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Kervik Blog

Blue and Orange

I played Portal before I played any other Valve game. I'd never experienced the Half Life series, completely skimmed over the Team Fortress 2 fans and obliviously ignored the Counter-Strike scene in its entirety. I never even knew Alien Swarm existed until I'd played Half Life, and had become addicted to Team Fortress and understood what was great about Counter-Strike. Few games have surpassed Portal in their excellence, but it was, understandably an experimental game. I wrote a laconic review at this point — after I'd experimented and dabbled in all of Valve's masterpieces.

And although I should've written my review as if Portal was merely a prototype, I found it hard to come to terms with the fact that it was an experimental game, for it was as polished and thoroughly thought-through as the majority of games that are retailed nowadays, but that is exactly what it was.

But Portal was only experimental on one end. We know that it was not the concept of the game being experimented with, its spiritual predecessor Narbacular Drop was not the critically acclaimed success that Portal was, but obviously an impressive enough idea for the blokes behind it get hired. Valve could see it worked, and I don't think you could really refine the idea: it is that simple. Put one portal there, the other there and the two are interconnected, an instant passage between destination A and destination B. Adding frills to that just gives it far too much weight, and I cannot think of a way to break it down into more elementary pieces. The idea was as basic as it could get, yet somehow it had never really been tested before.

Portal was an experiment into how well the game would do commercially. Amongst Call of Duty and Halo (and as I said in my review, Valve's other greats) — a market dominated by the newest shooters — puzzle games have a hard time standing out. Hell, innovative games have a tough time reaching out of the darkness and into the light. There are some games that were both innovative games and puzzle games that have come into the forefront; usually not in the form of physically retailed, boxed-copies but in the world of digital distribution and in independent development, RUSH springs to mind.

But Portal, being an IP of Valve, had to be out on the shelves. It was a multi-platform game. If it had been an exclusively PC game, spamming Steam would've been a feasible option, but this was a commercial experiment and had to be out on the frontlines. On the shelves and in the shops: that's where Portal had to be. Had it not been there, Valve would've got unreliable results. Maybe throwing out Portal 2 a few years later, on the shelves, and then seeing that maybe your audience wasn't based in the Playstation segment of the market, or the Xbox portion — it would've been a financial flop.

But Portal managed to break through as an experimental game that got into the limelight as an accessible and simple game, and yet it had difficulty and it required thought and consideration of the next move. It was of a disappointing length: long enough to entertain and convey and introduce all the mechanics but short enough to be a profitable enterprise for Valve to venture into.

The puzzle game is hardly a niche market or a genre that's entirely welcomed in today's no-brain shooting crowd (not that I have a problem with headshotting people!), but Portal managed to break the ice and fall through into the larger scene through a combination of originality and wit. If developers could just take wonderfully innovative ideas and expand on them, let them go out into the real world with packaging and instruction manuals, maybe we'd see some great games and genres arise from their currently unknown, unheard, unseen statuses.

APB Coming Back From the Dead


All Points Bulletin (commercially abbreviated to APB) was a remake of an ancient game for Commodore 64 of the same name. The original game now has dated graphics, sound effects that make you want to take the bullet to the head and gameplay consisted of racing down a road and knocking littering gangsters. There was no reward for wasting your time on such trivial pursuits and there was no sense of progression. It was disastrous (maybe not for it's time but it certainly is now).

And so it was Realtime Worlds took the initiative to take the principle of cops versus criminals and transform the game into a massively multiplayer game. Why? They had amazing success with all their previous titles: their Crackdown series (which was also a renovation of an old and pretty dull title) was a reinvigorating revival of the original and they became a quality accredited developer amongst their dedicated following of fans. So their next step forwards was truly ambitious: they were to create an MMO from a stale, forgotten video game.

Working conditions were apparently superb at Realtime Worlds and the employers really made sure the expectations of their developers and other employees were met. Regular meetings were held where they discussed the progressive addition of content into their upcoming releases and discussed how the project, which was the unannounced APB, was being managed. According to personal recollection from former employees the treatment and democratic governing of business was remarkable. But these conditions were about to end.

Shortly after the closure of All Points Bulletin I wrote the following:

"The game took five years to develop and approximately $100 million was put into creation of the game. It received mixed numerical ratings from professional game critics, varying from the low end of the spectrum to considerably good scores. APB also boasted in-depth character creation tools, varying from tattoo designers for clothes, music composition and the ability to alter even the most insignificant physical attributes of your in-game avatar. Similar features will be included in Call of Duty: Black Ops, demonstrating how the gimmicks that APB brought to the table have influenced customisation within video games.

Unfortunately, by release date, Realtime Worlds were suffering financial difficulties and very little advertising led to low sales, an unexpected blow to Real Time Worlds. With the game released under-developed with many key components flawed and few activities available, the already small, active community plummeted dramatically and thus insubstantial subscriptions fees were paid.

