Why John Walker is wrong about VR
Posted at 02:26 on 22nd June 2015 - permalink

Last week ace opinion-haver John Walker posted an editorial on Rock, Paper, Shotgun outlining why he thinks that VR Is Going To Be An Enormous Flop (in the context of PC gaming).

Walker’s argument isn’t entirely without merit. I think that it’s going to take a long time (2-3 years at least) for VR stand any chance of breaking through to the mainstream. However in that intervening period where it’s still clunky and expensive and substantial applications are thin on the ground, I think that the benefits will be sufficient to keep the major players on the hardware side pushing the tech forward.

We saw this happen with GPUs, smartphones and video streaming. In the year the first iPhone came out (2007), the most popular and critically lauded smartphone in the world was the Nokia N95. Until the iPhone hit its stride (around the time of its third iteration two years later), the state of the art was hopeless, an enthusiast novelty, and the key elements that make smartphones viable (lightweight, small and thin, good displays, accurate touchscreens, real OSes, fast CPUs, etc.) seemed like distant science fiction. Likewise, the advancements in VR we’ve seen so far are just the warm-up lap – once kit is on general sale that shows even a sliver of VR’s promise, progress will accelerate rapidly.

Most of the obstacles that Walker places in the way of VR’s success are pretty flimsy.

VR isn’t like 3D TV or the Kinect. (No invention that you can explain a beneficial use for is like the Kinect.) It’s not a peripheral – it’s a distinct platform and interface paradigm. (With applications far beyond gaming of course.) “3D” isn’t the point. Presence is the point. More versatile (and profoundly more intuitive and accessible – consider how many tech novices have been able to embrace touch screens and gestures) affordances for interation with the environment and other players are the point. The use case for VR isn’t (necessarily) sat on the sofa in the living room with a group of mates. It’s sat in an office chair, surrounded by a rig of relatively expensive and technical equipment… wait a minute, this sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

In fact, the ‘worst case scenario’ that Walker paints is literally what PC games have been for most of their history: an expensive niche appealing to hobbyists that have traditionally made up a fraction of the market reached by other formats. And as such, relatively few big budget games have treated the PC as the lead format.

It’s only this year that PC game sales are predicted to draw level with console, something that nobody would have predicted a few years ago when the conventional wisdom was that the PC was in a death spiral, soon to be completely eclipsed by smart devices. If PC games in general can survive for decades as a minor player, VR probably doesn’t have to take over the world straight away either.

VR headsets are (and so ever will be) heavy and uncomfortable, we’re told. “People don’t want to put things on their heads” is tabled, as it often is, as a universal law that doesn’t need to be backed up with any evidence.

“People don’t want to be reachable by phone wherever they go.” “People don’t want to wear seatbelts.” “Games will never be able to usefully fill a CD-ROM.” “Nobody wants a smartphone without a physical keyboard.” (Thank you Steve Ballmer for that one.) “Run for fun? What the hell kind of fun is that?” All things that sounded reasonable until one day they weren’t true any more – pleas for preserving the status quo dressed up as insights. ‘Common sense’ of the saloon bar kind.

As someone who has worn something over my eyes every day for about twenty years now I’m sceptical of this surety. VR headsets are going to become extremely small and light, Real Soon Now, and the attendant cameras and sensors are going to improve rapidly as well. What they allow users to do is going to change from the current few scattered experiments.

The weirdest part of all of this is that Walker works from the assumption that launching a new platform hasn’t changed much since the 1990s – as if you have to capture the entire games market in one big push, bringing EA and Activision under your thrall, and delivering a discrete killer app (naturally developed at vast expense by a giant multinational corporation) as your marketing spearhead.

Games are now such a broad church that they can support many niches simultaneously. PC gaming alone contains several smaller scenes with little or no overlap, then there are mobile, console, handheld and MMO games. VR already has one ‘killer app’ in the form of Minecraft (or whatever takes its crown in the next few years), and conversions of existing racing, driving, space exploration and non-shooty first person games will give it a good couple of years’ runway before the vocabulary of more ambitious VR-native games starts to be codified. Sony have sold over 22m PS4s without an exclusive killer app – getting to the point where you have a large enough userbase to sustain a platform is not the billion dollar moonshot it used to be, as long as you offer something to someone.

A “flop” to me means something like the Ouya (and the wider microconsole category), where the initial excitement was a mirage. I think the legitimate applications for VR are already being sniffed out, and short of all the major stakeholders independently flubbing their shots, I think the chance of VR becoming another vibrant pocket of the gaming ecosystem, and technologically another part of the furniture (by which I don’t mean a doorstop) are inevitable in the long run.

I don’t think I’ve done too much hand-waving to dismiss the legitimate technical issues with VR that exist today. I think there are other obstacles down the road, such as the potential for fragmentation, the lack of a single entity incentivising software development, or the market being flooded with cheap, low-quality, motion sickness inducing devices that sour public opinion.

I do think (as Walker suggests) that there’s a chance that publishers will hastily tack VR ‘modes’ to conventional PC games for a brief while before mostly stopping, but they’ll stop because we’re not just talking about stereoscopic 3D – games have to be designed specifically to take advantage of VR. But conversely, I don’t think the minimum budget for making interesting and commercially viable VR games is going to be in the $100m+ blockbuster range. I’d be very surprised if Ubisoft didn’t make a load of mid-budget VR native games just as they have for every novel bit of tech that’s come along since the Wii.

Walker seems to be railing against a conception of VR that hasn’t changed since the 1990s. In fact, lots of stuff of his I’ve read recently seems to gravitate towards that time as a golden age. I reckon someone slid the write protect tag on John Walker’s gaming opinions to read-only around 1998. See you in the metaverse gramps!

(Although probably not until ~2018.)


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“She’s Electric”
Posted at 19:33 on 18th June 2015 - permalink

Yet another Marioke song – first performed 17/06/2015, coincidentally on the 15th anniversary of the retail launch of the original Deus Ex. Oasis are terrible obviously, but sometimes a joke is too good to pass up.

“He’s Augmented” – after “She’s Electric” by Oasis

He’s augmented
By Joseph Manderley he was selected
To infiltrate sites undetected
On UNATCO‘s dime

He’s mates with Gunther
As mechanoids go he’s a clunker
And of the vending machine he’s a thumper
Cos it gave him lime

And I want you to know
Got my cells charged up now (charged up now)
But I need more Zyme (Zyme)
And I want you to say
My vision is augmented (is augmented)
But I need more (ahh ahh)
He’s the one codenamed J.C. (ahh ahh)
He’ll take down foes non-lethally (ahh ahh)
Unlock some locks with multitools (ahh ahh)
He is augmented, can I be augmented too? (ahh)

He’s got a brother
They look a lot like one another
You can save him or maybe not bother
Cos you’ll find your choice is free

So thanks, Warren Spector
You did a fine job as project director
If meaningful choices were nectar
You’d be some kind of enormous bee

And I want you to know
Got my cells charged up now (charged up now)
But I need more Zyme (Zyme)
And I want you to say
You favour silent takedowns (silent takedowns)
But I need more… (ahh ahh)
He’s the one codenamed J.C. (ahh ahh)
He likes to crack conspiracies (ahh ahh)
And wander into ladies’ loos (ahh ahh)
He is augmented, can I be augmented too? (ahh)

Can I be augmented too?
Can I be augmented too?
Can I be augmented too?
(Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah!)


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“In Bloom”
Posted at 16:39 on 14th June 2015 - permalink

Another Marioke song – first performed 14/05/2015. A (hopefully obviously?) exaggerated fusillade aimed at games tourists (you know who you are).

“Memes” – after “In Bloom” by Nirvana

Wears a Zelda tee
“Arrow to the knee”
Minecraft Lego set
Bored of zombies yet?

