GameCamp 2012 (#gc5)
Posted at 22:10 on 13th May 2012 - permalink

Previous GameCamps: 2008, 2010, 2011

Yesterday I attended my fifth GameCamp unconference event, held (as last year) at the LSBU Keyworth Centre in South London.

The set-up was slightly different to last time, with the organisational hub (featuring the schedule whiteboard along with the board game library and new addition, London Hackspace’s arcade cabinet ‘The Beast’) located on the first floor and physical games (Nerf War) on the second floor, while the actual rooms for the unconference were on the fifth floor.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad decision (we found last year that the venue is not very suitable for wandering between talks) but it did feel like there were significantly fewer sessions posted to the board than in previous years, and people were wary of shifting their timeslots around or adding more sessions throughout the day as most people were staying upstairs and not revisiting the board except during the lunch break.

Here are the talks that I attended: (titles paraphrased from memory)

10.00 – “Don’t rely on Stephen Fry” – James Wallis (@jameswallis) talked about the problems of making ARG-like events (and other kinds of games) to support the launch of films and TV shows. The title referring to an occasion where Fry absent-mindedly neglected to tweet the vital clue for a nationwide treasure hunt.

10.30 – “Unethical practices in mainstream games” – a chap from Crytek UK gave his views on games recycling assets to extend playing time, and the cynical mechanics of social games, leading to a quite interesting discussion.

11.00 – “First annual conference of what went wrong in our games” – Michael Cook (@mtrc) coaxed some stories of interesting failures and ideas that seem too risky to pursue from the gathered developers.

11.30 – Managed to poke my head around the door for about five minutes of Quintin Smith’s (@quinns108) talk and also got caught in a running Nerf battle in a corridor. Very Community.

12.00 – “Games in the workplace” – Civil servant and man who doesn’t put his real name on the internet @monkeybanjo, who you may remember from last year’s excellently titled talk “SEX!”, sought out ways to get middle aged workers to participate in game-based learning activities during work hours.

12.30 – “The Slow Death of Punk Rock” – Ste Curran (@steishere) gave an inspiring talk encouraging people to play all kinds of games instead of sticking within one definition of what “games” are supposed to be (using the analogy of fans of punk rock having the option to regress to nostalgia for when their niche was better served, or broadening their interests to other genres of music). A full half of this was given over to an anecdote about crying at a Britney Spears concert (with graphs).

13.00 – “Lunch” – a session about slowly filing past several large pans of salad and greasy vegetarian pizza.

13.30 – Managed to poke my head around the door of several things, a session on “Heroes” which had attracted most of the games writing crowd being the most interesting.

14.00 – “Come tell your favourite bits of games” – George Buckenham (@v21) used this session as fodder for his excellent (and not just because I’m on it) audio blog Games We Have Known And Loved. This resulted in tales of cooperation in Journey, glitches in Serious Sam, alien babies in The Sims, and in the closing minutes an amazing, hilarious story about a group of friends who would ‘play’ WWF Attitude by making custom characters and watching the game play out their careers in CPU vs. CPU mode.

14.30 – “Pigeonholes” – This was my talk, where I tried to condense several pages of rambling notes into a coherent twenty minutes. The crux of my argument was that conventional wisdom is a trap, and aiming to make games that sit neatly within existing genres (and use existing technology) while leaving all the R&D heavy lifting and risk to well-funded “mainstream” developers put indie games at the risk of stagnation. Essentially, I’m bored of lo-fi sketches, and want more games that set some limitations then massively over-deliver within them – Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars being one example I gave.

My favourite games are those where you’re doing something radically different and unpredictable at regular intervals (Mafia, Gunstar Heroes, Resident Evil 4, Psychonauts), and games that take the trappings of a familiar genre in a radical new direction (Stalker, Metroid Prime, Jetpack Joyride). I asked at one point where the developers were today that were the modern equivalent of id Software, Treasure or the Bitmap Brothers, to which someone replied Introversion Software which… didn’t quite get what I was aiming at. The teams I mentioned each (repeatedly) made games that were the benchmark for their platforms.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who came, and I’ll go back to picking something a bit more straightforward and coherent next time!

