Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The pre-Christmas mess

It's that time of year again, loves! That crazy, insane, avoidable, yet perrenial Christmas Games Rush. It truly is a magical time. A time where publishers, who have been content to starve us of decent content for nearly half of the weeks of the year, suddenly decide that we all need to spend far more money than anyone could reasonably hope to just because it happens to be November.

Why does it constantly happen, do they never learn? This desire for titles to be on shelf as "New Release" during the time of year when many non-gamers are also buying games appears to make some kind of sense. But, once you think about it, and realise what is actually happening, then it is hard not to become morbidly depressed. The theory is that Nobby Bollocks will put a couple of games onto his wish list, and then Mrs Bollocks will buy him one of them. The practice is that Nobby pre-orders the game online and gets it delivered early and cheap, or he trades some stuff he no longer wants against it. Or even that he can't/forgets to do either of these and then walks past GAME on launch day and stupidly drops the full RRP on the game anyway, thus rendering the entire list redundant.

Meanwhile, so scared is Granny Bollocks of buying him a game he already has for the 5th year in succession, she instead buys Nobby some more bloody socks.

Gamers, the ones of us who buy these things ALL SODDING YEAR ROUND, don't like this annual feeding frenzy. We look at the list of massive titles released in November, and, in a move that would be sure to terrify publishers if they ever lifted their heads from their groins (where they spend all day congratulating their testicles) and saw how the real world operates, actually prioritise which games we will be getting, and which ones we will buy at a "later date". Either when it goes into the bargain bin, during an online sale, or pre-owned. (Well, that is the intent. Sadly, the truth is somewhat more clear cut. "Later date" games don't actually ever get purchased at all. See: Enslaved.)

The couple of hundred pounds that I am expected to shell out this month is out of my reach. I would happily buy 80% of the big guns coming out over the next couple of weeks, but will probably spend so much time in deciding which to get now and which to wait for that I will end up getting none of them.


My disposable income is already increasingly restricted by the morons in charge of banking and government. My wage packet is at times stretched so thin that I can actually see the tears that the paradox of its existence rends in the space-time continuum. Hello there, three-headed mole from the future, that's a really nice car you're driving. And I'm actually one of the bigger spenders, games wise. I don't know too many people who buy more than I do. If I can't find a version of maths that allows me to buy all the games I want to, how is anyone else supposed to do this?

It is made all the more maddening just as soon as the realisation kicks in that if a game is actually any good, then it will sell regardless of what time of year it is released. We don't need a new CoD game at the end of every year, the masses will still race out and happily hand over their cash even if it is released at the height of summer. In fact, HAD Modern Warfare 3 come out in the summer, I almost certainly would have bought a copy myself. As it stands, I didn't get it yesterday and probably won't get it this month. BECAUSE THERE IS TOO MUCH ELSE OUT THAT IT IS IN DIRECT COMPETITION WITH!

Business models that are designed around the concept of competition are bad business models. If I, as the very mould from which your target market is cut, am not buying your game then you did something very wrong. Your game didn't sell because it was released at the wrong time. (See: Enslaved.) Or was too expensive, and was pushed back to "later date" status and thus will remain in that limbo state for eternity. (See: Enslaved.) Or, could have just been rubbish. (See: Enslaved.)  Either way, repeating the mistake is absolutely heinously stupid, and should see publishers doing jail time. And yet, year after year, we get this horrific procession of huge releases in what is becoming known by gamers as Novembergeddon.

To all publishers, I beg you; ignore the pressure to be out there at Christmas time. It may help you to gain a handful of sales from eager parents and relatives, but they don't know what games are good and will therefore just go with whatever the monkeys in GAME are being told to push that day. (Yes, Sir, I'm positive your son will love Ninjabread Man, we frequently have no copies in stock.) But these bonus sales should be offset against the lost sales to the very people who would give a shit about your new IP. (See: Enslaved.) And, as you sell less of these breakthrough and interesting titles, stop making them, and instead focus on yet more generic, mass-market bollocks, the market becomes ever less happy to try new things and ever more demanding for more of the same only bigger and louder.

This bed you are laying in is what you made, guys. Instead of piling the pressure onto us every November, think about what you are doing and release the odd game in, like, August. Believe me, we would have ALL bought Enslaved had it been released during the summer drought.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Windows Phone Woes

I just don't understand it. It bothers me that I don't, as well. Because I like to think of myself as a shining example of "Humanity: Non-stupid" in that I usually do find a way of understanding things.

Like Apple, for example. Their processes, and especially their software, may drive many insane, but at least they are designed to a common purpose. That purpose being "Make it as easy as possible to get people to part with their money in our direction." Whilst I may not agree with all of their methods, I certainly understand them. Apple want a slice of every transaction made through and about their devices, and thus operate a closed system. To Apple's credit, they appear to be quite lax about who they allow to peddle their wares inside the App Store/iTunes.

Microsoft also operate a closed system, presumably for the same reasons. The Windows Marketplace is only avaialable via Microsoft branded products and software, just so that MS can take their cut of every sale. Unfortunately, MS seem to actively fight customers who are just trying to spend money, making it unecessarily taxing to do so.

First of all, they slap a premium onto every item on sale. The minimum cost of a game on a Windows 7 is £0.79p. Compare this to an iOS game? £0.69p, which means that if I were to buy 9 games on WP7 I would spend £7.11p. I could actually buy the same 9 games and then treat myself to another one on iOS, and still have £0.22p left over. It may seem like a trivial amount, but it is an easy decision to make for those of us who have access to both markets; it's cheaper on iOS, so buy that one.

This problem is small, though, because a much larger one presents itself. If I find myself in the mood to buy a game on my Windows Phone, it takes me a lifetime to find one. The Marketplace appears to have been designed by a work experience kid, on his lunchbreak. It does precisely the job of listing what is available, but fails on a scale that should not exist in a Microsoft product when it comes to ordering or categorising applications. Under the heading "Games" I have the sub-headings of "XBox Live", "Top", "New", and, in an admittedly nice touch, "Free". The final one is "Categories", but this might as well say "Elephant porn" for all the use it is. One of the categories is, I kid you not, 'Racing and Flying'. Racing AND Flying, as if the two are inseperable. Surprisingly, one can find Sudoku games in this category. But only if they were one of the most recently released games. By a stroke of ineptitude, every single heading only lists games in descending order from most recent release.

This is great if you want something new. But piss poor if you want anything good. There is a reason the App Store dropped this method of listing, and it is because it makes it bloody hard to find something when Nobby Bollocks decides to release 257 different versions of a picture quiz game. Swiping your finger down titles so archaic that they may as well be written in heiroglyphics is a soul-destroying process for the gamer with an itch in his bank account.

It's not all bad news for the phone. After all, the phones themselves are all made to a minimum technical specification, which means that you know any game you download will work. This is vastly preferable to the lottery that is Android, where you more or less have to guess if your phone can handle the game. And it also sidesteps the feeling of utter inadequacy when you are told that this app is incompatible with this model iPhone. Seriously, it stops JUST short of pointing, laughing, and posting your failure on Facebook when a game determines that your iDevice is not good enough.

Even better, the single best feature of Windows phones is the 'Back' button. It may seem like a small thing, but when a game is programmed to give you a quick way of navigating or even exiting, it makes a huge difference.

Which makes the inclusion of the 'Search' button all the more baffling. In a failure of proportions so massive that they can only be measured mathematically, merely breathing too close to the search button is deemed sufficient contact to have pressed it. At which point, whatever you are doing is closed down so that you can go straight to a lovely image on Bing. BING? WHO THE HELL USES BING? There are Microsoft employees who get paid to use and even advertise Bing that won't touch it, let alone folk who don't scare the neighbours. Trust me, nothing is worse than a fast run in the excellent Hydro Thunder GO that is suddenly and egregiously interrupted by a picture of a puffin.

It saddens me to see this potentially awesome platfom in the hands of such morons as Microsoft. For every good idea they have, they pile on a few cock-ups, as if they really don't know anything about the market they are aiming for. Building in XBox Live is a stroke of genius, but making all the Live-enabled games cost £2.29 or more is astonishingly short-sighted. You know, I love acheivements, but even I draw the line at paying extra just because the game lets me earn some gamerscore. Angry Birds hit 5 million sales at 59p, and 200 million downloads at free. I would be willing to bet a months wages that it has not even hit 500,000 at £2.29.

And there's another thing! Marekting! In the same week that Apple restructured their pricing so that the minimum rose from 59p to 69p, MS CUT the £2.49 pricepoint by 20p. But, did anyone know about this? Did MS shout this from the rooftops, as a way of getting some much-needed good publicity? Of course they didn't. They decided to trundle along in their own small-minded way, imagining that people would somehow psychically learn of this price cut via the same channels that they are supposed to miraculously learn about the few actual really good games on the platform.

All of this probably goes some way to explaining why so few developers are bothering to port to the phone. It has to be taken as a worrying sign when Radian Games, who published some of the best games available on the XBox Live Indie Games channel, opted to release Super Crossfire on iOS instead of on WP7. THE GAME WAS ALREADY IN XNA! It should have been the work of mere minutes to convert it, get it on the Marketplace, and start raking in the dough as gamers who are literally STARVED of quality on the phone all buy it in droves. If you happen to be reading, Luke, I promise you I will buy the game the very second I know it is available. I guarantee you I'm not alone. But, I suspect that MS have done their very best to make the prospect of developing for the phone as unappealling as the prospect of buying one is.

