Greetings and various apropos felicitations!
My name is Robin. I think about computer games too much.
Here you can find essays about old games, industry commentary, free games I've made for fun, and funny songs.
This bloody machine has become the Zeno’s tortoise of the sporadic games commentator over the last three months. Every time I’ve sat down to wrangle my thoughts into a coherent essay the narrative has again moved on, meaning I’ve had to junk another several hundred words of analysis. Still, things seem to have more or less died down for the time being (although who knows what GamesCom will bring), so here goes.
These words falling from the mouth of long-suffering Xbox community liaison Larry Hryb made it clear how quickly and completely Microsoft had smashed their carefully cultivated consumer-friendly image in the days following the unveiling of the Xbox One. The mask has slipped. Hryb’s customary synthetic bonhomie had evaporated, leaving a visibly tired, anxious old man tersely trying to steer an interview away from the PR bombs falling on all sides. When Don Mattrick came out with even more arrogant, defensive words Microsoft’s role had by then been firmly set. A console race that everyone had expected to be played out by the numbers had suddenly become interesting again.
I can’t remember a previous console race where a competitor in a good position has managed to damage their chances through sheer complacency, and where everyone (and let’s be clear, Microsoft’s woes and subsequent u-turn haven’t been caused by a few scattered voices – everyone from high profile developers, to indies, to the mainstream press, to retailers have publicly criticised Microsoft’s policies) smelt blood and shifted their allegiances.
So now Microsoft have backtracked on their ‘always on’ policy, and strictly controlling resale of disc games, as well as vaguely announcing that self-publishing will not be prohibited. Some will no doubt argue that this settles the issue, “no harm, no foul”. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Microsoft have communicated that their preferred outcome (for a platform they control) is to implement always-on DRM. Does anyone really trust them not to let these features creep back in a year from now? How much support and visibility can independent developers expect from a platform holder that is only grudgingly letting them self-publish, and who are yet to give details of how this will work?
There’s a world of difference between announcing an initiative and seeing it through. It is going to take time (maybe a couple of years) to win back developers’ trust, and during that time the shelves of their digital shopfront are going to be a bit more bare. (Have you ever asked a veteran UK console developer whether they ever want to work with Nintendo again? How do you think that happened?)
On top of this the actual consumer proposition is still a bit of a mess. The machine is underspecced and overpriced compared to the PS4, and is bundled with a pointless camera that nobody on Earth still believes serves any purpose other than harvesting data to sell to advertisers. Of course if there’s one thing we know with certainty about Microsoft’s home entertainment division, it’s that they’ll drastically slash the price of the machine and stuff the channel to ensure that it can be at least presented as a success to third party publishers, even if sales then fall off a cliff next Spring.
Microsoft excel(R) when they have a successful externally-developed model to work from. (Better still if they can buy it wholesale, like DirectX or Skype.) The Xbox 360 was essentially a cargo-cultish attempt to replicate the success of the PS2, imitating its characteristics even where they no longer made technical sense. The Kinect managed to be a huge commercial success by repackaging the marketing message of the Wii, even though it didn’t work properly and had no games. The Xbox One has no such blueprint to follow, except perhaps its similarly narrowly-focused namesake, so everybody around the table has been able to tack on their particular interests.
In spite of lacking backward compatibility, the XBox One still somehow manages to be heavily burdened with legacy features, the moth-eaten banners of insular corporate fiefdoms within Microsoft. Kinect. Metro. Live. Bing. Internet Explorer. Television, television, television.
Anyway. Now that we’ve seen how Mattrick’s grand vision has been received, why did Microsoft try to feed us this twelve course banquet of crap in the first place?
The most obvious reason is because they’ve gotten away with so much in the past generation.
Last time around, Microsoft benefited greatly from an early advantage. The PlayStation 3 was expensive for a long time, and it took longer still for multiplatform ports to draw level. (PC games were also, in terms of relative commercial prospects, in disarray.) As a result Microsoft mistook necessity for genuine brand loyalty. At times in the Xbox 360’s life it felt like Microsoft were testing the boundaries of what indignities they could get consumers to dutifully accept.
The launch machines had a failure rate so insanely high that Microsoft ate a $1.1bn writedown as the less painful option (the alternative presumably having been fighting an ugly class action lawsuit). Buggy launch games were waved through certification. (“Coming in hot” as Peter Moore so excitingly span it. We’re sorry the brakes failed on your car, we had to cut some corners to meet a deadline. No we’re not going to do a recall. We’ve said we’re listening and we respect you, isn’t that enough?)
