Name: Joshua

Bio: Josh holds his master's in Game Design, and In addition to writing for Gamer Reaction, he is Associate Designer at Zynga Boston and Research Producer and Designer for an educational game being made at Full Sail University. He aims to fight Luddites and fanboys alike in pushing the medium forward and annoys those around him with the chorus to songs he doesn't know.

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    What I Want in Wii 2

    April 16th, 2011

    Over the last few days there were at first sputterings and unconfirmed reports of Nintendo’s next box coming down the pike.  Then, on Thursday, these ruminations were finally confirmed via several sources including Kotaku and Game Informer.

    According to these sources Nintendo will officially break news at or before E3 next month, and has reportedly been shopping the product around to developers for some time.

    So let the speculation begin!  I give you what I would like to see, nay, demand to see in the Wii 2/Gamecube 2/ Wii HD/ 3D Wii whathaveyou.

    HD

    Nintendo has bucked more trends than one, but delivering another new console without high definition output at this point would simply be arcane.  According to sources, the power of this mystery machine will in fact rival if not surpass the horsepower of Sony and Microsoft’s current machines, so this point it’s probably a safe bet.

    Online support on day one

    Launching the 3DS without a well-populated app store is a major bummer.  Not launching it at all with the device was perhaps the biggest blunder on the part of the Kyoto-based firm in regards to the 3DS launch.  For the Wii 2, I want a back catalog of downloadables on day one including a couple new-released ports.  If this new machine is as strong or stronger than the 360 or PS3, how about a downloadable port of something prettier than a Nintendo console has ever seen?  I don’t even care what it is!

    More Storage

    With a full app store available on day one, folks are also gonna need a ton of storage.  And by ton I mean nothing short of 10 gigs, please.  Alternatively, giving users a bit of cloud storage would also be nice: imagine playing a game on Wii 2, saving, and then continuing the save wirelessly with your 3DS via the cloud?  Dibs!

    Better online support

    Game demos for everything.  A slew of weekly new releases.  Stronger indie support.  Voice-chat.  And get Friend Codes the Hell away from me.  If you charge me for an online service (which I think you won’t), it better be as good as good or better than Xbox LIVE.  I’d also like a vote-out feature for douchebags: prepubescent boys screaming sass gets three ban requests in a match and they are booted from online play in a game for ten minutes.

    At least one killer-app at launch

    I am so sick and tired of getting amped for a console launch only to find myself stoked due to nothing other than the novelty of the thing.  How about being more excited to play that launch-day killer app?  Let’s have some games to play on day one, hm?  My expectations are pretty low here, but I’d like to see at least one must-have in addition to whatever’s packaged with the device.  Remember when the excitement for a new Nintendo console could be coupled with the synonymous excitement for a new Mario?  For the love of god, can I pretend you might launch with a new Mario???

    Backwards compatibility

    And I’m not just talking full compatibility with Wii and GameCube games either; I want to transfer my downloads of digital titles over to my Wii 2, or at the very least get a free download coupon for the titles I already have.  It’s about time digital downloads got more respect; just because they aren’t tangible things doesn’t mean I don’t want to preserve and maintain my library on my newest consoles.

    Whacky controllers

    Nintendo has produced some of the wonkiest shit gaming has ever seen, very much including controllers.  Honestly, seeing new console hardware for the first time is exciting, but it’s never been as exciting to me as seeing the new first-party controllers.  These are the things I’ll be spending all my intimate time with, right?  I’d also argue that Nintendo pads have historically been among the worst and weirdest.  But in retrospect, the N64 pad wasn’t honestly that bad, if not unnecessarily pronged.

    Whatever it is the big N’s got up their sleeve, it’ll certainly turn heads knowing their pedigree.  Always the innovator, Nintendo often brings something new to table that often isn’t expected.  I’m excited to see what we’ll be playing in a year’s time.

     

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    Erring on the Easy Side

    April 12th, 2011

    I just came off a review of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.  The consensus?  It’s an artful Shadow of the Colossus or Ico but entirely made for hipsters.  Now, I am far from a hipster—my fast-food diet and appreciation for lesser things keeps at least that moniker at bay—yet I remain a big fan of the game.  More specifically, I’m a frustrated big fan of the game, and I’ll tell you why.

    Artful games like those mentioned above, or Flower, or Braid, or any other pressing an emphasis on an experience versus a more layman form of entertainment are to me more vulnerable to criticism.  There’s a certain degree of pretention surrounding games of this order; they attempt to convey a resonating message, feeling, or commentary, or aim to instill the zen-like flow state in the player through story, aesthetics, creative mechanics, or an amalgam of these.  Though what has become more traditional shooter-of-the-week fare can certainly carry with it some of these things, they are never the selling point.  Rather, shooters in particular are sold to be slightly prettier than those of the last batch, or perhaps slightly more innovative.  Artful games’ reason for existing rests heavily upon whichever creative pillar was chosen and pursued, and so when these are jostled or fumbled in design, they are exceedingly noticeable very much to the detriment of the package itself.  Allow me to convey via a recent example with Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP exactly what I mean.

    The audiovisual adventure of S&S is, at least for the first session or two, an unmistakeable joy.  The subtleties used to guide and train the player through their first aptly named “session” are remarkably effective (and I’m not referring to the “tap tap” first-time user orientation to the controls, though those are fittingly concise as well).  A barking dog just out of reach against a still backdrop demands an interaction, which guides the user from screen-to-screen without interference.  A slow-moving and startling boss creature punctuating the first session effectively communicates run away rather than engage, and the few battles dashed throughout are, though simple, particularly paced and designed for the audiovisual experience that is decidedly S&S.

    It is evident that the first-time user experience was iterated upon quite a bit to make it feel just so.  By the end of the first session in particular, the game feels wonderfully paced and generally seamless.  It is a remarkably fresh experience leaving the player craving more of what can only be described as hand-crafted pockets of expertly rendered interactive storytelling.

    But like so many other games, S&S stumbles in the pursuit of more content.  A rich experience though the first bits may be, ambiguity, confusion, and frustration (not to mention the insidious glare that comes with daytime gaming on the iPad and a particularly dark color palette) undoubtedly tears the player out of their amorous relationship with the game by session three.  The rest of the game is thus a battle between falling in and out of sync with the pacing and flow.  Worse, hard-fought zen-like feelings in the player are struck down by casteless irritation: not so much from frustratingly ambiguous directions on how to progress, but in the damned despoilment of an otherwise unhindered, fantastic adventure.

    Though the game teaches its mechanics beautifully, by the climactic final moments of the game, chased again by that repugnant 8-bit monster, I died over, and over, and over—completely removing me from the experience and replacing my connection with the game with fruitless frustration.  The solution to the last puzzle was well taught throughout play and clearly within sight.  I’d orient the iPad vertically to enter battle mode just there, and strike!  Yet over and over the device was unresponsive.  Frustrated, I thought to myself did I lose my sword and shield? I backtracked to several other screens looking for something unusual to tap-tap (an experience which is also painfully too prominent—not tap-tapping or backtracking to be sure, but doing so randomly everywhere because so little indication of how to proceed is given).

    Just when pacing arguably matters the most—at those triumphant final moments of struggle, allowing the user to complete the experience on the very highest of notes—I was orienting the iPad vertically wrong.  The game recognizes vertical orientation when the Home button is on bottom.  I had been orienting the device with the Home button on top. Immersion broken, pacing destroyed, joyful experience crucified—all warm feelings were replaced with controller-flinging frustration.

    Though this was where my frustrations climaxed with the game, it was not the only point.  The Songs of Sworcery sung perhaps once or twice are not irritatingly ambiguous in what is happening, what to do, and how to progress.  More often than not when the player identifies when to use this mechanic, gameplay is reduced to just randomly tap-tapping everything on screen until something happens and the puzzle is “solved.”

    I am a frustrated fan of S&S because it is so close to reaching a seamlessly immersive experience, but like so many other games coming this close to perfection, is ruined by what amounts to a poorly designed learning curve, difficulty, and frustration.

    That’s not to say there aren’t games out there were difficulty is among the strongest selling points.  Demon Souls, Ninja Gaidan, the Mega Man series, nearly all classic arcade games, hyper-difficulty modes in the God of War and Halo franchises—these are all games, genres, and areas where toughness is championed and worn like a badge of honor.  But it has no place in an artful game about an experience, unless that experience wholly revolves around irritating the player.

    It’s a delicate subject to be sure.  An artful game like Braid or LIMBO revolves around stumping the user in deviously clever puzzles.  Perhaps there are points where they may be at fault for blocking forward momentum too.  Personally, LIMBO is about as close to perfection for what you get in that package as I can think of in recent memory (check out my review at www.huftopia.com for why).  Braid was wonderful for a whole slew of reasons as well which I don’t have time for here.  Both, and most those games listed in this article, have room for cleverly designed dynamic difficulty systems.

    According to wikipedia, dynamic game difficulty balancing is

    the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios and behaviors in a video game in real-time, based on the player’s ability, in order to avoid them becoming bored (if the game is too easy) or frustrated (if it is too hard).

    Sounds positively sexual, doesn’t it?  Almost too good to be true?  The truth is, there are loads of examples, both good and bad, of games utilizing systems like this.  Josh Tolentino at Giant Bomb writes here about many of them.  He points to the very best designed systems as those the player doesn’t even notice, and I couldn’t agree more.  Like health caches in Half-Life 2 which spawn amounts of health based on how much health the player has.  Or a combination of auto-aim help and enemy health adjustment in Max Payne based on how accurate the player is firing.

    The most obvious examples in the other direction—poorly, or shallowly designed dynamic difficulty systems—is found prominently in the rubberbanding AI of racing games.  Everything from Mario Kart, to Need for Speed, and Motorstorm carry this functionality, where opponent AI racers drive faster or slower based on how far ahead or behind the player is.  Mario Kart notoriously gives last-place players a significantly higher chance of picking up the most powerful items, often changing the tide of the race in a single power-up.  Or, check out my review of Motorstorm: Pacific Rift to glean how winning tough races means not ever going too fast.  In a racing game.

    Unfortunately, poorly designed dynamic difficulty systems are far more prevalent, and not only in the racing genre.  Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is notorious for the enemies and dungeons which scale as the player levels.  Here the designers rendered their game nigh unplayable for players who don’t pick and stress at least a couple battle-related aspects to their character (and when not choosing a battle-ready avatar is entirely too possible).  The new trend by Nintendo is also an understandable, though uninspired system: allowing the computer to beat a level for the player when the player become stuck (triggered by dying umpteen times in a row).  This “Super Guide” system can be seen in Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Galaxy 2, and Donkey Kong Country Returns and is at the very least a step in the right direction.

    The point of all this is, games like S&S come so close to the quintessence of interactive storytelling, but fall just short from an entirely remediable reason.  Experience though they may be, games are also games, meant to entertain and encourage continued play.  Where the industry average game completion rate sits at around 20 to 25%—and the you-can’t-lose Heavy Rain blowing these numbers out of the water with 72%—developers need to stop thinking about punishing the wrong behaviors.  Rather, designers need to think of ways to channel and direct player energies within a constantly changing system.  Of all the games heretofore mentioned, I’d argue Flower comes closest to reaching that unattainable ideal of getting the player into a flow state and keeping them there the longest.  And akin to Heavy Rain, that’s another game where you just can’t lose.

     

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    Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

    April 7th, 2011

    Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP is for the iPad what Shadow of the Colossus was for the Playstation 2.  That is to say that while S&S is an artistic triumph—favoring the moniker of experience over game—it also jostles a finicky-fine balance.  Sword & Sworcery is a must-have to be sure, but make no mistake, it is also a casual game for a casual gaming platform for a casual gaming market, and yet it is also none of these things.

    The most immediate impression S&S leaves is the glorious amalgam of 8-bit adventure-fantasy with new-age trim.  From the hip-hop inspired adventuring tunes and nuanced synth to the very intentionally twitter-sized bites of text—writing style, character names, and amirite’s included—S&S is dripping with individualized style.  The mash-up of Zelda and new-age funk feels remarkably fresh, the sounds involved with battles are mysterious and intriguing, and you’re bound to feel pangs of nostalgia when returning to any of the included melodies after being away for some time.

    The game is divided up into what the mysterious behind-the-curtain Archetype calls “sessions.”  His words and presentation are pointedly outsider-looking-in; he mysteriously suggests the game itself is some kind of social experiment, the Twitter connectivity being the other, omnipresent reminder.  His between-session tweets are peculiarly helpful in a gaming landscape long dominated by walls of largely skippable text.  Ranging from vaguely hilarious to vaguely helpful, some of his comments are shockingly pragmatic: conveying expectations to the user as to the length of the next session and even recapping previous events at the start of a new session will make you wonder why more games don’t act likewise.  It’s one of the very few reminders that this is supposed to be a pick-up-and-play casual game.  But it’s not.

    The majority of the gameplay is comprised of tap-tapping the player from one side of the screen to the other, or tapping and holding to run faster in a particular direction.  You’ll interact with a few hilariously named NPCs and a great deal of environmental objects, scouring for prompts that will lead you in the right direction.  Battles are few and well-constructed for the platform—sound being a hugely successful component—but more of the player’s time will be spent unraveling puzzles.  It’s important to note here that this is where the “casual game for a casual gaming platform and casual gaming market” comes into play.

