Monday, April 23, 2012

Salute the Spectrum!

I used to state that games should never break the 5 minute rule. This rule was a construct of my own, which states that if I haven't killed something in the last 5 minutes, then I am reaching for the off switch and your game is history. And, for a long time, I stood by it. I still use a version of it, except I am a bit more flexible with the time and the actual nature of the thing I had to have done since then. Nowadays, my rule is probably better worded as "If I get bored, it's over. So don't let me get bored."

5 minutes. It's not really too much to ask, is it? Just give me something to DO at least once every 5 minutes. Don't make me sit there watching people spout nonsense for 10 minutes. Don't wrest control from me for half an hour. Don't reduce me to looking through a pair of sodding binoculars and NOTHING ELSE for the greater part of the first HOUR of your "game", Mr. Kojima. Just make sure that I have input at least every 5 minutes.

This 5 minute figure may seem like an arbitrary time, but it really isn't. It is, in fact, a length of time that I was conditioned to accept. Back in my early teenage days, 5 minutes was roughly how long it took for a game to load on my ZX Spectrum. Well, when I say "load" I actually mean "hopefully load", because it was not always guaranteed that the game would actually start at the end of this enforced wait. But, strangely, I never seemed to mind as much as one would think today. Today, if a game sits on "loading" for anything beyond 30 seconds, I get antsy. 12 year old me was, however, a bit more patient and forgiving.

Possibly it was because the few moments immediately following the 5 minute wait were invariably full of such joy and wonder. The graphics may have been crude, the music may have been naught but a series of beeps, and anything more than 2 colours on the screen caused some nightmarish effects as the poor computer tried to cycle through all colours available at the same time, but there was no denying that what was happening in front of me was magic.

Here was an amorphous blob, trying to go skiing. Except, in order to actually get to the slope, he first had to cross a road full of insanely fast traffic. Streams of motorcycles, and genocidal ambulances meant that only one out of every four games involved any skiing at all. Skiing was merely pressing left or right, but I loved it. Horace was an actual mascot, despite looking for the entire world like a cumstain with eyes.

Gamings first superstar

Next up, a spaceman has to build a rocket. He does this by means of a jet engine strapped to his back, which he can use to lift him off the ground. Touch the rocket pieces to put them together, and then wait for the fuel to just drop onto the screen. Shoot all the aliens that come at you, even if they look like Earth constructs. Especially if they look like fighter jets, although if you just sit on the highest platform, face right, and hold the fire button down, nothing will ever actually reach you.

This guy? He is dreaming, and needs to find a way to wake himself up for work. Naturally, this means that you have to carry items all around the dreamscape version of your house, and use them appropriately. Spend a penny in the bathroom? Games writing doesn't get any better than this, folks!

Exhibit D? HE'S AN EGG! And yet, that egg had much more personality than the entirety of Delta Squad combined.

Do yourself a favour, by the way. Go and play this little beauty. 3D Deathchase is a marvel of a game, programmed inside 16k on a machine with no graphics acceleration and no native 3D support whatsoever. And yet, despite the obvious superiority of games technology today, I would argue that very few have ever come as close to making you feel in the action as that one did. You can see the enemy bikers snarling at you, even though all they are are some fairly blocky sprites. Your brain draws you in, fills in the blanks, and allows you to imagine tearassing along at 300 miles per hour!

The ZX Spectrum deserves its place in history, because there is a good reason why every single person who owned one has such fond memories of it. It gave us a gateway to imagination. We all had tapes full of games that we never played, and we all tried our hands at programming our own games. This often meant typing lines of code from a magazine, only to find that somewhere within the 1000+ lines we made an error. (Or, worse, we copied it correctly but the magazine got it wrong!) We still tried, though, because at its heart we could see how friendly this little black box was. There were technically superior machines out even then, but the Spectrum led the way. Its legacy is immeasurable, but is one that the behemoths of the industry today would be wise to learn from.

Tonight, if you are a gamer, raise a glass to an old friend. If you were there, you know what it meant. And if you weren't, be respectful, because it probably inspired the games you are playing today.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The King is dead. LONG LIVE THE KING!

