Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Way of Marketing

There's a saying among video game marketing departments that any publicity is good publicity.  While this is true to some degree I have to ask...If you can choose between positive buzz and negative attention wouldn't you take the former and not the latter?  After all isn't it the real objective of marketing to get people interested in their game?

Case in point the Halo franchise.  It's interesting to think that while the big budget Halo movie planned by Microsoft and the guys behind the Lord of the Rings films never came to fruition (mostly due to greed and stupidity) we've gotten some interesting little flicks and video clips over the years that give us a taste of what a live action Halo film would look like.  Here's a collection of some of what has come out over the years:


So, while these snippets of what could have been tell a interesting little story we have never really had a chance to get a longer glance.  Enter a new short film entitled "Forward unto Dawn." I'm actually rather looking forward to this despite not being much of a Halo fan. It might turn out to be crap, but hey it's free and meant to be a prequel to the next game in the series so my expectations aren't all that high. What really makes me happy about all this though is the fact that a large amount of money, somewhere between 5-10 million dollars, went into making of it.

Personally, I think that this is a much better way to spend an advertising budget than simply burning it on over sized web banners, thirty second TV ads and other obnoxious schemes that companies like EA are famous for coming up with. Speaking of EA and the Dead Space series...promoting the first game with a multi-part motion comic was great. Promoting the second game because it offends your parents (and old people) was incredibly lame. Kudos to 343 Studios for doing it the right way. And incedentally Anna Popplewell is still smoking hot. Yes, that is irrefutable fact.  Conversation over.      

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Tale of Two RPGs

For the record I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons (from here on abbreviated as "DnD") since first edition and to tell the truth I'm sorely tempted to write about the video game history of it, but to be frank the story would be rather long and mostly depressing. So instead I want to focus on the future of the brand.  Particularly with regards to how the paper and pencil game relates to the video screen and controller.

Soon the current fourth edition of this tabletop RPG will be abandoned in favor of a new version. The sad truth of the matter is though I don't think anticipation could be much lower. More often than not the reactions to 5th edition DnD are along the lines of "Do I have to buy new books again?" or "Version 'X' provides everything I need" or even simply "Why?" Sadly, I'm inclined to agree with all these sentiments. The simple reality of the situation is traditional tabletop gaming has become a very niche hobby (only slightly less so than model railroads). That's not necessary a bad thing, but it is my personal belief that there is a chance to remake the pastime by hybridization.

No different than breeds of animals. If a blood line becomes to weak you combine it with another to create something stronger. So what I'm I getting at here? about making a hybrid of what we think of as DnD and a tactical CRPG? Just in case you don't know that acronym it stands for Computer or Console Role-Playing Game. We've already seen this a bit with online session of DnD being played over chat programs like Skype in combination with character creators, dice rollers and battle map programs. The problem is a lot of different programs are being lumped together here to get the desired effect. So, it's a bit of a Frankenstein monster which doesn't alleviate a lot of the bookkeeping and preparation work typically associated with DnD. What I recommend is a program designed to encompass all aspects of the DnD system into a single piece of software. Dungeon construction could be greatly simplified with the aid of tile sets, random generation algorithms and other map making tools.  Populating locations with monster and traps could be made very easy provided the software has templates similar to what we see in 4e monster manuals.

One of the biggest challenges with tabletop RPGs these days is getting a group together. Doing that online though could be considerably easier. Online functionality in particular would benefit immensely from the inclusion of matchmaking boards, private voice chat rooms and other networking features. Think about the possibilities for NPC interaction, character portraits, canned animations and dialogue could all be handed in real time by the DM. No need for computer controlled AI either. All players control their own characters while the DM handles NPCs and monsters. Bookkeeping could also be snap with some basic organization tools as well as some aids to keep track of status effects from spells, magic items, terrain and other modifiers. Even combat could be greatly streamlined with some pop-up windows that show the potential outcome of moves or attacks. I could go on but if you've ever played DnD at a table with friends then I think you get some idea of how useful a lot of this stuff could be. If not then think of the most interactive version of Final Fantasy: Tactics you've ever played and you got small taste of what this hybrid could produce.

