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My name is Robin, and this is my website about computer games. Here you can find essays about old games, industry commentary, free games I've made for fun, and funny songs.

 
“Virginia Plain”
Posted at 00:57 on 20th November 2016 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 19/11/2016.

I only knew this song from Kevin Eldon’s version, so I was worried beforehand that it would be a bit obscure. You can probably work out which line was written first.

“Neo Geo” – after “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music

Make a machine and make it great
Factory sealed, I’ll take it
To C+VG I’ll show it
Hundred meg cart, so don’t blow it ’cause
They’ve been around a long time
Just try-tra-try-tra-tryin’ for console bigtime

Take me on at King of Fighters
Take a shot at Super Spy
We’ll play Garou: Mark of the Wolves and then we’ll
Have a Shodown with some Samurai
When we’ve got games like these
Who needs Sega or Nintendo? We are playing NEO GEO!

[break]

Dropping in coins and losing fast
To the front room, we’ll take it
Capcom’s around – we’re trying! – to perfect the Art of Fighting
Shock Troopers and Super Sidekicks
This is your average week
For a Neo Geo freak

Terry Bogard‘s down to street fight
Metal Slug, we’ve seen some wars
Lots of space to store those great sprites
Dual 16 and 8 bit cores – oh wow!
Sure you can play them all on MAME
But for you, and me too, only the real thing will do

[break]

Chojin Gakuen Gowcaizer
Names we’ll never understand
Just to buy the basic system
Would set you back a grand, but hey
Do you want an awesome game?
What’s their name?
It’s SNK

More Marioke songs


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COD:IW and the Windows Store
Posted at 20:35 on 4th November 2016 - permalink

There’s recently been a little bit of a kerfuffle about Activision making the puzzling decision to release a separate (UWP) version of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare on the Windows Store, in which the multiplayer mode only allows you to play with other UWP players (and not with players who have bought the game anywhere else – Steam, retail, etc.).

Microsoft presumably knew that this wouldn’t go down well with the specialist press, so released an official (making no mention of the game or Activision) and unofficial statement to a friendly site. Predictably, many of the major games sites that have picked up on the story have merged these two messages together, resulting in headlines along the lines of “Windows Store version of COD won’t let you play with Steam players and it’s Activision’s fault.”.

I don’t have any inside information about how the deal went down between Microsoft and Activision, but can make some confident guesses about some aspects:

1. Surely the only reason COD:IW is on the Windows Store is because Microsoft desperately want it there, and will have reached some kind of arrangement with Activision (involving cash, better terms, free marketing, technical assistance and/or some other incentive) to put it there. You can liken this to the deals they did around GTA IV (coughing up $50m for GFWL integration, some level of timed exclusivity, DLC, etc.) or ensuring big ‘name brand’ mobile apps (Angry Birds, Netflix, etc.) were on the Windows Phone store when they were still trying to make that work. I’d go so far as to speculate that Microsoft may even be eating the cost of the discounted launch price.

2. There is little chance of this version making much profit beyond that one-shot incentive, so Activision will have made the minimal effort possible to do the port. COD is a franchise that still does a big proportion of its business in console boxed copies, and while the PC market has exploded in recent years, the additional sales that could be mustered from small (non-Steam) distribution channels are unlikely to be a priority for them.

There is an assumption that the Windows Store can’t be doing that badly (compared to uPlay, Origin, GOG and the other stores that occupy the edges of the PC digital games market not taken up by Steam) because it’s bundled with Windows 10, but outside of a couple of Microsoft-owned IP, it’s hard to point to any notable success stories there. The fact that high profile ‘exclusive’ games like Tomb Raider and Quantum Break had to messily reverse out of their exclusivity deals don’t exactly suggest a marketplace in robust health.

3. Microsoft can safely say that they’ve not ordered Activision to break compatibility. What I suspect they’ve done is sneakier, and it’s a tactic that have form for using in the past to disadvantage rivals.

The Windows Store version of COD:IW has to support the weird Windows 10 Xbox app to facilitate multiplayer. The standard version uses Steamworks. While Microsoft don’t prevent developers from implementing Steamworks in UWP games in addition (although they used to), it’s extra cost and work to implement and test two separate systems. (There is a bit of confusion over what MS require, ban, or just make needlessly difficult to implement for UWP games sold on their store, but you get the general gist. The fact that MS are even able to refer to ‘crossplay’ as an optional feature between users on the same hardware platform shows how ludicrous this situation is.)

This is similar to how Microsoft tilted the playing field against Netscape back in the day. OEMs weren’t prevented from installing other browsers on new PCs, but Microsoft argued that Internet Explorer couldn’t be removed as it was part of the operating system. (This turned out to be flim-flam, and the European Court wasn’t very pleased.) OEMs didn’t want the cost of supporting two browsers, so Netscape got the bullet.

I don’t think that this latest silliness poses any kind of serious threat to Steam’s dominance of the PC games space, but it does add another little bit of fuel to the fire of Tim Sweeney’s argument that UWP and the Windows Store risk being used as a trojan horse to turn Windows into a walled garden.

Personally I don’t think that Microsoft can make the PC games market swallow the pill of the PC as a closed iOS-like platform even if they want to. No amount of money would have made GFWL work, and consumers rejected punitative ‘always on’ DRM systems (for the most part). That said, we should continue to scrutinise and question any moves Microsoft (or anyone else) make that normalise a situation where PC games can’t be modified by end users, and access to the market is increasingly reserved for major publishers with deep pockets.

I think it’s in everyone’s best interest for the PC to have credible alternatives to Steam (which is far from perfect itself), and I hope that Microsoft are listening. A few years ago I wouldn’t have believed that they’d ever kill Kinect (and various other ill-conceived projects) to save their Xbox business, so maybe they’re not still the stubborn gorilla we assume.


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Exhibiting old games
Posted at 00:10 on 13th October 2016 - permalink

Earlier in the year I visited the ‘Power Up!‘ games event at the Science Museum in London. I realised that I’ve been attending showings of old games (in various settings) for over a decade now. Arcades may be long dead in the West, but putting a load of old consoles and micros and CRT monitors on tressle tables still exerts a powerful draw.

Over the years, some of the assumptions that the early exhibitors made out of convenience have ossified into an unquestioned Way of Doing Things. This is a problem. Public exhibitions are the only way a lot of people get to experience the medium’s history at first hand, so if convention dictates we’re only able to select games from a limited pool, it’s less likely the historical account will be accurate.

It’s illuminating to compare the ‘Power Up!’ event to the Science Museum’s earlier effort, ‘Game On‘ (2006).

This Summer’s event was unencumbered by the need to explain the history of the medium from its earliest beginnings, and included few games predating the early 1980s UK home computer boom. PC games were now represented, although conversely coin-ops were almost entirely absent. (There were virtually no handheld games in either show.) There was even a healthy showing of multiplayer LAN games. The newer show’s curation was vastly more intelligent (not only picking good and interesting titles, but usually the best available versions of them as well) and the presentation was more welcoming and geared toward social play.

The most pronounced difference was that the 2006 show treated old games as existing in complete isolation from the modern medium, while the 2016 version was more convincingly able to present a continuum – for example showing Batman, Disney and Street Fighter games from different eras side by side. It’s strange to think that not so long ago it seemed that games would be defined by multi-million dollar blockbusters distributed on physical discs in perpetuity, and to suggest that old (or 2D) games still held any relevance or commercial value was a heretical notion for the industry.

Both of the Science Museum shows (along with every consumer show, industry event, games party or ‘arcade bar’ I’ve attended in the intervening time) unswervingly followed two rules:

1. All games must be running on the original, contemporary hardware and media.

2. The most familiar context for presenting games in a public setting is an amusement arcade.

(There’s also the unwritten third rule, that the lineup must include Micro Machines 2, which inevitably follows when your selection criteria stipulates sourcing games that give the most ‘bang for your buck’ from eBay and flea markets. Could Codemasters have known, when they built those two extra controller ports into the cartridge casing, that they were making a bid for immortality?)

Exhibitions of old games are held back by organisers’ irrational aversion to emulation, and by focusing disproportionately on quick, simple, non-persistent arcade action games in service of their default metaphor.

Games are a digital medium. In the vast majority of cases, the experience of playing a game isn’t inextricably bound to a specific set of silicon chips and plastic buttons. The artifact being presented is the running program, not the playback medium. If we accept that there are other reasons to show old games than to evoke nostalgia (or for parents to impress on their children how much better they have it today), we need to move past the insistence on always using original hardware.

