A Little Bit Of: A Virus Named TOM

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The City of Tomorrow.

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Will be destroyed by a virus named TOM. I think that's supposed to be intentionally all caps so I'm just going to go with it. This game I'm pretty mixed on. On one hand some of the puzzles are really great and it's setup really well for all it's leaderboards and competing to get the best times. But on the other hand some of it's just kind of infuriating. Firstly I love the art it really kind of nails the City of Tomorrow vibe and just that concept. So gold star for that. During a puzzle it isn't as reflective of the billboard art but it's good and it works in favour of doing the actual puzzles, you don't feel like you're poking around blindly looking for something hidden away amongst everything that's going on.

On the other hand the enemies are sometimes far more of a hindrance than they ought to be. An enemy moving super fast on the screen isn't really making the puzzle harder, just annoying. The puzzle where you have an entire row of them moving down at the same rate that you need to use your glitch to hold one in place so you can not die, that was rather good. Unfortunately it seems likely that I'm going to run into that particular problem at least once more during the game and that's a shame, because when they are balanced in right between the puzzle of actually connecting everything up they provide a really good challenge without it feeling unfair.

The Digital Indie

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Slight disclaimer to start off with, I'm an indie game developer who mostly does freelance programming work. I would not be able to do what I do for a living had it not been for the rise of digital distribution in it's various incarnations. Anyway lets get to it.

Not all that long ago there were a lot less on the indie games scene, while not being entirely true, they were a lot less prominent the way they are now. The proliferation of the internet did a huge thing for small independent developers and that was giving them a way to sell their game that didn't involve boxed retail. Back then if you were an indie trying to get your game to be even taken and put on a store shelf was an enormous undertaking and that wasn't even considering the supply chain things of actually making disks. That's not to say that you couldn't do it, but it was a barrier that for a one or two person team just wasn't really practical so it was pretty limiting in the kinds of games you made.

You could setup your own site and sell digitally from there or burn your own CDs and then mail them individually out to each customer you had. But in many places it was still the transition period between widely available broadband and modems so a lot of people couldn't download games easily and the latter option well that sounds about as much of a nightmare as it actually is.

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Fast forward a little bit to the beginning of Steam the store front not the awful patcher/DRM for Half Life 2 and XBLA you pretty quickly began to see more and more smaller games popup. It very rapidly became possible for a small team of people to make a game and sell it and get in front of a large enough audience for that to actually be a profitable idea. That's spiralled a bit out of control on the Microsoft side with their own restrictions, policies and redesigns but Steam became the haven for a lot of developers. Suddenly everyone who had an internet connected 360 or bought Half Life 2 could see your game.

This visibility was an incredible change. There have always been people that just make games, for flash portals, hobbyists and similar. And these new services offered that shift where you could work on making weird small games and get it in front of that critical mass where making them as your full time job was actually viable. On the 360 side there was always some weirdness putting your games next to the 360 lineup and with what games got chosen by Microsoft to even be on the service. This led to, in many ways, unrealistic expectations for what an indie game should be, not in terms of quality but in terms of scope. And early on a lot of deals that were being signed required developers to put in a multiplayer component into all XBLA titles. For a lot of games that just meant leaderboards, but many games were required to put in full on multiplayer modes which was disastrous for some developers and in hindsight an utterly ridiculous requirement.

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The next big thing to happen in the industry would be Apple getting into the smart phone business and after they realised that only having web applications was really dumb, they opened the App Store to developers. Now beyond the iPhone selling massive quantities it did a couple of things that were somewhat new. One was the flat 70/30 split that was totally transparent to everyone and the other was that your dev kit was your phone. (Note: Microsoft has something similar with the 360 and XNA but that didn't exactly take off in the same way). And this has led to more and more smaller games because the expectation you have of a phone game wasn't exactly very high before. Compare what you get now on iOS and Android to what came before. Pretty massive gap and because of the App Store and the now called Google Play all of that stuff is possible.

It's not all rosy of course because the simplicity of make a game put it out on a store and sell it to people, going from finished game to on limitless selling on a store taking all of about 7 days. It has led to a whole lot of terrible games, the massive price reduction where now somehow $2 is expensive for a game that took a team months to make. However it was the thing that helped bring back the rise of the tiny team. You could make a small game idea, put it out there and people didn't care that much how good or bad it was because they only spent like a Dollar on it, unless it was completely awful.

