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BIGsheep’s BIGrun

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In just over two weeks I will be pounding through 10km of the streets of London to raise money for SpecialEffect. Thanks to a vigorous training regime taking in the canal paths of Nuneaton I’ve been through the requisite montage and am now ready to represent Rare at this industry-heavy event.

For those of you who don’t know Special Effect, they are raising the quality of life for people with disabilities by helping them to benefit from the fun and inclusion of video games and creative technologies. Imagine, if you will, a James Bond-style inventions department that customises all sorts of controllers and gadgets for use with people with special needs. Input devices they can operate with their eyes, controllers that work with only minimum touch, simplified joypads that reduce the complexity of their modern form; all of this to allow people who would be otherwise unable to play with their siblings and friends to experience the wonders of our trade.

Anyway, considering most of my life’s exercise has consisted of standing between two white sticks and shouting at people this is quite a step up. So please make the pain in my knees worth it and join me in supporting what I think is a very worthy charity.

https://www.justgiving.com/bigsheepsbigrun/

Thank you in advance,

James

 

Amnesia Fortnight 2014

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Double Fine opens its doors and lets you in to watch as their annual Game Jam unfolds.

AVForums | Amnesia Fortnight 2014

Irrational Behaviour

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Or what happens when resources aren’t infinite.

AVForums | Irrational Behaviour

BIGsheep bakes battenberg

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to a new video camera, a lovely Sony CX410.With some of the bits and pieces we’ve done for 7outof10 over the last year I looked at it as a way of expanding my repertoire. I enjoy doing the Let’s Play captures and thought I could add some “to camera” pieces to flesh them out, plus our excursions to Gamescom and Rezzed helped me discover an enjoyment in interviewing and editing. It was my post-Crunch treat to give me something to look forward to.

So, with that all said, why not christen the new toy with a baking video.

When I focused on trying to shoot something game related I was a bit overwhelmed. There was too much choice and, indeed, setup.

Inspired by Amy’s video of me baking bread a few weeks ago though I knew what was needed and at least could set about trying out my new hardware with little worry about the process. I’d seen her shoot it and could just mimic the process. Instead I could just focus – pun intended – on seeing what the CX410 could do.

As a first stab I’m happy with it. There are obvious things to work on, not least the audio, but it’s proven I made a good choice when it came to the camera.

Octodad Dadliest Catch: Review

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This piece marks quite a landmark for me. It’s the first time someone else has wanted to publish an article I’ve written, and because of that I’m incredibly proud of it.

Click to read: AVForums | Octodad Dadliest Catch Review

Getting in a Flap

Earlier this week on Twitter I saw one Indie dev exclaim “why do we even try!?” His ire was pointed at Flappy Bird, an iPhone app that’s been floating around since last May but has only just hit the public consciousness.

In Flappy Bird you are a bird. A bird that flaps. A tap of the screen will send your pixelated form lurching upwards, only momentarily, though, before gravity begins sucking you back down to earth. Continued tapping will keep you airborne, but you need to time your ungainly motions carefully as our uncoordinated avian tries to navigate a series of gaps in some rather familiar scenery. Points rack up as you progress but be careful: hit anything and it’s back to the start.

Having played it I find the Tweeter’s reaction understandable. I know many small developers, working out of backrooms and in their spare time between job and kids, trying to craft something that they feel is as good a game as they can make. To them it’s not just a job; it’s a labour of love. They take months, if not years, trying to extract the vision from their head and encode it for the public to enjoy on their phone.

And then they look at Flappy Bird. With over 50m downloads and taking in over $50,000 a day in advertising revenue it holds dream financials, but set that against its simplistic, monotonous gameplay and they despair.

It’s a game that does one thing and one thing alone: goading people into improving at a seeming impossible challenge. It’s not uncommon for players to struggle to even clear a couple of gates in succession, yet the time invested in doing so is mere seconds and so they’re pulled back in for another try. It’s a game built upon high scores and sheer obstinacy. If something like that is drawing in an iOS user then developers everywhere must be asking why on earth craft exquisite sagas, beautiful landscapes, or deep adventures. Lob a handful of ripped-off sprites on screen, some impossible gameplay, label it a challenge, and be done. Next!

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Combine this with the dismal revival of the Dungeon Keeper franchise and it’s been a very sorry week for mobile gaming. Like many I was looking forward to the return of the cult title. A Bullfrog classic from the 90s, it amusingly turned gaming clichés on its head and placed you as the evil overlord of a dank, underground maze of tunnels tasked with stopping the “noble” heroes who entered your domain.