    Although the game does well through the first couple sessions in guiding a cognizant player along, the latter half, like one Glowing Ghost Dude’s responses when tap-tapped, are “irritatingly obtuse.”  Grokking certain mechanics and puzzles and even how to progress forward will at some point be reduced to retracing steps screen-by-screen on baseless hunches, and tap-tapping everything in sight until something happens that was probably supposed to be reasoned towards.  And that is under the assumption that the solution can even be seen: the dark color palette chosen by the developers is positively head-scratching considering the iPad’s notoriously frustrating problems with glare.  I recommend against playing S&S anywhere other than the pitch-darkness of a closet at midnight.

    There is also at least two points in the game where phases of the moon come critically into play.  Well, two of the some eight selectable phases are non-useless, but the irritatingly obtuse pointers given to the player provide little to no indication.  Instead, the player is presented one or two correct selections and several other red herrings.  The player is tasked with a frustratingly time-consuming back-and-forth experience to grok exactly what is happening and why in regards to moon-phase interaction—when limiting the player’s selectable options could have streamlined this portion of the game, it’s a wonder why the developers chose the route they did.

    The game at points reaches an almost zen-like flow much to its strength, but then a disorienting respawn following a death, or a cryptic instruction on where or when to proceed or how to solve a puzzle replaces zen with irritation.  Toward the end of the game the player is under hurried duress to run to a point, orient the iPad vertically, hit a button, and reorient horizontally before hurrying to the next point.  Although I was sure I was solving the puzzle correctly, it turns out the game isn’t programmed to orient vertically with the iPad’s Home button up top.  Instead I replayed what should be the gloriously climactic final moments over and over again until I decided to turn the iPad the other way.

    Irritatingly obtuse.

    When the lore of Shadow of the Colossus for Playstation 2 unfolds through the first few bosses, the player is presented a truly beautiful, epic, novel experience.  Cast your sword into the sky atop your galloping steed, and race toward where the fabled steel points you.  Across fields and chasms and mountains, you go, following the brilliant sheen of the guiding light firing off the skyward sword.  The first bosses eclipse the horizon and you are struck not only by their awe, but by the awe of your next task: scale the colossus, sink into him your sword, and bring the skyscraping beast to his knees.  And repeat.  With a quick visual pass of these first few bosses you locate the point at which you may mount, and you begin scaling, eventually reaching its weak point and making good on your purpose.

    It is the beauty inherent in this experience—of a game transcending its peers into an artful, novel depiction—that makes Shadow of the Colossus what it is.  But it is the next umpteen iterations of this experience that weaken the package to its core: replacing what was a reasonable step-by-step progression of reveals to slay a gargantuan beast with a perplexing, irritatingly obtuse trail-and-error game.

    Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP feels, albeit to a lesser extent, like Shadow of the Colossus.  For a game so centered around an experience, it ultimately jostles if not fumbles the zen required to forge such an experience as if because it knows it still needs to be a game.  The thinking required in S&S is not the kind of thinking that ought to sit on a digital shelf next to Angry Birds and Cut the Rope.  Where these games build the player’s skills with increasing degrees of challenge around a simple mechanic, S&S simply wades further into obscurity with each session, never giving the player a firm grounding of much of anything as they attempt to progress.  Although the experience as a whole is memorable and entertaining, it is for seasoned fans of games with a variety of experiences, and decidedly not for casual audiences.

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    Why We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Social Games

    March 28th, 2011

    Today I’d like to talk about Facebook games and why hardcore gamers have no reason fear them.  But before I do, I’ll provide the full, brutal disclosure: I work for the guys that made and maintain all those ‘Ville games.  No!  Wait!  Don’t go!  Though I am now a purposeful defender of social games (meaning games on the Facebook platform), it is decidedly not due to any corporate brainwashing, to be absolutely sure.  I was with the lot of you myself at one point–a skeptic–scoffing at Facebook quote-unquote games and the silly-ass wall spammage brought with them.  But I’ve matured, reasoned, and reflected; I’ve done my research, spoken with Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and a multitude of Zynga Boston guys whom I fervently admire (as well as a few not-so-local ones in this category), and I’ve played a ton of social games.   There is a lot of good in these games, and I’d like to show you.

    Looking at appdata.com, there is no denying Zynga as a critical, powerful player in the game industry today; while many AAA console titles must sell a million copies to break even, Zynga’s CityVille alone carries over 20 million daily active users.  Yikes.  FarmVille, the title that put Zynga on the map, holds third place as of this writing, just behind Windows Live Messenger–a communication tool–at just over 13 million daily active users.  These are just two of the handful of games by Zynga that regularly populate the the top 15 app listings (based on MAU, DAU, or both) on Facebook–and that’s not just limited to games, but all applications.  If these numbers aren’t enough to illustrate Zynga’s dominance over Facebook (or the internet at large), check this out: looking at the developers of apps on Facebook (and not just games), and looking at monthly active users, Zynga holds the top spot at over 255 million.  The next highest games-only developer, coming in the form of industry colossus EA, sits at a jaw-droppingly contrasted 35 million.  That’s a 220 million MAU spread.  Double yikes.

    Happily, for more traditional gamers at least, social gaming czar Zynga isn’t here to erode the hardcore AAA culture of games, no.  They are here to provide a meaningful experience for a particular audience, and although I am not part of their target demographic, I earnestly understand and appreciate what they offer, and why they offer it.  But make no mistake, the triple-A fare we know and love isn’t going anywhere; in my opinion, social games are bringing more and more people into the gaming fold, providing for wider and wider opportunity for casual players to make the leap to a dedicated console.  At the very least playing games is becoming more mainstream, more accepted to folks of all ages.

    Creative Director at Zynga Chris Trottier (and 2011 Women in Games award winner) gave a GDC presentation entitled “Designing Games for the 43-Year Old Woman.”  In it, she pointed out a few eye-opening points.  First, she pointed out a 2010 PopCap study which said that the “average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman.”  Though she is but one woman in the demographic, she then conveyed what she feels so often as a mother raising children: being bothered, hassled, and challenged.  These are most definitely things she is not interested in when she has precious free time, particularly when it comes to gaming.  She is of the belief that games like FarmVille, City, and Frontier offer the perfect kind of gameplay she, as a busy and stressed mother, is looking for in a five-minute break from a full lifestyle: make a few do-no-wrong decisions, click-click-click toward something greater, interact with friends and family, and absorb that satisfying PopCap-style dazzle.

    With an hour-or-two to myself each day, I’m inclined to share in this belief.  I wish I could play the bajesus out of triple-A fare, but I’m lucky to knock out a flavor-of-the-week shooter in a month’s time.  Mostly I find myself playing iOS games, those on the Windows 7 Phone, and on Facebook, mostly because the time I always have to play is almost always on-the-go.  And I don’t even have kids yet.

    This is where the traditional hardcore sneer and jeer arises.  “You’re calling time-based crop mechanics gameplay?!” Well, yes.  Recently an article published on Gamasutra questioned the logic on which so many social gaming opponents rest their cases: shallow gameplay.  After reducing a few dozen console games to “pressing the ‘A’ button for 40 hours until you win,” the author presents an image of two games alongside the claim, “ONE of these games has shallow gameplay.  But just one.”  The two games are FarmVille and Harvest Moon.  This article is a refreshing and well-done check-and-balance to all the social gaming naysayers claiming there is nothing of value in a social game.  Want more?  According to that same 2010 PopCap study, “80% of social gamers [report] that playing social games strengthens their relationship with friends, family, and colleagues.”  Still want more?  If you buy into anything from Jane McGonigal’s research, she’s been saying for some time now that playing games makes folks happier, more positive, more productive, more empowered, and more confident in the real-world.  With the gargantuan audiences social games reach, this would then be a very good thing.

    And as for the wall spam from Facebook game requests, are the twitter updates from Sword & Sworcery any different?

    There is always a certain degree of excitement surrounding the appearance of something new successfully challenging a longstanding formula.  But I think Jesse Schell summed it up best at his 2010 DICE talk when he illustrated the following equation: EA – 1,500 full time employees + Playfish – $300 million = WTF?!”  Although Zynga seems unstoppable (that $300 million Playfish acquisition?  That’s the 220 million MAU spread pointed out earlier), a ton of legendary designers and authors are entering the space, taking social games very seriously.  Classical RTS designer Brian Reynolds joined the Zynga crew, but Raph Koster consulted on Deep Realms and Brenda Brathwaite and John Romero got Ravenwood Fair off the ground.

    Although I am not a member of the 43-year-old woman demographic, I can certainly relate to what Trottier means when she explains what she wants in a game: a proverbial glass of wine, small expectations, and simple charm.  When I don’t have time to sink a few hours into my home consoles, I always have time for a few minutes of Dungeon Raid, Zombie Lane, or Ilomilo.  And particularly in the case of Facebook games, when a few real-life friends are racing to build their cities in CityVille, there is fun to be had.  You just need to be willing to suck it up and give it a try.

     

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    Turtle Beach Showcases New Headphones at PAX East

    March 17th, 2011

    Gamer Reaction met with the folks at Turtle Beach today at PAX to take a look at two of their gaming headsets, the cheap and streamlined P11 model and the blow-your-socks-off luxury model, the PX5.

    The P11 offers stereo sound on two adjustable channels; one amplified line for in-game sound and another separately adjustable, dedicated line for voice chat.  Retailing at a cool $59.95, the P11 offers a step up from otherwise missable audio nuance in today’s games at an affordable price.

    The second model they showed us, the PX5, is a little steeper at $249.99.  Okay, it’s a lot steeper, but also comes with way more bells and whistles, the first of which being that it offers wireless Dolby Surround Sound.

    Two other high points of the PX5 that stood out for us were, first, the ability to answer phonecalls on the headset seamlessly in-game, and second, the ability to set custom presets in the device to, say, remove all the sound from COD: Blops except for footsteps, giving players a competitive edge.

    This second piece is possible thanks to the new PX5 Advanced Sound Editor, which will, to quote their press release:

    enable game developers to design customized, easily uploadable audio settings for today’s hottest titles [and] deliver game-specific, enhanced in-game audio settings.

    Dead Space 2 developer Viceral Games was among the first to incorporate the PX5 Advanced Sound Editor into their game.  Via a visit to turtlebeach.com and USB uplink, any of these developer-made presets can be uploaded to the PX5 headset for an enhanced audio experience.

    For competitive FPS the PX5 is a must-have for the reason of these presets alone, but as survival-horror Dead Space 2 will illustrate, this headset will also give single-players the tactical advantage when stepping into a necromorph-invested dark room.

    Grab them both at www.turtlebeach.com.

     

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    Feedback with Ken Levine at PAX East!

    March 15th, 2011

    A live episode of Feedback was taped Saturday at PAX with the usual crew plus one Ken Levine of Bioshock fame.  In typical form, Adam Sessler led the discussion this time with panel members Nikole Zivalich, Matt Keil, and Kevin Kelly plus the Irrational studio boss.

    It began with an almost interview with Sessler asking Levine about his life and the Bioshock franchise, finally recapping some of the Irrational panel Levine led the day prior.

    Levine pointed to his love for PAX over other shows because it is for the fans and he doesn’t have to worry too much about press and big announcements.

    Interestingly, he seemed to hint at one point about how at E3 there are always big announcements, whereas at PAX he doesn’t need to worry about such things.  Does this mean we’ll get a lot more Bioshock Infinite at E3 this year?  We’ll have to wait and see!

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    L.A. Noire Preview

    March 15th, 2011

    Today I had the opportunity to sit in on a thirty minute private demo of Rockstar’s most anticipated title, the facial-motion-tech-heavy L.A. Noire.  Sampling a vertical slice of the game, the demo was a narrated walkthrough by a couple Rockstar devs, of one particular murder case, of which there will be several in the final game.  And all I can say at this point is it is damn impressive.

    Not since the facial motion capture in Heavenly Sword have I been so impressed with the visual fidelity of the characters’ faces and facial expressions.  And that tech is a far cry from the stuff used in Noire.  In Rockstar’s latest, a degree of subtlety is rendered to screen in the characters’ faces that has never quite been seen before.

    The tech wraps quintessentially around the theme of the game: a late 1940’s detective murder mystery, or collection of murders and mysteries, from the vantage of Cole Phelps, a freshly returned war veteran.  The player controls Phelps in a traditional Rockstar sandbox world, exploring for clues around a gruesome murder scene and investigating leads.

    This last part, a core feature of the game, involves an interrogative mini-game of sorts where the player chooses what topics of conversations to pursue–largely drawn from what clues the player has found.  This is a one-on-one conversation between the player, as Phelps, and whatever NPC is being interrogated; after listening and carefully watching the NPC’s response, the player can then decide whether to trust, doubt, or accuse them of lying.

    Accusation of a lie necessitates evidence, which the player can then present before a squirming suspect.  The NPC will react correspondingly to whether the player’s actions were the correct ones, either opening up new veins of conversation and leads or shutting an NPC up for good.