I find myself wishing I hadn't bothered getting a Windows Phone. Not only is my choice of gaming limited, I can't even have "Still Alive" as my ringtone. I can't have ANY custome ringtone! How is a gaming nerd like me supposed to deal with something so crippling as being forced to choose from pre-determined ring and text alerts? I was able to type in the Donkey Kong Hammertime music on my Nokia 3210, for crying out loud, yet here I am in 2011 having to rely on '8 Bit Kid' as the only even remotely-gamey tune for me to use.

Sort it out, MS, please. It wouldn't take much, the platform has the potential to be THE essential phone choice for gamers. Possibly even more so than Experia Play, if only because it doesn't make you look like an arse. In the hands of Apple, mobile gaming has gone from being seen as something that also happens to a viable method of entertainment. In the hands of MS, it seems to be seen as some kind of magical conduit to gamers wallets, without bothering to make us want to spend in the first place. Guess what, Major? It ain't gonna fly. We need REASONS to spend, and we're not getting enough of them at the moment.

(If anyone at MS reads this,by the way, I'd be willing to take the job of fixing it for you on.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Changing the game.

I want to say that I am a huge fan of Indie games, but that would not quite tell the whole story. Because, what I actually am a huge fan of is good videogames. Sometimes, these games are produced by small teams outside of the publisher-led mainstream, indepndently. Often, they are a labour of love; the realisation of one man's vision.

This is not to say that all Indie games are automatically great. In fact, there are a great many cases where there is a good reason why no major publisher will touch the product. Self-indulgent, undisciplined, or just plain bad games are created all the time by bedroom coders, and thrown out onto the unsuspecting world. To browse through the XBox Live Indie Games channel, for example, would expose one to all manner of horrific abominations. We should not be kind to them just because they are independent.

Nor should we dismiss games for the same reason. Other entertainment industries don't segregate in this way. Your average movie critic rates the footage that is in front of them, and are just as likely to watch a small art-house production as they are the inevitable Avatar 2. Of course, movies are a much more mature and accepted artform than videogames, and as such are more likely to be taken at face value. If anything, independence garners more respect, as award ceremonies tend to eschew the big-budget blockbusters in favour of smaller and more personal creations.

This is clearly not going to happen with games anytime soon. Game of the Year lists will be littered with the usual suspects, just like they were last year and the year before. It seems that marketing matters above all else, and a game needs to practically force its way into good reviews, and thus good sales. This is usually the part where Indie games fall flat, mostly due to lack of budget. Some of the best games of the last 10 years have been kept secret from the general public, simply because they can't shout loud enough to grab the attention they need.

It also doesn't help that videogame writing is in a shocking state at the moment. For the most part, videogame websites are nothing more than PR for the big publishers. EA press-releases that contain nothing of actual interest get drip-fed to a slavering audience, with the sites having the sheer audacity to classify it as "News". It is not news, it is ADVERTISING. At any given time, there will be stories about 5-10% of upcoming games, from 2 or 3 publishers. Hundreds of titles are literally ignored. As an outsider looking in, I can only offer my opinion as to why this is the case, and it does very much seem to me as if websites are being "Good doggies" for fear of getting their ball taken away from them. If they can't get the stories up on day 1, someone else gets the hit and the resultant advertising revenue.

Thank heavens, then, for the sites that exist outside this endless circle-jerk. The sites that don't just acknowledge the Indie game scene, they celebrate it. It's a pretty dicey business strategy, focusing on a niche, but theoretically they can forge a much better relationship with their audience as well as the developers themselves.

One such site is The Indie Game Magazine. A smaller site, dedicated to Indie games, it started out as a print and digital mag before becoming what it is today. It is the culmination of one man's dream. IGM is about as far removed from IGN as it is possible to get.

It doesn't quite live up to the dream, though. Because, the cold reality of the internet is that it costs money, and the only way to pay is by advertising. Which means that as soon as a site gets popular, ideals fall by the wayside as once again the money dictates the content. Or, to be more accurate, the lack of money. When faced with having to fund the dream, most webmasters sell their soul.

It starts off innocently enough, with an affiliate scheme. Here, there are links to buy the game reviewed/discussed, which generates a small comission for the site. Suspicions that the site will start to focus only on games that allow them to generate a link are only natural. Or perhaps the site will feature some kind of banner, that generates money per hit. Of course, sites doing this would NEVER pander to the masses, would they? Integrity would automatically override any desire for a site to feature a game that is massively popular just to increase advertising revenue, surely...

But the worst aspect of this insatiable need to feed advertising is in the treatment of the written word. On the internet, text is still the prevalent form of communication. Even in these Flash, Silverlight, and HTML 5 soaked days, video and the spoken word lag behind a good old-fashioned wall of words. Of course, Mr. Webmaster wants articles, reviews, stories, and features. No-one can satisfy demand single-handedly. So, how does he get his words? He hires staff.

"Hires" is probably a misnomer, as it implies payment. For, the sad truth is that the vast majority of website writing about videogames is done by unpaid volunteers. Some sites do claim that review copies are in fact fair payment, but let us examine this claim for one second. If I were to ask you to clean my windows for me, and told you that I would give you the water to do it, would you think that was adequate recompense or would you tell me to go fuck myself with my ladder? I suspect I would be removing rungs from my intestine for the next several months if I offered the very tools that are required to do the job instead of actual payment.

And yet, this is the norm all over the internet. Big sites give news with no real meaning, small sites have low quality writing, and the readers suffer either way.

It's time we redrew the battle lines, gamers. Time we rethought what we want from the internet. Do we want sanitised and corporate-approved news through identikit channels? Do we want the real important and enlightening reviews to be spread over several hundred websites that might not even open the next time we click on them? Do we want ... what we have at the moment?

I don't.

So, I propose a solution. From now on, whenever you see a site that is "hiring", simply don't apply for the job unless there is promise of payment. Don't sell yourself short. Why should these sites be getting quality content for free? Why should your hard work reward somebody else? IS MAN NOT ENTITLED TO THE SWEAT OF HIS OWN BROW?

I write this blog because this hobby is my passion. I want to tell the world about the games that bring me such joy, and so I do so off my own back, for no reward other than the knowledge that people are reading and enjoying. (Full disclosure: I have an Amazon Affiliate account, and use AdSense, but the combined income from these to date would not pay the electricity required to write and upload one post. Plus, I refused to post a link for Bodycount!) Were I to start charging a subscription, I know I wouldn't get too many takers. But, the question should not be "Would people pay?" It should instead be "Why shouldn't people pay?"

People, this won't be a popular suggestion, but it is one that I want to put out there. Maybe the solution to the mountain of crap that is festering all over the internet is to start paying for the websites we use. Turn the web itself into a free-market economy, instead of the free mess it currently is. That way, if a site serves up rubbish, we just cancel our subscription and stop visiting. The sites will need to chase the best writers in order to justify their charges, and most importantly the quality will slowly start to rise to the surface. Sites will be free to pick and choose what stories they cover, no longer beholden to the advertisers that previously paid their bills. Actual variety will flood your screen, as each site will tailor to its own audience instead of chasing the masses that desert and go to a different site the second it has a new CoD screenshot anyway.

The inspiration for this idea came from a conversation I had with Chris Newton, the editor for IGM. What happened was that I took exception to what I believe to be a poor review of Braid. I wasn't upset by the lower than expected score, nor would I have been bothered if the reviewer had stated how the game wasn't to his tastes. I was instead annoyed by what I am convinced was a review of the first world of the game, perhaps even just the demo, that dismissed it as a Mario clone. Anybody who has played Braid knows how untrue this is. So, I took the reviewer to task, and was promptly challenged to provide better. I feel like I have done, and the world will soon be able to see for themselves.

Why did I write my review for free when I have just spent far too long telling people that they shouldn't do that? Because, I want to illustrate a point. And that point is that, currently, there is an awful lot of rubbish polluting the screens of gamers everywhere. Rubbish that could easily be thinned out if we just stopped being so bloody entitled and insisting that everything be free all the time. Rubbish that, if sites weren't afraid to ask for subscriptions, wouldn't even exist. Amazingly, Mr. Newton claims that the review is successful because it has done the job, which is to get eyes on the site. Advertisers like this, and it frustrates me to my very core that he is RIGHT! "Quality be damned, we're after quantity!"

Gamers deserve better. Writers deserve better. deserves better. Kyle McColl deserves better. Unfortunately, an old chestnut comes to mind; "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why PC gaming is in decline.

Games are able, at their best, to enlighten us. To involve us emotionally in something that movies and books can't hope to compete with. Interactivity may well be an old-fashioned buzz word, best left to the confines of the time period that spawned it, but it is also a perfect word to use to say just what the edge that games have is.

You read a book, and watch a movie. In both cases you are only passively involved in the entertainment that is placed before you. Whereas, in a game, you interact. You are not just involved, you can conduct. You make decisions, you have input, you have control. You are no longer just a viewer; you are a part of the experience. You are instrumental in the magic. Without the active participation of the player, a game is completely and utterly pointless.

