Archive for the ‘Indie games’ Category

In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to leave day-to-day things like reviews and previews to the big guys – listed conveniently in the blog roll for you.  Servicey!  The fact is, the Kotakus and Joystiqs of the world do a much better job of breaking news and round-the-clock updates than I ever could, and their staffers just plain play more games than me.  A lot more.  I’ve also avoided the “Game of the Year” trope for many of the same reasons.  From a critic’s perspective, when you haven’t played everything (or even everything good) in a given year, how can you really say one game is The Best?

Games of Our Lives was my more personal attempt at naming a game to define a year.  Those picks have more to do with me, and what was going on in my life when I played each game, than what’s in the box.

This past year might just represent a new low watermark for my time spent playing games.  Getting a puppy and having a baby in the same year will do that to you.  But as a result, I feel like I’ve spent a much higher percentage of my play time enjoying games than ever before.  I didn’t slog through any games “just to stay on top of things” this year.  And I can’t think of any game I stuck it out with this year just so I could feel like whatever time I had already invested was well spent.  Got that, MLB ’09: The Show?!  As such, I think I actually have a better feel for what made this year’s crop of games fun than I’ve had in recent years, and am open to a lot more types of games – casual, hardcore, multiplayer, story-driven, PC, console, iPhone – it was all fair game for me this year.

Of course, this being the end of the 00’s, every big games publication and site spent the last few weeks rounding up the highlights of the  last 10 years.  Having written Games of Our Lives already, and the big guns all poring over a decade’s worth of history, it seemed way less intimidating to focus on the best game of this year.  And considering how the changes in my personal life affected my perspective on games, I may actually have different (perhaps even useful?) reasons for my choice.  So without further ado, the nominees are (in alpha order):

  • Batman, Arkham Asylum – Batman finally got the game he deserved this year, thanks to some ingenious use of the Unreal engine and a superb story from Paul Dini delivered pitch-perfect by quite a few cast members from Batman: The Animated Series. The Metroidvania emphasis on exploration and detective skills was such a natural fit for the Caped Crusader, it’s hard to believe it took this long for someone to make the match.
  • New Super Mario Bros. Wii – Mario’s been to distant galaxies, race tracks, and even his some old  Smash Brothers stomping grounds since the Wii was released, but Nintendo finally put him back where he feels most at home this year.  So much was written about this game’s chaotic 4-player simultaneous free-for-all’s that the sometimes brutal, sometime charming, always well thought-out level design got shoved out of the headlines.
  • Plants vs. Zombies – PopCap is an unapologetically casual studio, but the truth is more hardcore players completely dig their games than would ever admit it to their squadmates.  These guys are just razor sharp when it comes to figuring out where a few bells and whistles can turn a smooth playing, bite-sized game into an all consuming force of addictive wonderment.  PvZ’s sense of humor, learning curve, and seeding of truly awesome minigames coaxed me into installing a game on my PC for the first time since college.  Can’t wait for the iPhone port this year!
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – The secret lovechild of Lara Croft and Han Solo, Nathan Drake, returns in a globetrotting adventure that tweaks and finesses Gears of War’s combat system, then drops the whole thing into a story that you actually WANT TO FOLLOW full of characters that you really do care about.  I know it sounds fundamental and very basic, but the attention to detail and commitment to characters really pulled this game over the top.

…aaand the winner is:

New Super Mario Brothers Wii

At the end of the day, I’m a total sucker for a new Mario game.  I loved Galaxy and Mario 64 as much as anyone else, but everyone’s favorite skilled tradesperson just plain feels better when he’s zipping along at full speed, cracking heads and gobbling up coins in that seminal console genre, the sidescroller.  It’s not just that the big N got Mario and Luigi back into their 2D stomping grounds – the charm of this game is that they put together such an outstanding collection of level designs and worlds to ensure they came back in style.

Considering the audience Nintendo is focused on these days, it’s no surprise that simultaneous multiplayer came first in marketing New SMB Wii.  But throwing 3 more players onto the screen doesn’t just add allies.  It completely changes the pace of the game, and the focus of the players.  The result is a party game that feels much more like a session with Rock Band than a traditional platformer.  It’s a blast to play with more than one player, and I’m honestly a little bit surprised we didn’t see an official hardware bundle this holiday featuring the Wii, the game, and 4 remotes.