15.00 – “Dragon’s Den” – Ste Curran (@steishere), Martin “The Fashion” Hollis (@martin_hollis) and Marek Bronstring (@gwarek) were the dragons in this impromptu and somewhat experimental attempt to recreate the popular game show where entrepreneurs beg for investment. Pitches included a Dragon’s Den sim, a scientologist plot, and an attempt at a reverse takeover of the dragons. It was a bit weird, but raised a few LOLs.

15.30 – There weren’t any good talks in this slot, as far as I remember. (Or at least their titles weren’t very compelling.) Sorry!

16.00 – “Mod Readme Files” – Alice O’Connor (@asponge) presented a selection of the strangest and funniest excerpts from readme.txt files taken from her tumblr. The readme files of mods (starting with Doom and Quake, and most recently revived by Minecraft’s huge modding scene) capture a time when game development in a limited form was suddenly open to everyone, and the peculiar and ill-advised bids for immortality that resulted.

16.30 – “Pub” – No card and board games or unlimited focaccia this time, but a chance to catch up with lots of people who I’d not seen since the last major gaming event.

It’s always hard to say whether GameCamp was better or worse than previous years, as everyone has a different experience. It certainly felt a bit smaller this time, but the concentration of genuinely interesting talks was as high as it’s ever been – and more talks felt like they’d been planned ahead of time. All in all a great day, and rumours that there’s going to be another one before the year is out are very encouraging.


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More recent iOS picks
Posted at 02:45 on 11th March 2012 - permalink

I can’t believe it’s been over six months since I’ve done one of these. I finally retired my trusty iPhone 3GS last week and upgraded to a 4S, so have revisited some more hardware-intensive games along with the more typical 2D fare. (This also means that the following brain flobs represent more rigorous real-world testing than a lot of professional iOS reviews, which often seem to assume that everyone has an iPad 2.) Anyway, without further ado:

Jetpack Joyride

48 hours of play, 995,724 coins accrued, 22 shiny badges collected, and I’m still going back to it. Jetpack Joyride is an endless running game with a (massively overloaded) single button control scheme. It’s an arcade game in the purest sense, mixing a set of dexterity-based skills to master with an element of calculated luck. In a sense it’s a lot like pinball, Defender, or (that other great iOS time sink) Bejeweled Blitz.

Your character (“Barry Steakfries”, but to fans of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe he’ll always be “Barry Shitpeas” really) runs forward, ever faster, through a tunnel stitched together from random segments. Pressing a finger on the screen activates the jetpack’s thrust. You have to dodge obstacles and collect coins and power-ups. The first genius element of the design is the inclusion of six vehicles that are randomly spawned, each of which introduces a new control scheme to master and, crucially, triggers a section of track based around testing those skills.

But what truly elevates Jetpack Joyride above all previous endless runners is the inclusion of a (now oft-imitated) mission system. The game maintains a bulletin board which at any given time lists three secondary goals that can be attempted during normal play. Completing these goals awards rank-up stars and causes new and increasingly more challenging missions to be swapped in, until the pool of missions is exhausted (and the game is ‘completed’ – until you start again from scratch). This prevents the game from getting repetitive and allows the player to focus on devising the most efficient strategy whilst exercising their skills.

The game makes your stay in addiction treadmill hell more pleasant by having very crisp visuals with meticulous attention to detail. Each jetpack has a different fancy particle effect trail (and some actually have very subtle gameplay effects). The ramshackle “Profit Bird” vehicle emits satisfying creaks and clunks with each flap, while the “Lil’ Stomper” mecha smashes the ground underfoot after a heavy landing. There are plenty of indications that Halfbrick have a genuine love of 1990s games, with obvious Treasure and Metal Slug influences (plus of course Barry’s motorcycle is pretty much identical to Alex Kidd’s).