    Shockingly, the whole system together worked wonderfully, with only an unexpected fist-fight toward the end of the demo feeling a little more rock’em-sock’em than detective thriller.  For purposes of brevity, the demo didn’t deviate from the main quest line with the most important pieces of evidence found, but the developers illustrated there are a great many opportunities to find much more evidence, and even a red herring or two.

    After the demo, I for one am officially sold on the game.  Many of my concerns were alleviated seeing an uninterrupted vertical slice of gameplay.  The game is still a ways off from escaping the the uncanny valley, but L.A.Noire represents the next big innovation in NPC interaction since Bioware’s own advancements with Mass Effect 2Heavenly Sword‘s facial mo-cap, and Heavy Rain‘s interactive movie-styled narrative.

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    Slam Bolt Scrappers Launches! PAX East 2011

    March 14th, 2011

    Local indie and PAX East mainstay, Firehose Games was in full glory showing off their first studio title, Slam Bolt Scrappers, a puzzler/brawler/tower defense title launching on PSN March 15th for $14.99.

    I was able to get my hands on the final version of the game, and although it certainly stacks up in single-player, the real fun comes with three of your friends.

    Supporting simultaneous play for four in either teams or free-for-all, each player or team frantically builds towers of same-colored blocks to form cannons and defensive structures.  Players procure blocks from punching enemies or stealing them from an opponent, and once a tower is built, they automatically open fire on enemy structures.

    It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s certainly worth the cost of admission.

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    Is PAX the New E3?

    March 14th, 2011

    Wow.  PAX East this year is huge.  Huge enough to warrant a move from the smaller-huge Hynes Convention Center in its premiere year in Boston to the huger-huge Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.  I’m not entirely sure of the difference in square footage, but it’s generally a good idea to give yourself five minutes to travel from point A to point B around here, especially considering the traffic of cosplayers and the the requisite obese.

    The first thing that greets you upon entering the BCEC is a towering statue of Him from Bioshock Infinite, and the first of many staged photo ops.  Descending the escalator down to the show floor is the greater spectacle, however, and make no doubt about it: in only its second year, PAX East has become quite a spectacle indeed.

    Descending down onto the show floor imparts a sense of grandiosity that wasn’t seen last year outside the snaking length of lines for the panels.  The lines are very much still here of course, although there seems to be more room to accomodate larger audiences.  What’s even more appreciable, however, is the sense of awe.  There, before and below you as you ride the escalator down, is the state of this industry and the state of this industry in Boston, laid out in a sea of monitors, lights, booths, booth babes, and noise.

    Yes, in its second year in Boston booth babes are entrenched, with nearly every major industry player represented with two pair of logo-emblazoned mammaries.  Pretty faces to be sure, though perhaps I am a fool to think they were there for game-related chat or newsworthy knowledge.  After making a pair squirm through two questions I already knew the answer to (and about the game that was written on them) they giggled and asked if I wanted a silly hat.  I respectfully declined and worked my way toward a dude with glasses.

    If what the presence of these traditionally E3-specific inclusions mean is a bigger, louder, and more inclusive show, then I suppose I support it.  I appreciate what all these things mean for this industry.  Games are increasingly becoming mainstream, and now Boston is a central gaming hub.

    If you don’t believe me on that last part consider the explosive indie influence: whereas last year a small island of booths displayed local indie games, this year that number has doubled if not tripled.  In a sense, the indie guys who line the periphery of the floor in the smaller booths bring reminder to us of the certain humbleness to games and their development and from where game-making originated.  In a live taping of Feedback, panelist Matt Keil reminded the audience how indie developers are the ones bringing about some of the most memorable innovations, pointing out Bastian in particular.

    Folks who know me well know I’ve been pushing for the Boston indie scene for some time, encouraging my friends to move to my favorite city and look for jobs here.  I’ve up to this point been unable to bring any game industry hopefuls into town, but with the way things are looking at PAX in only its second year here–and with some dozen panels revolving around landing a gig in this industry–I feel good about what all this spectacle means.

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    Hands-On with the 3DS at PAX East

    March 14th, 2011

    I’ve been happy as a clam looking forward to getting my hands on the 3DS.  I even defended the steep price here, pointing to the novelty, the innovation, the whimsy that only Nintendo seems to reliably bring.

    Well, today I finally got the device in my hot little hands, and I stand by just about everything I’ve said previously.  3D without glasses is just not something you’re ready for until you see it with your own eyes.

    But that said, I will admit to one fairly serious drawback I’ve heard from several journalists and bloggers and just about anybody who’s spent enough time with the device.  3D without glasses hurts.

    I was on the handheld for not even five minutes before I started dialing down the 3D effect.  At first it was just to see how high and low it could go, but after a while I realized it was a lot more comfortable to just turn it off.

    I didn’t have enough time with the device to make a firm stand one way or the other, but I will say that while it was on I quickly felt cross-eyed.  What’s more, once it was turned off it wasn’t long at all before I instinctually reached to fire the 3D back on for that satisfying, and distinct, depth of field transition.

    These things considered, I may not get one at launch, though that has more to do with a bum launch line-up than anything else.  It remains a fascinating device with a slew of other features to be sure.  But 3D is and has been the selling point, and 3D without glasses is certainly a novelty.

    We’ll just have to wait and see if an entire generation of 3DS users winds up cross-eyed.

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    Dragon Age 2 Shorter, Tighter—People with Lives Rejoice

    March 9th, 2011

    Dragon Age II launched yesterday to the belated excitement of at least this writer.  For a title in the old backlog, the original took priority over the others about a month ago in preparation for DA2.

    Well, I’m far enough in Origins now to be getting stoked for the inevitable polish that will come with a DA2.  But it’s the following piece of news from our friends at VGChartz that’s admittedly getting me more excited.  Relating some brow-raising numbers differentiating the two games, Bioware localization rep Ian Mitchell seems to suggest a big difference in length:

    Dragon Age: Origins

    • 1,000,000 words
    • 1,000 cinematics
    • 1,000 characters
    • 56,000 spoken lines
    • 60 hours of gameplay

    Dragon Age II

    • 400,000 words
    • 2,500 cinematics
    • 500 characters
    • 38,000 spoken lines
    • 40 hours of gameplay

    A million words to less than half?  A thousand characters to five hundred?  Sixty hours of gameplay to forty?  These are stand-out figures to me—and I couldn’t be happier.  I’m currently about 40 hours into Origins, and the loudest criticisms I’ve had up to this point all add up to length.  Keep reading.

    Like any other RPG there are towns between which one will travel, but this game favors more of a fast-travel methodology rather than linking towns with maps and dungeons or using the sandbox method of Oblivion.  This works well for Bioware’s other monster franchise, Mass Effect, a planet-hopping sci-fi adventure where warping between worlds (aka fast-traveling) feels right at home with the genre.  But for Dragon Age, granting the ability to fast travel before discovering a location on foot just feels off.

    It seems the designers tried to veer away from the fast-traveling feel by implementing a single quasi-random encounter along the way between two points.  But this feels little better than were they to just print on screen “player, you are in a town.  You will enjoy NPC interaction and receive quests,” and, “player, you are leaving a central hub.  You will now battle monsters in a quasi-random encounter and complete a side-quest.”

    What’s worse, the animation that plays when fast-traveling—a blood streak creeping along the path between two map points—chugs and sticks while content is loaded off-screen. It all amounts to a fragmented gameplay experience—and an eyesore at that.  Fast-travel is called fast-travel because, in a game like Fallout 3 or Oblivion, it greatly cuts down the time required to get from point A to point B.  For what amounts to fast-travel in Dragon Age, it feels clunky and slow with the quasi-random encounter in the middle as interruptive and forced.

    What’s more: the NPC interactions and narrative codecs are slow, monotonous, and largely uninteresting.

    Where the boys at Bioware have near-perfected the cadence, pacing, character development, and nuance of NPC interaction in Mass Effect 2, they faltered with Dragon Age. Once the player has travelled from two central hubs a couple times, entering into a new town confounds the drearily slow pacing of the game.  Exploring a new town goes from exciting and desired to sigh-inducingly laborious real quick when the player learns to expect a dozen long-winded NPCs blathering on about who-knows-what.  Though the image below is an example to the contrary, the vast majority of NPC interaction is monotonous and laborious.

    Unfortunately, much of the lore and narrative suffers from the sheer quantity of NPCs who all have a ton to say.  As if that doesn’t already become a chore, the codecs—unlike in Mass Effect 2—are utterly meaningless to a player that hasn’t invested several hours into the game to grok the greater sense of the lore.  There’s a lot to read, as there is in ME2, but unlike this other franchise, a lot of it just doesn’t stick and doesn’t feel as compelling.  Only after I’d invested several hours into the game between a couple characters did I commit to memory much of the game’s people, places, and history.  This was not the case in ME2.  Battling, as the other pillar of gameplay, is not so much fun for its own sake as it is a welcomed diversion from learning what each of the one thousand characters have to say, and the lore surrounding it.

    A third troubling issue is inventory management, the unfortunate bane of so many otherwise successful RPGs like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic before that.  Where Mass Effect 2 largely fixed this, Dragon Age does not.  Again, rather than embracing the system in place, I felt more compelled to simply avoid it as much as possible, both equiping loot without thought toward optimization and selling liberally without reflection.  Swapping loot amongst party members for the slightest in stat boosts should be fun and satisfying in a hardcore RPG; in Dragon Age it is a chore associated with the discovery of every merchant.

    All things considered, were I to recommend an RPG to someone, it would most certainly not be Dragon Age.  Were I to recommend a Bioware RPG to someone, it would also most certainly not be Dragon Age—though to be fair, this would be more due to the fantastic Mass Effect franchise.  I’ve written about the importance of games being shorter, tighter, and more concise before, and Dragon Age represents exactly what happens when a game doesn’t know when to take a bow and get off the stage.  Check out my review of LIMBO at www.huftopia.com for more on this.

    Suffice to say, the entirety of Dragon Age suffers because quantity was favored over quality, as is so often the case.  Why not tighten up the game during production, cuting the length along with the game’s price?  If this is what we can expect from games that push a million words, a thousand characters, and sixty hours of gameplay, I say no thank you.

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    PAX East Preview

    March 2nd, 2011

    The Game Developer’s Conference, going on this week in San Francisco, might be the biggest industry show for the professional side of games, but it is far from the most fun.  The Penny Arcade Expo, on the other hand, is a glorious celebration of gaming and geekery from the fans’ perspective.  Where most laymen wouldn’t have much interest in networking at GDC, PAX is and has always been a consumer’s show.  Many of the industry’s brightest will settle upon Boston from March 11th through the 13th for three days of talks, new games, tournaments, cosplay, and of course the after parties that make this event the feast that it is.  As a little Gamer Reaction preview, here’s what you can expect from the second annual PAX East event.

    Jane McGonigal kicks it all off with this year’s keynote, and if it has anything to do with the theses of her new book, Reality is Broken, it’ll mean the celebrating gaming, encouraging more play from everyone, and trumpeting that gamers can change the world.  Love or hate her eccentricity or optimistic idealism, McGonigal remains a modern academic voice within the industry, and certainly somebody to keep tabs on.

    While there’s always been a handful of panels on how and where to find jobs in the industry, this year seems especially focused with nearly a dozen or so how-to-land-a-gig-themed panels and events.  In my experience, these are helpful offerings from industry vets and folks in gaming HR.  In chronological order, PAX East 2011 offers the following to industry hopefuls: State of the Industry: What Are Your Career Options (Friday at 10am), Getting the Most Out of Game Education (Friday at 11am), Making it Happen: The Search is On! (Friday at noon), Starting Your Own Game Company (Friday at 2pm), Resumes that Rock (Friday at 3pm), Portfolios and Demos that Rock (Friday at 5pm), Snagging the Marketing or Writing Job of Your Dreams (Saturday at 12:30pm), Mock Job Interviews (Saturday at 1pm), Here Be Danger: Turn Back Now Before the Game Industry Eats You Alive (Saturday at 2:30pm), The Roads to Becoming a Community Manager (Saturday at 4:30pm), Careers in Paper Gaming (Saturday at 5:30pm), and finally, Start Your Own Damned Company (Sunday at 4:30pm).

    Other than these panels, there are always others on a host of topics by industry vets, some of which being covered by G4TV, including the live taping of an episode of Feedback.  Live podcasts have been a staple of PAX as well, and this year Joystiq, Nintendo World Report, and Major Nelson will each be recording a show or too in addition to the on-TV familiars of G4.

    For what promises to be as entertaining as it is enlightening, Whose Banhammer is it Anyway? will be a panel from a handful of community managers about the trolls (and insanity) they deal with on a  daily basis.  Game Design is Mind Control promises to offer an amusing look at some of the idiosyncratic behaviors gamers regularly and expectedly put themselves through (particularly when one would never do replicate them in the real-world), and the Penny Arcade Make-a-Strip Panel is always a ton of fun.  Expect heckling and bantering back and forth between Mike and Jerry and the audience itself throughout the creation of an actual web comic.

    Concerts Friday and Saturday nights riffing the best in chiptunes will stoke everyone up before hitting the bars, while the Videogame Antiques Roadshow and Adventures in Video Game Costuming will keep the hoarders and cosplayers (and gawkers) satiated.

