Friday, November 30, 2012

2012 Year in Games

Another year has come and gone, so that means it's time for this blog's annual game of the year awards.  True to tradition the categories aren't your standard best by genre or platform.  Rather, I'm continuing to use the same unique list I created here.  You can also see last year's award winners here.  Now on with the proceedings!

Avantgarde Award Winner:
Proof that design and gameplay trump graphics and marketing, this little indie gem represents far more than an evolutionary step of the roguelike genre.  If anything, this title serves as concrete proof that Kickstarter projects can be a valid and economically feasible method of game development.  Light speed ahead to every developer who is following in this games footsteps.

Backlash Award Winner:
Where to begin?  The Retake Mass Effect Movement?  EA being rated worst company in America?  Red, blue and green cupcakes?  Needless to say Bioware has always had a mildly toxic fan base even before tings boiled over.  The final sequence was patched eventually, but it still took a ton of flack for not allowing players to circumvent the Des Ex Machina at the end.    

Brutality Award Winner:
This top down shooter plays like a psychedelically fulled fever dream, complete with sudden explosive acts of violence and mayhem. It only takes a split second to kill or be killed in this game. Personally, I recommend taking a deep breath and enjoying the tunes because your going to need some serious determination to finish this one.

Canvas Award Winner:
While it doesn't quite have the rainbow pallet this award originally supposed to highlight, the use of color to covey moods and emotions goes well beyond the the craft found in most triple-A titles. Kudos to That Game Company for making something in which every second of every image onscreen is worthy of a picture frame.  Truly, if any game could be called a work of art it would be this one.

Ecology Award Winner:
When you consider this first entry in this series was basically Rogue with a major graphics upgrade, it's hard to justify two more sequels with only minor improvements to the fundamental gameplay.  For what it's worth Blizzard polished this one to a fine sheen, but unlike the first category winner, there is little here that doesn't scream "been there, done that."

"Engrish" Award Winner:
This series has had a long history of questionable use of the English language.  However, Capcom has upped their game by going from poorly delivered, cheesy one liners to creative word spelling on their box covers.  Didn't anyone think to use a spell checker before they began printing labels by the thousands?  Also, is it just me or does "Revelaitons" sound like a type of B.O.W.?

Esoteric Award Winner:
This rather bizarre semi-3D side scrolling platformer takes a turn for the mind bending after the first playthrough   Puzzles requiring an understanding of Morse code to solve are just the tip of the iceberg.  The outspoken developer of this low budget title spent nearly five years working on the game.  It is an intense labor of love that virtually no one could hope to unravel without the help of the internet.

Lemon Award Winner:
Konami has been in a long downward slide for awhile now, but they really dropped the ball on this one.  You know their handling of the Silent Hill franchise has reached new lows when they are retroactively screwing up the better games in the series with shoddy bug ridden remakes.  Tangentially, since when does the second and third titles in a series constitute a collection?  If anything it was the PS1 original that need the graphical update.

Testosterone Award Winner:
I think the image alone explains why this game won this particular award category.  But for the sake of consistency I'll say this; Successfully finishing the quick time events from even just the first chapter will make you feel like you just got back from a roid rage induced weight lifting binge at your local gym.  Yes, that includes sweat and sore muscles.   

Underdog Award Winner:
World War 2 themed shooters suffered from such a deluge last console generation that even now many gamers are reluctant to return to the time period.  It's a pity in this case because I believe feelings of over saturation have caused this unique experience to end up largely ignored.  Timing, traps and trick shots are the tools of the trade.  I should also mention that this game requires zen-like patience as well as lightning reflexes.

Well, that's my picks for 2012.  If you don't agree with them no need to get upset.  The true purpose of this ceremony is to touch on games that might have been lost in the shuffle.  Hope you enjoyed reminiscing with me.  Until next year!

