Under the hood of what makes Pokemon Go

What started out as an idea of an April Fool’s Day joke is now the most popular mobile app around the world. Needless to say, Pokemon Go has captivated the hearts and phones of many a-mobile phone users, many of which might not have necessarily been fans of the franchise but are familiar enough with it to recognize it.

But for people new to gaming and to the franchise, the question remains, “What makes Pokemon Go… go?”

From a gamer’s perspective, the massive initial success of Pokemon Go can be attributed to a lot of smart game design and well thought out choices but most importantly, recognizing very early on in its development just what kind of game it is and aims to be.

The Elements

GPS play

Despite what memes about business successes say, Pokemon Go is by no means the result of the genius of one company or one group of people.

Niantic Inc. invested on GPS based gameplay mechanics with its earlier app Ingress which is a GPS based turf war game.

While Ingress introduced the world to real time GPS gameplay, it did not come close to the success of Pokemon Go. But as a game on its own, it was intuitive, it functioned well and was well received by players.

The problem was that while the mechanics worked well, the skin it was wearing was not appealing enough to many. An alien invasion isn’t the most relate-able framing device, afterall.

GPS gameplay meant a new way of playing which means an oddity even for just a few days which alone is enough to make people curious for a few days.

Pokemon Skin

Everyone likes Pokemon.

Even if they don’t show it, deep down inside they like it. Even when they claim they don’t like it, there’s still a deep corner of their humanity that likes it.

In a survey done among gamers years ago, Pokemon was by far the most played and most recognized video game franchise among Filipinos.

Couple this with the long running desire of its large fan base to live out the dream of catching, raising and battling with Pokemon and you have a sure fire framing device that people not only recognize but need little to no orientation in order to appreciate.

Heck, the tutorial drops you off where most Pokemon games start, picking your starting Pokemon and teaching you how to catch Pokemon.

“Pick one”

“Here’s how to catch it”

“That’s a PokeStop”

“That’s a Gym”

“Don’t get killed while playing”

Aaaand you’re off.

With the Pokemon skin comes pre-made goals that have been brewing inside its fans long before the April Fool’s joke that started the concept. Because of it Niantic and GameFreak were spared the task of designing long term goals for the game, all they had to do was create the short term goals that facilitated the achievement of the long term ones.

Pokestops and Pokemon gyms were a great design choice to promote the core mechanic of GPS based gameplay and also to frame social goals.

In a nutshell, Niantic made it so that the game’s core mechanic determines the success of any player in the game, “the more you moved around, the more we reward you.”

Randomization and the Skinner box

One big difference between Niantic’s Ingress and Pokemon Go is its use of Skinnerbox mechanics to practically hook its players and never let them go.

Skinner box mechanics are those that use and abuse the natural response of people when given rewarding stimulus for performing certain tasks. It conditions the mind to feel happy when performing specific tasks in anticipation of the reward it might give out.

These are most evident in casinos where slot machines are abundant. These machines are programmed to payout every now and then and to pay out various amounts. There is no amount of skill involved and everything is a matter of luck. Yet people flock to these machines because of the “good” feeling they get with each pull of the lever and roll of the slots. Even if they win P100 for every P1000 they spend, it would have been all worth it to them for the sudden rush of happiness that flows through them when the winning combination finally comes.

The same concepts are used in games like Candy Crush where luck plays a big role in “winning” and the developers’ goal is to keep people playing for longer periods of time.

We see it implemented in how Pokestops are programmed. For each turn of the Pokestop, random items in random quantities are given to us as rewards. Sometimes we get more, sometimes we get less. This reinforces the player to continue looking for more of these Pokestops in the hopes of getting that rare item like an incense, lure module or advanced Pokeball.

The same happens with Lure Modules and Incense activation. These items promise more Pokemon sightings at certain intervals. Incense works by generating a Pokemon every 5 minutes and for every 200 meters travelled while (based on experience) Lure Modules spawn a Pokemon every 5 minutes you are within its radius. But the frequency and kinds of Pokemon are quite unpredictable. Sometimes two Pokemon spawn one after another, other times it takes forever for any Pokemon to spawn and you’d be happy just to see a Rattata.

The randomness in how often and what kind of Pokemon are coaxed out of these items gives players a sense of “rolling the dice”. Both Incense and Lure Modules come in limited quantities, the most efficient was to get them being through spending real money in the Store. Therefore each time a player uses one, he’s making a significant investment at the chances of Pokemon spawning. Every time Incense is used, players feel a rush as they are suddenly excited to try and coax as many Pokemon as they can out, trying to travel as far a distance as they can as they watch the timer count down the thirty minutes.

Lure Modules use the social aspect of the game to trigger a flood of emotional cues that keep players on the hunt. PokeStops with Lure Modules are clearly visible from a player’s map User Interface even if they are not within the radius. This announces to them that a Lure Module has been activated on this PokeStop, prompting the player to walk to if not at least want to walk to the said PokeStop. But if you think about it, the spawn rate of Lure Modules isn’t so high, but the fact that cherry blossoms are raining down from the PokeStop is enough reason to trigger giddy cheers as groups of trainers flock to the said Stop. Add the fact that unlike Incense, the lifespan of Lure Modules are not displayed as a counter, instead it’s a battery icon that barely tells players anything. This prevents players from being discouraged from chasing the PokeStop with the Lure Module if he knows the time it will remain active is limited.

Then there are the Pokemon themselves. Without the aid of Lures or Incense, Pokemon randomly appear around the map. You can try to find them with the “Sightings” function, but based on other reports, it’s based on a 200 meter radius, which is quite a distance.

Even the gym battle mechanic is an exercise of this principle. The fact that battle statistics are imprecise and that battles happen in real-time rather than turn based makes it more chance based. The higher the CP of the Pokemon you use, the higher the chances it might win in the battle. Chances, meaning it does not at any time guarantee victory just because the CP is higher.