    And then of course there’s the games including the show floor with live demo’s of Bastion and some of the best indie gaming has to offer.  Of course the bigger names will be there as well.  Id Software will host a live demonstration of Rage Friday afternoon, retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios will have a big reveal with their Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and finally the folks at Naughty Dog will host a talk pertaining to Uncharted 3.  Good, good stuff, and of course there will be a lot more in terms of card- and table-top gaming as well as a host of other playable demo’s not mentioned here.

    You can expect the Gamer Reaction crew to be in attendance reporting the goings on, so if you can’t get a ticket or are otherwise predisposed, fear not, we’ll have you covered.  If you do go, one final word of warning: get there early and get in line early.  Particularly for the more popular game demo’s and live panels, expect a half-hour or hour wait.  Plan what you’d like to see in advance and give yourself plenty of time to line-up between talks if that’s your cup of tea.  And please, don’t be a dickwolf.

     

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    Copycatism and Emergent Genres

    February 24th, 2011

    With the announcement of FortressCraft coming to XBLA, one really has to wonder. Though there are derivations in any artistic medium, it seems to me games get it the worst. Be it the cumulative nature of the medium—bringing sights, sounds, and interactions together—or the industry’s nubile status as a main-stream medium, or the amount of folks working on any one game, or any other differentiator, a highly derivative game can feel particularly offensive. What’s more: copycatism is in games’ very DNA, looking back to the days of Pong and the dozens of competing rip-offs.

    But were those rip-offs? In the mid seventies Home Pong was advertised in Sears catalog under the sporting good section. It was a table-tennis simulator—to be sure—and you can’t call one manufacturer of table-tennis a copycat of another. Right?

    The biggest riffs that come most recently to mind are MaXplosion (versus original Splosion Man), Quantum Theory (versus Gears of War), and of course now FortressCraft, but these are hardly the only offenders. Mobile platforms are positively plagued with clones, after all (how many fart apps does one really need?). With these and many others, it seems that some developers just have no shame. Or do they?

    In an article published awhile back here, Facebook game czar Mark Pincus was accused of no less than commanding his teams away from innovation while injecting cloned games with the fortified financial backing of big business. In such a case the teams themselves can hardly be held accountable for copycatism—they’re just feeding their families. In a world where academic institutions advertise misleading ideals of the video game industry and its job market—with legitimate and illegitimate schools alike pumping both romanticized views and industry hopefuls into an already saturated market—a low-level guy can hardly be put to fault when he’s just doing what he’s told.

    Copycatism just isn’t as cut-and-dry as many make it out to be for a whole slew of reasons, not just those pertaining to the uninfluential grunts not wanting to rock the boat. Suppose this FortressCraft releases before Notch is ever finished with his MineCraft, which itself has been subject to complaint for what’s been perceived to be a slower-than-ideal stream of updates. Suppose FortressCraft releases well ahead of what is (if it is ever) Notch’s final product, and innovates in even a single way Notch and the MineCraft community didn’t imagine. Though everything else about the game ranges in a scale from near-identical to identical, will a lone (or two, or three) innovation(s) be enough to keep folks from claiming copycat heresy? At what point does the building-block sandbox sim become its own genre? Surely then people will stop calling foul at the likes of highly derivative works?

    Is Saint’s Row a copy of Grand Theft Auto 3? Is Dante’s Inferno a rip-off of God of War? Are they both clones of Devil May Cry? On the topic of genre—and the point at which a creative stand-out’s clones aren’t considered so much copies as they are, importantly, respectable members of an emergent genre—comes another point in defense of the developers of such derivative work. The military or sci-fi shooter, among the most popular genres in North America, has been done and redone year after year after year. At what point can Activision alone be considered a copycat of its own franchises? At what point in a franchise’s lifespan can its sequels be considered too highly derivative of those titles before it in the franchise? It seems to me releasing a game that can be described as a military or sci-fi shooter immediately pegs it as highly derivative. Would one go so far as to say the next Call of Duty is a copycat of those before it?

    The point is, it is foolish to dismiss a game for being derivative as a gut reaction. It is hypocrisy to say FortressCraft is a copy of MineCraft when not also admitting Medal of Honor is not a copy of Call of Duty, or vice versa. Games, films, books, and art are all derivative; it is in their very nature to build on what was last new and fresh. Who is to be the one to draw the line where one particular work crosses from derivative to clone? It isn’t so easy. Originals that are thought to be duped, that are good enough to be duped, will stand out from their duplications on their innovative merit alone. Though it may be gut reaction to claim otherwise, building a case is a slippery slope indeed.

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    Games Cause Cancer!

    February 16th, 2011

    [The following article expresses views that are not necessarily shared by Gamer Reaction. They are the author’s views and should be regarded as such. Enjoy!]

    Games Cause Cancer!

    Well, not yet anyway.  But with the “thousands of studies” out there linking games with rape, surely there could be one or two illustrating causality with cancer.  For those not entirely in the loop here, I’m quoting a response from self-described media psychologist Carole Lieberman when asked to cite evidence of causality between an increased trend of rape and the existence of violent video games.  “I’d have to look through them or recent ones as far as finding one that specifically speaks about rape,” she positioned in a an interview with Wired, “and I don’t have the time to do that right now.”

    It’s a convenient response, especially considering the evidence pointing to the contrary.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, “rape has decreased by 60% since 1993.”  When the guys at Wired asked for a single study linking rape with video games in addition to asking for specific games that might encourage rape—and then asking again a week later—Lieberman produced a single article here which mentions neither rape nor sexual aggression.

    It all relates back to an article at foxnews.com where Lieberman was quoted to say “the increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in video games.”

    Like the wild claims since retracted from film critic Roger Ebert saying games can never be art, with her wildly off-base comments this woman illustrates a valuable takeaway: though she may or may not be a an expert in a field related peripherally, she sits firmly outside the semiotic domain of video games.  She is at best misinformed in regards to games, their content, and their effect on the human mind.

    Of course outspoken lunacy will set the internets ablaze, and not long after the Fox News article was posted her book on Amazon received dozens of scathing reviews from the expected trolls.  Lieberman’s got we gamers pegged here though: “the reviews, laced with explicative, derogatory language and put-downs unrelated to the publication, seem to illustrate that video games do make people more aggressive, indeed.”

    Carole Lieberman’s claims are nonsensical at best and lunacy at worst.  Sifting through her words, I did find one half-way reasonable statement: “over the years, I have read hundreds of studies linking videogames to violence.  Rape, as a violent act, is implied in them.  When videogames are violent and sexual, it causes the players to become desensitized to rape and think it is a ‘game.’”

    First, even if you can buy into the desensitization piece, how many games out there can one readily get their hands on to play enough of to become desensitized to virtual rape?  Rape as depicted on television and film is infinitely more accessible than any suggested at in a game.  As egregious as it is that games like Postal and Rapelay even exist, how much opportunity is there in the grand scheme of things to enact virtual rape?  How many people have even heard of Rapelay??

    In regards to the part about implication—“rape, as a violent act, is implied”—correlation does not prove causation.  Any respectable scientist or researcher will tell you that.  Her comments are absolutely nutso, and at the end of it she almost admits to it: “obviously, I know what I’m talking about or I wouldn’t be called upon to testify in front of Congress.”  If you knew what you were talking about, Dr. Lieberman, you would not “extrapolate farther than science actually allows,” as one Iowa State University professor and researcher of violence in media attests.

    So even her most thoughtful response is not one to be expected of a doctoral level researcher and psychologist.  But let’s move on: I’m far more interested in the implications of her comment regarding the scathing Amazon reviews.  As far as I can tell, the comment was a joke; she does not really believe the backlash she received on Amazon is indicative of gamers’ heightened aggression.  Right? Here it is again:

    the reviews, laced with explicative, derogatory language and put-downs unrelated to the publication, seem to illustrate that video games do make people more aggressive, indeed.

    It’s a cute response to be sure (presuming it was made tongue-in-cheek), but this, like the dickwolves escapade (more in a minute), illustrates a crucial point so many in opposition to reason simply cannot understand.  Because people offhandedly say something mean from behind the anonymous shroud of the internet—or simply poke fun—doesn’t mean they ought to be taken seriously, much less encouraged with retaliation.

    The dickwolves debacle in all its cringingly uncomfortable glory is archived here.  I encourage everyone to spend an hour reading it all over to learn a hard lesson or two about the nature of argument, trolls, and misjudgment.  But in briefest summary, I’ll recap with a little commentary.

    The guys at Penny Arcade made an off-color joke about rape in their web comic.  As with any joke, there were those who objected.  Taking advantage of the larger-than-usual backlash (these guys have published comics on beastiality and pedophilia before to far less objection), Jerry and Mike responded with another web comic—and importantly, jab at the objectors.  Encouraging others to join the fray with the second comic, this was where the debacle really took off and spiraled completely out of control, on both sides, to an inexcusable degree.

    Suffice it to say, it was all fun and games until the second comic—not the comic itself, but the retaliation to it.  In typical jesting fashion, the joke makers shrugged off a small backlash with another joke, this time pointed, belittling the offended party.  I’d like to think that most of us are old enough to understand this is how a joke maker responds when one of their jokes comes under fire.  It’s a joke, after all, funny to some, perhaps offensive to others, and nothing to dignify with a serious responseTo engage the joke maker at this point will only incite them to fire back again in what will become an increasingly ugly and desperate battle of oneupsmanship and poor judgment.  This is exactly what happened.

    It was at this point in time that the offended party should have swallowed their pride and ended the debate, period.  Jerry and Mike run a web comic; its entire existence is reliant on poking fun at something before moving on to something else.  But instead, the offended party dumped gasoline on the fire and chose to fire back, ultimately bringing both parties to do and say regretful things.  This was the moment the joke was taken seriously and escalated to a debacle, the fault of which ought to be placed on those who turned the joke into an abomination.  Put plainly, jokes are jokes until someone takes them seriously.  Then they ruin it for everybody.

    Taking Lieberman’s quote seriously—about the trolls on Amazon illustrating gamers are more aggressive “indeed”—is as reachingly nonsensical as objectors claiming Mike and Jerry are rape apologists.  Trolls are trolls because of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and the accessibility of forums.  Jokes are funny except to those they may be offending.  Taking what trolls have to say seriously, or taking the content of a joke seriously—escalating it to a monstrosity it was never meant to be—is indicative of a person’s naivete and immaturity, not their nobility or consideration.

    If Carole Lieberman was joking—well har har, joke’s on us gamers.  Move on.  If Carole Lieberman was serious—that trolling comments on her book’s Amazon page suggests gamers are by nature more aggressive than those that never play video games—then God help us; this woman’s insight is being sought at Congress.

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    Yar’s Revenge: A History Lesson

    February 9th, 2011

    Earlier this month, Game Informer ran a preview of the oldie-but-goodie revival of Yar’s Revenge.  Tentatively slated for a Q1 2011 release on PSN, PC, and XBLA here, the attached trailer offers a taste of the original’s modern day reinterpretation: a third-person on-rails shmup not dissimilar from Star Fox.

    No doubt some folks might remember the original Yar’s Revenge as a definitive catalogue entry for the Atari 2600, but did you know about the significance behind the game’s name?

    The short-and-sweet history of this industry can be mapped summarily in four chapters: inception, explosive growth, crash, explosive growth.  While the 10,000 foot view is a convenient one, there were of course many more upheavals and details such a simplified view cannot afford.  One such detail, the story behind Yar‘s name, is as colorful as the history of the seminal company of Atari itself.  The abbreviated version is as follows.

    In February 1978, at one of the company’s troubled points, an accomplished, clean-cut, and autocratic business man named Ray Kassar was hired to turn an ailing Atari around.  In contrast to Nolan Bushnell—the original rockstar of this industry before Cliffy B or John Romero—Kassar symbolized a big corporate change.  A notoriously laid-back and undisciplined company culture was replaced with the no bullshit agenda of big business.

    To put it in perspective, author Steven Kent quotes the chauffeur-driven, tailored suit-wearing Kassar as saying:

    when I first arrived at Atari, Nolan was walking around the company in a T-shirt that said ‘I love to screw.’

    At their first management meeting Kassar relates,

    there were about six or seven of them drinking beer and smoking marijuana.

    Although Kassar’s tenure at Atari is largely considered a successful one, the changes that came with him ultimately pushed accomplished and influential developers at Atari out the door, including the guys responsible for forming the first third-party developer, Activision.

    Howard Scott Warshaw was one of the developers who remained at Atari, and it was he who built Yar’s Revenge.  The title, featuring Yar of the Rassak Solar System, is in fact Ray Kassar spelt backwards.  Supposedly the game and its success symbolized Kassar’s revenge on Activision’s very existence.

    Despite a handful of early hits from Activision with Enduro, Robot Tank, and industry icon Pitfall!, the revenge part certainly played its role: Yar’s Revenge would go on to become Atari’s best-selling first-party title.

    Although the success of the PSN, PC, and XBLA remake is uncertain, the pedigree is strong and the revisualization looks solid.  Be sure to check it out when Yar’s Revenge launches early this year.

    For a bit more info on the remake, Giant Bomb has a great interview with gameplay here.

