April 2, 2010

New baseball games swing for the fences

Posted: 03:22 PM ET
Baseball games swing for the fences
Baseball games swing for the fences

The baseball season officially starts Sunday night when the Boston Red Sox take on their perennial rivals, the New York Yankees. For gamers, that means the latest incarnations of baseball video games are released. Here's a look at two heavy hitters on the market.

MLB10: The Show” (Sony) and “Major League Baseball 2K10” (Visual Concepts, 2K Sports) both launched last month with brand new features and highlights.

Both try to put you in the game with realistic player movements, authentic ball parks, and lifelike sounds from the seats. Each is licensed with Major League Baseball so you get real players with real stats (always important in baseball) to simulate actual MLB games faithfully.

“The Show” has upgraded the accuracy and variety of animations for players, coaches and fans. Improved logic and presentations provide a wider type of hits, ground balls and even player collisions. Hitting a hard one back through the middle deflects off the pitcher rather than going through him into center field.

“2K10” unveils a new Motion Model, which features hundreds of new signature movements and a totally revamped fielding system. The new animations try to give accurate portrayals of batting stances and pitching deliveries for all players around the league.

Each title allows for different types of game play to suit your mood. Career mode lets you build your own player and guide him through the minors to his big league club. There are manager and franchise modes to allow gamers to take charge of as many aspects of their team as they want.

In an effort to hang on to its title as the #1 selling baseball franchise in history, “The Show” adds new stadiums, new practice drills and customizable music, fan yells and chants. The biggest addition is the ability to call the game if you play as a catcher in career mode, thus providing more control and more realism to the gameplay. Previously, the catcher was only involved if the ball was in play. Now, players can call pitches, locations and plan strategy for the game.

“2K10” is challenging gamers to play their best game ever - and is willing to pay them for it. 2K Sports is offering $1,000,000 to the first player to pitch a perfect game in “2K10” and record it. A couple of provisos: the game has to be played on the PS3 or Xbox 360 and it must be recorded in its entirety either digitally or with a camera pointed at the screen. 2K Sports said they expect someone to do it.

The biggest difference between the two baseball franchises is how the controllers are used to play the game. “The Show” uses meters and buttons to pitch, hit and throw. “2K10” uses the right stick to sling those curveballs or to swing for the fences.

Baserunning controls are also slightly different for the two games. “2K10” wants you to point in a consistent direction for each base (right for 1st, up for 2nd, etc.). “The Show” requires you point to the next base as you are viewing the game, which can cause some delays when the camera angle changes after the ball is hit.

The differences in gameplay are subtle even if the differences in presentation are not, so it may be a matter of preference for which game you want to play.

“MLB 10 The Show” is exclusive to all PlayStation consoles (PS3, PS2, PSP, and PSP Go). “Major League Baseball 2K10” is available on the Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, Nintendo DS and Windows PC.

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Which iPad apps are getting the early buzz?

Posted: 01:42 PM ET

So what exactly can you do with the new Apple iPad?

That question will likely be best answered by what apps - or mobile applications - become available for the touch-screen device.

Ahead of the iPad's Saturday release, Apple decided on Thursday to put more than 2,500 iPad apps up for sale on its App Store, giving techies a first glimpse at an answer to that all-important question.

Reviewers who already have the iPad are weighing in. Note that these apps are generally pricier than those for the iPhone or iPad Touch. The big difference? iPad apps are bigger, allowing for fancier designs.

Here are a few iPad apps that caught our eye:

  • eBay: It's free and has bigger photos of products, theoretically making it easier and faster to sort through them.
  • Marvel Comics: The iPad's 9.7 inch screen shows off color books better than grayscale e-readers.
  • The Elements: Reviewers are in love with this app, which is basically a multimedia e-book about the periodic table of elements (think of your childhood place-mat gone digital). The price is steep, though, if you're used to $0.99 iPhone apps. It sells for $13.99.
  • NBA: Reviewers say this app is great for statistics fans, since graphs and court diagrams are easier to show off on a bigger screen.
  • Epicurious: The preview photos of this recipe-book app look pretty cool. And the app is free.
  • Netflix: You still need a Netflix subscription, but this free app lets you stream movies and TV shows offered by Netflix onto the iPad's large screen.
  • EA games: Scrabble, Need for Speed and Tetris are getting buzz from CNET. Some gamers hope the large screen will make games more engaging on the iPad than on the iPhone. Others are skeptcial. Some titles could just look over-inflated.
  • Sites like and Dropbox archive documents "in the cloud," so you can access them from anywhere. Wired says these services are a whole lot easier to use on the iPad's big screen.
  • iWork: Apple's suite of apps costs $9.99 and are aimed at business and student types. They help you create presentations, documents and spreadsheets.