There are certain types of game that proliferate all over iOS gaming. Endless runners are everywhere to be seen, City building games are ten-a-penny, and cutesy physics-based puzzlers are in no short supply. It would be fair to say that quantity is the biggest defining characteristic of the App Store.

But, every so often, there comes along a title that offers something different. A developer gets an idea, follows their dream, and releases something that is simply unlike anything else available up until that time. Often, this uniqueness lasts mere days, as word of it spreads and copies inevitably start to flood the charts. And the task of finding the sparks of originality amongst the literal masses is made all the more difficult.

Couple this with the ever-increasing risk-averse nature of publishers. Even on the App Store, where games are frequently priced at throwaway and impulse-purchase levels, there is often a temptation to stick with the tried-and-tested instead of pushing the boundaries. Better to play it safe with another Doodle Jump clone than to go out on a limb. All of these factors generally conspire to convince casual observers that iOS gaming is little more than a diversion, or perhaps an appetiser; separate from the main course of gaming that the consoles provide, more of a bite-sized snack.

The problem with this view is that some of us actually quite like bite-sized portions. Some of us don't have any problem whatsoever with smaller and more frequent episodes of the titles we are playing. Some of us, as it turns out, have woken up to the fact that games are perfectly adequate to give us our needed fun fix even if all we have time for is a 5 minute session.

Some of us have accepted that mobile gaming is, basically, its own platform these days. In fact, it would be fair to say that mobile gaming is two distinct platforms.

Interestingly, this schism is not just one that can be found on iStuff. It also exists on the more traditional platforms. The XBox is a perfect example. Walk into a store to buy a disc-based release, and the chances are high that it will be a shooter, using the Unreal Engine, set in the future. Or perhaps it will be some sports title, or a driving simulator. What is unlikely is that it is something you haven't seen elsewhere. Whereas, should you delve into the downloadable games on Live Arcade or especially the Indie channel, it is entirely possible that you will be amazed.

What seems to have happened is that as publishers have pushed towards an increasingly homogenised release schedule, pumping millions into development which brings with it an inevitable risk-aversion, a kind of underground uprising has taken place. Many are taking advantage of an entire slew of available tools to create the games that they themselves would like to be playing. Witness the proliferation of 2D shmups on the Indie channel. Go and see for yourself how many point-and-click adventures are available on Steam and Desura. Genres that are simply not available on the big consoles any more have found themselves a home. More importantly, they have found themselves a market. One that the big publishers seem to have written off.

Don't get me wrong, here. I love Halo as much as the next man, and am genuinely intrigued to see what 343 are capable of when November comes around. I will probably buy it, but right now I am not overly bothered about the date it comes out on. The same way I wasn't bothered about not getting hold of Street Fighter X Tekken, Mass Effect 3, or FIFA Street. I do believe that the only disc release I have bought so far in 2012 has been SSX, which now that I have played it I think could just as easily have been downloadable. (Certainly, the interesting aspects of it take advantage of online connectivity, and the only real reason to have it on a disc at all is the volume of information it contains. All the stuff that makes it great could have been done entirely digitally.)

The more I think of it, the more I am drawn to the conclusion that what is happening in games today is just like what happened to music in the late 1970's. In that case, a counter movement against what was seen as the over-commercialisation of the art form led to the explosion that was punk rock.

In 2012, we have punk GAMES.

The independent scene, not to mention the sudden validity of crowdsourcing, has seen a new kind of development come to the fore. When a developer as loved and respected as Tim Schafer can't get a major publisher to listen, he turns to the internet and gets nearly ten times the amount he was asking for within hours. Minecraft was in Alpha for months, but Notch was able to finish it because people believed in what was being created and were actually happy to pony up the pennies DURING DEVELOPMENT!

So, excuse me if I don't feel the need to queue at midnight for this year’s Call of Duty game. I am much more likely to be engrossed in something small and overlooked by the mainstream games sites. At time of writing, the re-released DMC HD Collection has 23 reviews on Metacritic, whereas the brand-new and better received Botanicula has a mere 6. In an industry that has previously been focused almost exclusively on new and next, this seems like an oddity. But then, the industry is also focused on so-called AAA titles, and it is clear that the marketing techniques that the big boys use are working for them.