Hey

They’re the ones
Never chipped their PS1s
Never trained a Pokemon
Recognise the Portal Gun
But they only know from memes
Only know from memes when I say

They’re the ones
Never chipped their PS1s
Never trained a Pokemon
Recognise the Portal Gun
That they only know from memes
Only know from memes when I say yeah

Laughing Duck Hunt dog
“Set us up the bomb”
Plush Companion Cube
Speaks of “pwning” “n00bs”

Hey

They’re the ones
Never played SNES ShadowRun
Or imported a Saturn
To play Radiant Silvergun
No they only know the memes
They only know the memes when I say

They’re the ones
Never owned a Magicom
Or played Ridge with a Jogcon
But eBayed a Zapper Gun
‘Cos they saw one in a meme
Saw one in a meme when I say yeah

Hey

They’re the ones
Never chipped their PS1s
Never trained a Pokemon
Recognise the Portal Gun
But they only know from memes
Only know from memes when I say

They’re the ones
Get their news from Polygon
Never played Ganbare Goemon
Or Deadly Premonition
No they only know their memes
only know their memes
only know their memes
only know their memes

from Etsy yeah?


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Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Posted at 23:47 on 14th April 2015 - permalink

How do you follow up a game like Hotline Miami?

Hotline Miami challenged whole chapters of conventional PC game dogma. It was an indie game that didn’t slavishly pay homage to one of the handful of games the developers grew up with. There were no fantasy, sci-fi or military trappings. The player had agency in the world without it being a one-sided power fantasy.

It threw off the yoke of needing to justify player actions in a brittle world fiction, an obsession that has led mainstream game development to ever-narrower fields of subject matter, and ever more absurd incongruity between the extreme, violent and repetitive actions encountered in gameplay and the hokey TV-movie-quality drama of cut-scenes. Dennaton were able to go around knocking the hats off fusty old establishment figures because underneath the brash trappings the game was rock solid.

For the sequel, the element of surprise has been replaced with extremely high player expectations. Instead of picking one answer to the question of how to approach a sequel, it feels like Dennaton have methodically explored as many avenues as they practically could, like a slightly erratic fractal algorithm. Some paths are dead ends. Some loop back on others. Some wind into ever-fussier spirals. The goal this time is not to leave players wanting more, but to exhaust the entire Hotline Miami possibility space so they can move on to fresh pastures. It’s probably no coincidence that so many levels in Wrong Number feature a character somewhere in the background chain-smoking or vomiting.

Hotline Miami 2 is messy. Instead of disorientating the player with lurches of horror and surrealism while following a (mostly) straight story, it instead caroms between some dozen characters. And there are actual characters now – mostly unmasked and provided with lines of dialogue and discernable motivations, and as such the player is often given less scope to put their own interpretation on what they’re shown.

Before I dive any further into dissecting what works and what doesn’t, I should make it clear that I think that Dennaton have made a worthy follow-up to the original here. The best moments are as memorable as (and, crucially, distinct from) anything the first game had to offer. Anyone who enjoyed the original and who is at least curious about how a pairing as imaginative and unorthodox as Dennaton would do next should surely be playing it by default anyway.

I see both Hotline games (like Doom as well as the canon of classic arcade games) as being antagonistic to the idea that enjoyable gameplay actions need any external justification for their existence. (The first game had a creator cameo mocking the player for seeking a pat explanation for the events of the game. It’s pretty on the nose.) The most unsympathetic reviews of Hotline Miami 2 that I’ve seen apparently ignored that message, or assumed that because the world is now more fleshed out (as a result of the developers having considerably more time and money to work on it), telling a deep story is now a relatively higher priority than it was in the first game.

The audience that a large number of narrative-driven PC games pander to – let’s call them “genre fiction fandom” dorks – like everything to be explained, labelled and resolved unambiguously. They love Batman because THEY know his secret identity, even if the villains don’t. You can see how cherished this pedantic mindset is in the sheer level of personal venom that they fire in the direction of things like Lost, that are interested in conjuring compelling characters instead of resolving their mysteries.

If you play Hotline Miami 2 for a story, or expect for whatever message or moral the developers are trying to convey to be delivered via narrative means, you are going to be disappointed. There are people on Reddit swapping theories about the plot and trying to tease hints out of the developers, and that’s fine, but it’s a nice post-game bonus rather than the main attraction.

The ace up Hotline Miami 2’s story-sleeve is the character of Richard, the man in the chicken mask. He appears throughout the story in hallucinations, warning of imminent doom and teasing the characters that they will never see the full picture in spite of their efforts to unpick the motivations behind the ‘mask killings’. Like Death in The Seventh Seal, he indulges the characters but doesn’t let them forget their efforts are futile in the end.

His presence assures that even as the mysteries of the first game (Jacket, Beard and Richter’s backstories, the origins of 50 Blessings, the War) are explained and robbed of their power, there will always be another force at work behind them, unknowable to mortal man. Ridiculously, he manages to do all this on top of having become a PC gaming pop culture icon, subject of innumerable pieces of fan art and cosplay performances. (I’m looking forward to seeing which of London’s many fried chicken joints will be first to appropriate him for their sign.)

It occurred to me that as well as allowing the game to explore lots of different playing styles and moods, the multiple story threads might also be intended to be a sort of Rorschach test, to see which characters elicited feelings of sympathy or revulsion.

Because there are so many characters, and the writing is for the most part merely serviceable rather than nuanced, no single story thread comes to the fore. There is nothing as unsettling as the Richard/Rasmus/Don Juan scenes or Jacket’s hallucinations in the first game. Everything is a little more grounded in reality (or at least, a familiar design language) now.

Evan the writer’s story (in which he crosses paths with Pardo, Richter and the Soldier) probably comes closest to providing a narrative throughline, in trying to unravel the events of the first game. Evan’s levels include the neat gameplay gimmick of favouring non-lethal takedowns (using only melee weapons and unloading picked up guns), although bloodthirsty players can force him to kill. Ultimately Evan’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mysteries get him nowhere.

The Martin Brown (Midnight Animal) thread seems if anything to be commenting on the pointlessness of trying to outdo the shock value of the first game or to retread the ‘hallucination versus reality’ gimmick. Brown is (with the possible exception of Pardo) the only unambiguously unsympathetic character in the game.

Players of the first game may remember the hospital level which tried to illustrate that seemingly small design decisions are critical to the player’s enjoyment. Similarly, Brown’s levels seem to show that by slightly reframing Jacket’s story in the first game it goes from being detached and quasi-noble (a la Drive) to mean-spirited and squalid. I realise that might sound like I’m making excuses for the developers (like saying a bad idea shows they had the “courage to fail”), but it’s what I took away from it. And of course, anyone who plays a Cactus game and baulks at being made to feel uncomfortable hasn’t been paying attention.

The connected stories of the Fans, the Henchman and the Son produce what I found to be the most unsettling scene of the game (the Henchman’s murder) as well as the most mesmeric (fairly obvious if you’ve played it). The game uses fairly clunky emotional manipulation to make the player think about why they sympathise with the Henchman (who, to follow his dreams to get away from the criminal life has committed lots of cold-blooded murder), but less so with the nihilistic but obviously naive Fans.

The implementation of the Swan twins (Alex and Ash – two characters, one armed with a gun and the other a chainsaw, controlled as one) is probably the most technically shonky element of the production, but even with its problems they’re still two of the most enjoyable characters to control. All of these levels are replayable in markedly different ways.

The killer cop Manny Pardo (who was a real guy) seems to have a lot of care and attention put into his arc, as well as one of the longest and most satisfying levels (Dead Ahead – a John Woo-like extended shoot-out/siege). They’ve taken a leaf from Streets of Rage II’s book – multi-section levels where each section usually mixes up the gameplay activity. While Pardo’s ‘fame-seeking killer’ concept is intriguing, as with Brown’s arc it feels a bit too self-contained and secondary.