Check out the Apple App Store through iTunes to see a full list of the iPad apps available now, with prices and screenshots. With the exception of the iWork apps, we haven't tried these programs yet, but we'll report back as soon as we get our hands on an iPad.

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March 30, 2010

Geek Out!: Thoughts on PAX East – a gamer's dream

Posted: 04:05 PM ET

Everyone remembers the first time.

Whether it’s the first time you drove a car or the first time you kissed a girl, it was probably important.

That was how it felt at the first East Coast Penny Arcade Expo or as it’s better known, PAX East, which wrapped up Sunday. The annual west-coast gathering of gamers, started in 2004, had become so popular that, finally, it made the jump across the country country.

For gamers, this was an important event - not just because we got to go out with our "geek flags" flying high, but also because we felt the camaraderie and shared love of gaming that we can't always find without an Internet connection.

The Hynes Convention Center in Boston was packed with people carrying gaming PCs, consoles, and even pouches full of dice. No style of gaming or gamer was excluded. Everyone was accepted and most likely, found a ton of people that were into the same type of games.

It was definitely the place where you got to pick your poison. If you were into "Dungeons & Dragons" there was a room for you. If you wanted to play "Magic: The Gathering," not only were there rooms filled with people eagerly shuffling their decks, but games spilled out into the halls.

Retro arcade gaming was represented in full force, taking everyone back to the quarter-hoarding mindset or our youth - or, for younger gamers, of legend.

There were even rooms set up with dozens of PS3s, Xbox 360s, and Nintendo Wiis ready for action. All you needed was a game and the courage to play it in front of other people.

Once you were done getting your butt kicked by a 13 year-old, there were plenty of panels discussing new trends in gaming and the evolution of today’s games.

Actor, blogger and geek superstar Wil Wheaton kicked off the convention with a keynote address about growing up as a gamer and how relationships forged in the crucible of imagination have become some of his strongest friendships.

Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the founders of PAX and creators of the "Penny Arcade" webcomic, took questions from the audience and even showed people how they make a strip.

No gaming topic was overlooked. Panels discussed every aspect of the gaming community, from game development, criticism, marketing and even creation. New games were demoed, "Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands" and "Split Second" were playable and they haven’t been released yet.

This convention was a gamer's dream.

Back in 2004, when Holkins and Krahulik started the convention in Washington, they wanted to bring gamers together. And they've succeeded.

If the reaction in Boston is any indication of the future, Mike Krahulik may get his wish of one day starting a Euro PAX.

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March 29, 2010

Geek Out!: 'Penny Arcade' writers on geekdom and games

Posted: 11:44 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

PAX East, the Penny Arcade Expo, was the geek buzz this weekend as gaming fans flocked to the event in Boston, Massachusetts. Wil Wheaton of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was a guest speaker. Before the convention, I chatted with Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the writers of the Web comic Penny Arcade, who started it all. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

What do you want people to get out of your convention?

Jerry: We want them to derive nourishment. Nourishment for the geek soul and the enduring sensation that they are not alone.

Do you think that geeks today are more accepted than before?

Jerry: Even if it were true, I would resist it. I don’t want to be accepted. I want to retain my street credentials. There are lots of geeks, and certainly geeks can communicate with one another, but ... do we have an openly geek Senator? Is there a Senator that can speak fluently about Daleks? Maybe not.

I would say that Michael and I are being beat up less. It hasn’t completely abated. It still happens on occasion. But I would say that… the beatings are less severe.

What do you think is the difference between a nerd and a geek?

Jerry: I think being a geek is cool… A geek has an ownership of their geek nature.

And nerds?

Jerry: They don't. It’s my hope that my nerds become geeks via a natural process, that they learn that their inherent nature isn’t something they need to feel ashamed of. I feel like 'nerd' is the epithet, and 'geek' is the inside term.

Mike: Is that like what's written on a tombstone?

Jerry: Mhm. Here lies, you know, Nerd.

How do you geek out?

Jerry: We geek out constantly. I'm geeking out right now. I'm talking to CNN.

Mike: I tend to geek out about gadgets. Pretty much any new gadget that comes out, I get excited for, mostly because I like taking them out of the box, peeling that layer of transparent film off of them ... .