What this does is it motivates people to go about the area hoping to run into the Pokemon because of the imprecise nature of the tracking system. You don’t know when you’re close or far, you just know it’s there, somewhere, which also means your search doesn’t end right away. It’s the randomness and uncertainty that keeps people coming back. Despite how illogical it may seem, people tend to play more often and invest more time in an activity when the rewards are uncertain in frequency, as long as the reward, when achieved is immediate.

Peer group tendencies

One of the core mechanics of the Pokemon franchise is the social interaction. But with limited Pokemon at first and soft and hardware capabilities that would make the traditional ability to trade Pokemon a game breaking feature, Niantic built in mechanics that integrate social interaction with the main goal of the game.

Lure Modules

Do you want to be the best friend of all your Pokemon trainer friends? Drop a Lure Module at a nearby PokeStop where you can all hang out and reap the benefits of randomly spawning Pokemon.

Heck, even the shopping malls have gotten into the craze and embrace the Lure Module party idea, offering to place Lure Modules on PokeStops found inside their establishments non-stop for hours.

This public nature of Lure Modules plays to our natural desire to play as a community. Using one benefits everyone, and who doesn’t want to be the guy responsible for the happiness of many friends and strangers alike, right?

Niantic knows people like to spread the love, with Lure Modules, you can. Great way to exploit our kindness, isn’t it?

Teams

At level 5, trainers are given the second most difficult choice they will have to make (first being the starter Pokemon). They can choose to join Team Instinct (my team btw), Team Valor or Team Mystic.

The only known function of these teams is to facilitate the gym battle feature where members of each team take turns fighting over control of the gym.

But beyond this delineation came an unintended (or maybe they did) consequence as the teams started growing in number. Instead of the 33% split among the three expected, Team Mystic has nearly 40% of the players joining them. This reinforces the natural urge of people to become loyal to a team they identify with. With the membership numbers being so telling, the teams took on characteristics of their own, the Mystics being the juggernaut team while the Valors playing opposition while Instinct carried their own way to domination despite the lack of number.

This is the same psyche that keeps people rooting for certain sports teams and identifying themselves a fans of the teams. Some root for teams based on choice, others because of what they represent, often times the school or nation they represent. In the Philippines, the product or company they represent.

Conclusion

Understanding how elements of a game affect us should help us appreciate the game even more. It also helps focus our goals and not get trapped in pitfalls that other not so responsible game developers put in place for gamers, trying to milk us based on our urges and desires.

As we can see so far, Niantic has developed a system that is both fun and humane. Its core mechanic of moving about is well used and well emphasized throughout its features meaning even the whales of this free to play endeavor will need to get off their butts in order to get ahead.

When the playing field is equalized and effort is the obvious determining factor, games like Pokemon Go shine brightly as an example of a well implemented concept that can keep people playing for years to come. As long as they stay focused on their primary goals, it won’t be difficult to imagine all seven generations of Pokemon spawning at Pokestops.

For the first time a video game has gotten so many people excited for their next road trip instead of their next staycation.

If nothing else, Pokemon Go as a free mobile app has at least made daily commutes more bearable.

 

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The Balance of Narrative

 

Pokemon players who have delved into the competitive scene are familiar with its common formats and the ensuing turmoil surrounding discussions about which is more “competitive”.

First there’s the officially recognized format, created by Pokemon creator Nintendo, hosted by the creators and for the sake of the creator Nintendo. Official VGC (Video Game Championship) format is played with doubles on a ban list that Nintendo publishes every year for the sole purpose of making a ban list. Before VGC ’15 special and legendary Pokemon were banned from competitive play, one of the contentions most players of the other format often make to discredit the “competitiveness” of this format.

 

On the other hand there are players who favor the format that made Pokemon famous, the singles format. For this, players turn to Smogon for a tier list which everyone follows via agreement. In this format there is no distinction between legendary, special and ordinary Pokemon. This is often the reason many tout this to be the more “competitive” format since it allows the use of legendaries and special Pokemon like Zapdos, Volcanion, Heatran and even Mew for as long as they qualify as OU (Over Used) tier Pokemon. On the other hand the format bans certain Pokemon based on perceived superiority in competitive play. Normal Pokemon like Blaziken, Aegislash and Greninja have been called up to the Uber tier after several suspect tests for supposedly breaking the meta of the game, making their use “uncompetitive”.

 

But with all the griping about competition, is one format more competitive than the other? Why doesn’t Nintendo adapt Smogon’s tier system in order to allow VGC participants more freedom to use less “broken” legendaries and special Pokemon? Why does Smogon’s tier list work?

 

Tier list

Nintendo hosts the yearly VGC for money. Duh? You have to compete using the latest Pokemon game, so yes it’s hosted for money. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a non-competitive thing.

The Nintendo ban list consists of objectively marked Pokemon throughout the game. Simply put, any Pokemon considered Legendary and or Special in game is (was) prohibited from competitive play. One main distinction between these Legendary and Special Pokemon against regular Pokemon is the fact that in a single game of Pokemon you are allowed to catch them only once and they do not breed using the Pokemon Breeder.

This distinction is vital in that it’s the reason Nintendo doesn’t allow special and legendaries.

Any competitive player knows that there are two vital extra statistics to consider when team building, them being the Effort Values (EV) and Individual Values (IV), plus the variable of Natures, competitive players mix and match these stats and variables in order to maximize the potential of each Pokemon. EVs are pretty straight forward, ever since the 6th generation of Pokemon, the open secret was institutionalized in the game using the Super Training mechanic to show the EV’s gained by the Pokemon and individually increasing them through Super Training. Before this trainers had to seek specific Pokemon which gave out specific EVs and knock hundreds of them out, a laborious endeavor considering this mechanic existed as far back as the first generation.

IV’s on the other hand are a bit trickier. Through repetition, trial and error with the Pokemon breeder, Pokemon are assigned random IV’s and Natures, but through certain hold items, trainers can maintain some degree of control over how IV’s and Natures will transfer onto the Pokemon egg.