I honestly think that Jetpack Joyride is as important both in design terms and as a blueprint for a large part of the industry to learn from as a Half-Life 2 or GTA III. Not all of the elements I’ve described above are entirely original, but in their combination and execution, Halfbrick have shown how a game can be tailored to the mobile platform, made accessible to mainstream audiences, monetised through in-app purchases and yet still retain gameplay depth and personality. There doesn’t have to be a trade-off.
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Reality is Broken
Posted at 14:22 on 16th December 2011 - permalink

Reality is Broken
Jane McGonigal
ISBN 978-0-22-408925-8

Firstly, for those of you in a hurry: if you’re looking for a good gaming-related book to read over the holidays, I would emphatically recommend Tristan Donovan’s Replay (a deep and absorbing gaming history that looks far beyond the well-worn stories of the American and Japanese giants), closely followed by Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life and David Kushner’s Masters of Doom (both fascinating pieces of journalism). If you’re still morbidly curious about this book, flick through chapters six and twelve (the most concentratedly ridiculous parts) in your local book shop.

Reality is Broken isn’t the worst book on games that I’ve read (although bear in mind that line-up includes things like the novelisation of Golden Axe), but it’s undoubtedly the one that’s created the greatest amount of hoopla from the smallest amount of actual substance. And certainly one of the strangest.

As a popular science book it’s built on very shaky foundations. The stated aims of the book are to explore ways in which playing games “make you a better person”, and how games can positively affect the real world. In practice, this amounts to a mixture of feel-good platitudes and exhaustive promotion of McGonigal’s other work.

While pandering to gamers’ egos is a bankable marketing tactic (as practitioners from Buckner and Garcia to Penny Arcade have consistently proven), it doesn’t result in a book that makes much effort to challenge or surprise the reader. It’s not quite the cultish self-help manual that McGonigal’s happy clappy online presence had led me to expect, but it’s still incongruous for a ‘science-y’ book to keep nudging the reader to remind them that they’re special because they play games.

Several ‘proper’ book reviewers have already thoroughly skewered the book’s aspirations to big ideas. (see: Reluctant Habits, Wall Street Journal – seriously, check these out. They really don’t pull any punches.) I will instead focus mainly on my reaction to the book as someone coming from a relatively deep gaming background.

I’m not going to go into too much discussion about the merits of gamification (a term the book never uses). There’s a lot of evidence that it works (see: anti-truancy programmes involving sports shop vouchers if you’re from the UK, or literacy programmes involving Personal Pan Pizzas if you’re American), and, sure, while it’s in vogue it will continue to be unthinkingly applied to inappropriate problems.
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Forever Drive: Fixed
Posted at 16:10 on 7th November 2011 - permalink

Over the weekend Supermono released a version 1.1 update for Forever Drive, which fixes many of the issues that I outlined in my previous post. From the patch notes:

* You can now report bad tracks from a button and it will be erased from our servers once it has been vetted via email
* You can earn credits by racing lots of tracks and also sometimes as gifts
* 5 free track slots
* You can now EDIT your existing tracks to make it better without the need to purchase more slots
* You no longer boost when crossing a timeline
* New Monorail scenery to add to your tracks
* Help webpage linked from in game, along with a helpful Video to show you why you should get HI COMBOS!

Already there are far fewer broken tracks being served up by the game, suggesting that the developer is acting on email reports quickly. Having to submit reports via email is a bit odd (and I can imagine that some players will have a problem with having to share their email address to use this function), but I suppose the intention is to discourage players from spamming the report button for every track.

Making credits earnable through gameplay is a major improvement. The game still requires a lot of grinding, but there’s now much more incentive to use the complementary credits early on to unlock a better car.

The underlying problem of the game’s economy being based on players ‘gambling’ credits to race on user generated tracks that can include broken tracks made by griefers still persists. Perhaps the next step should be to only include tracks in the Super XP Mode that have a net positive rating, zero (or very few) reports and a minimum number of previous plays (say, 100).

There are still a couple of other intermittent niggles outstanding. If a track ends on a tight curve it’s possible to crash into a wall between tracks (when steering control has been taken away from the player). This should be changed so it doesn’t reset the combo meter.

There’s also the rain. The game will sometimes randomly decide to change the weather conditions for the duration of one track. The wet weather setting massively degrades the car’s handling, making the game more frustrating (and less fun) while offering no compensatory reward. It’s basically a random “game over” button that can cut short your run at any time. It shouldn’t necessarily be removed altogether, but the effect on handling could stand to be toned down a lot.