Of course none of this is likely to happen. The brand owners, Wizards of the Coast, are notorious for poor online support. They seem to be stuck in a rut when it comes to internet functionality. If any of them happen to read this blog post, they'll probably think that this is going to destroy their book sales. And you know what? I bet it would, but in return they'd gain a much larger audience, one that could receive support and updates far faster and easier than the clumsy downloadable errata PDF and reprint system that they currently employ. Yes, there is financial risk. And yes some new territory will have to be charted from a programming perspective, but that will add to the game's appeal. As far as I'm concerned edition wars have already burned DnD down to ashes. All we need now is the Phoenix.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

 Video games, more so than other forms of entertainment media, tend to take place in outlandish places with wholly fictional characters and creatures.  While this is part of the appeal it can also be a weakness.  At the start of any given fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk alternate reality what do you do to bring the players into the universe?  Well, there are some obvious techniques such as a text crawl, introductory cut-scene or expository narration.  All of which have become a bit tedious.  So, what other options are there?  In media res works, but it can be very difficult to pull off if the setting is complex.  Another way offering less risk with regards to an audience disconnect is the main character transporting from our world to a realm far removed from our own.  Several prominent titles that make use of this plot device are Half-Life, The Dig and Mario Brothers.  However, there is one game that really stands out as the pinnacle of this trope, Another World (also known as Out of this World).

This game is the product of one mind, Eric Chahi and it shows.  The singular vision of the designer is pervasive in a way that is rarely seen in this modern age of 100+ member design teams.  It's also incredibly hard.  You can literally start the game and die within seconds provided you don't react to what's happening on screen.  Actually, chances are you'll die many times in the opening area even if you do try to react to what is happening.  A lion-creature, poison-fanged slugs and some kind of underwater horror with long black tentacles are all out to kill you.  Even if you manage to avoid falling prey to all those threats your poor character still gets knocked out by a blast from a energy rifle.

 All this brings us to an interesting question.  Where the hell is this? Our main character was brought here by a particle physics experiment gone wrong, but looking at the two nearby orbital bodies in the sky this definitely isn't Earth.  The city where all but the first level takes place appears to be nestled in a claw shaped basin.  What kind of geological event could have created such a place?  Vaguely Persian looking towers aside could this entire place be an artificial construct?  The terrain surrounding the city looks very mountainous an inhospitable.  How do the inhabitants of this place get the basic supplies they need to survive?  There doesn't seem to be any agriculture or even plants.  In fact volcanic rock seems to be the only thing in abundance in this place.

And what of the pale humanoid aliens that live here?  Their culture conjures up images of Imperial Rome with it's single piece garments, slave labor, bloody gladiatorial games and opulent bath houses.  Incidentally, this picture to the right is the first thing we see when entering the final level and also gives us a glimpse of the only females present in the entire game.  Considering a swift kick to the groin is quite painful to one of the guards I guess we can assume certain parts of their anatomy is similar, if not identical to our own.  At the very least they have eyes, ears, mouth and a very flat nose.  Language barriers in the game prevent the player from learning much from his "buddy" who aids him throughout the game.  In fact the main character makes no attempt to communicate with anyone after a failed hand gesture of peace at the conclusion of the first level.

Technology is equally baffling.  The guards encountered throughout the game use energy pistols which vaporize all the skin off a living target once shot.  Worse yet the skeletal remains burst into fragments moments later even if left undisturbed.  A secondary function of the weapon is the ability to create a temporary protective force field by partially charging a gunshot.  Although a kind of rolling light-bomb weapon used by certain guards seems to be able to circumvent this.  There's also a tank with several kinds of weapons and countermeasures along with a rather impressive ejection system.  The alien race as a whole though seems too barbaric to have created all this.  Was it made before they fell into a state of harsh decline or were all these devices (which are far in advance of what we can make on Earth) in fact created by someone/something else? 