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bstnalbumcoverAmid all of last week’s fanfare (particularly in mainstream press) surrounding The Beatles: Rock Band release, I missed this gem – a gubernatorial proclamation from Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick making last Thursday (9.9.09) Video Game Innovation Day.

I work in marketing, and have seen my fair share of appreciation days, town takeovers, and key-to-the-city fluffy publicity stunts.  I mean, just look at some of the language in Patrick’s decree!  But Boston walks the walk in this case.  They’ve managed to retain a healthy amount of area university grads, and stay in the conversation by nurturing hot startups (like 38 Studios and pre-Guitar Hero Harmonix)  and larger studios (2K Boston).  They even flirted with the idea of tax incentives for developers last summer, and will likely revisit the issue in some form in the future.

The longer this industry weathers the economic storm, the smarter state and local officials look in investing in its future for their constituents.  There are some promising first steps to attract talent in Georgia, Louisiana, and my desperately cash-strapped home state of Michigan.  With the right participation at the University level, those investments may bear fruit and incubate a living, breathing development community between the coasts.  There are even some promising first steps being taken to organize devs in NYC.  California and Washington can only satisfy the talent needs of such a robust industry for so long.  Where will the next industry hotbed be?

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thinkerIf you haven’t had the pleasure yet, be sure and spend some time with Robert Ashley’s unbelievably good podcast, “A Life Well Wasted.”  His third episode explores why it is we play games, with interviews from folks on the floor at this year’s Game Developers’ Conference.  There’s also a fascinating in-depth piece on Jason Rohrer, the indie dev behind the lo-fi, intensely thought-provoking Passage.

Ashley’s exploration into why we play videogames is eminently satisfying, because it’s a question we just don’t ask ourselves very often.  Considering how the audience has expanded in recent years, there are as many different motivations to play games as there are gamers to play them now.  What are yours?  Hit up the comments section…

Personally, the reasons why I keep playing have shifted a lot over the years, along with the types of games I play and the amount of time I spend with them.  Games were a novelty, a diversion, a pastime, and a means for both competition and commonality among my friends when I was younger.

As a dear friend pointed out, I don’t necessarily play to compete anymore.  Commitments to a great marriage, a fascinating career and a rambunctious puppy keep my weekly playing hours down in the single-digits-to-teens neighborhood.  I’m just not as good as I used to be, with 30+ hours to practice each week.  Instead, I find myself really playing to experience the fruits of (in my humble opinion) some of the greatest storytellers alive today.  And as a way to bring my friends together and frame the fun we have together.

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As I’ve written before, Sony’s big draw for me (and many others) during the original Playstation era was the level of respect they had for the audience.  Ridge Racer, Tekken, Wipeout, and the Resident Evil series all made their home debut on the system, and all elevated their respective genre to new heights.  Sony marketed to a slightly older audience (remember ‘UR Not E‘?) and introduced an exciting brand of popcorn entertainment.

Fast forward to this Valentine’s Day, and Sony offered up ThatGameCompany’s latest ambitious think-piece, Flower.  For the record, I LOVE this game.  The design is breathtaking, with no HUD and a minimalist control scheme.  The music is subtle and, at times, even a bit somber.   In my short time with the game, it made me think about how our planet functions, mankind’s impact on it, why the movie The Iron Giant is underappreciated, and how various faith’s interpretation of God are different.  Like any good pice of art in any medium, Flower makes you THINK.

It scratches itches that I didn’t even know I had, and makes me want to DEMAND a full apology from Roger Ebert on behalf of theentire industry.  But the million dollar question is, “how many people will really dig this game?”  Perhaps more importantly, “how many people need to buy (and like) Flower for it to be a success?”  Between this game, and PSN exclusives like Echocrome and FlOw, and weird avatar chat/meeting space Home, I can’t help but wonder if Sony may be getting too arty for it’s own good.  It came up in this month’s EDGE Magazine review of Prototype, and I think it’s a valid point.  After all, art that pushes the envelope to an extreme will almost always have a high point of entry that limits commercial success.

Microsoft has exclusive GTA4 content, Gears of War and the HALO franchise to satisfy precisely the type of gamer that Sony connected with over the last two console generations.  Third parties like EA and Ubisoft certainly keep that audience entertained on Sony’s big black box, but I can’t really see Little Big Planet connecting with them.  And with a big gulf in hardware prices in this economy, can Sony afford to let such a big audience go?