Here’s the even trickier part.

Want certain egg moves? Gotta breed from certain Pokemon in the same egg group.

Want certain hidden abilities? Gotta breed from a Pokemon with said hidden ability.

Want a shiny? Good luck.

All of this repetitiveness, trial and error and what not are part of the built in mechanics of the game. They require you to simply work within the rules of the game itself, not necessarily breaking the narrative.

But legendary, mythical and special Pokemon don’t work the same way. In a game you can only catch one Zapdos, Articuno or Moltres in the wild. There is only one Mewtwo available in the wild. And once caught, these Pokemon are incapable of breeding. But these Pokemon do have natures, EV’s and yes, even IV’s.

Many don’t realize it, but this is Game Freak’s way of regulating the uniqueness of these legendaries. While by design they are supposed to have base stats superior to normal Pokemon, they are not intended for competitive use because they were made to not be used competitively. Those that might be allowed in competitive play are nerfed through the limited IV’s and random natures. Meaning they are extra strong but more vulnerable than other Pokemon.

So what’s a competitive trainer to do in order to get a competitively viable Mewtwo?

One route trainers might take is what is known as “soft resetting”. This involves saving the game right before the Pokemon battle in which the trainer intends to catch said Pokemon, catching the said Pokemon, checking for the right nature, checking for the right IV’s and then resetting the console until desired nature and IV is achieved.

It’s a tedious task as the numbers are all 100% random and the chances of getting the right combination are slim.

While tedious and not within the confines of the game narrative, soft resetting is perfectly legal as it merely exploits the gaming function.

For the more shady trainers, third party accessories exist that can do all the Pokemon breeding in an instant. Commonly known as PowerSavers, these data re-writers are able to look into the game’s data assets and edit them with relative ease. This means the ability to change values such as natures, IV’s and even EV’s in an instant.

So you can see now where the legendary, mythical and special Pokemon benefit from this.

All a trainer has to do now is catch the Pokemon, run it through the value editor and turn it into the competitive legendary he desires. No randomness, no soft resetting, all competitive fun.

But this method is ILLEGAL. Nintendo and Gamefreak penalizes players who are caught using third party devices to manipulate game data, for good reason. Methods like this can give Pokemon moves, abilities and stats beyond those programmed by the developers giving them an unfair advantage.

This is where the difference in platforms matters between the Smogon and VGC formats.

Platforms

Remember that Smogon is often played on its own battle simulator, Showdown. Teams are built by choosing your Pokemon and entering the desired values for IV, EV and nature. No catching, training, breeding or any of the in-game things involved at all.

This means everyone is at an even playing field when it comes to access to “perfect” Pokemon, or those which have 6IV and the desired natures.

This lifts the shroud of exclusivity over the legendaries, making them just as accessible as any other Pokemon.

So when Smogon implements its tier list, it does so considering a purely theoretical scenario where everyone has equal access to every Pokemon in existence. This makes sense as Smogon claims itself to exist only for the competitive battles.

Showdown imagines itself to be in a scenario where it desires to be like a game of chess where variables are minimized. It also explains the criteria for banning certain moves such as One Hit Knock Out moves, Petal Dance and the Sleep Clause. To create an atmosphere which places each turn squarely at the hands of the trainer, they claim they are for increasing competitiveness.

This puts into perspective the stringency with which Smogon as a community goes through to ensure that no single strategy is able to dominate the playing field, because in their playing field, the Pokemon are for rent and every resource is available to everyone all the time.

Take out this ability to simply generate Pokemon in seconds and you get the VGC format where trainers are forced to trade, breed and train battle ready Pokemon either themselves or through others. Allowing third party devices to mingle and mangle the game is out of the question. Encouraging the practice of soft resetting or glitch exploitation is out of the question as well. So when GameFreak hosts tournaments, they host them under the impression that their balancing mechanism is already built-in to the game through the narrative and the mechanics that help to expound on that narrative.

When The Pokemon Company decided to allow the use of one legendary Pokemon per team in VGC ‘15, they did so expecting the built in randomness discussed earlier, because it would make sense. Legendaries which are the strongest in-game Pokemon would have a reduced role compared to perfectly bred battle-ready Pokemon, except the trainers will want any advantage they can get, which meant maximizing the stats either through glitching, exploits or third party devices, which beats the purpose.

 

Final words

 

The two most dominant formats are the way they are simply because they are designed with different intentions.

Smogon is based on a simulator setting where everything is at its theoretical best, on the other hand VGC continues to push the narrative of being the official tournament where trainers test their skill not only in battling but also in Pokemon breeding and training, even if many do cheat this process (not playing by the narrative rules is cheating).

Smogon creates a chess-like environment where you can pick up the board and play in an instant as long as you remember the pieces you play with, while VGC wants and expects you to take your trusty Pikachu or Zubat which you’ve had since the first gym or at least a descendant of that Pikachu or Zubat or at least a team of Pokemon which you spent time hatching and training, to the real world league for them to enter the real world hall of fame.

So the next time someone chides the VGC format for allowing the use of overpowered legendaries or special Pokemon which are 6IV and the right nature, be reminded that it’s not supposed to and that it’s the trainers who break the system to gain the advantage.

The same can be said of other games wherein mods or unofficial versions are purported to be “more competitive” than the official game. Game design is an important matter when it comes to any video game, narrative is part of that design, so are mechanics and gameplay balance. Rarely do franchises as big as Pokemon make design decisions that they don’t rack their brains over. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason.

It doesn’t become their fault anymore if people don’t play by the designed rules. When this happens, companies can either correct it or reject it. Neither is a better move than the other.

Which one is more competitive? It depends on how you define “competitive”. Ideally, Smogon cuts to the chase and sends trainers straight to the battles, making cheesy tactics also easy to pull off. It becomes a crucible for battle strategies where only the most formidable survive. VGC tests trainers every step of the way (if done according to design) which means more effort being put on the road to the VGC Championships.