There exists, therefore, a contract between game developer and player. They make the fun for us, and we do our best to enjoy it. In return for enriching our lives, we offer up some of our earnings. Or, to put it into the form of a sound bite; In order to play, we pay.

We (being the players) do this willingly. At every single point of the game buying process, we assess the situation in front of us, and determine if the likely outcome is "A good time" being had. If it is, we then predict how good a time this will be, divide this by the length of the time we expect to spend with the game, and if this number is above whatever our own personal threshold figure is for expenditure we drop the required money. I could probably go on and make this into some cool equation, but I hope to have this blog read by people who don't get all wibbly at the sight of such things, so I shall avoid the temptation. (And, believe me, it is a HUGE temptation!)

So, with all this in mind, I have to profess to being absolutely mystified whenever a game developer goes out of their way to muddy the waters. When they make a decision that actively gets in the way of people's enjoyment of their product. Why would anybody do this?

More importantly, why do so many game developers do this?

Let us take a hypothetical situation. I have decided to make a videogame. Being a bit (ok, a lot) of a nerd, I decide to theme it around Star Trek. But, that isn't enough. No, I want authenticity in my game. So much so that all the text and dialogue, including the manual, is in the Klingon language.

How many people in the world can read Klingon? Not many, I'll wager. But, the figure becomes massively important to me. Because, that is the MAXIMUM amount of people who will buy my game.

By placing this restriction, I am applying a barrier to potential sales. Similarly, by placing ANY restriction, I am doing the same thing. The more barriers I place, the more limited my potential market is. So, I should strive to remove any restrictions. I would not want there to be any of them at all. I would, in fact, want every part of the process of playing my game to be as straightforward as possible. For the entirety of the experience to be, to use another 90's buzz word, user-friendly.

The App Store has absolutely mastered the art of making it easy for people. Users of iDevices are never more than a couple of taps on the screen away from spending money. Factor this alongside the general low amount of money that users are asked to spend, and it becomes of no surprise to anybody with an ounce of logic or reasoning skills that the App Store is making an OBSCENE amount of money for developers. Everything is easy, everything is quick, and everything is cheap. It is worryingly simple to spend a small fortune in the App Store, and it is for this very reason that there are literally thousands of games available there.

Console gaming has a lot of this kind of mentality applied to it, as well. Buy the game; put it in the machine, play. At least, if it is a Wii game. For the XBox 360, there may be the additional step of updating the game. Generally, this takes an extra 25 seconds of your life before the game starts up. On the PS3, though, things start to develop a slightly sour taste as the update procedure may take an hour or so. And this is assuming that the console itself doesn't require an update. There are times when downloading and installing a PS3 system update followed by downloading and installing a game update FOLLOWED BY A MANDATORY INSTALLATION OF THE SODDING GAME ITSELF can take all night.

And in the case of PC gaming? Things get ... the only real word to use for it is SHIT.

I understand that there are a million different configurations of PC out there. I get that the hardware I have may not be the same as that in my next door neighbours PC. I also fully understand that different operating systems exist, and that people will use different programs to do the same jobs.

Know what I struggle with? WHY this is a problem.

Right now, you are probably reading this on a monitor. It is probably capable of outputting at any one of 10 different resolutions. It may not be able to output at 1920 x 1080 like mine can, but I would be willing to bet a month’s wages that it can handle 1024 x 768.

Similarly, with input mechanisms. Everyone has a mouse and a keyboard, but not everybody has a gamepad. However, those that want to use their PCs to play games? They'll have a gamepad. And, in an amazing slice of serendipity, every gamepad made in the last hundred years or so comes in a fairly standard configuration. 4 face buttons, 2 shoulder triggers, and one analogue stick. Yes, there are other types, but most have that lot as standard.

So what should a games developer do when faced with this bewildering array of configurations and hardware?

Ignore it. Build to a standard that everyone already has. In the case of controller options, include the ones that are most likely to be used. Don't make a game that can only be played by widescreen monitor owners. Make one that runs in 1024 x 768, or even in 800 x 600!

What do PC developers tend to do? The exact opposite. They program games to work on their theoretical perfect machine, which often only they actually have. When they meet a problem in development, they usually buy whatever extra stuff they need to get round this problem, and thus end up with a game that speaks Klingon. Or, for the benefit of those who are not quite so adept at translating forced metaphors, a game with restrictions to entry. A game that, and this is really important to note, not everyone can play immediately. Sometimes, customers need to install new drivers for their graphic and sound cards. Sometimes they need to buy whole new cards. Sometimes they need to add extra memory, or get a bigger Hard Drive, or sacrifice a small animal in order to play. (Admittedly, this is an extremely rare occurrence.)They may have to sign up to some obscure web site, make payments in foreign currencies, agree to ridiculous terms and conditions, and this is usually before they ever get to play the game. Playing the game itself can often be the most laborious of tasks, involving verifying that they are indeed allowed to play it in the first place by means of some external control system. "This game can only be played by those who I specifically allow to, when I say, and how I say!" does not make for a very friendly pre-game atmosphere.

Similarly, I might not want to install your game onto my C:, perhaps I have filled this already? Or, perhaps I save that drive specifically for my OS, and instead install all my games onto D:? It is nice to have the choice, and yet games are still being made that require installation to the main drive. What if I don't mind the noise and would actually be quite happy to run the game straight from the disc? I can't honestly recall the last time I had that option, apart from when it was essential to have the game in the drive to prove I owned it, usually despite having already installed it to the C: in a folder that I didn't get to choose myself...

Dear PC games developers everywhere, I implore you to heed this advice. History has shown quite conclusively that there are literally millions of people out there who are more than happy to give you their hard-earned tokens in exchange for entertainment. We gamers are ready to hand over our cash in order to allow you to buy your Lamborghini. It continues to astonish me just how difficult some of you want to make it for us to actually do that. By requiring us to jump through hoops before we can play, you are subtracting from our enjoyment. In the equation that I never wrote, this will lead to a greater likelihood that our expected enjoyment quotient ends up being significantly below our personal threshold for willingness to spend. Or, for the benefit of those who don't speak geek as fluently as others, we get turned off before we get turned on and aren't gonna pay for that crap!

PC development is incredibly guilty of this attitude that seemingly goes out of its way to preclude people from playing. Developers have some kind of smug superiority complex, and thus pile the agony on for the average end user out there. Nobody wants to have to perform major reconstructive surgery on their computer just to shoot an alien, especially when they can do it for £0.69p on their phone. Nobody wants to be made to feel unworthy of a game when the minimum requirements match a machine that only exists in movies. Nobody wants to prove they are the person who bought the game every single time they attempt to play it.

There is a reason that console gaming is more popular than PC gaming. And it is because PC games developers are making it happen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Death has never been so reasonably priced.

Everybody loves a bargain! Be it popping down to your local supermarket and buying two loaves of bread when you only need one because the second would effectively cost you a quarter of its usual value, or choosing a crap DVD that you will probably never actually because it allows you to get the two titles you DO like in the "3 for £10" sale, the lure of a good bargain is hard to resist. Retail is well aware of the draw of "cheaper than normal", frequently using it to sell us stuff we might not have bought otherwise.

This strategy is one that mostly seems to have bypassed the videogame industry. When it comes to buying games, it seems that prices will remain as high as possible for as long as possible, because there is a sucker born every minute, you never give one an even break, and they are soon parted from their wallets.

Well, in retail, at any rate.

Digital distribution is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Free from the shackles of bricks and mortar premises, and the costly overheads that come from having to pay extortionate rent to some local council or private company, the e-tailers are able to play around with unconventional methods of getting their games out there. Valve Software's Steam leads the way, being the first real digital store aimed specifically at those with a taste for videogames, but many others are coming to follow their philosophies.

Steam frequently drops the price of games to absolute minimum, and twice a year has pretty massive sales. Interestingly, they make more money during these times than they do whenever things are NOT on sale, so much so that there is actually something on sale at up to 90% off EVERY SINGLE DAY on the service. The content changes every day, and one can only assume that the publishers have absolutely no problem with being featured, because sometimes there are some fantastically big-name titles on there. The Steam model is successful, but there is an alternative model out there that has been adapted by an initiative that refers to itself as The Humble Indie Bundle. This is a charity that grabs together a few independently produced titles, and puts them on sale as a package. A percentage of the proceeds goes to charity, and a percentage goes to the developers. The point is, these percentages are determined by the purchaser. Along with, and this is the real kicker, the price to pay!

Read that again, and let it sink in. You choose to pay as much or as little as you like for your games. They are then yours, with no catches at all.

Unsurprisingly, the deals generate a lot of sales. Perhaps surprisingly, the average price paid by the people who download RISES throughout the length of the sale. During the first 5,000 downloads, the price people were paying was published on the site as an average of $3.39 for Windows. After 20,000 downloads, it had risen to $3.77. So, basically, people are happy to pay what they consider a fair price for games, and the games sell more copies.

It truly is a fantastic initiative, so much so that whenever I get a new email from Humble, I near wet myself in excitement. This is how it was today. Especially as the latest title is a game that I have naught but the highest praise for. That game is one Frozen Synapse.

To describe Frozen Synapse in a way that people can relate to is quite difficult. It is probably safer to say it is a Real-Time Strategy game than to try and call it anything else, but that is only telling half of the story. Because, it is also turn-based. At the same time. Which might make no sense, so I should start again.