Emulation allows us to show games for which physical instances are rare and expensive (either through genuine scarcity or thanks to the efforts of collectors), or for which the original host hardware is too fragile or temperamental to withstand the rigours of extended public use, multiplying the range of viable games at a stroke.

More intriguingly, emulators and related tools allow us to unpick games, letting us zero in on the pertinent parts of the experience and edit out inconveniences.

Games can be made to better fit the event format. Save states can be used to skip loading pauses and present edited highlights of games that would take too long for an individual to play through in the time allowed. Gameplay can be rewound and stepped through frame by frame to illustrate specific techniques.

Accessibility can be improved by remapping controls and offering input macros to simplify or modernise interfaces (Ultima Underworld and System Shock spring to mind here), as well as by tinkering with the game state in realtime (i.e. ‘POKEs’ or Game Genie codes) to modulate difficulty.

We can even channel-hop between different games from different eras and systems to better illustrate our arguments, as demonstrated to great effect by Bennett Foddy‘s Videobowl, a megamix of one-on-one player challenges that essentially turns a broad and eclectic set of ROMs into a big game of WarioWare.

Extrinsically tracking gameplay events also suggests ways to get visitors more involved – for instance keeping a running tally of achievements to be met across all the games (checking in at each terminal with an app or venue-provided RFID tag, perhaps), implementing high score tables, and ‘ghost cars’/player replays to let visitors compete against each other asynchronously and anonymously.

With more sophisticated emulators (and specially built or modified tools and game files), it’s even possible to open up the clockwork of games at runtime, to better explain the design and development process.

The possibilities here are endless, with some more obvious ones hinted at in the developer commentary modes of Valve’s games. In 3D games, we can pause the action, move the camera around, turn elements of the scene on or off, add visual annotations (displaying hidden objects in the environment such as bounding boxes, triggers, etc.), spawn objects and so on ad infinitum.

For technically simpler games, we can delve into the world data and game logic and represent them visually, for instance mapping out the rooms in an interactive fiction story or point and click adventure game on a second screen, or showing what’s happening in memory versus on screen in a 2D platformer or shooter, or showing how a procedurally generated level is built or how particularly ingenious visual effects work.

Beyond direct emulation, for some games there are also restoration projects that better show the authors’ intentions by fixing contemporary shortcomings (such as Sonic remakes that fix slowdown and control latency, or Quake source ports that support modern screen resolutions without altering the already perfectly beautiful artwork).

All of these ideas require more work on behalf of the exhibitors than plugging a machine in and walking away, but would result in vastly more informative and imaginative exhibits.

I don’t know if there have been any exhibitions that have taken this approach. It’s surely something that has occurred to others before now.

Of course emulation shouldn’t be seen as a panacea. Not only are there a number of more recent systems for which fast, accurate emulators don’t (yet) exist, but also many games (particularly coin-ops) where specific hardware and peripherals are crucial to the experience. There are also certainly cases where the sensations and ritual of using the original hardware contribute significantly to the experience (although perhaps not as many as proud retro collectors would argue).

The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park makes a strong case for this, astonishingly allowing visitors to play Colossal Cave Adventure on a room-filling 1970s mainframe. Even more modest exhibits (such as an original mid-1980s Macintosh) serve as a reminder of the crude chittering, flickering, mechanical and analogue nature of early home computers that our rose-tinted memories (and javascript facsimiles) tend to edit out. (The Musée Mécanique in San Francisco provides a similar experience for arcade machines.)

Outside of these few exceptional venues with the skill and resources to do things properly, the results are somewhat less appealing. Hip East London bars are particularly notorious for sourcing arcade cabinets indiscriminately. If you’re lucky they might have one or two lovingly maintained pinball tables or perhaps a classic racing wheel/lightgun/golden age game taking pride of place, but more often you’ll find knackered cabinets with broken sticks and blurry screens that seem to have been ‘rescued’ after twenty years’ service in a chip shop. (Or worse still, those awful imported cocktail cabinets offering pages of glitchy unlicensed MAME ROMs.)

It would be so, so easy to equip these places with well-made new cabinets with good quality sticks and monitors running MAME/MESS, allowing games to be swapped in and out easily and removing the constraint of only being able to offer games they can find original, working boards for. A project for some aspiring Dragon’s Den contestant there.

Returning to the world of museums and galleries: With the benefits of emulation so clear to see, why do exhibitors still largely avoid exploiting it?

Emulators are still stigmatised by the widespread misconception that they’re somehow legally dubious, or still some way off being accurate enough to match the ‘authentic’ experience. (Frank Cifaldi discusses this topic in depth in this excellent GDC presentation.)

The main 20th century formats are now emulated accurately enough that only an observer who knew specific quirks to look out for would be able to tell them from the real hardware in a blind test.

Frustratingly you will still see journalists dredging up the by now ludicrously outdated argument that one needs to buy the original consoles to play Mega Drive and SNES games ‘properly’. (We can expect to see a lot more of this talk in coverage of the NES Classic.) This is the kind of irrational authenticity worship that you can find in many other hobbies (hi-fi, real ale, cameras, cars) where old timers want to keep the riff-raff out.

The main difference you’d notice playing a real PAL SNES would be that the games would be running at 50hz letterboxed on a fuzzy CRT screen with no save states or language patches and no games that didn’t get a European release. Should you want to sample a decent selection of the real top-tier classic games, you’d also get to enjoy the authentic experience of forking out hundreds of pounds.

I’d speculate that even though it can be fairly trivially proven that legality and accuracy aren’t issues, exhibitors planning to use emulation might still face the hurdles of explaining this to hosts’ legal departments and the companies whose games they were seeking permission to show. I can understand why taking the path of least resistance would seem like an attractive option in such a (hypothetical) hostile climate.

More cynically, I’m sure that for some professional old games exhibitors, keeping the myth of authenticity alive works in their commercial interest. Van loads of equipment and arcane engineering skill to keep things running are the sort of rigmarole that can justify a higher fee.

Finally there might be the lingering doubt of whether punters would accept not playing on the original hardware. I think the adjustment would be quick and painless. We seem to have been able to accept some degree of abstraction in most other media. The BFI’s video library doesn’t run 100 year old scraps of film through a projector every time a visitor wants to view them. Composers of classical music predating recording technology would barely recognise the sound of modern performances. The essence of the thing isn’t lost by decanting it into a more suitable vessel.

Once we’ve established that emulators aren’t the work of Satan, we can tackle the limitations of assuming visitors want an arcade experience.

(I should stress that I’m not having a veiled jab at the National Videogames Arcade in Nottingham here. I’ve not visited personally, but have only heard positive things about it – and anyway I suspect the name was chosen more as a punky statement asserting the medium’s legitimacy than any attempt to dictate the styles of game that are welcome there.)

I don’t have a concrete idea of how best to present games that aren’t quick, self-explanatory, pick-up-and-play experiences, but can suggest some starting points.

‘Power Up!’ reminded me of computer games shops of the 1980s and early 1990s which served as social hubs in the manner of comic book and record stores.

If it’s important to display the hardware, make it particularly exotic and interesting looking hardware. Let us pick up and browse game boxes and see the assortment of manuals, code wheels, maps and ‘feelies’ they contained.

Or recreate contemporary studio offices or trade show stands based on photos and videos. Or a living room. With the rise of YouTube and Twitch, should playing be more performative, with some visitors happier to watch and interject than play directly?

Or perhaps the answer is to come up with a completely new set of conventions for a game space that act as cues to let visitors know that their interaction is expected (in the same way that the furniture of art galleries firmly hints at what is appropriate there).

As long as we don’t have another decade of exhibitions of the same over-familiar set of games running on a gradually dwindling pool of working original hardware ahead of us, I’ll be happy.


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No Man’s Sky: Quick Start
Posted at 20:12 on 4th September 2016 - permalink

No Man’s Sky is a fantasy game about being a space castaway.

The appeal of the game is that it’s an infinitely deep lucky dip of randomly generated planets to explore.

The game’s planet generation technology is extremely impressive, capable of creating a broad variety of environments that almost always feel seamless and natural (it struggles a bit with very wiggly coastlines). The best results it produces could pass for hand-crafted outdoor vistas in most other games. Hiking through them is relaxing and zen-like as in the best open world games. The pulpy alien sci-fi setting was a good decision, as it lets the game get away with a much lower level of general detail than if it was trying to build a more relatable real-world environment – the original Halo pulled a similar trick.