There is hope, though. Trials Evolution, a title available exclusively on XBox Live Arcade, has broken the record for most downloaded game on launch day. Over 100,000 people bought it, and the servers weren't prepared for this influx and they inevitably collapsed. Which means that the game is a success, in a way that many traditional big released have failed to emulate. Which in turn means that many games will copy the model, and forego the whole laborious process of getting discs printed, shipped to stores, and have to compete against the behemoths that are Halo and CoD come November.

See also: Legend of Grimrock, which made profit in just TWO DAYS!

The future, my friends, is bright. The future is downloadable. It is smaller, cheaper, and potentially infinitely more interesting. And it is my biggest hope that in much the same way that punk music reinvigorated the music scene, punk games development can affect the games industry for the better.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Up, up, and awaaaaaaaaaaaaay!

Today is my sister's 40th birthday. This is nice, but also brings with it a certain melancholy. Because, I realised that this means I am approaching what will be my 42nd birthday. I am basically middle-aged. Despite all my fighting the oncoming approach of age, (which has included but has not been limited to moisturisation, careful grooming of grey hairs, and outright denial of my age), I have been unable to remain as young as I would like to be.

41. It's a disquieting thought. I am completely out of the demographic that most games released are aimed at. What the hell do 41 year olds PLAY?

Thinking back, I remember what they played when I was a teenager. They played Flight Simulators. Ok, so "play" is not really the most apt descriptor of what amounts to sitting there watching two different shades of plain blue, but nonetheless for the purposes of discussion it is the one we shall be using. And, I freely admit that I may be oversimplifying, but when the best and most expensive computer available for the home featured 256 colour graphics at 640 x 480 resolution, then it having anything approaching photo-realistm is stretching things somewhat.

Flight Simulator was not a game in the traditional sense, being aimed at a non-gaming demographic. Whenever I tried my hand at one, I immediately paniced at the sheer amount of buttons that I had to press to do ANYTHING. What I wanted was a "Press this to fly" button, but what I had instead was a Throttle button, a Brake button, and even a button to turn the bloody engine on. 15 minutes later, I was still on the runway. 2 minutes after that, I had crashed into the tower. I never once dared to try an actual landing. I also never once thought, at any point in my entire gaming life since that original terrifying introduction, that I should buy any of the subsequent versions.

I have seen them, certainly, and always had nothing but admiration for the idea. I have tried playing on other people's PCs. I have even downloaded copies, and on one ocassion went as far as installing the thing, but have always given up shortly after destroying my first plane, which is generally in the first 5 minutes.

In short, whilst I don't dislike Flight Simulators, I don't play them because I DON'T KNOW HOW TO. I don't want to spend a small fortune on controllers to make them better, and I don't want to invest the time in learning to fly. There is a reason that I am not a pilot, and that is because it is HARD BLOODY WORK.

Microsoft, to be fair to them, know this. They also know that this is the reason that nobody has bought Flight Simulator in the last few years. The sheer incomprehensibility of it to beginners has meant that the barrier to entry has always been too high. ("What the hell does THAT dial mean?") Whereas, bearded older guys eventually stop needing updates, and so unsurprisingly the market has somewhat shrunk.

This is where Flight comes in.

Instead of being yet another upgrade featuring the entire world, only prettier, Flight comes at the genre from the angle of "How do we make this into a GAME?" first and foremost. So, instead of picking an airport that you hope you know but inevitably don't, you instead start out in the air over Hawaii. Get used to this, because the entire game is set on Hawaii. Streamlined, no? Further countries will probably come our way in the form of DLC, but for now all we are able to buy is the rest of the Hawaiian islands. So, no flying over your house, sadly. (Unless you live in Hawaii, of course!) The core game itself is ... free.

Yep, free. Won't cost you naught but a download, and a Games for Windows Live account. Those of you with XBox 360 gamertags already have this, those of you who primarily play PC games will probably decide this is too high of a cost and refuse to even give it a shot. I understand your reluctance, as GFWL is really quite shambolic at the best of times, however, the reticence will prove to be unfounded.