Overall, though, Forever Drive is now much closer to fulfilling its potential. It’s great to see a developer taking on board user feedback so quickly and comprehensively.


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Fixing Forever Drive
Posted at 00:32 on 20th October 2011 - permalink

I’d been looking forward to Supermono’s iOS arcade racer Forever Drive since it was previewed at the World of Love conference in January. So when I heard the other day that not only was it finally out but it was a free download to boot, I didn’t need any further encouragement to check it out.

I’ve put a few hours into it now and I’m afraid to say I’m a bit disappointed. The game’s two major defining features – highly polished, TRON-like cyberpunk visuals and an endless, player-generated race track – are both present and by and large live up to expectations. However there are in my eyes several flaws with the game in its current incarnation, ranging from trivial to fundamental. Instead of just moaning about it, I’ve decided to go through the flaws as I see them one by one and try to figure out how they can be fixed in future updates of the game.

The catalyst that made me decide to sit down and write this was Adam Saltsman’s strongly worded article on Gamasutra where Forever Drive is singled out as a game which incorporates the “freemium” business model in a particularly unsatisfactory way, and some of the (dismissive and frankly a bit haughty) responses that this drew from people who interpreted it as an attack on all freemium/free-to-play games.

Forever Drive’s developer has stated that they put a lot of work into making the game’s freemium elements as unobtrusive as possible, and I have no reason to doubt that. I would charitably assume that the game’s problems in that area are more a result of the developer’s unfamiliarity with the model and a difficulty to see their game with fresh eyes, rather than cynical greed.

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Reaction to the Syndicate leak
Posted at 18:30 on 11th September 2011 - permalink

Yesterday the first details of the industry’s worst kept secret, ‘Project Redlime’ – a.k.a. Starbreeze’s ‘reimagining’ of the Bullfrog classic Syndicate – started to dribble out onto the global infoweb.

The scant information that has been revealed – a product description and some screenshots – has been met with howls of derision from people who played and loved the original game, which in turn have been met with grunts of condescension from people under 30 for whom Starbreeze may as well be adapting the films of Harold Lloyd.

I had (perhaps naively) hoped that Starbreeze would be a ‘safe pair of hands’ for a project like this. The main things that I know about their games is that they tend to be visually distinctive and to attempt things a few steps outside of the FPS norm. My faith was rather shaken by the leaked materials, which seem to depict the most generic militaristic near-future FPS imaginable, a mess of Killzone, CoD and FEAR.

It is of course entirely possible that the actual game isn’t going to be a Modern Warfare knock-off, and EA have just cherry-picked information that suggests that it is, to reassure the large portion of their audience for whom CoD defines action games. The emphasis on co-op play and mention that there are levels based on missions from the original give a glimmer of hope.

But there are also hints that the meddling with the Syndicate concept runs much deeper. You will, apparently, be playing the role of an autonomous character (“Miles Kilo”) – a syndicate agent rather than an executive overseer. There are mentions of personal motivations (“revenge”), and, oddly, of civilians being able to choose between Syndicates.

This makes me worry that the game is going to be about a syndicate agent going rogue, and potentially acting in the interests of the people and against the interests of the syndicate, in a dorky white-knuckle spy thriller plot. (Or in other words plundering liberally from Deus Ex.) Syndicate wasn’t about that.

Syndicate was as bleak and unambiguous as anything Bullfrog ever produced. I’m sure it’s been talked up in the past (by Gillen probably) as being an unconscious synthesis of the value system of Thatcher’s Britain. It works because it rationalises the amoral actions of your agents as being justified by money and power, with the assuredness of a teenager who has grown up on 2000AD, Robocop and Blade Runner. (Sean Cooper was only 20 when he programmed the game.)

(As for the commentators scoffing at EA’s use of the word ‘visceral’, that’s absolutely what Syndicate was. Most of the appeal of the game was in the feedback the player got from wreaking havoc in a populated city. I’m surely not the only person who would scour each map annihilating every person, car and tree long after the mission had been completed.)