Go with Smogon if you’re after a battle of wits. Go with the official VGC if being a Pokemon master means more than just battling.

 

Post Script Update:

As many people pointed out, certain legendaries were already allowed to be used as early as VGC ’15 and some even earlier. In VGC ’16, two “big” legendaries were allowed.

Assuring three perfect IV’s might be a sign that they may have been intended for competitive play, however the limit and randomness were meant to serve as a crutch toward what are inherently overpowered Pokemon.

The Smogon format is currently used by console players and Showdown also has a VGC format, however, the Smogon was designed with Showdown in mind. Yes, trainers do carry over the rules of Smogon onto their consoles as the console game is the execution of the theory learned in Showdown. It’s not a declaration that one format cannot and is not used on the other platform, rather a statement of which the format is designed for.

Both Smogon and VGC update rules regularly, however Smogon’s process makes the rule changes more gradual and less surprising to trainers. It also adds to the question of what makes a good competitive game. Should it change with the times or should it be consistent for the players to be familiar with the mechanics?

 

 

7 Reasons to get your Kids a Handheld Console instead of Mobile Devices

They are everywhere. Kids holding iPhones, Android phones, non-Android phones, iPads and tablets while strolling around the mall. Generally I don’t object to phone or tablet gaming because I believe they are great new gaming frontiers to be explored. I don’t mind kids using them either, especially since there are many apps that help with their cognitive development.

But when you’re shopping this holiday for a nifty gadget to give your inaanaks, if the entirety of the reason to get your 8-year old nephew or niece an iPad is so he can play with it, please take a moment to consider why you should be getting them a games console instead.

Note: I am presuming you want to get it for the kid with gaming in mind.

1. Price point

A phone/tablet can cost you astronomic figures ranging to Php90,000 at its peak while the cheapest decent tablet can eat up at least Php8,000. That’s without any assurance that the tablet will run smoothly and function as expected or run the games the kid would want to play. You’d also have to go through catalogues and check specification options, optimizations and a whole lot of stuff, or just settle for Php40,000 iPads.

A handheld console can range to as much as Php13,000 for a Nintendo 3DSxl limited edition The Legend of Zelda A Link Between Worlds edition up to as little as Php 5000 for the Nintendo 2DS. Oh, the Playstation Vita is around Php 9000 and that’s considering the latest releases of handhelds. Playstation Portables (PSP) can go for as little as Php 3,500 and the same goes for Nintendo DSi. After determining which brand and model you want to get, there is little to worry about specs, compatibility and software as consoles are the easiest to plug-and-play. Very seldom will you need to worry about games running the way they should on your consoles or hardware specs not performing. The price range is narrower and you don’t lose much by getting a lower priced one since the 2DS is a pretty strong console itself.

2. Quality of games

Most parents or people who opt for mobile devices for their kids always reason out that the platform is more suited to kids because you can simply download games. I agree, you can download games for tablets and phones, but what they fail to consider is the quality of those games.

The best games on mobile are re-hashes of popular console games, one of the most popular being Minecraft which has been on PC for a long time already. At their best, mobile games are swipe-by-the-number games, well-made Skinner-boxes and limited by the medium they are played in. I’m all for exploration of the new platform, but right now, you just have to admit that the mobile gaming scene is narrow and limited in its ability.

Handheld consoles carry titles that have been on brew for generations. The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, Sword Art Online, Super Mario just to name a few titles that are best played with physical buttons and on their proper platforms cannot be played on mobile devices without giving up a huge chunk of the experience. With the 3DS and Vita both having touch screen abilities, mobile games are more easily ported to them with little draw back so playing Angry Birds on either of them is not a problem at all. The same cannot be said when attempting to play Super Mario Bros. even on the best of mobile emulators.

3. Socialization

One of the biggest aspects of mobile gaming is the social gaming experience. Many if not all mobile games require you to connect with a friend or at least reward you for connecting with friends one way or another. Unfortunately despite what it might seem like, the social connectivity is rather limited. All you really do is hook it up to your Facebook account and it automatically connects with Facebook friends with the same games or starts annoying those who don’t. With poorly coded games, Facebook friends end up as player numbers and people aren’t really sure who are doing what.

The interaction is also limited. On Candy Crush, you’re connected to your friends to ask and give power-ups, tickets and extra lives. On Clash of Clans you raid your friends’ bases, which they’re oblivious to and can’t really prevent in real time. These don’t really promote social skills, these just promote having lots of Facebook friends who might accidentally gift you something on one of these games.

The closest they get to actual social interactivity are the ported games. Streetfighter for mobile, Heartstone for mobile, Pokemon Trading Card Game for mobile all have “real-time” competitive aspects, unfortunately the fighting games don’t give a full engagement as controls often have to be streamlined to accommodate for the fact that touchscreens don’t allow you to touch multiple buttons at once, something that’s kinda vital to fighting games. The trading card games work well, but that’s about it.

Nintendo’s Streetpass feature encourages gamers to get out there and move around (Internet photo)

Handheld consoles on the other hand have a different kind of social interactivity. The Nintendo 3DS alone has a feature called StreetPass wherein the unit detects nearby 3DS units and tags them with a simple greeting. Many games use this function and it encourages gamers to go out and seek out other gamers, creating new social circles and interacting with people they can actually see and recognize. The games on their own also encourage social interaction, Pokemon being one of the most obvious games. It forces people to trade with others, gives incentives for connecting with players across borders and even allows you to compete with one another in real time. In Fantasy Life you are questing in cooperation with other players. You are literally joining your friends on quests that you would normally not be able to accomplish on your own. One of the favorite meetup games is Monster Hunter where teams join one another to hunt gigantic monsters and forge great bonds. These are the social interactions that stay with you long after the game. It’s not a mere tag on Facebook pestering him/her to click a button.

4. Control

How do you control or monitor what games your kids play on a mobile device? Quite frankly, if your kid is resourceful enough (which is a good thing) you really can’t. Once you give the device to the kid, the kid owns it and will download games ad infinitum until the memory capacity runs out… or you take away the internet.

