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Monthly Archives: February 2012

GAME over?

In my youth the High Street had an abundance of shops trying to sell you videogame wares. WH Smiths, Woolworths, ePlay, Dixons, the supermarkets, Curry’s, and probably more that the passing of time has caused to fade from memory. Today, with many having closed their doors forever, others refocusing their lines, and those remaining moving to out of town retail parks, the centre of town is usually left with a GAME or Gamestation as the flagships for our hobby.

Though both may be owned by the same company, each has their own distinct image. Adverts for Gamestation feature the alternative, cooler young men and women, decked out in black with a smattering of tattoos and piercings. GAME, on the other hand, have those lovely, smartly dressed people in their pinky-purple uniforms; non-threatening and perfect for apprehensive parents and grandparents alike as they seek out the perfect game for Little Johnny’s Christmas present. Strip away this veneer and all may be identical, from range through to price, but the two vastly contrasting aspirational audiences is something that is good for us all in the long run.

Most people, savvy with the pounds in their pockets, will no doubt shop online, knowing that the discounts offered by Amazon, Play and alike cannot generally be matched by brick and mortar stores. Their mere presence on the High Street adding overheads that are easily lost by working out of a large warehouse somewhere in Guildford. But there’s always something to be said for browsing, and I always fall into that cliché of being drawn to Gamestation over GAME. Subconsciously I somehow feel somewhat more at home surrounded by the darker colours and staff that just because they’re wearing similar dark hues must know more than those donned in that ridiculous purple just down the road.

Conversely however knowing that clueless relatives can feel confident about wandering into GAME and be taken through just what you need to hook up a PlayStation 3 to a telly, or quite what this new Pokemonster thing is their son was whittering on about, is a reassuring state of affairs.

Both are two halves of a company that is currently seeing that our pastime still has a very evident footprint in the shopping centres of our nations towns, and one of the main reasons, to my mind, that the industry has seen such a growth over the last decade. Without such visibility it is questionable whether we would have the level of acceptance that we do – discounting the Daily Mail – and why we all should worry for the long term implications if the GAME group’s financial difficulties become terminal.

Anyone thinking the online sector will simply pick up the slack I believe is fooling themselves. If the brightly coloured shutters slam down on GAME for a final time, overnight the second-hand market will be vastly reduced and those unsure of the world of Nintendo won’t have an easy one stop shop to unravel what can only be a confusing world for the outsider. To you and I they may seem moot points, but think that we’ve all had to start somewhere. Either with a kindly grandparent buying you your first console for Christmas, or you scraping together your pocket money and tired old games to trade-in for the latest and greatest.

You may be able to do without GAME now. But what will we do without GAME in the future?

Kickstart

Within hours of the announcement of Double Fine’s attempt to raise funding for their new unnamed adventure game through Kickstarter the Tweets had started coming in. Kickstarter is an American site where projects can drum up support and get the masses to chip in and pay for it before work actually properly starts. It’s effectively a public Dragons’ Den, for if the full amount isn’t reach then they walk away with nothing.

Double Fine needn’t have worried, though. Within twenty-four hours they had trebled their initial goal of $400,000, and that number seems to be steadily rising towards $2m. It’s an impressive feat, and shows just how much is thought of the talented developers that have brought us the wondrous likes of Psychonauts, Day of the Tentacle and Stacking. The thirst for yet more of their creative juices to be let loose is evident.

As I say, the Tweets arrived, suggesting that if the company I work for did the same then certain parties would happily hand over cold hard cash for a sequel to Project X. Strange thing is that even if it were within my power to influence such matters, which it’s definitely not, did you know that crowd funding is not legal in Britain?

The trade body UKIE, spurred on by recent events, are now compiling a report into how UK law could be adapted and changed to bring in this novel way of financing a project, but would it actually change our industry’s situation? Double Fine managed to get what they needed through a large amount of brand loyalty; years of devotion by gamers to an ever changing style but consistent quality.

Similar companies such as Valve and Blizzard I’m sure would receive similar support, although I’m doubtful whether the budgets they operate with could even be scratched by Kickstarter. And at the other end of the scale, I wonder what would come of the debuting studios and how they could possibly gain traction in such an environment. With nothing but an elevator pitch to go on you can make the Grand Theft Auto seem tawdry and deplorable and yet similarly Superman 64 sound ground breaking.

With the recent news that industry tax breaks have all but been ruled illegal in Europe, is this enough of a replacement incentive for businesses, or merry band wagon jumping by an organisation seeking the popular vote on the new story of the week? Whilst it is a very heart-warming story, I feel Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s fortune are the exception and not the beginning of a revolution.