This paragraph is my second attempt at telling you what Frozen Synapse is like, and that in itself is a suitable metaphor for the play mechanics. Imagine it, if you can, as a kind of meeting between Chess and Command & Conquer. Both players, simultaneously, decide their next moves, and the game then plays the outcome. You decide what your squad is going to do, the opponent does the same, and then you watch. The entire game is thus sliced into 5-second long segments, which you can and will plan for literally HOURS at a time. You try every possible imaginable scenario, watch what will happen if your opponent does what you think he will do, and then undo it all and try something different in a massive loop of panic-induced second-guessing. The tension level is virtually unmatched. For, not only are you playing against another player, you are pitting yourself against your own paranoia’s and insecurities. Whatever you think of, you will abandon, tweak, retry, ignore, pin all your hopes on, and then hope beyond all hope that it will work.

Your squad of vatforms are all capable of miraculous feats of gunmanship, but your opponents are too. In this way, all forms of twitch skill are removed from the game, and it becomes a test of absolute strategy. The player with the best prediction, with the best planning, or just the best hiding skills will invariably win the contest. Vatforms work on a line-of-sight basis, so if they can see an enemy they can shoot him. Thus, knowing where to send your men is paramount. Early on, it all seems like guesswork, but after a while you start to just 'feel' what you need to do next.

Nicely, there is no need for both of you to be online at the same time. It works in a somewhat play-by-mail fashion, as once you commit your turn you then send this information to the game server. Once you have both done this, the server makes sense of it all and then shows you what happened. An email tells you when you have a new turn waiting, and this can be a moment of elation AND dread. You carefully laid plans will either work perfectly, or unfold in an instant because of one rocket that blows the nearby wall to shreds. Guys with shotguns beat snipers when up close, if they can ever get close to them. Grenades can be insanely dangerous, for both target and yourself. Danger potentially lurks around every corner, but if you are really clever you know exactly which corners to stay the hell away from.

Oh, and it looks like THIS:

Outnumbered, not that it matters...

Which hits all of my buttons, because I am a child of the Eighties and the whole style makes me warm to my very core. It is as if it sings lullabies to me whilst I sleep, such is my love for the whole Neon-tinged retro look. I would personally be delighted if games forgot about trying to look even remotely realistic and just all concentrated on looking like videogames, with cel-shading, blocky pixels, low-polygon models, and garish colour schemes. Games should look like GAMES!

There are two further strokes of genius that elevate the title. The first is the inclusion of an in-built system to record the game and upload it to YouTube. Thus, if you demolish your friend, or even some random stranger, you can then humiliate them even further by posting the link all over your internet forum of choice. And, the second MASTERSTROKE is that you don't buy a copy of the game. You in fact buy two. Yes, a free code is provided to give away to anybody in the world, thereby ensuring that you have somebody to play against. And the makers have even included a single-player campaign to boot, although be warned that this is a whole lot harder than playing against other people who have no clue what they are about to do as well.

All in all, you should already have bought Frozen Synapse, as it is one of the better PC games of 2011. If, however, for some reason you haven't, then at the cost of WHATEVER YOU THINK IT IS WORTH along with GUARANTEED ENTRY TO THE NICE PLACE THAT YOUR RELIGION RESERVES FOR YOU IN THE AFTERLIFE for donating to charity gains you, you would have to think really long and hard for a good reason to not buy it. And, as this is the internet and things live on long past their posting date, if you happen across this piece at a time when the offer has expired, then I will even link you straight to the game direct from the creators or via Steam, thus depriving you of any possible excuses.

Buy the game, save your soul, and love your life. This is why games are magical, and you can rightly be very happy with yourself for being part of them.

Let's see the mainstream media complain about that!

(Special thanks to David from GeekMandem for the vocabulary help, by the way!)

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Facebook Friday Fing : Dino Golf

Good old Facebook. Without it, how would you ever find pictures of American girls who like photgraphing their bathrooms? How would you ever come to know that 4 of your friends 'like' looking at the microwave timer even though you only put the meal in 25 seconds ago? And, most importantly, how would you ever get to read my latest Friday Facebook Fings?

Like, this week's game. Dino Golf, from, is about as simple as games can get. Essentially, it is nothing but an evolution of the same principle that hooked us all 6 years ago when we were smacking a penguin in the head with a club . Except now, we get to see how far our friends can get with their efforts, and get rewards for beating them.

Things start out straightforwardly enough, with our caveman avatar walking up to the ball to hit it. Of course, the ball is just a rock, and the club is just a big old stick. This is because it is based in prehistoric times, and such luxury items as a Big Bertha just weren't invented yet. To be fair, consumerism as a concept hadn't been invented, which was probably for the best. There have been multiple times in my life that I have wished it didn't exist, several of which came during playing this game itself.

Starts out well enough

So, the usual golf rules apply. A large arrow starts swinging back and forth, and you click to stop it. This sets your angle of hit. Then, the same thing happens for the power. I have no idea why this would be, because the whole point of the game is to hit for a further distance than other players. There is no aiming, no subtlety, and no strategy. Just hit the ball as far as you can, which logically means you hit it hard as you can. WHY THE HELL DOES IT GIVE ME THE OPTION TO HIT LESS THAN FULL POWER? Who, pray tell, are the freaks that will use this? Hell, why not go the whole hog and give us the option to not even hit the ball at all? Or, let us teach the ball to do impressions of French politicians, it would prove as useful.

Beyond your initial hitting of the ball, there is little else for you to do. You watch as your balls sails through the air, and then as it bounces on the ground. It may hit a spider's web, which acts like a trampoline and gains you some extra distance. It may hit a tree trunk, which stops you dead. It may hit a dinosaur, some of which move you forwards and others of which just get in your way. If you are extremely lucky, a bird will catch your ball and fly off with it before spitting it further forwards. Sadly, there is also a bastard bird that can catch you and take you backwards.

The entire game is, therefore, one of luck. If you hit obstacles, you lose. If you hit helfpul stuff, you win.

Repeat the process two more times, and then suddenly you get a most unwelcome intrusion.

Uh oh, here comes the spam...

Yes, by watching an advert embedded from youtube, you can earn the right to hit your ball one extra time. These adverts genuinely last between 30 seconds and just over a minute, so it is painless enough to endure. So, I suppose one can't really complain at their existence. Unless, of course, one is of the mindset that they were supposed to be playing a FUN GAME. Frankly, my idea of fun rarely involves being forced to watch some arty conceptual movie designed to make me want a car that I could not possibly afford, particularly when I am only playing in the first instance because that annoying dude on my friends list is constantly challenging me.

At least he has a good reason for challenging me. This is one of those games where you can upgrade your equipment, thus increasing your chances of hitting the ball REALLY FAR. To do this, you enter the in-game shop and buy new balls, new clubs, and other helpful additions. The in-game currency appears to be skulls, which are earned by beating your friends. This will be why said annoying dude constantly challenges me, and also why no matter how hard I try, which is admittedly not very, I just can't beat him.

I'm quite poor at this game.

That score may look good, but it is frankly rubbish.

Naturally, these bonus items can also be bought for REAL WORLD CASH as well, because the creative guys at GameDuell are well aware that fools and their wallets are soon parted. This very phrase would appear to be the modus uperandi for the majority of the developers on Facebook, as it happens.

Just heartbreaking

It was during my perusal of the shop that I lamented the blatant capitalist trappings of this game, and indeed Facebook itself. When a game is so primarily concerned with squeezing a few pennies out of you instead of giving you an enjoyable time and hoping you reward it, things have gone very wrong.

And that, as they say, is pretty much the entirety of the game. Hit a rock, watch an ad, fail to beat that annoying guy who keeps on playing, and try not to spend any real money on it. Sure, it is a pleasant enough distraction, particularly notable because it doesn't beg you to play it every single day for the rest of your existence. But, you could find so many better games. (For example, Pacman S!)

There ARE good games on Facebook. Amongst the mountains of utter dross, the odd gem does shine out. This is not one such gem. This is in fact naught but a polished turd. Ignore the cartoony graphics, for in its heart Dino Golf is not cute at all. It is the very Devil, seeking to steal as much of your money as it can get its grubby cloven mitts on.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

They're at it AGAIN!

As gamers, we are somewhat used to the ridiculous musings of journalists who seem to think that our hobby is not just fair game to be the blame for the ills of an entire world, but also as a convenient hanging post for whatever nonsense they feel fit to print at any given time. Maybe they think we are easy targets, or that perhaps we can't read, but whatever the cause it is clear that print journalists can not resist writing the kind of incomprehensible garbage that could only make sense in the mind of someone who has spent the last few years trying to find proof of terrorist events in their breakfast cereal.

Today, I came across a piece so astonishingly inane that it literally beggars belief that anybody could find the time to attempt to justify it. Ordinarily, I just shrug my shoulders and laugh them off. After all, we have seen various forms of entertainment blasted as being the works of Satan himself down the years, with videogames simply being the most recent magnet for hatred. The Daily Mail is infamous in the UK for their hatred of all things videogame.

But, a new low has been reached. A piece so mind-bendingly ... I was about to hesitate to use the word "stupid" but I don't know why, for "stupid" is the only word that fits ... so unimaginably stupid that I can only assume that the authors cornflakes were laced with hallucinogenic cocktails that he accidentally inhaled whilst searching for Bin Laden amongst them. The kind of piece that needs to be singled out as the WORST VIDEOGAME STORY OF ALL TIME. And it was not even in the Daily Mail! Nope, this missive was to be found on page 7 of the Metro newspaper, a free newspaper handed out to commuters in all the major cities.