A lot of valid criticism I’ve seen of the game (from people who’ve actually played it and aren’t just always dullards with bad opinions) seems to be from players becoming frustrated at the game’s obtuseness, and how much grinding it expects you to do early on just to get to a point where your character is basically competent.

It’s understandable that the developers wanted as much about the game’s systems to be a mystery for new players as possible – after all, everyone has spent the last few years breathlessly praising From Software’s games for taking this approach. The problem is that the player is presented with lots of activities and given no clue which are polished and fun and which are broken and safe to ignore entirely.

To this end I’ve put together a quick list of tips below that are things I’d wished the game had mentioned at some early point. If you’re still in the stage of spending most of the time scrabbling around for plutonium and rearranging your inventory, hopefully these will help you get past that stage to the point when you can start enjoying the game (although the inventory juggling never fully goes away).

The main quest: It’s pretty obvious at this point that the Atlas / center of the galaxy ‘end objectives’ were tacked on to the game as an afterthought out of fear that players would get confused without an explicit goal to work towards. You should probably say ‘yes’ to the Atlas question right at the start (but don’t fret if you didn’t) and definitely not sell the Atlas Stones you receive (as they’re expensive to replace and you need ten on hand to trigger the ending). You don’t need to get all the Journey Milestones to complete the quest so you can ignore the tedious ones (like ship combat).

Inventory: Ship slots hold twice as much of a stackable good as exosuit slots. The intention seems to be that if you’re mining elements on a world, you should be constantly dumping them back to the ship on a landing pad next to a trade terminal somewhere. When you reach a new planet almost always the first thing you’ll see on the surface is a drop pod with a suit expansion. You should buy these whenever you see them.

Feng Shui: Technologies of the same type (e.g. Thermal Protection, Warp Drive, Plasma Grenade, etc.) get a bonus if they’re in adjacent inventory slots.

Movement: The most important thing for any NMS player to know is that sprinting and tapping the melee button before firing your jetpack gives you a massive boost. Forget walking, forget using your ship to make expensive, time consuming and clumsy short hops – jetpacking lets you cover lots of ground and immediately grab/scan nearby items. Unless you’re on a very hostile planet don’t worry about getting too far from your ship. Many bases have a beacon or terminal you can use to summon it for the cost of a bypass chip.

You can also move rapidly underwater by ‘dolphin diving’ – jetpack as high as possible over the surface (preferably starting from a high cliff), and aim towards the water and push forward as you hit the surface, and you will move through the water at high speed until you collide with anything.

Finally, the ‘interact’ button works like a vacuum cleaner. Hold it down as you approach something and you’ll interact with that thing as soon as it’s in range and you can even move away (as long as the button remains depressed) before the bar fills. Sweeping the cursor over multiple collectibles/crates is quicker on a pad than lining up and activating each one.

Multi-tool: You’ve probably noticed this already, but letting go of the trigger on the mining beam before it overheats immediately flushes its temperature back to zero. If you scan a building/structure this will put a marker on your radar to help you find it again. Grenades are the quickest way to blast open steel doors and to farm iron. Grenades can also be used to dig small caves to hide from storms if you need your environment shield to recharge. Don’t bother with the homing grenade upgrade as it screws up tunnel digging.

Combat: All forms of combat in the game are boring and broken but the good news is they can easily be avoided. Sentinels can’t attack you inside buildings, and will stand down if they can’t see you. If you’re being bothered by them on the surface (i.e. you’re farming valuable rare items), you can use the jetpack to easily outrun them. If the drones are bugging you, a grenade at point blank range is effective. Sentinels drop titanium and cargo canisters which sometimes contain really good stuff.

In space, pirates can also easily be outrun (duck and weave a bit and keep dumping fuel into your shields) and they can’t follow you into a planet’s atmosphere. You can dismantle those dust-gathering ship weapon upgrades if you need more cargo space.

Bases: Once you’ve got lots of technology blueprints you can largely ignore mucking about with bases and beacons, aside from using their trade terminals. Landing on landing pads saves launch thruster fuel. If you’re on a particularly resource-rich planet, it’s worth looking for a spaceport to use as a base of operations. This gives you the option to buy and sell goods to visitors (as well as buy their ships) and the trade terminal.

Shipwrecks: Wrecked ships are free if your time is worth nothing – the ones you can find will only ever have a slightly larger (or smaller) inventory than your current ship, and require you to go through the tedious process of repairing all their broken systems and refueling.

The quickest way to get to a distress beacon that’s a long way away on the same planet is to go into the upper atmosphere. (It’s extremely obvious that ‘distance’ is a flexible concept in NMS – what it actually means is ‘how quickly the game can generate this new scenery’. Move far away enough from a planet that it’s not having to process the nearer levels of detail and you can traverse it more quickly.)

Making quick cash: There are playing guides out there that explain in detail how to cheese the game’s trading economy. The quickest ways that are still vaguely fun are finding planets with abundant rare items (Vortex Cubes, Albumen Pearls, Gravitino Balls, etc. – some of which don’t appear on the scanner), and scanning the complete set of animals on a planet, for which you can claim a bonus (usually in the 100,000s of units range) from the Options screen. There are rarely more than one or two types of sea, cave and flying animals on a planet, and land animals are more often found in plains and valleys. You can of course use the name of a planet to remind yourself (and inform other players) of a particularly fruitful world.

Atlas Interfaces: Avoiding spoilies, it’s worth exploring the whole accessible area in an Atlas station or a Space Anomaly.


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GameCamp 2016 (#gamecamp8)
Posted at 23:26 on 27th May 2016 - permalink

London’s leading games unconference, GameCamp, returned to London South Bank University last Saturday after a two year hiatus.

This year the event was relocated to the university’s media building, which turned out to be a more suitable venue than the Keyworth Centre building where the last few were held. The lecture theatres and classrooms available for use were all in close range of the schedule board, and it was easy to drop in and out of sessions with the minimum of disruption.

While GameCamp struggles to gain the publicity of larger, better funded events in the capital, there was still a good turnout, with plenty of new faces. It could be argued that the event has lost a bit of momentum having missed a year (fewer attendees had prepared talks, although there were more playtesting sessions than in previous years), but there was still plenty to see and do.

Here’s a rundown of the sessions I attended (there were multiple events going on in most time slots, so everyone’s experience was different):

1000 – James Wallis (one of the organisers) welcomed us and gave an intro. GameCamp has a tradition of giving a free gift to all attendees – this year it was a wind-up toy robot.

1030 – Implicit role playing in Mass Effect / Playtest of the physical game ‘Democracy’ (nothing to do with the Positech one), which involved players plotting via group SMS before simultaneously taking action.

1100 – At least three things were going on in the same room: The World Is Flat (with yoga ball controller) was playable, a discussion of sports entertainment (wrestling) and a session of the party game A Fake Artist Goes to New York.

1130 – Attendees were given wooden blocks and other props and tasked with devising games using the wind up robots, such as jousting and bowling.

1200 – An ex-Nintendo Europe employee gave a talk about marketing. In the hallway, physical games such as Lemon Joust, Ninja and blindfolded Nerf pistol duels took place.

1230 – Lunch. This year LSBU stipulated that their own catering services were used. A little bit disappointing compared to the bottomless pizza and fresh coffee of past years.

1400 – Kieron Gillen ranted about Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (and less angrily discussed the representation of games as a storytelling device – rather than just thematic window dressing – in fiction in general) which I haven’t read but which by most accounts sounds like an insufferable and cynical nostalgic pandering exercise. (Cline’s appearance in Microsoft’s cringeworthy promotional film about digging up Atari’s E.T. cartridges from a landfill put me off wanting to read any of his work.)

1430 – Kerry Turner and Jo Summers reported on their progress in setting up social events, courses and jams for games creators in Brighton.

1500 – Claire Bateman discussed designing and running The Oubliette room escape game current running for a few more weeks in South London.

1530 – Nothing worth putting in my notes apparently – general chit-chat.

1600 – The GameCamp Awards – a spin on the usual ‘People’s Revolutionary Committee’ closer session, where we shouted out suggested award categories and nominees then put them to the vote.

1630 – A surprise appearance from Ste Curran, who did his talk ‘Kelly’ (about roleplaying Kelly Clarkson in Skyrim) previously performed at Reads Like A Seven.