If Starbreeze (or any modern developer) want to try to truly recreate Syndicate (rather than just plundering the basic premise and name recognition) they walk a tightrope between making it a game where you’re actually the good guy, or one where you’re an exaggeratedly obnoxious pantomime villain, almost as an inevitable consequence of modern AAA action games ‘needing’ to have voiced plot-advancing character-driven cut-scenes.

Even if it does turn out to be terrible, there are at least some other games that explore the same ground. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I should get around to writing about properly at some point) essentially has you playing a syndicate agent (albeit drawn from the company ranks rather than grabbed off the street), and has all the cybernetic augmentations, biochips, steam grates and neon that one could wish for. (Even if you don’t care a fig about Syndicate you should go and buy it anyway, because it’s excellent.)

Droid Assault (recently overhauled in anticipation of its imminent Steam release) plays rather like an abstract, cutesy version of Syndicate, where ‘capturing’ enemies (persuadertron-style) has an even more pronounced strategic dimension. (Incidentally, it’s a bit worrying that the Syndicate description makes no mention of the persuadertron.)

Going further back, Freedom Fighters gave a good demonstration of how A.I. squad-based, block-by-block guerilla warfare could work in a ‘modern’ game (although it has aged quite poorly).

Looking forward, the great thing about the success of Deus Ex: HR is that it has suddenly made cyberpunk-themed games a commercially viable proposition again, so perhaps we’ll see more games that capture something of Syndicate’s atmosphere, even if the ‘official’ one doesn’t.


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Recent iOS picks
Posted at 01:49 on 1st August 2011 - permalink

Given the transient nature of mobile games it might be useful to occasionally take a snapshot of the games I currently have in rotation (in a ‘New Games’ folder on the first page of my iPhone’s menu).

Even from this tiny sample it’s possible to see how many iOS games that until recently would have been sold as premium apps have moved to the free-to-play model. Some of the games using this model don’t even feature ads in the free version, depending solely on in-app purchases for revenue.

In terms of content, there’s the usual mix of rich, console-style games and simple microgames. Both approaches are valid, and confound attempts to encapsulate a single ‘correct’ formula for designing and marketing smartphone games.

The indie game that seems to have generated the most buzz over the last few weeks (helped in no small part by the tireless PR efforts of co-creator Andrew J Smith) is Spilt Milk Studios’ Hard Lines. A minimalistic mash-up of Snake, Tron’s light cycles and Geometry Wars’ art style, Hard Lines features six distinct playing modes, all of which involve guiding your single-pixel-wide line (Lionel) by swiping in the desired direction, collecting ‘shiny bits’ and avoiding crashing into walls and AI-controlled enemy lines.

What could have been quite a dry and generic game is infused with charm by the fact that all the lines are constantly spouting lines… of dialogue! (Ahem.) There seem to be hundreds of these lines, culled from loads of obscure sources. (Be sure to play the ‘Snake’ game mode, where the line tells jokes and stories as you progress, and listen to the credits song.)

The controls are nice and responsive (negotiating tight corners and slipping your line through narrow gaps is as satisfying as in every other snake/tron game), but the game is slightly marred by the speed with which it can detect swipes (noticeably slower than a d-pad), and slight frame-rate hitches when multiple enemies are spawned. There doesn’t seem to be any Game Center support either, although presumably it’s imminent.
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Cloud gaming: the future, but not as OnLive see it
Posted at 16:22 on 7th July 2011 - permalink

It’s difficult to make long-term predictions about the future direction of the games business. We can try to estimate how technology will advance based on past trends, but there’s no way to predict the inventions that will be implemented with that technology, and which of those inventions capture the public’s imagination. One thing that we can safely say is that even when a new development becomes a phenomenal success, games are such a broad medium that the impact will still be effectively localised. Social games for instance, while a billion-dollar industry at this point, have barely registered on the fortunes of traditional PC and console games.