Jerry: The thing that I geek out about most is that specialized cultures, just by necessity, need to develop a lot of customized language. Because Penny Arcade is read by a broad spectrum of people, one of the things that we can do is create bits of useful language and I like to track those words and see if they end up with a happy, healthy life. Like, if they make their way into actual conversation and are used as a tool.

"Bull shot" was a good example that Mike came up with. It's often the case that a case screen shot from a game - obviously screen shots are part of the marketing engine that promotes this medium - but sometimes these shots are obviously fraudulent. Most recently it was with Final Fantasy 13 on the [XBox] 360. There were just some shots that were untrue... The term "bull shot," which we had put in the strip a couple years ago, was leveraged, even today in 2010 to describe that - which, for us, is pretty exciting.

How did you meet and start making comics?

Jerry: We met in journalism class originally and we did a small comic in the paper for Mead High School in Spokane. Through the course of human events, we ended up working on comics there in the apartment. [E]ventually we entered a contest to create comics for a Web site called Next Generation Online, which was connected to a magazine back then. Very prestigious. We failed in that task. We did not win that contest. [But] we had an ample selection of comics, and we found a place to run them.

How did you go from writing comics to selling books to making your own video games to hosting your convention?

Jerry: We tried to make the right decision at each juncture. If there was an opportunity to get books out through Dark Horse or Random House, if there was an opportunity to make a game or make a show or put together a charity, we just tried to make it as good as we could each time. It was a pretty organic process.

How would you describe what Penny Arcade is?

Jerry: It's essentially like a political cartoon for the gaming industry. We essentially catalog gamer culture and pop culture in a thrice-weekly comic strip.

How would you say that it evolved since 1998?

Jerry: We have changed a lot. Essentially the strip – it's about games because that's what we like. But more than that essentially, the strip is about us, it's sort of like a diary in that respect. It's changed along with us... Occasionally, we'll discuss the kids we've had in the interim period, or things like that. We've touched on some more dad issues, and some things that are maybe of a more enduring nature than the releases that week.

Did you think that your franchise would be become so big?

Jerry: One always has the best hopes for their children, but no. It’s a perpetual surprise

What is your favorite video game of all time and why?

Jerry: There have been a lot of games that I’ve played in recent memory that are sort of standing tall. Mass Effect 2 just came out, and we've all in the office played through that, and that had a pretty profound effect on all of us...The original Wasteland on the Commodore 64... that was the first game I ever bought with my own money, so for me, I earned every second of that experience so I was very aware of it. But I really liked the first Shenmue as well on the Dreamcast.

Mike: My favorite video game is probably Kingdom Hearts II, but I also have to go with Jerry and say that Mass Effect 2 is pretty amazing.

How did you come up with the alter egos Gabe and Tycho?

Jerry: We didn't have to work very hard. Gabe and Tycho were our handles... The name that you choose when you play a game in multiplayer or single player, it's just sort of these personas there. Personality wise, the characters in the strip are just sort of exaggerations of our worst qualities.

How did you meet Wil Wheaton and start inviting him to PAX?

Jerry: He's our friend. We had met him at multiple conventions; he often found his way down to San Diego and we had met him there one year and really hit it off. And so when the time came to move PAX from Bellevue, where it started out, into the Washington State Convention Center, a pretty momentous move… we really wanted to identify that shift, that motion into a world-class show, and we thought that Wil would be a good voice for that. We were not wrong; he delivered a really great keynote that year.

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March 24, 2010

Will EA charge for game demos?

Posted: 10:02 AM ET

In an effort to expand its video-gaming business, Electronic Arts may start charging for certain pre-game content – a possible move that is already drawing fire from gamers.

In an interview with Wedbush Morgan Securities' industry analyst Michael Pachter, EA Group GM Nick Earl said the company plans to start charging for “premium downloadable content” before releasing the entire game at full price. Earl said the strategy would "serve as a low-cost marketing tool” and limit the risk of promoting a full game that may not do well.

Reaction from gamers was swift. Some denounced the move as a blatant attempt at money-grabbing while other urged patience to see what the final plan would be.

A user named Fimmel wrote on GameSpot’s message board, “Do they really think we'll pay to DL the beginning of the game before we've even gathered enough information to decide if we want to buy the game at all?”

Another commenter, Lord Thayer, wrote on Kotaku, “So, is it safe to assume that, if you buy the demo, then upgrade to the full game digitally, that they would take the price of the demo out? If so, I actually think that would be rad. “

Facing a possible backlash, Electronic Arts has tried to clarify its position on demos. A statement from the company said there were no set pricing strategies for the entire EA portfolio and included a curious line:
“None of the proposals call for charging consumers for traditionally free game demos."

