Do games need to be easier to attract a wider audience? Or are games too easy as it is? Where did all the hard games go? What role does culture play? Will "Autoplay" features reduce frustration or just make gamers lazier than ever? With your help, we attack these questions from all directions. Also: quick hits on Scribblenauts and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, and Tim "If You Lose at Candy Land You're Banished to the Woods" Spaeth.


Tim Spaeth: Welcome to the show, everybody. I'm Tim Spaeth. It's the 22nd episode of our little Internet radio show. Before we get started, I need to apologize. In my infinite wisdom, this morning I decided to try out some of the vocals on The Beatles: Rock Band, and two and a half hours later I put down the microphone when I realized we were recording a show tonight. So, in short, my throat is shredded. I have kind of this Alec Baldwin-y thing going, so guys, we'll see how long I can make it. But I may need you to save me.

Who am I talking to? We're three-manning it tonight. Let's start with our owner and founder, Chi Kong Lui.

Chi Kong Lui: Hey, Tim. How's it going, man? Funny you bring up Rock Band, because I recently picked up a drum kit as well, and my son has been going nuts on that thing. And I'm kinda glad that he's finally going to bed, 'cause [laughter] I've been hearing him bang on that thing all day long today, actually. [laughter]

Tim Spaeth: Well, now that we both have the game, maybe you and your wife and your son would like to play Internet Beatles: Rock Band with me. Because my family won't go anywhere near it, but I would love to play with your family.

Chi Kong Lui: Sure. Sure.

Tim Spaeth: Fantastic.

Chi Kong Lui: I'm sure we could work it out.

Tim Spaeth: After the show, wake your son up, and we'll rock.

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Right.

Tim Spaeth: Well, let's also say hello to our third…third member of our little family tonight, Brad Gallaway.

Brad Gallaway: Hey guys, how's it going? And just to chime in on that: it is actually funny that you bring up The Beatles: Rock Band, because I'm not playing it and have no interest, so…


Tim Spaeth: Really, you know, there's only four instruments and we've already filled them out, so we weren't going to invite you anyway, Brad.

Brad Gallaway: I would be that famous fifth non-Beatle, right?


Tim Spaeth: Yes. We've kicked you out of the band before you've even had a chance to audition.

Brad Gallaway: I'm the guy who's bitter back in England.

Tim Spaeth: [Laughter]

Chi Kong Lui: Or you could be Yoko.

Brad Gallaway: No.


Tim Spaeth: No. If you're Yoko, we'll all Red Ring of Death instantly.

Chi Kong Lui: There you go. You got it, Tim. [Laughter] You got it. That's as good as it's gonna get.

Tim Spaeth: We rehearsed that joke before the show. Well, we're three-manning it tonight. Mike Bracken is off on assignment, so I think it'll be good. A nice little intimate session.

Tonight's big topic: Challenge and failure. How intrinsic aqre those concepts to the video game experience? If a game has no challenge—if you can't fail—can you even call it a game? But is there a potential audience out there waiting for games without fail states? A recent article posed that very question—we'll talk about it. Our listeners had some great comments on the subject as well. We'll read some of those.

First up, though, this week a couple quick hits. We'll do Muramasa in just a moment, but first, Scribblenauts hits store shelves on the 15th of this month—a hotly-anticipated game for the Nintendo DS. Indeed, coming out of E3 this year, it was my game of the show. Chi, you and I have both put in some time here. I need to rest my throat, though, so why don't you take it from here?

Chi Kong Lui: Sure, Tim. You know, Scribblenauts is a new puzzle game from the developers 5th Cell. And it's sort of a…I would like to think of it as a little bit of a breakthrough for these guys. Because anyone who knows these developers, they put out Drawn to Life and Lock's Quest, and I haven't played through…I've played them a little bit. Haven't played them a whole lot, but I definitely think that these guys are kinda on to something, as far as their style. And they seem to be very creative and everything, and, you know, seems like…you know, Scribblenauts has lit the Internet on fire, and it's gonna—you know, like I said, it's gonna be their breakthrough game, right?

And, you know, it's a puzzle game, and how it's structured is a little bit different. It's a series of little mini-puzzles and the big sell is that whatever you type in will be instantly…I don't know how to even sort of phrase that [laughter]. Help me out here. How would you describe it?

Brad Gallaway: It materializes, right? Like it just pops in.

Chi Kong Lui: Right.

Brad Gallaway: You put in, like, you know, "car," and, like, all the sudden a car appears, right?

Chi Kong Lui: Right. Right, yeah. Thanks for that assist there, Brad. Yeah. And it's got a, you know, insane library or dictioanry of words that you can just put in there, and anything will pop up. The puzzles, to me, I like to characterize it like this way: It sort of feels like, to me, a cross between, sort of, the old puzzles that you get in the point-and-click, you know, Sierra-style quest games. And then it's also got a, sort of a, BrainAge type freeform word association, educational feel to it. Because you're really, you know, testing yourself or maxing your brainpower out trying to come up with, like, these you knowwhat objects you can materialize—as you said, Brad, there—into the world, to help solve each individual puzzle. And I gotta say: Not every puzzle is entirely even, but when it does sort of work out, I think it is incredibly satisfying.

But, actually, let me go back on that for a second. One of the earlier puzzles that I started on—I think it was like the second puzzle, actually, so must people'll know this one—there's like a little switch off to the side of the wall that you gotta push down to open one of the doors. And I tried all kinds of things to try to hold that switch in place, as far as like…and I think I tried, like, "elephant," a "car," a "truck," and none of those things seemed to work. And I just couldn't quite figure that out. Eventually, I just put "boulder" and that actually worked. So, that's sort of one of the weaknesses of the game, is that the logic to the puzzles isn't always entirely logical, I guess.


Chi Kong Lui: But then, there are situations where it does sort of make sense. And when it does make sense, like I was saying, it is incredibly gratifying. And the one that kind of stands out to me was there was this—another puzzle where there's a cat on top of a roof, and you need to get the cat off of the roof. So there were a couple of things I tried. First thing I tried was I put a dog on top of the roof, and actually, that did get the cat off of the roof, but then, the dog kind of would kill the cat or something like that. And this is, again, one of the logic problems that I wasn't quite getting why that part was failing. But the dog would get the cat off the roof, but then the cat would explode, and…


Chi Kong Lui: I guess that's implying that he's dying, or something. And I would still fail the puzzle, even though the star would, you know, 'cause…once you solve the puzzle, a star appears, and that's sort of your reward, and that's sort of, you're completing the stage. So, even though the cat would die, the star would pop up. But then, I would still fail. At one point I thought maybe the cat was dying 'cause he was falling off too high of a distance, so I materialized a mattress onto the thing, but that didn't help.


Chi Kong Lui: So, finally, I just figured…I tried putting a mouse there, and then the cat chased the mouse down and I got the star, and that was great. What's kind of interesting, too, though, the game still feels to me…It's very innovative, it's very interesting and it's very taxing, but, at the same time, it's also very casual to me. It's not what I would consider to be a hardcore game. I don't know.

Brad Gallaway: So let me ask you guys real quick, if you guys don't mind me jumping in. I actually haven't played the game. The only bit I've seen of it was when I had a really, really, really super brief hands-on at PAX. And I have played the other games from this developer: Drawn to Life, which I thought was a good idea, but came out pretty terrible, and Lock's Quest, which I did think was pretty good. So, most of these puzzles, are they physics-based? Because when you describe that thing with the boulder and the elephant, I mean, is the game looking for a specific trigger to get you past these puzzles? And so, is it truly logic that you're having problems with? Or is it that you can't quite get this awkward object into the right spot? Because I know that physics is one of the problems that this developer has had in the past. How would you categorize it?

Tim Spaeth: I can respond to that. There are actually two types of levels. There's what they call "puzzle levels," and there's "action levels." And the puzzle levels are more what Chi was referring to. They have a little story, a little narrative that you're participating in, such as the cat on the house. There's one with the…there's a kid who's late for school. He's sleeping in his bed; you have to figure out a way to wake him up. So, they're just tiny little stories that you're helping to finish. Those are typically not physics-based.