It is entitled Gamers 'can't tell real world from fantasy', written by one Fred Attewill, and centres around a study apparently undertaken at Nottingham Trent University. The opening paragraph sets the tone, and I reproduce it here unedited. (The piece is actually so short that I could probably just type it out in its entirety, but I do not wish to sully my blog any more than I have to with this one.)

"HARDCORE gamers become so immersed in virtual worlds that they turn to imaginary consoles to 'zoom in' to people in crowds or to pick things up from the floor."

Read that again, because I promise you I am not even paraphrasing.

"A study of 42 gamers aged 15 to 21 who played for at least ten hours a week revealed that most have experienced 'games transfer phenomena' - doing or thinking things in real life as if they were still in a fantasy environment.

Researchers from Nottingham Trent university (his choice to not capitalise, not mine) said gamers sometimes use reflex actions instinctively picked up over hours in front of the screen."

In other words, some teenagers have wanted to do the things they have done in a game in real life. Which, apparently, is a terrible thing. Because, nobody ever tried to use the Force. No Harry Potter reader even tried to use "Accio" on anything. And nobody has ever played the Air Guitar. Nope, this kind of thing only happens to people who play videogames. Those poor fools, do they not know how their enjoyment is tragic?

Also, and this may be pedantic, but to criticise for using reflex actions instinctively ... I'd like to know how many other ways of using reflex actions there are? Perhaps Mr Attewill plans his reflex actions. If so, I wonder if he can teach the rest of us to OVERCOME THIS BASIC AND UNAVOIDABLE ACTIVITY, which is by very definition an action performed without conscious thought.

"One 15-year old named Simon admitted wanting to use a 'gravity gun' from the game Half Life to fetch something from the fridge."

Well, apart from not giving it the correct name of Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator, the main mistake with this sentence would have to be - what exactly is the problem here? CALL THE COPS! Some kid likes the idea behind the Gravity Gun! Know something? I am 41 years old, and I would gladly sacrifice one of my testes to have an actual Gravity Gun. Anybody who has seen that weapon and has even one gram of joy in their soul would simply love a Gravity Gun. After the Portal Gun, it would simply be the most useful and awe-inspiring tool that humanity would ever have access to. If you DON'T want one, there is something wrong with you. Imagine the fun possible? Imagine the potential for scientific achievment?

"Another gamer, Milton, 19, said when he dropped a sandwich after playing Prince of Persia: Sands of Time his finger 'twitched' as he tried to revive it with his console."

This poor adolescent is so deluded by his years of playing games that he has even wished he could turn back time to undo a mistake. Surely no normal and sane human has ever had such thoughts?

I could go on, but I really don't want to. Besides which, you can see the "story" yourself by going to the e-edition of the paper. In an age where terrible journalism is rampant, I think we have found a new prize-winner for the accolade of "World's Most Massive Wanker." The guy actually gets paid to come up with stuff like this! But, what can we do about it?

If only he had a twitter account on which we could tell him what we think of him. If only the Metro had a contact section where we could tell them what we think of both Mr. Attewill and this particular article. Whilst I am sure that my small readership would never consider any kind of retaliatory actions, none of which I would condone should they surface, I am also aware that the internet does home plenty of people who may well want to express their distaste in ways which are alien to me. It is therefore to be hoped that this information does not find its way to those less savoury areas of the web that may well take offence to what has been written.

If only we didn't have to constantly put up with this bullshit. I, for one, am tired of it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Sure, Epic, just take my money. I am stupid."

So, everybody been good little consumers? You have all been and pre-ordered Gears of War 3, and turned up at one of the midnight launces, I hope? That's right, do as you are told, nice obedient customers. Don't question, don't think, and whatever you do DON'T STOP SPENDING!

Admittedly, the idea of midnight launches seems quite fun. At least, until I spend more than 20 seconds imagining it. Being in a queue with the kind of people who are not only willing to queue at midnight to get hold of something that they almost certainly could have gotten cheaper on one of the specialist online videogame retailers, but also play Gears. Don't get me wrong, the first two games were very good. But, playing them online always left me cold. Halo has a bad reputation because of the online community, but trust me. Halo players are relative paragons compared to the Gears fan base. I would rather discuss morals with David Cameron than enter into a conversation with the average Gears player. I'm no prude, but even I can't stand to hear the F-bomb more than seven or eight times per sentence.

What makes the midnight madness even more laughable is that I know for an absolute cold hard fact that I will be able to wander into more or less any store that sells videogames today at my leisure and pick up a copy of the game itself. With no fear of it being out of stock at all. Better yet, if I go to one of the supermarkets, I may well find myself getting it at a genuine bargain price. At time of writing, Morrison’s will let me walk out with a copy for £24.99, provided I also buy 2100 MS points at the slightly increased price of £18.99. Since 2000 MS points cost £17.00 on the dashboard, this works out at a premium of about £1 for the points. Weigh this against the saving of £20.00 on the games RRP, and I think I can take that. Especially as I can always find a use for MS points.

Maybe I could put them towards the Season pass, which is advertised as a pre-order for four DLC packages at a 33% discount. Wait ... what? PRE-ORDER for DLC now? Worryingly, the blurb states quite clearly that this content is going to have new content for Campaign, Horde, Beast, and new characters, You know what word is NOT mentioned once on that page?


I'm not being paranoid, just stating a fact.

I'm not against online passes, as it happens. I'm not against DLC. I'm just against stupidity, and when I see it being catered to so grotesquely as it is in this case, I need to comment. I am talking specifically about one of the other specials that I could maybe choose to spend my MS points on. This beauty right here is a clear example of just how fucking moronic they think we are. Or, worse, of just how fucking moronic we have all become. For a mere three-thousand and two hundred MS points, you can buy all of the available weapon skins.

Sorry, but it needs to be said again, slowly just in case you didn't spot it. (And, those who are considering buying something like this probably didn't.) THREE. THOUSAND. TWO. HUNDRED. MS POINTS.


I make this promise right here and now. If I find anybody I know who pays for that package, I will personally hunt them down and do disgraceful things to their dog. Weapon skins? They really expect people to pay to change the colour of their weapons? (Hint: Yes.)

Back when I first got Quake 3, I would frequently go and download entire new models for my character, along with various skins. I was Animal from the Muppets, I was Bender from Futurama, I was The Tick. All of these were free. Speed on 10 years, and things have gotten so bad that we are now expected to pay for any addition outside of the initial launch that the developer feels like putting in. (Often already on the disc, we just pay to unlock.) And I'm not one of those freeloading entitled whiners who cry out that everything should be free, either. Honestly, if devs wish to make money off of the idiots who will blindly shell out for whatever bit of virtual tat that gets thrown their way, then fair play to them. Nobody was ever forced to buy the Horse Armour.

But what bothers me is the way that the new model has become so incredibly successful at getting said idiots to part with their money. We are constantly reminded by publishers how expensive games are to produce. Well, if any publisher is trying to tell me that changing the colour palette of a weapon skin takes so much time that I am duty-bound to pay them the cost of an entire top-quality Indie game for it, I am flat out calling them a liar.

Oh, and my 2100 MS points? Most likely going to go on the rather SUPERB Renegade Ops from SEGA instead. A FULL GAME for one-third of the price of the weapon skins pack. And I'll still have 900 more to play with.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Saturday Social-Network Spectacular : Pacman S

Introducing a BRAND NEW FEATURE to the blog. Yes, that's right, an actual BRAND NEW FEATURE! This particular feature for Saturdays is BRAND NEW, and is in no way a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that I didn't do my usual Friday post at all this week... Nosiree, BRAND. NEW. FEATURE!

Now that we have that out of the way, let's take a look at this week’s game, shall we?

EVERYBODY has played Pacman at some point in their life. It would be fair to say that Pacman may be the single most iconic videogame ... um ... icon ... of all time. The simple memorable designs of both Pacman himself and the ghosts have entered into the realm of popular culture, so much so that even your Mum knows who they are and what they represent.

The game itself may well have been a breakthrough when it was released back in 1980, being one of the first games that wasn't specifically about shooting aliens and was instead a family-friendly experience. It does need to be remembered just how worried people were about these arcade machines back then, so it was nice that there was the occasional title that parents could actually feel safe about when they gave into the constant "PLEASE CAN I HAVE ANOTHER 10P FOR IT PLEEEEEEEEEEEASSSSSSEEEEEE?" from me. Um, I mean, their children.

And, for years, Pacman was one of those fond childhood memories. It wasn't until I revisited it with an adult gamer’s eye that I discovered just how harsh the game itself was. And, also, that it hadn't really dated well. Namco, to their credit, were also aware of this, as they released the rather magnificent Championship Edition in 2007, and the even more astonishingly awesome Championship Edition DX in 2010. These games took the basic "Eat dots, avoid ghosts, oh look a power pellet NOW EAT THE GHOSTS!" format, and tightened it up by adding a time-limit, multipliers for eating consecutive ghosts, and placing the entire game into a single maze that was constantly morphing throughout the play experience.