Xbox 360 owners became wearily familiar with protracted exchanges with customer support to deal with dead consoles, scratched discs and guessing the magic phrase which would free them from their Xbox Live subscriptions. The dashboard became swamped with advertising. Kinect Star Wars was an actual thing that existed, as opposed to a terrible SNL skit.
Developers had it little better: Restrictive licensing terms prevented them from adding features or content to their games on other platforms, and indie developers were ghettoised on their digital store.
So it’s fair to say the landscape has shifted a bit since the mid-2000s.
Is the Xbox One going to fail, then? Probably not. There are always a lot of consumers out there who just don’t want to have to make informed purchases, and that’s okay. The Xbox 360 has worked out well for them or their friends, and they can see the familiar franchises are available. Microsoft are betting that there are a lot of 40-something American guys who don’t use social media or read the specialist press and just want to play Madden and CoD and watch live spoooorts. It’s a pretty safe bet to make.
Based on the currently available information, should you buy one? No. The only situation I can see where it would make sense would be for fans of some particular exclusive franchise, but I can’t imagine what that would be at this point. (Another thing that’s changed since 2006 is that most of Microsoft’s internal studios have received the ‘EA treatment’ – nobody seriously expects Rare, for instance, to ever recapture their glory days now.)
Should developers support it? Before the policy u-turn, this would have been an obvious and unequivocal “no”. Now it’s more of a “wait and see”. A platform that pushes one model of product ownership even when it’s not appropriate would cause serious damage to the medium. It’s also worth remembering that there’s still a lot of other issues with Microsoft’s long-standing policies that haven’t been talked about. Is cross-platform play still banned? (Anachronistic and misguided.) Are ‘slots’ on the digital store still scarce, and/or tied to publishers also offering physical products? What are the exact details of the TRCs, and the limitations of the DRM scheme? Do you have to support Kinect? Do players still have to have an Xbox Live Gold account to access huge parts of the system’s functionality?
The original plan would have done massive damage to Microsoft’s prospects in the living room, and there would have been some fallout for the wider industry. The new plan is more palatable but still has some worst-case hidden dangers. As Carmack recently observed, a stable duopoly has generally been very healthy for the console market, and the machines are architecturally so similar that it’s not going to be prohibitive for developers to support both if we get the situation of a rough 50/50 worldwide split again.
But having seen Don Mattrick and Mark Cerny plead their cases I know which I think deserves to win.
The UK games scene’s very own Treehouse of Horror, GameCamp, returned to LSBU’s Keyworth Centre yesterday.
The main difference to the setup this year was that attendees were encouraged to bring work-in-progress games to playtest, and as such there were two large rooms set aside for this purpose (one for computer games and one for board/card games).
There seemed to be a higher than average number of talks going on this year, and a less than ideal notice board (tiny cards – typically with tiny text instead of bold titles and speaker’s names – spread over a large, difficult to photograph board) meant that I probably missed a lot of things I’d have liked to see.
Here’s a quick rundown of what I saw and did: (I didn’t give a talk this year.)
1000 – Arrived late, missing the introduction and the first (sparsely populated) talk slot.
1030 – “The Designer and the Body” (@siobhanthomas) – A group discussion that turned out to be about control feel/kinesthetics and the abstraction of manual controls from physical actions. I didn’t get much out of this one (I think I missed too much at the start), but there’s apparently a follow-up questionnaire for those interested in the topic.
1100 – “Mixed Media Storytelling” – A post mortem/discussion about the game-external marketing efforts for Capcom’s game Remember Me, which basically explained what digital agencies have gotten up to since ARGs died. I do wonder if just because social media and ‘transmedia’ technology allows for the back-stories of fictional universes to be fleshed out in depth, this risks leaving too little to the imagination. Some very cool ideas though.
1130 – “Indie Physical Retail” – Two questions were tackled together here, firstly whether there was any way that games retail could be made more attractive (as in, an event setting/arcade rather than a plain old shop), and whether there was any room for indie games to capitalise on such a development. I think the answer is ‘no’, although I do think that we will see a lot more frequent and imaginative offerings of physical products via mail order to support indie games (see: http://www.rgcd.co.uk/) and games sold as systems on a chip. Now when are those Proteus special editions shipping?
