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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Irrational Behaviour

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Or what happens when resources aren’t infinite.

AVForums | Irrational Behaviour

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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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