Because, and this is a quite important because, Flight is fun.

Stratight away, you feel like the game wants you to enjoy it. You start off IN THE AIR, for one thing, which is always better than having to work out the insanely complex and precise sequences required to start a plane, taxi along a runway (or more likely the grass near to a runway), and then take off. Next, a friendly female voice not only tells you where you need to go, but also how to do it. Control of the plane is handled via the mouse, which is so much less intimidating than having to remember which specific combination of the entirety of your keyboard you need to press to move an aileron the all-important couple of inches. (Or is it the rudder? Or the elevator? Or.. oh dear, I crashed again.)

I crashed 3 seconds later

So, you slalom through some balloons, come in to a landing, probably crash but at least get a nice achievement unlocked for doing so, and then you have completed the first mission. Within 15 minutes, you actually feel like you have accomplised something, instead of just finding out that all you can really be trusted to do is to change camera angles.

It doesn't take long before things get tricky, but the important thing here is that there is a learning curve that takes you there. It turns the genre into something accessible for the rest of us. I am sure that your Dad hates the idea, insisting that such things NEED the dedication that comes from spending a week's wages on whatever the hell a yoke is, but I love it. I applaud Microsoft in their attempts to capture me as a market. Inclusion is love, people, we are all just players.

What is most pleasant about it is how it is a game built around Flight Simulation, rather than a simulation with some vague game ideas put into it. This extends from the mission based structure, and carries on through the challenges. There are even daily challenges, with the aforementioned spinny icons (or Aerocaches) being available for limited times only. These caches are worth EXP, and are sometimes tantalisingly placed so as to make the likelihood of crashing even greater. (Which is crazy, because it really doesn't need to be easier to crash in Flight Sim!) Add in the option of multiplayer, and there can be no doubts as to the audience Microsoft are chasing with this one.


Honestly, I don't actually know what possessed me to download it in the first place, apart from the knowledge that it was free. And, even if all you get from it is the "Crashtastic" achievement, it still has to be worth giving it a shot, right? I genuinely think you will get more from it than that, though, as it has certainly made me want to play more. Yes, I am still rubbish. I still am able to literally tip my plane over ON THE RUNWAY. But, I now no longer feel like I will never be able to get that icon that was under that bridge, and I was positively thrilled when Mrs. Voice told me off for indulging my Top Gun fantasies and flying too close to that cruise ship. "We could get into trouble for that.", I was told. I giggled, and next time I am pretty sure I will shout "I FEEL THE NEED!" before doing exactly the same thing.

So, in summary: You'll crash, but you already expected that. What you didn't expect was that when you crash, you will know why. And you will know how not to do it next time. And, even if you do, it's still a good laugh, and you may even get a reward from it. And, since it is free, what have you to lose?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Why the hell are you not playing it?

It is meant to be the hardest decision I could possibly make. I am supposed to agonise over it, because I know that it will have far-reaching consequences. And, had I faced it a few years back, then maybe I would have felt the full gravity of it.

But, today? I just look at it from the point of view of one who not only knows that it is coming, but also that I can maximise my hopes for an achievement depending on my choice. So, I decided to save Ashley, mainly because my impatience means I blew it with Liara, and leave Kaidan to fend for himself. I don't feel any of the agony I was supposed to, and I probably don't feel anything that I should be. But then, it isn't the surprise to me that it might have been had I played Mass Effect when it was first released.

The reason I am currently playing Mass Effect is because of the fuss over the recently released third instalment in the series. It would be fair to say that this proves the old chestnut that "There is no such thing as bad publicity", except that I didn't buy Mass Effect as a result of it. I actually bought Mass Effect because another old chestnut, which is "If you sell games for cheaper then more people will buy them" is also true. I picked it up when the second game in the trilogy was available in GameStation for £5, and I not only took advantage of this but purchased it along with the original game for half the price that either title was originally available for.

This was about a year or so ago.