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    Interview with Slam Bolt Scrappers’ Developer

    February 2nd, 2011


    I recently visited the Boston indie developer Fire Hose games to check out their first studio release, the puzzle/brawler/tower defense hybrid Slam Bolt Scrappers.  Slated for a March release on PSN, SBS combines the very best of these genres into a frenetic and hilarious multiplayer experience—one-handed beverage mode included.  I asked president and founder Eitan Glinert a few questions about being an indie developer in the growing Boston dev community.  Read on for an exclusive look care of your friends at Gamer Reaction.

    Gamer Reaction: Could you give our readers a bit of your background, and why and how you started your own Indie game studio?

    Eitan Glinert: I started Fire Hose thanks to a combination of naivete and having the perfect amount of game development experience, around 3 years. At that point you’ve done enough to think you can start your own studio, and you’re green enough not to realize what a daunting challenge it is. I started making games in 2005 in Washington DC at the Federation of American Scientists, working on an educational video game called Immune Attack that taught immunology to high school students. It was a great project and I learned a ton, and some of the people I worked with went on to great indie success (Jenova Chen and Vincent Diamante went on to make Flower, and Kurosh ValaNejad is an IGF finalist with the Cat in the Coup). After that I went to MIT and did a graduate thesis in accessible video game user interfaces at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT game lab. I made a DJ game that is totally accessible to both blind and sighted players, and I had a blast doing it! Incidentally a lot of the people there went on to great indie fame too, making CarneyVale: Showtime. When I finished school in ’08 I immediately started up Fire Hose in a super small basement near MIT with two other MIT friends of mine, Sharat Bhat and Ethan Fenn.

    GR: What’s it like being an indie developer?  How’s the Boston indie community?

    EG: Everything about it is awesome except for being broke all the time. Seriously though, I love the independence and being able to make what you want. Everyone is very supportive, and the Boston community is a great big hug fest. When it comes down to it though, the real challenge of being an indie is getting money and staying in business, and that is super difficult.

    GR: You were present at Boston’s first PAX event, speaking at at least one panel.  Could you tell us a bit about your experience?

    EG: We were in the Boston indie showcase, and we got named by Kotaku as one of their favorite new games of show, and then Penny Arcade followed suit. It was huge! I think that was really the turning point for Slam Bolt Scrappers, where we went from a studio of nobodies working on a game no one had heard of to a group of people with the next cool game people want to play. Plus we got to show the game off to a huge group of conference goers who loved it, which was extremely validating. So we love PAX!

    GR: Will you be attending PAX East 2011?  Speaking at any panels?

    EG: You’d better believe I’m gonna be back. We have a little booth on the side next to Demiurge and GAMBIT, and we’ll be showing off the final version of the game. You and all your readers should come check it out! I will be speaking on two panels about indie game development along with Ichiro [http://dejobaan.com/] and Scott [http://macguffingames.com/].

    GR: SBS draws from one of the most influential games of all time; did Tetris play a significant role from the earliest concepts of the game?  How did SBS come to be what it is today?

    EG: Actually, Tetris had nothing to do with the game’s development if you can believe it. The initial version of the game was much more influenced by World of Goo than anything else. The game’s development was highly evolutionary, and we went through 4 bad iterations before finally settling on this final 5th iteration which is really the awesome one. I’ll be giving a talk at Boston Post Mortem about it in a few months, you should come and check it out!

    GR: I’m told there is a Beverage Mode… Care to explain what this is and how it came to be?

    EG: Ha! Beverage mode is awesome, it’s basically playing with one hand so that you can multitask and do something else with your other hand (in this case, drink a tasty beverage). It grew out of my desire to make accessible games (remember my grad research) but it turned into this really fun and bizarre new gameplay mode.

    GR: What has been the greatest challenge Fire Hose has faced in the development of SBS?

    EG: Man, I dunno. Finding funding was pretty damn tough. Putting the right team together was a Herculean effort. And giving up on the 4th iteration and starting from scratch with the 5th iteration was a gut wrenching decision. All of those were super hard challenges.

    GR: What’s it been like working with Sony?  When can we expect the game?

    EG: Actually they’ve been great! They really seem to get indie development; they let us do our thing, they’re very supportive, and we think PSN is going to be a great home for our game. We can’t wait until it comes out on the PS3!

    GR: Any hints on what’s coming down the pike next?

    EG: Sorry, it’s a bit too soon. We’ll definitely have news for this after SBS is out though!

    Alas, no dice on what’s next.  But be sure to check out Scrappers when is launches on PSN in March.  I’ve had my hands all over it, and though I can’t divulge much, I can say this: it is fast-paced, frenzied, and full-up on one-more-time play stylings.  It’ll provide some multiplayer hysteria at the very least, with or without a tasty bev or two.  Check out their site here and follow them on twitter @FireHoseGames.

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    The Other Side Of The Coin: In Defense of the 3D$

    January 26th, 2011

    As everyone already knows, the interwebs were ablaze with news and discussion pertaining to the biggest elephant in the room at present, the cost of the 3DS.  Our own Kyle Manchester already tossed his cookies cinnamon toast crunch over the price tag here, and he brings up some good points.  Why should a handheld gaming device cost $250 when entire home consoles cost as much or less?  Well, Kyle, I largely agree with you: they shouldn’t, unless they’re an iPhone.

    What I mean to say is, smartphones are expensive, and for good reason.  True, you might be able to bring down the upfront cost of one with a two-year contract, but that is also a two-year contract.  I can count on one finger the amount of people I know who don’t have a problem with that.  That’s a lie, I don’t even know one.  Until the DS or 3DS or PSP is also a phone (hello Xperia and Windows 7 phone), a price like that for a handheld gaming device does and should sound a bit steep.

    But with the 3DS comes, for lack of a better word, that certain Nintendo whimsy—that magic surrounding Nintendo products long since dead, thanks in large part to the ‘cube and even the 64.

    Remember when video games were by-and-large called Nintendo games?  Remember those formative years where Nintendo established a name for itself in America?  Remember those first titles of the franchises that would become the industry’s strongest and most recognized icons?  I know the fanboys do, but anybody who was around in the late ‘80’s, even early ‘90’s oughta know what I’m talking about.  This was the golden age of this industry, and it was defined by Nintendo. (For more on this topic, listen to Podcast 56)

    By way of a brand, Nintendo and Apple have something in common, something which grants them a devout following rivaled only by the collective sass of a slighted WoW community (remember when the world exploded over Blizzard’s insightful and forward-thinking Real ID system?  Yeah, those guys).

    I won’t pretend to know more about Apple than I do, but it seems to me they could release the iPoop and draw a line on launch day.  Apple products are luxury items, built with a degree of craftsmanship we can’t say about Microsoft or many other firms.  Though it surely isn’t the case with everyone, my first Apple PowerBook lasted me ten years before the harddrive kicked the bucket, and my second generation iPod remains as good as new to this day.  Though a job at Sony made me a VAIO fan, there remains that special allure to the Apple brand that gets a lot of people excited, myself included.

    Similarly, Nintendo once held a warm place in my heart—a feeling I haven’t felt since the SNES.  The 64 had its moments, the ‘cube was a disaster, and the Wii ushered in one of the greatest movements in gaming history, but none of these consoles could conjure the warm and fuzzies like the NES or its successor.  The Wii couldn’t even do it, probably due to veteran gamers’, and my, aversion to motion controls.  But craftsmanship?  Check out this and this.

    The 3DS brings back that magic—it’s a portable gaming device that builds off the tremendously (and shockingly) successful DS formula, again innovating as only Nintendo can.  3D without glasses is a feat that anyone but 10% of the world’s population will not only enjoy but baffle with in wonder.  And better yet, there is no need to rearrange your living room; this wonderment can be carried outside and shown and observed to anyone on the street.

    3D is something everyone is familiar with, but—critically—is also something people are just not ready for or expecting without glasses.  That’s not “people aren’t ready for it” in a bad way; it’s “people aren’t ready for it” in a “sweet sassy mo’lassy how is this %*(&ing working right now?!?” kind of way.  It is magical, it is wonderment, and it is whimsy.  It brings back that bladder-tingling excitement over something not only innovative, but appreciative by even the motion-averse hardcore.

    Adam Sessler pointed out in an episode of his soapbox post E3 that there is real potential in enhancing gameplay experiences by wrapping them around the strengths of depth of field (fast forward to 1:50).  It’s also been argued that such depth may in fact lend a degree of precision to navigating within a 3D space.  If these things are true, 3D gaming is not a gimmick—far from it.  Glasses-free 3D then becomes the next tool since HD and surround sound to enhance any gaming experience, not just the motion “enhanced” family-centric party games of today.

    Although they’re still bucking the trend of achievements permeating every facet of our lives, Nintendo is certainly making strides toward reclaiming their ownership over the warm and fuzzies.  The announcement of the 3DS’s price tag, while higher than one might expect, ought not conjure the same level of disgust as a $600 PS3 or subscription-based payment model for a single game (Zynga flipped that idea on its head a long time ago).

    With the arrival of the iPhone, we’ve come to a time when handheld electronics are and will be as expensive, powerful, useful, you name it, as their larger immobile brethren.  Any price hikes in handhelds are part-and-parcel with the privilege of mobility we are already paying for in our smartphones.  These aren’t black-and-yellow GameBoy’s any more: handhelds are increasingly becoming portable home consoles.  It’s time to start comparing handheld gaming devices to the iPhone (AT&T doesn’t offer service anyway) and smartphones in general.  It is in this comparison, and the power of an innovation the world can’t see, comprehend, or believe until they hold the product in their very own hands, that I am okay with spending $250 on my next Nintendo handheld—an important distinction indeed.

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    WoW, This is Ridiculous

    January 20th, 2011

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    I’ve always been repulsed by subscription-based payment models.  That said, I can also understand their necessity for ongoing services versus an individual product.  But in terms of games and entertainment, make no mistake, imposing a subscription-based model on the consumer is a bold assertion indeed.

    With one-off purchases like the upfront cost of a game, there is and can be some degree of acknowledgement and forgiveness in the mind of the consumer regarding minor bugs, design missteps, or aesthetic blunders.  Many of these issues reveal themselves only after the product has been released; surfacing imperfections at this point are virtually guaranteed when a game is suddenly played millions of times over.  Usually with a free patch these issues are justifiably, and easily, forgiven.

    See Red Dead Redemption or Fallout: New Vegas as a pair of recent examples.  These games were released with a slew of bugs, most of which were benign, and were otherwise fantastic games.  A free patch or two later and these $60 investments are easily redeemed, their bugs largely forgotten.

    But by way adopting a subscription payment model for a product, specifically a game, a developer overtly suggests that a game is much more valuable than any similar product with a one-time purchase.  With a subscription model, it is expected a game is not only sufficiently content-rich but fundamentally reliable and bug-free as well, because, what else are you paying them for each month?

    When Blizzard released World of Warcraft in late 2004, they chose the latter payment scheme.  Whereas it may be easier to justify a monthly subscription fee for a console platform in Xbox LIVE—where the service itself is robust, supports online play for dozens of popular games, and runs largely without hiccup—attempting to justify a monthly payment for a single game is more difficult, certainly when the payment is not minuscule.  It not only sets a dangerous precedent—how many games will we be subscribed to at once in the future?—but a lot of content and community support, in the case of an MMO, is not enough for a monthly subscription alone.  When an entertainment product becomes an entertainment service, there is much more to expect.

    When WoW launched, I scoffed at the notion of a subscription-based game, feeling much the way I did when Microsoft charged for multiplayer on LIVE.  I largely ignored these services due to their subscription fees, jaded by the inexcusably high monthly fees for shoddy cable and mobile phone services from multiple service providers.  I bemoaned largely at the precedence these payment schemes set, worried that in the future the entertainment center of my home would be the source of all the bills: not only electricity, cable, and internet bills, but the Xbox LIVE Gold membership, the PSN bill, the Wii bill, the OnLive bill, not to mention the individual subscriptions for all the most popular individual PC titles.  Dangerous precedent indeed.

    Though I scoffed, I quietly assumed that if this future were ever to take place, presenting games as services rather than products would at least benefit the playing experience.  Developers could spend more time polishing their product, releasing bits and pieces when they are ready. And by ready I mean bug-free and reliable.

    World of Warcraft, despite the army that supports the game’s living, breathing global infrastructure, is markedly not bug-free and reliable.

    But first a couple design qualms.  Though I am a relative newbie to hardcore PC gaming—the one exception being Starcraft—I am far from noob status when it comes to gaming in general.  I lend the qualifier hardcore here because I entered Azeroth with my first character and felt positively confoozled.  I picked up the mechanics, structure, and controls of the game quickly to be sure, but the first thing I learned was that Google was going to be a close friend.

    Though a few tool-tips pop up on occasion, there is much that isn’t explained as the player begins to level an avatar: what are a Rogue’s “combo points?”  How do I rearrange spells?  How do I disable chat from strangers?  How do I learn new profession skills?  How do I make a side-by-side comparison with equipment in my bags with that which I’m wearing?  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Perhaps this is why the game comes bundled with a massive user guide.  What am I paying by the month for? Seems to me I should be paying Google when I’ve got to alt+tab over to find the answer to a question that ought to be shown, not told in-game.