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As another stellar PAX show wound down this weekend, Sony completed a more-or-less clean sweep of industry show prerelease buzz for LittleBigPlanet. The construction/platformer/multiplayer collaboration defies all current genre (yours truly is calling it a “toybox” game) and is quick to make fans wherever it pops up. It dominated E3 “Game of Show” lists, was named Leipzig’s Game of the Show, and popped in quite a few places at PAX, including the offbeat “How to Get Your Girlfriend into Video Games” panel.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for LBP is just how much stock Sony is putting in the game’s all-things-to-all-people mascot, Sackboy.  He’s truly a modern icon for the consumer generated content era: a blank (albeit cute and cuddly) slate to take on whichever identity makes the most sense for your game.  Whereas Mario (nee Jumpman) injected a little character into stacks of pixels nearly 30 years ago, Sackboy and his crew can be infused with all the personality you need.  Sony’s even releasing an 80G hardware bundle featuring LBP in Europe.

Perhaps most importantly, LBP is the latest in a line of unbelievably good titles that aim to occupy the space somewhere between a game and full-blown platform.  Rock Band and later editions of Guitar Hero continue to deliver weekly content to suit a wide variet of tastes, from The Who to Nirvana song packs.  Nintendo packed a robust level editor into the already-superb Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and the community still pumps out engaging level designs almost 6 months after its release.  Soul Calibur IV is currently flying off the shelves, due in large part to one of the deepest create-a-character modes ever seen in a console brawler.

While it’s true that these games rely heavily on the efforts of an engaged community, they also require a substantial commitment from developers.  LBP developer Media Molecule has made it clear that they have no followup project in mind yet.  For the months, maybe even years after it ships, they will be in the business of supporting and expanding LBP. And I applaud the effort.

Can LittleBigPlanet deliver on expectations?  Will it truly make us all one step closer to self publishers?  Will it finally deliver a sustainable experience supported by smart, effective in-game advertising?  Only time will tell, and I can hardly wait until October to find out.

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RIP Scrabulous

RIP Scrabulous

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the rapidly expanding world of casual gaming apps delivered over social networks (and who hasn’t?!), last week was an interesting one.  At the beginning of the week, the poster child for Facebook as a gaming platform, Scrabulous, was turned off for all North American users.  By the end of the week, it had gotten a minor facelift and was reintroduced as Wordscraper.

With all the parties involved, and all the legalese to wade through, it’s tough to tell who ultimately made the call to pull the plug.  I mean, what are they really saying in a publicly issued statement like this: ‘Hasbro is pleased that the developers have voluntarily removed their infringing Scrabulous application on Facebook, and we appreciate Facebook’s assistance in expediting this matter‘?  Besides, it was in pretty much everyone’s best interest to make Scrabulous not look like an exact Hasbro knock-off, at the very least.

EA paid a no doubt princely sum to execute games based on Hasbro’s IP.  To keep potential suitors interested in their games, beyond EA’s 2013 expiration date, it’s to Hasbro’s advantage to protect their game concepts as ownable, patent-worthy product.  Facebook needs to prove to the world (including advertisers) that they have a handle on protecting copyrights within their platform, and it’s not the hedonistic wild west that MySpace or Second Life turned into.  Even Scrabulous‘ designers, the Agarwalla brothers, had something to gain by pulling and modifying the game.  They’ve shown the world that they know how to make a simple, working social game.  It’s the hottest hot spot right now for VCs, and it behooves them to not get sued back to the stone age so early in their careers.

Died and reborn as Wordscraper... like a zombie!

Died and reborn as Wordscraper... like a zombie!

It’ll be interesting to see how Wordscraper fares after its relaunch, combined with competition from EA’s fully branded, household name Scrabble app.  Even more important are the results of Hasbro’s lawsuit in this case.  After all, it could set a precedent for tons of litigation down the road.  At its core, this suit asks the question, “what constitutes a ‘game’ and just how much of that is ownable?”

Do the makers of a million bad Tetris knockoffs owe Alexy Pazhitnov royalties?  Do the makers of that Wii beer pong game owe your fraternity some coin?  This suit could decide once and for all.

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It’s a real rarity to see insider games industry coverage from our dailies here in NYC, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the all the attention that local think tank the Center for an Urban Future generated for their study, “Getting in the Game.”