The Hawaii levels (essentially, a massively over-elaborate explanation of who the bearded guy was that Jacket kept seeing in Hotline 1) are probably the biggest departure visually from the first game (the early screenshots suggested that the game was going to involve much more varied environments than the first, but in the end most levels, including the playable parts of the Hawaii ones, still mostly take place inside fairly standard orthoganal building layouts).

The goal here seems to be to see what changes when the Hotline gameplay is put in a military context. The result is the game looking and feeling a lot more like Jagged Alliance, which is no bad thing, although one can imagine that it would have lessened Hotline Miami’s impact if they’d originally defaulted to such a setting instead of the reality-warping crazed killer schtick.

Rounding out the cast, there are Richter and Jake’s stories, which delve into the lore behind the ’50 Blessings’ terrorist organisation that recruited Jacket and Biker in the first game. Jake is a nailgun-toting patriotic redneck, who wants to drive the invading Russians out of America (this game ruminates at length on the ‘alternate history’ angle hinted at in Hotline 1’s hidden ending), while Richter is an ex-con who just wants to help his sick mother. (Richter is also the character who kills Jacket’s girlfriend in the first game.)

From this carousel of moods, missions and playing styles, the ones that linger most in the memory are those that stray the furthest from the first game: Evan’s reluctant dirty fighting, the Swans’ glorious chainsaw, Beard’s guerrilla tactics, and the Henchman’s low rent Agent 47 act. A lot of the rest blends together, giving the player little reason to note which character they’re currently controlling.

The typical levels in Hotline Miami 2 put more of a focus on formulating a plan to survive in a hostile environment for an extended period, rather than improvising wildly or experimenting with different styles. Battles feel more like cat-and-mouse skirmishes than improvised Jackie Chan brawls. Killing often feels unfair to the enemies. It’s often not a battle of skill and technique, but of who can get the jump on the other guy first, like the world’s most effed-up installment of Spy vs. Spy. Unless the player knows a level inside out, needless risk-taking is punished severely.

There’s much greater reliance on firearms, and on blind firing to catch enemies over open ground or through gaps and windows. Things can get frustrating as guns are very slow and clumsy at close range. The size and length of some floors also puts a lot of temptation on players to exploit the AI to minimise risk, as they get down to the last few enemies. In very many cases it’s possible to alert enemies then back around a corner to ambush them with melee attacks. Even with this cheesy strategy at their disposal, players will still need to be aware of their surroundings and work out their route, when to conserve ammo, and where the weapons are. And of course, the scoring system takes a dim view of overly-squirrely tactics.

Because many levels are now designed for specific characters’ playing styles, this allows for some very tightly designed areas that require the formulation and execution of roughly standard solutions, in a Super Monkey Ball fashion. The difficulty spikes when a player enters a new area and has to start formulating a new strategy from scratch can get quite daunting as the game progresses, and the level of frustration from cheap deaths or fussy movement in tight spaces can be aggravating.

The game’s campaign takes about fifteen hours to play through, and is followed by an optional hard mode (where the levels are inverted, the buildings glimpsed between stages are on fire, and everything seems to be going badly wrong). Very little feels like filler – everything is carefully considered, polished and additive to the whole.

The presentation is (as expected) extremely confident. While it’s true that most of the assets from the first game make an appearance (usually in a slightly embellished form – Richard has teeth now), there is a lot of new content besides. Every scene has tiny animated details to spot – working mechanisms from spinning coatracks to concertina doors, rain and lightning, blood diffusing in water, swaying trees, and lots of extras going about their business.

The game no longer uses the plain vanilla GameMaker engine (instead using a custom engine provided by Abstraction Games), which allows for some lovely post-processing style effects, such as the much loved “VHS tracking” on the pause menu. There is a slight trade-off in as much as the new engine doesn’t feel quite as blisteringly fast and sharp-edged as the overcranked, low-res, palette-frobbing GameMaker, but it’s really only noticeable if you go straight from one game to the other.

When I started writing this, I was going to say that the soundtrack wasn’t quite as good as the first game’s. Now that I’ve spent a few days listening to it on its own, I would revise that statement. Hotline 1’s soundtrack only had around twenty tracks and three or four of those were absolutely massive, so they have of course etched themselves in my memory in the intervening years. Hotline 2’s soundtrack has well over twice as many tracks, so it takes a little bit more digging to discover the insanely amazing ones. (Roller Mobster, Around, and She Swallowed Burning Coals are my current favourites.)

Hotline Miami (either one) is, ultimately, about entering into a specific mood – putting on a mask, operating on adrenaline, caring fixedly about being the only sprite still moving. Letting the music roll and crash as you walk up to the door of a pristine building, the anticipation of unleashing ultimatefuckdeath. Engage, attack, suffer, triumph, emptiness, seek another hit. (The two most extraordinary misreadings I’ve seen written about Hotline Miami are that it’s judging the player, and that it’s appealing to nostalgia.)

Telling a story is not the only way to share human experience. Evoking an atmosphere and provoking emotional or visceral responses have value as means of expression. When I read the handful of sniffy reviews (conspicuously tending to be from writers from a very specific demographic and print mag career background), I have to wonder if mid-30s guys who have to come up with a new way to sound excited about steampunk and zombies every month are really Hotline Miami’s intended audience. Bright colours, pulsing music, grungy visuals and twitch gameplay aren’t keyed to appeal to frightfully nice chaps who thrill to board games and fitness apps. (Alright, I’m laying it on a bit thick, but come on guys, try to approach the work in the spirit it was intended.)

PC Gamer (bravely soldiering on in spite of RPS having superceded it years ago) gave the game a particularly rough ride, harrumphing about supposedly catastrophic bugs that hardly anyone else noticed, and casting around for enough ways it isn’t exactly like the first to be disappointed about. They’re starting to sound more and more like the baby boomer ‘rock press’ of the 1980s who so myopically dismissed hip-hop as an uncreative fad. (I suppose by using tools like GameMaker, Dennaton should be sneered at for not even playing their own instruments?)

Anyway, nobody* cares about PC Gamer. I suspect that posterity will cast Hotline Miami as a series in a favourable light. We need bold, exuberant (slightly broken) hardcore arcade games as much as we need expensively staged epics. Not enough people still care about that branch of craftsmanship, in a market where polished writing (or even a few good catchphrases) can elevate mechanically uninspired games. I really hope that the (soon to be released) level editor is flexible enough for people to make interesting things with. It might provide the little nudge that some unknown talent needs to realise that making games is open to them.

*Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations. Well okay not really.


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Toejam & Earl
Posted at 12:37 on 1st March 2015 - permalink

Some extremely welcome and long-awaited news came last week: Greg Johnson, designer of the original Toejam & Earl games, has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a new game in the series.

You can pledge to the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1578116861/toejam-and-earl-back-in-the-groove

The original Toejam & Earl for the Sega Mega Drive is my favourite game of all time. I’ve never gotten around to writing about it in depth for this site, so this seems like an appropriate time to get some thoughts down.

I first played Toejam & Earl shortly after Christmas in 1991. A friend from school turned up at my door with the cartridge (that he himself had borrowed from another friend) and a second controller stuffed in his jacket pockets. “You HAVE to play this.” We knew absolutely nothing about the game. We watched the three minute long intro (at the time there was a lot of competition between developers to create longer and more elaborate intros) and weren’t much the wiser.

We started playing it, and playing it… soon after buying our own copies and obsessively rooting out its (actually funny) secrets and quips. We had seen, in microcosm, what games would become – social, emergent, witty and unpredictable. It took surprisingly many sessions before we completed it for the first time, as the temptation to experiment (calamitously) with the startling variety of items and enemies in the game was too great. It took longer still before we were sure we’d seen and done everything the game had to offer, by which time we were ready to dive into the sequel.