Pacman S on Facebook takes its cue from these games. What starts out looking like just the same old game you may have played 30 years ago soon reveals something much more exciting.

The first change you notice is one that is possibly quite familiar to anyone who has played more than 3 or so Facebook titles. It is this :


This slot machine gives you some bonus points. Now, these points are nothing at all to do with the game score, they are in fact the currency with which you can buy in-game powerups. There are 4 to choose from, shown below.

Have some of those!

I'll save you some time. Go with Slacker and Speed Up, the other two are pretty rubbish.

Then, we come to the game itself. Like I said, it looks like Pacman.

As expected, really.

As you can see, all the expected Facebook trappings are built-in already. Nicely, the friend’s leaderboard is built-in, and takes a good focus at the bottom. (Not so nice when your bloody friends just won't play it no matter how much you tell them how brilliant it is, though.) But then, you play the game itself, and it goes from Pacman with added Facebook frustrations into Pacman with added Magic from the Sex Fairies. Eating the 4 ghosts in succession makes one of the ghosts start carrying a multiplier, and eating that ghost is the true key. Before you know it, the multiplier adds up, and the game speeds up in accordance with your score, and OHMYGODITSOSGOODNOOOOOOODONTGOTHATWAY!


Pacman was rightfully popular worldwide. The recent versions have retained everything that worked, and turned it into the most adrenaline-infusing competitive experience this generation has to offer. As a gamer, you owe it to yourself to play these versions, however possible. Here we have the most accessible version to date, which strikes a finely-tuned balance between the nostalgia and charm of the original and the highly-polished addictiveness and focus of the Championship Editions, without quite going into the pyrotechnic excesses that the new games often stray into. (Although, something like the Ghost Chain in DX would be a welcome addition from this reporter’s point of view.) It is something instantly playable by anyone, that doesn't tie you to your screen for hours at a time unless you want it to.

There may well be some kind of pressure to spend real money on the game, but if there is I have yet to witness it. This is because the balance of points the game gives you to spend on powerups is quite obscenely high, and may well last you the rest of your life. And even if it doesn't, the powerups will cease to matter once you get the knack of the game, and the hypnotic rhythm that comes from knowing exactly which direction to head through the maze to maximise your scoring opportunities. Until this muscle memory sets in, you may well find yourself cursing your keyboard, but more often than not it is just that bastard red ghost you will be shouting at. Which is a sure sign that the game is successful.

I implore you to play this one. There is so much nonsense on Facebook that when something quite incredible comes around it behoves all of us as people who genuinely love games to spread the word.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The great downloadable games Swindle.

With a quite astonishingly low total of THREE reviews on Metacritic, you could be forgiven for not having heard of GO Series: Portable Shrine Wars before now. And even if you have heard of it and read all the reviews, you would probably be no wiser as the scores for it vary quite drastically. IGN gave it a rather splendid 9/10, whilst at the other end Eurogamer gave it a derisory 4.

I'm not going to give it a score, because to be frank I think scores for reviews are about as much use as pockets in your wellies. Besides which, the rather excellent trailer tells you everything you need to know :

So, got that? You steer the shrine, collect guys to speed up, shoot them at the other shrines, or bump into them or even jump on them. You can see within about half a millisecond if this sort of thing will even remotely appeal to you. (Hint: It should.) You can also see that it is hectic, colourful, and available only on DSi/3DS as part of the DSiware range. What you can't see is the price, which stands at 200 Nintendo points. In real money, that translates to two of your local currency units in the US or Euro zone, and even less in the UK. So, $2/€2/£1.80.

That is RIDICULOUSLY cheap! That is down at the App Store "Did I even just pay for that?" price point of outright impulse buy essentiality. The kind of price that, were it put on sale on Steam for, you would drop sight unseen just because "Well, it's cheap, innit?"

And yet, because it is DSiware, there is seemingly this assumption that it is going to be awful. That, even at such a mere slip of a price point, it will still not be worth the money. Or, worse yet, that it is going to be some casual nonsense that no real gamer worth his/her salt should be bothering with.

Well, you know that assumption? As a great man once said, it makes an ass out of you and umption.

I could attempt to wax lyrical and extol the games virtues with some clever and inventive wordplay. I could layer the hyperbole on so thick and fast that you are left dizzy reading it, which is pretty much how the game makes you feel when playing it and is therefore exactly the kind of thing I do when reviewing a game. I could appeal to your better nature and talk about how downloadable titles from smaller studios need your support.

I'll not do that. I shall instead just reiterate that it is TWO FUCKING HUNDRED NINTENDO POINTS. At that price, it is an insult to not pick it up.

But, all this ignores the real issue. Which is, just why is this gem of a game at this gold-encrusted gem of a price being ignored by so many of the mainstream gaming websites? Eurogamer may have covered it, but they chose to stick it on page 3 of a "Roundup" which suggests before you even read that nothing in there is worth your time. IGN, to their credit, review more or less everything that gets released. But where are the reviews from Gamespot, EDGE, 1UP, Kotaku, GameTrailers, etc.? Why are they all actively choosing to ignore it?

It can only be because it is a DSiware title, and that means there is a stigma attached to it. "Downloadable titles on the Nintendo consoles are for casuals, therefore we won't review them." would seem to be the mantra chanted religiously by all the big sites who are happy enough to review Call of Duty map packs. (Which, incidentally, usually cost five times what this game costs.)

It gets worse if, dear reader, you were to try and find a review for newly released Wiiware title "Aya and the Cubes of Light" to help you to decide if you should part with 1000 Nintendo points. Because, to date, not a SINGLE WEBSITE has bothered to review it. Or, to be more accurate, not a single website that Metacritic deem worthy of including. Which is a shame, because it looks like a genuinely interesting concept, but one that is doomed before it even got off the ground. Whereas 17 websites to date have felt the need to tell us how predictably piss-poor Lucha Fury is.

What makes things all the more unbelievable is the way that all these big sites are geared towards getting hits above and beyond actually catering to the readers in any way imaginable. They review the Call of Duty map packs not because their readership demands it, but because they know that they will gain even more hit counts from these additional visitors, which all makes for good numbers to give to the advertisers. Of course, the fact that most of these visitors are of the non-returning variety is swept under the carpet. Never let the truth get in the way of a good statistic, eh?

The problem, as I see it, is that the DS is far and away the biggest selling console available today. And in 2nd place, we have the Wii. Which means that websites are not catering to what may well be their biggest audience by a considerable margin, and are doing their "hardcore" followings a disservice by not featuring the great and the good when it does arrive on the Nintendo services. I won't pretend for even one second that everything available in the DSistore or e-Shop is fantastic, but I know for a damn sure fact that it isn't all atrocious, either.

Gamers, you deserve better. Your websites are not working hard enough to show you the good stuff out there. All they ever show you is the marketed stuff, the stuff they get for free, and the stuff the publishers tell them to show you. When absolute bollocks like Hole in the Wall Kinect manages to garner more reviews than the GENIUS that is Portable Shrine Wars, then something is very rotten in Denmark. Very, very rotten indeed.

Once more; TWO FUCKING HUNDRED NINTENDO POINTS. And, dat trailer! Go buy it; you might just save the internet.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Friday Facebook Fing : Words With Friends

Facebook, contrary to popular opinion, is more than just a way to annoy your friends. Of course the option to tell a whole bunch of people who really couldn't care any less how sexy your name is is there should you want it, and it is surprising how many do, but for many of us this constant bombardment of inconsequentia and triviality grates somewhat. And, I choose my words carefully. I say grates, because I would in fact rather be vigorously massaged with a cheesegrater than subject myself to the daily arguments of people who I don't actually remember going to school with.

Amongst the contacts of any discerning Facebook user, there are obvious groups. There are those who you were forced to add because they are family or you have known them forever. There are those who you wonder why you added them at all, due to their obsession with posting Adele Youtube videos. And then, if you are lucky, there are those who you LIKE! It is this third group that I would like to focus on today. Because, today the game we are going to play is Words With Friends.

There is only one word needed to describe the entire concept of Words With Friends, which is yet another brick in the wall that Zynga appears to be building around the entire social/casual gaming world. And that word would be Scrabble. In everything except name, this is Scrabble Online. Which means 7 tiles, take it in turns to place them on a board, and swear loudly when you draw out three letter I's.

What would You do?
Scrabble is one of the board gaming world's true success stories. It could be said that a Scrabble board is a household necessity, and at the very least you would expect one to be in the houses of all but the Jeremy Kyle guest classes. It is a game that anyone can play and have fun with, but can fall apart because it may go on a little longer than you would ultimately want it to. Further, the need to have a dictionary on hand to solve debates can lead to arguments. I personally would have no qualms whatsoever about accepting the word "PWNED", but sadly Messrs Chambers, Collins, and Oxford outrank me in this respect.

Taking the game online has many benefits. The most obvious one is that it is impossible for the dog to eat your J. Without a board to look after, the setup and tidyup times are non-existent. Log on, play, log off. Also, there is greater flexibility as to the time that you can play, because the turns are stored on the server. At time of writing, your correspondent is in the midst of at least 5 games with various friends, some of whom are on the other side of the pond. Try doing THAT with the home version! Games may last several days, broken down into tiny slices of time spent staring at a virtual plastic tray shuffling seven vowels around desperately trying to find a word better than "AT" for 2 points.