1200 – “Super Geek Fighter 2: Turbo” (@YujiLY vs. @Slaktus) – Two fighting game hobbyists offered their alternative viewpoints as to what exactly is going on during a Street Fighter match. Comparisons were drawn to poker, fencing, rock-paper-scissors, chess and debating. I was reminded of Garry Shandling’s remarks on one-on-one basketball, that immediate physical conflict reveals a more honest view of the other person’s personality, as there is no time for the usual conscious editing by the more socially aware parts of the brain.
1300 – “Lunch” – Somebody decided that green beans on a pizza was a good idea, and I briefly sat in on a playtest of @kierongillen‘s card game about running an games blog, GAMESBLOG.
1330 – “Killing Your Darlings” (@reallyfancy and @carachan1) – A talk about ‘descoping’ projects, with lots of good advice for developers regarding (for instance) ruthlessly culling extraneous ideas, and getting into the habit of implementing experimental projects as complete entities rather than tech demos.
1400 – “In the time it takes a heart to beat” (@steishere) – A preview of Ste’s talk for this year’s Nordic Games conference. I won’t spoil it, but it met and surpassed the standard of previous year’s talks, and of course graphs, music and weird shit from the internet featured prominently. I was surprised to realise that Ste has been working in games development (vs. journalism) for ten years(!) now.
1600 – “Make Believe” (@asponge) – Literally a half hour session of playing Make Believe, with cardboard boxes, tinfoil, paper plates, banquet roll and a coconut. Violent, messy and hilarious. Better than all of the physical games going on during the day.
1630 – “Closedown, Pub” – Someone who actually attended the university led a rather dazed and ragtag crocodile of conference-goers to The Ship pub. Lots of interesting conversations were had and a German card game about horse-breeding was played.
This year’s GameCamp felt revitalised compared to the slightly tired and over-familiar vibe of the last couple, probably as a result of the slightly changed format, and riding high from the buzz of last week’s Bit of Alright conference and Wild Rumpus party (which I entirely failed to write up, but both of which were excellent). Plus it came with a free tea towel.
Thanks and see you all next year!
This week’s PlayStation 4 announcement has provoked a wide range of responses, from cautious optimism to proclamations of doom for Sony and consoles in general. Business as usual then. Among the legitimate journalism there have been some sensationalist interpretations that have omitted key details and twisted what’s left to fit one of several discredited, over-simplistic and snobbish fantasy narratives:
1. Increased console power means nobody will be able to afford to make games any more. (Nonsense in 2006, nonsense today.)
2. Because mobile, social and web games have expanded the bottom tier of the pyramid, there’s no longer a role for any other kind of experiences. (Destroyed by Rob Fahey here.)
3. Games as good as the very best console offerings will spontaneously emerge on the PC, or on Apple TV, because free market. (It just hasn’t happened in the last 30 years for some reason…)
4. There are millions of children who are going to ask their parents for a microconsole for Christmas, because they’re definitely going head to head with the mainstream platforms rather than being a hacker niche.
5. Increased hardware specs just mean imperceptibly better graphics these days, what’s all the fuss about? (If I need to explain why this is dumb, stop reading now.)
I’ve argued for most of the current console generation that there shouldn’t be a PS4 or Xbox3, and that Sony and Microsoft should adapt their proprietary hardware platforms into fully software-based ‘networks’ that can run on commodity hardware. (I’ve left Nintendo out of this argument as their vertical business model is different to the others’.)
Later developments have changed my mind about this. The proliferation of laptops and tablets has meant that relatively few people have high-end desktop or living-room PCs, which are still seen as being complicated and expensive compared to walking into a supermarket and buying a single cheap, standardised gaming box.
Furthermore, the platform holders are finally starting to embrace digital distribution, eroding their reliance of the unsustainable physical retail market and allowing smaller and indie games (and games with different revenue models) that previously would only be viable on PC or mobile to have a presence on consoles. It’s clear to me now that Sony couldn’t just discontinue the PS3 and email every PSN user a link to their online service – there needs to be a transitional platform, that is architecturally close to a PC and supports farming out functionality to the cloud.
So there’s a reason for this forthcoming console generation to exist, beyond pure inertia. (Although it should definitely be the last one – or one that just trails off forever into PC-like incremental upgrades on the same network back-end.)
So what about Wednesday night’s event?
Anyone who has watched previous Sony press conferences knows that their approach is to reassure commercial partners and provide some detail-light, generic fireworks for mainstream press and gamers. This event was about making it clear that the PS4 wouldn’t be weird or difficult to develop for, and that they were fully committing to another console cycle (which was by no means a given, considering their financial worries and the struggling Vita).