At the moment there is a lot of buzz around the idea of ‘cloud gaming’, as defined by OnLive and Gaikai. OnLive, who have sunk fantastic sums of money into developing (and patenting) real-time video compression technologies, view ‘cloud gaming’ as the ultimate form of DRM. Their prospectus is designed to appeal to the (sadly often accurate) popular caricature of a games publisher: frantically paranoid about the threat of piracy, and resistant to adapting their existing content creation methods to the specific strengths and weaknesses of a new platform. (Consumers and developers, by comparison, seem to factor into OnLive’s plans as little more than incidental.)

Gaikai have a more pragmatic strategy, acknowledging the inherent shortcomings of ‘dumb terminal’ cloud delivery (image compression, lag, bandwidth consumption and congestion) and focusing on integrating their technology into publisher’s websites to allow download-free demos, instead of selling or renting full games. (Note that I haven’t investigated Gaikai as closely as OnLive purely because they’ve not made as much conspicuous noise. Their model might be quite different to how I’ve described it, and might have pros and cons that have escaped my notice.) There are also a number of other companies touting similar technologies, such as OTOY and iSwifter.

OnLive

This is the only gameplay screenshot in OnLive’s press pack.

What OnLive would like to see (or perhaps, what they need to happen to justify their investment to date) would be for client-side gaming to go away entirely. Obviously this isn’t going to happen. Even if the technology and broadband infrastructure improves over the next decade (and let’s be clear here: right now, OnLive’s offering is only even an option for a tiny niche, and even they must be willing to overlook its shortcomings compared to playing the same games on a $199 console or $499 PC), there will be games that are simply more practical to implement either fully locally (games on mobile devices need to be resilient to network dropouts), or as a more sophisticated remote/local hybrid than just booting up a virtual copy of a DVD game at a server farm somewhere.
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The 10 dumbest clichés about id Software
Posted at 19:43 on 13th June 2011 - permalink

As some of you may have guessed, I’m a huge id Software fan, as a result of spending countless hours playing (and sometimes modding) their games over the last twenty years, and appreciating the vast amount of technical innovation they’ve achieved to the benefit of the industry as a whole. They’ve not always been the only guys innovating in particular areas, but, like Sega in the arcades, they’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting.

As id’s releases have slowed in recent years, ceding the limelight to the likes of Valve, Epic and Blizzard, there has been a worrying trend to downplay their historical significance. The cynic in me (i.e., me) thinks that even if their forthcoming game Rage turns out to be an amazing return to form it still won’t reverse the trend, as the narrative has already been set: id/Carmack have the gall to treat games as cold, emotionless engineering challenges, so it’s not possible that the end result can succeed as entertainment as well. (“You may think you’re having fun, but, SIGH, you’re just shooting things…”)

With the launch of Rage fast approaching, we can expect gaming’s many dimwits to dutifully drag out the usual hoary old cliches about id and their games. If you feel the urge to join in, remember you don’t have to have seen or played any of the games in question – in fact, if you were too young or simply exclusively focused on console games when Doom and Quake came out, you have all the more reason to be irrationally dismissive about one of the most important and influential development studios ever.

Here we go:
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GameCamp 2011 (#gc4)
Posted at 14:39 on 15th May 2011 - permalink

Yesterday I attended the fourth GameCamp event, held at London South Bank University’s Keyworth Centre.

As with the previous GameCamps I attended (2008, 2010), the event was organised following the ‘unconference’ model. Attendees were free to book any one of fifteen rooms throughout the day in 30 minute slots, to talk about (or play) anything they wanted.

As there were around 300 attendees – twice that of any previous GameCamp – some logistical issues arose with the venue. Most of the rooms could only accommodate 20-30 people tops, and signposting, movement between rooms, access to refreshments, ventilation, etc. were sources of frustration.

In spite of these problems, the event was able to deliver the expected mix of highly informative and varied sessions, although the continued attrition of ‘big name’ attendees since the first GameCamp resulted in there being fewer true stand-outs.

I won’t write up blow-by-blow accounts of each talk I attended here – as my notes weren’t very thorough, and this wouldn’t take into account conversations I had (and games I played) between sessions and after. You can see the whiteboards of the even schedules here: Morning, Afternoon (courtesy of Dr. Mike Reddy).

