Mobile Gear Solid

I prefer not to discuss current events (as of May 2015) on this blog. But given that I’ve been spending so much time with a Konami product as of late I decided to wade through the ongoing controversy that the company has been embroiled in.  This is all based on rumor and speculation given what has been released by the company itself.  By all accounts it seems that Konami is radically changing its position in the games industry, moving away from console heavy weights to something else. The early rumor is that it involves getting into the gambling trade, and now there are reports that the company is going to focus on mobile development. Casting off its console business now seems like a curious move, almost as if it is about five years too late. But it is what it is, and now that the company has also been delisted from the NYSE (at its own behest) my curiosity to the public inner workings of the place will have to be sated by what I can glean from staid press releases and rampant speculation in the video game press tabloids.

I don’t have any reliable data on how much the Metal Gear Solid games cost Konami to make. I have to assume that it was more than a matter of personal honor that kept on getting multimillion dollar software projects greenlight at the place. Let’s do some napkin math for a minute. Considering the following rough estimate costs to develop games (per platform):

  • PS1: $1.7 million
  • PS2: $10 million
  • PS3: $22 million

Here are some sale figures for the first four console entries (provided by the SuperBunny Hop video) :

  • Metal Gear Solid 1 (PS1): 7 Million units
  • Metal Gear Solid 2 (PS2): 7 Million units
  • Metal Gear Solid 3 (PS2): 3.7 Million units
  • Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3): 6 Million units

Assuming that Konami got roughly a 45% cut of the retail price of the game at the end of the day, that means the company grossed $157,500,000 each for MGS1/MGS2; $83,250,000 for MGS3, and $162,000,000 for MGS4.  for a total of $560,250,000 gross vs. about $50 million development costs for those four games. Either my guestimating math is way off (entirely possible) or Konami is seeing potentially bigger dollar signs in a mobile strategy. Even when considering tax implications and inflation, the margins seem extraordinarily good for the console games.

Unless, of course, we’re missing something.

Next on Memory Lane: Final Fantasy X

The other day I was reminiscing about the year 2001 release catalog which included heavy hitters like Halo, Grand Theft Auto III, and Metal Gear Solid 2. I was remiss though in not mentioning Final Fantasy X. Like MGS2, FFX was one of those titles that sold the PlayStation 2 on me.  Now, today Final Fantasy definitely does not have the clout that it enjoyed in the 90s and early 00’s. Go ahead and google “Final Fantasy dead” and you’ll see a number of articles that should inform you as to the popular perception of the venerable RPG series.

Two things will give a brand a slow death: overexposure and over-extension. In the former’s case you see the thing everywhere to the point that you become inoculated against its marketing. But when a brand is overextended it can no longer stay true itself. I’m not sure when it came to that point for Final Fantasy, but my reverence for the series started its decline somewhere on the License Board in Final Fantasy XII. I suspect that it may have started with Final Fantasy X-2 for fans of the older entries and they may even be right.  What an apex, though. Final Fantasy X was a beautiful game for its time. Now that I have the HD Remaster for PS4, I’m anxious to see how well it aged.  As I have an academic interest in graphics programming on the PS2 I’ll be updating this post (or perhaps creating a new series) with some information on that aspect as well.

Almost time to ride ze shoopuf.

The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2

Believe it or not I am still working on the “Virtually Impossible” achievement. I just passed 20% completion, having cleared all of the Raiden missions. This has unlocked Ninja Raiden and Raiden-X (which I assume involves missions with a streaking Raiden, oh joy…) so it’s back to the old grind from the beginning of the VR missions. As I mentioned earlier, some of those alternative missions were quite bizarre but they did break up the monotony of the VR stuff.  I have a feeling that I’ll unlock the “In it to Win it” achievement which needs 50 first place finishes relatively soon. Thus far I’ve managed to rack up 17 first place slots with just Raiden. These aren’t exceedingly difficult but there definitely are some stage clears where I have to wonder, who in the hell would ever be able to obtain that score?  I read a strategy book a long time ago – it may have even been one of those old Jeff Rovin “How to Win at Nintendo Games” books –  in which the standard advice was to think how the level designer would think in order to get ahead. That was probably way too meta for my elementary school brain to process, but note that the sentiment was echoed later on in Metal Gear Solid itself:

Master Miller: Plan your strategy based on the enemies’ positions. Try to think like the enemy commander will think. If you can put yourself in the map designer’s mind, a lot of doors will open for you.

