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A few weeks ago I went with my family to Busch Gardens, Williamsburg. My oldest wanted to ride a roller coaster so we picked Griffon and got on the front row.

Big mistake.

Griffon is a coaster with 90-degree drops and at the top of the first drop, they pause the train to let you contemplate your life as you stare into the pit of despair, straight down. The front row actually gets hung over the edge. As I hung there, my body suspended 205 feet in the air, gazing at the merciless concrete below, my life did not flash in front of my eyes. Rather, the only thought I had as, "This is stupid."

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OK, the Wii has been a phenomenal success story. It has outsold the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 by huge margins. It has brought gaming into houses that never knew gaming. But...

There are troubling signs. The Wii is not this generation's Playstation 2 and it probably won't have a long shelf life. We're four years into the Wii's life cycle and Nintendo's focus appears to be on handheld gaming, not console gaming. The Wii's software sales are declining and the attach rate is poor. Every time you hear Nintendo talk about "evergreen" titles, what they're really saying is, "We can't get decent third party games for our console, so we're making first party games that we can sell and sell and sell without coming up with anything new because we're doing this all ourselves." Their E3 press conference for 2010 only highlighted this problem as they spent most of the time hyping 3DS and the rest of the time was devoted to a handful of SNES and N64 remakes headed for the Wii in the coming months.


In drumming up a new market--new gamers--Nintendo both assured their success by opening up gaming to a vast, new audience. At the same time, they victimized themselves because this audience just does not buy games! In the process they abandoned the "core" gamers--the ones who actually buy new games on a regular basis--by pushing out a console that is technically a Gamecube with a fancy controller. In 2006, that was an OK thing. In 2010...well, it's not looking so hot.

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There are no casual games, or casual gamers. There, that's all you really need to know. You can skip the rest of this post.

Or not.

Hardcore gamers (or "core" gamers as Reggie Fils-Aime likes to call everyone who still obsesses over the 124th game to star Mario) often deride "casual" games. Games like Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Farmville, et. al. are constantly derided as being fit only for casual gamers. Casual gamers being those people who don't actually care what games are being released this month or what Roger Ebert thinks about video game or who provides the voice of Miranda in ME2. (Not that a casual gamer knows what ME2 stands for. He would think it's a typo of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. If he even cares.)

But, games in and of themselves are not hardcore or casual, rather, it is one's approach to the game. I spent a couple months playing Farmville earlier this year and I can personally attest there are hardcore Farmville players. You don't need to try this yourself, just visit one of the many Farmville help sites or wikis and see how they've broken down every resource by the amount of coins you earn per hour per square of land and it becomes obvious there are some very hardcore players harvesting ghost chili and collect eggs. If you do play Farmville, you can tell the hardcore players right away. They are the ones with their avatar penned in and every square inch of their farm occupied by golden chickens and multiple crops planted in various states of ripeness. They probably also have two or more Facebook accounts so they can run multiple farms and share stuff with themselves.

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I've been playing fantasy football this year and it's brought to mind two things. One, it's hard to play games where I don't have any control over the outcome. More about that another time. The second problem is that I can lose (and, in fact, have lost a number of times). Our gaming tradition is founded on competitive play where there is a winner and there are losers. Video games, especially single-player games, introduce a new dynamic. The competition is the game itself; and, with a little effort and dedication, the player can always "win."

I was playing Dragon Age: Origins the other day and I reached an especially difficult battle. I failed several times. Eventually, I was forced to dial down the difficulty, beat the bad guys, and continue on my way. Failure did not result in me losing, it was just a temporary setback on my way toward eventually winning by beating the game. I like this model much better than competitive gaming. I don't usually play online because there are winners and losers and I don't much like losing. Online co-operative play (as in Burnout Paradise or Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2) is a lot of fun. Even when I'm playing with my kids, I'd rather play LEGO Batman than Super Smash Bros.

I don't know if there's any deeper meaning to this. I just don't like to lose.