And then there's a second type of level that they call "action levels." And the action levels are much more traditional video game puzzles, where you have lots of colored levers that open colored doors, and you've got conveyor belts and ice levels and lava levels and spike pits. Those are very physics-based, and I found those very, very unsatisfying. Not necessarily because of the physics, though. It actually has to do with the word choice. And on the puzzle levels—I'm gonna call them narrative levels, because that's how I think of them—each one has a theme.

So, to take the example of the kid who's asleep who's late for school: You could do an alarm clock, you could do a school bell, you could do a rooster, you could do a smoke detector and put a fire underneath it. But those levels narrow your vocabulary a great deal. And you would think that, in a game like this, that that would be much more restrictive, but it's actually much easier to wrap your head around a more narrow vocabulary than all 22,000 words in the database. So it focuses your creativity and those levels are much more fun.

The action levels—the traditional video game puzzles—the entire vocabulary is opened up to you. And I found myself going back to the same 10 or 15 words every single time.

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Right. Right, right.

Tim Spaeth: If something was way up high, I'd spawn a jet pack.

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Same here. Same here.

Tim Spaeth: If something's dangling on a rope, I set it on fire to get it down. If something's underwater, I spawn a fishing pole. And, even though I could choose to make an elevator or a staircase or a climbing wall, it's never as efficient as the jet pack.

So, I found those levels incredibly tedious. They stopped being fun, and I just stopped playing them. And I'm only playing the first, more narrative-style levels, which aren't reliant on physics at all. So, I would say that physics isn't really an issue for the way I'm playing the game. It might be an issue if someone were to go down the path of the action levels, but I gave up on those.

Brad Gallaway: Interesting. You actually answered my next question, because I've heard from many people exactly what you just said: that even though that you have, what is it? 10 or 20,000 words or whatever, that most players and most puzzles are able to be solved by the same…You know, like, jet pack was the magic bullet for like 90% of the puzzles. I mean, and you just, kind of echoed that.

So do you guys feel that…have you gotten away from trying something completely different? Like, knowing that the jet pack solves it for you, have you gone back and said: "Okay. I'm not gonna do jet pack. I'm gonna do something totally different and see what the game can do." I mean, is that part fun?

Chi Kong Lui: After you beat a stage, right, and you return to the stage, it goes into what they call an "advanced mode." And in the advanced mode—which I think is a really good idea—is that you have to play the stage three times in a row. And then each time, you can't repeat any of the items that you use. So it is actually asking you to do that—to be a little more inventive and creative.

But for myself, I would do that automatically. Like, one of the early stages, right, you know, there's a lumberjack there. You're supposed to help him cut the tree down. Well, you know, the axe is like the most obvious thing, so I tried to avoid…you know, to challenge myself, I tried to avoid using that. So you come up with like, you know, "chainsaw" and other things like that.

But I thought that was really fun. Again, that's why I liken it to a sort of BrainAge type of thing. You're sort of, just…you know, it's a time-waster. You're just sort of challenging yourself. If you look at it as a traditional "I gotta beat this game and collect all my rewards" type of experience, yeah, I think it's gonna get very old very quickly. But, you know, I don't think…That's what's unique about this game. And I think the advanced mode is actually kind of fun for me.

Tim Spaeth: To be honest, I haven't tried the advanced mode, and I will do that based on your recommendation. But that's why I stayed on the narrative levels, because, very often, each level introduced a new theme, a new category of words to choose from, and it kind of forced you to pick from different words than you would use on previous levels. You know, I think the mechanic of the game— this creating any object you can think of—I think it's very original. The implementation, definitely a little janky, but again, it's the first crack. I think the closest we have to this kind of game currently would be, maybe, Gary's Mod, the Half-Life 2 mod on the PC. But I definitely see iterations of this game forthcoming. I think the endgame, in my mind, what I would love to see is, you know, a console version of this where we're in a multiplayer…I don't know, think of Liberty City, where we can all go in and just create any object we want in 3D. I create an army of cannibals, Chi, you create an army of Pokémon, and we just let them loose on each other. And then maybe Brad comes in, and, I don't know. Brad, what would you create if you could create your Scribblenauts army?

Brad Gallaway: I would take that nuclear bomb that's in the first town of Fallout and just drop it on you both.


Tim Spaeth: See? And I think that's where we're going, and these guys are definitely on to something. This is just the beginning.

Chi Kong Lui: The setup is still pretty good as-is. I wouldn't want certain people to think that this is sort of an experiment gone wrong, or anything like that. I think the setup is pretty ingenious, and obviously, the scribbling…[Laughter] It's so hard to even describe what this is: the scribbling system, or whatever you wanna use to materialize things, is pretty inventive. It doesn't always…yeah, like you said, it's kinda janky in that it doesn't always work out the way you want it to do it. But when it does, it's incredibly satisfying. So I think it works on that level, yeah.

Tim Spaeth: Very good. So there you have it: Scribblenauts. Let's move on to our next quickhit, Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Nintendo Wii. And, Chi, why don't you start this one off as well?

Chi Kong Lui: Sure. Muramasa's a 2D action platformer from the developers Vanillaware, the guys that brought us Odin Sphere and Grim Grimoire, and I'm happy I said that properly. It's set in a mystical feudal Japan filled with ninjas and demons. And the reason I sound very awkward as I say that is because I had to write that down. [Laughter] You know, it's kind of funny. Like, if you're into anime at all, the minute you see the imagery from this game, you get that. [Laughter] You can still…"Oh, yeah. It's from that genre." But, if you try to, like, describe it cold, it's quite a mouthful to try to explain that. It's sort of like, you know, feudal Japan, but a fictional version of it that includes demons and ninjas, and things like that, you know. [Laughter] So that's why I had to, like, sort of make sure I got that straight.

You can play as two characters, and they each have their individual stories. The characters are Momohime and Kisuke, right?

Brad Gallaway: Whatever. It doesn't matter.


Chi Kong Lui: Whatever, right. You know, it's supposed to be really traditional, and it's supposed to be really accurate towards certain kind of Japanese myths. Is that right, Brad? I mean, do you know anything more about that?

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. You know, I mean, where to begin? Where to begin with this game?

[Laughter] nd Brad Gallaway: You're correct in what you said, Chi. I mean, it's obviously very Japanese culture oriented. I mean, I wouldn't say that it's a retelling of any specific myths, but there are very many callouts in the art and the different characters that are in there, some of the themes. I mean, if you're at all familiar with Japanese cultural mythology, you're gonna be like, "Oh, yeah, this. Oh, yeah, this." I mean, you're gonna recognize a lot of things, even though it's not specifically a translation of any one thing.

You know, I gotta say. I wanna take a step back and just say I hate Vanillaware.


Brad Gallaway: And I hate them because I wanna love them. I really, really want to love them. And I end up buying all their games, because their art is fantastic. And for anybody that doesn't know, one of the key points of Muramasa is that the art is fantastic. I mean, if you look at the pictures—you know, screenshots on the Web, or the back of the box, or whatever—I mean, it looks beautiful. It's like the colors are vibrant, the characters are really well-drawn, it's in a Japanese cultural style, so there's…It's not anime specifically, but you can definitely see where this art is coming from. And they put a lot of time and effort into it. And it was true, also, of their last two games: one was Grim Grimoire and the other one was Odin Sphere, like Chi said. Those games were also totally beautiful.

But the thing that trips me up, and the thing that makes me hate Vanillaware, is that as beautiful as their art is—and definitely, it's beautiful—their games all suck. Like, they don't know how to design games. I mean, Grim Grimoire was awful. Odin Sphere I thought was terrible. And it's no different for Muramasa. Like, as much as I wanted to love it, and as much as people were really looking towards this as Vanillaware's chance to knock it out of the park, this game is atrocious. Like, it's beautiful in terms of graphics, and it's ugly everywhere else. I mean, Chi, what did you think?

Chi Kong Lui: I was gonna say: What, specifically, did you have problems with as far as the game?

Brad Gallaway: Oh, my God! Everything! I mean, there's no gameplay. There is no gameplay in this game.

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Give me something.

Brad Gallaway: I'm gonna give you something. I'm gonna give it to you right now. See, it's like, the whole world of Muramasa is made up of empty squares.


