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by Harold Goldberg

My first thought was, What kind of crazy-ass-sorry-ass-wimpy-ass-wack sort of thing are they doing at Bandai Namco?

More than a few of the publisher’s new games are being released as free-to-play games – even the latest Soulcalibur, which I wrote about as my favorite game in the book All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture). Isn’t free-to-play a sure sign of sell-out death, “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet ranted?

Or, as J.K. Rowling proclaims in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Is that what the new Soulcalibur: Lost Swords can be?

They come. They go. The fads and trends in videogame culture kind of like an arc of an arrow shot over a tree, over a pond. And then, it falls to earth.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the casual game trend, the Facebook game fads, the rhythm-based music game trend – and a handful of others.

During the trajectory, publishers hope to thrill fans and make money.

With Bandai Namco’s latest slate of games, you’ll see some longstanding console games become free-to-play games.

Over the last few years, flying and fighting games like Ace Combat have not done as well as expected. The same went for Ridge Racer, the arcade-like racing offering which was the staple of so many of Sony’s E3 press conferences – even though Sony did not make the game. Ridge Racer as free to play? It’s true.

So, too, it is with SoulCalibur, which beyond fighting, was rife with myth and backstory for each character. That’s what drew me to the series.

Yet with sales on the decline, Bandai Namco had a tough decision to make.

Should they cancel all the series which are still beloved by a core group of fans, but not as many as at the peak of popularity? Should they fire or reassign the dedicated people who’ve carefully crafted these games like artists create paintings?

Or should they try a new way to make money, one that wouldn’t give the games at least one more chance at relevance?

Bandai Namco decided on the latter rather than the former. But with it, they would try to place these games into a category that core gamers have pooh-poohed, the free-to-play genre.

It’s a big gamble about the personality of those who play – a hope for obsession in the sense that Soulcalibur is actually are free to play for the PS3 – for a while. Despite the idea that the “first one’s free,” the publisher is banking on the player’s rising emotions of greed.

I certainly was skeptical, especially with Soulcalibur, a game for which, to paraphrase the game’s most quoted words, “the soul still burns.”

But when I played at an event, the basic design of the game that features Sophitia, Taki and a host of others, is still the same. It’s not as deep as far as numbers of moves go, but to be honest, during fevered play, I probably used about 10 to 14 moves.

The graphics are a bit stripped down, but still crisp and clear. And I wasn’t able to knock an adversary off the stage into, say, the murky depths. And there’s no online or offline multiplayer at all.

The premise is mainly about a player upgrading, crafting and customizing his or her character. Specifically, each weapon or piece of armor has an elemental aspect, which will increase damage against opponents who are vulnerable to those elements.

You can play through to get free upgrades or you can by stronger upgrades through microtransactions. The publisher hopes players will come in droves to buy upgrades in packs which include tickets to revive you when the going gets tough.

They’ll add a couple of characters each month to see what flies. It’s not the most optimal way to continue the storied Soulcalibur franchise. But at least the series hasn’t died.

Who knows?  If free-to-play becomes a thing for Soulcalibur (or Ridge Racer or Ace Combat), we may see multiplayer online matches or perhaps new console versions. But right now, this is what’s been foisted upon us.

And it’s not too bad at all.

Harold Goldberg, a contributor to The New York Times, is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

By Harold Goldberg

If you’re a fan of EVE Online, you likely know at least some of the lore.

But wait. There’s more.

Like the “The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia,” “EVE: Source” by CCP Games and Dave Marshall features a vast compilation of almost everything EVE – short pieces on characters, long stories about the vast, mysterious worlds and detailed artwork that’s made for dreamers.

It’s bursting with information. For instance, the population of Minmatar (6.556 Trillion) is one that appreciates tattoos (but not as much as their ancestors, for that was prior to the Amarr banning such intricate inking). It’s fascinating minutiae for the fact collector.

Yet one issue I have with the tome is the lack of artwork for the sections on fairly notable characters; she may be a minor character to some, but what does the Guristas pirate Thon Eney look like? Even the tiniest of thumbnail art would have been welcome. Then again, there are over 7,500 star systems in the EVE universe – and technologies and histories. The editing period, the time of cutting and adding, must have been a process of both trying misery and unabashed glee.