I should point out that as this is on the internet that it runs in that awful "English Lite", or "American English", or even "English for the stupid" that they use over there. So, be aware when playing any trans-Atlantic games that there will be plenty of perfectly acceptable words that will make the in-game parser cry.

It is SO a word!

This is one that originally started out life as an iPhone app, and it proved so successful that the big boys decided that they wanted a piece. The good news is that they have maintained the iPhone connectivity, so it is possible to play it on the move as well. Originally there was an ad-supported free version and a paid-for 'Pro' version, but the Facebook game doesn't offer this distinction. You will get to see ads in your face between every couple of turns, but they never last long and are so irrelevant that you instantly forget them. They are intrusive, as you have to wait to click the "I DON'T FUCKING CARE SKIP THIS SHIT NOW" button, but also don't leave any sour impression. This is an improvement on the iPhone ads, which took over the phone for several seconds at a time.

Ultimately, the true strength of the game depends upon the depth of quality in your contacts. If you have a lot of "friends" who treat the letter U and the word "you" as interchangeable, perhaps you won't get the most out of it. If your feed is littered with people who comment on the latest reality TV non-entities, you may want to think twice about who to play with. But, if you have even a handful of intelligent and even remotely game-savvy friends, you can't go wrong with a good old word game now, can you?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why I love Ocarina of Time

There have been a couple of occasions recently where my 3DS has completely surprised me. The first was when I was playing about with the built in AR games, and was taken aback at how impressive they are. The 3D effect is actually quite incredible, and it is just such a shame that the nature of the games involves moving the console itself about, because if you shift your gaze by even a micron the glorious 3D gets replaced by the even more eyestraining blurry-double-shake-o-vision. Which becomes a bit of a problem when you are fighting a dragon that has risen out of your sofa.

The second surprise came from Pilotwings Resort. This latest version in the popular series starts off, in traditional fashion, quite simply. The basic tasks of "Take off, fly through some rings, land" are almost impossible to mess up on, and so you have to be a particular breed of thumbless wonder to not get a perfect score on these early challenges. Indeed, I managed this without even trying to on my first go in the aeroplane. Getting a perfect score is always nice, but what is not so nice is when you get rewarded with the following message :

Come again?

Wait ... what? BETTER than perfect? What the hell kind of Moonspeak is this, Nintendo?

It turns out that it is true, you can indeed improve on perfection. This is because there are bonus scores that are only available once you have achieved the perfect score. So, what turned out to be a bit of a shock turned into a pleasant surprise, because without this aspect to the game it would be dreadfully shortlived. (A fact that seems to have been overlooked in the vast majority of reviews, incidentally, which all like to shout about how short the game is. Honestly, does nobody play for high scores anymore?)

So far, so nice. But now, we come to something even nicer.

By far and away the best reason to own a 3DS is the rather wonderful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. An undeniable masterpiece, it is widely regarded as the best game of all-time. And with good reason. That a 13 year old game can not only stand alongside anything else released this year, but actually tower over most of the current-gen titles speaks as much for Nintendo's timeless design as it does for the nature of modern gaming. From the moment Navi flies towards young Link, it is clear you are in for a treat.

Gaming has evolved in many ways since this landmark was released, of course, and a lot of this evolution came from this game. It is now standard to use a button to "lock on" to an enemy in a 3D space, but it was new at the time.

What was not new at the time was the sometimes total lack of clues as to what to do next, or even where to go. The only real hint system was that Navi, your fairy companion, would harass you with "Hey!" and "Listen!" before departing some vague blabber about something unclear. Phrases like "Let's go find someone who knows about sages", for example, which could mean literally ANY OTHER CHARACTER IN THE GAME! There have been times when I have been wandering around the map just hoping to stumble blindly into some kind of encounter or clue. (Or, to be completely accurate, rolling around the map making Link say "YAAAH!" because it is so much more fun than just running.)

It was during one such session that I discovered that I had not only gone the wrong way, I had managed to miss out an entire dungeon. Having gotten to a point where I could progress no more inside the Spirit Temple, I decided to go on a hunt for Gold Skulltulas, the collectable spiders littered throughout the game. Which meant a trip to Kakariko Village, for that is where the House of Skulltula is based, and if I wanted my reward for freeing 30 spiders I had to go collect it.

Entering the village triggered a cut-scene, in which Sheik taught me a new song and told me about the Shadow Temple. This song meant that I had now learned all the songs in the game, but even at this point I hadn't quite worked out what my mistake had been. It wasn't until I was in the Shadow Temple itself, just trying to make sense of anything I could see that I found the Winged shoes. These shoes let you cross otherwise uncrossable gaps, of which I had found more than any Temples fair share of in the Spirit Temple. And it was at this point that it dawned on me that I was obviously meant to complete this Temple before starting the other one.

This was a revelatory moment! I honestly couldn't tell you now when was the last time I did something like that. Have a game just let me go and do my own thing, instead of whisking control from me to dump me into its latest set-piece or cut-scene. Yes, Navi was quite insistent that I play my new song anytime I left the Temple for any reason, but at least I had the option to just not press the button to see what she was saying. I compare that to the Call of Duty franchise, for example, which basically has zero in the way of exploration or even choice. There, it is all about moving the plot on at all costs and throwing the player into their next gunfight as soon as possible, most likely to make sure the player doesn't get time to think about what they are doing and realising that they are playing a not particularly good game.

Nintendo trusts that the game world will keep you happy. They let you leave the fast track to the end of the game in order to determine your own route. Modern games don't allow this freedom, being terrified to give a player time to breathe before dropping them into the next challenge.

I like the more free approach. I WANT the more free approach! In my extra life, all I want is some rough idea of the problem and then the time to fix it. I want to be allowed to make mistakes.

What I don't want is a smack on the wrist for daring to try and do anything other than see precisely what the developer spent half the budget on. Your bridge may be pretty, and your city may be impressive. But they don't mean a single thing to me if I'm not allowed to touch them until you say so.

So, the moral of this tale? It is threefold.

1) Pilotwings Resort is very good, ignore the reviews from stupids who don't understand that a game doesn't actually need a story of any kind. (You can buy it here.)

2) Ocarina of Time 3D is absolutely fucking magnificent, and MUST be in your collection. Buy that one here.

3) Games are better when they let you play them than when you mostly watch them.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The fabulous Friday Facebook fun feature ... flip-flop!

There is a reason why Bejeweled has sold a bazillion copies on every possible format you can think of. A big part is this actual availability on every possible format you can think of, because that certainly helps. But another part is due to how inherently playable the game itself is. Start out with a square full of differently coloured jewels, switch the position of two of them, and if this movement leads to you putting three or more jewels of the same colour in a row then by universal "Match Three" decree the matched jewels dissapear, making way for some new replacements. Repeat this until the game determines that you can't actually make any more moves, unless you are in the Infinite mode where every drop is guaranteed that you have at least one potential move on the board.

It is a nice relaxing puzzle game, and is one that anybody could learn. The element of luck is nicely underplayed, as even though you don't know what is coming next, you do have the option to plan a couple of moves in advance. Add in to this mix the powerups, which come from getting 4 or 5 jewels together, and a decent element of strategy presents itself.

It sounds like a poor candidate for a Facebook game, if you think about it. What Facebook wants is social interaction, not some poor sod sat there for hours on end. So, Popcap came up with a couple of rather good ideas.

First, they stuck a strict time limit onto the game. So, instead of potentially playing for the rest of your life, you play for exactly one minute. Then, they put a score element in this. And the final moment of sheer genius was to tie it all into a leaderboard made entirely of your Facebook friends. This is important. Were it a leaderboard of all the people in the world, everybody would quickly feel completely inadequate as some Korean kids took up all the top slots with scores so high that they should be written in Hexadecimal. But, when the person at the top of the scoreboard is your own Mum you KNOW you can beat that. And this is what gives the game such an addictive quality.

Soon, your humble scores start popping up with rewards. "You earned a 25k medal" is a big deal the first time you see it. But as you play more, you start to notice scoring opportunities as they arise more quickly. It doesn't take long before the medals are for scores in the hundreds of thousands, and the names of your friends (and those people you don't actually know but just accepted anyway for fear of upsetting them in the off-chance you ever actually meet them in person again) are queueing up below you in the high score table. Eventually, it will become a weekly battle between you and a couple of others, as you desperately hope for the run that nets you top spot. Scores are wiped every 7 days, so there are plenty of opportunities to say "HAHAHAHAHAHA!" to your work colleagues, and wipe their noses in their inadequacy. You can even record your particularly spectacular games, and post the video all over your friends feeds. And, no, nobody would blame your friends for deleting you if you did this, so use this humiliation tool at your own risk.

The polar opposite, then, of the sedate proceedings one is used to in Bejeweled, Blitz brings explosions and adrenaline into the mix. You start to live your life one minute at a time, and as "One more go, THAT ONE DIDN'T COUNT!" becomes a mantra, you suddenly realise that it is 4am and you have to be up for work in 2 hours time.

Bejeweled Blitz is one of those most rare of titles. It is the perfect mix of simplicity and rewarding pyrotechnics. When an explosion causes a chain reaction it is beautiful. When this is the result of your own planning, it is quite exquisite. Little in life is as rewarding as watching a game play itself at a speed that your eyes are struggling to follow, and your fingers can't hope to match. Best of all, it doesn't even need to be played on Facebook, as the iOS version connects to your account. Whilst this is quite unfair to those who don't own an iPhone or iPod Touch, it is their own stupid fault so let us not dwell on this too much.