With a handheld, games are a treasure. First off you can lock online purchases on the 3DS so they’ll only get to download games if you let them. Physical cartridges can become treats for the kids too. I remember playing the Super Nintendo with my siblings and every now and then my dad would treat us to a new game. We enjoyed every one of those games he bought. It’ll be easier to say, “We’ll get you Pokemon Omega Ruby on your birthday,” or “Bravely Default comes with good grades,” than, “Pass your subjects or no more tablet.”

5. Discernment

Kids don’t have the best utility distinction faculties. My brother once told me of a baby who cried after being given a magazine. The baby was trying to swipe the pages in an attempt to trigger something. When the print wouldn’t move, he got frustrated and began to cry. This is because kids aren’t the best at understanding the purpose of gadgets. To kids, mobile devices become toys. Letting them play with these devices simply reinforce this idea. When it comes time to do some actual work with them they become confused and start resenting the idea that their toys are now being used to do work.

You won’t have that problem with a handheld console. These things are for gaming and anything else are bonuses. When they hold their handheld, they know it’s time to relax and play, when they get their tablets with their homework on it, they know to engage into study mode. It also avoids incidents where a parent tries to take away the tablet to stop the kid from gaming but it turns out all the homework is there too.

Work and play in equal parts, but make them distinct for more happiness.

6. Safety

Internet Photo

The internet is not a safe place for kids. Without your guidance they are prone to encounter bad content and bad people. Unless you are willing to spend hours teaching them the ropes and monitoring their online activities, giving a kid a mobile device is a bad idea. At 11, my kid cousin is already making sales transactions with complete strangers through Facebook. First of all, Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years old. It goes without saying that if your less-than-13-year-old has a Facebook account, monitor it well, monitor it often.

They run the risk of chatting with complete strangers that might trick them into things that could be avoidable with parental consent, for example online sellers telling them to meetup outside their school or give them credit card numbers. Big no-no’s that can be easily avoided. Either orient them or guide them, but always take this aspect with caution.

On a 3DS or Vita, online interaction is restricted to in-game match sessions. Verbal communication is limited and players tend to focus on the game rather than the chit-chat. These games already expect their audience to be around the age of 10 so their social environments are designed to focus more on the game and less on deviant social interactions.

No need to constantly look over their shoulders because browsing and other social functions are already limited so there’s a smaller tendency for them to meet online strangers that might talk them into stuff.

7. Value

Value is not the same as price. Yes, paid apps on Google play and on the App store are as low as $10 or Php 500. There are thousands of free apps on both stores. A kid could access any of the thousands of apps at the touch of a button. Unfortunately, like a jailbroken game unit, the value of those games are lessened. Mincraft, even if you’ve paid $8.99 to purchase, becomes just one of many app icons in a see of freemium and pay-to-win.

With cartridges, they might have a higher price, normally around $30 or Php 1500, but each will bear more value. The reduced frequency and higher price point naturally teaches kids to value what they have. Games will have more meaning and each new one you get them will be greeted with wider smiles than the last one. Console games aren’t something you can just delete when you get bored, people often have difficulty selling them even when in dire need. The bond between gamer and game grows especially with games like Pokemon when your entire adventure is saved right on the cartridge itself.

This is not meant to demean those that have already given their kids tablets and phones. It’s my hope that with this, people looking to give kids a play-thing gadget for the holidays or whatever occasion will think twice. If you know what you’re doing giving your kid an iPad, go for it, good on you. If you don’t, here’s my advice.

Don’t agree with my thoughts on mobile devices? Did I miss any points? Let me know in the comments.

Happy holidays!

Holiday Guide to Shopping for Gamers

There’s no denying it, the holidays are around and with it comes the time to reap the fruits of your labor. Of course there’s also the gift giving part which nobody can escape, and of course everyone will have at least one friend who identifies as a gamer.

For those who want to get something for their gamer friends but don’t know where to start, here are some helpful shopping tips:

Know your target

Chances are, you’re shopping for one of two kinds of gamers; a console gamer or a PC gamer. Know which one he or she is and find out which console they own. From here you can break down your choices to either games or accessories.

Console groups

Nintendo

Wii, Wii U or 3DS

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Common issues:

  • Systems are region locked, so be sure that game regions match the console region
  • Online play is usually free
  • Most games sold here are from the USA region and Asian region
  • E-shop cards are readily available for USA accounts
  • Wii has been jailbroken to infinity; Wii U hasn’t neither has the N3DS
  • Find out if giftee’s Wii console can play the game you intent to buy

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Sony

Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita

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Common issues:

  • Not region locked, so any game will fit any console
  • DLC is region locked, so use the appropriate PSN Account
  • Playstation 4 requires a premium account to play online
  • Playstation Credits are available in USA dollars, HK dollars, SN dollars and JAP Yen
  • Playstation 3 has already been jailbroken but with limited functionality, Playstation 4 and Vita have not

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Microsoft

Xbox 360, Xbox One

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  • Not region locked, so any game will fit any console
  • DLC is region locked, so use the appropriate Xbox LIVE account
  • Online play is pay to play
  • Microsoft credits are available in USA dollars
  • Xbox 360 has been jailbroken with little impact to game performance
How to pick a game

Favorites aren’t always a wise choice

Everyone has a favorite series or genre of game. Personally I follow the Pokemon series as well as the Zelda games. Gamers would love to get a copy of the latest installment to their favorite game series for the holidays, but before you rush out of your chair to purchase that title, do a bit of research. If the person you are giving it to is a big fan of the series, there’s a big chance he got the game on launch date and a second copy wouldn’t do any good. Series like Pokemon, Zelda, NBA 2k, Assassin’s Creed are well followed and well advertised, so their fans are more than likely to get them early for launch-day DLC. Snoop around and know if he’s already got one or is frothing at the mouth to get one. If he doesn’t already, make sure he doesn’t get it until you do. He’ll be your best friend for the rest of the holidays.