Quarrel

If there’s ever a game that will illicit cries of “cheat!” from the opponent it’s a turn-based word game. Accusations of guessing or blindly stumbling over a word are abound, and if you’re playing apart, separated by the tubes of the Internet, then there’s always that suspicion that certain apps or anagrams sites have been called in to reinforce their knowledge of the English language. It’s a murky world where you can and should trust no-one. Just ask my brother about the word “oolite”, and you’ll see what I mean.

Quarrel, therefore, is aptly named. Another word based, argument inducer, it comes to XBLA after a successful debut on the iPhone. In it players are handed a series of nine tiles, each with a letter with a corresponding number of points attached to it, and are asked to make the most valuable word possible. Length is not always best, however, with quality beating quantity as “sounder” can easily be trumped by “qi”, given the esteem that ‘q’ is held in.

High scores and quick fingers mean more than just points on the board though, as Quarrel is as much about warfare as it is word play. Each word battle takes place over the territories of an island, with the winner claiming new land or successfully staving off unwanted advances. You start off by being given a random smattering of land, each with a number of cheery natives, the number of which is crucial because they represent the number of tiles you will have at your disposal when the fighting begins. Should a player with seven villagers attempt to invade a neighbour with only five then that puts the invader at a distinct advantage, being able to pick more letters and long words. It’s not an assured victory, should the defender spring a doozy like “proxy” then anything is possible, but the extra tiles do tip victory in his favour.

And so the strategy begins. Victory means all but one of your conquering horde then move into the captured territory, free to attack again in a pique of word savagery. Rampage too far however and you’ll leave a string of solitary defenders ripe for being picked off on the counterattack.

It’s a delightfully simple premise given an extra twist by the inclusion of a Risk-style boardgame and limiting the length of the words that players can produce. Given a straight anagram then it will always be those who can decipher the jumble first who would claim victory, but the extra layers are a fine equaliser. With reinforcements after each round, cautious players can build up a large number of villagers before marching into battle, whilst the more gung-ho or confident wordsmiths can seize an early advantage and hope the tiles favour them and their small strike team. It’s a very satisfying experience knowing that you and your four tiles have outwitted a seven letter word on the opposite side.

In the basic mode, play continues until one side dominates the map, turning each block to the colour of their banner on the way. In the early “campaign” this is all but a cake walk, and even when outnumbered by your opponent’s tiles you barely have to worry. Despite faced with relatively simple words worth large points they’ll still reveal vastly shortened attempts, causing you to win almost by default. Conversely the latter matches in the same campaign verge on being an exercise in futility, so quick and accurate are they with their choice. A moderate middle ground can be found on the way to the top, and further distractions can be found with the Quarrel challenges. Long words, winning streaks and alike are all laid down for you to achieve, although the base mechanics remain the same.

Online is possibly where the fairest challenges lies, pitted against likeminded humans. Here at least it feels more of an even keel, knowing that the chap at the other end of the connection is only limited by the grey stuff between his ears and the speed at which he can enter the solutions pumped out by his anagram solving app sat by his side. Those matchups that do appear to be genuine however manage to show off the finery of Quarrel’s core concept; victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat as one or the other of you goes blank for a round, and whole matches can be turned with moments of clarity over the mess of letters in front of you.

Happily the presentation is sweet enough to make light of all such conflict. With a world full of bright, primary colours, depicting toy castles, lush forests and coastlines with blue seas stretching away from their shores. The tiny Quarrellers themselves are a cheery sort, made up of Vikings, aliens and robots. They bleet and ba along in tones of joy and despair, echoing your own success as they stand their holding your letters above their heads like pastiches of ring girls from boxing.

Yet there are times when I feel there is too much heaped on the presentation of proceedings. As endearing as it may be the first dozen times, with the dramatic reveal of each side’s chosen word and the subsequent scuffle and take over, long matches can feel overly so as there is no way to quickly skip through this fluff. The effect is more prominent should you be involved in a three- or four-player game where you may be sat on the side-lines for a considerable period of time, though you too can guess at the anagrams whilst rivals duke it out.

In an era when everything is heading to the digital platform, I find it intriguing that I consider that I would probably enjoy Quarrel more as a board game (which is indeed where its roots lie). The understandable lack of a local multiplayer option, the odd word filter that Microsoft applies online, and the periods of inactivity when playing with three or more players leaves me longing to have that physical connection playing with others in the same room affords.

Everything about Quarrel is wonderful fun, from the main themes to the ways battles can swing back and forth even within a single round. Nonetheless, as good as it is, the niggles leave a slight tarnish to an otherwise oolite solid puzzler.