Realtime Worlds later went into administration, unable to pay the debts that they'd left themselves in. The game and its servers failed to attract a buyer, consequently, the servers were pulled from their online status, members were disconnected and APB was finally put to rest."

But APB's luck has taken a twist for the better and it may not see the ephemeral existence that Realtime Worlds has done. How has it eluded the grave? It found a buyer. And it's being revived with an all new free-to-play business model. I'm presuming the company will get its payments through microtransactions; which is fair enough. Upkeep and maintenance for all the servers and fixing all the biting problems that clung to the game like obstinate barnacles will cost money. Lets just hope the items that you can buy (using real currency) do not push the balance issues deeper: they were bad enough. Nonetheless, I'm happy that this game is getting another chance as with a few months more development it could've been so much more and the game that many anticipated.

So did anyone buy APB? What were your thoughts on it? If you never got it (and if you looked into it) what do you think about it? Would you ever consider buying a game like it?

Indie Devs want Recognition from Big Publishers


Recently, independent game developers recommended a certain movement in the games industry. They wanted large publishers like Ubisoft, EA and Activision to bring small independent games development teams under their wing providing them with wages and a reputed name to affiliate with. These days the independent development community is the one with the freshest ideas: I always imagine random programmers' heads buzzing with the incessant urge to bring to life some wonderfully wacky idea and most of the time they don't disappoint. Whereas large publishers often urge the biggest developers into making what makes money (which means cloning Call of Duty or mimicking World of Warcraft) indie game developers have no one to tell them that this won't make millions of dollars or this idea won't capture the largely casual gamer market that the industry has turned out to be catering to. Notwithstanding adopting developers with excellent ideas cooped up in an overly-imaginative mind would be a magnificent move for publicity; thousands of ideas would circulate through the market every year, mere weeks of programming and art design and a new game would be ready for digital distribution. This extra fast release of games would help the publisher and the money that comes with having "Activision" pasted into introduction movies would boost the earnings of independent developers significantly: it would be a mutual production process and a phenomenal starting place for germinating companies.

To accentuate the intrinsic nature of introducing some level of intriguing originality to the video game industry independent developers are unparalleled. Their inhuman fearlessness towards trying something new is like a password to developing an industry. Being fully aware that your concept may fail catastrophically, falling into an abyss of anonymity and falling under siege from gamers' devastation that their wallets are now five quid shorter is an august pageantry. Just because they're inventive and quite happy to accept defeat that does not mean publishers should be taking them on-board.

Publishers still have to look at the financial benefits of bringing on a group of developers. In the climate of serious video game marketing and development there's absolutely no space for failures. The ideas have to be bang-on, meticulously thought out attractions that people will actually take out their credit card for. EA has taken some interest into mobile gaming developer, Rovio but these are a group of developers whose every idea has been a profitable success and a gigantic winner in the App Store for iPhone. For a whopping $20, 000, 000 Electronic Arts has to be pretty confident that Rovio's products will be an outstanding success. Meanwhile, Activision is taking interest in what people can make and not what people have made. This is quite important in the sense that Activision are no longer looking solely for who's been making money but instead who has the best ideas.Complex indie titles like Toribash win awards!

But as the quieter, more reclusive developers migrate the the energetic hub-bub of the mainstream industry, veterans may be moving out. Programmers feel their games that they put enthusiasm and time into, that they venerate with personal affection, are being recklessly rushed. Maybe it's for sales? Regardless, people are moving to working by themselves and with small groups on quirky ideas. They find the independent side of the fence a much more relaxed working environment where aren't restrained from going out there and doing whatever the Hell it is you want to do. As games align themselves into evident conformity indie game developers are thrusting incomprehensibly original ideas upon themselves and colleagues. Even if they're not conjuring the newest concepts indie games tend to apply undeniable charm be it in cosmetic effects or gameplay. Sending a globule flying over platforms in an attempt to stop its lubricated instability flying all around the place is nothing new but Piece of Pie Studio's upcoming release 'Swimming Under Clouds' visuals are unexplainably attractive and this is what puts indie ahead of the rest: it's always one step ahead in one way or another.

I've written this article with immeasurable bias, I feel that indie is the only way out of a constant repetition of ideas. It's hard to find a shooter without a modern setting and almost completely focussed on multiplayer competitiveness. It's difficult to find to find an RPG that isn't massively multiplayer and set in a fantasy environment. Whilst some games published by the biggest behemoths in the video game market step away from this it seems like an overwhelming many are not. And so I'll conclude to a question aimed at everybody who has taken the time to read this fairly grandiloquent post:

What do you think about indie game development? Do you think it's a good idea? Do you think mainstream games are trying to copy each other too much (if at all)? And, most importantly, what do you think about big developers buying up independent developers?

(Last updated 19:46:16, 11-24-2010)