Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eye Candy

Additional artwork can be found here.  Now feast your eyes on this:
This is what Wii-U games should look like 

I would have much rather seen this over Metroid: Other M

I would love to see a 2.5D top down Zelda

Rise from your grave!

Do a scissors roll!

Hypothetical Dreamcast III graphics

Castle of Illusion on next gen hardware

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Devil is in the Details

These are strange times we live in.  With regards to sales video games are down overall, but there are some very interesting trends occurring.  Namely, the social gaming scene is seeing a shift away from casual titles to gateway core games.  When I first heard this news I rejected it out of hand.  However it appears to be true to some degree.  FarmVille and it's spawn are down and titles such as Trials Evolution,  Minecraft (Xbox version) and The Walking Dead are all selling like crazy.  Normally I would be ecstatic about this demographic shift except I think there's something else going on here too.  Triple AAA publishers such as the makers of Kingdoms of Amalur are struggling to keep afloat.  I think that some of the hardcore crowd are migrating to more mid-core titles.  The real question to ask though is why?

As you might guess by looking at the title and attached image for this post, it has a lot to do with recent game industry business practices.  Big developers are still turning out fun to play games, but such games more often than not have a lot of determents and barriers to entry.  Looking to recent releases we have the highly anticipated Diablo 3, a game that is a blast to play provided you have a constant internet connection and the Blizzard run servers are working properly.  Couple that with the planed in-game real money for virtual gear store and you have a micro-transaction cash cow for the IP holder, but a kick in the nuts to people who plunked down $60 on a game that is also capitalizing on the free-to-play model.

I'll skip the whole "DRM that punishes paying customers is unacceptable" line that I've been preaching since this blog's inception and move onto an upcoming title, Dragon's Dogma.  Capcom has an extremely expensive to develop open world fantasy RPG on their hands here which they seem to be determined to hamstring before it even gets out the gate.  Disk Locked Content (the other DLC) again?  Do they not realize hackers will crack that stuff in a week or two tops?  Not to mention the one character per account limitation is antithetical to the entire game concept.  Employee abuse accusations aside stuff like this only accomplishes one thing - a reduction in sales and a damaging of the corporate brand.  More importantly it undermines the hard work that writers, coders, artists, and animators put into each and every single one of these franchises.

So why is this happening?  It doesn't benefit gamers.  It doesn't benefit the developers.  It doesn't even benefit the major publishers in the long run since statistics are showing that they're discouraging more and more customers.  It's a toxic industry wide situation  created because inept, Mammon worshiping executives decide to screw with those vital details and it needs to be stopped.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Episodic Content

Having a custom battle standard  is one way to hook players 
There's a lot that could be said about this system of distribution.  Let's start by looking back on a few of the games that tried it in the recent past.  Probably the first pair of examples that comes to mind is Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 and 2.  The third and final of which has been lost in Xen for a long time.  Similarly Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness had an episode 1 and 2 with only three months of separation between them.  Meanwhile episode 3 still under development four years later.  Several noteworthy franchises were aborted as well such as Sin Episodes.  Then there are episodic games in name only such as Siren: Blood Curse.  In truth the only company that has an established track record for making the system work as intended is Telltale Games.

So where does this leave us?  Kind of in a strange place really.  In interviews with the developers of the planned episodic title The Banner Saga it was suggested that games using this system of distribution need to emulate the TV mini-series format more closely.   In other words the key to making a successful episodic game lies in the the story.  In order to get players coming back for more you need to tell a saga with a mature tone.  I should stop and clarify that by "mature" I don't mean lots of nudity and swearing (although there's nothing wrong with that).  What I mean is having characters in situations that are more than just some teenage power fantasy.  You need the audience to care, relate and identify on a personal level.  Without that connection the sales on each consecutive episode are guaranteed to plummet dramatically.

"So, these kind of video games need to be more like TV" sounds strange, right?  What's even more odd is the whole concept of distributing a game in chunks starts to become confusing when you consider mandatory update patches, DLC and service/subscription based gaming.  At what point does one become the other?  The line is so blurry at times it's difficult to tell.  Regardless, a lot of different systems are being experimented with by various publishers and consumers.  What will the long term results be?  I don't know, but I sincerely hope gaming continues to be a fun and affordable hobby.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


 Are video games art?  To answer that question you must first define what "art" means.  Normally this results in pages and pages of message board posts consisting of squabbling about semantics and bickering over the minute details of various hyperbolic examples.  The simple truth is if someone calls something "art" it is art.  However, that doesn't mean it has any value or worth.  To determine those things we need to consider craft, in other words the skill of the creator.