Already the premise alone sounds deeper and more engrossing than persuading a pixel bird to stop flying head-first into pipes. It was – at the time – quite unique: half strategy, half tower defence, and it spawned a faithful following. To an extent the core principles remain, but you only need to spend a short amount of time with EA’s latest Trojan horse to see it’s not nostalgia that caught the publisher’s eye.

Dungeon Keeper has been panned across the media for being little more than a cynical piece of profiteering. At every turn, what used to rely on a simple and balanced in-game economy of resources and labour has been exploited to prey on gamers’ wallets. Excavating new areas can take days at a time and mining gems produces scant rewards if you go in unaided. Yet drop some real-world currency in the store and you’ll find your troubles ease. At least until you want to do anything else. It’s an insidious piece of software that I resent calling a game.
I’ve no issue with the Free to Play business model when handled with care, but when it’s operated in a manner that treats the end user with such disrespect then it’s no wonder that the mobile market is considered by some to be teetering on the brink of a reckoning.

Whilst neither game may push the envelope of creativity (or at least not in any positive sense) I at least have respect for one of the pair. Personally I may find the one-dimensional gameplay of Flappy Bird tedious but I can completely understand how such time wasters are at the core of phone gaming. For starters it’s free and simple to understand. It’s also extremely suited to filling a few minutes here and there, whether you be waiting for a bus or in the smallest room in the house. This is a pure, addictive, time suck and because of that you have to tip your forelock to the developer, Dong Nguyen.

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The Vietnamese developer behind this most divisive of apps has a history of making simple games in a similar vein. Each features one basic mechanic that then proceeds to tug on the player’s inbuilt want to do better. They have a certain Warioware quality to them. All give the impression that they’ve escaped the sanctuary of a larger compilation and struck out on their own. There’s no epic story or artistic expression, instead he’s focused on the core experience and done what is necessary to get them released.

For that I admire him. Flappy Bird is just one project of many he’s completed in the hours after his regular job, and one that took him only a handful of days to make. It’s by no means a unique story and Nguyen is just a guy who has struck lucky and, whilst the artistic merits can happily be debated, at least it’s a pure experience. A nugget of simple gameplay that you can take or leave and it will cost you nothing to do so.

A lot of the furore may come from the Mario “inspired” artwork or the sneering way a lot of us look at something so trifling but I ask you to compare it to Dungeon Keeper. Part of me weeps at the misuse of such an esteemed studio such as Mythic to produce such drivel. An utter waste of resources given how hell bent someone high-up in a suit was intent on making this more about the dollars than the game.

If it were down to a straight toss-up between the two I would take Flappy Bird any day. Though the actual game, should you be able to strip away the pay walls, behind Dungeon Keeper may be far more rewarding, the philosophy is deeply unattractive. That which is behind Flappy Bird speaks to me more of simple ideas; of Game Jams and short deadlines; of people throwing concepts around until something sticks; of coders trying over and over again until they have even a modicum of success. It may be an odd view of a game that could have existed in the Game & Watch era but I’m a romantic at heart.

So, why even try? Well, for one, I think that’s very uncourteous to suggest Nguyen didn’t. Not everyone has to be like Kojima when plotting the scope of a project.

But if you want the greatest reason: because Dungeon Keeper obviously didn’t.

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A Change of Focus

If there’s one thing that Nintendo have become increasingly proficient at in recent times it’s apologising. Seemingly during every Nintendo Direct stream there’s a dignified shot of Iwata bowing and saying sorry for the slip of this or the delay of that. At first what was a very humbling sight is now so regular that I’d be shocked if it didn’t form the core of a Nintendo drinking game.

Last week, however, it wasn’t just his loyal fan base that he was having to eat humble pie in front of. During Nintendo’s quarterly policy and financial briefing he announced to investors that the Wii U, as feared, was dramatically underperforming. Expectations of selling nearly 10m consoles this financial year were slashed to a forecast nearer 3m, and it appears that such a drastic profits warning has caused one of gaming’s most noble of companies to take stock of their approach.

To them, that translates to focusing on what they have hitherto ignored: the gamepad.

Though there have been many issues with the Wii U since its launch, from the way it has been marketed to the dissipating third-party support, the most criminal to my mind has been the exasperating way Nintendo themselves have ignored the gamepad. It’s the unique feature of the system and yet – for reasons best known to themselves – successive flagship titles have shunned the extra screen, choosing to fill it only with maps or token buttons.