Mainstream isn’t always too mainstream

Let’s presume your friend already has the copy of his or her favorite gaming series, time for plan B. Gamers won’t always admit it, but they want that triple-A title that just came out. Unfortunately their meager budgets don’t permit them from getting it with the latest in the series they are following. This is the perfect opportunity to fill in that void. Shadow of Mordor, Call of Duty, Super Smash Bros or maybe Far Cry which they’ve seen countless trailers of but have never gotten the courage to buy for themselves because they might miss their favorite series or be called “too mainstream”. Maybe you could even get them a spin-off of their favorite titles, maybe a Pokemon Rumble Blast or a Shin Megami Tensei side-game. They’ve always wanted to at least try it but there’s a lot of reasons they won’t get it. They may not play it in public, but they’ll thank you for it for sure.

Under the radar

Okay, so your friend is a sucker for triple-A titles and doesn’t mind being called mainstream. Try an “art” game. Indie games and obscure titles might not be in their radar, but with a little research, you’ll find one that they can enjoy. Telltale games like The Walking Dead is sure to at least pique curiosity among any gamer. Games like Flower or Journey will give your friend a fresh gaming experience. Scout around the indie scene top-sellers, it’s likely they’ll fit your friend’s taste too. Love it or hate it, they’ll thank you for the gaming variety you introduced them to.

Where to shop

Datablitz/ i-Tech

Datablitz, because gamers trust gamers

Gamers trust these two retailers for a reason. By far, Datablitz is the most widely patronized gaming retail store in the Philippines and for good cause. Check out their website for a Datablitz branch near you and do your shopping there. Not only will they more likely have a better selection of games, accessories and consoles but they’ll have better prices and be a lot more helpful. Most of the people there know about region locks, compatibility, which system goes where and common issues with the items they have on sale. Not to mention these places are among the few that carry limited edition titles to go with their expansive array. They don’t sell jailbreaks or modified units, so you can be sure everything is legit and safe.

Stay away from SM Department Stores, Astrovision, Toys R Us or Toy Kingdom as much as you can. Their prices are naturally inflated and the sales representatives aren’t going to be much help. Most of the time you’ll be better off browsing on your own than talking to them, so just steer clear of these places unless you absolutely have to.

Small-time retailers are worth a look, but to find anything worth gifting you’d have to have a bit of gaming know-how yourself. Unless you know what you’re looking for, places that sell second-hand, non-branded or repaired gadgets should be a no-go. If you enter these places without knowing your stuff, you will be milked for every centavo you have.

 

Desperation moves

If all else fails and you’re absolutely clueless about games or just don’t know what game your friend might enjoy, try game credits. Nintendo E-shop cards, Playstation Store Credit, Xbox Arcade Credits and Steam Wallet Credits are all 100% hits with gamers. All you have to do is find out which console platform they play in and purchase the appropriate card for them. Heck, you don’t even have to wrap it, just text him the code, tell him to enter it into his Steam Wallet or whatever and watch the love flow in. You cannot go wrong with it.

It also helps that not all gamers want the same games and not all the games they want come out in the holiday season. If your friend follows a title which isn’t coming out till next year, the credits you give him will ensure that he’ll be able to afford it come release day. More than just giving your friend money, it’s money already invested on games from the get-go, so there’s no guilt when he splurges that 2500Php on the next Diablo 3 expansion.

More options

But gifting for gamers isn’t all about getting them a game. There are times that they lack that one accessory that they haven’t come around to getting for themselves. It could be a gaming keyboard, headset, control stick extensions or maybe a bigger SD card. Filling up one of these gaps for them this holiday season will ensure you will be thought of everytime they get a multi-kill on LoL.

 

Gift game recommendations:

Nintendo

Wii U

  • Super Smash Bros for WiiU
  • Mario Kart 8
  • Legend of Zelda Windwaker HD
  • Hyrule Warriors

Nintendo 3DS

  • Pokemon Omega Ruby/ Alpha Sapphire
  • Persona Q
  • Fantasy Life
  • Super Smash Bros for 3DS
  • Ace Attorney Phoenix Wright the Trilogy
  • Ace Attorney Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies
  • Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright
  • Azure Gunvolt Striker

Playstation

Playstation 3

  • Borderlands the Pre-sequel
  • Dragon Age Inquisition

Playstation 4

  • NBA 2k15
  • Shadow of Mordor
  • Dragon Age Inquisition
  • WWE 2k15
  • Far Cry 4
  • Telltale Games: The Walking Dead 2

Playstation Vita

  • Borderlands 2
  • Shin Megami Tensei
  • Final Fantasy X-X2

Microsoft

Xbox One

  • Destiny
  • Call of Duty Advanced Warfare
  • Halo
  • Killer Instinct

*Do you agree with my tips and recommendations? Would you recommend any game that would make an awesome gift this holiday season? Let me know in the comments!

 

Appreciating a simple ↓↘→℗

*Published in Volume 1 2012 Litmus: The Official Journal of the Department of Communication, Adamson University

It takes a bit of programming to get the character to do the move, a bit more to get him to execute it consistently and a lot to get him to do it with the right timing. (Internet Photo)

It’s a common notion for people (especially the conservative) to disregard video games as an “inferior” medium. Many think the only worthwhile games are the “Jumpstart” series or the “educational” games. Campaigns have been launched to promote the “goodness” of books and print while denouncing the evils of the joystick. Well, times have changed, technology has evolved and so have the intricacies of communicating ideas, emotions and life principles.

Gaming plays a vital role in the world of communication today. One way or another, nearly everyone in the Philippines has access to a video game. While many pass it off as a stress reliever and other damn it with claims like, “I will turn your brain into mush”, only few know of how much work goes into making Ryu’s Shinku Haduken.

