong ones. I respect players who want their game to be a lifelong adventure, but that kind of immersion isn’t my style.

That said, I think there are some things that JRPGs do better than Western ones. Humor, color, distinctive locations, and gameplay innovations, for example. Western ones tend to be so traditional they’re almost remakes, and some are simply boring dungeon crawlers.

Honestly I feel like the Western RPG genre is a little fallow right now, with the last great game being Skyrim (although I hear Witcher 3 is a hoot). I picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition and was quite disappointed in many ways. Their loot system was terrible, and made it very hard to see when you’d found a cool item. And the storyline was complicated and (although some of the companion romances were charming) sterile. No story, no loot ? no fun.

And so it comes back to story and the power of narrative. I’m a game writer at heart and strong writing always wins in my book. I’ve seen great JRPGs and great RPGs, and I believe you can’t do a great RPG without a great story. Even the hoary old RPGs like Wizardry had compelling stories, even if some of the narrative twists were simply delivered in the form of the arrival of some fantastical new weapon or bizarre new foe in the game interface.


Unemployed men are wasting away playing videogames, says CSM

videogame-unemployed-menApparently the Japanese aren’t the only ones struggling with listless and purposeless young men. Who are these guys?

In Japan, as described in this aptly titled 2011 Kotaku article “The Depressing World of Unemployed Nerds,” there’s a growing problem of young males who have effectively dropped out of society and are relying on the positive feedback of videogames and paid chatgirls to satisfy their basic social needs.

And now a new academic study is being mentioned by the Christian Science Monitor as discovering a similar problem in the United States, with these slacker boys polling as generally happier and more content than their peers. I think it’s important to note here that their peers are guys with a high school diploma or less, so it’s not too surprising that they find their warehouse or Walmart jobs uninspiring.

I think you could argue this two different ways. One, it’s pretty sad that these guys are happy to game their way into total oblivion and irrelevance. This is definitely not the way you want to see people adapting to 21st Century challenges, especially when employers (many game companies among them) are seeing talent gaps in a lot of key fields. The counterpoint, two, is that perhaps these sad slackers are getting valuable therapy from their videogame exploits, keeping their minds sharp in virtual environments, like the kid from The Last Starfighter, until the right job or inspiration strikes them and they spring into action. Maybe these guys would be psychopaths or suicides without videogames.

Opposites? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two.


How Do You Meet Game Writers and Designers?

meet-game-writers-designersI got an interesting question recently on Quora and thought it might be useful to repost the Q&A here:

How do I meet game developers?

(I titled this post targeting game writers and game designers because that’s a little more relevant to this blog.)

Here’s my answer:

That’s not hard.

1) Find a local meetup for game developers and attend. Be courteous and research your questions before you ask them. Never ask anything that you could’ve read on Wikipedia. (Not so easy if you’re in a remote area.)
2) Go to the Game Dev Conference in California: GDC 2016.
3) Arrange a tour or informational interview with a local game studio for your school or interest group. (Not so easy if you don’t live near a studio)
4) Find the game developer group at your local university and join or support as best you can.

And of course be wary of the wannabes. There are a lot of “developers” who are just gamers with vaporware dreams.

See the Quora thread and feel free to weigh in.


Videogame Field of View

I came across an interesting inquiry on Quora recently, and thought I’d share it with you folks. The question: “In 1st person video games, why don’t they introduce peripheral vision? The angle of sight seems to be a lot less than our own angle of vision.”

I’ve had this complaint as well, in both first-person and third-person games (assuming we’re not talking about something exotic like a “peripheral vision mode”). Gears of War frustrates me because I feel like I can’t see the world since I’m zoomed so far in on the asses of the protagonists.

(I historically have the same complaint about Madden, although for different reasons: I find it ridiculous that I have to contort myself to see near-sideline receivers who are by default off the edge of the screen. Something tells me that Tom Brady doesn’t have this invisible receiver problem. Less of an issue in the HD era.)

This video from TotalBiscuit does a stellar job of illustrating the point. Skip to the three-minute mark to get right to the good stuff:

Here’s a shot from Gears of War. Your protagonist eats up about a sixth of the critical foreground screen real estate. If you played the game, you may remember the annoyance of larger levels where foes were shooting you from every direction while you felt like you were looking for them through a shoebox.

field of view gow

Compare GoW with this shot from Infamous 2. The avatar is smaller, the camera position is further back from the action, and you can see more of the world.