Possibly, mere words can't really describe the game. Therefore, I shall link to a video that shows you just how good it is possible to get at Blitz. The score in this run is something that at first seems impossible and beyond your wildest dreams. However, give it a little time and you will easily be hitting similar heights yourself. (I have broken the 500,000 mark several times now, and people frequently break the million barrier.)

Anyone can play Bejeweled Blitz, and everyone should. It redefines the classic puzzle game, turning it into a battle for superiority with your friends . More than this, it becomes a battle to ever go to bed at a reasonable time again, because Popcap could have no argument if the game were to one day be classified as a Class A drug. It is certainly one of the best eaters of time that your reporter has ever come across, and has the highest of recommendations attached.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A tale of two demos

The other week, two distinctly different demos appeared on XBox Live Marketplace. Your intrepid reporter takes it upon himself to play pretty much every demo that goes up, and so it came to pass that I found myself going through Bodycount, and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. I thought it would be quite interesting to do a compare and contrast, as these are two games that could be said to encapsulate two ends of the gaming spectrum. Some may say the good and the bad, even.

First off, then, I tried Bodycount. This is the new FPS from Codemasters that they seem really proud of. For the life of me I don't know why, because it is the new FPS from Codemasters that you will have seen enough of within 10 minutes of playing it. Everything that you are already completely and utterly sick of the sight of in FPS games raises its ugly head in this one. You want annoying swarms of enemies? Check. Strange little quirks of scenery that stop you moving? Check. Enemies you don't get to see until the bastards shoot you? Check, check, and check. Grenades, OH MY GOD SO MANY SODDING GRENADES? Check, and for the love of God please stop with them now...

Codemasters made a big deal out of the bonus system in this game, where you get to score points based on different methods of killing people. Sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, it also sound pretty much like Bulletstorm. And, Bulletstorm got to market a couple of months back now.

Such a pity, Codies. Your game is yet another in the CONSTANT AND NEVER ENDING STREAM of generic and simply DULL FPS games, and if anyone manages to complete your demo then they are a better and more patient man than I am.

Non-plussed as I now was, I was ready to rip El Shagrag a new one. What the hell kind of a pretentious mess was I about to experience?

A quite incredible one, as it happens.

Whereas Bodycount has a name that quite literally rolls off the tongue and is therefore impossible to forget, El Shaddai comes from the school of "Sounds vaguely mystical? PUT IT IN!" games naming. I mean, just say it to yourself - "Ascension of the Metatron" - and try not to giggle. How many people can even tell you what the Metatron is?

And the setting is ... ridiculous. Based on the Jewish religious tome, the Book of Enoch, describing some crap that I don't care to work out. (Seriously, Wikipedia exists purely for this reason, go look it up yourselves.) From what I could tell, you are some human going into heaven, fighting the fallen angels along the way. You do this by hitting them with your bare fists, and also by stealing their weapons from them and turning them against their former owners.

The important thing about Shabba is that it looks like THIS :

Simply stunning

Or, to put that into words, like nothing else you have ever played before. I mean, look at that. It has PINK in it! It plays a little bit like Devil May Cry and other such combat-driven games, but is quite simplified. Combat seems to be more about timing and moving than remembering complex sequences of button combinations. Further, at times it is a platformer, reminiscent of the early Crash Bandicoot titles. (You know, back when they were quite good?) And the last piece in the puzzle is the way it isn't scared to just let you work out what the hell is happening for yourself. There isn't even a hint of exposition in the demo.

So, on the one hand, we have Bodycount. A standard and generic FPS with ... who CARES how many features and modes and gimmicks? And on the other, we have something completely unlike anything else out there. One bored me to tears within 2 minutes, and the other had me enthralled before it confused me. Most importantly, one left me feeling quite angry, whereas the other one left me wanting more.

Bodycount is a cheeseburger. Don't fall for the marketing that makes it look like prime loin. El Shaddai is lobster, but won't even BE marketed, and will be dismissed by most as a single prawn. Ignore Bodycount, go out of your way to play El Shaddai. That is my advice.

What a shame that Bodycount will outsell El Shaddia by a ratio of at least 50 to 1. I tell you now; 10 years from now, when every single game is identikit bollocks for 12 year olds who think swearing makes them an adult, when all we can do is shoot yet more gruff soldiers who literally make it rain grenades on you, taking cover behind destructible terrain, and when even loading screens come on middleware that gets its own pre-game credit, DON'T SAY I DIDN'T FUCKING WARN YOU!

You can buy El Shaddai BY CLICKING THIS, and you probably should. I refuse to link to Bodycount for you.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The most shameful moment of my gaming life to date.

Minesweeper is one of those titles that we have all played, if only because it is built in to Windows and at one time or another we have all had a PC that was so old it could only play either that or Solitaire. The basic premise is that you utilise logic to find the mines in a grid, by determining from the information given the likelihood of any individual square containing a mine. Every square on the grid is covered up, and by uncovering the square you will either find a mine or a number. The number tells you how many mines are in the immediate surrounding 8 squares, so theoretically if you see a 0 you know you are safe whereas an 8 means you are GOING DOWN, SON!

The system works pretty well, apart from one quite egregious flaw. It has always frustrated me somewhat that click #1 is basically a shot in the dark; without any clues at all you have an even likelihood of getting a mine or a number.

Other than that, though, the game itself works perfectly well. Assuming you hit a free square on that first click, you are then ale to go through the rest of the grid never clicking a square until you know for certain that there isn't going to be a mine in it. Even better, squares without 0's in them are automatically cleared, so your first click might reveal half the board with a little luck.

It's the kind of puzzle that is a perfect fit for a handheld game, and even more so for a mobile phone game. It should therefore come as no surprise that Microsoft have seen fit to release a version for Windows Phone 7. If there is a surprise, it is that they didn't build the game into the phone. Surprise #2 comes in the cost - it is completely free to play. You get adverts at the top of the screen, but by now we have all developed the required skills to just not look at that shit, so they are completely unobtrusive. If you were to hold my mother at gunpoint and ask me to name any of the ads I was shown, then I'm afraid that would be all she wrote for the old girl, because I genuinely cannot recall any of them.

This is a VERY un-Microsofty way of doing things! Giving things away? It gets even better for us consumers, though, because it isn't even the standard Minesweeper that we have all only played in moments of sheer "MUST. PLAY. SOMETHING!" desperation over the years. Nope, this one also has a special speed mode added in as well. The standard tweaks can be applied in terms of how big the grid, how many mines, and ... ok, so that would actually be all the things that can be altered. It's still nice! (And there are powerups in it, as well, but I don't really know what they do because IT'S SODDING MINESWEEPER AND I HAVE BETTER THINGS TO BE PLAYING!)

But the best addition is that it is now also an XBox Live enabled version. Which means gamerscore, leaderboards, and achievements.

Sadly, this is also where the game makes its first mistake. For, one of the achievements is a nasty one indeed.

Entitled "Click click BOOM!", it is unlocked by triggering a mine with your second click.

Think about that for a moment. Your second click.

SECOND click!

Now, obviously, anyone can and eventually will trigger a mine with the first click. This is completely unavoidable as the first click is simply always going to be a guess. Sooner or later, you will hit a mine because simple law of averages tells us that. So, it was nice to put an achievement in that rewards this the first time when it happens. But, the second click is a different story. The second click is not a step into the unknown, as it were. For on the second click, there absolutely must be numbers present. Which means that you are, and even should be, able to work out exactly which square not to click on next. Or, to put it another way, if you trigger a bomb on click #2 you are either incapable of playing the game, or have chosen to mess up just for that "Ploc" sound and a measly 5 gamerscore.

Is this what the world has come to, MS? Do you think that we care so much for your arbitrary reward system that we need to be spoon-fed praise even when we just proved we were blathering idiots? "Here, player, you're a moron but have these 5 points anyway!" NO! Stop this crap, the clue is in the name ACHIEVEMENTS. We should only get them when we do something good. Who the hell wants to earn a trinket for shooting themself in the foot? I DON'T WANT REMINDING OF MY FUCKUPS, THANKYOU.

Of course, maybe there are players out there who care so much about their gamerscore that they are going to look at the numbers, see that there is a bomb right THERE, and then deliberately choose to click on it just for that PATHETIC virtual reward. Who are these people? Who the shit would choose to lose just so they have another box in another game filled in? Achievements mean NOTHING when they are just thrown at you. Gamerscore has no consistency when you get the same score for LOSING as you do for earning a Killing Spree in Halo Reach multiplayer.

I submit, then, that anyone who has this achievement is losing at life. For they are either so debilitatingly incompetent that they can't count to 8, or are so debilitatingly addicted that gamerscore has actually come to have some kind of meaning to them. That they would do such a thing to themself beggars belief.

Of course, I have the achievement. I chose it. I saw it, wondered, and then started a game with the sole intention of getting this most banal of achievements. Even if it was only to get it out of the way, I tried to kid myself into believing. When the truth is that I wanted the "Ploc" more than I wanted the pride. And for this, I hate myself.

But not as fucking much as I hate Microsoft.