Myst, Twenty Years Later

Grantland looks back at the iconic game Myst, on its twenty year anniversary:

The premise was deceptively simple: You are The Stranger, a person of inconsequential gender, race, or origin, minding your own business when a book falls into the black starlit void you call home. When you open it, you are transported to a mysterious island, and as you explore it you begin to uncover its history; the story of its caretaker, Atrus; his art of creating worlds, called “ages,” including Myst Island itself; and his two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, who beg you to release them from the confines of their prison ages, where they have been entrapped for some unknown crime. This sets you off on a journey to four more ages, unraveling innumerable (some might say infuriating) puzzles and gradually piecing together, almost entirely from environmental clues, what happened to this family, and whom among them you can trust. You do this entirely by yourself. You encounter nobody else and you are neither helped nor harmed — though that doesn’t keep a creeping sense of dread from permeating these otherwise benign worlds. You have no weapons or tools at your disposal aside from the physical journal that came packaged with the CD-ROM. When you “win,” there are no fireworks or rewards. You are merely told the island is yours to wander for as long as you like. For nearly a decade, this was the best-selling computer game of all time.1

Twenty years ago, people talked about Myst the same way they talked about The Sopranosduring its first season: as one of those rare works that irrevocably changed its medium. It certainly felt like nothing in gaming would or could be the same after it. If you remember the game, you remember that feeling of landing on Myst Island for the first time, staggeringly bereft of information in a way that felt like some kind of reverse epiphany, left with no option but to start exploring. This was a revolutionary feeling to have while staring at your PC screen. And the word-of-mouth carried — people who had never gamed before in their lives bought new computers so they could play Myst. “It is the first artifact of CD-ROM technology that suggests that a new art form might very well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting, only with music,” came the impassioned, if grasping prophecy from Wired’s Jon Carroll. “Or something.”

I remember playing this game on my first PC. And I agree with this, even if I wasn’t a hard-core gamer:

[M]any hard-core gamers found it obtuse and frustrating, its point-and-click interface slideshow-esque and stifling. Maybe Myst wasn’t for hard-core gamers. Maybe it wasn’t even really a game.

The author’s leap that Myst lead to Grand Theft Auto V is a bit far-fetched, but I do like the overall theme of Myst leading to games that embraced the open-world environments.

Little Bastard: The Computer Poker Machine

A fascinating piece in New York Times Magazine on the advancement of artificial intelligence in how machines play poker:

The machines, called Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up Poker, play the limit version of the popular game so well that they can be counted on to beat poker-playing customers of most any skill level. Gamblers might win a given hand out of sheer luck, but over an extended period, as the impact of luck evens out, they must overcome carefully trained neural nets that self-learned to play aggressively and unpredictably with the expertise of a skilled professional. Later this month, a new souped-up version of the game, endorsed by Phil Hellmuth, who has won more World Series of Poker tournaments than anyone, will have its debut at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. The machines will then be rolled out into casinos around the world.

They will be placed alongside the pure numbers-crunchers, indifferent to the gambler. But poker is a game of skill and intuition, of bluffs and traps. The familiar adage is that in poker, you play the player, not the cards. This machine does that, responding to opponents’ moves and pursuing optimal strategies. But to compete at the highest levels and beat the best human players, the approach must be impeccable. Gregg Giuffria, whose company, G2 Game Design, developed Texas Hold ‘Em Heads Up Poker, was testing a prototype of the program in his Las Vegas office when he thought he detected a flaw. When he played passively until a hand’s very last card was dealt and then suddenly made a bet, the program folded rather than match his bet and risk losing more money. “I called in all my employees and told them that there’s a problem,” he says. The software seemed to play in an easily exploitable pattern. “Then I played 200 more hands, and he never did anything like that again. That was the point when we nicknamed him Little Bastard.”

Read the rest here.