I wouldn’t say the 200-page sourcebook is essential for, say, even the elite EVE Online players. But I would say that if lore and history is your thing, “EVE: Source” will help you understand, appreciate and admire the ever-expanding world that is this sprawling and popular MMO today.

Harold Goldberg, a contributor to The New York Times, is the author of “All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)”.

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by Harold Goldberg

Should a videogame music composer write a book about the trade that’s completely inside baseball? Or should it be more readable, a tome that appeals to the general public as well as to musicians. If it’s the latter, the writer walks a dangerous tightrope. He or she risks alienating the core with generalizations and disaffecting the wider audience by being obtuse about the craft.

Yet in “A Composer’s Guide to Game Music” (MIT), Winifred Phillips, who’s worked on the Assassin’s Creed and God of War series, chooses the latter. The results are generally positive.

While I could have done without the revisiting of the question, “Are games art?”, I understand it’s there to explore the way we are now in the world of games. What’s more important about Phillips’ book is a full explanation of how to make it in games as a composer. Particularly, I enjoyed learning about the jargon and lingo, like the stinger, a short piece of  games music lasting but a few seconds that, among other things, is intended to raise emotion like wariness or unveil a clue that helps you move forward.

But the idea, presented very early on, that game musicians should be fans of the popular art they would potentially purvey almost goes without saying. I’d venture to say that few people in the arts disdain their chosen medium. So words like these diminish the flow of a work that has some very good tips along with insightful details on game-making and process. Once you dive in, you’ll find there are potent words about the history of game music as well.

Harold Goldberg, the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture), is the founder of the Circle.

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by Harold Goldberg

Recently, Polygon’s Colin F. Campbell wrote Piranha Frenzy, a full-length novel that’s a labor or love.

Within this taut fiction about what’s it’s like to be a videogame journalist, Campbell offers a motley mix of characters. There’s an older guy/mentor who raises his eyebrows at youthful idiocy tempered with younger folks with too much attitude.  Immersed in this jumble of personalities is a writer called Kjersti Wong, a go-getter who reviews a game that somehow is more than it seems.

Here’s how “Piranha Frenzy” begins:

“Kjersti Wong gazes at the crawling hell-scape. Groaning imps patrol in musical patterns, throbbing portals glowing crimson.”

Yes, it starts with the emotions one feels when playing a game, but soon, there’s a mystery which unfolds that affects everyone. As the tale progresses, there’s also writing about game review embargoes, the absurdity of review scores, and interpersonal annoyances like critics hating other critics. It’s nerd-dishy, yes. But it’s also tight prose peppered with humor that skillfully plotted.

Ultimately, Piranha Frenzy feels real.

Harold Goldberg, a contributor to the New York Times, is the Circle’s founder.

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By Sarah Awad

Dan Ackerman reviews the new Chrome OS laptops via CNET

Jeff Bakalar’s 404 Podcast talks Facebook 

 Engadget’s Ben Gilbert has some (poorly played) Titanfall

Chris Plante of Polygon has a feature on the Street Fighter movie

Samit Sarkar has Capcom Pro Tour info via Polygon

Shouts from the Couch’s Jeremy Voss has something to say about South Park and health insurance

 

Kick off the wildcard weather month of March with some Circle reads

Jeff Bakalar’s CBS – 404 Podcast has special guest Kofi Outlaw

Kotaku’s Jason Schreier tells a story of his Final Fantasy love 

Scott Stein has something to say about wearable tech via CNET: 

Jeremy Voss of Shouts from the Couch takes us through his first several hours of Thief 

 

The Roundup: The Circle Speaks

By Sarah Awad

The Circle was chatty this week!  Check out what they had to say!

Anthony Agnello has another Tiny Streams on Titanfall via Joystiq

Jeff Bakalar’s 404 Podcast has an Olympic theme this week

Ben Gilbert talks Harmonix’s new dance-y shooter on engagdet

Craig Goldstein interviews a B-Baller via MTV

Stu Horvath of Unwinnable asks if you have seen the yellow sign 

Polygon’s Chris Plante reviews Earth Defense Force 2005

Samit Sarkar of Polygon has some Broken Age news

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