1. Worlds and legends worthy of literary recognition

As readily as J.R.R. Tolkien took people on journeys across Middle Earth and J.K. Rowling built the wishes of boys and girls to get their invites to Hogwarts, so have Shirugeru Myamoto brought to life a mushroom kingdom tormented by an evil dragon, as well as the kingdom of Hyrule awaiting its hero of time, Tetsuya Nomura give life to the mako city of Midgard and the battles between the sEEd gardens, Yoshitaka Amano told the story of the war of aedolons among so many other tales that can only be told through the platform which is a gaming console.

There are stories, tales, lores and journeys that would make any literary buff proud, enshrined within all the coding, programming and graphics design that go into a single video game. The difference is that in order to find out if the Templars can catch Ezio, you have to write the story yourself.

2. Longer stories, more fun!

Have you tried sitting through a Lord of the Rings marathon? It would take a die-hard fan of the movies to be able to sit through 10-or so hours of the film without feeling the tediousness in it. Those are all great films by any standard, but a person can only take in so much at one time.

With an average run-through length of 12-hours, video games can pack in a lot more story into it without running dry. Yes, attempting to the next cliff over and over again will frustrate many-a-gamers, but that’s the fun of it. People who play games aren’t in a rush to end it, usually because they’re having so much fun.

Writers of all sorts can and have taken advantage of this feature to gaming, introducing the world to story arcs that would have been a total pain to turn into a film or novel. Some even have the players choose their own story arcs, even adjusting the story according to the actions of the player. The potential for story-telling is great!

3. Teams to develop

No man is an island.

Stay after a Hollywood film and notice the credits. Among the names of stars and celebrities will be lists and lists of people who most have never even heard of. Make up, wardrobe, lights, sound editor, props manager, clapper A, fan operator, camera man juice box holder and the like, these are the people working behind the scenes of a film to make it as grand and wonderful as it is. The same goes with games.

Bucket-loads of codes are written, maps, sprites, models made just to form a decent functioning game. That’s not counting game play mechanics, character physics, model animation, texture, cinematography and final packaging that make you standard run-of-the-mill video game. If people pay P500 for something that has already made its revenues on the silver screen, it’s easy to imagine why developers have to charge thousands of pesos for a copy of their game.

4. New advertising avenues

Aside from those annoying pop-ups that come with free mobile apps, the advertising industry can really take advantage of video games. For example, what team wouldn’t benefit from having cyber-versions of themselves in the NBA2k series? Product placements and cameos are easier to make in a medium that allows items to be used, produced and seen over and over again.

With what Jay-Z did for the NBA 2k series, it’s not hard to see more games getting big names attached to their line-ups as well.

Shoe manufacturer? Why not take out an ad on a Left 4 Dead game, make you latest model an add-on to get extra running speed? Food product? Cameo as the food products on the Sims. The thing about gamers is that they are some of the most avid cult followers out there. Products that make it into the game are sure to get as many viewers of their ad as there are people who buy the game.

 

Gaming isn’t really mindless button mashing and it is a great disservice to all the people who created them to shrug them aside without even trying them. Just like a good book or movie, a lot goes into a video game that has more to offer than just plain entertainment. The next time someone triggers a haduken, think of that Capcom employee who wrote the script that allows you to guard from it.

 

The Decade the Philippines nearly went Game Over- for good

Looking through the iPod my little cousin uses while staying at our place, it’s hard to ignore the dominance of game apps over virtually anything else on it. That’s to be expected isn’t it? He’s a kid, he likes games, there’s really nothing odd about it. Clash of Clans, Angry Birds, Candy Crush and a Flappy Bird clone, were I a bit younger I’d scoff at the selection for being too “casual” and not “hardcore” enough for a nine-year old boy. Yes, some of them feed off the frustration of dealing with poorly programmed action timing, others are well-made variation timers that make you spend or wait and none of them actually gives you a reason to stop playing them. When I was his age, I was begging my dad for tokens to put into video game machines or constantly trying to remember the Konami code to get past level 1 of Contra. The “GAME OVER” screen is a forgotten sight in the world of gaming today that my cousin would probably never know, but just a few decades ago, the Philippines almost went GAME OVER for good.

Everyone in one way or form has a gaming device today. Personally, I have a high-end laptop that is decent for gaming, an iPhone which has a couple of games and a 3DSxl which I use whenever I’m away from home. My brothers and I share a PS3 in our room and have a decent-sized library of games. It’s hard to imagine that had history not taken the turns they did in the Philippines, we might not have any of the gaming devices we have here today.

Early gaming in the Philippines

While the United States were buzzing over computers, processors and the latest Atari, the Philippines had just been introduced to its first gaming devices, the video machine. Unlike the relatively portable consoles coming out in the west, video machines were big clunky machines that came with their own CRT monitors, joy sticks and power supply. They were like table-tops, flat surfaced with opposing players facing one another from either end. The moment Pacman first booted up with his hunger for pellets and fruits, the bright yellow dot had the Filipinos at the palm… of his… ehem… hands (I guess?).

Immediately the revolutionary video machines became a sensation. Filipino youths went out from their houses with as much change as they could in order to feed the hungry wooden beast in exchange for another shot at clearing the stage of yellow dots. Like a wild fire on a dry forest the popularity grew and spread throughout Manila, soon you couldn’t walk down Recto without hearing the familiar “wakka-wakka”.

My dad who had an ice cream parlor along Recto at the time experienced the craze first hand. He found the machines so lucrative that he planned to re-structure his entire store around the table-top money makers. In a single day, one machine earned him close to three thousand pesos which during the time was worth a lot more. All he needed to do was plug on the machines, open up his shop and make sure he had enough coins to break up his customer’s bills. That it came with such a hefty price tag was of no consequence to him, the machines were paying off so well they were paying for themselves in a matter of weeks!