Toejam & Earl is an action-adventure game for one or two players. It’s a game about exploration and friendship and a satire on culture shock and generational differences. Toejam and Earl are two teenage aliens from the planet Funkotron who crash their spaceship on planet Earth. The object of the game is to explore Earth (represented, in as confusing and alien a way as possible, as a stack of 26 layers of procedurally generated islands floating in space), collecting the ten pieces of the ship and returning home. A secondary goal is to achieve the rank of Funk Lord, which is done by accumulating points that are awarded by opening presents and uncovering tiles of the map.

The main obstacles standing in the way of these goals are hostile earthlings (an assortment of animals, stereotypical suburban American humans, and mythical creatures), environmental hazards (tornadoes, quicksand, falling off the edge of the world, etc.), and bad presents (although almost no present is entirely bad – many have a mix of positive and negative traits that can be put to strategic use by an experienced player). Many of its underlying mechanics will be familiar to people who have played Rogue (which Johnson played obsessively at college) or any of the many more recent ‘rogue-like’ games such as The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky.

Toejam & Earl was released into a 16-bit console scene dominated by arcade conversions and platform games, which would later become dominated by fighting games and hidebound Japanese RPGs. It took a completely different approach to anything else on the market at the time. This was probably because the designer, Greg Johnson, had spent the previous decade working on increasingly elaborate ‘sandbox’ space trading and exploration games. (Random fact: the “Greetings and various apropos felicitations, my name is Toejam…” speech that Johnson cites as being the seed of the idea for the characters and subsequently the game echoes a line from the Pkunk aliens – voiced by Johnson – in the game Star Control II.) This served as a foundation to learn about building solid, replayable designs with lots of interacting parts.

Credit should of course also be given to programmer Mark Voorsanger who was unfazed by the challenges thrown up by Johnson’s design – no Mega Drive game had included sprawling procedurally generated levels and seamless transitions between shared and split-screen viewports before.

Concept art (many examples of which are included in the manual, and are used for the basis of the large pieces of art in the intro – look at Toejam’s hands) was furnished by Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell, with Johnson and Avril Harrison (who between them created the sample images for Deluxe Paint) creating the art in-game. John Baker composed the funky music, making heavy use of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612’s ability to make fairly convincing slap bass sounds.

Most console games at the time (and many since) were built by focusing exclusively on the loop of giving the player a problem to observe, testing their manual dexterity (and perhaps light puzzle solving skills) in executing a solution, and rewarding with a visually thrilling payoff. Toejam & Earl is more interested in creating a dialogue (both mechanical and narrative) between the two players, outside of the screen. (It has been described as being a “two player game with a one player mode”.)

The lines of dialogue that appear above the players’ heads are intended to be read out by the respective players to report on their status in the world. The elevator rides between levels (necessitated by the level creation process taking a few seconds to complete) are used as natural breaks in the gameplay to allow snacking and chatting. There are advantages to the two players sticking together (opened presents effect both players when they’re both on the same screen, and enemies can be dealt with more effectively), as well as to splitting up (more ground can be covered), and there is constant bargaining and strategising over where to go and what items to use.

Another shrewd design decision is the use of the late 80s/early 90s brand of kitschy surrealism (you know the stuff – cows, checkerboards, 1950s nuclear families, Dali references, etc.) to afford lots of leeway to how things that serve a mechanical purpose in the game are represented. (This approach was later adopted successfully by games such as Earthworm Jim and Psychonauts.)

Need to show that a non-player character is benign? Make him an old man in a carrot costume (nobody has ever run away from a carrot in a video game), or a children’s party magician. Need to make the effects of items unknown until they’re used? Make them wrapped presents. What do kids hate of find uncool? Dentists, homework, nerds, parents, um, chickens with mortar cannons(?). What do kids love? Junk food, rap music, new trainers, the very idea of not just being given presents but jacking Santa Claus.

While this methodology may sound like something that would be written on a marketing person’s flipchart before delivering a character like Poochy or Bubsy the Bobcat, in Toejam & Earl it works. The characters aren’t cocky jerks, they’re fallible doofuses trying to be cool, and bickering and joking like old pals do.

This brings us on to a third excellent aspect of its design, and why so many people still love this game 24 years later. It’s imprinted to the core with the personality of its creators, their genuine love and enthusiasm for what they’re making, their optimism about what games can achieve without violence and conflict. In many ways it reflects the values of the early 1990s Californian game development scene of LucasArts, Maxis and their ilk. There’s nothing in the first Toejam & Earl that feels like the result of a committee decision. As such it’s unquestionably the high watermark of Sega of America’s production history.

As a cultural artefact it’s 3 Feet High and Rising in a medium which has spent the following quarter century almost exclusively preoccupied with guns and glamour. The purpose of games is to create memories, and Toejam & Earl reliably and efficiently creates good ones. (It’s widely believed that the original game was one of the most popular rental games of its era – people sought it out, repeatedly, to play in social settings, years before the plastic guitar games.)

People are still playing it. There’s enough demand for the game that it’s currently available on a good spread of digital stores. I try to set aside an evening to play through it again at least once a year. The random level generation really helps in this regard. While I’ve long since wheedled out the last of the game’s secrets (though it was a good few years before I found out you could cheat death when opening a Total Bummer! present by holding down ‘B’ and opening a food present), the randomisation is extreme enough to make each playthrough appreciably different from the last, without ever feeling outright unfair.

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe Toejam & Earl as a ‘cult hit’. It’s just a game that for lots of reasons at the time never made the leap out of the gulf between a flop and a mega-hit. (I’m fairly certain that no game in the franchise has ever broken a million units, but word of mouth kept it selling for months and years after release.)

I do think it’s appropriate to describe it as an artistically important game. There aren’t that many games that feel like they’re wholly indebted to it (although I think it would have greatly emboldened the decisions to greenlight some offbeat games like Earthworm Jim, Zombies Ate My Neighbours, Parappa The Rapper, Psychonauts and Sam & Max), but echoes of its influence can be felt everywhere. The sequels failed to get lightning to strike twice (although Panic on Funkotron has lots of nice ideas of its own and fleshes out the characters and the world – possibly a little too much), but this doesn’t tarnish the inherent credibility of the first.

If you’ve not played Toejam & Earl, I really think you should do so, with a friend if at all possible. Get a version that includes the manual, and read it first. Play it on a TV with joypads. Set aside an evening or two and get a takeaway in. Don’t complain that it’s too slow and you don’t know what’s going on. And if you still don’t get on with it, well, that’s all the more reason to back the Kickstarter, so that there’s a version out there that caters for modern sensibilities.

BACK THE KICKSTARTER


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One Life Left presents Marioke
Posted at 01:47 on 22nd February 2015 - permalink

Video game karaoke (that is to say, karaoke to popular songs with the lyrics wittily rewritten to be about video games) has long been a staple of the One Life Left (Resonance FM’s long-running video game radio show/podcast) Christmas Party.

But evidently once a year wasn’t enough. For the last several months, the One Life Left team have held a regular game karaoke event – dubbed “Marioke” by Simon Parkin – on the third Thursday of every month at Loading (Scenario, Dalston, East London).

Every month new songs are contributed to the repertoire, which now stands at an impressive total of over 160 songs.