The statement also said EA was working on delivering “premium content” to gamers before, during and after the launch of a final game package. It said each division of EA was experimenting with downloadables in an effort to provide “fresh game content in formats players want to experience.”

We’ve asked EA officials for further clarification about what they mean by “traditionally free game demos” and what impact this will have on future game releases. We’ll let you know if they get back to us and what they say.

UPDATE (10:37 a.m.): An EA spokesman responded to our request for additional information. He said, "EA will continue to release demos and we have no plans to charge for them."

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March 19, 2010

GameStop predicts growth for gaming

Posted: 10:35 AM ET

In a time when financial news about the gaming industry has been largely doom and gloom, the world’s largest video game retailer says 2009 was a very good year and 2010 is going to be better.

GameStop announced that sales for fiscal year 2009 increased 3.1 percent to more than $9 billion. They also plan to open 400 new stores in the upcoming year in an effort to capitalize on gamers who want to buy, sell, or trade their software and hardware.

GameStop is expecting 5 to 10 percent growth in the “used products” market.

The company is also predicting a decrease in profits from new hardware sales - somewhere from 5 to 15 percent - due to reduced prices compared to last year and in spite of the launches of Project Natal and PlayStation Move motion-sensitive controllers.

The report also showed that comparable store sales decreased nearly 8 percent, possibly indicating that more people are getting their merchandise online through the website.

The company currently operates 6,450 stores worldwide in 17 countries.

Do you get more of your software and hardware online? Do you only go into a “brick-and-mortar” store when you want to trade your older games? Let us know in the comments.

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March 15, 2010

One recipe for rock-band success? Video games

Posted: 03:24 PM ET

Matt Drenik, frontman for hard-rock band Lions, has an easy formula for worldwide exposure - meet an employee from a video game company, then get him drunk.

"We had a showcase here three years ago. He came and drank beer with us until 5 a.m.," said Drenik during a panel Monday at the South by Southwest Interactive conference. "Next thing we know, we have a contract to be on Guitar Hero III."

Having their song, "Metal Heavy Lady," on a game that has sold 13 million copies worldwide couldn't have come at a better time for the Austin, Texas-based rockers, who had recently been dropped from their record label.

It's part of a years-long effort by bands looking for ways to gain exposure at a time when mainstream radio stations have moved largely to safe, structured formats that don't leave much room for independent artists.

"It's very challenging now for certain bands like mine and others who are heavier riff-rock bands to kind of break out," he said. "Everybody knows the U.S. modern rock radio is pretty bad. They don't really spin a lot of good innovative bands anymore."

Lions was the only independent band on a game that featured the likes of Slash, from Guns 'n' Roses, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

Doug McCracken, of “Guitar Hero” creators Activision, said the obvious approach would be to try to pack games like his and rival “Rock Band” with “only artists that have sold X-number of records.”

But including an indie band, along with groups like a reunited Sex Pistols and death-rock icons Slayer, benefits the product by expanding its base, he said.

“From our perspective, we have a range of music so we can appeal to a bunch of different types of people,” McCracken said. We love that it adds to … the authenticity and credibility for our brands and also helps the artist.”

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March 2, 2010

Developer: Betas, demos make games better

Posted: 06:05 PM ET
But how do I take down the chopper?
But how do I take down the chopper?

Putting together a game takes lots of work from developers, artists and writers. But gaming companies also put great stock into gamers who take advantage of demos and beta releases.

Beta releases are usually advance versions of games that aren’t fully formed, but the development team wants to test out particular aspects of the overall gameplay. Demos are often limited versions of what the full game will ultimately become.

Patrick Bach, a senior producer at game developer DICE, said his company went “old school” when putting together its latest release, “Battlefield: Bad Company 2” (Electronic Arts, DICE), which goes on sale today.

“Betas are used to test the game, get feedback and make adjustments,” Bach said. “Our demo from last year was needed to make adjustments in game balance.”

Bach points out that betas and demos are about more than just getting feedback from testers. Tracking software can show what gaming elements are being used, how gamers are using them and what impact they have on the overall feel of the game.

He said often gamers will tell them what they think about a particular element, but the stats show a different story. It is meshing the two types of feedback together that helps developers create a more enjoyable game, he said.

“It is super important to find the balance of fun and fair,” Bach explained. He called it the “rock, paper, scissors balance” where no one element overpowers another.

