Sunday, March 19, 2017

Top Five: Video Games of 2016

  • It's way too late for this, but let's do it anyway.

  • 2016 has gone and it is once again time to look back on the games I enjoyed last year. In truth, I played very few. Time and priority shifted such that I couldn't dedicate many hours to gaming. But what I did play were some of my favorite of all time.

  • Persona 4 The Golden - As a fan of Giant Bomb, Persona 4 looms large as one of the defining games of the site. When the chance game up for me to get a PlayStation Vita and the game, I knew I had to experience it for myself. It is without any hyperbole that I say P4G is the best JRPG I have even played. It's funny that the actual dungeons, the mechanical RPG sections themselves, were my least favorite parts of the game. They never felt as grindy as I was led to believe. And the battle system with its use of weakness exploits was a lot of fun to manage. But the best part was clearly the visual novel side, where making friends and learning more about them turned the experience from a good dungeon crawler to a truly great game. Persona 4 The Golden lives up to its hype.

  • Firewatch - I don't go out of my way to try "walking simulator" games. 2013's Gone Home, while amazing, was not some gateway to a new style of game for me. However, when the team at Campo Santo announced their first game, I was immediately interested. Firewatch is very much a first person adventure game, combining the best of environmental storytelling techniques with point-and-click adventure structure. It may not stick the landing on the big mystery, but the emotional arc is perfect. This is easily a game I would share with non-gamers to show what video games can do.

  • Pathfinder Adventures - I'm a sucker for all kinds of tabletop games: board, card, RPGs. Even if I may never play them, I like reading about them. Occasionally, against my better judgment, I'll even buy one. I got lucky, then, with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords. I could play solo, with my brother, and even convinced my family to try it. So when the game made the transition to a mobile app, I jumped on it. Pathfinder Adventures does everything I want out of an video game port: making it easier to play the physical game while also taking advantage of the electronic medium. I have now played more on the app than I've ever played of the card game. And I got to play with my daughter which made it even better.

  • Hitman - I never imagined myself playing a Hitman. They always seemed like too much work for too grisly a topic. Sure, there was fun stories to come out of the games (hat tip to Rebel FM for piquing my curiosity about the series years ago. But I never actually tried one. That was until videos of the new game started coming out, showing off just how crazy things could go. Hitman lives up to the hype. If you want to see just how good it can be, check out this video.

  • Let It Die - I did not expect to find myself enjoying a free-to-play game. Too often, the monetization strategy leads to degenerate design. And although it is said to be worse in the end game, I didn't see any free-to-play shenanigans in Let It Die. Instead I found an alternately morose or farcical dungeon crawler, resembling the Souls and Rogue games. It was simple fun to explore a ruined world, collect gear, and fight various psychos. I didn't make it all that far up the tower, but I enjoyed learning my way through new encounters and doing my best to survive just a bit longer. Also, Uncle Death is a great character, underused in the game.

  • Ironically, I've already started 2017's Top Five list with a great game I just finished. Hopefully you won't have to wait quite so long to read about it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Theme Parking: Disneyland Resort Trip Report - 28 February 2016

  • Back in February, with only a couple weeks before we were planning to celebrate our daughter's birthday in the park, we decided it had been too long since we had been to Disneyland. Unwilling to wait any longer, we packed into the headed off. I thought I would share a few thoughts and highlights from the trip.

  • I have often wondered at the number of birthday buttons I see in Disneyland. On one hand, there have to be a bunch of people in the parks celebrating their birthday, on or near it. Why wouldn't you go to Disneyland for your birthday if you could? On the other hand, I've seen any number of buttons that are worn and faded, leaving me to wonder if people re-wear their buttons to the park for the attention. By the time of this visit, Disneyland had introduced their new button design, making the old buttons stand out. The charitable part of me wonders if the parks could be using up their old stocks. The not-so-charitable side wonders why people would do that.