It's progressed a whole lot in a really short space of time, you have dozens of services to choose from Humble Bundle and Indie Royale, to Steam, GoG, Desura, XBLA and PSN. Each one of these just by their existence and how they work now have made being a game developer for many possible. Digital distribution right now has a whole host of problems, from DRM that's really intrusive and stops you from playing a game you bought, licensing agreements that say you might not own your game even though that concept is kind of insane, how DLC has changed how we think of what happens to our games after they've been made, free to play games that are designed to be awful games purely to get money out of people, so so many patches for everything. But this stuff will get sorted out one way or another. There will always be people that take the high road and say the people that buy our games are great. And on the flip side there will always be people that think of consumers as walking wallets that should give us their money. But all of it stems off of the internet, the idea of digital distribution and that has led to games, that wouldn't otherwise have existed, actually getting made and the people that made them are able to continue making awesome things.

A Little Bit Of: Unmechanical

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Mechanical heart thingy.

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A fairly interesting physics puzzle game, that I oh so wonderfully rushed off into the wrong direction twice in the span of 14 minutes. Man I really give the opportunity to make myself look like an idiot while doing these. That aside I rather enjoyed playing it. It's got some interesting puzzles to it also some really lovely looking backgrounds that are occasionally rather weird, like why am I this little robot doing messing around near this beating giant heart. Presumably there's an actual reason for that, hasn't really been made clear quite yet.

Anyway short post this time, not a huge amount more to say as of yet. But it seems like a neat game, I'd have to play more of it to see how the puzzles pan out. There's been some good variety even this early in and I suspect that I will get a puzzle that will just be absurd but hopefully not.

Storytelling in Video Games

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To preface this, this isn't a blog on video game novels. I decided to hijack the topic title to talk about how we tell stories in video games and why we as an industry sort of suck at it. Okay, that might be a bit harsh, but when we have stories in video games a lot of them fail to use the part that makes playing games awesome, the part where it's interactive. There have been games in the past and more recently that have tried to do this, with varying degrees of success, but the vast majority of what we have is mildly interactive at best.

Cutscenes are probably at the end of the spectrum regardless of if they are done in engine or pre-rendered. In many ways it's probably a lot like what it was back in the early days of the film industry where they were putting on a theatre show and then sticking a camera in front of it. You can kind of understand why you would do that and it took a while before they figured out things like multiple camera shots, using the camera to draw attention to different parts of the scene. Cutscenes are a completely passive way of delivering your story, the player sits down and watches what's happening on screen. That's not to say that a cutscene can't be powerful or emotional but it's powerful in the same way that a movie could be powerful.

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Metal Gear Solid 4 did do something interesting towards the end of the game that had you hammer the X button occasionally to continue moving through a corridor while getting poached alive. It added just that little bit of agency into what is otherwise a picture in picture cutscene of pretty much every character getting the snot beaten out of them. From a development point of view I get why it's done, they're big flashy and they show off well in a way that people understand. And a couple years ago you could use cutscenes to make your game look about 10 times better than they otherwise could have done and from a psychology point of view helps you associate what you just saw with the in game graphics which often was a flat shaded cuboid.

There are also games that tell their story in game without taking control away from you. Valve do this wonderfully in Half Life 2 and arguably a better example Portal. But I'm going to focus a bit more on Half Life 2 because the story and world in that are slightly more complex and defined. The game is a fan of not taking control away and you always have some level of control over Freeman be it full movement or just looking around. The dialogue all happens around him with characters talking to each other and having full conversations about what they're going to be doing and you as the player can choose to stand there listen to them or look around the lab or where ever you are. There's a lot of that universe that is told purely through the environment. Or which is probably why many games don't do this is be a total jerk and jump up and down on the table knocking over all their probably rather expensive equipment or just walk off mid conversation to just do whatever you're supposed to be doing.

It's awesome because you never take the player out of the game, there isn't always much to do sometimes other than listen but that's the joy of it. You get the ability to do what you want, you get the chance to look around and look at what's happening instead of just taking it in. There are problems like making sure that there are things going on to see if people are talking or the talking giving some respite from some action that happened just recently. It feels better when done right, harder to get right and it probably makes for a worse spectator experience but it means that you never get that disconnect between story and gameplay segments as they bleed together. A story exposition segment can be quickly interrupted and move straight into combat and then move seamlessly back to story.