Desert Bus: The Worst Video Game Ever Created

I’d never heard of Desert Bus before, so I read with fascination this piece in The New Yorker touting it as the worst game ever created. It is remarkable how the game was able to pivot many years after its release and become a major fundraiser for Child’s Play, a charity that donates video games and consoles to children’s wards in hospitals around the world

The drive from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, takes approximately eight hours when travelling in a vehicle whose top speed is forty-five miles per hour. In Desert Bus, an unreleased video game from 1995 conceived by the American illusionists and entertainers Penn Jillette and Teller, players must complete that journey in real time. Finishing a single leg of the trip requires considerable stamina and concentration in the face of arch boredom: the vehicle constantly lists to the right, so players cannot take their hands off the virtual wheel; swerving from the road will cause the bus’s engine to stall, forcing the player to be towed back to the beginning. The game cannot be paused. The bus carries no virtual passengers to add human interest, and there is no traffic to negotiate. The only scenery is the odd sand-pocked rock or road sign. Players earn a single point for each eight-hour trip completed between the two cities, making a Desert Bus high score perhaps the most costly in gaming.

Fascinating and worth reading in entirety.

Why Zynga is Failing, in Charts

Caleb Garling, in an illustrative post on San Francisco Chronicle’s site, explains why Zynga is failing (and perhaps is destined to fail):

One, since its inception, most of Zynga’s revenue was from users on Facebook. If you are a business, and you have tied your success to another business — especially one with aspirations of world domination — you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak. Zynga tried to get people to go to Zynga.com to play — and avoid Facebook taking about a third of every dollar it made — but never really pulled it off. (And frankly, any app developers with big aspirations should take a lesson.)

Two, your attention span. Most casual gamers don’t want to wait to get to their computers to play. In fact, the best time to play games for many people — those with jobs — is between computer time, commuting or waiting for the dentist.

Three, building games for many different platforms is just hard! You have to deal with different screen sizes and technical requirements, not to mention deciding whether certain devices have a demographic that will create a positive return on investment for that particular game on that particular platform. And all the while, individual developers, that can be a little more nimble, eat away at market share for games on each one.

Love the charts.

As for me? I am wary of games (and most apps, really) that are free but target you with in-app purchases. For instance, Real Racing was a great game for iOS, until they decided to ratchet it with in-app purchases.

I only play two of Zynga’s games: Words with Friends and Scramble with Friends.

A Hodgepodge: Games People Play

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a series of op-eds on “Games People Play.”

My favorite quotes (with links to the originals) below.

Francine Prose on solitaire and the “fireworks” on your computer:

No wonder so many writers (including myself) play more solitaire than we should. All I have to do is complete a decent paragraph to feel I’ve earned the right to take a break and play a few games. Like many sports, it’s right on the border between addiction and pastime. That’s why teaching someone to play computer solitaire can feel like the equivalent of a giving a junkie that first shot, though the toll it takes isn’t in money or health, but in time, the writer’s most precious gift.

Of course, there are moments when I think: what a ridiculous waste! I keep resolving to quit. But how could I ever give up that little burst of hope whenever a new game deals itself out, or the lightly adrenalized buzz of seeing the cards, when I’ve won, bounce in joyous cascades across the screen and set off computer solitaire’s version of fireworks?

Pico Iyer on the ping-pong culture in Japan:

In Japan, Ping-Pong is how you keep your wits about you and your reflexes, limbs and senses intensely sharp. Almost every afternoon for nine years, I’ve walked 15 minutes uphill to our local health club, here in suburban Nara, or taken a bus to an ancient gymnasium in a nearby park, to engage in furious bouts of table tennis with a group of 30 or so Japanese neighbors who teach me about engagement in their retirement years as once they did with co-workers or family members.