“Battlefield: Bad Company 2,” a first-person shooter war game, took two years to get from drawing board to a ready-for-shelf product. During that time, Bach said his team worked on making the game fair, but never really knew how fun it would be for the players until they got important feedback from them.

The DICE team kept close contact with their entire community and blogged updates to keep their fans in the loop.

“We were surprised to find out [after beta testing and early demos] that our gameplay was perfectly balanced,” Bach said. “We expected to do more tweaking. And we found that gamers were using the full spectrum of kits available in the game. We were surprised it worked as good as it did.”

DICE did do some minor tweaking with weapons and vehicle handling based on suggestions from the play testers. But the company is quite pleased with its final product, he said.

“Most people are used to linear shooters,” he said. “We want to show people with the downloads and betas that it is about quality and strategic options in our game.”

“Battlefield: Bad Company 2” is available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.

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February 22, 2010

'Endless Ocean' sequel is like a day at the beach

Posted: 02:32 PM ET
The deep, blue sea
The deep, blue sea

After many hours of killing mutated humans (“BioShock 2”), redeeming souls in Hell (“Dante’s Inferno”), or breaking out my military skills (“Battlefield: Bad Company 2” demo), it is nice to just unwind with a new game that can substitute for a tropical vacation.

“Endless Ocean: Blue World” (Nintendo, ARIKA) is the sequel to a 2007 game that emphasized relaxation and calm. The new version on the Wii, which hits stores today, has its calming moments as well - but there's an added element of adventure to it.

Players can dive into oceans around the world and find all kinds of varied marine wildlife and fauna. The visuals are great and the animals, from the tiny seaweed seahorses to the massive humpback whales, are quite lifelike. And there are opportunities to learn about the animals' habits and behaviors when you discover new species.

It would be very easy to just sit back and watch the fish go by, as in the first version of “Endless Ocean.” But there is a storyline to be followed.

The action involves finding out about the “Song of Dragons,” a mystery that takes players around the globe in search of clues and treasure. You can also heal or calm sick or agitated fish with a device called a Pulsar.

The game is not hardcore by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a nice change of pace or even an educational game for youngsters who want to learn more about marine life. Players can even dive with their friends by using Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection.

Speaking for myself, I'd rather relax with a tropical drink in hand and watch the fish go by than try to follow the game's adventure storyline. I like a little more adrenaline in my gameplay. In other words, those mutated humans aren’t going to kill themselves.

Other games coming out this week: “Heavy Rain” (2/22 for PS3), “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing” (2/23 for PS3, X360, DS, WII), “Napoleon: Total War” (2/23 for PC) and “Metal Slug XX” (2/23 for PSP).

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February 10, 2010

Gaming with the flu is not much fun

Posted: 01:07 PM ET
[cnn-large-image image= caption="" width=416 height=234]

Getting laid out with the flu didn’t really fill me with a desire for gaming even though I had plenty of time off. However, there were moments of lucidity where I grabbed a controller just to see what was out there.

A demo released this past weekend for “Battlefield: Bad Company 2” gave me just enough adrenaline and held my interest long enough before the flu meds kicked in. It is a simple enough “sight target over weapon and shoot” game that was fun to try.

But the really cool element is the destructible environment that makes any cover you might find disappears under withering enemy fire. In the demo scenario, my team was tasked to destroy two objectives, but we were blocked by armored vehicles at a choke point in the road.

Armed with my rocket-propelled launcher, I rushed behind a cement barricade for cover and got off my first shot for a hit. Ducking down, I figured I had plenty of time to reload, but the tanks began hammering away at the barricade and destroyed it – leaving me completely in the open.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in other scenarios, but it is a fun element for the game.

I also found out that there is a new Legos game on the horizon. “Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars” is centered around the animated series and will feature many of the same characters, but in typical blocky form. There will be some new features added to the game and the release is expected to follow the “Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4”, which is due out in May.

There is also word that Electronic Arts may be benching its college basketball game. When EA released its fiscal year 2011 schedule, there were some notable omissions including the lack of the NCAA Basketball series. There were also no Rock Band titles on the list, but “Green Day: Rock Band” was recently featured at the VGAs so it will be intriguing to see where this comes from.

Finally, did you see there was a video game commercial in the Super Bowl? “Dante’s Inferno” took the big commercial stage with a relatively tame (for a game that has gotten a lot of hype about nudity and violence) ad featuring the protagonist during a fall into Hell.

I can’t remember the last time a single video game got one of the coveted spots during the Super Bowl. A smart play or a Hail Mary pass?

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