With that in mind I finally plunked down the cash for a used copy of The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2. I was always under the impression that the disc was basically a video documentary with a few Virtual Mission levels thrown in as a demo. This came out well after MGS2 but before Substance and I believe the rationale for it was to serve as a kind of exclamation point on the series. But as we all know it wasn’t over yet for Kojima. Anyway at the time I wasn’t overly interested in a documentary or the VR levels so I passed on it. Thirteen years later and going through the game one last time I figured, why not. Turns out the Document is more than I bargained for and I’m very pleased about that. Beyond just some cool model viewers and extraneous information there’s an entire write up about the actual MGS engine that was written to create the game. I haven’t gone through all of the notes yet but they didn’t seem overwhelming.  One interesting tidbit that I read:  Metal Gear Solid 2 weighed in at over a million lines of code. I’m not sure if that number is impressive because it’s that number or because I always assumed the line count was way more.  Some of the alternate level designs presented were intriguing. It’s too bad that some of those rooms didn’t make it into the final game.  Based on the looks of some of the concept areas, the gameplay would have been very different.

Highly recommended, if you can find The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2 cheap somewhere and you have an interest in seeing how they used to do it in the old days.

Dune, Dune II, and the origin of Real Time Strategy

Yesterday, Pikmin. Today, Dune II.

I’ve been listening to the audio book of Dune sporadically while I go about some menial tasks (like fixing a pathway). I don’t have much to say about Dune other than it is a superior work of fiction, and if you only ever read one work of science fiction in life (or listen to it, whatever you prefer) then I highly recommend Dune. Even if the story doesn’t appeal to you the sheer artistry of the novel is breathtaking.  But even as I was listening to Paul Atreides’ genesis I couldn’t help but think of another Genesis, and a game that always struck me as an odd duck in the venerable 16 bit system’s catalog. Dune II Battle for Arrakis is a bonafide real time strategy game, and for a long time I thought it was the progenitor of the genre, though apparently this isn’t the case. I discovered the RTS genre in 1994 or so, by way of Warcraft II and eventually the later Command & Conquer games. So to me RTS games were always PC affairs. They just couldn’t be done “correctly” on the consoles. But I considered it rather impressive that anybody would attempt to put this kind of game on the Genesis.

There are a lot of interesting facets to the tale and if your google FU is strong enough you can dig for snippets of the story here and there. I especially like how there was another game in development, which apparently didn’t get the message to cut development of their title from the publisher. But this was most surprising:

Technosoft’s 1990 Mega Drive game Herzog Zwei is often labelled as a primary inspiration for Dune II, but according to Sperry greater influence came from a more mundane source. “Herzog Zwei was a lot of fun, but I have to say the other inspiration for Dune II was the Mac software interface. The whole design/interface dynamics of mouse clicking and selecting desktop items got me thinking, ‘Why not allow the same inside the game environment? Why not a context-sensitive playfield? To hell with all these hot keys, to hell with keyboard as the primary means of manipulating the game!’”

Kind of funny that we owe our modern RTS genre in part to the old Mac GUI. Read the whole interview here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

Pikmin Musings

Pikmin was on my mind today. I’m taking my first tentative steps toward managing a garden which has overgrown the original plan of the property. I’ve not done much gardening so the work – which seems fairly straight forward at first glance – ends up taking me much longer than I plan.  As I was toiling to clear an old pathway (an activity that felt more like archeology than yardwork) I was suddenly swarmed by all manner of bugs. That’s what made me think of Nintendo’s quirky little RTS series, which according to popular legend was inspired by gardening. That is, when Shigeru Miyamoto took up the hobby.

Pikmin is one of those games that I tried very hard to like right off the bat, but for one reason or another I just couldn’t get into it. Like all first party Nintendo games the craftsmanship is top tier so that’s not an issue. The unique style of the game (read: very Nintendo-like) wasn’t overly appealing to me in my early 20s but not to the point that I was turned off by it. The gameplay was simple but challenging. The premise was fairly unique. But something just would not click for me with it. It’s still sitting on my back catalog list so I’ll make the attempt to play it one more time. After digging around in the dirt in the hot sun for a few hours maybe I’ll feel the same kind of attachment to the plant/ant creatures that Miyamoto referred to.

As I’m getting older I’m starting to gain a new appreciation for these early turn of the century games. Every generation gets their moment front and center, of course, and I’m sure we could spend hours debating what the “greatest years” of games were (I cast my vote for 1998 and 2004). But there was something about that creative force back in the late 90s, that impetus to take advantage of the hardware to get some kind of competitive edge. We got awe inspiring cinematic games like MGS2, instant classics like Halo, and a living, breathing city to romp around in Grand Theft Auto III.  And unique games like Pikmin. I don’t want to turn this into a missive to the world of yesterday, but for a long time I was of the opinion that “true” retro would only apply to the raw, simple times of the 80s and early 90s. The time when developers only had limited resources to make great games, and they seemed to use every less ounce of those resources. But the vibe was different as we looked toward the successor consoles of the new millennium which produced games that pushed the boundaries of the medium.  The devs knew they had something to prove with all that horsepower and they did.