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Another game that has a fantastic story is Mass Effect, I'm going to talk about the second one here and more specifically the dialogue. This is how most of the meat of the story is told to you, a lot of the side lore is told through the codex and that I think is actually fantastic. Tangential information that enriches the world but isn't needed and generally it being text or something not gameplay actually stresses that point about what it is. Anyway back to dialogue menus, it takes control away from your characters actions but you do have some limited control through what you say and also how can do the various paragon and renegade interrupts. The paragon interrupts I feel are generally pretty good and contextual in a way that makes sense, doing it after a moment to comfort a grieving Tali or to butt in on someoneelse'smonologue. The renegade ones on the other hand felt a lot like "why couldn't I just do this through normal gameplay?". Most of them involve shooting people or objects and that's just part of the core of the game mechanics.

There's something to be said about controllers having limitted buttons to actually do things so you couldn't use the dialogue wheel, move, look and shoot all at the same time but the thing is that we as people can do that much multi-tasking or at least think about doing any one of those individual things at any one time.

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And on the far end of the other scale you have games that that have their story almost entirely through play, the recently released Journey is a fantastic example of this. Yes it's plot points are somewhat abstract and you couldn't tell every tale you want to tell using it but it's a story that could only ever be told through a video game and that is absolutely fantastic. It does take control away at points but it's a good showing for how storytelling through a game could be done. It takes you through the ups and downs of trying to get to the mountain in the distance from soaring in the sky to being downtrodden and beaten.

We don't see too much of this in games right now because we are a new medium and we're getting used to how we can do things and that's going to take some experimentation. It's arguable how much you can do in this way and it'll be a while before we see this being more prevalent. Something much more grounded in the real world for example probably wouldn't work in this sort of way because it would probably remove that element of grounding that tale would need. The Walking Dead game is a game about people and how they react under extreme circumstances. I can't see a way in how to get from telling the tale the Walking Dead has and making that message all through play.

There are always going to be problems with storytelling in an interactive medium because there is always going to be some portion of your player base that are just going to be total jerks about everything. Oh look there are kids in this town, I wonder what happens when I shoot at them with this massive rail gun? But that's just something that we have to work around. I don't really have any answers as to how we move forward. There are so many different stories that we can tell (apparently there are these things called books that people still write) and each one won't be able to be told in exactly the same way. There's always been a place for all of these different storytelling mechanisms in gaming history, but we need to learn to use interactivity, the part that makes it a game, more and better to tell our stories. When someone is saying this game is so awesome because it's so cinematic, that shouldn't be a plus point because it's kind of missing the point.

A Little Bit Of: English Country Tune

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Square in a 3D world.

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A bit of a more calm slow pace this one compared to the rather Saturday morning cartoon ridiculousness of Aweseomnauts last week. A puzzle game where your only controls are moving a square about and shoving things around. It's actually a fairly compelling puzzle game. It's made by one person and the art is pretty minimalistic but it sort of suites what the game does and keeps it all nice and abstract. So far the puzzles have been relatively straight forward, well the answers have been, sometimes figuring it out has been pretty hard but getting the hang of moving about on the faces of the world in 3D takes a bit of time.

Even with just the short time I've spent with it, it clearly does show how complicated it can get later in the game. I'm not sure if later levels combine mechanics from the different worlds or if they keep just adding new mechanics. Either way there's a lot to get on with in this and it seems like you get rather a lot of puzzling for not a whole lot of money.

A Little Bit Of: Awesomenauts

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Awesome!

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It may have been a bit self indulgent of me to include the intro to the start of this video, but seriously it's so dumb and ridiculously cool. I really like the music in Awesomenauts. It's appropriately dumb and insane and it gives some really nice personality to each of the heros without really needing other cues or giant text blurb, it does have the backstory but the music is the standout here. The heros also have some gooddifferentiationbetween them so they play quite different roles on the battlefield. I'm rather enjoying playing Leon, he's very very fast so you can just run around the battlefield very quickly and just pop up behind your enemy and then be gone as soon as you've finished the stabbing.

Gameplay wise this is a really really approchable MOBA style game (can we come up with a less dumb acronym for this genre please) it doesn't have a lot of the fluff with like last hitting and denial that exist in something like Dota. Yes doing the killing blow on an enemy causes the money to go straight to you, but it still drops for you to pick up if aren't the last hitter. It's all about how you deal with the enemy team and killing the bots to put pressure on the enemy turrets. It makes for a less fiddly game than something like Dota and for Awesomenauts it makes for a rather excellent game.

A Little Bit Of: Orcs Must Die! 2

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Waaagh!