The selection of games that were shown was largely underwhelming. Killzone: Shadow Fall looked technically impressive and The Witness, MediaMolecule’s game and Deep Down looked fun, but the lack of new, insanely ambitious IP was a disappointment. Hopefully E3 and TGS will spring some surprises.
The well-worn idea of lots of players interacting in the same game through different devices and contexts was talked about a lot. While this has long been considered a holy grail by some developers, I’ve yet to see a convincing case for it improving a game to such a fundamental degree as to justify tackling the (possibly intractable) design problems it would entail.
Hardware-wise, they seem to have finally slain the problems that dogged the PS3. Blu-Ray drives are now cheap. Gone are the weird architecture and unfocused online strategy. It seems very unlikely the machine will have to launch at a silly price or suffer years of sloppy multiplatform ports. However it’s a shame that they didn’t seem to want to push the boat out – I’m told the CPU/GPU are fairly pedestrian in PC terms, and the system-level integration of streaming, suspend mode and multitasking are all fairly unglamourous fixtures and fittings. Automatic preloading of games the service thinks you’ll like is a potentially cool feature, and one that iOS could really benefit from too (assuming iOS ever gets a recommendation engine that isn’t rubbish).
I think a lot of people have overlooked two very strong positives in the machine’s standard spec: 8GB of DDR5 RAM, and Move being integrated in the standard controller. These will translate to much richer, more persistent environments (with fewer dead-stop loading pauses), and the potential for much finer-grained interaction (being able to point/shoot/grab in the world with a 3D cursor). Combined with a decent resolution and frame rate, this could represent a similar jump as from playing GoldenEye 007 on an N64 to playing a modern first person game with mouse and keyboard. Not just eye candy – the degree of immersion and agency the player has in the world.
Sony are an engineering company. Their approach has always been to make ‘Big Science’ investments in technology to extend the versatility of their platforms (and let the developers figure out how to use them): Machine vision, DVD and Blu Ray, the Cell processor and now Gaikai. With the PS4 they seem to want to make the console completely blend into the background (the lack of a hardware reveal carried more meaning than just wanting to hold off committing to a case design) and let the games do the talking.
The question now is whether they can make their destination attractive in any or all of the three major markets. The other deciding factor may be whether the Xbox 360’s current aimless drift towards being a media centre with an increasingly neglected digital storefront is simply a result of resources being wound down at the end of it’s cycle, or is part of a wider malaise at Microsoft.
Earlier in the year, the government announced plans to introduce tax relief for the UK games industry by April 2013.
For this plan to go ahead, the proposed tax relief programme has to be compliant with EU law. To this end, tax relief will be awarded on the basis of whether projects are deemed to be “culturally British”, and a test will be introduced to help determine this.
You can read the consultation paper for this test here.
I do not have an in-depth knowledge of European trade law and the extent to which this influences the content of the test. But in my view there are some fundamental issues with the proposed test in its current form, which have the potential to cause tax relief to be withheld from deserving projects for poorly justified reasons.
The aim of the tax relief plan is to protect and expand a competitive, commercially sustainable games sector in the UK and to redraw the boundaries of what projects can be feasibly greenlit by UK developers and publishers.
This would suggest to me that the test should focus heavily on whether the staff, studios and technology used are UK-sourced, and whether a proportion of the revenue that comes back to the UK from said projects will be invested in the UK industry. While these factors are taken into account, they are one part of a wider set of requirements.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport claim in the consultation document that “It is not the Department’s intention to dictate the content, or style, of video games.”, before outlining a series of criteria which, by misguidedly viewing games through the lens of film and television, seek to do exactly that.
The test is split into four parts. There are a maximum of 30 points that can be awarded, with 16 points being the threshold to qualify.
Section A: Cultural Content
Total points available: 16
This section, the most questionably relevant part of the test, surprisingly carries the most weight.
Up to 12 points are awarded if the setting, lead characters and narrative of a game are identifiably British or European. Straight out of the gate this penalises games where realistic settings, characters or a narrative are not relevant or are entirely absent. All abstract arcade, strategy and puzzle games and most games with a fictional setting would take a hit here. (The ‘narrative’ requirement could possibly be worked around as it counts the country of origin of the “background material” created for a game.) A payday for anyone making ‘interactive movies’, not so great for everyone else.
Another point in this section is problematic. Points are awarded if “the artistic costs represent more than 50% of the production budget”. This seems reasonable enough except that the definition of “artistic costs” explicitly excludes programmers’ remuneration.