You can grab the .PDF at their site (and it’s certainly worth a read), but the Cliffs Notes of the report boil down to a very logical conclusion – and a somewhat obvious one, if you follow the industry closely: “The fast-growing video game industry represents a promising opportunity for New York City’s economy, but the sector faces significant challenges and still lags well behind established gaming hubs like Seattle, Los Angeles and Montreal.” The coverage wound up in every reputable game blog (naturally), but more importantly, it made the cover of at least one of the dailies, and Sewell Chan posted on it in the excellent NY Times City Room blog.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the lack of a big game development scene in NYC, indie or otherwise. The creativity and talent is here, and the post-bust Silicon Alley community is keeping up with the west coast Joneses when it comes to attracting VC funding. We even have a few superb full-time games journalists residing in the 5 boroughs.

As the report shows, the handful of publishers that have set up some sort of base in the city (Take 2, Atari, and a few small developers) are mostly staffing marketing and C-level operations out of New York, and leaving the development to guys out west/across the pond/anywhere but here.

The fastest-growing entertainment industry can’t stay confined to the west coast forever, but a mass migration to NYC is no inevitability either. The same day that the Center for an Urban Future study went public, the office of Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue announced his state’s new incentives package for entertainment industry investment, with a ton of language specific to the games industry. Not to be outdone, Boston kicked off their inaugural conference focused on wooing more developers to the city last year, with a similar event in the works for 2008.

It’s great to see individual cities pushing for more developers in their locale, but what’s getting lost in the mix here is just how much the industry, as a whole, would benefit from moving a few creative eggs outside of the Bay Area basket. Just as Austin, TX filmmakers developed their own look and feel and the Atlanta Atlanta hip-hop artists pioneered their own sound.  What would their games play like?hip-hop scene became a powerful force in music, the infusion of local developers from all over the map could lead to the discovery of some hot, undiscovered talent.

Services like Steam, Xbox Live, WiiWare and PSN now eliminate the most expensive parts of distribution, so as long as the ideas are good enough (and the developers are savvy about interacting with passionate gamers), the sky’s the limit.

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Earlier this week, Nintendo’s long-awaited WiiWare indie game download service launched in the US, to surprisingly little mainstream media coverage. Perhaps it’s GTA4 hangover, or editors planning to cover WiiFit next week didn’t want to run two Wii-centric features in consecutive weeks, or maybe it just didn’t seem like big news in light of PSN and Xbox Live’s beating Nintendo to the punch by more than a year. Either way, it’s pretty big news for a number of reasons:

  • WiiWare is a decidedly “new Nintendo” move. Bite-sized, casual games from garage band developers are the very embodiment of the “blue ocean” strategy that Reggie Fils-Aime and the rest of the current Nintendo higher-ups operate under. The old guard at Nintendo (the ones that insisted on cartridges for N64 games over CD’s, and limiting the number of NES games they would allow any one publisher to make in a year) would have rather died than put games from indie microdevelopers on their precious system
  • While Nintendo already had the Virtual Console in operation, WiiWare’s debut means all three of this generation’s consoles (and both of the portable systems) have dedicated channels for instant delivery of retro games AND original downloadable content. Nintendo was the last holdout (and a significant one, considering how quickly their installed base is swelling). This could have serious ramifications for retailers, especially the ones that draw heavily from used game sales. How long before the new DLC reality spooks GameStop investors?
  • Thus far, a weak library of third party titles has been the most legitimate gripe consistently lobbed at the Wii – and rightfully so. The Little White Wonder’s seen way too many shoddy ports of last-gen games and minigame collections for its own good. WiiWare has the potential to reverse the trend. With quality titles available for a fraction of typical retail prices, how long can the market last for shovelware at retail prices?

As I write this, the questionable Summer Sports is $40 at GameStop, while $10 on WiiWare will get you Lost Winds, a gem of a game whose novel platforming and gentle, innocent storytelling reminded yours truly of the hauntingly beautiful Ico. Seriously. I rest my case.

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Take a deep breath – this post isn’t *entirely* about the EA/Take 2 offer. If you actually have been living under a rock for the last week (and Liquid Architecture would never discriminate against subter-mineral dwelling Americans), Steve Totilo at MTV’s Multiplayer blog has a good digest, and Nick Wingfield put together a very thorough run-down as soon as the news broke.EATake2

As far as day-of coverage goes, I was a bit surprised to see the New York Times piece, coauthored by the almost-always-stellar Seth Schiesel and Captain Dealbook Andrew Ross Sorkin, identify Take 2 as a “mercurial one-hit wonder.” That HAD to be a Sorkin contribution , ’cause Seth has at least heard of Bioshock, the Sid Meier’s series, 2K Baseball and other non-GTA, non-Rockstar Take 2 games.