  • At lunch time, I made a horrible blunder. In the ongoing fried treat wars going on between SoCal theme parks, Disney introduced the churro funnel cake. We had decided to eat at the Hungry Bear, partly to check out work on the Rivers of America, and partly because my picky daughter would actually eat something there. Along with my lunch, I thought I would try the new dessert. This was a mistake. Those things are massive. It was good, but it was also way too much. If you consider taking one down, I have a couple words of advice: either take a partner or don't eat anything else the rest of the day.

  • We finally had out first sighting of one of the famous Disneyland cats in the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. This cat was a cool customer. He was midway down the hillside below the train platform, alternately eyeing the line of people and completely ignoring everyone. My cats would have flipped out if a train went by but this chill feline did not care. It was adorable and I'm glad everyone knew enough to leave it alone.

  • One thing I observed while riding Its A Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean were the number of women who would trail their fingers in the water, and then immediately shake their hands like something was crawling on them. I know Disney does its best to keep that water clean, but make better decisions, people!

  • As we exited Its A Small World, our daughter spied the couple sitting behind us. They asked her if she enjoyed the ride and which ride was her favorite. (Today, it was Big Thunder Mountain and A Pirates Life For Me.) They were so friendly that I had to ask about them. It turned out that they were from Singapore, studying at UCLA. I asked if they had been to any of the other parks and they said that Disneyland was actually the last Disney park they had to visit, having been to all the others. They admitted to enjoying Walt Disney World most of all and added that the Hong Kong park is tiny. We soon reached the docks and disembarked, quickly going out separate ways. I was reminded that the magic of Disneyland isn't the attractions and shows, but the people that it brings together to share and enjoy the experience.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Theme Parking: Disneyland Resort Trip Report - 26 November 2015

  • It's time for another trip report, but I just want to hit highlights and impressions. Sure, I could run down the itinerary (actually I can't since I lost it), but this get boring pretty fast. Instead, here is what stood out about our Thanksgiving visit to Disneyland.

  • We ended up parking in the Simba lot that morning and had to walk to the park through Downtown Disney. Instead of making the full walk, we decided to ride the monorail into Tomorrowland instead. Since we arrived just after the last train left, I decided to show off to the family and asked if we could ride in the front. It was quite fun to share a very different view of the ride.
  • Once inside the park, I got the idea to get Fastpasses for Hyperspace Mountain, which had recently opened. By the time I was able to get tickets, the window conflicted with our dining reservations over in California Adventure. We would have to postpone our first ride on Space Mountain in years until our next visit. I still have those Fastpasses in my memorabilia folder for that visit.

  • Those plans involved an early Thanksgiving dinner at Ariel's Grotto. It was a crazy idea, made even crazier in that I just lost my job, but we intended to make the best of it. Our little four year old gave us all the usual food problems we had come to expect, but she was delighted to be visited by the princesses who came to visit our table. Ours was the second table on the princess rotation, the first with a child, so she did not have to wait long after each announcement. Our grown-up dishes were much better than I expected given my low opinion of theme park food. The whole experience will stand out as one of my favorite holiday meals.

  • Disneyland after dark is a magic of a different kind and DCA captures that feeling in similar ways. After the sun set, we found our way to Paradise Pier and the Jumpin' Jellyfish. Our daughter likes this simple ride and, even though I have a mild fear of heights, it is mild enough for me to chaperon her. As we stood in line, we heard the music for an oncoming parade. DCA's parades aren't nearly as popular as Disneyland's Paint The Night, so there were no crowds to want us it was coming. The parade reached us just as we ascended the tower. It was a fun perch to watch from even if I wouldn't want to spend the entire parade up there.

  • Our night ended with a trip to Olaf's Snow Fest. It is a poor substitute for snow play, but it is as close as our Southern Californian little girl has even come to the real thing. She had a ball. And that is what Disneyland is all about for me.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Theme Parking: Will Dynamic Pricing Come To Disneyland? [Updated: 2/29/2016]

  • A pair of stories appeared on Theme Park Insider recently about pricing for Universal Studios Hollywood and Shanghai Disneyland. Though they are unrelated, they signal a shifting tide in theme park admission pricing. I would be very surprised if dynamic pricing does not arrive at the Disneyland Resort within a year.