TotalBiscuit feels claustrophobic FOVs like GoW’s are due to game developers not caring enough about PC gamers. I think he’s on the right track, but IMHO studios do this extreme zoom-in/narrow field-of-view — and fail to provide options to alter it — for four reasons:

  1. Money (aka complexity). It takes a fair amount of risk for a developer to put in a feature that lets gamers change the field of view. Sure, a few lines of code could change the way the renderer works, letting you see more of the world. Sure, it’d be fairly easy to support that in the game UI. However, adding this option is a significant and fundamental alteration in a very complex system. Your game has to work equally well at all field-of-view settings, in multiplayer, on all sorts of wonky PC systems with wonky chipsets. This is kind of like making a game and a half instead of one game. And you’re doing this to satisfy PC gamers (large fraction of total market) who care about field of view and know what it is (much smaller fraction of the other fraction). Sadly, when the test department starts toying with the FOV option during crunch and filing dozens of bugs on how it crashes this mode and that mode, and causes everything on screen to look weird and skinny, and makes text in the game unreadable, your producer is going to ditch the feature like it’s covered in flaming flatulent warts. Assuming it got that far.
  2. Money (aka framerate). When you widen the field of view, more stuff renders. Guess what? This means that your hardware has to work harder and your silky-smooth framerate goes in the toilet. You can’t fit as many players into multiplayer matches. The big cinematic moments cause the game to choke. People definitely care about framerate. (People are a lot more blase about field of view.) Lousy framerates and stutters cause your game to tank.
  3. Money (aka marketing). GoW wasn’t exactly a critical or commercial failure. People loved the in-your-face action, and the screenshots look like an action blockbuster because you can see all the pimples on Marcus Fenix’s well-rendered butt. It’s annoying to those of us who are accustomed to seeing the game world, but GoW’s other innovations and high-quality graphics were enough to win over the others. Here are some reviews, emphases mine: “Huge, muscular combatants move like giant men wearing heavy gear, fine details are everywhere, and splattering blood never looked so beautiful… It just looks incredible.” – GamesRadar+. “…better than Halo… It’s a fantastic-looking, riveting, fire-first-ask-questions-never third-person shooter that manages to show you things that you’ve never seen before on a console.”- Entertainment Weekly. And, well, this one: “The camera is so good in Gears of War that I never once thought about it while playing. I can’t recall a single instance where it did not frame the action right, or hide anything I should have seen. – Electric Playground
  4. Gameplay. Grudgingly, I admit that GoW was a damned fine game, and that the tight field of view showed off those stellar graphics and made some of the action more fun, like close environments and melee attacks. A game like Infamous 2 requires a wider field of view because of the acrobatic nature of the gameplay.

That’s my take. I like to see the world in these kinds of games, and in the era of hi-def, we can have our cake and eat it in many situations. At the same time, we still see a lot of close-in cameras and narrow FOVs as new games try to out-scream the competition by putting you “in the action.” Hopefully that’s a trend that will die as we move forward.

Oh, and here’s the link to the original Quora conversation:


Man Walks Miles in the Snow to Honor Qbert

See this fellow? He walks miles in deep snow, for hours, for a noble cause. To honor the arcade game Qbert.

Here’s what that snow art looks like:

I can hear Qbert jumping from cube to cube right now! Spoing spoing!

Okay, maybe it isn’t actually Qbert-themed. Simon Beck is our snow artist and apparently his work changes appearance when viewed from different angles. Find out more here.


Free Game Rentals at Redbox, and More

free game rentalsJust a Few Days Left of Free Game Rentals

Zowie! The free game rentals deal at Redbox is no joke — all week, they’ve been letting you rent games for free if you just reserve the game online before picking it up.

At first I thought it was just a neat one-time promo. But I looked more closely at the fine print and… there isn’t any. In other words, this isn’t a “one free game rental per person” deal. This is a “free game rental Wednesday, and free game rental Thursday too” deal. There’s no silly pretending you’re two people, or using different email accounts and credit cards. Redbox wants you to have a lot of free game rentals. And that is not a bad thing. It’s just too bad I didn’t figure this out earlier so I could share it with you folks.

Unfortunately, this is only good through tomorrow (3/1) UPDATE! Redbox has extended the free game rental deal through 3/8/12! Act now, and you could get a rental tonight and another one tomorrow. You’ll need to sign up for a free Redbox account.

How Game Rentals Work at Redbox

Redbox movie and game rentals are simple: rent today, return it by 9pm tomorrow. “Today” begins at 12:01 am today, though, so if you’re crazier than I am, you could drag yourself down to the nearest kiosk at midnight on a Saturday morning and get a good 45 hours in before returning it at 9p on Sunday. The selection ain’t the most expansive, of course, but they’ve got most of the titles that everyone’s buzzing about right now.

And Check Out NBC’s New Show “Awake”

Turns out an ex-Austin resident is the brains behind this new show, which tells the story of a police detective who survives a terrible car crash that kills either his wife or his son… but he’s not sure which. In one of his realities, his wife lived, and in the other it was his son, and he can’t tell when he’s waking or dreaming.

