December 2018

My Favorite Christmas Songs

So, given that my last several posts have involved things that don’t really excite approximately 90% of my readers, I was thinking about Christmas music today…largely because I hate it. I mean really, Christmas stops being fun after the second year of working retail, and only starts being fun again when you have kids and get to watch them enjoy Christmas…or so I’m told. My lack-of-enthusiasm for the holiday has deeper reasons that are beyond the scope of a blog post, but for a little bit, I’ll at least attempt to hand out a few awards for my preferred Christmas songs…

 

Favorite Pre-1960, non-religious Christmas song
“Here Comes Santa Claus”

I chose this one because it’s a rare breed. I’m not the biggest fan of hearing it, but it’s notable to me because it’s a Santa-focused Christmas song that declares “We’re all God’s children” and encourages listeners to “give thanks to the Lord above”. As an added bonus, these statements presumably help prevent it from being the victim of infinite remakes.

Favorite Post-1960, non-religious Christmas song
“Christmas Wrapping”

This track is the only Christmas song I know to utilize the word “damn” in its lyrics, and its mention of the now-defunct A&P supermarket ages the song more than its sax riff. It’s also one of only two Christmas-centered story songs I can think of (the other being “The Little Drummer Boy”). While the song was clearly reflective of music trends in the early 1980s, the story itself is all but timeless. Admittedly it is a Christmas song in the same way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but from a purely cultural standpoint it’s fun and evokes a mental picture in every one who listens to it.

Favorite Faith-Based Christmas Carol
O Come Let Us Adore Him

Though sung and re-sung by no shortage of artists, I consider Nat King Cole’s rendition to be the definitive one. Moreover, I like the fact that this song references the birth of Christ in a context where singing the song in the middle of August still makes perfect sense.

Favorite Modern Faith-Based Christmas Song
Breath of Heaven

This song, though not directly based off a Biblical account, seems like a reasonable look into how Mary and Joseph were feeling and thinking at the time of Jesus’ birth, with a direct expression of their reliance on God to get them through a very difficult situation for them.

 

If you’ve got any categories you’d like me to add, feel free to write it in the comments.

Unreal Tournament’s End of Active Development Is A Symptom

So, the news broke today that the reboot of Unreal Tournament was no longer in active development. It’s not much of a surprise: not only has there not been an update to the title in nearly a year, there hasn’t been an update to their development blog in over a year, either.

Now, in addition to being a general fan of the title, the business model was a favorite of mine, too: the game was free with no in-app purchases or lootboxes. A store where users could sell skins and mods and character models was available with Epic Games skimming off the top, and the Unreal Engine 4 powering it would be available for developers of other games to use, with royalties paid on the engine after a certain threshold.

However, Epic Games struck gold with Fortnite. If you haven’t at least heard of it by now, you probably haven’t spoken to an adolescent since the Obama administration. It’s so popular, Sony reversed their stance on cross-platform play for the first time ever in their Playstation ecosystem. Epic released the Android app on its own website, rather than in the Google Play store…and got 15 million downloads in three weeks; by contrast, I’m having a rough time trying to come up with another app not in the Play Store that has broke the first million. It’s that big. The fact that Epic has been focusing on printing money with Fortnite rather than developing Unreal Tournament is not just common sense, it’s almost absurd to try and justify the inverse.

While the unbridled success of Fortnite is undoubtedly a major reason why UT development has stalled, I submit that it’s far from the only reason. After all, Epic Games has been in the business since the 1990s. They are fully aware that empires come and empires go. Minecraft, Angry Birds, Halo, and Doom before it all testify to this fact. I think there’s a deeper reason why.

Unreal Tournament hails from a completely different era in gaming. UT2004 shipped with a level editor and dedicated server software. For some, a part of the fun was making one’s own maps, character models, and even total conversion mods, frequently distributing them for others to enjoy. While quality levels varied significantly, communities formed around map and mod development. Even if you weren’t a developer, one of the major draws to the game was that downloadable content was free, and created by the players.

Fast forward to 2018, and that’s not at all how things work anymore. I can’t recall the last major game release that allowed players to self-host their servers or add their own created content, let alone ship with the tools to do so. New maps and character models are almost exclusively paid add-ons now, and few players remember it any other way. Even those who made their own content for UT in its heyday are likely either employed in some form of design or development, or have moved on to other things.

Those who are still doing this sort of development have a plethora of options, from the open source Alien Arena and FreeDoom to GoldenEye Source and straight up developing their own indie games to release on Steam. With lots of options courting a dwindling number of skilled individuals, Epic counting on ‘bringing the band back together’ was going to be an uphill battle. Moreover, even the sheer player stats probably weren’t great; Quake Champions, Toxikk, and other arena shooters are available as great options for players who aren’t perfectly happy playing UT2004, a game whose mechanics and balance are so well done that the graphics which reflect their era can be readily overlooked.