From the outset, pack-in Nintendoland showed its promise. From the tense hide-and-seek asymmetric multiplayer that was the Luigi’s Ghost Mansion to the frantic finger flicking and shuriken hurling of Ninja Castle it, much like Wii Sports before it, showcased just how the platform holder intended developers to embrace the system. And to their credit the likes of Zombi-U, Lego City: Undercover, and Rayman: Legends took full advantage of a second screen and offered early adopters a reason to feel buoyant.

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Since those early, possibly naïve, days what has been astonishing is how flagrantly the platform’s first-party have ignored it. Nowhere was this truer than in Super Mario 3D World. It used to be that whenever a new Mario game came out it would be guaranteed to take full advantage of the hardware, but when all the sizeable touchscreen was used for was to release a spare mushroom it seemed shocking. Furthermore, the uninspiring use of it as simply a horn in Super Mario Kart only serves to signal that hardware and software groups were obviously not in agreement as to the potential of the hardware. You could argue that both franchises are sticking to tried and trusted principles in a period of financial strife, but If Nintendo aren’t going to step up, who are?

It’s probably too late to salvage anything interesting for the imminent Mario Kart and Donkey Kong – which bizarrely shows nothing at all on the gamepad, a new low in the Wii U’s short history – but there may be hope for Super Smash Bros. It is a little further out and may also benefit from having a 3DS companion game to draw inspiration from. Nintendo need to get their designers together, lock them in a room, and give us all a reason to have their tablet lurking behind the telly and not to dismiss it as a poor man’s Vita.

As it stands they have been shamed by another Japanese giant. In just a few short months Sony have already shown how a bonus display can be used. Whilst they’re still promising that old classic the “rear view mirror” tack-on for driving games, its use as a remote control is superb. The ease at which I can lie in bed racking up high-scores on Resogun and attempting the passing challenges of FIFA embarrasses the token remote play options on the Wii U that are not only selective but operate with far greater restrictions. Woe betide if there are too many walls/floors/doors in between you and the console. Admittedly the Vita has the advantage of being a dedicated gaming machine in its own right but when the two of them are sat next to each other the gamepad feels horribly cheap, in both intent and build quality.

There are parallels too with the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor; equally underutilised it is also currently a bone of contention. Though handy in shortcutting through the Metro interface and for controlling your Blu-rays as you clean out your rabbits, at present it causes gamers to wonder why they’re dropping an extra £80 on a peripheral that is yet to shine. For many that I know the mistakes of last year’s E3 are now distant memories and it is purely a cost barrier that is stopping them upgrading their 360. Thankfully good things are definitely around the corner for Kinect, with both dedicated Kinect games and those featuring hybrid controls, but it is questionable whether the same can be said for the gamepad.

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However, where both the Kinect and the gamepad hold an advantage is that every single system sold will come bundled with one respectively. This may not seem like much of a plus but to a development team this is crucial. They’re looking to reach to sell as many units as possible and in doing so typically target the most sizeable install base – anything straying from the most prominent circle on the Venn diagram involves a cost that is less likely to be recouped. There are always exceptions, such as the dalliances with “Better with Kinect” and Sony’s own Move during the last generation, but for the most part you aim where there are fewest barriers to entry.

With both the Microsoft camera and Nintendo’s bonus tablet there are no barrier to entry. If you own that system then you own that peripheral and so each still have huge potential. When developing for either there is an assurance that writing a voice recognition system will not be wasted as everyone on Xbox One can use it, whilst that nifty dual-screen puzzle mechanic you have in mind will reach every player who picks up your Wii U release. Even at multiplatform studios it should allow the creative minds at studios to squeak with glee, assuming they can clear it with the bean-counters first. The same sadly can’t be said about the PlayStation 4 and the Vita, a contributing factor to the lack of rear-view mirrors.

In all cases it’s about focus. Microsoft have first-party developers dedicated to producing Kinect titles and have made integration of voice commands simple for any dev to pop in. Sony allows its remote play to operate at a system level, removing the need for any extra work. Both may have issues elsewhere in their fledgling systems but their hardware and its uses are at least consistent and dedicated. With Nintendo, sadly, there seems a lack of focus. With NFC Pokémon games, DS games on the Virtual Console, and an arbitrary remote play offering, it seems they are making their gamepad all things to all men. Except, that is, for the men (and women) that actually want to play something special on it.