1700 – Pub – the beer garden of The Ship as tradition dictates, where I was asked “Where do Transformers come from?” many times over. (Not just me I should say – I’ve not been going around claiming to know anything about how alien robots are made.)

I hope we don’t have to wait two years for the next one.

Reports from previous GameCamps (I never got around to writing up #7, a.k.a. the one I gave another really brilliant talk at, but it was very good.)


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“Road to Nowhere”
Posted at 19:30 on 21st February 2016 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 19/02/2016. (Actually this one’s been ‘in the system’ for a few months but I don’t think anyone had performed it before now.) Inspired by the the absurdly long and varied IMDB voice acting resume of Nolan North (“the thinking man’s Troy Baker”).

“(We’ve Got A) Role For Nolan” – after “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads

Well we love Marioke
Now it’s time for a new song
Though the jokes may be hokey
We can all still sing along

Now we’re gonna pay tribute
To a voice acting star
If your game needs a hero
You can call on Nolan North

Yeah

We’ve got a role for Nolan
In our new game
Writing some lines for Nolan
For him to say

Casting an unfamiliar voice?
Big mistake
Bring us our first and only choice
Nathan Drake, Nathan Drake

[BREAK]

We’ve got a role for Nolan
Famous voice guy
Now he’s on board we’re golden
That game I’d buy

Whether the part is big or small
He don’t care
Dinklebot wasn’t working out?
Make the call, he’d be there

[BREAK]

We’ve got a role for Nolan
We’ve got a role for Nolan
We’ve got a role for Nolan

Any game that comes to mind
Prince of Persia Sands of Time
That’s him alright, Nolan’s alright

Hawkeye, Ant-Man, War Machine
Desmond in Assassin’s Creed
He plays all types, yeah he plays all types

Bulletproof with 50 Cent
Even played the President
Once or twice, in that Saints Row shite

Bad guys in Crash Bandicoot
Faulty cores in Portal 2
And Sideswipe, the Transformer Sideswipe

But the accent that he tried
For Penguin in Arkham Knight
Sounded like it was Dick Van Dyke

Skylanders bears his name
As does every LEGO game
Toys to life, bringing toys to life

Titanfall and Destiny
To a cheap JRPG
He’ll still bite, if the pay’s alright

He’s made fourth wall breaking cool
Phoned himself up as Deadpool
Well it’s alright, with Nolan it’s alright

We’ve got a role for Nolan
Hey!
We’ve got a role for Nolan
HEEEY!
We’ve got a role for Nolan
Heh! Heh!
We’ve got a role for Nolan

More Marioke songs


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Rage
Posted at 21:02 on 2nd January 2016 - permalink

rage(7)

Eight years since its announcement and four years since its release I finally got around to playing Rage, the last game from id Software before they were absorbed into Zenimax and waved goodbye to John Carmack.

If you want a single game that demonstrates all of id’s historic strengths (aside from multiplayer) in a modern user-friendly form factor, Rage fits the bill admirably. It has a rock solid engine, richly detailed environments, instinctual combat and never takes itself too seriously.

Rage is also worthy of study because it’s a folly. Grand projects built on slightly irregular foundations – but which still somehow manage to be convincingly completed, if only by dint of unlimited resources and ingenuity being poured into them – are always more interesting to my mind than those that have gone strictly to plan.

From Rage’s many quirks we can infer a lot about how id worked as a studio. While I’m loath to call any of their output “tech demos”, obviously they were a technology-led company. Carmack’s strategy here, as with all their games, was to set ambitious goals for the engine technology (and as an essential by-product of this, the art used to showcase it), while strictly constraining simulation complexity and gameplay depth to the functional minimum.

Doom, Quake and Quake 3 Arena are the best examples of this strategy paying off handsomely. Each of these games significantly influenced the future direction of games (and graphics hardware in the latter cases), and provided a solid foundation for id’s engine licensees and modders to build an impressive body of work (including Half-Life and Call of Duty).

Doom 3 was an example of the strategy misfiring. While the graphical upgrade from the previous engine was considerable, the trade-offs on what the designers could do with the engine were oppressive. The linear, repetitive corridor spook-house template already felt tired at the start of the game’s five year development cycle.

Rage, thankfully, is a return to form – although it’s nowhere near the unqualified success of Doom or Quake.

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Carmack makes tools to empower artists, and didn’t make much of a secret that it was the unprecedented freedom that idTech 5’s megatexturing technology would give to environment artists that was his primary motivator in this project, rather than trying to convincingly break into the open world genre, or tell a story, or make a driving game.

The point of megatexturing is that it allows every surface in the game world to have a unique texture. Level artists are freed up from having to worry about budgeting texture memory, and ugly, immersion-breaking repeating textures are banished. Artists can go wild building levels in ridiculously high geometric and texture detail, and the tech chews up those terabytes of data and spits out something that can be piped from a HDD (or even a DVD) in real-time without ugly compression artifacts or pop-in.

At least that’s the theory. Conventional wisdom would have it that in practice idTech 5 achieves unique detail everywhere at the cost of blurry, pixellated textures if you get too close to anything. This isn’t quite a fair reflection of the current state of the technology. Rage (and subsequent idTech 5 games e.g. Wolfenstein: The New Order) running on a modern GPU looks terrific, with the huge amount of visual interest and subtle lighting in open scenes more than making up for fuzzy details if you press your nose to a wall. Rage has aged far, far better than contemporary games built using off-the-peg engines. (Oh man, has time been unkind to Deus Ex Human Revolution.)

(If you want to see exactly how good it looks on a modern PC, check out DeadEndThrills’ gallery. Not bad for a ‘last gen’ game.)

The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions naturally look like a dog’s dinner, but at the time the fact that the game could run at all on such decrepit hardware (at 60fps no less) would have been a major selling point for publishers. While this goal was (just barely) achieved, the limitations that it imposed on the game (not least splitting the game’s open world into two separate DVD-sized areas) are in retrospect hugely frustrating. It absolutely cripples the driving sections of the game – streaming in scenery is such a burden on the puny DVD drives (thanks Microsoft for making running off a disc a mandatory requirement on Xbox 360 for years, you chumps) that camera movement is locked to one axis and vehicles are almost glued to the ground to avoid having to render anything unexpected.

(The only upside of idTech 5 being superhumanly optimised for the old consoles was that it made it practical for MachineGames to develop Wolfenstein: The New Order as a cross-gen title.)

It’s tantalising to imagine what id could have achieved with Rage if they’d somehow found a way to string out its development into the current console/PC generation, although by then we’d be talking of a development time to rival Duke Nukem Forever and which would probably have invited a similar level of ridicule. Unfortunate timing is sadly sometimes unavoidable in an industry that progresses through long, slow technological cycles.

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Rage’s game mechanics, world and fiction are moulded around the high concept cooked up by id’s art department circa ’07. The technology calls for static conditions, with no variable weather or even a day/night cycle. Sprawling and detailed landscapes are needed, but with the minimum of vegetation (Rage is the antithesis of the spit-and-sellotape perceptual trickery found in the Far Cry series and other ‘outdoorsy’ games) and wandering inhabitants.

The target console spec isn’t up to the job of making a completely seamless world, so there needs to be a good rationale for the world to contain smaller, self-contained indoor areas that function more like traditional FPS levels. The result is a post-apocalyptic desert world, stuffed with eclectic visual influences ranging from the Old West and vintage car culture to science fiction and fantasy.

While Rage’s designers may have been playing second fiddle to the artists and animators, that’s not to belittle their efforts. Rage somehow hangs together as a coherent experience in spite of aiming to be half a dozen different games at the same time.

There are whole branches of (clearly expensively produced and deeply pondered over) content that have only a peripheral impact on the player’s experience.

There’s a whole ‘game within a game’ of circuit racing and competitive car combat that can (after a couple of mandatory tasks) be completely ignored. Car ‘dogfights’ encountered in the wasteland are so brief and devoid of jeopardy that they quickly become irritations to be plodded through or sped past. The hub towns are full of ponderous gambling minigames played for penny stakes, and offer Job Boards of optional sidequests that are rapidly burnt through and then seldom if ever replenished.

Elaborate (hand-animated) character scenes and sets are used once or twice to deliver a new mission objective and then discarded. There’s a Running Man-inspired fighting arena that most players will run through once as the story demands and then never set foot in again. There’s even a (poorly explained) collectible card game.