Brad Gallaway: And it sounds a little weird to say that, but like, it's literally empty squares. You start on the left, and you walk right. And you pass through these empty squares. And in half the squares, there's nothing. And in the other squares, you fight, like, one battle that's over in, like, maybe 30 seconds. And so you progress through these squares, from left to right, and nothing happens. You're just passing through them. I mean, the developers have drawn really, really beautiful backgrounds: I mean, there's these bridges, and there's these dark, misty forests, and there's, you know, caves, and it's beautiful. Except for, they've only drawn, like, one of each, and so they cut and paste them. And so you'll go through the same forest screen like eight times in a row. And, like, nothing happens. There's nothing in it. I mean, it's kind of a misnomer to even say it's a platformer, because there's no platforming.

Chi Kong Lui: Right, right.

Brad Gallaway: There's no skill involved in pushing from left to right. You're simply literally crossing these areas, you know.

Chi Kong Lui: Sorry, you're right. I should've said "sidescroller," not so much a platformer.

Brad Gallaway: No, I think that you were right to say that, because I think that's how it's categorized, and I think that's what a lot of people think they're getting. But there's no platforming. I mean, literally all you do in this game is you walk from one end of the world to the other. You fight a couple of random battles along the way. When you get to the end, there's, like, a boss or something, and then you repeat. You just go back to the other side. And they make you walk back and forth so many times with nothing going on: no puzzles, no interesting dialogue, there's no platforming, there's no challenge. I mean, there's a few challenge rooms here and there, where the combat gets pretty intense, but those are few and far between.

And, like, in a nutshell, this game is empty. There is nothing here. I mean—

Chi Kong Lui: What's also funny about what you're saying there is that they do put, like, little spirit things that you can collect, and there's little rooms there, so that you think that you're gonna get something more, but you don't. So it's even more annoying, because you sort of, you know, backtrack. And you go search all these rooms again, and you still get nothing. So, in the end, it's like you said: you get nothing, you know. And it's. It's really aggravating, yeah.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. There's no point to it. I mean, thney put in all these rooms, and you don't do anything. There's nothing—literally, literally nothing going on. I mean, I can sit there this morning when I was playing it, I got through, I think I counted 14 rooms or areas or zones. Nothing happened in any of them. No fights, no tricky jumping, nobody to talk to, nothing. I am simply holding the right stick right and moving through these rooms for, like, you know, 14 areas.

And I just, you know, I got to the point of where in the first hour of playing this game, I have seen everything that there was to see, and nothing was interesting. I mean, I was losing interest in less than an hour of starting this game.

And I just…I'm so disappointed, because, with the flaws that Vanillaware's previous games have had, I think not only myself, but everybody else was thinking: "Okay, they may have biffed the RPG thing a little bit in Odin Sphere, and the real-time strategy in Grim Grimoire didn't quite happen the way that it should've. Now they're going back to 2D action platforming. That's a real natural fit. 2D action platforming goes together like chocolate and peanut butter. This is where Vanillaware shines." And, man, they don't.

Like, these guys are geniuses when it comes to the art, 'cause I really…I love their art. It's beautiful. Literally beautiful. But, there is no fucking game here whatsoever. They do not know how to make games in any way, shape, or form. And I hate them, because they keep convincing me to buy their games, 'cause I keep hoping they're gonna be good, and they're not. They're just not.

Chi Kong Lui: So, yeah, Brad. I'm pretty much in agreement with you. The only things I'll add to that are, you know, the swordfighting and the sword collecting element is kind of fun. You know, it's very chaotic at first, but, you know, you get used to it, and you start seeing the visual cues that you…You know, when you're taking damage and whatnot. And, yeah, the combat is completely disjointed, but as it happens, you know, it's somewhat fun. I wanna at least, like, mention that.

But otherwise, I totally agree with you. Yeah, it's a very…the whole flow of the game is completely disjointed. It's very empty. The thing that I can't understand is how little they've learned from other games of the last 25 years, basically. [Laughter]

Brad Gallaway: Oh, my God, seriously. Seriously.

Chi Kong Lui: You know, like this genre is one of the classic genres, you know. Even if they just sort of took the exact same game of another game, like Legend of Kage or something, and literally just, you know, skinned the graphics on, you know, it would be probably a ten times better game, just from that alone, right? I mean—

Brad Gallaway: I mean, seriously. I totally agree with you. I mean, it astounds me that there is no sense of level progression. There's no sense of developing mechanics. There's no sense of change. It's like, what you get in the beginning of the game is what you get all the way through, as far as I can tell. I mean, I played, I think, three and a half, four hours. I haven't seen anything change, anything happen. The characters don't grow, you don't get new abilities.

I mean, I do wanna agree with you, that I think the combat is actually a little bit elegant once you figure it out, and that's good. But that's, like, one tiny bright spot that doesn't really go anywhere in this giant, open morass of nothingness.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah. For people who think it might be Metroid-like, it's not. It's just not.

Brad Gallaway: No.

Chi Kong Lui: It's just not Metroid. Again, that's another game they could've aped, and they didn't. It's not, you know, Castlevania. It's none of these games. [Laughter]

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. If they were inventing the genre, maybe this would be kind of excusable, but, you know, like you said, it's been—there's been, like, you know, 10,000 games in the last 25 years who do a better job of creating levels than this game does.

Chi Kong Lui: You know, and it's funny you say that, Brad, when you say "inventing the genre." Because one game I thought about, right—and it's too bad Mike isn't here, 'cause I wanted to see if he would get this reference—is a game called Sorcerian. Does anyone know that one?

Tim Spaeth: I know the name.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I heard the name, but never played it.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah. It's considered to be the original Japanese RPG, even before Dragon Quest. And it was on a sidescrolling thing where you had a party of four, you know, like, classic RPG-style four fighters or whatever. And it's on a 2D plane, and it's kind of, like, got that Castlevania effect where you're exploring these worlds on a 2D plane. And the only reason why I even know this game is 'cause Sierra put it out a while back ago.

Tim Spaeth: Oh. That's where I know the game. It was a Sierra. I think I had this game, actually.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, Sierra put it out. The company was Falcom, and Sorcerian was the precursor to the EASE games. So that's the lineage there. But it was funny how, as I was playing Muramasa, I kept thinking about Sorcerian. 'Cause a lot of things about that game are pretty awesome for its day, and the thing that stood out to me was they managed to put in a story there. They managed to make the levels interesting and actually explorable and have, like, puzzles there on a 2D plane. And I'm thinking: "Why doesn't this game have things like that?"


This game, like…You know, it was a 16 color game. It was, like, on an ancient platform—you know, like, probably on one of those MSX computers or whatever. And, uh, ust, yeah, baffling as to…you know, what are they basing it on or referencing or not referencing or taking their inspirations from? Where, like you said, they couldn't just be pouring all their efforts into the artwork, and that's it. [Laughter].

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. These guys are programming in a vacuum. I mean, it's either they don't know what they're doing, or they simply have no talent. And I know that sounds really harsh, 'cause I really don't mean to just, like, disrespect anybody, but when you look at the final product, it's inexcusable. There is just…It's mind-blowing to me that this game would get released. And what's even more mind-blowing—and I almost hate to say this, but—you know, I subscribe to Play magazine and I really don't know why. I think I just do it 'cause I get all the magazines.


And I'm actually gonna let my subscription run out. But Play did, like…I mean, dude! It was like a 40-page spread or something on this game. And, like, you know, they were just gushing about it, and they talked to the developers and it was, like, the next best thing, and, you know, all this stuff. And then they gave it like a 10, like perfect score, and I'm like: "This is why I'm letting my subscription to Play run out. Because these guys [laughter—I mean, I disagreed with them so, so much. And it was so obvious that they were giving this game just, like, the wettest, most deep blowjob possible.


I mean, it was ridiculous, so. Anyway, whatever.

Tim Spaeth: That's sexy.


Tim Spaeth: I have no interest in this game before the conversation. I have even less now. But, as the host, I feel I should ask one question about it. Why is this game on the Wii? Does it have any Wii-specific functionality, or do these guys just don't have the development chops to hack it on a more powerful system?What's the deal there?

Brad Gallaway: Uh, yeah. I think it's probably—I mean, you may disagree, Chi, but I think it's because the Wii is pretty low-bar for entry. I don't know for a fact, but I've heard that Vanillaware is a pretty small studio. [Laughter] I mean, if this is what they do on the Wii, I shudder to think of what they would try to do in full 3D. I mean, it would be like a [Laughter], it would just be a massacre. It just wouldn't be good. So, I think that's probably why.