I've never held the modern art movement with high regard because it's the kind of thing anyone could make.  Throw a couple different paint splats on a canvas and you can call yourself an artist.  Does that mean you are on par with Rembrandt or Picasso?  Of course not.  Those artist had incredible talent and were absolute masters of the craft in their day.  The same holds true for video games.  I'd argue that video gaming had it's first great artist as far back as 1980 with David Theurur and his land mark title Missile Command.  I wont go into detail about this particular game though.  The guys over at Extra Credits have an excellent video about it which you can watch here if you want to know more.

Now such an old title might not look like much to the modern viewer, but that in itself is an important point to consider.  Art must be criticized in the context of the time in which it was created otherwise people would simply disregard cave wall paintings as nothing more than ancient graffiti.  Again the same holds true for video games.  Spacewar! might not look like much now but it was state of the art when it was created back in 1962.  This brings us to another important point.  As the progress of video game development marches ever on we gain in some ways and loose in others.  Usually the gains far outweigh the losses, but I think that there has been a recent trend in the industry where the losses are the very things we care most about, while the gains feel very minuscule by comparison.

Speaking as someone who has being playing games since the second console generation, I can remember the time when making money was simple a means to an end (i.e. I need cash so I can make great games).  Rather than the more modern trend set by publishers of I make great games so I can sit on a solid gold toilet and wipe my ass with $100 bills.  I think when people refer to the "golden age of gaming" they're really talking about the time before that transition became apparent.  Hopefully the rise of kickstarters will revive the artistic talents of gaming.  But until the fruits of that labor are harvested it's anyone's guess as to weather or not the the future of the craft will see improvement or decline.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Construction Sets

There is something to be said for games which let you customize your experience.  For most titles this rarely goes farther than an arena style battle or a generic scenario with some tweaks available to the player.  However, a few game like to take this concept a bit further by letting the player craft their own adventures with the game mechanics acting as a basic framework.  Little Big Planet and Trails Evolution are probably the most famous of these kinds of make-it-yourself games, but if we look back before this generation of consoles there are a few gems to be found.  Some of them easy to use such as the Pinball Construction Set, some hard to use like the RPG Maker series, and some that simple never quite worked the way they were supposed to - Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games.  For the purposes of this blog post I want go over four construction sets that came out a long time ago...

Although its interface and graphics set are very crude by modern standards Adventure Construction Set was one of the first great game creation tools available to consumers.  It had three basic themes; fantasy, future, and modern.  Lazy designers could also use an auto-builder feature that could then be edited by the player so that they didn't have to make everything from scratch.  A pre-made adventure based on the Epic of Gilgamesh set in ancient Mesopotamia was also provided, as well as some tutorials to give the would-be-designer an idea of how things worked.  The box it came in was also unique in that it was very thin and folded out to reveal sleeve pockets for the instruction manual, data disks and reference sheets.

The Bard's Tale, The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight and Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate were a series of simple RPGs using a game engine based on the  Dungeons and Dragons table top system.  Essentially the fourth and final entry in the series (no, that 2004 title doesn't count) basically gave a polished version of the developer's tools to the fans, allowing them to make their own Bard's Tale themed levels.  Some noteworthy features included the option to create and import animated or static art from Deluxe Paint as well as the ability to fully customize monsters, items and spells.  Even the in game combat text could tailored depending on a number of variables.  Of course the developers were also kind enough to include a sample adventure for people who just wanted to slay monsters and steal treasure.

 While not nearly as robust as the previously mentioned construction kits, Tenchu 2: Birth of the stealth Assassins deserves to be mentioned simply because it was on the original PlayStation.  3D stealth action games were in vogue at the time so it's not hard to see why the makers of Tenchu would include this feature to one up the competition.  Mission building is surprisingly painless and offers a fairly impressive number of options including trap placement, differing objectives and patrol patterns for enemies.  Thanks to its intuitive nature though turning out something worth playing can be done in a surprisingly short amount of time.

The Ancient Art of War followed by two sequels with the same title plus the attached affix "at Sea" and "in the Skies" respectively were impressive in the amount of customization one could do without even messing with the map editor.  I've always had a great deal of fondness for this series simply because it got me interested in real history.  The games themselves came in rather hefty boxes with tome-like manuals which featured quite a bit of real history in addition to explaining how the games were played.  Some of the most fun I had making adventures was with this series.  The fact that the basic systems are so well grounded makes for a compelling reason to create historical "what if...?" scenarios after playing through the robust list of real and fictional battles provided with each game.  I especially liked the fact that a good commander could force his opponent to surrender without having to turn the battle into a complete bloodbath by depriving the enemy of supplies or capturing his flag.

So, there are just a few of the games that I've played that made a lasting impression on me with their create-your-story design features.  There's a lot more that I haven't mentioned like Starcraft and Heroes of Might and Magic 2.  Needless to say with the popularity of the internet these days it's odd that we don't see more games including construction sets.  Oh well at the very least the PC mod community is doing its very best to scratch that creative itch.