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I've long maintained video games are a good entertainment value. Compare the average video game to the average movie. A movie costs $20 on DVD and provides about 2 hours of entertainment ($10 per hour). A game costs $50 or $60 and provides at least 10 hours of entertainment ($5 to $6 per hour) and frequently provides more. The new BioWare RPG, Dragon Age: Origins, is a great value. There's at least 40 or 50 hours of gameplay (without the mandatory replays for earning trophies/achievements). At $60 for the console version of the game, that's about $1.50 per hour of entertainment.

DLC (downloadable content) is another matter entirely. The "Stone Prisoner" DLC is included free with new copies of the game, so that's a wash. If you buy a used copy of the game, however, it will cost you $15 to download about an hour's worth of additional content. The $7 "Warden's Keep" takes about 30 minutes to play (if that). That's half again as expensive per hour of entertainment as a movie! No wonder publishers love DLC.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 recently released a character pack that gives you five new characters to play with (that don't actually add any playtime) and four missions that take about 20 to 30 minutes of extra playtime. All for $10--a rate of $20 per hour for the extra entertainment!

DLC makes sense for online competitive games where extra characters or items can change and freshen online play. Burnout Paradise made extra cars that added great value to online play and some extra playtime to offline single-player. It's hard to measure extra online play; but, generally that will be a good value. It seems, though, as if DLC intended for offline, single-player games is extremely over-priced.

With the cost of game development spiralling ever higher, it's only natural for publishers to seek to recoup costs through other avenues than just upping the cost of the game itself (which they can't do because the console manufacturers want to keep game prices low to increase attach rates). Still, the price-gouging that takes place with DLC seems a bit excessive. Surely they could sell-through more DLC if they reduced the cost to put the value at least closer to the $10 per hour of entertainment provided by a movie.

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This is about games, just not video games (well, games relate tangenitally to the topic). Rather, it's about the NFL games played yesterday (Nov 15). Two of them, anyway. In one game, the coach made a good decision that didn't work and he is now being excoriated by fans and sports "experts." In the other game, the coach made a bad decision that did work out and he and the player who executed the play are being hailed as geniuses.

In Indianapolis, Bill Belichik decided to attempt to get a first down on 4th-and-2 with 2:08 remaining on New England's own 28-yard line and ahead by 6. The play failed, Indianapolis got the ball back and scored to win the game. Everyone thinks Belichik should have punted and forced the Colts to drive 70 or 80 yards for the win. But, Belichik played for the win. He had just watched his defense get carved up by Manning for 2 quick TD drives and he had no reason to think they could hold after a punt. (There are many who say the coach dissed his defense. Of course he did! They were great for 3 quarters and then rolled over and played dead.) Had the 4th-down play worked, Belichik would be hailed as a genius and a courageous coach who played for the win. Punting is playing not to lose. Belichik played the percentages (the Patriots convert 4th-and-short over 60% of the time) and it failed. That doesn't make his decision "bad," just the result.

(What was a bad decision was trying to stop Indianapolis. New England should have let the Colts score quickly and then driven down for a winning field goal.)

In New York, Maurice Jones-Drew was heading into the end zone with the Jags down by 1 and only 1:00 left on the clock. Instead, under his coach's direction, he went down at the 1 yard line and the Jags ran down the clock and then kicked a winning field goal. Del Rio and MoJo are considered to be very smart; but, what he did was stupid. You're behind, you take the points! A figgie, even from the 3, is not automatic. You're going in for a TD, take it! Then challenge your defense to hold since the Jets will need to drive the length of the field with no timeouts in less than a minute. But, the field goal was good, the Jags won and everyone thinks it was a smart play. The decision wasn't "good;" but, the result was.

This is a lot like real life. We don't really know whether a decision is "good" or "bad" until we make it and play out the result. One of the things I really like about Dragon Age thus far is the fact all the decisions in the game are not "good" or "bad". There's no "karma meter" or "axis of evil". All you have are decisions and the results of playing out those decisions.

Oh, and I've read The Blind Side by Michael Lewis. If the movie that opens this week is half as good as the book, it will be worth seeing. (And you should also read the book.)