“The problem,” he said, “there were too many greedy people that wanted to earn from it too.” After Chinese companies were able to copy the mother boards and program chips, cheaper and more affordable versions of the video machines flooded into the ports of Manila. Anyone who could raise a few thousand pesos to invest on a machine could afford one, from then it was simply a matter of looking for a power outlet and waiting for the money to come to them. Recto was lined up with octopus wires, extension cords and noisy video machines, occupied by students, kids and children regardless of whether or not they should have been in school during those hours. My dad even joked that before leaving to attend his own classes, he would see his store filled with students from a neighboring university and shout, “Check attendance!”

Regulation and Prohibition

Reports of the decline in school attendance and increase of juvenile delinquency eventually hit the ears of then President Marcos. At first, his remedy was to enforce regulations on owning and operating the video machines. No high school students allowed, far from schools, no gambling, no this, no that. Unfortunately, these regulations cut away the very demographics that made it such a lucrative business in the first place. Operators then resorted to bribing the enforcers to look the other way when it came to students inside their shops, nothing changed, the status quo stayed.

Years before, President Marcos had already passed Presidential Decree 519 which outlawed gambling devices as well as pin ball machines. Mid-year of 1981, rumors were spreading that President Marcos was planning to outlaw video machines as well. The video machine operators banded together to come up with a sizeable offering to appease the “gods”, but selfishness and disunity prevented them from reaching a consensus with smaller operators passing the bill to bigger ones and the bigger ones passing it off to the distributors until nobody wanted to cough up the dough. True enough, on June of that year, Marcos signed Letter of Instruction 1176 s. 1981 with this fatal provision:

“WHEREAS, I consider video machines within the classification of “similar contrivances”, under LOI No. 9 and “other devices” under PD 519.”

Gaming, though in its infancy, in the Philippines, was f**ked.

Not only was it illegal to operate a video machine business in the Philippines, just getting caught owning one of these machines could’ve landed you in jail. No amount of permits and government backing would’ve been enough to allow you to keep one of them. Needless to say, the streets were cleared, operators were forced to close shop and machines on which Pacman, Galaga, and Donkey Kong could be played on were destroyed.

Upon catching wind of the news, my dad immediately called up a supplier of his that was bringing in a shipment from Taiwan that day. The importer told him they were already at the port and ban or no ban, my dad would have to pay for them. Knowing he had no choice but to pay for them, my dad told the importer that as long as he could get all the units he ordered down from that ship and into his store, he would pay him every centavo he owed him. A few minutes later his phone rang again with the importer at the other end telling him that port authorities warned him that the moment those machines touched Philippine soil, they would be confiscated and he would be arrested, leaving him no choice but to turn around and bring them elsewhere.

As to the units he already had, my dad had no choice but to sell them to a middleman who was going to take them to Clark, Pampanga which was then still USA territory, thus exempt from the total prohibition. He cut his losses and sold all of his units at a fraction of the price he bought them except for one which still sits in our living room today. Throughout my childhood I only remember powering that machine up once, it was big, bulky, dusty, ran on 110 volts and it played Pac-man, I wasn’t very good at Pac-man.

The One that lived- After disposing of the other units, my dad kept this video machine at home where it still sits next to our door. After sustaining heavy water damage from Ondoy, it has been reduced to unassumingly awesome retro furniture.

The One that lived- After disposing of the other units, my dad kept this video machine at home where it still sits next to our door. After sustaining heavy water damage from Ondoy, it has been reduced to unassumingly awesome retro furniture.

Beyond the reach of the law

While all was chaotic and downright depressing for gaming in Manila, apparently in further away places like Parañaque, gaming was alive and well, unfazed by the all-out ban set by the dictator. According to my friend Miguel, a certain video game center which still operates today defied the total ban and continued to cater to the dot-munching, gorilla-chasing cravings of the Filipino youth those times. He told me of his father’s recollections as a college student during that very era, paying constant visits to that video game shack to blow off some steam.

While I only know of one area where gaming was able to live on in the Philippines, it’s almost certain that more areas had similar operators who sank into the darkness of obscurity and anonymity, making it so that authorities pay them no heed at all, allowing the Filipino gamer to grow.

End of prohibition

Through the EDSA People Power Revolution President Marcos was forced to flee the Philippines, with him, his tyrannical ban on gaming in the Philippines. There was no sudden proclamation that it was legal again, no “on” switch that suddenly flipped to power up the table-top cabinets, it just happened. Once again arcade cabinets were being seen inside malls, people once again allowed to enjoy having Jumpman save his girl or Pac-man gobble up ghosts out in the open, in public with nothing to fear. His old suppliers asked my dad if he wanted back in on the video machine operating gig, he declined having already been burned once before. He had enough of running it as a business, instead, he thought of just keeping it at home.

Fortunately the ban was lifted when it was. Roughly a few years after the trauma of the video machine ban was starting to heal, Nintendo started becoming a household name in the Philippines. We were fortunate enough to have been able to afford a Family Computer. Mario, Rockman, the Battle City tanks were some of the first images my then young eyes ever saw. It allowed for the next generation of Filipinos to enjoy home-based consoles and explore a world that would have otherwise been denied.

Under what is called statutory construction, a systematized way by which the Court interprets the law, had the ban still been effective, it would have included the Family Computer in its ban. Had there been no Family Computer in the Philippines, there would have been no Super Nintendo Entertainment System, no Nintendo 64, no Gameboy, no Gamegear, no Playstation, no Xbox, no PCs, nothing. Technically the Presidential Decree and the letter of instruction that followed it have yet to be repealed or amended to this day. Fortunately society no longer sees video games as the menace it once was and just chooses to let it be.

It’s sobering to know that what is now a great part of many Filipinos’ lives could have been taken away from them had history taken a turn for the worse. While there are those who would have been thankful for being void of Candy Crush, Farmville, Flappy Bird and other money-making or otherwise uninspired games, it would also have meant that we would never have had the opportunity to explore Hyrule, Skyrim, Midgard, Rapture, Columbia and all the other awesome places where we had experiences we would never have had in real life.

The next time we pick up our gaming device, be it a gaming PC, console or mobile device, let’s take a moment to remember how easily these could have been denied from us.