One Life Left have helpfully uploaded a couple of the ‘classic’ songs with lyric cues to YouTube, if you want to try them at home:

Pulp – Common People

Lionel Richie – Hello

So far I’ve contributed the following full songs:

Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Spelunky)

Weezer – Undone (The Sweater Song)

The Police – Message In A Bottle (Carmen Sandiego)

Little Mix – DNA (VVVVVV)

Nirvana – In Bloom (May 2015)

Oasis – She’s Electric (Deus Ex) (June 2015)


While I’m quite happy with these and people seem to like them, they’re not a patch on the best contributions (such as m’colleague Jamie’s Ain’t That A Kick In The Head and Charmless Man, and Harjeet and Ste’s astonishing version of Beyonce’s Drunk In Love, which recounts the plot of 2007 competitive gaming documentary The King of Kong).

I plan to keep contributing more songs, assuming any more songs that enough people know AND are prepared to sing at karaoke AND which lend themselves to dumb video game jokes remain untapped at this point.

Marioke continues each month, and will be making its American debut at GDC this year. Do come.


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“Undone (The Sweater Song)”
Posted at 01:42 on - permalink

My most recently contributed Marioke song. The Commodore 64 is not better than the ZX Spectrum.

“Console Rivalry” – after “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by Weezer

In the
Eighties
Schoolkids
Would tease
Classmates
Who played
The wrong
Machine

Commodore – 64 is better
Who likes the – Spectrum anyway

(Break)

Oh no
Consoles
Replaced
Micros
“You can’t
Like both”
And so,
On it goes!

The Sega – Mega Drive is better (whoa oh oh)
Than the SNES – it’s got lots of games (it’s got lots of games)
There’s Gunstar Heroes , Sonic the Hedgehog
Phantasy Star IV , Phantasy Star IV
And Streets of Rage

(Break)

Nintendo – 64 is better (whoa oh oh)
Playstation is – nowhere near as good (nowhere near as good)
We’ve got GoldenEye – and Ocarina
Mario 64, Mario 64
And nothing else

PC gaming is always better
Your consoles are – simply baby toys
It’s good to see you playing them with their horrible framerates
On your PS4, on your PS4
And Xbox One


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“Message In A Bottle (Carmen Sandiego)”
Posted at 01:42 on - permalink

Another Marioke song, co-written with Sara Passmore for the 2014 One Life Left Christmas Party.

“Carmen Sandiego” – after “Message In A Bottle” by The Police

Working for ACME
Detective Agency, oh
Treasures stolen from
Bangkok or Kigali, oh
A VILE henchman
Was witnessed at the scene
Don’t know where she went just know where she has been

I’ll visit every place in the world
I’ll visit every place in the world
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego

At the hotel, said they’d seen someone
But she left on a boat, with a red flag
She was wearing fancy jewellery
Contact Interpol and tell them we’re on track

I’ll visit every place in the world
I’ll visit every place in the world
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego

Chased her from Iceland to Japan to Peru
Everywhere she went she left another clue
The alpaca wall hangings are back in their rightful place
Criminal mastermind huh? I have cracked the case!

I’ll visit every place in the world
I’ll visit every place in the world
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego

Warrant out for your arrest
Warrant out for your arrest
Warrant out for your arrest
Warrant out for your arrest


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“DNA (VVVVVV)”
Posted at 01:42 on - permalink

Another Marioke song. This hasn’t been used as there is already another contribution on file for the base song.

“VVVVVV” – after “DNA” by Little Mix

Does the gravity flip you when you least expect it?
Do you mash at ‘Restart’ as you plunge to your death?
No time rewind
Or quicksave key
Your spiky pits
Keep on killing me
It’s only natural to become dejected
(Oh oh oh)

And I won’t get killed again
I’m not bad at platform games
I know I can make it
With just one more go

VVVVVV
VVVVVV
VVVVVV
Requires far too much dexterity
D-D-Dexterity
What do you want from me?
I steer my little man
And try to make him land
Indie in every way
Hard like all Terry’s games
Nothing more to say
We’re here to play VVVVVV

There’s a spaceship that’s full
Of impending danger
Shiny trinkets
That I’ve been chasing for days
(Yeah hey yeah.)
There’s Violet,
Vitellary,
Vermillion
and Verdigris,
and Victoria
who all need to be saved.
(Oh)

And I won’t get killed again
I’m not bad at platform games
I know I can make it
with just one more go

VVVVVV
VVVVVV
VVVVVV
Requires far too much dexterity
D-D-Dexterity
What do you want from me?
And it’s hard to stay alive
When the floor is made of knives
Indie in every way
Hard like all Terry’s games
Nothing more to say
We’re here to play VVVVVV

Each time the ceiling flips
A swearword leaves my lips
I just can’t do the moves
They do on YouTube clips
It isn’t hard to find
Don’t read between the lines
All you have to type
Is the letter V six times
The greatest gaming test
Some bits will make you stressed
But no-one can explain
Why the elephant’s depressed
If you were to say to me
Veni, Vidi, Veci
I’d know the bit you mean
VVVVVV

(Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Oh woah woah woah woah)

VVVVVV
VVVVVV
VVVVVV
Requires far too much dexterity
D-D-Dexterity
What do you want from me?
And don’t get me started on
That Super Hexagon
Indie in every way
Hard like all Terry’s games
Nothing more to say
We’re here to play VVVVVV


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Low Battery
Posted at 19:55 on 11th March 2014 - permalink

I’ve been tinkering with PuzzleScript on and off for a few months now, but over the last few days I’ve put together a complete game with it, which you can play here (source here).

Play Low Battery

It’s a Sokoban variant (which is what PuzzleScript is best at after all), based around having an ever-depleting stock of moves, which can be replenished by collecting batteries – which also act in the same way as crates (i.e. pushing crates that are pushed at them, and blocking crates from being pushed through them).

I wanted to make a game that got around PuzzleScript’s inability to keep count of integer variables in an inventive way (the energy gauge is physically represented in the world), and that could be played with the restart, undo and action buttons disabled (although of course within minutes of releasing it someone asked for a restart button). Give it a go and let me know what you think!


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The true cost of net censorship
Posted at 19:53 on 20th January 2014 - permalink

As you probably know by now, the UK government is leaning on the major ISPs to implement opt-out internet content filtering. This ill-conceived plan is being driven ahead (after a consultation process presumably akin to the tribunal scene from Aliens) to pander to the tabloid press, who can make almost as much money sowing fear and paranoia about new technology among their readers as they can by using it to publish invasive photos of celebrities.

(Coincidentally, Huawei – the company peddling the government-favoured censorship technology – are investing £1.3bn in the UK. But of course that is completely unrelated.)

Encouraging private companies to filter the internet with no oversight is (obviously) a recipe for disaster. It’s already resulting in legitimate websites being blocked, and filters being abused to further commercial agendas. The longer this shambles is allowed to continue, the more damage will be done to the digital economy (and much else) as a result.

The Open Rights Group are taking the novel (albeit possibly risky) approach of pretending for the sake of argument that there could conceivably be a valid case for the government to be involved in running ISPs, and then allowing the bureaucrats to paint themselves into a corner as they unpack the extensive list of legal, logistical and technical issues that would make such a system unworkable.

While this process will hopefully bring their shabby profit-motivated crusade to an expensive deadlock and force it to be quietly shelved, I hold out little hope for the politicians showing the wisdom or humility to abandon their rhetoric. Britain’s culturally moribund political class simply don’t engage with the internet in any meaningful sense. Terrifyingly, this does not seem to simply be a generational issue – many politicians under the age of 45 brag of a technical illiteracy that would be untenable in most other professions.

If the average politician dimly grasps the internet as a “series of tubes” or “complicated teletext” it’s no wonder they’re going to do extraordinarily stupid things like calling for Google to use their giant brains to delete all the cyber hackers. Matters aren’t helped by lobbyists from commercial interests only too happy to exploit this ignorance.

So censorship is morally reprehensible and most politicians are patsies who think Tron is a documentary. Tell me something I don’t know, I hear you cry.