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Okay that's the Ork battle cry but whatever still appropriate. This is a tower defence game with rather a lot of action elements, you're probably not going to be able to succeed just using traps in the early part of the level and by that same token you aren't going to be able to destroy the orc hoard just by your lonesome. To that end there are new traps, new weapons and more importantly online co-op! Which does look rather fun but it just came out yesterday so I haven't had a chance to jump into it quite yet. I've mostly been playing as the Sorceress because she starts off with the lovely scepter of charming (not it's actual name) that lets me charm orcs and turn them into my faithful allies for a short time either because it wears off, or because I've since exploded said orc.

It's quite a lot harder than the original game, it ramps up pretty quickly and there are a few of the enemies really make your life a pain. There are a couple instances where I think the maps are probably more suited to co-op play to the point where it's a little ridiculous to try to do it just by yourself but that feeling was few and far between. If you own the original a bunch of the old maps get put into this game in classic mode and you can play those in co-op as well which is a nice addition giving a rather ridiculous amount of content in this one. If you're a fan of tower defence then you should definitely pick this one up, because it is one of the best examples of this genre.

A Little Bit Of: Endless Space

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Space is big.

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Also I hadn't intended this to compete against the actual Quick Look that went up on Giant Bomb today. Damn you Bradley! But ah well. This is a 4X strategy game that is rather awesome. It doesn't have any single player campaign mode but that's sort of to be expected from 4X games, but there are some really cool races and lore which I would've liked to see fleshed out. I love the UI in this game. It's lovely, it's not super fancy of anything but it looks good and is so wonderfully functional. Pretty much any information you need about your empire is only a short few steps away and you get really good overviews of your planetary systems and fleets.

This game can be pretty hard but it's pretty flakey at times with it's generation in that it seems to be a bit too random. I've started many a game where my empire has floundered in the middle of the game just because the systems surrounding my homeworld were just awful and filled with wonderfully habitable places like asteroids and lava planets. But luckily on this map I got a bit lucky so I got a good starting position.

This is a rad complicated game that is just kind of great to play. The AI can be pretty brutal even on the supposed easier difficulty settings but it's easy enough to let you get a hang of things. I haven't played it against real people yet but I'm hoping to get to it at some point. It really has the one more turn vibe that so many of these types games do and I want to play more of it when I get the chance.

A Little Bit Of: AirMech

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AirMechs roll out!

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Needless Transformers reference aside, AirMech is a free to play from Carbon Games that was released a few months ago. I was playing the Steam version which is currently in beta but from the looks of things if you just want to play from either their site or from the Chrome Web Store app you can just do that without needing a beta key. I never actually played Herzog Zwei but one of my friends pointed it out to me a couple of years ago before AirMech was in development so when I heard about this it actually seemed pretty interesting.

Without that comparison though, it's fairly similar to more modern day MOBAs like League of Legends with the creep spawning and some tower defence. It makes for some pretty frantic action because you're trying to manage your troops while also transforming into mech mode to help them out, while also being in air mode to transport and ferry units around to defend and attack. There are also other game modes but I think the competitive mode, even just against the AI is the more compelling of the game modes.

Brighton and Rezzed

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No video as of yet, I spent my weekend(well Friday and Saturday) in Brighton so I didn't really get a chance to record anything. I haven't been to Brighton before and it's not really a place I would go to as a take a break spot, which is good because I actually was at the Rezzed game show which is a spinoff from the Eurogamer Expo. It was a very similar format to the Eurogamer Expo, which'll be going on at the end of September in that you have two main attractions, the show floor and a bunch of developer sessions. The main difference is that it's all about PC and indie games which is awesome. Except for the part where I didn't get to see anything because I was actually working at one of the booths!

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I was there with Introversion Software to help show off Prison Architect and that was a whole bunch of fun. It was actually really great because we had 4 machines going and we pretty much had someone on every machine the whole time we were there. We got a bunch of great feedback and met some lovely folk. The down side of that is that it means that I kind of get no time to look around :P. I took about 35 minutes out on each day to do whatever, saw the Creative Assembly talk on Total War Rome 2 which was interesting to see some early footage of that game. Second day I took to play some Munchkin, which is an awesome board game that I lost miserably at and I ended up as a puny level 2 dwarf with no equipment.

Anyway thats it from me this week I think, I did take a little bit of time in the evening to walk around Brighton pier so I shall leave you with this photo.

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Actually I also went to the Shard inauguration on Thursday which is a new building here in London and is currently the tallest building in Europe. They did a light and laser show, which unforunately for them is really dumb and boring if you don't have any music or some form of accompiment to it, so it sort of misses the point really of doing something like that given that you've basically bored a whole bunch of people that came down to see it. Got a nice picture so I shall leave you with this photo as well for real this time.

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