Lastly, we have some brief encounters with systems of transportation.  At the very least it appears that the aliens employ some kind of fast elevator device which can be quite deadly if not used correctly.  That said the final escape takes place on the back of a huge lizard with translucent wings.  If there is some kind of symbolism here it is lost on me.  Although the clouds (which are previously only seem in the first level ) seem to imply a sense of freedom or escape.  Then again they may only be serving as beginning and ending bookmarks for the story.  Even the main character's fate is never revealed.  A sequel entitled Heart of the Alien was made exclusively for the 3DO but since the original creator took no part in the design process it is difficult to say whether or not it can be consider canonical.

One thing is certain though.  Another World is a masterpiece of design.  An incredible amount of detail is left for the player to notice, analyze and extrapolate from, but none of it feels intrusive or forced.  The fact that I've written a huge post on this game is proof of this and what an obsessed freak I am.  Additionally, the game has been ported to fifteen different platforms over a period of 21 years!  If that isn't proof of a classic I don't know what is.  At the very least I hope to see more video game creativity of this caliber in my lifetime.  So, designers take note you could learn a lot from a trip to Another World.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Even More Old School Box Art

I think the guy who painted this needs to just say no to drugs


That's what happens if you stare at her bust for too long

That guy has really got to work on his firing stance

A hardcore version of Angry Birds Space?

"Asteroid dead ahead laddie!"  

"Your going down Will Robinson!"

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Friends of Merit

There are a lot of games that give us allies.  Unfortunately most of these in game helpers are useless or worse  yet actively hamper the player's progress.  I can distinctly remember my wing men in Star Wars: X-Wing being especially incompetent with even "ace" NPC pilots completely unable to take out a single TIE Fighter.  So, for this blog post I'm going to mention a couple noteworthy friends in gaming.  Keeping with the format of my previous post (Foes of Merit) I'm going to mention three in particular - the unfamiliar, the familiar and the esoteric.

Captain Elson

If you've played the PC title Homeword from beginning to end you know this guy really saves your bacon.  He's a defector and a commander of the elite guard destroyer "Kapella" - which of course is jet black.  For me the thing that makes this guy stand out is the fact that you never see him face to face, nor do you ever learn his first name.  He might as well be the vessel he's supposedly inside...and you know what?  It works.  I totally empathized with the character despite the fact that he is personified in the form of an ebony fish looking star ship.

Solarie of Astora

Often times referred to as "Sunbro" this knight has become something of a iconic symbol for co-operative play in Dark Souls.  Although it is possible to fight against him, players who don't will reap huge benefits should they chose to seek his aid in several difficult boss fights.  Supposedly, the lore of the setting also subtly implies that Solarie is actually an younger relative of the last boss.  Summoning him for the last battle makes for an interesting case of kinslaying and regicide via player assistance.  It's true that in the above video he is defeated, but you must bear in mind that he abstains from using magic equipment and instead prefers to rely on his innate abilities (yes, that includes the divine gift of being able to throw lightening bolts).


Over two decades ago there was a rather simple RPG known as Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate.  If you recognize the title chances are your thinking of the 2004 version which is actually the fourth entry in the series and has virtually nothing to do with the previous three.  Anyway...a common feature of the games is random encounters.  On rare occasions though you can recruit a monster rather than fight it.  The third iteration in the series also features a rather unusual kind of beast called a "Nefest."  What is a Nefast?  I have no idea, but based on portrait it looks something like a pudgy light blue hairless grizzly bear.  Supposedly the word means "wicked" as well.  Regardless, getting one of these guys on your team can be a huge help since they can dish out and take quite a bit of damage.  I was fortunate to add one to my party early into my first play through giving my group of adventures some much needed punch as well as a team mascot.  So, based on the simple fact that I remember this particular kind of creature after all these years must mean it truly is a friend of merit.