Well, something that hasn’t really been talked about much is how censorship will impact the creative industries in the UK in the long run.

Even while filtering isn’t implemented by all ISPs and users are given the chance to opt out, we are already dividing the country into two groups: those with access to the internet and those with access to a subset that a downstream party has chosen for them. We’ve all already seen the insanely over-reaching lists of filterable content some of the ISPs are offering, including such categories as games and social networking. The likely (in fact, inevitable) upshot of this is that a proportion of the population will lose access to a whole raft of creative channels.

Many fields of creative activity today benefit from online communities where participants can post their work, seek feedback and gain expertise and inspiration from the work of others. Millions of people who would in the past have been denied the chance to develop their skills outside of a formal academic setting are now able to have rich creative lives thanks to these communities. Here is a very narrow cross-section of the places I’m thinking of:

  • YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch.TV, Vine (performers, directors, musicians, animators, journalists)
  • Newgrounds, Kongregate, TIGsource, TWINE, GameMaker, ModDB (game designers, animators, composers, producers)
  • DeviantArt, Flickr, Instagram (artists, sculptors, cartoonists, photographers, fashion designers)
  • Soundcloud, Bandcamp (musicians, singers, composers, producers)
  • WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter (writers, journalists, comedians, historians, hobbyists)
  • Everything2, Wikipedia, LiveJournal, Wattpad, Amazon (writers, poets, playwrights, screenwriters)
  • Minecraft, Moshi Monsters, Disney Infinity (the majority of British citizens aged 7-13, who will go on to do all the roles above)

This list is far from exhaustive, and focuses on established platforms – it’s surely not representative of where the next generation of creative types are hanging out.

All of the above (and, well, everything else on the web) runs the risk of being heavy-handedly blocked by the ISPs’ filters. A few of them (e.g. YouTube and Wikipedia) have the clout and mainstream recognition to demand whitelisting, but outside of those look increasingly precarious. While this may not be an issue for those of us who pay our own ISP bills, or kids with educated, informed parents, for everyone else it’s a bit of a problem.

What if you’re a teenager with no disposable income or transport, whose well-meaning parents are signed up to a censored ISP at home, and who attend a school with inadequate computing facilities (iPads instead of laptops for example)? Through no fault of your own you are creatively stymied.

Maybe this sounds like it’s not that important. Some of us are too old to have grown up with the internet, and all of us living outside of oppressive regimes have never had to contend with censorship. But jeopardising the main venues for millions of people in the UK to socialise, learn and express themselves is a potentially huge issue.

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass (mandatory censorship of all ISPs), the result will be a generation locked out of global digital culture with the inevitable skills shortage that entails. The UK’s vibrant creative industries aren’t the result of any inherent superiority. It’s very easy to look at the different countries of Europe with creative sectors in varying states of maturity, and to pinpoint where a lack of access to equipment, communication and information has been prevalent at some time in the past.

Thirty years ago the media’s favourite narrative about the games industry was of schoolboys writing computer games in their bedrooms and becoming millionaires. It was a fantasy of course: All of these computer whizz-kids were boys, most of the schools they went to were elite private ones and in a disproportionate number of cases their parents were millionaires already. The vast majority of young people didn’t have computers at home or school – circumstances beat out talent before the race even started.

Since then, we’ve reached a point where literally anyone can now create games (or music, fiction, films, art, etc.), with little or no money or equipment, and (if they’re willing to put the time and effort in) find an appreciative audience and perhaps even commercial reward. We are all creators now.

I once had a job acquiring content for a web games portal (“A&R” in music industry parlance). I was constantly surprised at the average age of the most talented developers. There were kids making a living selling Flash games who were still in high school, and they came from every corner of the world. They didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to do this. What talents are we going to lose by making these opportunities that bit harder to access?

I’ve not even touched on the lost revenue and chilling effects that arbitrary censorship will cause for online retailers, or how this will affect small developers’ ability to self-publish.

Censorship needlessly, pointlessly turns the clock back for everyone. Let’s not let it happen here.

How you can possibly help:

1. Write to your MP.

2. Write to creative industry trade bodies to encourage them to enshrine an open internet as a basic necessity for the UK to remain competitive and democratic.

3. Punish the offending ISPs. At the first hint of creeping censorship take your business elsewhere. There’s now vast amounts of evidence that filters are fundamentally flawed, and if they’re commercially detrimental as well the ISPs will push back. At present, Sky, BT and TalkTalk (as I understand it the original architects of this cynical project) are on the losing side, while most of the others either haven’t been forced by the government to comply or are actively fighting against it, e.g.: http://www.aa.net.uk/kb-broadband-realinternet.html

4. Join/donate to the EFF and/or the ORG.

You can find much more in the way of information and resources on the Open Rights Group site. Assuming it’s not blocked for you.


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One Life Left Karaoke: “Get Lucky (Spelunky)”
Posted at 19:47 on - permalink

As performed at the One Life Left 2013 Christmas party. In my defence this was written last Summer before Get Lucky got played to death and became Boring Geoff Keighley’s favourite song. Enjoy.

Spelunky” – after “Get Lucky” as performed by Daft Punk

(Verse 1.)

This game is unforgiving
Go back to the beginning
Try not to drop off screen in- (uh-huh)
-to where piranhas are swimming (this time)

(Chorus A.)

We’ve / come too far
To get shot / by a dart
And let’s / try to not
Enrage the / shopkeep-er!

(Chorus B.)

She’s up all night for good runs
I’m up all night to loot some
She just picked up the shotgun
I’m up all night to Spelunky

We’re up all night for good runs
We’ve just used up all our bombs
Those tiki traps are no fun
We’re up all night to Spelunky

We’re up all night to Spelunky ( x 4 )

(Verse 2.)

This temple is forbidden
The entrance is hidden
What’s this cold chill I’m feeling?
Oh flip the ghost has risen (aa-ah!)

(Repeat Chorus A., B., B., B.)

(Instrumental break)

(Repeat Chorus A.)

(Chorus C.)

She’s up all night for good runs
I’m up all night to loot some
She just picked up the shotgun
I’m up all night to Spelunky

We almost got through World 1
Then we got killed by scorpions
We’re not uploading this one
We’re up all night to Spelunky

We’re up all night to Spelunky ( x 16 )


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Doom is 20
Posted at 22:18 on 10th December 2013 - permalink

Doom is a game that has left commentators struggling to come to terms with its impact for the last two decades. Retrospectives of the game first started appearing fifteen years ago. These days only a total plum would fail to recognise it as one of the landmark achievements of 1990s popular culture. Terminator 2, Nirvana, Jurassic Park, Simpsons, Wayne’s World, Twin Peaks, Pogs, Doom.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the people who played Doom and got immersed in its culture at the time. To this day, there is an unspoken bond of shared experience between acolytes of Doom (and the rest of id’s peak run through Quake and Quake II). It’s the gaming equivalent of Woodstock. Those who only came to it later, dabbling in ported versions, missed a huge amount of the experience, which went way beyond the code and pixels stuffed onto those four 3.5″ disks.

It’s still very easy to tell which camp most games journalists (who were old enough) fall into. PC Zone ‘got’ Doom, awarding it 96% and dubbing it the best arcade game and best multiplayer game up to that point. A large part of the UK games press (from PC Gamer and EDGE to parts of Eurogamer and RPS) have never quite managed to discuss the game without tongue wandering to cheek, initially through a nagging snobbery that this sort of thing wasn’t what PCs were for, and later as part of the miserable, superficial, cripplingly self-conscious trend that everything we loved as teenagers should be reassessed as valueless rot, only to be enjoyed ironically.

I was 13 when Doom came out, so of course my tastes were already finely developed and aspects of them not having budged for over half my life isn’t weird at all. Shut up.