And as far as I know, there's no Wii-specific functionality. I'm playing with the Classic Controller, so there's no waggle. There's no, I mean, anything like that. I mean, Chi, any thoughts on that?

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, I think, um…'cause the previous two games they did were on the PS2, right? And I think, if you look at the lineage of, like, sort of, where those style of games went, it's obviously not the PS3 and it's obviously not the XBox, you know, with HD and all that, you know, 3D graphics and everything. So, really, they're left with just the Wii at that, you know. And I guess you could make an argument that they maybe could've went, like, the XBox Live route or the PS3 Network, but I guess, you know, again, their games have always been sort of a disc type, you know, experience. So I think that's why they went with the Wii, simply because it was just the natural platform for that genre at this point.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. It's pretty obvious that they're not at the cutting-edge of, you know, game development and technology and stuff. And there's nothing wrong with that. Like, you know, I don't need HD graphics to appreciate a game. I mean, like I said, I think their artwork is beautiful. But, you know, graphics alone are certainly not enough. So, there you go.

Tim Spaeth: Fair enough. Well, that's Muramasa, and that ends our first segment. Why don't we take a break? When we come back, something I'm intimately familiar with: failure. We'll do it in two and two. Be right back atcha.


Tim Spaeth: Well, our main topic this week: It's challenge and failure in video games. Our springboard for the discussion was an article published on the Gamasutra website earlier this month. And we've linked to the article in our show notes, so if you're near a computer, pause the show. Give it a read. Just don't forget to unpause the show.

The author of the article, his name is Lew Pulsipher. And I'm just gonna read the first paragraph to set the stage. So, here's the quote:

"Video games won’t be as widely accepted as film unless we find ways to allow participation by those who don’t want to be challenged by their entertainment, and who don’t want to have to work to be entertained."

A lot of meat in that first paragraph. So, let's get one thing out of the way. We've talked many times on this show about comparing games to other forms of media. And while I think there's merit to that discussion, I think we've, I think as a group, sort of shot down the premise that games need to follow the exact same path as movies and the movie industry in order to be deemed a success. So, while we may have that conversation another day, let's leave movies out of this discussion tonight.

That said, a lot of ways this conversation could go. So let's start with the second half of this premise: that there is a segment of people out there—a potential audience for games—that don't want challenge in their entertainment. And the industry has an obligation, or a need to find ways to mitigate failure or to remove it altogether, or those people will never play games. What do you think? Is this guy onto something?

Brad Gallaway: I totally agree. I think he is exactly right. I think that there's games for everybody. I also think there's games for every kind of mood, or there should be, anyway. I mean, I don't know about you guys, but there are certain games where I am prepared to grit my teeth, you know, put on my leather game gloves and really, you know, buckle down and, you know, put out some effort. And sometimes that's what I want. And, you know, other times, it's not at all what I want. I mean, soemtimes I wanna just get something in the console and enjoy it. And, to me, you know, enjoyment does not equal hard work all the time. Now, it does sometimes, and I'm not saying that I want all challenge to be gone from all games, but I think that there needs to be an option, at least. I don't know. Chi, what do you think?

Chi Kong Lui: Oh, it's interesting you say that, 'cause I had a completely different view. And it's not necessarily that it conflicts with you, but I pretty much disagree with this guy, like, entirely. [Laughter] Like, I don't think games need to be easier. Although we've had discussions about how certain games shouldn't be so damn hard, and how certain games have been made to be too hard.

But my perspective on it, first of all, is twofold: a) First of all, I'm not sure why games need to be more popular than they already are. That part baffles me right off the bat. Because here we have already, like, in Korea, like, an entire nation of people that are gaming already, right? It's like one in four people have played Starcraft, or whatever. And, you know, is Korea somehow innovating more? Producing more innovative games or leading the industry in game design? You know, I don't quite see that. So I'm not quite sure why this author feels that—and I'm trying to avoid the movie comparisons, but just in general popularity—I'm not sure why…you know, games are pretty damn popular right now. [Laughter] We're not in the Stone Ages anymore.

Tim Spaeth: Yeah.

Brad Gallaway: Isn't that like with any media, though? Like, whatever media you're talking about, they always wanna be bigger. The natural instinct, for American entrepreneurs, anyway, is "more, bigger, more." You could be, you know, Coke, and Coke is like the biggest soft drink in the world. And they're always wanting to expand their market. I mean, McDonald's—you can't go to a country in the world without finding a McDonald's, and they wanna do more.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.

Brad Gallaway: I mean, I think that's just kind of a natural, you know. No matter who you are, you always wanna get more. So it kind of makes sense to me that the question would be asked of "How can we get more? How can we include more?" you know? From marketing and an economic standpoint, it's a valid question.

Chi Kong Lui: You know, fair enough, because I was just looking…When I thought of Gamasutra, I typically think of more game development. But I'm looking at their subhead right now, and it's "The art and business of making games." So, fair enough. I don't think the author quite clarified what was sort of the benefit of having more and more and more and, you know, I'm not sure why that makes games somewhat inferior to movies, but, you know. That's part of the discussion, so, fair enough. Point taken.

Tim Spaeth: I think what I took exception with, was the tone of the article implied that we were at some sort of crisis point. That if we don't get these new people into games right now, that something horrible was going to happen.

Chi Kong Lui: Right.

Tim Spaeth: And I don't think that's accurate at all. And there's also an implication—

Chi Kong Lui: Right.

Tim Spaeth: —and, Brad, you addressed this part, that there aren't games out there that don't have challenge. So I'm not sure why this article came out right now, but there you have it.

Chi Kong Lui: Right. Let me talk about the timing. And it's funny, actually, Tim. The timing of the article's ironic, because Rock Band: Beatles just came out. And here's a game that, you know, is widely regarded as sort of a game that could potentially break new barriers. And this whole era of gaming right now, with the Wii, with Rock Band, with Guitar Hero, you know, has seen unprecedented levels of causal gaming and new people trying to game. So this article seems just a little bit out of date, to be quite honest with you.

So going back to the actual point, though: I don't believe, generally speaking, that games need to be made easier. I always think back to the Tom Sawyer example, you know. As the story goes, how he tricks all the kids into helping him paint the fence, you know. And it's not work, because they're all having so much fun doing it, you know.

To me, it comes down to two things, right? It's a question of novelty and having some sort of real world connection to the subject matter in the game. I think that's what people connect with. Look at the popularity of games like Rock Band, you know, and Guitar Hero. Those games are some of the hardest games I've ever played. [Laughter] You know, when you get to the Expert and, you know, the hard levels, I can't even do them. And yet there's tons of people out there who don't consider themselves gamers but that have mastered this game.

Tim Spaeth: But the beauty of those games is that they are simultaneously the hardest games you've ever played, and incredibly accessible because. But my point being is that a lot of gamers will actually rise up to the challenge. It's all relative. Like I said, it doesn't matter whether you're painting a fence, you're playing guitar or whatever, so long as it's put in the right context and it's presented in the right kind of way.

Brad Gallaway: If I could chip in real quick, Chi. I think you've actually proved this guy's point, because, like Tim said, it can be hard if a person wants it to be hard. But at the same time, the choice is there to make it so that you can't fail. And I don't really think that we have any statistics as to how many quote-unquote "casuals" actually take on the Expert mode and stuff like that. But I think the real point is that it is accessible.

But one other thing that you brought up that I really would like to touch on is you said that it connects culturally. And I think that's something that is important, but I think that, also, it does have to go hand in hand with a reduced difficulty level. I'll give you an example: You know, my wife is a great gamer. I mean, she plays a wide variety of games, and she is really a great partner for me when we get together to do some co-op and stuff.

But she does have a certain limit of difficulty that she'll tolerate. And she's played many games where she's really, really liked the subject matter, or she really liked the character, or for whatever reason, she's got into something. And then she just hits a certain wall when this difficulty gets a little bit past her comfort level, and she stops. And it's done. She's done, game's done, she doesn't care, it's over.

And so that's like, you know, it's something that leaves a bad taste in her mouth. And that might discourage somebody who isn't as much of a gamer as she is. I mean, thankfully she'll go on to something else and she doesn't let it discourage her from gaming in general.