I soon begin sweating even on mid-February days while some of my pals are swathed in jackets, mufflers and gloves and our breath condenses in front of us, indoors. When it hits 100 degrees in the old wooden space in July, I slip away discreetly after 90 minutes, while my aged friends continue for up to four hours. “Pico-san,” they say, next time they see me. “What’s up? You’re the youngest by 20 years and you’re the first to stop.” “I’m the only non-Japanese,” I want to say.

James Atlas on the “love-love” of tennis:

 By the end of two hours, I’m dripping as if I’ve just exited a Navajo sweat lodge. Why do we put ourselves through this ordeal week after week? Our exertions have changed nothing in our lives. But it’s not about athletic prowess; it’s about forgiveness. To forgive the teammate who double faults (a small number when you consider how many faults most of us commit in a day); the opponent who, having sensed that you’re about to poach, slams a wicked passing shot down the line; above all, to forgive yourself for the netted volley, the backhand that went long, the drop shot that failed to drop. And, having forgiven, to persist. I cite the tennis enthusiast Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Charles A. Murray on the diversity of poker (it is America):

A poker table is America the way that television commercials portray it but it seldom is. A normal table of 10 at Charles Town has at least two or three Asians, one or two blacks, maybe a Latino, another one or two players who hail from some other part of the world, and maybe four or five plain-vanilla whites like me. Age is distributed from young guns in their 20s who raise relentlessly to geezers like me who are too tight and passive.

And last, but not least, Jason Lucero on the fluidity of ultimate frisbee:

It’s fluid in the way basketball and hockey are fluid — fast-paced and constantly evolving between offense and defense. But even in its most contested moments, the culture of the game requires civility. It’s only a matter of time until professional football players carry handguns during games. In ultimate, there is no bullying — no hard fouls to earn respect, retaliatory fouls to show even less respect, none of it. We don’t have or need referees — we play with a commitment to fairness. Our hippie forefathers reasoned well: ultimate is a game; it should be fun and only fun. It is.

If I had to pick a favorite of the five, it’s probably Pico Iyer’s piece, simply because the dialogue made me laugh out loud. But all of these are a quick read and worth reading.

Monopoly: Now with More Cats

I hope you like cats in your Monopoly. According to The Associated Press, the iron is out and the cat is in, after Hasbro put the stake of a new token up to a Facebook vote:

The results were announced after the shoe, wheelbarrow and iron were neck and neck for elimination in the final hours of voting that sparked passionate efforts by fans to save their favorite tokens, and by businesses eager to capitalize on publicity surrounding pieces that represent their products.

The vote on Facebook closed just before midnight on Tuesday, marking the first time that fans have had a say on which of the eight tokens to add and which one to toss. The pieces identify the players and have changed quite a lot since Parker Brothers bought the game from its original designer in 1935.

I thought this was a really interesting manifestation of the campaign:

The social-media buzz created by the Save Your Token Campaign attracted numerous companies that pushed to protect specific tokens that reflect their products.

That includes garden tool maker Ames True Temper Inc. of Camp Hill, Penn., that spoke out in favor of the wheelbarrow and created a series of online videos that support the tool and online shoe retailer Zappos which pushed to save the shoe.

###

(via Consumerist)

The Twenty Year Game of Tag

The Wall Street Journal has a bizarre story of four grown men who’ve been playing a game of tag for 23 years:

It started in high school when they spent their morning break darting around the campus of Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Wash. Then they moved on—to college, careers, families and new cities. But because of a reunion, a contract and someone’s unusual idea to stay in touch, tag keeps pulling them closer. Much closer.

The game they play is fundamentally the same as the schoolyard version: One player is “It” until he tags someone else. But men in their 40s can’t easily chase each other around the playground, at least not without making people nervous, so this tag has a twist. There are no geographic restrictions and the game is live for the entire month of February. The last guy tagged stays “It” for the year.

I guess this game beats Facebook pokes, but:

The participants say tag has helped preserve friendships that otherwise may have fizzled. Usually, though, the prospect of 11 months of ridicule overrides brotherhood.

Weird.