In the UK, in 1993, PC gaming was a niche within a niche. Normal people only got turned on to Doom in serious numbers later in the decade, after Doom II game out at retail, PC World boomed and ‘multimedia’ PCs that could run games effortlessly became desirable consumer goods. (Doom, running full-screen and quicksilver-smooth as it’s commonly remembered, required at least a 486-DX2/66mhz with a VESA local bus graphics card, which would have cost around £2,000 in 1993.)

It was post-1995 that the idea of Doom being about “hordes of enemies”, which was to become a meal ticket for the developers of the Painkiller and Serious Sam games, caught on. The original Doom only very gingerly pushes at the capabilities of Carmack’s miraculous engine, as it still had to support almost unimaginably crude machines*.

Far from everyone in 1993 had access to a PC, but almost everyone who did had access to one played Doom. I remember teachers, lecturers, pop stars and comedians, and everyone in my social sphere, male and female, from young kids to teens and parents playing it at one point or other. The number of PCs may have limited it from reaching the masses in way phenomena like Mario, Tetris and Pokemon did, but the fact that at one point it was installed on more machines than Windows 95 suggests that it was culturally pervasive.

For the amusement and enlightenment of the most of you who didn’t waste their early teenage years in this way, here are some aspects of the contemporary Doom experience that are (for better or worse) largely forgotten today:

1. Doom ran in MS-DOS, in VGA, at 320×200, on CRT monitors. This means the pixels weren’t square. Virtually every subsequent reproduction of the Doom art, from source ports to website decoration to fancy coffee table books, has been at slightly the wrong aspect ratio.

2. Most people back then had FM synthesis-based sound cards. (Creative’s Sound Blaster family being the dominant standard.) Robert Prince’s music sounds very different (and considerably more evil) with spiky FM guitars than the parping Hammond organ-like sound of wavetable synth interpretations. (I think you can now emulate this difference in DOSBox if you’re curious.)

3. The disconcertingly in-your-face menu sound effects make sense if you play the game using a mechanical keyboard, whumping the cursor keys with the base of the middle finger, or swiping the ESC key like a bottlecap with the thumb.

4. id Software didn’t officially release modding tools for the game. Most of the tools were reverse engineered by hobbyists. (id’s actual tools were all for insanely expensive $10,000+ NeXT workstations. Again emphasising just how puny PC hardware was at the time, even game development required specialist equipment.)

5. In addition to creating new maps and replacing textures, there was a branch of Doom modding that involved hacking the executable, with sophisticated tools to do this without coding (such as DeHackEd). While this was vastly less flexible than ‘real’ game logic modding tools like Quake C, it let modders change the rules of the game and create new entities by repurposing assets. Obviously these mods are incompatible with virtually all subsequent ports of the game so are largely forgotten. Edit: I’m informed that later source ports do still maintain compatibility with DeHackEd patches. Cool.

6. Very few people had internet access. I remember using CompuServe around the time Doom came out, and being able to download mods and documents from their Doom ‘section’. Most of the distribution of mods and tools was done by magazine coverdiscs, and dodgy commercial compilations. The online community around Doom (which grew and ultimately exploded by the release of Quake) set down the blueprint for how video games lived on the internet.

This was back when BT (curse their gibs) were still charging 1p per minute to connect to dial-up internet, by the way. Because of the general impracticality of browsing the internet at leisure, most of the information about Doom gleaned by the community was condensed into the Doom FAQ designed to be stored and printed for offline reading.

7. You couldn’t really play Doom on the internet in any practical way. You could play it over a modem either directly with another player or via a proprietary service like BT’s Wireplay. Most deathmatch gaming was done by locally networking machines. Network cards were not remotely standard equipment at the time** (and were 30-40 quid a pop, not including cables and other bits and bobs), so networking two or three machines together was often achieved with serial cables. (USB didn’t exist yet either. Or DVDs! O.J. Simpson was still best known for the Naked Gun films. You could go to the theatre and get change from a nickel…)

8. Doom is notorious for being hard and scary, but many players (having no internet) spent a lot of time playing single player maps in God Mode with the intent of seeing cool things happen, and (as the barrier to entry was so incredibly low) starting to tweak the game to make cool things happen. Doom has passed down more DNA to Minecraft than Call of Duty.

9. Doom’s aesthetic is now sometimes dismissed as being extremely cheesy, adolescent and gratuitously violent. Technically this is correct. It is grossly unfair to see it bracketed with the likes of Duke Nukem 3D and Mortal Kombat however. Doom did not use violence to shock. It was trying to matter-of-factly simulate an extreme fantasy role-playing scenario. Doom is id’s answer to the question of what is the coolest, most intense thing that we can represent with this technology?

Everything in Doom’s presentation was geared towards consistency. It works because it’s played completely straight – not in the arse-clenchingly tedious, prog-rock way that Bungie would handle their ‘fictional universe’, but in the way that a lovingly made horror or sci-fi thriller approaches its improbable subject matter. (This approach would be taken further and reap even greater rewards with the first two Quake games.)

Romero and co. knew id’s audience, but do not pander to them. (If you want to see what could have been, without Carmack’s tech, or with Tom Hall’s goofiness, check out Blake Stone or Rise of the Triad.) Compared to Duke3D (and every other action game that emerged from shareware) id’s visual design was startlingly articulate and mature. The Doom box art remains one of the most iconic gaming images, along with the Space Invader and R-Type’s Dobkeratops.

10. Lots of game developers (particularly level designers) got their start in the Doom scene. The first section of Half-Life (after you get out of the monorail) is a particularly obvious example of an environment made with the conventions of the Doom engine still firmly in mind.

11. While I could never get my head around the finicky Etch-a-Sketch logic of making Doom levels, I made several graphical and gameplay mods for the game, including Wild West-themed enemies, a hand mixer weapon (to replace the chainsaw), murderable bystanders, and (as I was a teenage boy after all) lots more blood. Most of these are lost to the ages.

*It’s worth checking out Hexen (the second of two games Raven Software made licensing out the Doom tech) to see the imaginative uses it was later put to.

**This also reminds me that by no means all of the original PCs used to play Doom had mice.


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Transport Tycoon
Posted at 19:03 on 13th October 2013 - permalink

For the past few months my team at AppyNation has been working with publishers 31X (Chris Sawyer’s company) and developers Origin8 Technologies to help bring Transport Tycoon to iOS and Android.

Transport Tycoon is one of my favourite games of all time, and one that has always seemed like an obvious fit for mobile (particularly tablet) platforms, so it’s been a huge honour and privilege to work on this project.

In spite of some early compatibility teething problems, the game has been well received so far, with a Metacritic score of 81% at the time of writing.

Taking the game to Eurogamer Expo further bolstered our confidence that there was a lot of pent-up demand for the game – more than a few show-goers would hear the familiar music first, boggle at the screen for a bit and then emphatically tell us that they would definitely be buying the game on day one. Which was nice.

The game is not a direct port of any previous Transport Tycoon game. Sawyer’s PC games were written in x86 assembly language, so development of this new version of the game required a team that could make sense of this and re-implement the simulation in a more portable (although less efficient) language.

The game uses a lot of graphical assets from Chris Sawyer’s 2004 game Locomotion, leading some to assume that it was a direct port of that game. It would be more accurate to describe the game as a synthesis of elements from all of Sawyer’s Tycoon games – the core gameplay of Transport Tycoon, the simulation detail of Locomotion and some of the later user interface improvements from Rollercoaster Tycoon.

The game has suffered a bit in some quarters from the perception that it doesn’t have a sandbox mode. While this is technically correct (there’s currently no way to randomly generate maps from within the game itself), it’s not as big of a deal as it’s being made out.