(As id have grown, their propensity for allowing staff to disappear down rabbit holes has become more obvious – consider Doom 3’s elaborate in-world computer terminal GUIs and constant stream of environmental animations.)

Some of these boondoggles (as well as some systems that do add meaningfully to the game, such as the crafting system) hint that some ‘Broussarding’ may have been going on – feature creep driven by undue concern of innovations appearing in games released since the beginning of development. id’s designers must have been greatly influenced by contemporary critical darlings (Oblivion, Bioshock and the HL2 episodes being obvious ones) and decided that some of the fashionable features that they introduced would become baseline expectations for gamers on the ‘next-gen’ consoles.

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Experienced out of its contemporary context, the first thing that hits you about Rage is how concerned it is with demonstrating to the player that it’s not a linear FPS. The opening hours of the game involve interminable traipsing between NPCs to trigger conversations, tick off minigames and tutorials and initiate fetch quests.

Rage isn’t really an ‘open world’ game by the modern definition. Rather, it follows in the noble tradition of first-person shooters pretending to be RPGs exemplified by games like Hexen and Kingpin. The Wasteland feels like quite a small and occluded area (by open world terms – for an FPS level it’s huge) with extremely few points of interest scattered around beyond entrances to mission areas. There very rarely any reason to travel on foot or to take a detour from heading to the next mission objective.

The second thing that hits you is how little sense Rage’s world fiction makes.

The game’s premise is that Earth has been hit by the asteroid Apophis in 2029, wiping out most of civilisation. In the years prior to this catastrophe, Fallout-style cryogenic arks have been buried all over the world, set to emerge at such time conditions have stabilised to re-establish an organised society. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, a power-hungry military dude has secretly set the alarm to go off early on the Arks containing his people, so that when your ark is opened (106 years after doomsday), they’re already well on the way to establishing a technologically advanced totalitarian regime.

While this is the official timeline that the game presents, it seems that during development it’s been taken that the doomsday event actually happened “in Doom 3 times” rather than a couple of decades in the future – pre-fall civilisation had perfected cybernetic limbs, medical nanotechnology, antigravity, energy weapons and of course cryogenics as these all exist and are commonly encountered in the (supposedly resource-scarce and physically isolated) Wasteland environment.

Observant readers may also have clocked that Rage’s apocalyptic event wasn’t a nuclear holocaust, and yet a large proportion of the enemies that are encountered are hideously deformed mutants. The game offers up the rather daft explanation that the Authority created the mutants as the result of failed genetic experiments.

We’ve now been spoilt by many years of mainstream action/adventure games that have made believable worlds and emotionally complex (and professionally performed) characters their major selling points. (The Last of Us, Wolfenstein, Far Cry and Batman Arkham spring to mind as worlds I’ve spent a fair amount of time in over the last couple of years – you can probably name a dozen others.) The bar was set a lot lower when Rage was being developed, but even by 2011 standards it’s a bit of a mess.

Rage boasts a big-budget Bethesda voice cast, but doesn’t have a particularly coherent story it wants to tell or themes to explore. John Goodman is wasted voicing the quest giver in the opening tutorial town. There’s no villain (or even Dr. Breen-like figurehead) to focus what the player’s efforts are working toward. There’s a perfunctory attempt to give the player a gang of comrades in the final act (compared to the lengths that MachineGames went to to humanise Blazko’s resistance colleagues in Wolfenstein:TNO this comes off as very weak indeed).

The Grand Vision (Look amazing! Get to the action fast! Don’t let any player get confused!) dictates that the player is thawed out of their cryogenic bunker and almost immediately integrated into the power structure of the Wasteland society, given weapons, vehicles and entrusted with the safety of a town of settlers who he has met minutes before.

The stock explanation for the exceptional way that the player character is treated is that Ark Survivors are seen as a rare commodity in the Wasteland, but this only ever works in the player’s favour and never carries any dramatic import. There’s constant chatter about how the Authority (the game’s Empire/Combine analogue) pay handsome bounties for captured Ark Survivors, but at no point does any named character try to cross the player in any way.

As with many post-apocalyptic games, Rage is largely the tech tinkerer’s survivalist daydream about how their talents would make them valuable and formidable in extreme conditions. The id guys and gals like fast cars, rockets and guns. Customising guns, building gadgets and tuning up your war buggy are the main forms of character progression. Superior might and knowledge are the most prized traits in the Wasteland society and are always rewarded. Your only value in this society is your ability to mete out violence.

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The whole ‘rugged individualism’ schtick has a positive gameplay outcome. Once you get away from the hub towns with their Gordon Freeman/Master Chief/You-Are-The-Chosen-One blather, and are out on a mission where it’s just you and the limited amount of equipment and ammo you’ve managed to scavenge or barter for, it’s possible for things to go badly wrong, and for it to feel like it’s down to your decisions.

In one of the early missions clearing out a bandit hideout (which is what most of the missions boil down to, come to think of it) I found myself reduced to having to bum-rush oncoming waves of grunts with melee attacks, conserving the last of my revolver ammo to deal with a boss hiding in a heavily armoured gun emplacement.

The game doesn’t do the Valve thing of laying out a trestle table of ammo crates and medikits in every other room. And between the weapons, ammo types and gadgets you can craft (wingsticks, sentry turrets and bots, RC bomb cars, mind control crossbow bolts, adrenaline boosts and much more) there’s a lot of scope for developing your own playing style.

What’s rather less fun is that intentionally or not, all the activities the game offers that aren’t running through shooter levels and killing stuff become chores by comparison. These days we know that one of the great strengths of open world games are that you can give the player almost unlimited freedom from the outset. In Rage, you have to perform some mandatory busywork before you can earn access to the next fun part of the game. It feels like padding rather than legitimate depth.

Given the scope for gory horror that a post-apocalyptic setting provides, the game is surprisingly restrained. (My understanding is that when the game was planned to be published by EA, they were aiming for a ‘Teen’ age rating, and while the finished article does reinstate some of the gibs and gore, the setting is still quite PG-13.) Rage’s world has little of the barbarity and bleakness of The Last of Us, The Road or even Mad Max. While past and ongoing conflict are hinted at (society has arranged itself into the four clear strata of Authority, Settlers, Bandits and Mutants which for the most part keep to themselves), the survivors appear to be law abiding and suffering no obvious scarcity of resources (food, water, medicine, gasoline and electricity are available in relative abundance and there’s a functioning cash economy, as well as radio and television broadcasts).

Taking all this into account I arrived at a theory that makes Rage’s fiction actually make sense: your character is on a Westworld-style survivalist adventure holiday. All the evidence is there:

1. Technology and resources are at a level that nobody would need to live the Wasteland settler lifestyle unless they chose to.

2. There’s an abundance of thrilling and fun activities (racing! shooting! gambling! urban exploration!), and little time spent on less appealing traditional post-apocalyptic staples like cooking rats and dying of radiation sickness.

3. We never see the world beyond a few square miles of the desert (although it’s made clear that travel between cities and countries is still possible).

4. It’s quite hard to permanently die unless you do something really stupid. (Rage uses a magic defibrilator as a ‘lives’ system – id coming full circle from being one of the first developers to drop lives for Wolfenstein 3-D.)

5. And of course, everyone treats you like the hero.

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Rage has a lot to recommend it as a game tourism destination. id have managed to come up with a surprisingly diverse range of locations within their dust bowl. While you will find the standard ruined building, sewer and industrial plant levels common to every FPS, there are also about half a dozen ‘set-piece’ levels that have enormous amounts of detail and imaginative ideas put into them, sometimes to the extent of feeling more like film sets than inhabited places. (The density of detail in some of these areas is just ridiculous – it looks better than Wolfenstein:TNO at times, where budgetary constraints have led to a reliance on more prefabricated chunks of scenery than can be explained away by the Nazis’ having a boring taste in decor.)

Wellspring (disc 1’s hub town), the scene used in many of the teaser trailers in the years before the game’s release, still looks impressive today, albeit with quite a lot of forced occlusion and some dubious texture resolutions on bits of scenery for which later games would probably use dedicated models. Wellspring is one of the areas in the game that tries hardest to feel like a tangible, lived-in place, with lots of building interiors and unique named NPCs going about their business. But it’s also making an aesthetic statement of intent – there’s lots of brightly painted hissing and clanking machinery and quirky Mad Max-style makeshift architecture. It feels like a logical progression from the flashier Quake III levels like Deva Station.