Commander Battle Report

Last night was the epic Fatal Four-way that ended up being a 3 way dance once again due to a scheduling issue. We managed to get in two games, one going to the Xenagos deck I lost to a few days ago, and the second game handily going to a Simic deck commanded by Experiment Kraj. The old Ice Age legend, Skeleton Ship, was overmatched and outclassed. This was not an unexpected outcome to be sure – it was a flavorful choice not a competitive one – but my deck did flash moments of potential. That’s tantalizing enough for me to stick with the archetype, if not the commander or strategy.

In Game 1 I had a fairly good lock in the mid game, but I was creature starved and couldn’t hold off the inevitable attacks. Propaganda is still a helluva card after all these years. The undisputed MVP of the deck so far however has been Painful Quandary, and like most of my deck brews it was an afterthought card that almost didn’t make the cut. When PQ hit the board in Game 1 and in a few games on Wednesday, it actually put me within striking distance of victory. The problem for me is that I never had anything to strike with.  And my opponents are good players too so that may have had something to do with my losses in all cases.

Game 2 was a wash as the Simic deck got going early. I’m not too up on the Kruphix engine but what I do know is the game was most likely in scoop territory for me and my other opponent somewhere around turn 4. I did have a good mana base going in this game and a few of the right cards to start constructing the negative proliferation  engine, but it was too little, too late, and far too slow. By the time Simic’s board state had reached critical mass there was nothing either of us could do (Xenagos had switched to a 5 color Sliver deck). A counter to my last ditch overloaded Cyclonic Rift and it was all over. GGs all around but they did leave me wanting more.

None of the other commanders in the UB color identity appeal to me, so I’m expanding to a tri-color deck. UBR were the first colors I tried before settling on UB Inquisitor back in the day so it’s a nostalgic choice for me once again. But this time I plan to make it a little more competitive than the Skeleton Ship can be. A new Commander may help me add a few more notches to my W column. As my potential opponents may be reading I don’t want to telegraph my next moves, other than to say I’ve updated my OODA loop accordingly.

Dreams of Metal Gear Solid 2

Going through the Alternative Missions in the course of my pursuit for the Metal Gear Solid 2 platinum trophy, I was surprised at how weird they feel.  This is partially because MGS2 is a weird a game as they come, so why should the idea of Raiden doing strange stuff like photo shooting be strange to me? This rather old essay of the original Sons of Liberty by Tim Rogers sheds some insight:

“Playing Metal Gear Solid 2, to me, mirrors sleeping — dreaming — in an empty room…

Dreams have terrorists. Dreams have presidents, hostage situations…

Dreams, sometimes, even have terrorist/hostage situations involving vampires.

Dreams mix the real, and the unreal. Dreams mix whatever is in our minds.”

Ignore the empty room analogy along with most the rest of his piece if you choose to read it: Mr. Rogers has a truly dizzying intellect as he darts from idea to idea like a small rodent in search of food or escape. But in the process he did manage to uncover a kernel that gives us a deeper insight into the game. The idea that MGS2 is like a dream – a bad one at that – is intriguing because of how well it manages to replicate that dream-like quality of a jumbled reality, in this case, the reality of the events of the first game. There’s more on that in James Howell’s formal analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2, which is rather long but I do recommend you read if you’re curious about the meaning of  the game’s narrative.

In much the way that (according to Howell) Metal Gear Solid 2 jumbled bits of the Metal Gear Solid to create a familiar yet bizarre experience, the MGS2 Alternative Missions jumble those conventions in the same way but within the MGS2 context. They’re whimsical, ethereal, and have nothing to do with the main game, but they’re strangely refreshing in the way dreams can be. This led me to look for other games where this might be true, and as it luck would have it there’s another old favorite that got the dream treatment in a more literal sense. Doomdream by Ian MacLarty is an interesting case. There’s nothing to do but run around a doom level done up in a washed out palette, inspired by the dreams the developer had after playing Doom all day. Give it a download and try it out (and remember to tip the dev…)

Commander at Sea

After the new commander post I wrote the other day, schedules worked out so I actually had the chance to get in a few trial games before Friday night’s big multiplayer extravaganza. The games went like this: a 1v1 game against a Xenagos deck, a three game 1v1 series against a Mogis deck, and finally a 3 player game against both of those decks, piloted by the same guys. How did Skeleton Ship fare you ask?

0-5.

Not the greatest showing. Considering I put the deck together in record time, I’m surprised it managed to hang in there at all against two aggro decks. It’s been a long time since I’ve played the control archetype and I underestimated the complexity of all that interaction. Learning the Magic Online interface was also a bit of a culture shock to say the least. Apparently I’m not the only one who takes issue with MTGO. Anyway I got the hang of it after a few rounds. My shoddy initial deck construction was not so easy to overcome.