I attended the Game Literacy/Facebook, Sex!, Structure vs. Freeplay, Narrative Debate, Flash Game Design & Business, Dialogue Trees, Fail States, Awesome Flash Games (my session), and Post Mortem sessions, and poked my head into a few others. Board and card games again had a strong presence, and I got to play The Resistance and Once Upon a Time in the bar afterwards.

The central info-hub of photos, notes and impressions is here: http://gamecamp.org.uk/2011/05/15/this-was-a-triumph/

Below are some additional notes on my talk, as promised.
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Monkey Island 2: Special Edition
Posted at 02:23 on 8th May 2011 - permalink

A while ago I finally caved and bought the shiny, voiced, HD remake of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge on Steam. The recent round of Q&As and interviews with the Portal 2 writing team (where they reveal that the writers actually cued up the recorded voice performances in the game themselves, to ensure that the comedic/dramatic timing worked as intended) has reminded me about it, and the specific reasons in which I think LucasArts unfortunately screwed it up.

(TANGENT: If you haven’t played Monkey Island 2 before, I would strongly recommend playing the original DOS version of the game through SCUMMVM before the Special Edition. Also, I’m only referring to the PC version of the Special Edition here. The quality varies widely between platforms. The iOS port in particular is almost unplayable – omitting the developers’ commentary, bonus galleries and even the intro, trashing the classic mode’s graphics, making dialogue unskippable and failing to support task switching – glaring flaws which almost all iOS reviewers ignored. A low price doesn’t excuse shoddy work, especially when compared to the polish evident in similar remakes, such as Broken Sword. TANGENT ENDS.)

I approached this remake with some trepidation. Monkey Island 2 is my favourite of all the SCUMM games, and involves substantially more complexity and subtlety than any of its predecessors. LucasArts’s previous attempt at reviving a SCUMM game (the original Secret of Monkey Island) was a disaster. The new artwork was sloppy, seemingly only included to meet console marketing requirements, and couldn’t be switched off without also disabling the voice acting. It was rushed out and it showed.

In fairness, a lot of things work well in the sequel. The animation is smoother without looking out of place. The new backgrounds are attractive and in keeping with the tone of the original game. There are still a few areas where incongruous Sam & Max / DOTT-style chunky cartoon geometry creeps in, but on the whole the backgrounds are a vast improvement over the MS Paint travesties of the first Monkey Island remake.
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Minotaur Rescue
Posted at 22:32 on 20th February 2011 - permalink

Minotaur Rescue
Minotaur Rescue (a.k.a. “Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy”) is Llamasoft‘s (i.e. Jeff Minter’s) first game for iOS. It’s available as a universal app which natively supports iPhone and iPad device configurations. The game is part of the “Minotaur Project“, a series of games modelled after the design sensibilities of different eras of computer hardware, but unbounded by the cost and technology-driven limitations of the real hardware of the time.

Minotaur Rescue purports to be a game made for the fictional “Ataurus TVC 2605″, a device which has the graphical output of an Atari VCS, the text overlay of a Commodore VIC-20, and the ability to render a seemingly unlimited number of sprites, particles and feedback effects without slowdown, thanks to Llamasoft’s NEON engine.

The gameplay is most easily described as a mash-up of Asteroids and Space War. The player pilots a small, constantly-firing triangular ship around a toroidal area of space (i.e. a single screen which wraps at the X and Y boundaries).

The ship is controlled via an ingenious ‘virtual trackball’ interface. Gently stroking anywhere on the touchscreen sets the heading and acceleration of the ship. This allows for rapid lunges across the screen as well as more subtle steering. I expect that other top-down iOS games will quickly adopt this input method.
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A Winter World of Love
Posted at 20:04 on 29th January 2011 - permalink

Yesterday, the second ‘World of Love‘ indie games development conference was held at Conway Hall in Bloomsbury.

The day was packed with interesting talks from developers with disparate approaches and levels of experience. Participants brought practical advice and anecdotes, inspiring calls to action, and willy jokes. Here’s a run-down of the day’s events:

Ricky Haggett and Richard Hogg of Honeyslug talked about the process of developing their forthcoming game Hohokum. The game was probably already familiar to most of the crowd (having been previously shown at the Indie Games Arcade at the Eurogamer Expo last year), but this presentation gave a run through of the various forms the game has taken over the past three years or so (shooter, platformer, golf game, etc.), and to the process by which the duo have decided which ideas to explore and which to cut.