The Mutant Bash arena is the probably the most blatant attempt the game makes to channel a George Miller vibe, although the edginess of slaughtering mutants as part of a gameshow is undermined somewhat by their treatment as consequence-free cannon fodder everywhere else in the game as well. (Look out for the obligatory Dopefish cameo.)

The Dead City is one of the major spectacles in the first half of the game, showing off what the tech is capable of by bringing intricately detailed collapsed skyscrapers out of the skybox and into the playing area. The influence that this level had on similar areas in The Last of Us is clear to see. It’s one of the rare areas in the game that really feels like it’s hostile to human intrusion.

The Blue Line Station (the dungeon below Subway Town, the hub of the second half of the game) leads the player on a twisting route through a cavernous ruined railway station complex, where it never feels possible to cover all the exits. By this point the artists seem well accustomed to scattering massive amounts of geometrically-modelled debris around and having idTech do its magic – the collapsed brick walls in the flooded bathroom are particularly good.

Jackal Canyon is a rare instance of an on-foot section of the game taking place in the desert, with lots of use of verticality and a challenging gauntlet for the (by now tooled-up) player to pit their skills against.

Finally be sure to pay a visit to the Distillery, a self-contained derelict factory setting that’s only used for a couple of side missions, and yet has a unique, twilit monochromatic look that sets it apart from anywhere else in the game.

Rage is probably the last game that will ever look quite like it does. While the megatexture tech was ahead of its time, the artists were still building and dressing their worlds with old techniques. It sometimes feels like you’re exploring a scale model with concept art papier-mached to the walls with varying degrees of success, whereas increasingly modern games are moving toward photogrammetry and similar techniques to sample real-world architecture and scenery. As we edge closer toward VR it will be interesting to see if this uncanniness becomes more noticeable.

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I seem to remember reading that id have some Pixar veterans on their staff, and there’s a lot of quite showy animation in Rage that makes me inclined to believe it. Lots of NPCs have bits of (quite exaggerated and cartoony) hand-animated business going on during conversations. (I’ve not talked much about the NPCs. They look amazing by 2011 standards, but they’re not really given a lot to say or do. Also the design of some of the female characters on disc two is a wee bit cringeworthy. Not as bad as Lt. Commander Booth Babe in Unreal 2, or Cortana, but still.)

However the real stars of the show are the mutants, who are essentially version 2.0 of the acrobatic imps from Doom 3. They swing from rafters, roll behind cover, vault bannisters and launch themselves from doorways. They also get knocked back and react to being shot based on where they were hit. You can constantly get a read on their status just by watching them move. They’re like the ganados in Resident Evil 4, in a way, except rather a lot faster and capable of coming at you from any angle.

Also making a return from Doom 3 are the spider bots, AI-controlled mobile gun emplacements that you can craft and deploy at any point. The animation of these little guys gives them a lot of personality and physical weight. They traverse the environment intelligently and realistically, have some sense of self-preservation and even have sweet melee attacks. It’s like id saw the friendly antlions in Half Life 2 and decided to do the job properly. (It’s rather a shame that the game’s difficulty is weighted to accommodate joypad users, as there’s not much tactical need to use them at Normal difficulty on PC.)

All ornamentation aside, the combat is the meat of the game, and the thing that most critics agree is the thing that the game unequivocally gets right. There are echoes of Doom in that player movement and circle-strafing are important again, and that you have to consider the stopping power of your different weapons to effect crowd management.

It keeps the tension up by typically throwing just a few more enemies than you can deal with without having to scamper off to take cover and reload, and doesn’t respawn enemies endlessly. You often have the option of using Pop Rockets (high explosive shotgun shells) to one-shot kill troublesome enemies, although with the built-in penalty that gibbed enemies don’t drop loot.

One snag is that once you have high powered long range weapons later in the game, it becomes a bit too easy to cheese the AI and pick off distant bandits as they fail to properly use cover.

The combat can sometimes be made more frustrating that necessary for mouse and keyboard users thanks to the fiddly and poorly explained shortcut menu system. Seriously: I’ve completed the game and I still don’t fully understand how it’s supposed to work. You have a limited number of shortcut keys (presumably mapping to the dpad on a joypad) for using items in combat, and something similar for weapons and ammo types. It seems to be impossible to access some items and ammo types with a single keypress, instead having to slowly cycle through options or jumping out to the pause menu.

If this wasn’t bad enough, mouse controls in in-game menus (such as shops, the garage and the job board) are incredibly slow and clunky, which is all the more inexplicable when you consider how slick these subsystems were in Doom 3. Thankfully MachineGames took all this out behind the barn and shot it when it came to design the UI for Wolfenstein.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a lifelong id Software fan, and probably willing to give them the benefit of the doubt more than most. Rage is a long way from my favourite of their games, and I can see its flaws. With that in mind, if you like single player shooters, gawping at still-quite-pretty graphics, or just want to know why Carmack is regarded with such reverence as a graphics programmer (as I appreciate it’s hard for young people to appreciate the impact Doom and Quake had at the time of their release), Rage is worth a couple of evenings of your time. I would recommend getting The Scorchers DLC pack as well, as this basically adds a nice boss battle to make up for the game’s ending being so ridiculously abrupt.

How abrupt? This abru-


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“Sabotage”
Posted at 15:45 on 21st November 2015 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 20/11/2015.

I should point out that this is what we call a ‘joke’ – I have no strongly held opinions about Quantic Dream or David Cage. I’ve never played Heavy Rain.

“David Cage” – after “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys

I can’t play it, I’ve gotta say it
It’s not a game, this Heavy Rain
Now please don’t think I’m being unfair
But I played this before when it was Dragon’s Lair
So now I sit back and watch you try
To have a mo-capped scene make me cry
Hard to feel like you’re in charge
Playing a game by David Cage

[BREAK]

So so so
So pick a path cause you can’t change nothing
The story plays and you’re just pushing buttons
But yo, I doubt that I’m wrong
To say I think he peaked with Omikron

[BREAK]

Cause when I see Quick Time E-vents
My interest’s spent, is this where your time went?
Origami Killer still at large
I’m trading in this game by David Cage

[INSTRUMENTAL]

JAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASON

You hardly interact at all

Ceci est un jeu par David Cage
Ceci est un jeu par David Cage
Ceci est un jeu par David Cage
Je ne veux pas un jeu par David Cage

I can’t play it, I’ve gotta say it
Not even saved by Ellen Page
Synthetic actors just look out of place
Staring into space with an immobile face
To Kojima’s games you can’t hold a candle
And Fahrenheit it belongs in a landfill
You think it’s art, it’s pure fromage
You’re trying to make a film, you’re David Cage

More Marioke songs


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Doug dug.
Posted at 00:41 on 11th October 2015 - permalink

“Doug dug.” by The Electric Toy Company is my current iOS commuting game of choice (previous title holders include: Bejeweled Blitz, Happy Street, Puzzle & Dragons and World’s Biggest Picture Cross).

It’s a procedurally generated real-time platform digging game, which displays obvious influences from the likes of Dig Dug, Repton and Mr. Driller, as well as in no small part Spelunky. I’ve described it in the past as ‘Spelunky methadone’ – short of buying a PSVita (unlikely) it’s the only way I can achieve that kind of roguelike hit while out of the house. (It’s also better suited to mobile play as session times are shorter and the interface only needs one finger.)

While Doug Dug initially feels like a quite shallow (and in some ways unfairly random) game, there are quite a lot of subtle design features that only make themselves apparent with extended play.

Doug Dug has two stated objectives: collect as much treasure as possible to gain a high score, and dig as deeply as possible (triggering the brilliant message “You have achieved a new low”) without dying. There’s no time limit or forced scrolling so the player is free to plan their moves (most of the time) without having to perform digital gymnastics.

Once the player learns the basic rules of how the game works, they can stop playing reactively, and start thinking about how to use the environment to achieve their immediate goals. Below I’ve listed some of the rules I’ve observed to give you a head start.

Treasure

The treasure that Doug the dwarf seeks is encountered in several states.

Treasure that can be mined out of blocks is always visible and is instantly collected when a block is mined out by Doug. It takes the form of precious gold, so-so silver or shameful bronze ore (worth $300, $200 and $100 respectively) as well as coloured gems that become more valuable (up to $5,000 in my experience) the deeper one goes. If a block is destroyed by falling the treasure is destroyed with it. The easiest and stupidest way to die in Doug Dug is to tunnel horizontally through a cliff to reach a distant treasure, resulting in a cave-in.