The implication that programming is not a creative activity and doesn’t influence the artistic direction of a game is alarming. There are obvious cases (e.g. Proteus, Topia, or Introversion’s games) where procedurally generated content and effects are the medium from which the game is shaped. But even when programming is separated out as a dry engineering task, it still defines the space in which the rest of the creative actors in a team can work. Carmack leaves as distinctive a hallmark on his studio’s work as Kubrick. Games as diverse as Shadow of the Colossus, Battlefield 3 and Minecraft owe their existence to hard engineering problems being overcome.
Section B: Cultural Contribution
Total points available: 4
This section seeks to award games “which demonstrate British creativity, British heritage or cultural diversity”, which are discussed in a way that suggests they’re still trying to nail down a definition for these terms, which in any case can only collectively net a game the same number of points as hiring an English actor to provide the voice over for their main character.
Heritage is defined as whether the game deals with events from UK history or folklore.
Creativity is defined as innovations in “(i) gameplay; (ii) graphics; (iii) user interface; (iv) Artificial Intelligence, audio or physics; or (v) online or multiplayer functionality”, in direct contradiction to the previous section.
Cultural diversity covers “exploring contemporary social and cultural issues of disability, ethnic diversity and social exclusion; promoting and increasing visual, on-screen diversity”, which you would have thought deserved rather more than the measly 1.333 points on offer, considering how chronically weak mainstream games have been in addressing these issues.
Section C: Cultural Hubs
Total points available: 3
This section covers the easily measurable and obviously relevant issue of where the game and its content was made.
The requirements are surprisingly light, with two points for 50% of the preproduction or programming or graphics and one point for 50% of the audio being UK sourced.
If the entirety of a game’s production happening in the UK only nets less than 20% of the required points to qualify for tax relief, something is clearly amiss. It seems unlikely that foreign companies would parachute in talent to work on UK soil and leave no lasting benefit for the UK industry. (Not that this long-standing practice seems to rule American companies out of receiving film tax credits.)
Section D: Cultural Practitioners
Total points available: 7
This section covers whether a game’s staff consists of UK/EU citizens.
Again, I’m wondering why the point available are proportionally so few, and am a little bit wary that the specific roles covered (“Scriptwriter”?) and team size and structure assumed favour traditional console developers, who, while perhaps not the archaic dinosaurs that some would paint them as, are these days only one section of a larger UK industry making relevant and commercial product.
Reading the consultation document I can’t help but be reminded a great deal of how the film and TV industry made such a hash of setting up the BAFTA Games Awards (or “interactive awards” as they were then) at the turn of the century. That situation took a few years to straighten out, but I’m not sure we have the luxury of time in this case.
Cobbling together a quick and dirty adaptation of the existing test used for film simply won’t work. The way games are made is radically different, and the way that uniquely UKish cultural themes are expressed within them isn’t just about locations and characters. (The proposal that the BFI administer the test is daft as well, clearly.)
Where is recognition being given to games that reference, comment, play with and build upon the UK games culture that has developed over the past 30-40 years? Not the culture of film, literature and other external media. The culture that spawned Matthew Smith, Clive Sinclair, Mel Croucher, Codemasters, Frontier Developments, Rare, Bullfrog, Probe, Sensible Software, Revolution, Sports Interactive and the Bitmap Brothers, the myriad UK-originated genres, the cultural events, and the books, magazines, websites and documentaries devoted to discussing it all?
Why are Splash Damage’s first two games (Wolfenstein Enemy Territory and ETQW) more ‘culturally British’ on points than their most recent two (RAD Soldiers and BRINK)? Creative Assembly’s Napoleon more British than Shogun? I encourage anyone reading this to try running their own favourite British games (or indeed international ones, Professor Layton for instance) through the test and seeing how they fare.
If you have any concerns about how well the proposed test will serve to give the right projects access to tax relief, you can respond to the consultation via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) before the end of the month.
N.B.: The above are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers or of the wider UK industry. And are subject to change as and when I am properly clued up to the constraints put on the test by EU law.
Terry Cavanagh recently released his first mobile game, Super Hexagon. The game is notable for (at least) two technical reasons – firstly it is a conversion and expansion of the game Hexagon which sprung almost fully formed from a game jam, and secondly as it’s an iOS game coded in Flash (something of a rarity).
Super Hexagon’s defining characteristic in press coverage is that it’s unforgivingly difficult. Super Hexagon is not actually a difficult game. It’s a normal game developed and balanced by a man with freakish, superhuman reflexes. For the remaining 99% of the population, it may as well be a slot machine. With extensive amounts of practice it is possible to get better at the game, but only within the hard limits set by biology and genetics.