But I can easily see where lots of people out there would be like: "Oh, wow! This game is about so-and-so, and I really wanna play it." The start playing it and they just hit a wall of difficulty—a really tough boss, or an area where saves are too far apart—and they just get stuck. I mean, the majority of people I know who game, the overwhelming majority of their games don't ever get finished. And I think that it really discourages people from pursuing things like that.

And an interesting tack, I think, in combining both cultural relation and also difficulty is Heavy Rain, which is coming out soon for the PS3. Now, in this game, it's kind of a murder mystery, from what I gather. So that's gonna really appeal to a lot of people. I mean, it's gonna have significant appeal to women who like, you know, the whole, you know, crime drama thing. I mean, I'm really interested in it for the storytelling elements.

But the interesting thing is that, regardless of what happens…I mean, I haven't played it, but the talking point, anyway, is that you can die and the game keeps going. I mean, it changes the events, but you're never gonna be discouraged from stopping playing. I mean, you may lose a character, or maybe something bad happens that you don't like. But you don't fail per se. Like, you just keep going.

And I don't necessarily think that would work for every game, but I think it's a really interesting thing to pursue—not only for narrative quality, but also, it means that, you know, you have to be a good player to play the game you want, but if you are not so good, you can still keep going. I mean, you may not get the best ending or you may not keep all the characters that you wanna keep, but at least you can play. At least they don't make you toss the controller down in frustration. You know what I mean?

Chi Kong Lui: You know, this is the reasony why I love doing this show, is 'cause we just look at these things with completely different views, and their both completely valid. And let me make a distinction between what you're saying. What you're saying based on the article is, because your wife is, you know, Gina's already a gamer. And it's more like if these games were easier, she would game more, and purchase more games, right?

Brad Gallaway: She would. Totally.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, right. But let me stop you there for a second, also. And that's one way to look at the article, and it's perfect. And it's absolutely correct. The part that I picked up on more was that he's sort of implying that if games were easier in general, more newer people…'cause he's talking about raising the overall popularity of games. You see what I'm saying? He's not talking about just getting people who already are gamers to game more.

Brad Gallaway: Oh, I agree. I mean, I think it still works. I think his point is still valid.

Chi Kong Lui: Well, it's valid to a certain degree, because I don't think people who aren't really gaming right now are even gonna get to that point. You know, they're not even gonna understand that "Oh, this game is so much easier," you know what I mean? Like, why would they understand that? What gets someone who's completely new to gaming is gonna be like I said. It's gonna require novelty and it's gonna require some kind of real world connection.

Yeah, once you get them in there, then some of the things that this guy's talking about becomes more relevant. But again, he hasn't talked about any of that. He sort of is giving this sort of blanket statement that if games just were easier in general, we'd see more, newer gamers.

And I don't buy that one bit. Because of the fact that you see games like…you know, despite how hard games like Rock Band and even games like Pokémon, because my wife and my sister, you know, again, both very casual gamers. They picked up Pokémon. They didn't think, like: "Oh, well this game's too hard," you know what I mean? Like, it just drew them in. The concept drew them in, you know?

So that's just my point, is he's just sort of missing a large part of the equation prior to the whole part about getting into, you know, making these games easier. Which I agree with, too.

Tim Spaeth: I think what he's saying has already been happening over the course of the last decade, decade and a half. I mean, if I look at…If any of us went to our game shelf and looked at the library of XBox 360 or PlayStation 3 or Wii games, you would be hard-pressed to find a game that you couldn't beat, that you couldn't finish from beginning to end. Now, you may have plenty of titles that you have no interest in beating. But with some time and some effort, you could probably beat every single game on your shelf from this generation.

Compare that to your NES collection, where you will find Ghosts 'N Goblins, Deadly Towers, Battletoads, the first Ninja Turtles game.

Brad Gallaway: How dare you mention Deadly Towers. Didn't we agree that title was never to be brought up on this podcast? [Laughter]

Tim Spaeth: Only in special circumstances. And I think this qualifies.

Brad Gallaway: Ah.

Tim Spaeth: These are games that only a masochist—

Brad Gallaway: My stomach is turning right now. [Laughter]

Tim Spaeth: Only a masochist could beat those games, Brad, including Deadly Towers. So that right there, isn't that your evidence that games have been getting easier over time, and there are more people gaming right now than ever before? So it almost seems like what he's suggesting has already been happening. I'm not sure that he's making a novel point here.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I agree with that, Tim. I mean, I think basically the core argument of what he's saying is a truism that everybody in the industry has been observing. I mean, you know, for the last couple years we've been hearing the hardcore scream out: "Oh, these games are getting so easy! Oh, we can't stand it!" you know, as if making a game that's finishable is some kind of crime.

I mean, that's why people put in difficulty levels, you know? If it's too easy for you, crank it up. I mean, be my guest. I don't understand what the hue and cry is about games that are "Oh, my God, I can finish it! Well, this game is no good then." I mean, there's tons of people out there who are never gonna finish, like, the Ghosts 'N Goblins or Ninja Gaiden or something.

So, you know, why not make games that can be finished? I mean, you want a good time, put it to Easy. You wanna test your skills, put it to Hard. Even having the option…And the overall difficulty in general that people have widely observed to be lowering I think proves this guy's point.

Tim Spaeth: Yeah. I wish Mike was here, 'cause we could comment on World of Warcraft. I'll just do it for him. You know, it's gotten a lot of flak in the last year for being "dumbed down" and being made much easier. And the developers have come right out and said, "Yep. We're dumbing it down. We're making it easier."

WBecause historically they've created a lot of high-end content that only a tiny, tiny percentage of the player base was ever seeing. And it was almost like they were putting in all this effort for just a small payback. So now they're making the game much easier, so everybody can enjoy it. And it's enjoying higher subscription numbers than it ever has. So definitely you want people to see your content. I certainly can understand that.

Chi Kong Lui: And again, that falls in the category of people that are already playing World of Warcraft or more causal World of Warcraft players, you know. If they wanted to talk about, again, getting more people to play MMOs, then they gotta talk about a new concept. They gotta talk about something that would make them want to play, or something like, again, Second Life, which isn't really a game at all, and that gets them there. All these other crazy games now that are coming out that are for free and all this other stuff our kids are—

Brad Gallaway: I'm gonna have to call you on that, Chi. I'm gonna have to call you. I think, again, I think World of Warcraft is the perfect example that actually supports this guy's argument. Because, you know, I know tons of people who the only game they play is World of Warcraft. They have no prior game experience. They have no, you know, internal love of gaming. And yet they play Warcraft because it is easy to get into.

Chi Kong Lui: Um-hm.

Brad Gallaway: And because it's very accessible. And so I think that…and being the number one MMO, you know, by a large margin, it certainly shows that they know what is gonna draw people in. And I think that if you took a breakdown of who the World of Warcraft customer base is, a huge chunk of that pie chart would be people who don't have game experience. And so that strategy has paid off in spades for them. I mean, like, by far.

Chi Kong Lui: Right. And you know, again, what I'm saying I don't think conflicts with that point. I know that you say you're calling me out on it, but at the end of the day, World of Warcraft is a fantasy RPG, you know, with Dungeons and Dragons and that sort of thing. And, you know, that's never gonna appeal to certain people like my sister, for example, who just isn't into that, you know, like no matter how you dress it up. You can make it easier, but—

Brad Gallaway: That's kind of a different argument, though. I mean, we're not talking about cultural relevance right now. We're talking about accessibility.

Chi Kong Lui: Right.

Brad Gallaway: I mean, I totally agree with you. I mean, I think you're absolutely on the mark that no matter how fun it is, not everybody wants to be like an elf, or a Taurin or whatever else is in World of Warcraft. I mean, I think you're exactly right. But I think—

Chi Kong Lui: Again, we're taking it from two different points, you know. That's all it is.

Brad Gallaway: Right. Right.

Tim Spaeth: So I wanna talk briefly about a couple of sections towards the end of the article. He has one section called "Mitigating Failure" and I wanted to talk briefly about that, in terms of ways that games recently have reduced the impact of the fail state. And I think the most popular example of that right now is the Prince of Persia from last year. Did either of you play that?

Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I played it.

Chi Kong Lui: I did not, although I've heard plenty about it.