Treasure dropped by killed enemies falls until it comes to rest on a flat surface. While this treasure only comes in gold/silver/bronze varieties, later enemies can drop many pieces. Loose treasure has some interesting properties: dragon’s fire and lava particles are extinguished when they come into contact with it (so for instance, a dragon surrounded by loose nuggets is effectively harmless) and likewise rocks falling onto it are instantly destroyed. Unlike in Spelunky, loose treasure falling on enemies doesn’t hurt them.

Background treasure is fixed into the back wall, and moves in slight parallax with the foreground scene. It’s collected instantly on contact. It’s worth noting that treasure (and items) within two spaces above Doug can be collected by swiping upwards, so sometimes it’s possible to use air control to pluck background treasure even when there’s no platform nearby.

Finally there are treasure chests, which can contain a random amount of treasure or which will spawn a random item (never the same as the one being carried by the player) or a lit bomb when opened.

A key thing to know if you’re chasing a high score is that the game has a combo system: if three or more pieces of treasure are collected within about a second of each other, a Treasure Trove bonus of $1,000 x the number of pieces of treasure is awarded. This can often be exploited through careful route planning and ‘pre-weakening’ treasure-bearing blocks.

Items

Collectible items that bestow temporary or permanent effects can sometimes be found in chests and crates, or just lying around in the world. Doug has a single inventory slot that can be used to store items for later activation. The last three items on the list are only found in crates and have a state purchase cost to access.

Gold Rush: Doug can dig faster for a limited time. Useful for out-running enemies or just to relieve the tedium of clearing a particularly dense expanse of rock.

Feather Fall: Doug can fall any distance without injury. Can be used mid-fall. In a game where lots of cheap deaths are caused by leaps of faith and collapsing floors, it’s at least some solace.

Support: Makes a single block sized ‘roof’ that Doug can stand within to be safe from collapsing rocks. It can also be dropped on enemies.

Hard Hat: Essentially an extra life. Protects Doug from one instance of something that would kill him. Doesn’t use an inventory slot. Useless against deep lava.

Jackhammer: Gold Rush on steroids. Doug is briefly invincible and constantly digs downward, although he can be steered to destroy blocks and enemies to his sides. Particularly useful for dealing with massive amounts of lava and trolls.

Invincibility: Doug becomes impervious to all hazards (including burning and crushing) for a few seconds. Also seems to speed up digging.

Enemies

Rats: The weakest enemy, rats can move left or right and burrow through blocks in front of them. The can be killed by running into them or falling on them. Very often they commit suicide by digging out the support for blocks above them.

Bats: As in Spelunky, these are treacherous little swine. Bats fly in any direction until they hit a wall, and then turn 90 degrees. Doug can despatch them by ‘digging’ at them in any direction, but there are annoying edge cases where a bat will clip the player’s hitbox off-centre and still kill them. As the game only tracks a few tiles above the top of the screen before garbage collecting, bats that fly off the top of the screen seldom return.

Dragons: Added in an update, dragons move similarly to rats, however they can randomly decide to stop walking and spew a stream of fire particles. (Their eyes flash momentarily to warn of this.) At close range their fire can destroy blocks and chests (and other enemies). While on the same level they can usually be easily dealt with, they can be extremely dangerous if Doug gets trapped downhill to one.

Mummies: Mummies are two squares tall and can be dealt with on open ground in the same way as rats and dragons. However, they’re not affected by walls and falling rocks: if a mummy doesn’t have enough room to stand on a platform, it will transform into a ghost and start slowly zig-zagging up the screen until it finds enough space to rematerialise. The strategy for dealing with them then becomes clearing enough space for them to spawn and chase Doug.

Trolls: As far as I know, the ultimate foe in the game. Trolls are massive and can simply push through walls of rock. They kill Doug on contact. If you don’t have a jackhammer or invincibility, it’s probably curtains, although fortuitously triggering TNT, bombs, lava and falling rocks – or just nimbly running away – can sometimes work. (Edit: Evidently you can kill trolls using your standard attack, but the conditions to allow this aren’t entirely clear. Possibly you need to have the hard hat item.)

As with treasure, there’s a combo system for making multiple kills – this only counts for kills Doug makes directly.

Environment

Lava: Fluid is simulated in the game as a collection of loosely jiggling particles which each have a heat/energy value (denoted by colour). Lava contained in a tight space will stay ‘hot’, whereas if its container is broken, it will slowly tumble downhill until it finds another container or else will slowly disperse. Falling rocks extinguish lava, so you can build stepping stones or bridges by engineering rockfalls above lava fields.

Dirt: The softest material that Doug can dig through is also the most dangerous. Dirt has very few ‘health points’, and can be weakened by too much weight, or sometimes just spontaneously, resulting in massive chain reaction collapses. When digging through dirt it’s usually worth waiting and observing if surrounding pieces are cracking, and to ensure there’s a clear escape route.

Falling: Doug can sometimes ‘surf’ on falling rocks, repeatedly landing on them as he falls, which cushions otherwise fatal long falls.

You can buy “Doug dug.” on iOS and Android.


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“Thank You For The Music”
Posted at 21:23 on 19th September 2015 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 18/09/2015.

“Blanka’s Got The Moveset” – after “Thank You For The Music” by ABBA

I’m nothing special, each time I played Street Fighter IV
If I threw a punch, you’d probably blocked it before
’til I found a fighter, who comes from Brazil
If you get too close then he’ll give you a thrill
He’s so feral and wild
He fell out of a plane as a child

So I say
Blanka’s got the moveset
The rolls I’m spinning
Thanks for all the volts I’m zinging
If you fail to counter, it would be a travesty
How can this be?
Now you’ve been handed your arse by a freak
So I say Blanka’s got the moveset
To bring him victory

One day Street Fighter appeared at the Goodge Street arcade
And you know the guy I picked every time that I played
And I’ve often wondered why this is the case
Who found out that no-one can chomp on a face
Like this Brazilian?
Well, I know who it was: Akiman!

So I say
Blanka’s got the moveset, the rolls I’m spinning
Thanks for all the volts I’m zinging
He don’t need karate, he learned from electric eels
That is his deal
So you can understand his appeal
When I say Blanka’s got the moveset
To bring him victory

I’ve been so lucky, a green freak with orange hair
I wanna kick the crap out of everybody
Out of Ken, out of Guile, out of Dan!

Blanka’s got the moveset
The rolls I’m spinning
Thanks for all the volts I’m zinging
Slides under hadoukens, attacks with ferocity
Even Zangief
Has had his arse kicked into next week
So I say Blanka’s got the moveset
To bring him victory
So I say Blanka’s got the moveset
To bring him victory

More Marioke songs


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Pricing premium mobile games
Posted at 22:33 on 18th August 2015 - permalink

Contrary to some reports, there is still some room (albeit a scattering of hard to reach footholds) in the market for premium mobile games. Developing and publishing a game in this category carries a significant amount of risk, and mitigating that risk requires a thorough understanding of customer behaviour and a credible plan for addressing its specific challenges from the outset. Hope is indeed not a strategy.

Convincing customers to part with their money upfront for a mobile game requires clearing four distinct hurdles1 (in addition to producing a high quality game):

1. The game should be sufficiently notable to recruit prospective players and generate buzz in the run-up to launch.

Typically this involves campaigning for media coverage, although in a few cases established developers can promote games directly to their fans. It’s much harder to get traction with a game that nobody has heard of. The object of this exercise is to maximise sales during the launch period resulting in chart visibility, as well as strengthening the game’s case for the second step:

2. The game must appeal to the platform holders. It often helps if a game can be described in the context of previous successful games.2 Games that are technical showcases and which have proven appeal among mainstream users are also favoured. Securing editorial featuring is critical for a premium mobile game to succeed outside of a specialised niche.

Clearing this hurdle (while no guarantee of success in itself) can result in an incalculable level of marketing support over the lifetime of a game. Once you’re in, the game is yours to lose (see point 4 and indeed the rest of this article).

3. The game’s ‘packaging’ (icon, title, screenshot, etc.) must communicate an obvious benefit to users browsing the store who have never previously heard of your game.

There are obvious examples where the iconography used is widely known already (Angry Birds, sports, Pac-Man, Star Wars, etc.), but games based on original IP can succeed here too – my favourite example of this is Mr. Crab, the original icon for which made me laugh out loud (and instantly hit ‘BUY’) when I first saw it on the store. (I have a very stupid sense of humour.) If you can get that kind of response the customer’s defences are down.