The game has three gameplay modes, which in addition to being progressively faster, also focus on testing different abilities.
The easiest mode, Hexagon, is about reacting intuitively to the obstacles the game throws at you, as in a racing game (or the ‘escape from the Death Star’ sequence in various Star Wars licensed games). This mode is fun and exhilarating, and offers the chance for even players with average reflexes to tangibly improve with practice.
However after a few hours of play, patterns become apparent that impinge on the player’s enjoyment. Deaths cluster at the 25 and 40 second marks, points at which the game frequently changes up the pattern in such a way that the player has a split second to decide whether to move left or right with no chance to course correct.
Game over! (You are a gradually deteriorating biological machine.) Begin!
Unlike Bejeweled Blitz or Jetpack Joyride, it is too starkly obvious that a proportion of the rounds played come down to blind coin flips. I would hazard a guess that if the patterns weren’t composed in a random order each round, and the only variation was each was just given a 50% chance of being mirrored, most players’ statistics would remain pretty much the same as they are now.
The second slowest mode, Hexagoner, is less about reacting to patterns by thinking about space, and more about learning and executing (with an almost non-existent margin for error) the correct pattern of inputs to deal with each pattern on sight. It’s here that you learn to exploit the ability to ‘grind’ on the side edges of obstacles (only the front faces are lethal). Unfortunately, the fun is limited in this mode by the presence of patterns that demand counterintuitive inputs from the player. For a game that draws comparisons to Rez and Tempest, games about flow, this feels like an incongruously cheap trick.
The third mode is Hexagonest. Unless you have hummingbird DNA the only possible critique of Hexagonest is “Yeah whatever.”
It sounds like I have a huge downer on Super Hexagon. I honestly don’t, and have enjoyed the hours I’ve spent with it a great deal, stressful as they may be. But I worry that the focus by reviewers on its “purity” is getting in the way of it being critiqued in depth. Unlike with other narcotics, for games purity doesn’t correlate directly with quality.
In some games, removing everything extraneous results in shallowness. In some games, it’s not a case of how few components remain but how cleanly and sparely they’re packed together. There are even some games (made by Bethesda) where clutter, sprawl and inelegance ultimately don’t prevent a coherent and memorable game from breaking through.
Reviewers: It’s okay to say that you have reservations about a game even if it achieves what the creator set out to achieve. Developers don’t define how their work should be interpreted. At some time between the release of Doom 3 and Bioshock it seems that a lot of people forgot this.
Super Hexagon is a game almost purely based on manual dexterity. That’s dangerously close to being a sport. But unlike ‘e-sports’ like Quake 3 and Starcraft, there isn’t even room for players to express strategy or any kind of initiative. (The best shooting games aren’t tests to see who is quickest on the draw, they’re games of cat and mouse.) This doesn’t make the game any less valid, but there is a reason that the golden age for games based exclusively on twitch had their commercial heyday thirty years ago.
This is why I find proclamations that Super Hexagon is Terry Cavanagh’s masterpiece a bit much. This is what Terry can craft in a weekend. Games like VVVVVV, CatChat and Don’t Look Back show that he can provide entertainment for the rest of the brain and not just the parts concerned with motor function.
If you have normal reflexes, you should at least try playing Super Hexagon, but you will get more enjoyment (albeit perhaps not quite as much satisfaction) from Minotaur Rescue, Jetpack Joyride or (if you don’t mind the sub-par controls) Super Crate Box. If you have insane reflexes, like the dozen or so players out of several tens of thousands who as of this writing have clocked all six game modes, then… oh you’ve downloaded it already. Righto.
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.
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:
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.
Tags: BigFish, BigPixel, Duncan A. Campbell, Enscripted, Fairway Solitaire, game title, grand theft auto, Halfbot, Halfbrick, iOS, iPad, iphone, ipod touch, Jetpack Joyride, mobile games, Off The Leash, Rockstar Games, Spry Fox, Super Crate Box, Triple Town, Vlambeer
Reality is Broken
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
Tags: Berzerk Ball, Berzerk Studio, Coin Drop, Coin Push Pro, Death Rally, Fullfat Games, game title, Hard Lines, iOS, iPad, iphone, ipod touch, Magnetic Billiards, mobile games, Pickford Bros., Poppy, Quiz Climber, Relentless, Remedy, Spilt Milk Studios, X-Baseball
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.
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.
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:
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.