    Far too often the description of a quest doesn’t give enough guidance.  The map doesn’t zoom in far enough to be of any help finding one’s way through mountainous terrain, map markers are often vague, and several times just not at all in the right spot (see here for one particular quest where I can remember this happening.  Scroll down in the comments section to see this enlightening post: “yep, blizzard quest marker is wrong. don’t trust blizzard, trust the wowhead community. :-)”).

    The landscape in WoW is massive—the scale of the game is very much a strength—but when finding one’s way up a small mountain pass to get to an objective requires repeatedly struggling up a dozen 45 degree angle slopes, working around a mountain range meticulously for a half hour for an opening to ascend, only to realize that you must be entirely on the wrong side, well, something is very much askew, and it ain’t me.

    Finding one’s way to an objective point on the map and navigating difficult topography was a part of Red Dead Redemption as well, and worked very well for this game as it highlighted the elements of exploration and adherence to theme.  But doing so in WoW is irritating at best, and for chiefly two reasons.  First, the map itself in RDR, while still maintaining the rustic ink-on-parchment appeal to work with the fiction, is zoomable far enough to examine and derive the proper route through rough terrain.  Second, the ambient world in RDR itself was worthy of getting lost in; there were other things to do , the landscape was breathtaking, and feeling of isolation fit well with the Wild West theme.

    The ambient environment in WoW is nowhere as compelling as it is in RDRThere are few sights to be seen orbreathtaking visuals for WoW in 2011.  Spending 45 minutes struggling to find the “right” way through mountainous geography low-res geometry is not fun: it is a trial of patience.  Is it fair to be comparing a game in 2004 with one in 2010?  When we are paying up the ass by the month, you betcha.  Any number of patches could have expanded upon the ambience of Azeroth, but 50 hours in and with five toons at at least level 15, I’ve become increasingly aware one thing.  WoW is very much tailored to the veteran hardcore, an important consideration to be sure, but at the expense of newbies—potential future veteran, loyal fans, and hardcore?  No, we are left to read the accompanying paperback.

    I could go on here with other minor complaints, but I’ll move onto what is more important.  Remember when I said World of Warcraft is markedly not bug-free and reliable?  Allow me to quickly cite the technical issues I have had thus far with the game (and allow me to point out the machine I am running it on, designated solely to WoW, facebook, and of course, figuring out how to play WoW through Google).

    I’ve been disconnected by the server half a dozen times, and have crashed with error message “#132” closer to a dozen.  Several times I couldn’t load the launcher due to an error receiving patching information.  Once, when in the game, I slid down a mountain and upon landing was disconnected; after repeatedly attempting to reconnect, only an unsuccessful phonecall to tech support and short chat with a GM with another toon and I finally had my problem solved.  Among the sundry quest-related hiccups, another involved this quest-giving NPC being entirely invisible (see the comments section identifying the issue as a bug) only after mapping a keystroke to detect nearby NPCs was I able to speak to the quest-giver and activate the quest.

    Where are my monthly payments going?

    When Microsoft blew the doors open to online multiplayer with Xbox LIVE, my stomach dropped and my hackles raised at the utterance of “subscription.”  However, several years later and I am a happy paying customer; regular updates and patches have streamlined the LIVE experience into the quintessence of online gaming, something of which Microsoft should be very proud.  When a Heavy Rain update crashed the Playstation Network, it felt far more acceptable to fall back to my laurels and say, “well, I’m getting what I paid for,” because I hadn’t been paying for anything.  In this sense, PSN and WiiWare is a priveledge, and XBLA is a right—a subtle, yet important distinction.  I am actively paying for my online experience with Xbox whereas I am getting it all (mostly) for free with PSN and WiiWare; therefore I fundamentally retain a higher degree of confidence and expection in the former service, and frankly, a small part of me expects worse in the latter two because they are free.

    The point is, World of Warcraft carries with it a number of both design- and bug-related frustrations, as any game does to some degree.  But WoW has also been on the market for six years, has six million subscribers, and requires of its players to pay monthly.  It is inexcusable that many of these issues—particularly the bugs—still exist.

    Were there no subscription involved, these things would be far less an issue, if an issue at all, but because each and every player is pumping money into Blizzard coffers—paying for the right to play unhindered—we as players have the right to ask more of the developer, and the developer has the responsibility to listen.  Unfortunately what seems to be happening is only the veteran players are receiving the benefit of patches and updates whereas new players are forced to figure it out.

    To be sure, it is the subscription model which is the most at fault here: it conveys a higher sense of expected quality, it raises expectations to somewhere close to perfection, and although World of Warcraft is a marvel and a triumph, it retains little right to be charging me by the month.

    Author:

    Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia

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    Show, Don’t Tell

    January 13th, 2011

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    When it comes to delivering exposition, it is no surprise that games struggle.  Michael Abbott points out on his blog here that delivering backstory to an audience has always, like so many other things, been an exercise in trial-and-error.

    We’ve struggled with this problem for centuries in the theater. Sophocles used a Chorus to fill us in. Shakespeare relied on characters like the bloody captain in Macbeth, whose sole function was to describe…events that occurred offstage. In drawing-room comedies the ‘butler on the phone’ technique conveniently delivered who/what/where/when to the audience within minutes of the curtain rising.

    Abbott attributes the struggle with exposition in games as:

    a problem of both conception and execution. Narrative games self-limit their facility for storytelling, partly because we relentlessly cling to recycled power fantasy tropes; and partly because we so often restrict our imaginations to interchangeable protagonists.

    If I might build upon this, I’d argue that, put simply, the narrative in games has been allowed to suffer at the expense of more important things.  Characters and protagonists have been reduced and cheapened into male-centric archetypes because budgets are high and tight, the audience is predominately male, and frankly, story in games just doesn’t much matter.  It is decorative, it is flair, it is supplementary to the mechanics.

    It is true that John Marston is a shockingly rich character, and the people of Rapture help develop the city into a character all its own, and the character-centric structure of Mass Effect 2 fosters a certain camaraderie in one’s squadmates that isn’t often seen.  But these characters supplement the gameplay, and without gameplay and you’ve got an interactive movie.  Heavy Rain is the notable entry in this regard, but succumbs to the faults of swinging too far the other way: Heavy Rain is defined nearly as much by its story-first emphasis as it is by clunky controls and tired quicktime events.

    Abbott punctuates his thoughts with the old axiom on writing: “show, don’t tell.”  This, indeed, is the prompt which designers and writers ought to follow to find a nice happy medium between gameplay and exposition.  But as he discourages designers from burdening players with bad writing, I repurpose the discussion from delivery of backstory to game design itself.  Far too often players are told what to do and told how things work in place of allowing players to make guided discoveries on their own.

    I was reminded by a presentation by a pair of my peers before setting off to find an already published example of what I mean. @Skilltacular and @SteveEmber gave a talk in grad school regarding, among other things, level design in Super Mario Bros. For a game that essentially resurrected the American video game market, this pair began with what struck me as a shockingly simple example of effective show-don’t-tell design philosophy: the player’s very first interaction with Mario.

    See the placement of Mario on screen and the direction he is facing.  Why isn’t he standing in the middle of the screen?  Why isn’t he facing left?

    Mario stands off-set to the left, facing right, to encourage the player to explore to the right.  This may sound shockingly simple, and it should.  Though scrolling screen designs have been around since Defender, the side-scrolling platformer was not.  When sitting down with Mario, players new and old had to learn how Mario and his game worked.  Rather than tell the player to move to the right, Miyamoto and his team provided an unobtrusive hint in the positioning of Mario.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first published article I could find along this vein revolved around another of Miyamoto’s games.  Creative Lead of Incubator Games Radek Koncewicz beautifully dissects the level design of Super Mario Bros. 3, World 1, on his blog here.  If you’ve never considered or scrutinized level design before, and even if you have, this is a fantastic analysis—an eye-opening look into the world of proper design (in fact, stop reading and check that out now!).

    He writes:

    The game doesn’t have any forced hand-holding, and it isn’t afraid of the player simply exploring it at his own pace (even if it means circumventing chunks of the experience). This approach also serves to encourage multiple replays, and — back during SMB 3′s initial release — it probably sparked many playground discussions.

    I don’t need to go over all his insights (I encourage you to do that), but I will point out that 99% of the time when a new mechanic is introduced or a secret is to be had, the design of the level hints or encourages the player to discover it without consciously thinking.  It’s truly transcendent in design, and certainly not something seen too often today.

    I’ll provide the first example here:

    As with the original Super Mario Bros., the “?” Blocks are encountered as soon as the game begins. Since they utilize a fairly universal symbol for a question, they inherently invite the player to investigate.

    In addition to being positioned over Mario’s head, a slowly approaching Goomba encourages the player to jump up and discover that hitting the blocks from below can yield rewards (in this case, some Coins and a Super Mushroom).

    It’s the combination of the symbol used for the block, the Goomba, and the placement of the two (possibly even the rounded shape of the enemy) which encourages the player to hit the block from below while avoiding (or landing atop) the Goomba.  In this instance, an unknowing player will have been hinted to move right (Mario is positioned in the same position as he was in the previous example), and they will have been taught how to interact with the question mark block and this enemy type, all without intrusion, without the player consciously thinking too hard, and all in the matter of about three or four seconds.

    It’s a bit more eloquent than tool tips, pop-ups, and tutorials.  The one point I took issue with was 19, though Koncewicz makes a case and I’d add that by nature of the non-flammable enemy design and the thrill of flinging fireballs together intrigue and foreshadow future use and experimentation.

    With each example Koncewicz offers, the player is shown how to play through delicately guided design.  He admits that the player retains free will to make choices against the grain—potentially missing chunks of the experience—but doing so requires the player to consciously think against the design of the game, which itself is so carefully constructed along a certain logical flow.

    Super Mario Bros. 3 illustrates this show-don’t-tell philosophy quintessentially.  Features and functionality are revealed to the player much more naturally and unobtrusively than any tutorial or pop-up could.  The player is not led through the game by the hand—explained everything and repeatedly removed or distracted—but is allowed to interact with Mario and just play.

    And with show-don’t-tell design, playing is the only tutorial a player will ever need.

    Author:

    Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia

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    Scope, Sequels, and Assassin’s Creed

    January 6th, 2011

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    When I was at Full Sail University, among the most frequent forewarnings given by the game dev faculty pertained specifically to Final Project.  This capstone assignment—and critical differentiator to other game development schools—puts one or more graduate students in charge of a group of undergraduate art and development students to produce a full game in five months.  Now, Final Project is far from a well-oiled machine, but the school does crank out a couple or three decent student works every month, of which mine was one in November of 2010.

    I cannot speak to the Game Art or Game Development programs, but the first seven months of the master’s in Game Design is almost entirely in preparation for Final Project.  Leadership courses, production courses, project management courses—though the degree is labeled Game Design it is more accurately a production degree, tailoring students to fulfill the role of associate producer upon graduation.

    It was my Project Management Principles professor who told me the greatest risk a project manager will face is people.  Post-Final Project, I can agree with him whole-heartedly.  From pain-in-the-asses to slackers and Negative Nancy’s, inevitably a couple bad eggs will negatively affect—if not poison—a collaborative project.  And it is never any fun dealing with these kinds of people as a manager.

    But among the most common nuggets of advice from students ahead of me as well as the faculty themselves—and that which I contend to be the second most significant risk in game development—is scope.  Identifying the scope of the project—in reference to the three key factors of quality, time, and cost—and building a concept comfortably around the contours of these limitations, is not easy. It’s not easy for guys more experienced than me, but in Final Project, it’s damn near impossible.

    To avoid crunch and ensure a painless process, the immediate inclination is to build a simplified yet polished game; say, aim for a one that can be completed in a month and spend the rest of the time liberally applying polish while squashing bugs.  But the school is there – as is my guess the publisher is too in the real world – to push you to do more with less.  This is what separates the boys from the men, and the folks in the industry and those without jobs.

    In retrospect to Final Project, I can comfortably say I battled with scope about as much as I did with people, but even in the real world with real AAA games, I repeatedly see scope as an issue.  It could be a publisher pushing too hard, it could be poor developer estimates, and it could be that definitive games industry over-zealousness to do more better that ultimately detracts from the first title of a new franchise.  But you see it in many new AAA franchises, especially when a popular new one launches a sequel.

    Case in point: Assassin’s Creed.  A franchise sitting on the backlog until a couple months ago, I played through the first game immediately followed by the second; will be starting Brotherhood shortly.  Now, without launching into a full-fledged review of either game, I’ll say this: Assassin’s Creed was a good game.  It was held back from greatness due to problems regarding scope.  Anyone and everyone agrees that the first entry in this series was repetitive.  Three sprawling cities, each divided into three unlockable districts with—literally—the exact same tasks repeated without deviation.

    Outside of the repetitiveness, it’s not as easy to point out the multitude of shortcomings in Assassin’s Creed until you sit it next to its sequel.  Assassin’s Creed 2 improves over the first game in this franchise in virtually every way imaginable.  The core mechanics of climbing, running, and fighting are comparatively silky-smooth, the graphical difference is striking at worst, animations are fluid, the structure and presentation is more appreciable, and even the character development and story is improved.