Tim Spaeth: Yeah, I mean, the whole idea there was that you couldn't die. Your girlfriend would save you if you fell. And I don't know about you, Brad, but I really enjoyed that game. And my interpretation of that was that the developers —and I'm putting words in their mouth, but—they kind of went out and said: "What is this game about? It's about the pleasure of traversing the environment, the little thrills you get from the rhythm of the running, the jumping, the flipping. It's about that, and it's about the relationship between the two characters, the Prince and Elika." And they just took everything else out. No death.

Now, you could argue that the relationship was terrible and stupid and poorly written. You could argue that the movement was very, very repetitive, and that certainly is your subjective opinion. But I like the idea that they set out to focus on those two things and nothing else. And they said: "Death doesn't have any place here. We want the players to focus on these things."

And it kind of jives with what Jenova Chen was saying last week: that he wants his games to be about emotion. And, you know, flOw didn't have a death state. You certainly could've had a mechanic where if your little flow-creature didn't eat enough people in a certain amount of time, that he could die. And that would be a very game-y thing to do, but he said: "That's not what the game is about. It's about this. It's about the emotion. It's about the movement." And I just like that concept.

Brad Gallaway: Well, I agree that I think the concept is a good one. I mean, I strongly, strongly dislike that game, that Prince of Persia game, for other reasons. I mean, it had nothing to do with that particular twist. And honestly, I mean, all I saw that as was kind of a shortcut.

Because what happens when you die in a regular game? You get kicked back a certain distance, or you reload your save and you try again. I mean, it's just…it's this archaic kind of thing that happens. And I saw this mechanic of Elika saving the Prince as them just saying: "Hey, look. We know you're gonna reload your save anyway. We're gonna save you the trouble. Just keep going."

And, I mean, it was kind of an interesting little piece of shorthand. I don't think it would work for every game. I'm not sure that I would want it for every game. But I really appreciated that they were thinking outside the box and I almost kinda saw it as a courtesy. Because, I mean, if nothing else, the Prince of Persia games are famous for you missing a jump and falling to your death or whatever, so [Laughter] in that particular instance, it was good.

And I would really be open to other developers kind of looking at that, and simply acknowledging the fact that it's a drag to have to load 30 seconds to get to the part where you died. I mean, you know, time is a premium for a lot of people these days, and annoyance is something that everybody should be trying to avoid when you play a game. I mean, I don't know of any game where it's good to be annoyed. I mean, I don't think any developer wants their players to be annoyed.

So that little piece of shorthand I thought was fine. I mean, anything that gets to the heart of what the game is about is a plus, and in that particular instance, I do think it worked. Although I hated the game, but.


Brad Gallaway: That's kind of beside the point.

Chi Kong Lui: I sort of struggle with this topic. You know, I'm trying to balance out "Is it my own personal tastes?" or whatever. But the example that kind of comes up for me is Halo, right? And the spawn points, sort of the start and stop flow of when you die and start again, it really takes a lot of the joy out for me, you know. Like I feel like I'm invincible as a result of that, and I sort of just always try to kamikaze myself more or less half the time into situations, and don't really think it through, or don't really strategize too much. Because I know I'm just that spawn point away, and, so, it takes a lot of the joy out for me, you know, so I don't know. I understand in certain situations it can work out better, but I like an occasional challenge.

Believe me, I'm not crazy. You know, I have a wife and kid that I have to get to. I'm not the type of guy who spends 40 hours on games anymore. But at the same time, I appreciate games that aren't afraid to be a little bit harder if it's done in the right context. And I think we all have played a couple of games like that. I mean, Brad, just last week you talked about Trials HD and how you blew through that.

Brad Gallaway: I was actually just gonna bring that up. And I do wanna say that I actually in no way, shape or form blew through that.

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Sorry. I didn't mean to put it that way, but you slaved through it, yeah.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I trudged through it. That game was like balls hard. That was like the hardest game I've played in, like, a long, long time. And I finished it. I completely finished it. But the only reason I was able to finish that game was because of how easy it was to continue. If that game even had one or two seconds of load time, I really honestly believe that my frustration level would've been pushed past the breaking point, and I would've just stopped, because I would've just been too frustrated.

But because there was no load time when you died, they instantly put you back in the game. Like it was a fraction of a fraction of a second. That decision in streamlining the player side of the experience technically was what saved it for me. And that was what enabled me to keep going. And it kept my frustration down. And that particular frustration had nothing to do with the game. i mean, it wasn't part of the game that they would want me to wait three seconds while the game loaded. And so I really appreciated that they took the time to make sure that that nuts and bolts kind of thing was ironed out. I mean, I think that's a really good way to go hand in hand with the higher level of difficulty, if that's what the developers want.

But again, I think it's looking at how do you scale that difficulty? In Trials HD's particular case, the developers made no concessions to the player whatsoever in terms of difficulty in terms of the levels and the content. But they made huge concessions when it came to how the game was technically produced. And that was a really good example of high difficulty but manageable because of production level.

Chi Kong Lui: Right. Right.

Brad Gallaway: I mean, not every game strikes that perfect balance, but I think that was a really good example.

Chi Kong Lui: Can I get your thoughts on another game as well that I know sort of falls in not quite the same genre, but Shiren the Wanderer, right. I mean, the Mystery Dungeon.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. Yeah.

Chi Kong Lui: I know you're a big fan of that. I just picked it up based on your recommendation. Haven't played it yet, but you know, another classic example of a game that's really tough. Why did that work for you?

Brad Gallaway: Oh, man. You know, Shiren the Wanderer is really, really, really, really, really hard.


Brad Gallaway: And honestly, I don't like hard games anymore. I used to when I was younger, when I had something to prove, when I was a young Turk coming up. But not anymore, man. I paid my dues, and I don't like hard games anymore. But this one was…man, it's crazy hard.

But the thing that saved it for me—and again, this is another concession towards the player—is that the developers were absolutely consistent in the way they implemented the game's rules. They never cheated the player. They never made special rules for the bosses that didn't apply anywhere else. It was like once you learned the game's system, that was absolutely how it worked throughout the entire game. So it was very consistent and very fair. If you made a mistake, it was usually because you screwed up or you made a bad choice or something like that. It was never because a boss got to go an extra turn, or because you couldn't cast a Sleep on him, where it had worked on every other enemy previous to that. So that's another area where…the game is ridiculously difficult, but it's really enjoyable and good because the develoeprs realize that consistence is their concession towards keeping a player's frustration level down.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.

Brad Gallaway: So if you screwed up, it was really on you, not the game. And that's another good balance. I think a lot of developers struggle with that, but they really pulled it off in that instance.

Chi Kong Lui: So you know what, Brad? I gotta thank you, 'cause I think you basically explained it for me through the process of talking about Trials and Shiren here. To me it comes down to, like you said, consistency and how you execute out your difficulty and whether or not you're trying to create a challenging experience. 'Cause I think even casual gamers don't mind challenges presented in the right way. I'm just very uncomfortable with this blanket statement that easier games is gonna equal a lot more players.

It's hard to disagree with that at the same time also, in that…as a general formula, sure. But in actual practice, though, it's a little more nuanced than that. 'Cause I just see too many examples out there whether you're talking about Pokémon, whether you're talking about Rock Band where we see so many casual people playing these games anyway. So I can accept it as a blanket argument, but I just think that it's such a more interesting, nuanced argument to make in general. And I think it depends on the game, depends on the situations and how the developers execute it, for me.

Brad Gallaway: Let me add two things to that real quick here. The first that I would add, is I think that in the case of Pok&eacutemon and Rock Band and a number of other things like some Wii games, they have that cultural energy, that cultural mindshare going. And I know a lot of people who will jump on board with something, even if it's not their cup of tea, because everybody else is playing it.

I know a number of Pokémon players who, everybody they knew was playing Pokémon, so they had to play it, too. And even though it may not have been their cup of tea, they went out and got on board with all that stuff.

So I think you have the cultural dynamism to consider. And I will also say—seriously, but it sounds kind of funny—but if the only games to choose from for people were Trials and Shiren, we'd have [laughter] a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the game audience that's out there today.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.

Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] So I definitely think that easier games have their place, for sure. [Laughter]

Chi Kong Lui: No, I don't mean to imply that those games represent the other games I was talking about, but through you explaining to me how you were able to tolerate those games, I think applies to those other games as well. Because Trials and Shiren doesn't have the cultural significance part of it, and neither do they have the novelty factors. But the way you explained the game mechanics to me allowed me to explain how, when you have the cultural significance as well as the novelty, it all can still come together. Even if the game is quote-unquote "difficult." [Laughter] If that makes sense.