Of the five games, I cast my commander (Skeleton Ship) once and managed to ping one of the gods with a -1/-1 counter before a board wipe undid most of my slow build up. My opponents were in agreement that my deck felt very oppressive. Both also agreed that my deck was not optimal for 1v1 and did much better in the multiplayer environment. For my part my mana base was appallingly inadequate. I rolled in with 37 lands, but only one dual land (Underground River) and Command Tower, with no fetches.  This was a poor choice considering what I was up against and I’ve since corrected the issue by adding a ton of duals and fetches.  I’ve been happy with my test draws so far and I think my refined win conditions should make the big game interesting, if not fun.

STFU Solid Snake (?)

I’ve been thumbing through a book called How to Play a Video Game by Pippin Barr and given my recent monomania with the first two Metal Gear Solid games I was interested to see if they were mentioned at all. Turns out they were, though I wasn’t overly encouraged by what I read. Here’s the first passage I found that refers to Snake. The context of the chapter is the nature of video game characters, aka your avatar:

This raises another question: Who are the two of you together? By now you and your avatar officially have a relationship…So how do you see the relationship? When I take control of Gordon Freeman, for instance, I often think of him as a kind of ‘tool’ that I use to play the game…A friend of mine, in contrast, holds Freeman as his all-time favorite avatar precisely because Freeman doesn’t speak and cannot be directly seen, and so doesn’t interfere with his ability to role-play in the game. He feels strongly that he can be Gordon Freeman in an intimate way precisely because Freeman doesn’t spoil the illusion by saying something stupid, as so many other avatars are wont to do. ‘It’s easy to forget what a sin is in the middle of a battlefield,’ says Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid. Thanks for that, Snake. Now be quiet.

As Solid Snake illustrates, sometimes our relationship to an avatar just does not work.

Or, as the passage illustrates, sometimes the player doesn’t understand the type of game he’s playing. It’s a strange quote to take issue with, and out of context, considering it’s a pivotal moment in the development of Solid Snake’s character and his relationship to Meryl Silverbaugh. But even if you accept Barr’s premise that your avatar in a video game, the player character, is just a way for you to enter the game world, it’s unfair to compare Gordon Freeman and Solid Snake as avatars. They’re two very different characters in two very different games. Metal Gear Solid is very much a narrative-driven game and the emphasis is on Snake’s interpretation of events. That much should be obvious to anyone who sits through the opening cinematic. All of the game characters are chatty and Snake is a talkative guy to be sure. There’s plenty of cringe worthy dialog in Metal Gear. But this conversation, which is 8 minutes long by the way, takes place after the first boss fight and there’s been plenty of narration up to that point. In other words you’re well into it by the time Snake says “something stupid” so you should have an inkling as to what Metal Gear Solid is all about. Really, the part where Snake is demonstrating his tenuous grip to his own humanity while trying to mentor his friend’s kin so she doesn’t get herself killed  – that’s where you want him to shut his mouth and let you play the damn game?

I’ll hold off judging Dr. Barr’s book until I’ve had a chance to give it a close reading, but I suspect a more accurate title may have been “How I Prefer to Play a Video Game.”

A New Commander

For the last two years or so I’ve run a Slivers EDH deck with my local gaming group.  Since I had a few dusty binders full of singleton collections lying about the deck is slightly OP. I was able to round it out with quite a few older cards (original dual lands, sliver queen, etc). The problem though is that I’ve never been able to run the deck very well. The guys in the group have my number – they know what my deck has to offer and how to counter it.  They said as much in a recent email exchange where were discussing the changing commander meta in our area.  I’m glad they were so candid in acknowledging that they have me figured out in the Commander meta of our group. With another commander night coming up very soon, it’s time to disrupt their OODA loops with a new archetype (for me) and and unexpected commander:

Skeleton Ship - New Commander
The New Commander – Skeleton Ship

I’ve seen a few decks that use Skeleton Ship as their general. I’m banking on the quirkiness and apparent low power of the card to allow me to sneak up people in the multiplayer format and perhaps even come away with the win, if I can wither everyone down enough and overwhelm somebody in a 1V1 situation. I’m unfamiliar with the wither mechanic, but it seems to have good synergy with infect. In my group we tend to go for the ridiculously overpowered combos as the win conditions rather than relying on other archetypes. I’ve also grown a little lazy having stayed with one Commander deck for so long. It’s a little bit of a culture shock going from five colors to 2 colors, and the synergy of certain cards aren’t jumping out at me.

I’ll post a deck list and the results of the matches this weekend.  For those who are curious, my unofficial Commander record in the group is something like 1-13. We’re all big believers in broken Magic in our EDH match ups so it’ll be interesting to see who brings what to the table.