    If any of this seems questionable I urge you to try playing the first game again; after the second (and I’m guessing it’s safe to say after Brotherhood as well), it is rendered nigh unplayable.  Where the first game in a new franchise like this is burdened with building the game from the ground up, whether it’s a borrowed engine or a developer’s own, the sequel gives the developer the opportunity to build upon the existing framework, reducing the upfront technical and creative workload.  The tech is there, though it may not be optimized, and the concept is there, though it may not be polished.  A sequel in this case represents the opportunity to bring the predecessor’s quality up to where it should be while adding a handful of innovations to not only create a polished experience, but a new one as well.  This being the case, why can’t the first game in a franchise scale back a bit in scope such that the level of polish may be increased, producing a better product?

    The core, unskippable gameplay in Assassin’s Creed is as follows: the player must assassinate an important person, but first they must enter the district of the city in which the person lives.  Next, the player travels to the city contact for forgettable backstory. Then the player must find and enter a minimum of two to three subquests which are an amalgam of the following: pickpocket an NPC with a bit of stealth, interrogate an NPC through fisticuffs, eavesdrop on a scripted NPC conversation by sitting on a bench near them, or subtly killing a few targets under a time limit so an informant NPC can feel comfortable giving you information.  The player can then activate the district’s assassination quest by returning to the city contact, then travel to the assassination target, watch a scripted event, kill the target, and escape back to the contact.

    It seems to me at some point during production of Assassin’s Creed—when the core gameplay formula was revealed and about to be duplicated no less than eight times without variation, that somebody should have scratched their head.  Should the developer take the experience in one district of one city and duplicate it repeatedly without variation, linked loosely by a story nobody cares about and… 420 collectibles?! This is in addition to finding and killing 60 Templar, finding and scaling 91 High Points, and finding and killing  a throng of guards harassing a civilian 108 times in addition to all those collectibles.  Yikes.

    The scope of Assassin’s Creed should have been slashed, distilling the entirety of the game to one sprawling city and polishing it to the extent of Assassin’s Creed 2.  The game should have been released at a lesser price, with less associated development time and less cost, all to the benefit of the game and the people who made and funded the project.  It is a tough decision, and it is a drastic decision, but it is also the right decision for all parties—including the publisher.  This is a decision a producer needs to make; it is a decision I had to make when I dutifully monitored the second biggest risk in the development of my team’s game in Final Project.

    When a decision is made in respect to quality, time, cost or scope, the other factors are affected.  Does a studio and publisher want to be remembered as those responsible for making the product the best it can be (Blizzard, Nintendo), or does one want to let quality suffer so scope can remain at a twenty-hour, sixty dollar adventure (everybody else)?

    This industry, including its publishers, needs to break out of the tired stereotype that the biggest commercial games must weigh in at a certain length and come with a certain pricetag.  We need not be afraid of tighter, compelling gameplay experiences; Hell, if Assassin’s Creed was slashed in scope, polished, and released digitally, it could have made a run for downloadable of the year!

    Releasing a game too soon is no good for all parties involved, both immediately and long-term.  Though delays can be a pain, there is no lack of content out there to keep players satisfied, and although frustrated, players will in the long run appreciate the initiative for quality.  There is always a sequel and always more money to be made, but only if quality is high enough; when a game comes out of the cooker too soon, a potentially lucrative franchise can be cut down before it even has a chance.

    Author:

    Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia

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    Motorstorm: Pacific Rift (PS3)

    December 31st, 2010

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    At its core Pacific Rift is—literally—an outrageous celebration of off-road racing. Any notion of etiquette is cast cliff-side so a rebellious, over-caffeinated youth can clash motorcycles with monster trucks along the same mountainous ravine. Finally. Known only as “The Festival,” the single-player campaign is presented as a demonstrably real experience, yet with an arcade flair. Superbly polished visuals eschew an otherwise superior sense of realism: for example, heavy-footing the heads-up boost gauge will blast one’s vehicle to oblivion. It all comes together to reflect this over-the-top and recklessly care-free mentality quintessentially—but hey, at least they’ve got helmets.

    Arriving in throngs by air and sea, festival hippie-gearheads and their souped-up rides make a paradise beach their home, and an exotic island their bitch. Mixing and matching eight vehicle types ranging from light-and-quick to heavy-and-slow, seventeen stunning tracks emblazoned across a whole swath of geographical extremes, and enough branching paths and shortcuts to satisfy the most Ritalen-deprived A.D.D.’ers, Pacific Rift’s strongest suit is the variety. For any genre—particularly a racer—this is a very good thing.

    It is due to the variety of vehicles, the relationships between said vehicles, and the variety and design of the many labyrinthine tracks that few races feel exactly alike. Each vehicle behaves differently and provides a unique racing experience. The camera sits low behind the sprightly motorcycle; the controls are tight, responsive, and the game feels predominantly knee-jerk. On the other end of the eight-car spectrum, the Big Rig bludgeons heavily through competitors and environs indiscriminately. The camera is positioned high to allow an unobstructed view over their massive frames, producing a comparatively slowed, cerebral experience.

    Additionally, the hierarchical relationships between vehicles directly affect the racing experience, and remarkably the subgenre changes in the process. It’s not terribly bright to throw one’s weight around in a Motorcycle, and it’s never good to tango with a Big Rig unless you’re also steamrolling six fat tires and a deisel V8. Amongst scads of bikes, Pacific Rift feels like a fist-throwing Road Rash or even ESPN Extreme Games racing-brawler. Sprinkle in ATV’s and stick to the jumps of higher routes and the experience evolves to duplicate the jaw-dropping vaults of Pure, breathtaking vistas very much included. Replace the fragility of ATV’s and bikes with a grid of Buggies, Rally Cars, Racing Trucks, and Mudpluggers, and suddenly, a la Dirt, you’re side-swiping, fish-tailing, and otherwise butting heads for the gold. Meanwhile, a fleet of Big Rigs replaces split-second reactions with labored blows of momentum and the sensation of an infinitely more enjoyable Big Mutha Truckers. Nowhere before has the vehicular variety in one game provided so many different styles of racing within one package.

    Lastly, stellar level design complements the variety in vehicles and play styles. Seemingly massive, branching tracks are open to interpretation for the fastest lines, though most are tailored for specific vehicles. Terrain architecture, jumps, and all manner of road debris are roadblocks for some, hindrances for others, and yet utterly benign to the rest. What may well be a shortcut for vehicle A is a deterrent for vehicle B; thus, the fastest route between two points is not necessarily a straight line. Presented with liberal applications of polish and Pacific Rift isn’t only among the most robust racing experiences on the market today, but also among the prettiest.
    Though it is the variety that sets Pacific Rift apart, one of the game’s strengths also contributes to its weaknesses. Decidedly
    overwhelming before appreciable, the level design is at first remarkably disorienting. Too many tracks thrown at the player at once, too many paths, and too few indications of where and when to turn all contribute to repeated early failure. Enormous, branching, and criss-crossing paths make getting turned around too easy, transplanting exhilarating racing into baffled frustration and head-scratching “I just completed a lap?” gameplay. Were tracks released at a slower clip, this might very well have been remedied, but regardless, the lack of adequately placed signage turns the first few races on any new track into a crash-by-crash progression of memorization.

    Additionally, many of the shortcut routes are well shrouded when they needn’t be. The SSX franchise has always communicated alternate paths to the player via vertical glass panes emblazoned with the game’s logo. While not highlighting every alternative path in the SSX games, it nevertheless encouraged and rewarded exploration, alertness, and fast reflexes: intrinsically motivating the behaviors fundamental to a fly-by-your-pants racer. When discovering shortcuts in Pacific Rift comes more often from barreling through a poorly navigated turn than from a keen eye and dexterous reaction, this becomes something from which Pacific Rift may have benefitted.

    But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Controller-flinging AI design and tough controls both clamor to bring this game down.

    Painfully typical to most all racing games, and truly uninspired, is the rubberbanding AI. No matter how far ahead you are, how tremendous your skills are or how flawless your performance, the AI will catch up 90% of the time. Additionally, they are ruthless, and only against the player. As if crashing every five seconds from tough controls and hugely ambiguous indications of where the road is going isn’t already too much, fall behind enough and bear witness to the proverbial Macy’s Day Parade of opponents neatly and peaceably traveling in a tight caravan ahead. Catch up to contest this well-behaved line of vehicles and the hornets’ nest explodes to engulf the player in a side-swiping feeding frenzy, and sometimes an AI opponent will thrown itself over a cliff if it might take the player down as well.

    Further, in at least three campaign races I was convinced the boost button effectively controlled the difficulty of the AI. At a point when I could flawlessly navigate the fastest routes with each vehicle and do so while liberally applying boost and while avoiding collisions, I faced insurmountably fast and aggressive opponents. After repeatedly failing despite committing no errors in judgment or execution—and with tumultuous frustration—I slowly became savvy to the fact that omitting the use of boost resulted in slower and more manageable opponents. Whether it was the rubberbanding AI or some other quirk in their design, liberally applying boost and racing well made them undeniably faster and more aggressive. Several dozen attempts later after grokking the game, I learned to optimize my strategy: I intentionally avoided going too fast—in a racing game—and I won.

    This sort of mastery comes only after investing the time, and only after slogging through an insufferable amount of crashes, and when vehicles crash and explode in a million pieces like they do in Pacific Rift, it is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because it can look amazing, as it does in this game, but it is bad because crashing will probably play a significant role in each and every race. Quickly, the joy associated with the novelty of fully destructible vehicles is replaced by frustrated awareness of the delay to get back into the game. Add to this the infuriatingly always-on-your-heels AI, and each and every crash could mean game over.

    Compound these issues with tough-to-learn controls and a soundtrack memorable only for its noise and Pacific Rift rigidly entrenches itself as a game for the seasoned racer, veteran gamer, and to folks tolerable of terrible music. The game looks great, and eventually feels great, but ultimately it is a steep learning curve that will determine whether players will like or dislike this title. It is far from perfect, most notably illustrated with the subpar AI design, but all things considered, I am able to look past its imperfections to see the game fondly enough to give it another go. Pacific Rift is most definitely not for newbies or anyone that frustrates easily, but for those that stick it out, it is a brilliantly polished and varied racing experience and a must-buy.

    Author:

    Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia

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    Intrinsically Motivating Multiplayer

    December 27th, 2010

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    With EA’s recent announcement against dedicated single-player games, I’ve arrived at a bit of an impasse.  I just don’t much care for multiplayer.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love my Starcrafts, Modern Warfares, and Mario Karts, and have played plenty of each, but gone are the days of Halo LAN parties and Super Smash Brossleepovers.  Too often now I just don’t feel up to the Sisyphean task of mastering a new RTS, racer, or flavor-of-the-week multiplayer shooter.  It’s just that games are too long already, with plenty of content readily available both physically and digitally.  I could pursue that commendation in Reach or level an avatar in RDR that isn’t John Marston, or I could just try something new.  The motivation to spend time in multiplayer is so often extrinsic to the single-player experience: I am more often motivated to just start a new game.

    I’m reminded of a fantastic talk at TED by career analyst Dan Pink where he presents the power of intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic ones:

    “It’s an approach built much more around…the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they are part of something important.”

    He compares this to extrinsic motivation, or carrot-and-stick motivational models.  These he urges with evidentiary support are effective only when the solution to a problem is within sight.  For many of today’s problems, however, where the solution is more often in the periphery, carrot-and-stick motivational models do not encourage solution finding, but in actuality impede the problem-solving process.  This is as important to the workplace as it is to game design.

    I beseech you to argue otherwise: in the competitive multiplayer that is FPS, is defeating an opponent a narrowly defined, solution-in-sight process?  Or does it require first the development of skills, dexterity, and wherewithal to effectively thin-slice an encounter, strategize around a situation, an opponent, and their own impetus to win, and effectually exercise one’s own skill set to arrive at the proper solution (and an opponent’s defeat)?  Giving the player the extrinsic Achievement, commendation, and win, or lack of these things, no tangible progress forward, and a loss, is not effective in encouraging further play in either single or multiplayer modes to the non-competitive gamer.  Any newbie to an online franchise shooter will attest to this.  It becomes far easier to move onto something new than it is to tough it out and sharpen one’s skills.  There is no active encouragement, no intrinsic motivation to spend congruous time in both modes; there is only the individual’s desire to get better, and whether they are willing to grind along that pursuit.

    This is where a game like Borderlandstruly shines.  Part of the uncommon hybrid that is the role-playing shooter, the folks at Gearbox tied the single and multiplayer experiences of this game into one cohesive package.  The single player campaign is successful at creating a compelling experience of shooting, looting, leveling, and custom-tailoring one’s avatar through a traditional quest-based progression structure.  However, the same single player campaign is playable with up to three buddies, thankfully with drop-in-drop-out functionality.  With friends and a team, the enemies and loot are scaled in toughness and rarity, respectively, encouraging social play: better loot comes with more players, but so does tougher baddies, fostering both collaboration and camaraderie.  If one player falls back a few levels from their friends, they are motivated intrinsically to play on their own to catch-up (or hide in a corner online and let the higher-leveled guys do the shooting).  This game is built in such a way that it is intrinsically motivating to play one, play the other, and play both modes.