Brad Gallaway: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Tim Spaeth: Well, guys, we had some readers chime in on the article, and a couple comments and an interesting question. So would you be interested in hearing some of those?

Brad Gallaway: Absolutely.

Chi Kong Lui: Absolutely.

Tim Spaeth: Of course, of course. We've got a comment here from shun. Is it "shuhn" or "shoon"?

Brad Gallaway: I always pronounced it "shuhn," but I guess we don't know, do we?

Tim Spaeth: We don't. We really don't.

Chi Kong Lui: It's an alias anyway, so that's fine.


Tim Spaeth: That's true. It's not his actual name.

Chi Kong Lui: That's true, 'cause I know—

Brad Gallaway: Not his actual name.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.

Tim Spaeth: The article mentions Wii Fit, and shun says:

I think categorizing Wii Fit as a game that "removed the onus of failure to compete" isn't accurate. Sure, you're not fighting an overlord in that game, but you're fighting your weight problems. Sounds just like a standard competition to me, except with yourself. I fail to understand how it's being made a case for "game with no challenge can be bestselling titles too".

Chi Kong Lui: To me, Wii Fit is an example of relating to the real world. People who play Wii Fit wanna lose weight and there's a lot of people out there who wanna lose weight. That's what it is. It's not a question of difficulty. So that's kind of my point on the whole thing, yeah.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I agree with you. It's totally they're capitalizing on the zietgeist of the Wii's popularity, in conjunction with the fact that, what is it? Like 75% of America is overweight in some fashion or whatever. So it was a natural fit. I wouldn't even categorize that as a game, even, really. It's kind of like a, I don't know, a fitness program plus, or something.

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah. I agree. Yep.

Brad Gallaway: There you go, shun.

Tim Spaeth: There you go. Had a comment from Vince. Now, Vince was commenting on the autoplay feature that's going to be incorporated into New Super Mario Bros. Wii. This is the feature where if you get to a spot that's too hard, it will actually play the game for you and then you can take control when you're ready to…once you're past the part you can't get past. So Vince comes out against that. He says:

"I know that I don't want an auto-play feature. I want good gameplay. Games should have a progression to them, and not just within themselves, but carried from one to another. You don't just hop into a Halo3 online match and expect to have fun as your first game. There are skills to learn from other games first."

Before you chime in on that, Chi, I just wanted to say that the only time I had fun in Halo 3 online was my first game, because it was the starter zone and all the good players weren't allowed to play there. And I could actually win.


But, anyway, that's not Vince's point. Go ahead.

Chi Kong Lui: And sorry for jumping on top of this real quick again, but I just feel like he was saying basically what I was saying at the end of the conversation before, in that, again, it's not about just making these games easy for the sake of being easy. It's about the execution.

And this is a tough call, but to me, the whole autoplay thing sounds just kinda condescending. I don't know how other people are gonna take it. It's a little bit condescending to me. I wonder whether people are gonna appreciate that or not.

Brad Gallaway: This is a really complicated issue. Number one, it's complicated because nobody's actually played it yet. But I'm kind of two minds here. On the one hand, I do agree with Vince and with you, Chi, that there are certain games that are just meant to be kind of difficult. Not every meal is McDonald's.


Some people want a meal. Some people want snails. Some people want something that has multiple layers of flavor. That's not everybody's cup of tea. Same thing with games. Some people really want to have to practice to nail those headshots, and that's totally appropriate. I think that is fine. I love it. But if you are the kind of player that wants to get in there, sink your teeth into it, polish up your skills, that game should absolutely be there for you. So I don't think that every single game needs to be made accessible to all players.

On the other hand, talking specificaly about this autoplay feature, I have an eight-year-old son, and I sit with him, and I game with him all the time, and there's been a number of times when he'll hit just like…he'll do hours and hours of gameplay on his own and he'll do fine, and he'll hit just like one particular jump or one particular cluster of enemies, and it'll just stop him dead in his tracks. And I thank the stars above I can share this hobby with my son, because any time he gets stuck, he can always be like, "Dad," and I'll be like, "Yeah, okay. Give me the controller," bam-bam-bam, cool.


And I love that. I love that we share this. And I think that if for whatever reason I wasn't there, or he just…It might be kind of cool to have an option where a kid or somebody could just get past a tough part.

But at the same time, I can think of several instances where he'd struggled and struggled and struggled, I'd coached him down from being really frustrated and angry. We come back to the game after he's cooled off, and then he makes it. And I would hate for him to not ever have that sense of getting past an obstacle. I think that's something really intrinsic to the human condition.

Chi Kong Lui: Yup.

Brad Gallaway: We struggle, and if you can't ever fail, how can you ever really win? So…Eennh, I don't know. It's tough.

Tim Spaeth: It is hard. And it's funny. As a parent I've been playing a lot of Candy Land. Like, endless games of Candy Land with my daughters.


And the first few times we played, they had never played a board game before. So the concept that there is a winner and losers was very new to them. And maybe I had made a mistake of trumping up the importance of winning, 'cause I was like: "The first person to get to the end wins!" But I never really explained, like, it's okay not to win, and that you run to play more times, and then everyone will get a chance to win.

But the first time we played, my daughter Molly, she won the game. And she was very excited, and she celebrated. And my daughter Maddie, her twin sister, she started crying. She said: "Why can't we both win?" And I was like: "Well, look. We're gonna play again. You're gonna get a chance to win." And then I said: "Don't be a baby" and I sent her outside to the yard.

Brad Gallaway: Oh, my God. You did not!

Tim Spaeth: Of course I did not. I didn't say that.

Brad Gallaway: Oh, God, thank you.


Brad Gallaway: I was gonna be like: "All right, wait a minute. Stop the podcast. You gotta be [unknown] here."

Tim Spaeth: But internally, my parenting philosophy, and this is how I was raised, was my dad never let me win at anything. And he never let me take the shortcut at anything. And I kind of feel the same way. That if you don't unders—

Brad Gallaway: Is that why you killed him and buried him in Arizona? [Laughter]

Tim Spaeth: Yes. That's why I went to prison for five years after the manslaughter charge.


But the idea of experiencing failure so that you're motivated never to go there again is one that I strongly support. I feel like you have to lose. You have to fail to be motivated to win. And, look, it's a video game. In the scheme of things, it's not that important. But an autoplay feature, to me, it's a cheat. And it's sending the wrong message to a kid who will do it once, and then do it again and again and again and again, because it's easier.

Brad Gallaway: Yeah. Yeah.

Tim Spaeth: And, look. They're playing video games. They're being lazy already.


This is like the height of laziness, isn't it?

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] The game's gonna play for you. Exactly, right.

Brad Gallaway: You make a good point. You make a very good point.

Chi Kong Lui: Let me say something that I think is very important here. And, Brad, you actually said it. It's the A-word. I'm not sure if it came up before, but it's accessibility. And it's important for us to understand that accessibility and challenge are not the same thing. It's two different things. It's very nuanced. And the problem with the author of the article, he doesn't make that distinction. He's sort of saying: "Lack of challenge equals accessibility" and I strongly disagree with that. I strongly disagree with that. Accessibility has more to do with design and execution.

Brad Gallaway: I would agree with that. I think it's not difficulty that stops people. I think it's difficulty that's out of whack, or difficulty that hasn't been properly led up to.

Chi Kong Lui: Yup.

Brad Gallaway: Like the lack of a learning curve, or spikes that should be ironed out in the production process, so I would agree with you on that.

Chi Kong Lui: Thank you, Brad. That's exactly what I've been trying to say right there. Yup.

Brad Gallaway: There you go. Got your back, dude.

Tim Spaeth: Couple more comments before we wrap up this segment. This one comes from eaps—E.A.P.S, eaps. He echoes some of the things we've been saying. He says, quote:

"I think the good news is that for those people who need a game that is balls to the walls hard, there will always be those games like Contra DS, Ikagura that are less story based and more about mastering the challenge.

Brad, of course you mentioned Trials HD. eaps goes on to say:

"There is also the option of playing on the "insane" level. I'm curious if anyone ever starts out playing a new game on that level.It's a pretty amazing time we live in that the market can support both types of gameplay options."