I just watched the first episode online (embedded above; you can fullscreen it) and it’s the best thing I’ve seen from TV this year. The acting is top-notch, the puzzle-solving police work brilliant, and best of all, this thing has tremendous heart. You really feel for this guy who’s torn between two half-lives and is trying to reassemble himself in the middle. Just don’t blink, because the dialog is fast and polished and the whole thing feels cinematic. Highly recommended.


Game Writer Central Interview: Pinballz Arcade

Surviving in the Stand-Up Arcade Business

by Game Writer Central‘s Michelle B.


I’m over forty and female which I think is a bit unusual in the gaming industry itself. [I think you’d be surprised :) – Game Writer Guy] I do think female gamers are one of the fastest growing demographics for games and what appeals to me will probably be different than what appeals to others. I also am having to learn new terminology – first person shooters, platformers, scrolling, etc. I find it a new and exciting world so please excuse my enthusiasm.

As I pondered which game I should review first, I found myself asking: why am I qualified to review computer games? The answer: I’m no more qualified than anyone else but I have been playing since video games came out in the early 1980s. I can remember being thrown out of my local grocery store for playing Galaga for over two hours. I have several high scores and MLB (my initials) has appeared on Galaga, Qbert, Pac Man, Space Invaders, Phoenix, and Tempest all over the Southwest? East Coast? needs something a bit concrete to give flavah. I have, sadly, been playing video games longer than most young people in the computer gaming industry have been alive.

There’s a new reviewer in town… and she knows how to play Donkey Kong with the best of them.

Given my background, I decided to sit down and talk to the Pinball Wizard, Darren Spohn, the owner of Pinballz Arcade at 8940 Research Boulevard just south of Burnet and 183. — Michelle B. (aka MLB)

MLB: When did Pinballz open?

Spohn: We opened November 2010. We’re coming up on our one year anniversary.

MLB: How did you pick this location?

Spohn: We wanted a good drive by for cars. We have 186,000 cars a day come by the road out front and we wanted a place that was in central Austin so we could reach both northern families as well as the downtown area too.

pinballz-arcade-logoMLB: What were you doing before you started Pinballz?

Spohn: We have three technology companies we’ve had for about 14 years now. They’re data communication companies and this was more of a family business on the side that we started.

MLB: What made you decide on this business?

Spohn: It was kind of a collection gone awry. We just started collecting them and I have sons that are 13 and 15 and wanted to get them into working hard and learning business ethics. Our goal was to put a few pieces of equipment on route <what’s this mean?> and once we started looking at doing that, we decided we wanted to open a small arcade. And then my wife wanted to do a cafe which she’s doing downstairs. We decided to get something a little larger. Our goal of 5,000 square feet turned into 13,000 square feet.

We started out looking for 5 or 6,000 square feet and then we figured we needed enough games to hit all different audiences. When you’re looking at covering that broad a spectrum of people, you need to have a lot of different games. Our company was finishing up a seven-year lease in the Arboretum so we put all the companies together and rented out almost the entire building.

I saw a business need if you run it like a business. The problem is people run it like a hobby. It’s a weird hobby. It’s somewhat of a niche hobby. There’s a variety of reasons why they don’t succeed but a lot of people start off too small with a hobby in mind and don’t approach it from the standpoint of how to actually make money doing it.

We had to get into various things to make money. We sell games, we put them on route, we rent them out to locations, we do church events and other things like that so we do a lot of things to generate revenue. It’s not just coin operations downstairs.

Let’s say you have a doctor’s office and you want to put a game in your doctor’s office, We share revenue with you and you can entertain people and make some money too. All those things help make it a bit more profitable.

pacman-cabinetMLB: What was the hardest game to find and get?

Spohn: We’re trying to get the top fifty games of all time. There’s a couple games that are still out there that are like $12,000 each. They’re a bit expensive so not that they’re hard to find; they’re hard to find at the right price. I guess the answer is finding all the top games at the right price. I could go buy them and collect them but I would go bankrupt trying to buy all the games I want. I’ve got to be smart in how I buy them.

MLB: Were any of the games difficult to maintain or hard to repair?

Spohn: The pinball machines are high maintenance. That’s probably the reason why a lot of arcades went out of business. Flippers go bad, play field issues. I mean you got a bunch of metal balls running around on a play field of wood and plastic so bad things are going to happen. You have to clean them constantly, you have to fix parts. You really don’t make a ton of money off the pinball machines. They’re more there for the uniqueness of the place.

We have party events – arcade rentals. People play redemption games – they like to turn in tickets for prizes. Selling games. There’s other things we do that make money that help us fund the arcade aspects of it.