One fact-nugget that seemed to resonate was the idea that ‘playful’ messing around in a game is only fun if there’s a ‘proper’ task the player is wilfully ignoring by choosing to muck about. No release date for Hohokum was mentioned but it can’t be far off now, surely.

Next up was Tak Fung of Supermono, developer of MiniSquadron and Epic Win for iPhone. Tak seems to have taken a similar path to other ex-major studio employees like Cliff Harris and the Hello Games team, but pointed out that by gradually weaning himself off dependence on contract work he was able to make the transition to full-time indie while managing the level of risk. It’s impressive that a team of two guys (Fung and artist Dave Ferner) have managed to release two successful games in just over two years.

Third on stage were Ella Romanos and Martin Darby of Remode Studios, best known for their casual downloadable game Mole Control. They discussed how to go about setting up a studio / digital agency from a purely pragmatic business perspective. Useful fact: it’s apparently very easy to get R&D tax credits.
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Isoball is go!
Posted at 17:37 on 12th December 2010 - permalink

Earlier in the week we finally hit the big scary launch button on Isoball, the iOS/Android puzzle game that I’ve been producing at Zattikka for the last few months. You can get the lowdown in the launch press release, and versions for iPhone/iPad Touch, iPad and Android are now available on their respective App Stores.

We’ve also done Lite versions for iPhone and iPad. (The Lite version is 10 levels which can be completed fairly quickly – the remaining 40 levels in the full game ramp up the difficulty significantly, and include new blocks like conveyors, bridges and teleports. In playing time terms the Lite version represents considerably less than one fifth of the full game.)

The smartphone game is based on the Flash game Isoball 2 by Candyflame, and was ported by Eclipse Interactive up in Manchester. Hats off to both of these teams – Candyflame for coming up with such an ingenious design in the first place, and Eclipse for adapting it to the particular quirks of each target platform.

But that’s not all! We’ve also just released Isoball 3 on Flash, which has 75 new levels and generally beefs up the presentation and feature set of Isoball 2.

This is all pretty exciting! And I would of course be eternally grateful if, should you have any interest in puzzle games and a suitable device, you could download and rate Isoball. It’s only £0.59 ($0.99) on iPhone, that’s less than 1p per level (including the bonus levels).

Merry Yulesmas, games-chums!


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Gameful: noble cause or vanity exercise?
Posted at 01:01 on 7th November 2010 - permalink

A few weeks ago I was made aware of this Kickstarter project. (Which has since been launched.) For those who can’t be bothered to read and watch all that, in a nutshell, ‘Gameful’ is a not-for-profit initiative started by Jane McGonigal and associates intended to give funding and support to games projects – but not just any games projects, those that are deemed to be “reality-changing, life-changing, game-changing or world-changing”.

Now, I’m aware that I might come across as a contrarian arse to criticise a project that seems to be completely well-meaning and benign, but a few things about it stick in my throat.

1. Entertainment is a dirty word. The misguided utilitarian philosophy behind the (failed) serious/persuasive games movement looms large over Gameful’s mission statement. Work in any artistic medium does not have a social responsibility to be edifying. The assertion that “entertainment” is a mindless activity and cannot include ideas that go on to have any utility in a broader context unless they’ve been explicitly put there is both dead wrong and impossibly patronising.

Even the most crassly commercial games are made by skilled, emotionally complex human beings with the conscious goal of capturing the player’s interest and provoking a response. I strongly suspect that a lot of the rhetoric against ‘mainstream’ games comes from people who exclusively or predominantly play WoW – certainly McGonigal’s examples involving ‘games’ are heavily weighted toward it. Sitting down with a few games that have more narrative and simulation complexity and nuance than Tolkien’s Biggest Ever Skinner Box (I’d suggest starting with Ultima IV and working towards Machinarium, Bioshock 2, etc.) would quickly disabuse them of this belief.
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