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!)


  1. I'm not so sure about the title, but I can tell you this:

    I would buy a whole lot more games on Xbox Live if I could just buy them without having pre-set MSP bundles. And also if they were all a lot cheaper, 400 and 600msp games I would barely even think about if I didn't have to mentally tot up how many 'bundles' I need to buy and how many 'wasted' points i'd have left over. i dont care if the points left can still be used, in this single instance, this purchase, they are wasted.

    Anyway. 4-600msp games, dont artificially restrict my purchasing behaviour. Done.

  2. Case in point: The recent XBLA sales. I just bought 2000 points and there are 4 games I want. I am 90msp short of buying all 4 with the 2110 balance I have. But there's no way i'm buying a full 500msp just to get the 4th game. So I now have to decide which to get. PAINFUL!!!