The first step to resolving anything is admitting that you have a problem, and with Iwata now on the record it’s clear that Nintendo have acknowledged their shortcomings. I don’t expect immediate changes, though; most games are too large to suddenly drop in a revolutionary way to add legitimacy to such a device as a second screen and so it may be a while before we can see what changes are being rung.

Although if there’s one team I trust it’s Miyamoto and company. So whilst I may be knocking back the gin next time Iwata offers up his sincere regret about another delay, if it ultimately gives me a reason to charge up that slab of plastic, I’ll be ok with that.

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Tearaway: Review

There’s a moment at the start of Tearaway that will cause even the most cynical player to smile. A scene where the sheer charm of the world will win over even the blackest of hearts. Well, there are many, but the first is so simple that its effect is surprising.

High above the papery world, gazing down from its heavenly orbit, is the sun; and in the sun sits your face. It’s wonderfully subtle, a snapshot of your world reflected in theirs. This isn’t the garish grab of a camera feed, reinforcing that you’re holding a device overflowing with ways to interact, but a sneaky nod that you are not only playing the game but part of it.

And you smile. What else can you do?

To some that may sound like a cheap trick to win you over, but within the story Media Molecule tells, it feels completely natural. The “You”, as your presence in the world is described, is part of the very fabric of reality. A being with almost godlike powers aiding those below you, including a young, green Messenger tasked with delivering to you a tale. The pair of you are inextricably linked and so it’s only right that you should gaze down from on high and take in their adventures as he battles his way to you.

Though You may be present in the sky, you – lower case – are handed direct control of Iota (or Atoi, should you prefer a more feminine touch). Initially he lacks the ability to do little else other than wander around and distract the locals with idle chitchat, and it’s only through your own intervention that he become more. Patches decked out in patterns similar to that on the Vita’s rear touchpad appear all over the world. Tap them when Iota’s close and you’ll either send him flying into the sky or see your finger rip through the back of the Vita and appear in the world. The latter’s an extremely silly moment the first time it crops up as a giant rendered finger emerges from nowhere to stand tall in this paper land.

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At its simplest it functions as his jump button; with the right placement of pads and a good sense of timing you’ll send the Messenger merrily bounding up cliffs to the accompanying sound of bongos. It’s a lovely tactile experience, reinforcing that you are a giant interacting with these tiny origami beings and that a mere tap of your mighty hand can send them flying. Similarly your powers can manipulate the world itself as platforms and mechanisms can be pushed and prodded into position with your immense digit. None are too mind-bending but the challenge comes from controlling both Iota with an analogue stick and directing objects on the rear touchscreen at the same time. Operating on both sides of the Vita can at times be a little tricky – the videogame equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy – but equally so, as you manage to coordinate your hands it all becomes rather satisfying.

With such wonderful foundations it’s then quite disappointing that rather than focus on a world full of paper puzzles the Designers felt the need to introduce bad guys. The scraps, as they are known, are adorable enough in their mumblings and with their single giant eye, but combat with them is routine. Dodge out the way until the scraps stun themselves, then leap in, grab them, cast them against a wall and you’re done. It’s harmless enough but the arena-nature puts too much emphasis on Tearaway’s weakest feature.

Where its strength can be found is in every aspect of the world you walk through. Media Molecule have bought into the papercraft concept completely with every single tree, creature, and building created as though it were folded out of real paper. No exceptions. Each new area is treated with awe as you gaze about taking in the sights, and be it a giant elk or a rapidly flowing waterfall the effect is completed by them all moving as if captured in stop-frame animation. It’s such a delicate touch but gives the further impression that everything is crafted by hand.

Within each elaborate level, whether a coastal town or forest glade, a handful of mask-wearing locals can be found. Speaking like 80s Plasticine hero Morph, they’ll welcome you and most likely ask you for help to retrieve their football from a bunch of hooligan squirrels or maybe to run off and find them a pet rock. They’re simple enough tasks and a great excuse to immerse yourself further and explore the area, but occasionally they’ll ask more of you.
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The best publicised one is an early run-in with the King of Squirrels, or at least that’s what the squat, orange chap claims to be as he’s no crown to prove his title. To help him the Vita swishes away to a cutting mat surrounded by brightly coloured craft paper. By marking outlines with your fingers you can cut out shapes and through pulling together your imagination and the colours on offer, a glorious crown can be made. It’s a very simple and rough tool but the effects can be amazing if you give it a chance. And those that do will be rewarded with the sight of the squirrel proudly wearing your creation throughout the rest of the game.