Have either of you ever started a game on the hardest possible difficulty level?

Chi Kong Lui: The only one I've ever done that for was GoldenEye, because I knew that all the content was in the higher levels, and that was fine. It allowed me to sort of not develop any bad habits. The only time I remember doing that was GoldenEye.

Brad Gallaway: That's funny you say that, because if I know for a fact that there's something that I wanna see, like if there's an extra mode, an extra character, some little perk that's only available on the harder difficulty, then I will start at that difficulty for the sole purpose of not missing that content. But if there is no consideration like that, then no. And in general, no. I don't play things on the hardest difficulty at all. I usually start off on Normal and just kind of see how that goes.

Chi Kong Lui: Right.

Brad Gallaway: Like I said earlier, I've played multiple games that are really, really, really hard. And if a game doesn't have a difficulty level, and it's still hard, then I won't play it anyway. But if I have a choice, I don't punish myself. I don't need to do that anymore.

Tim Spaeth: I always feel like the Normal difficulty is what the developer intended you to play, so that's what I always start with.

Chi Kong Lui: But not in the case of Halo, apparently. [Laughter]

Tim Spaeth: No. Halo they intended you to play on Legendary, but that's too much. Yeah.

Chi Kong Lui: But that was what they considered to be the Halo experience, right, as far as the developers were concerned. Not that that's not what they wanted you to play on, yeah.

Tim Spaeth: It's interesting. In the modern era, we now have Achievements, which provides extra incentive for people to play on those harder difficulty levels. Doesn't work for me, but I know a lot of people are really obsessed with that, so.

One last question here. This comes from gamevet, and this is kind of a random question, but it does tie to the main topic. He cites the Shenmue series. And he says, quote:

"The Shenmue series (all 2 of them) was very much an interactive movie, with a few QTE and fighting scenes thrown in. Do you think (hypothetically speaking) if a Shenmue 3 came out with the QTE and fighting scenes being cinematic cutscenes, that the game would gather a much larger audience than the previous chapters?"

Brad Gallaway: Chi?

Chi Kong Lui: I think this is where the cultural significance comes in. 'Cause I think: "What's a game that's kind of cinematic?" and, to me, Grand Theft Auto III. And that had that tidal wave of hype behind it, and all kinds of people played that. If it was purely a movie-based game…again, with the right hook, it could go either way, I think.

Brad Gallaway: I would say no. I would say specifically no, because: Number one, I would kinda disagree that Shenmue was a movie with a few things thrown in. I think the selling point of Shenmue 1 and 2 was that you were doing a significant amount of actual role-playing in the main character's shoes. And although that translated to a lot of walking around and a lot of talking to people, and maybe it's the slower parts that gamevet is referring to. I think that was the selling point. That's really what won people over. It has a really, really small but loyal core group of fans, of which I count myself one, where they added cultural elements, they had a great story, they had some interesting mechanics.

If you stripped out the fighting and just made it watchable and not playable, thats…no. I don't think people didn't like Shenmue because the action was too hard, or because they didn't wanna interact in these sections. I think the people who didn't like Shenmue were people who were not interested in the cultural content, and who were not interested in the actual deeper level of role-playing that the game got to. So, to answer that question, no, I don't think so.

Chi Kong Lui: So, what what you're saying, it's kinda like what I was. I didn't say it too good the first time, I guess. But similar to the way Grand Theft Auto is sort of that open-ended, walk around the town type of game. People ended up playing that, though, but they didn't play Shenmue because of, like you said. It didn't have that gangster, "I'm gonna kill people and take hookers" and all that other elements that the public found so engaging. [Laughter]

Brad Gallaway: Oh, yeah. Rockstar knows the audience.

Chi Kong Lui: Right.

Brad Gallaway: Look at American culture. What do we watch? We watch violence and sex, and not that there's anything wrong with that. I enjoy both violence and sex. Sometimes even together.


But that's a much easier sell than something as nuanced and as subtle as Shenmue. Shenmue is about the quiet moments.

Chi Kong Lui: Exactly.

Brad Gallaway: It's about being thoughtful. It's about this character's personal quest to avenge his father's death. That's not something that you could really wrap up in a lot of guns and explosions. It's a very, very different kind of experience, which I think was bound from the start to be limited to a very niche audience. Whereas Grand Theft Auto, like you said, has much more cultural relevance or accessibility, perhaps, in the American scene, so.

Tim Spaeth: Wouldn't a better example be Fallout? That however you promote Shenmue 3, it would have to do to that series what Fallout 3 did to the Fallout series. Those two games—1 and 2—were very niche PC titles, and then Fallout 3 came out with its swanky next-generation graphics, and game trailers where we were blowing up zombies with rocket launchers, and the nuke sitting in the middle of the first town. And I have no idea what you would do, but you would need to have that same kind of impact on Shenmue 3.

Chi Kong Lui: I think with Fallout, it got a lot of gamers that weren't necessarily RPG gamers or weren't necessarily Fallout fans to go play Fallout, and I think that's where the numbers come from. But I don't think Fallout is the kind of mainstream game where you have football players and Vin Diesel talking about how much he loved it. So I don't put Fallout in the same category as Grand Theft Auto.

Tim Spaeth: I don't know. I saw Matthew Perry, the cat from Friends. He was on a talk show talking about Fallout 3. And if Matthew Perry likes your game, well, hell, you've done something right.


Brad Gallaway: Yeah, you got it made then. Woo, you got the [unknown] from Friends as one of your fans, yeah. Target audience on the nose, baby.


Chi Kong Lui: What has he done since?

Brad Gallaway: Uh, nothing.

Tim Spaeth: No idea.

Brad Gallaway: That's a bad, stupid…enh. Anyway. Anyway, just to nutshell it, I think Shenmue is its own thing. And I don't think that, regardless of anything you'd do to it, would really open it up. You'd have to destroy the core of what Shenmue is before America would be ready to embrace it. So that's kinda how I see it. [Laughter]

Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.

Tim Spaeth: All right. Well, our thanks to gamevet, shun, Vince and eaps for their questions and comments. And anything else we wanna say about this before we close things out here?

Chi Kong Lui: No, I'm good.

Brad Gallaway: The only thing I would say is that I think that there's lots of room to grow. I think we need a wide spectrum of things, and even if something isn't your cup of tea, it very well may be somebody else's. So whether you're hardcore or casual, you gotta accept that somebody's gonna be on the other side of the spectrum. Bam, motherfuckers! Yeah!


Fucking owned both of you right there. Owned! Dead silence.

Tim Spaeth: Nice, nice. That's beautiful. Interesting stuff. Fantastic segment, guys. And that brings us to the end. But first, a reminder that you can subscribe to our podcast through both the iTunes Music Store and the Zune Marketplace. By the way, guys, we got our first review. Did you read it?

Brad Gallaway: No.

Chi Kong Lui: Really? Unh-unh. I had no idea.

Brad Gallaway: We had a listener? Somebody listened to us?

Tim Spaeth: Someone listened, left a review. Now do you know how many stars it was out of five?

Brad Gallaway: I'm afraid to ask.

Tim Spaeth: Five stars.


Chi Kong Lui: Woohoo.

Brad Gallaway: Did you leave it?

Tim Spaeth: I did not leave the review, no. We got our—

Brad Gallaway: Chi, did you leave the review?

Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] No. No, I did not.

Tim Spaeth: Maybe that's where Mike was tonight. Maybe Mike was off writing the review.

Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] Yeah, he was leaving reviews. [Laughter]

Tim Spaeth: So we'd love for more people to write reviews. So, go out to iTunes, go out to Zune, and tell the world what you think of our show. You can also leave feedback at, you can also sign up for our forums there, and we're on Twitter @GameCritics is the name. So for Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, and the missing Mike Bracken, I'm Tim Spaeth. Good night, and bonne chance.

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk grew up in a small Nebraska town called Papillion. Although she has a nonverbal learning disability that affects her visual-spatial skills (among other things), she's always loved video games. Her first game system was a Commodore Vic-20, which her mom bought at a garage sale for $20. With this little computer Tera learned to write Mad Libs in BASIC, to play chess and to steal gold from Fort Knox.

But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).

Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at
Tera Kirk

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