I don’t think this is really the end of UT development, though. Like I said, empires come and empires go, and while it makes sense for Epic to cash in on Fortnite while it’s a household name, by 2021 (if that long), there will be another game to take the crown. While Fortnite will still probably be popular enough to handle the payroll, the focus will likely shift back to developing and licensing Unreal Engine 4. With hundreds of games utilizing the engine including some heavy hitters like Mortal Kombat X, Spec Ops: The Line, Rocket League, Infinity Blade, the Batman: Arkham series, and of course the Mass Effect trilogy, licensing the engine is far and away the best source of steady income for Epic.

And when game developers are looking around for the engine upon which their next title should be based, there is no better way for Epic to showcase the Unreal Engine to have its namesake available for free.

Call of Duty Black Ops 4 – One More Thing With Which I’m Incompatible

So, I took a little time to try my hand at Call of Duty, Black Ops IIII. And I am left to assume that it’s just one of those things that I simply have a fundamental incompatibility with…either that, or it’s clear that Activision ultimately has no idea how to learn some of the lessons from the games that came before this one.

Now, I’m sure I’m not entirely qualified to speak on the game authoritatively; I own Modern Warfare and the original Black Ops, games whose single player campaigns I’ve started twice and never completed.

I knew going into it that the single player mode was essentially just a tutorial; there were no shortage of pieces written about the fact that the game had no real single player campaign at all. I was also well aware that the game had loot boxes and in-app purchases as integral components of its design.

Jim Sterling has had a number of videos on the topic of lootboxes and microtransactions which I generally agree with, so I won’t go into detail on that front. The bigger issue I have is with the lack of a single player campaign is that adding one is trivial. The first Black Ops game had a story. It was a fairly outlandish one, but CoD has never really had its popularity due to its storytelling. Not having a story-based single player campaign is regrettable, but Unreal Tournament 2004 solved that problem over a decade ago with a simple progression ladder, where multiplayer matches vs. bots were won to advance to the next challenger, and so forth. Its use of the exact same maps and character models as the multiplayer game meant that development time was minimal, it provided players desiring a single player experience a means of doing so, and everyone had a way to get good enough to play multiplayer.

Now, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw describes Destiny 2 as a game where the sum total of the objectives is “go to the place and shoot the lads”, with a paper thin story regarding *why* you’re going to the place and shooting the lads. Some readers might say, “but, don’t you like Unreal Tournament, where there’s not only a lack of reason for shooting the lads, but since the lads you’re shooting are in the same arena as you, you’re not even getting the satisfaction of going to the place to shoot them?” Well, yes…but I think there are a few reasons why I hold UT to a different standard than CoD.
First, UT doesn’t have the pretense of realism. For example, the earlier CoD titles that put the franchise on the map had their weapons closely modeled after real firearms, albeit not always military issue. Newer installments have moved away from that attention to detail, but it was a part of the early design. Early CoD games were set in actual historical theaters of war, the first two Modern Warfare installments take place in areas of conflict that are at least somewhat believable, and while Black Ops went for the ridiculous in the back half of the game, it at least began its setting in a historical conflict where one really could see a Black Ops mission taking place. Part of the fun was the fact that players could participate in historical events, and while for many it was likely an excuse to go to the place and shoot lads in uniforms laden with swastikas, there were literally hundreds of first person shooters released before Call of Duty, including iconic titles like Doom and Halo.
Unreal Tournament never did any of this any was always completely fictitious and fantastical in every way, from its remote planets to its impossibly proportioned character models to its brigher colors to its weapon loadout clearly focused on game mechanics, the title was always intended to be taken at face value. Asking why we’re capturing a flag in UT is like asking why we’re stacking boxes in Tetris or eating dots in Pac-Man.

One may well argue that CoD has been moving away from realism for some time, and the lack of a single player campaign simply reflects that sort of shift in focus, with reasoning anywhere from the pragmatic “players were spending 99% of their time in multiplayer anyway”, to the cynnical “A single player campaign, even a simple progression ladder, would conflict with Activision’s primary objective: sell lootboxes/DLC maps/live services”. Moreover, there are probably some who would say that my relative inexperience in playing CoD is a part of the problem. That too is a distinct possibility. Raycevick, who has played them, discusses this in greater detail. However, I submit that if Black Ops IIII is the natural progression of the title, it starts looking more and more like an arena shooter. Making this transition would put it into a subgenre where the things that made CoD stand out in its earlier iterations start to become a liability…especially when this installment has a $60 sticker price – a selling price so high, I could not find an arena shooter for even half of it. I could, however, find several of them for free – from the open source OpenArena and Alien Swarm to Goldeneye Source, Quake Champions, Unreal Tournament, and the 800-pound gorilla: Fortnite.

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