  • The price offers differ slightly between the mentioned parks. Universal Studios is maintaining a constant game admission price while offering a discount for online orders. Shanghai Disneyland is instead splitting ticket prices across the board for peak and non-peak days. The effect is basically the same, though you have to make a greater effort to take advantage of the Universal prices.

  • Two data points are not a trend. However with circumstances as they are at Disneyland, this seems like the exact solution Disney Parks will be looking toward in the future. On one hand, ratcheting up Annual Passport prices hasn't really lessened crowds at the park. That may slacken over time as some passholders allow their passes to expire. But attendance pressures are only going to increase when Star Wars Land finally opens. Adjusting annual passport prices can't be sufficient to prevent overcrowding.

  • On the other hand, the one day ticket for Disneyland is now $99.00. Crossing that threshold and making the price to visit the Happiest Place on Earth at least a hundred dollars will have huge psychological repercussions for visitors. Even now, as a middle aged man, I balk any time a price climbs into the triple digits. I suspect that I am not alone.

  • The obvious solution for Disneyland to meet these disparate needs is to institute dynamic pricing. The park can raise prices on peak days and leave off peak days at the current price. That would allow the park to say that they still have a sub-hundred dollar ticket while also encouraging attendance on lower traffic days. Blockout days for lower tier annual passports already serve that function. It's time that daily tickets offer the park the same tools.

  • From my point of view, this is an inevitability. When they decide to do so is anyone's guess. But if Michael Colglazier happens to be reading this, drop me a line. I'd be happy to put a proposal together for you.

  • UPDATE 02/27/2016: I would say "Called it" if it hadn't been so blatantly obvious. Laughing Place and various Disneyland bloggers are reporting that seasonal pricing is starting at Disneyland this weekend. Pricing signs on the ticket booths have already been replaced with monitors, a necessary step to adjust prices from day to day. Good thing we have annual passes. Oh, those expire in April? Damn.
  • UPDATE 2 02/27/2016: It's official.
  • UPDATE 3 02/29/2016: As long as I'm making updates to this thing, I might as well mention that it is not really dynamic pricing. It's not even seasonal pricing as Disney would have it unless we're talking the weekend and holiday season versus the early week season. It's really just tiered pricing. Any other name actually implies too much. So I was only mostly right.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Theme Parking: Construction Begins on Star Wars Land

  • As has been long expected, construction have gone up all over Disneyland. Between removal of holiday overlays, refurbishments, and the start of Star Wars Land, it feels as though it would be easier to count the attractions that are still open rather than name all those that are closed. From the photographs MintCrocodile posted recently, it would be hard to find a sight line that doesn't include a construction wall or barrier.
  • As the work goes on beyond the walls, Disney Parks have given us some indication of what the new Rivers of America will look like. Based on the posted concept art, it looks amazing. As much as I enjoy riding the train around Disneyland, there is far too much staring at foliage or the backside of buildings. Riding over a trestle along the northern end of the rivers will likely become the highlight of the loop.
  • Theme park bon vivant Matthew Golluta pointed out one particular poster which recently went up on the construction walls across the Big Thunder Trail. Along with other Frontierland posters, the Disney Parks crew also hung a Nature's Wonderland poster. It took me a bit to realize that this was not just a reproduction but an update, replacing "Via The Mine Train Thru Rainbow Caverns" with "Via The Disneyland Railroad" and removing the location labels. Could this be a hint that Imagineering has more in store for the railroad than they have let on. We can only hope.
  • Finally, along with its usual histrionics, MiceAge recently reported on the proposed layout for Star Wars Land. On the face of it, it looks exactly like what I would expect. Whether this map is the real thing or an educated guess, it remains to be seen. But, I would not be surprised if Star Wars Land looks a lot like this.
  • It will be interesting to watch construction unfold over the coming years. It is an exciting time to be a fan of Disneyland.