    This is in stark juxtaposition to most modern shooters where the multiplayer is wholly extrinsic to the single player experience.  The sole carry-over between the two is the player’s developed skill set from one mode to the other.  The single player experience in Uncharted 2 or Red Dead Redemptionis a disparately robust experience from the perhaps less robust multiplayer experiences of these games.   Each title carries two distinct games, where play in one is little related to play in the other.  It’s a great way to expand replay value, and nigh critical for shooters, but why is developed skill the only carry-over?

    If an industry juggernaut like EA thinks multiplayer is critical to the success of modern games, a real opportunity is present for developers to link these disparate experiences so the motivation to leave the franchise and try something new is less than the motivation to carry over progress from one mode to the other.  The John Marston developed in single player ought to be the same John Marston the player can bring along online; the same goes for the various and sundry outcomes of the Mass Effect experience were multiplayer added in part 3.

    Instead, the multiplayer in RDR is completely divorced from the single player experience.  The same can be said for just about every shooter out there.  Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, you name it.  When it comes to shooters and action-adventure games, it is unmistakable: if the two modes are to be so divorced, why not package them separately?  Alongside limited edition packaging, sell the single-player campaign for $20, release the multiplayer for $40, and the two together for the cost of a game now.

    I’m worried when I hear announcements like this for fear of spending so much money on the sameness of sequels: on Halo 5, Uncharted 7, and Activision’s plans for Call of Duty 38.  I am worried of spending so much money on what is ultimately eight hours of single player and a few extra hours online.  It seems to me the dirty word in the industry that is “sequel” wouldn’t taste nearly as bittersweet if it didn’t always carry a required $60 price tag.

    Author:

    Joshua is a graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia

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    iWhat? How Windows 7 Phones Change The Game

    December 20th, 2010

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    When I signed my first cell phone contract ten years ago, I was an overly excited newbie.  I was quick to overlook spotty service and crappy phones for the novelty of the thing.  Features like custom ringtones, camera functionality, internet connectivity, crude gaming applications—even an “easy tip calculator”—impressed me with their utility and fusion.  Text messaging became a legitimate, even preferred, communications pillar beside email, instant messaging, and speech.  I was connected to the grid in a way I never was before, and became addicted to the immediacy and independence with which these things came.

    By the time I activated this ancient flip-phone, I had already shoveled several hundred hours of my life into Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow.  I was just breaking the habit of lugging that old GameBoy Color (and additional Pokemon carts) everywhere, seemingly replacing a narrow-purposed device with a more utilitarian one.  Still, I thought to myself, it would be nice to have a phone that could play games like this.

    Yet I define that first phone now as I did when I originally signed the dotted line: by its limitations.

    It could take crappy pictures, surf doggypaddle the web, and calculate a 20% tip for those who couldn’t round and double the first digit of a check.  It could do all these things for near $100 a month.  But for games it was particularly lacking.  A tiny screen, questionable controls (Intellivision anyone?), lack of third-party support, and multiple poorly designed carrier-specific marketplaces were all at fault.  I was taken by a vexing desire to combine mobile phones with a legitimate portable gaming device for my precious front-pocket real-estate.  I dreamt of the day when my music, but more so my games, would follow me around as my phone did, all in one glorious device.

    Then the iPhone seemed to be it, but it wasn’t supported by my carrier.

    The way I saw the situation, I had two options.  Either pay $100 per month for a great phone and gaming device with terrible service, or pay the same amount for a crappy phone without great games but with good service.  Did I want to subscribe to a gaming device that makes calls, or a phone that can play games (crude, unsatisfactory ones, I might add)?  I decided to lug around the old DS for my gaming fix and stick with a phone that could make—and retain—phonecalls.

    It is important to know that at this point, I had been through several phones and multiple carriers.  That naïve excitement for what used to be a novelty had long since worn off.  At this point, I had the gall to expect both a good phone and good service.  The next logical step was obvious, albeit painstaking.  I resolved that phones for each and every carrier were destined to get better; service, on the other hand, I couldn’t justify as readily as something that would improve likewise.  I chose the better carrier and a less-than-ideal phone.

    I watched the indie game scene explode on the iPhone while I waited, and waited, for this stellar device to get picked up by my stellar network.  Teased by rumors and hearsay for months, I continued shoveling $100 into the pockets of the better carrier monthly, always wincing for spending so much on something that, due to its limitations, required I also lug around a dedicated gaming device (and iPod too) as well.  Still, I could more easily justify the expense for a reliable mobile communicator (and of course that indispensible tip calculator) than I could for games.

    When the Xbox LIVE enabled Windows 7 phones were rumored, I was ecstatic.  These devices took advantage of Microsoft’s pre-existing—and superior—online games marketplace (to which the only real competitor is Steam).  These devices could bridge the gap between my home console and my portable gaming, carrying over my avatar, Achievements, and bulk of the transcendent Xbox LIVE experience to the palm of my hand.  Additionally, the user interface seemed as or more attractive and intuitive than the iPhone’s, and the resolution and functionality on at least one Windows 7 device seemed to align itself directly in opposition to Apple’s landmark phone.  Girlish enthusiasm surged.  My inner geek nerdgasmed.  I can’t wait to pick this guy up!

    But the other carrier(s) got this one too.

    I had had enough.  No longer did I care about reliable service that could make calls in the boonies or could hold onto a call throughout a spotty connection.  No longer did I care that all my friends and family were part of the better network.  Finally, after all this wishful thinking and hoping, I found a deal, cut my contract, and bailed for the crappy carrier (also, as it were, to the recently announced worst customer service in the business).

    I’ve been with my Windows 7 phone now for nearly a month, and I couldn’t be happier.  In fact, with this device I am convinced that among the options for gamers wanting a phone currently, there are only two: the Apple-based wrong choice and the Microsoft-based right choice.  I’ll tell you why.

    As mentioned earlier, I defined those earliest phones very much by their limitations.  I don’t need to further explain them.  But similarly, dedicated portable gaming devices like the GameBoy and DS do one thing and do it well, they’re just limited in their scope; it becomes silly to sling around an armful of single-purpose electronics to communicate, listen to music, organize oneself, play games (and of course calculate tips), etc.  The iPhone, despite the camera, perfected touch screen, Apple usability finesse, and the mighty iTunes app store (and not to mention the musical superiority), doesn’t offer games for the console gamer.  It is a purveyor of applications, sure, but the experience is not streamlined for games, nor do they offer the buffet of AAA home console titles in my living room.

    The Xbox 360 is the best current-gen gaming platform.  But even if you disagree with me, we can agree on this: with it comes the superior home console LIVE experience. The Windows 7 phones neatly trim XBLA and put it in your hand.  Suddenly, whether you like it or not, your portable gaming is an extension of your home console gaming: you use the same avatar, you collect the same Achievements, and you maintain the same friends list.  No buddy codes, no Trophies, no additional log-in’s, usernames, passwords, or avatars.  One.  Cohesive.  Package.

    Of course, the carrier could be better, but it can and does make phonecalls.  Emailing, web browsing, and texting is all streamlined much as Apple has done it, and all looks remarkably and wonderfully consistent across Windows 7 devices.  True, Android phones are both on the right carrier and are very much gaining ground, but they lack the sexy unified look of the iPhone and Windows 7 devices in addition to these phones’ superior online marketplaces.

    The Windows 7 phone changes everything.  It, like the iPhone, settles for a less-than-ideal touch screen interface but similarly, makes the most out of it: touch commands and transitions are as fluid as Apple’s device, if not a little more satisfactory.  Functionality-wise and usability-wise, Windows 7 phones are as good or better than the iPhone, yet they are more focused around a dedicated, streamlined, and perfected gaming service to which most gamers are already connected.

    And Achievement mining has never been as fun or convenient.

    If you still want an iDevice, please do get the iPad: its larger screen is more conducive to games anyway (I don’t think it has a tip calculator though).  But for three simple reasons Windows 7 phones stand out:  they are iPhone clones, they’ve got Xbox LIVE connectivity, and of course, they’ve got Achievements.

    Author:

    Joshua is a recent graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter – @huftopia

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    The Right Length

    December 10th, 2010

    Written by Joshua Hufton

    Recently, two articles rekindled a diehard peeve of mine about this industry.  Simply put, video games are just too damn long.

    Randy Smith of next-gen.biz beautifully illustrates in his article here:

    I reach the point of satisfaction two or three hours in where I think fondly of the game, have had a good time exploring the mechanic, and feel done. But the game disagrees with me, pointing out that I’ve only seen a fifth of the cutscenes, four of the power-ups and just a couple of levels. I believe I’ve had a graceful arc with a satisfying point of closure, but the game argues that I’m just at the beginning. We have to part ways disagreeably, the fondness diminished, akin to a break up. The box haunts my shelves, like it would be awkward to play again in the future.

    It all sounds frustratingly familiar to me.  How about the questionable second act of Read Dead Redemption?  Or the Final act slowdown—not to mention the final boss—of Bioshock?  Or perhaps the most notorious: the unnecessarily elongated 30 introductory hours for Final Fantasy XIII to “get good”?

    Tae Kim of gamepro.com agrees.  He writes here with the same thesis, though Kim presses the urgency for

    …more tightly paced games that come in, say what they need to say, and then have the grace to know when to walk off the stage.

    This I find to be a particularly poignant concept: a “fluff”-less experience.  How many times have you felt frazzled when things seemed to be winding down only to be buried with more content?  It is astonishing how quickly entertainment becomes a chore.  Another, “one-more” dungeon, another “this is it” hub world, or even the tacked-on “bonuses” in the form of needless challenges are more trials of patience, completionism, and Achievement mining than they are compelling entertainment.

    As I’ve gotten older and acknowledged the increasing demands on my precious-short day, I’ve watched my backlog grow while my free time diminishes.  I’ve come to ferociously defend my hour or two to play each day with an almost religious zeal—I’ve even wished in jest to become hospitalized just enough to enable an uninterrupted gaming binge to catch up.

    There just isn’t enough time.

    When I examine the shining obelisk of unopened games bearing down on me, I do not so much feel elation to play as I do dread that I’ll never quite catch up.  It seems I must resign to a handful of hours for each to taste the mechanics—to grasp the look-and-feel and sense of things enough to add to my knowledge base, formulate an opinion, and move on.  Games these days to me seem less about complete, compelling experiences, and more about hitting that eight-to-twelve-hour “sweet spot.”

    It seems the days of 100% completions are behind me; gone are the days of pouring several hours each day into one title and moving on only when each has been fully grokked.

    But there is a greater risk here than the Grinch-like chip on my shoulder.

    If I might hop on the old soap box for a moment, I’d like to refer us all to the great games-as-art debate (I know, I know, bear with me).  If this industry is ever going to get the respect it deserves—as a purveyor of content to mature, cognizant adults, much less as high art—games must be more accessible.

    I am not talking about learning curve or difficulty level here.  I’m talking about making games shorter.  What “games-are-toys” Luddite is going to sit through Bioshock, much less a sixty to eighty hour RPG like Eternal Sonata or Final Fantasy XII?  If Joe Schmoe wants to contest Kandinksy as art, he at the very least can nay-say following a three-minute observation of Transverse Line.  Those who aren’t gamers, yet form opinions about them, do not have this luxury.  Instead, they are left to comment on a youtube clip, or a synopsis on Wikipedia—and that’s if they are that motivated before liberally dolling out opinion.

    Kandinsky's "Traverse Line"

    If a film is hailed with greatness—games’ most appropriate cousin—one can at the very least watch it within a three-hour sitting before formulating opinion.  There is a very good reason why the vast majority of films released settle comfortably around the two or three hour demarcation.

    It is therefore my suggestion that to push the medium forward—to push games and their discussion from blogs and dorm rooms to dining room tables and tavern trivia night categories alongside movies, sports, and history—games must be more accessible.  At the current rate, a cognizant toddler could not devote enough time in their life to play everything that should be experienced, much less someone older wanting to educate themselves with the best this industry has to offer.

    There is hope at the end of the tunnel, however, for folks likeminded as me.  The accessibility of XBLA, WiiWare, PSN, and Steam have enabled the explosion of the indie game scene, and the shorter and tighter gameplay experiences that come with them.  A platformer of the year contender, Limbo, is the epitome of not only highly accessible games, but those that stand out for brilliant simplicity.

    Limbo is a game (frankly, a masterpiece, but I won’t push that agenda here) in which four hours does more than most other shooters, RPGs, and action-adventures do in three to six times that amount.  Critically, if you haven’t yet checked it out, it is a game that doesn’t require the investment gaming in general requires.  Don’t have plans on a Friday night?  Boot up this game for the cost of a movie ticket, and be fully engaged in a rapturous, deviously clever, and astonishingly simple adventure.

    And finish it in four hours or less.

    I don’t need to explain the game to you, and this is exactly why it makes such an excellent example.  Give it one sit-down and come back and talk to me about it yourself.  It is the quintessence of what good game development needs to be if this industry is ever going to break tired stereotypes and become the respected and acknowledged art form we gamers have always known it to be.


    More info about Joshua:

    Joshua is a recent graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

    Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

    Follow Joshua on Twitter@huftopia


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