MLB: How large a staff do you have for repairs and how much time do you spend on repairs?

Spohn: We’re constantly repairing machines. We have four technicians dedicated to repairs. It’s one of our largest expenses.

MLB: Do you have plans to open nationwide?

Spohn: We’re talking about multiple locations. Plans are in process. We have a lot of people in different cities saying let me know when you’re coming here, I’d love to help. We have a bit of a cult following in just one year. I don’t know if cult is the right word. We have a good following. We have a lot of members and a lot of regulars that come in. People come in here and say “oh my God” and then we see them every week.

We’re also cost effective. That’s the balance point – keeping it cost effective. Main Event and Dave & Busters are really expensive. People go there and take their kids and spend $100 bucks and feel like they broke the bank playing. Here you can come and spend $20, play with your friends, family, or whatever and not feel that you didn’t break the bank and still have fun.

MLB: What is your favorite game?

Spohn: I have a couple. Swords of Fury is one of my favorites. It’s a very hard game to play. I like the faster games like Tron and Star Trek because of the theme. Scared Stiff is probably my favorite – that’s my wife and I’s favorite. It’s an Elvira machine. It’s Elvira Mistress of the Dark and it’s got all these different deep modes to it and it’s really hard to beat.

MLB: What was a unique and challenging find game-wise?

Spohn: I got a Banzai Run prototype model which was hard to find. It’s the one that has two play fields. It’s got a horizontal and vertical play field to it. It’s only one of ten made. There’s only ten in the world and six of them were shipped overseas. So there are only four in the US and I negotiated and finally pried it out of the hands of one of the collectors.

MLB: I’ve heard that some games can be dangerous due to wiring and problems. Have you noticed anything like that since you opened Pinballz?

Spohn: We check them out before we put them on the floor. I wouldn’t say they’re dangerous but they’re dangerous to work on and they’re just poor designs. For example, one of them will have the transformer which is where the high voltage is at right behind the backglass area. If people decide to open that backglass to look inside of it, the transformer is right there. In any of these machines, you don’t want to open them up and stick your hands in them because they’re all high voltage. The older machines don’t disable the high voltage when you open them so you have to be really careful. We also do in home video and pinball repairs. That’s another business.

MLB: What has been the most difficult thing about running Pinballz?

Spohn: Working with the city on what we can and can’t do. For example, we want to serve beer but we have to work on the bathrooms and everything. We’ve been dealing with the city for almost a year to just build our basic infrastructure. That’s been the biggest challenge is working with the city of Austin. All the rules this city has on what you have to do to be able to serve alcohol. If you change the structure of a building, you have all these environmental rules and city rules. All the unions have basically gotten together and driven up the requirements for bathrooms, environmentals, to the point where you almost can’t do business.

We didn’t know it until we got in because we wanted to add some bathrooms and do some other stuff but to do all this stuff… it takes $100,000. It’s just brutally expensive and it’s time consuming. I think one of the reasons you see so many vacant stores in this town is the city rules are far too strict for how to do business. It’s too hard to start a business in this town. It’s so much easier to do business in Houston than in Austin just because of all the regulations.

MLB: What is the easiest thing?

Spohn: The easiest thing is if you have a passion for it. It’s coming to work everyday. It’s working in this business because the people are so cool. You run a retail business in this town and you get a broad swath of people through here and it’s easy to come in and work. It’s kind of like a Cheers bar – it feels like that sometimes.

MLB: What is the funniest thing?

Spohn: The funniest thing is buying new machines. I’ve touched now at least 200 different types of pinball machines and a total of 400 different types of games. It’s buying and playing the machines. It’s enjoying the fruits of your labors.

MLB: Any closing comments or things you’d like people to know?

Spohn: Pinballz is targeted for all ages. It’s a cool Austin place to play. We’ve created what we call a classic gaming experience or classic arcade experience because it’s tokens and quarters. It’s not the swipe cards. It’s real tickets. It’s not zip cards where you have to figure out how many credits you have. You see faces shine. The kids come up with bundles and even adults at night have their bundles of tickets buying their handcuffs or coozies or toys. It’s neat to build a place like that in this industry. It’s something Austin really needs more of. You have to appeal to a broad enough audience but still have things you do for each of the different audiences.

Austin Humane Society is our chosen charity. On [November] 20th, we’re doing a big fundraiser for them. We’re going to invite all the press here on the 20th and have a big tournament with the new Transformer pins. We’re going to have a new Transformer pinball machine and transform lives through adoption of pets. We’re going to re-release the company with all the media there.

[Pinballz also has a Boombox Arcade event on December 2nd from 9p to 2a. This cool event combines music from four Austin DJs, BYOB drinks for those with ID, and of course the full Pinballz arcade experience.]