I can understand why mainstream media latched onto EA’s offer so readily – it’s a genuinely big story, even though no deal is complete… yet. EA’s a superpower, and GTA is definitely a super-franchise. Besides, it’s an M&A story with quite a bit of money at stake, and every business reader can make sense of that, even if they couldn’t pick Mario out of a lineup.

jellycarThe downside is, coverage of the not-quite-deal sucked all the air out of the room for the more important news, in my opinion: EA’s Blueprint division announcement. Blueprint shows a commitment to lo-fi, indie-developed games from one of the world’s biggest publishers. Combined with announcements from Nintendo and Microsoft at GDC regarding snack-size game delivery channels (WiiWare and Xbox Live Community Games, respectively), low cost games from garage band developers are a bona fide industry trend.
Unlike the EA/Take 2 business, this is real big news that WILL impact the industry immediately. I’m excited to see what this new batch of developers brings to the table, and how bigger developers augment their retail products to keep our interest. As the Escapist pointed out, easier access to development can’t be a bad thing.

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Pop Rocks


Of course, about a minute after I finished last week’s post on Gabe Newell, the always fantastic N’Gai Croal posted a chat with Dave Jaffe over at his Newsweek blog, Level Up.

Much like Newell, Dave Jaffe’s no stranger to controversy, and almost always gives us something substantial to think about. He’s put together a resume of AAA titles, from Mickey Mania starring Mickey Mouse (all I can say is, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) through God of War.

TM2I recall seeing an interview with him promoting Twisted Metal 2 when I was in high school, and he made such a clear, succinct point about design philosophy: “It’s not all about the technology. A good game designer should be able to take a coconut and a crayon and turn it into something that’s fun to play.” I’m sure I’ve heavily paraphrased here, but it still rings true.

Jaffe had some big, big hits during a critical period in the first PlayStation’s march to dominance. Nintendo 64 had launched with a library that certainly had some gaps, and his instant hits like Twisted Metal and the Jet Moto series made people take another look at the then-floundering PlayStation. These series helped Sony find its audience. They were edgy, reasonably violent, fast-paced and even a little bit dark. N64’s cartridges couldn’t handle games like these, and Nintendo probably wouldn’t welcome Twisted Metal even if it were technically possible. Sony’s older audience lapped it up.

Given their history, it’s no suprise that Dave’s new company, Eat Sleep Play, will distribute their games via Sony’s PlayStation Network. What IS surprising is that the man that gave us God of War will eschew the long-form epic game for bite-sized “pop” games that appeal more to the casual gamer. They’ll all have lower price points (around $10), focus on multiplayer over long, solo campaigns and have dramatically shorter development cycles.

Predictably, Dave’s decision to go after low-involvement games, rather than tent pole the studio with a new IP and epic series drew some scorn in forums. Then again, what doesn’t? The most vocal minority of gamers would rather see guys like Jaffe and Tim Shaefer put out more of the massive hits that we’ve come to expect from them every few years.

Much like in-game advertising (much more on this to come in future posts), I think the brilliance of the casual games economy is left tragically unexplained when it comes to hardcore gamers. They’d rather see Nintendo bundle the Wii with Metroid Prime than Wii Sports, and every 360 include Bioshock over more middle-of-the-road fare like a Project Gotham. No one’s done a good job of articulating to the 30-plus-hours-a-week, 20-pieces-of-software-a-year guys how they benefit from the big players’ efforts to go more casual.

KatamariIt’s fairly simple math: games like Wii Sports and Madden move systems. They help justify a $400 hardware purchase to a soccer mom or ex-jock executive that only purchases a handful of games a year. And the more hardware that’s out there, the easier it is to take a risk on a deeper game like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, or even an off-the-wall game like Katamari. Because once the installed base is high enough, the sales expectations for every game on that system increase, within reason.

Maybe Dave Jaffe will finally get it to sink in. Or perhaps Xbox Live Arcade has paved the way for a greater acceptance of mini-games overall. Either way, here’s hoping some ad wizards can get on this, and help the entire industry capitalize on a very ripe growth opportunity.

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