In the original Transport Tycoon (as with Sim City), the pre-set scenarios were seen as a poor relation to the randomly generated option. Players didn’t want to have undue restrictions placed on their playing style, and didn’t want to have to adhere to a fixed goal, the completion of which would effectively end the game.

In Transport Tycoon (2013), the ‘scenarios’ are much more like huge, crafted open-ended maps. The game doesn’t place restrictions on the player (except in a few cases), and the player is free to carry on playing after the scenario goal is reached (or failed), or they can opt to ignore the scenario goal altogether. That said, I do acknowledge that a random map generator would extend the life and challenge of the game – the option to switch off AI competitors would be welcomed by some players as well.

As with all mobile games (even self-contained premium ones), the launch is only the beginning. Chris and the developers have some more improvements planned down the road. We hope that everyone who puts down their $6.99 USD gets hours of entertainment out of the game, and that Transport Tycoon makes a small contribution (along with other sophisticated mobile games such as the recent XCOM port) to changing the still all-too-widespread perception of mobile games as limited to being disposable or casual fare.


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Xbox One
Posted at 22:16 on 9th August 2013 - permalink

This bloody machine has become the Zeno’s tortoise of the sporadic games commentator over the last three months. Every time I’ve sat down to wrangle my thoughts into a coherent essay the narrative has again moved on, meaning I’ve had to junk another several hundred words of analysis. Still, things seem to have more or less died down for the time being (although who knows what GamesCom will bring), so here goes.

Conversation over.

These words falling from the mouth of long-suffering Xbox community liaison Larry Hryb made it clear how quickly and completely Microsoft had smashed their carefully cultivated consumer-friendly image in the days following the unveiling of the Xbox One. The mask has slipped. Hryb’s customary synthetic bonhomie had evaporated, leaving a visibly tired, anxious old man tersely trying to steer an interview away from the PR bombs falling on all sides. When Don Mattrick came out with even more arrogant, defensive words Microsoft’s role had by then been firmly set. A console race that everyone had expected to be played out by the numbers had suddenly become interesting again.

I can’t remember a previous console race where a competitor in a good position has managed to damage their chances through sheer complacency, and where everyone (and let’s be clear, Microsoft’s woes and subsequent u-turn haven’t been caused by a few scattered voices – everyone from high profile developers, to indies, to the mainstream press, to retailers have publicly criticised Microsoft’s policies) smelt blood and shifted their allegiances.

So now Microsoft have backtracked on their ‘always on’ policy, and strictly controlling resale of disc games, as well as vaguely announcing that self-publishing will not be prohibited. Some will no doubt argue that this settles the issue, “no harm, no foul”. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Microsoft have communicated that their preferred outcome (for a platform they control) is to implement always-on DRM. Does anyone really trust them not to let these features creep back in a year from now? How much support and visibility can independent developers expect from a platform holder that is only grudgingly letting them self-publish, and who are yet to give details of how this will work?

There’s a world of difference between announcing an initiative and seeing it through. It is going to take time (maybe a couple of years) to win back developers’ trust, and during that time the shelves of their digital shopfront are going to be a bit more bare. (Have you ever asked a veteran UK console developer whether they ever want to work with Nintendo again? How do you think that happened?)

On top of this the actual consumer proposition is still a bit of a mess. The machine is underspecced and overpriced compared to the PS4, and is bundled with a pointless camera that nobody on Earth still believes serves any purpose other than harvesting data to sell to advertisers. Of course if there’s one thing we know with certainty about Microsoft’s home entertainment division, it’s that they’ll drastically slash the price of the machine and stuff the channel to ensure that it can be at least presented as a success to third party publishers, even if sales then fall off a cliff next Spring.

Microsoft excel(R) when they have a successful externally-developed model to work from. (Better still if they can buy it wholesale, like DirectX or Skype.) The Xbox 360 was essentially a cargo-cultish attempt to replicate the success of the PS2, imitating its characteristics even where they no longer made technical sense. The Kinect managed to be a huge commercial success by repackaging the marketing message of the Wii, even though it didn’t work properly and had no games. The Xbox One has no such blueprint to follow, except perhaps its similarly narrowly-focused namesake, so everybody around the table has been able to tack on their particular interests.

In spite of lacking backward compatibility, the XBox One still somehow manages to be heavily burdened with legacy features, the moth-eaten banners of insular corporate fiefdoms within Microsoft. Kinect. Metro. Live. Bing. Internet Explorer. Television, television, television.

Anyway. Now that we’ve seen how Mattrick’s grand vision has been received, why did Microsoft try to feed us this twelve course banquet of crap in the first place?

The most obvious reason is because they’ve gotten away with so much in the past generation.

Last time around, Microsoft benefited greatly from an early advantage. The PlayStation 3 was expensive for a long time, and it took longer still for multiplatform ports to draw level. (PC games were also, in terms of relative commercial prospects, in disarray.) As a result Microsoft mistook necessity for genuine brand loyalty. At times in the Xbox 360’s life it felt like Microsoft were testing the boundaries of what indignities they could get consumers to dutifully accept.

The launch machines had a failure rate so insanely high that Microsoft ate a $1.1bn writedown as the less painful option (the alternative presumably having been fighting an ugly class action lawsuit). Buggy launch games were waved through certification. (“Coming in hot” as Peter Moore so excitingly span it. We’re sorry the brakes failed on your car, we had to cut some corners to meet a deadline. No we’re not going to do a recall. We’ve said we’re listening and we respect you, isn’t that enough?)

Xbox 360 owners became wearily familiar with protracted exchanges with customer support to deal with dead consoles, scratched discs and guessing the magic phrase which would free them from their Xbox Live subscriptions. The dashboard became swamped with advertising. Kinect Star Wars was an actual thing that existed, as opposed to a terrible SNL skit.

Developers had it little better: Restrictive licensing terms prevented them from adding features or content to their games on other platforms, and indie developers were ghettoised on their digital store.

So it’s fair to say the landscape has shifted a bit since the mid-2000s.

Is the Xbox One going to fail, then? Probably not. There are always a lot of consumers out there who just don’t want to have to make informed purchases, and that’s okay. The Xbox 360 has worked out well for them or their friends, and they can see the familiar franchises are available. Microsoft are betting that there are a lot of 40-something American guys who don’t use social media or read the specialist press and just want to play Madden and CoD and watch live spoooorts. It’s a pretty safe bet to make.

Based on the currently available information, should you buy one? No. The only situation I can see where it would make sense would be for fans of some particular exclusive franchise, but I can’t imagine what that would be at this point. (Another thing that’s changed since 2006 is that most of Microsoft’s internal studios have received the ‘EA treatment’ – nobody seriously expects Rare, for instance, to ever recapture their glory days now.)

Should developers support it? Before the policy u-turn, this would have been an obvious and unequivocal “no”. Now it’s more of a “wait and see”. A platform that pushes one model of product ownership even when it’s not appropriate would cause serious damage to the medium. It’s also worth remembering that there’s still a lot of other issues with Microsoft’s long-standing policies that haven’t been talked about. Is cross-platform play still banned? (Anachronistic and misguided.) Are ‘slots’ on the digital store still scarce, and/or tied to publishers also offering physical products? What are the exact details of the TRCs, and the limitations of the DRM scheme? Do you have to support Kinect? Do players still have to have an Xbox Live Gold account to access huge parts of the system’s functionality?

The original plan would have done massive damage to Microsoft’s prospects in the living room, and there would have been some fallout for the wider industry. The new plan is more palatable but still has some worst-case hidden dangers. As Carmack recently observed, a stable duopoly has generally been very healthy for the console market, and the machines are architecturally so similar that it’s not going to be prohibitive for developers to support both if we get the situation of a rough 50/50 worldwide split again.

But having seen Don Mattrick and Mark Cerny plead their cases I know which I think deserves to win.


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