Friday, November 23, 2012

"D" for Destiny

Hey!  I got five aces!!
You are the chosen one. You have a prototype suit of power armor. You are gifted with super-human abilities. Divine or mundane, games are very fond of these classic wish fulfillment scenarios. From a gameplay standpoint I can see why, but as of late I think it's rapidly becoming an overused theme. Dragon's Dogma, Dishonored and Assassin's Creed 3 are just a few recent titles I can name off the top of my head that make heavy use of this storytelling device. Not a problem for me except that this cliche has begun to infest IPs it has no business being in.

I liked Issac Clark a lot better before he became the James Bond of space engineers. I also preferred it when there was some in game justification for rebounding life bars. It made sense for Halo because your character had a rechargeable energy shield. But in the Killzone sequels? Or any military FPS really, it seems that your character is just assumed to be Wolverine without the retractable claws. More oddly still, nobody in the game seems to ever notice your character's unique ability to sponge up bullets. "It's not fun to play unless your a total badass!" is probably the must common counter point, but I have to ask; Is it really?

If you ever played poker (digitally) you might notice that good cards aren't dealt to ever round. That's not a bug, it's a feature. If you got good cards all the time it wouldn't require much skill to win. A talented player can win the pot with a crap hand through bluffing. Alternatively, the player can fold and save their chips for the next deal. That's a big part of what makes poker interesting. Sadly, in the video game industry, their is a school of thought that assumes players should be given a royal flush every time.  And in that case I think the "D" is really for Dumb.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Don't Feed the Dog that Bites You

Non-Disclosure Agreements (or NDAs for short) are a common form of contract used in the video game industry today. Originally the purpose of these things was to prevent bug testers from giving out inaccurate, misleading or spoiler filled information about a game still under development. However, in recent years NDAs have been playing a larger and larger role in marketing. I would say it's no big deal except that some of these publisher/journalist deals are allowing unlawful websites to get the scoop.

Compounding this problem is the tendency for there to be a big buildup to launch. Followed by an intense rush of attention which rapidly declines over the next several days. So, why does it matter?   Well...I'm not a fan of most big gaming websites, but I do feel it's generally unfair when respectful outlets are forced to wait on fully covering major releases while at the same time hackers and pirates get free reign over the flow of information.  It's not good for the reviewers and it doesn't do developers any favors either.  Then again maybe PR firms are more interested in keeping the media providers on a tight leash regardless of the actual benefits (or lack there of).

"Control over Reason," has long been the unsung creed of DRM, so it saddens me to see that NDAs are taking up a similar slogan. I think that publishers and marketing departments need to seriously reconsider the strategies they are employing here. What's the point of having these kind of legal agreements when they really only punish the just?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Just Say No to Swag

With the advent of "Dorito-gate" gaming journalism has come under even more scrutiny and criticism than usual. One of the key points being distribution of promotional materials often referred to as "swag." Basically the way it works is some marketing department will send all kinds of stuff to review outlets in order to promote an upcoming game. A recent article on Kotaku paints an interesting picture of this practice and the shear variety of enticements that are offered:

Its been so common for so long that even when the game company has nothing good to send, they'll send something (how else to explain Nintendo once sending me screws and bolts to hype… was it… Custom Robo?). Somewhere beneath my desk is the mini surround sound system Capcom sent with my review copy of Resident Evil 6, the better I could hear the game, I guess. (I will never unbox it and it will be given away quietly, rest assured.) Did I really need to be sent a crazy clock to cover Dishonored? Disney wants to know if I'd like to go to Disneyland to review Epic Mickey 2. EA wanted to know if I'd like to go to Germany to play Need for Speed and, oh yeah, learn to drive a Porsche. Last spring, Ubisoft sent me and other reporters a now-notorious modified American flag to "thank" me for my efforts building awareness of the game. 

The first thought that popped into my head after reading the above paragraph was "Why would anyone in their right mind want to wear a T-shirt with a game or company logo printed across it?" Maybe some tool will think it looks cool, but as far as I can tell swag exists primarily to reduce people to the level of walking advertisements. Usually you get paid to wave signs that are trying to sell something. I guess marketing departments are hoping they can find some suckers to do it for free.