Tearaway is littered with instances like this where you can affect the world. There are snowflakes to make and moustaches to draw, and even if you aren’t overly confident in your Blue Peter skills there are a host of predefined shapes waiting for you. What matters is that you are shaping the story about You to your liking, embellishing the crafting that’s already obviously taken place, and it only serves to make you more and more attached to this delightful place.

Being brutal for a moment and brushing aside the gorgeous aesthetics, the raw mechanics don’t necessarily hold up their side of proceedings. Any platforming or questing is fairly rudimental and even at its most taxing late on it hesitates from presenting any really challenge. Thankfully the controls are far tighter than the irritatingly floaty Little Big Planet, but if you’re looking for a more expansive adventure in the same vein then you will be disappointed.

Those, however, who accept Tearaway for what it is will not care as the beauty is in the experience, in taking in the unique surroundings. The puzzles you discover along the way are a good as a showcase for the Vita’s abilities as there is, and contorting your fingers as you slide, poke, and cut your way through the papery land is just joyful. Come the end you’ll look back at the photos Iota’s taken through his camera and think on them as fondly as though they were your own holiday snaps. Your adventure may have started with a grin as you stared down from the sky but come the end that expression won’t be because of a single scene, it will be at the thought of every character you’ve met and every elaborate hat you’ve made.

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Memories of Crunch: Musical Accompaniment

It’s not uncommon in our office to look around and see a sea of heads topped with headphones, each one gently bobbing independently to a variety of unheard songs. There’s our resident DJ who nods with a firm assertion of the beat, a tinny tone escaping from his cans. Down the row we have our office whistler, offering us a fleeting chance at guessing his melodic choice of the moment by inadvertently letting slip a few bars. And then there’s me, the mime artist. Play a song that I enjoy and chances are I’ll be belting it out at the top of my silent lungs. It’s a little embarrassing when someone comes to talk to you mid-chorus but sometimes you just need a power ballad to make it through the day.

I usually listen to podcasts when working. Ever since starting learning the drums I find myself too wrapped in listening to the rhythm of a song and my task at hand goes wanting. It’s not an intentional dereliction of duty but my mind goes searching for where in the pattern the bass drum falls and it’s hard to pull it back.

Quite strangely I have no problem working with talk radio or podcasts. I can float in and out of them depending just where on the build cycle I am, rewinding if I feel I’ve missed something meaty. It’s hard to do that and keep the flow when listening to music but more oft than not, as the crunch evenings draw on, I find myself needing the energy boost that a silent karaoke session brings.

With long hours comes tiredness and saving a good album back for just such a shot in the arm I find invaluable. I’ve extremely fond memories of some very late nights at work where I am the only one left in the office and all I have to amuse myself as I track down a particularly nasty bug is my music. When the last person leaves the headphones come off and the speakers go on.

With each game I’ve worked on the soundtrack has changed. Most vary with the time but all of them live firmly in my mind as being attached to a certain project. As is usually the way, I remember my first batch most fondly.

Back in 2003, as a young and eager engineer, not yet wise enough to be wary of the word “crunch”, we were finishing Grabbed by the Ghoulies. At the time I don’t think many of our PCs had CD drives, the thought being that we could just install the required applications from the network drive. With that I took in the tiny stereo system that had served me so well through university. The brand of which eludes me but I remember it taking pride of place on my shelf just waiting for 5pm to come (we weren’t allowed to listen to music during the day back then) so I could get a kick-start for the evening ahead.

The three albums that I believe on constant rotation back then were Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ By the Way, Idlewild’s The Remote Part, and Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. I should probably add that back then I was still trying to be a skater boi.

To this day whenever By the Way or American English crops up, be it on the radio or halfway round ASDA, my thoughts immediately dart back to then. To fine tuning the Grim Reaper’s AI as he bustles round a haunted house and trying to ensure that the font had the right amount of ghostly float to it.

Ghoulies is not alone in holding this connection for me but it is by far and away the strongest. Crunch was still a novelty for me back then: a challenge, a rights of passage. Now there’s a sage head on these shoulders that knows that it’s a grim inevitability but as long as there’s enough up-tempo rock nestling in my iTunes then I know I’ll get through.

How to make bread

Over Christmas our lovely friend Amy from She Cooks, She Eats came up from London to visit. She runs a lovely food blog and very kindly ask me to make some bread.

If I’m being honest, it wasn’t the finest loaf I’ve produced. It was a little wet after the initial mixing and although it came out ok in the end it was a little touch and go at one point.

I’ll put it down to filming nerves.