Think about the magnitude of that statement for a minute. I bought two games a year ago, and I am only just playing one of them now. Admittedly, the furore over the ending has helped, but another reason is that as funds are so low at the moment, I am not in a position to buy all the new games that I want to. So, no Operation Raccoon City with friends. No Street Fighter X Tekken. And no Binary Domain, as much as that one is intriguing me.

The thing is, though, Mass Effect is but one of the titles in my collection that I have not finished. Worse, Mass Effect 2 is not even the only title I have bought and not played at all yet. That one sits alongside Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Bioshock 2, whereas the list of games I am some way through without completing amounts to more than there are hours in the day to play them! Vanquish, Uncharted 2, Skyrim, CoD BlOps, Assassin's Creed II, Deus Ex Human Revolution, and plenty of others. (So long is the list that I can't even recall what they all are.)

By contrast, I can only think of one book that I am actively in the midst of reading that is sitting there unfinished. I have gone through entire DVD boxsets of TV series in the space of a couple of days more times than I care to count, as well. So why do games, the pastime THAT I LIKE BEST, continue to be the only interest of mine that I don't try to squeeze full value from?

It turns out that I am not alone in this. The standard terminology for it is the 'backlog', although some refer to it as the 'Pile of shame' instead. In most cases, the list goes back a long way. Ask any of us who play as many games we can do, and we could all name at least 10 titles that we have put aside and not gone back to, although we do plan to at some indeterminate future point. (One of these days, I WILL get round to finishing Ocarina of Time, I swear!)

There is even a website set up to encourage gamers who find themselves in this position, which is pretty much all of us, to get on with the job of FINISHING THE DAMN GAMES WE SPENT A SMALL FORTUNE ON.

Why do I do it? Why, even though I know there are at least 30 games in my possession right now that I could play and enjoy, do I still want to go out and buy the Devil May Cry HD Collection? (DMC3? Yep, that is on my list. As is 2, but actually with good reason.) It isn't due to any kind of inability to commit on my part, as the save files for any generation of Pokemon bear testament. I generally break the 200-hour mark on those, and I once played Quake 3 for 25 hours straight.

The only thing I can think of as reason for my behaviour, and that of most gamers, is that the entire marketing system itself has now gotten a bit too good at its job, which is to instil desire into us to buy more stuff. This machine that wants us to spend our money before the product exists, and then gives the product a matter of days before moving on to the next must-have to push us into buying. It works, because most publishers now completely rely on launch week sales and barely give anything any chance of developing a genuine word-of-mouth following. It can still happen, as with genuine cult hits like Deadly Premonition, but these are rare events indeed. In fact, it has now gotten to a point where marketing is non-existent for anything that isn't a guaranteed week one huge hitter. Remember those brilliant Binary Domain ads? No, you don't, because there weren't any.

Effectively, at least in my case, it seems that I have been made to want to own games more than I do want to actually play them. I don't like this, because whilst it means that somebody is doing a good job, ultimately it will affect the industry. Sooner or later, we reach the tipping point where gamers look at their collection and think "I've got too many games on the go, I'll not buy that one yet", and then they never buy it because there is something else new and shiny that they want instead when they eventually can afford it.

But then, I don't really know why I even care about it. Right now I am enjoying taking Shepard around the galaxy, and it isn't even marred by my knowledge that it won't end particularly well. (At least, that is the impression I get, because by and large the internet has done a pretty sterling job of keeping what actually happens in that ending they hate behind spoilers.) Even better, the current situation is that by merely waiting a few weeks, I am able to buy Mass Effect 3 for about the price that I have been saying for years should be the RRP for all new games. And I conceivably have at least one game that I can play which is new to me regardless of the mood I am in.

In short, I think the time has come to step aside from the "Must get it day one!" mentality, and instead plunge fully into the territory marked "Just chill out, man, it's meant to be enjoyable" that I have been skirting the periphery of. To pull the cord to stop the hype train and say "Know what? You go ahead, I'll get off here."

Join me. Leave the Rat Race, where it is all about buying THAT game TODAY, and instead allow yourself to stroll through your collection at your own leisure. You will save money, you will fill your time more wisely, and if enough of us do it we may well even save the entire industry from itself.