Luckily for me this blog doesn't do enough traffic to draw the attention of...well...anyone. But I consider myself fortunate in that regard since it means I don't have to call up any publishers and ask them to quit sending me useless junk. As for big sites like Kotaku, I suggest doing likewise. I doubt they'll listen to my advice though because they still want to have free press copies of games delivered to their office days (or even weeks) before the release date. Again, in my case I don't really want or need free press copies of games. That might sound crazy, but honestly I have enough money to buy the games I'm interested in. Plus, I'd much rather play the finished (and preferably patched) consumer product rather than a buggy pre-release build.

A little bit to the left please.
Depending on your world view "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" may not be the same as bribery, but as far as I'm concerned that's enough to get tangled up in some company's PR spiderweb.  And once your caught up in those sticky threads called "swag," "exclusives" or "event invitations" then you're never getting back out with your integrity completely intact.  A lot of journalists may not care, but at the very least if they get companies to stop spending money on this kind of stuff, that means more funds for actual game development.  And at the end of the day all everyone really wants is better games, right?  

Friday, November 2, 2012

Searching for New in the Old

I should start this off by saying I'm not very good at chess, but I enjoy it all the same.  I got into playing it in earnest when my grandfather bought me a nice board and pieces as a souvenir.  My first digital experience with the game was Battle Chess and though that might sound like ancient history to you, the reader, the truth is chess has been around for a very long time.  So long in fact there are a mind boggling number of variations.  What surprises me though is that you rarely see anything other than vanilla chess when it comes to video game adaptations.  I imagine the reason is probably tied to difficulties in programming the A.I., but I don't see why that should stop developers from trying.  After all there's a reason why chess has been around for as long as it has.  Wouldn't it be great to capitalize on the game beyond adding some flashy combat animations and introductory tutorials?

Looking at alternatives to the bog standard starting layout we have Horde Chess, Pawns Game and Peasant's Revolt.  Then moving beyond the traditional eight by eight grid of squares we have stuff like Hexagonal, Masonic, Circular or even the Tri-D boards as seen on Star Trek.  As for rule variations there's stuff like Ability Absorption, Kamikaze Pieces, Three-Check and my personal favorite Take-all in which the king has no special rules associated with him and the game doesn't end until all pieces on one side are captured.

Moving on, one of the greatest criticisms of chess is its dry analytic nature.  For some that's the whole point, but I've always enjoyed games more when there are some random elements thrown in.  In the context of chess there's Dice Chess and No Stress Chess, where pieces get to move based on the results of dice and cards respectively.  Then there are also interesting ways to randomize things with Synchronous Chess (in which moves are recorded, shown, then made simultaneously) and Viennese Chess (in which a partitioning screen is used during setup while each player arranges the desired location of their pieces in secret on respective sides of the board).

The number of players can also vary beyond the standard one on one matches normally associated with chess.  Three player or even four players are possible using unconventional board layouts.  Fortress Chess was popular in pre-soviet Russia and has an interesting optional rule in which it is possible to revive a check matted ally.  Meanwhile three player chess games usually have rules in which the first to checkmate another wins, thus discouraging alliances almost entirely.

Lastly, things get really weird when you consider some of the chess derived games out there such as Dragonchess, Jetan, Shogi  or Antichess (a game in which capture moves are mandatory and the winner is the first to loose all their pieces).  Super King, Scottish Chess and Kung-fu chess are just a few of other more crazy versions of this game people have come up with over the years.  The most extreme of these has to be boxing chess, but I'm getting too far off topic.

When video games like Check vs Mate come out I have to wonder why they didn't include more new features than rhythm based combat mechanics.  Especially when nearly three decade old games like Archon: The Light and the Dark took the same basic concept and did a lot more with it.  Chessmaster has been around for nearly as long as the PC, but is often accused of not bringing enough new features to the table to justify new entries in the series.  So, assuming your not National Lapoon and making a joke, chess video games in the future should seriously including some of the features I mentioned above, otherwise what's point of treading over the same old ground yet again?