Assuming editorial featuring has been secured, the perceived ‘seal of approval’ by the platform holder will dispel some concerns about product quality – all that now has to be done is to convince the prospective purchaser that this particular game appeals to their tastes.

4. The game’s price must be in line with the average user’s expectations for products in the store. STICKER SHOCK(!) will instantly undo all the hard work put into the three previous stages.

Let’s make it absolutely clear: Successful, high profile premium mobile games3 have established a ‘de facto’ accepted price range, and pricing a game outside of this sweet spot has zero effect on customers’ perceptions of what mobile games are ‘worth’. Furthermore it usually results in the mispriced game dramatically curtailing its commercial prospects.

Most of the premium mobile games in the modern era4 that have been majorly successful have been priced around the $5 mark (give or take a couple of bucks), irrespective of their budget, complexity, amount of content or any other factor.

The number of mobile games that can sustain a price point higher than $9.99 USD is vanishingly small, and most of the members of this exclusive group are games that can be classified as hobbies in themselves: Football Manager, Monster Hunter, XCOM, Desktop Dungeons, FTL, and further out into the wilds of beardy-weirdy tabletop strategy/wargames. (Square Enix also manage to buck the trend as Final Fantasy is still the nearest thing that games has to a designer label outside of Nintendo.)

It’s frustrating to keep seeing mobile developers making terrible pricing decisions and then blaming the market. Let’s look at the typical justifications given for inflated prices, in the hope that a developer somewhere might reconsider before they waste their moment in the limelight.

“We want to maintain the same price on all platforms.”

This seems reasonable on the surface, but falls to scrutiny on at least two counts.

Firstly, customers browsing their mobile device’s app store are not weighing up the prices against Steam or PSN. If a game is cheaper on a format I don’t have or don’t want to use in this instance, that’s irrelevant as long as the price on my platform of choice seems fair for the platform. Price discrimination is pretty widely understood as a strategy at this point.

Secondly, the price that you can request is different because the product itself is different. It’s like tapes and CDs, or Blu-Ray and Netflix – in each case you’re buying a license for the same source content, but the characteristics of the delivery method influence the pricing.

If a game was designed with the assumption of real time physical controls, its interface will usually be compromised on a touchscreen. (That gamepad peripherals exist for mobile devices is irrelevant – mobile joypads are the in-car record players of the interface world, the exclusive domain of people who will pay over the odds for an inelegant, unsatisfactory solution instead of just accepting that they should have picked a more appropriate format in the first place.)

There are a whole raft of other factors in play (some highly subjective) that affect users’ perception of games as discrete products on different formats. Games on PC support modding and fine-grained customisation. PC and console games (aside from purely online ones) are generally perceived as being more durable, whereas it’s not unknown for mobile games to be withdrawn from sale or stop working as hardware and operating systems evolve. Even storage space is a factor – a few large premium games will quickly fill up a typical device and users infrequently dive through their archives to revisit games they’ve deleted to save space.

“We think this is a fair price for X hours of entertainment.”

This is a holdover from the gold rush days when $0.99 USD or free mobile games were characterised as shallow, casual affairs. While it’s true that the F2P model is a non-starter for certain genres, F2P developers have found spaces within the model’s limitations to design games offering months of engaging gameplay. For example, I played Puzzle & Dragons every day for over a year without handing over any money. (Puzzle & Dragons is a game which offers a great deal of strategic depth that the player can’t bypass by pumping money into it.) Furthermore, Monument Valley has maintained a $3.99 price point for most of its life and that’s a game that can be clocked in under an hour.

“Our game represents X months of work by a team of Y people.”

See above. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s a closed loop. The temptation is for the developer to massively inflate the value of the resources they’ve put into a project, massively overestimate the importance of each bullet point feature as a selling point (very few people care that your game has multiplayer, sorry), and massively feed their egos with intimations of how well they’d be paid if they took their giant analytical brains to work for an investment bank instead of slumming it in games.5 All those high profile F2P games are also the result of hard work by big teams, too.

“Our game won/was nominated for an award.”

To be fair, some of the most prestigious awards like IGF and BAFTA open up some more opportunities for promotion and publicity, but overall they are pretty much meaningless as a selling point.

“We want to change the way people think about value of mobile games.”

The only way to achieve this would be by price collusion on an historic scale. And it still wouldn’t work. And anyway, you don’t really. Electronic Arts spent about ten years telling everyone that they were going to raise the production values of mobile games to the point where AAA budgets and console-like price tags would be the order of the day. These days a large part of their mobile earnings comes from Simpsons Tapped Out, Sim City BuildIt and FIFA Ultimate Team (all F2P).

“We’re not chasing new fans, just serving our existing ones.”

I think there are situations where this is the best strategy to follow (such as the aforementioned beardy weirdy tabletop ports) where there’s already a (relatively) large, informed and invested core audience that can be mobilised to support a new game. In such cases trying to win over users outside of that sphere becomes a time consuming distraction.

However, I have seen cases where developers clearly don’t have a reliable picture of the sheer scale of the active iOS and Android user base, and underestimate how many people in the mainstream audience (who don’t read the games press or play on PC or console) are just missing the opportunity to find out that they’re interested.

“But our game costs less than a cup of coffee!”

Even when developers have wisely priced their game in the ~$5 sweet spot, you will still sometimes hear complaints about piracy or negative user reviews where customers have a different opinion of what a game is worth.

I always wince when I hear this, as it’s almost always coming from elite developers who can afford all the video games they could possibly have time to play without it making much of a dent in their disposable income.

If you’re a kid, $5 or $10 is not an impulse purchase. If you haven’t spent years studying games as a major hobby and developing your tastes, paying $5 is firing blind, with each miss rapidly depleting your determination to gamble again. If you live in one of the many territories served by the app stores where wages and living standards aren’t that great, or if you’re poor in a rich country without a good social safety net, $5 here and there quickly adds up.

I’m not excusing piracy, just pointing out that one person’s ‘throwaway’ price might not seem so reasonable to someone who doesn’t buy their coffee from Starbucks or who doesn’t consider games one of their main uses of leisure time.

“Less than the price of a coffee” is only a small step away from “they can’t be that poor if they have smartphones”. It’s quite thoughtless and I’d be happy to never hear it again.

I think that’s all the main arguments covered. If you’re planning on releasing a premium mobile game and you’re not prepared to research the market or consider that their might be valid reasons that the majority of successful games have gravitated to a certain consistent price band, you’re taking a needless risk.

Not every game needs to break into the mainstream, but don’t make retreating to an exclusive niche a foregone conclusion – conventional wisdom probably wouldn’t have pegged The Sims, Minecraft, Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Room or Monument Valley as being million-selling mainstream hits before they went on sale.

Price your game fairly and you’ll make more money and will help to grow the audience for premium mobile games.

Notes

[1.] This process is analogous to making a hit pop record (in the days when people bought music): Radio play, Shop display, Packaging, Price sticker. Which is probably why one or two ex-music industry people have been quite successful at it.

[2.] As of this writing the front page of the App Store routinely contains games which heavily reference the visual styles of Monument Valley and Crossy Road, as ‘isometric’ and ‘pastel colours’ are the current accepted shorthand for ‘popular game’. Earlier in the year the buzz was around over-produced Puzzle & Dragons / Marvel Puzzle Quest clones and endless runners, most of which have since sunk without trace.

[3.] Monument Valley, Spider, Threes, GTA, Race The Sun, Super Hexagon, Ridiculous Fishing, Legend of Grimrock, Machinarium, Her Story, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, Worms, Framed, Mr. Crab, Goat Simulator, basically all Telltale, Simogo and Kairosoft games, etc. etc. – or just look at the paid games charts in any given week.

[4.] Please note the publication date. I’ve found that writing about mobile game marketing tends to have a limited shelf life.

[5.] I’ve heard of indie developers arguing that they should be able to charge £40 or more for a digital game on the basis that punters were willing to pay this back in the 1990s, when publishers had a captive audience and distribution was a hideously inefficient nightmare that trickled little if any royalties back to the developer rather than the 70% they can expect to net today.

Even in those days rather a lot of consumers didn’t think that forty quid was a reasonable price for a game (which is why piracy was rife and ultra-budget labels did brisk business), and judging by the popularity of Steam sales and the alarming speed with which non-Nintendo console games are discounted, many still don’t.


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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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