Posts Tagged ‘video games’

As you can probably imagine, I played plenty of videogames growing up. Luckily, my family not only tolerated the hobby, but even got into gaming a little bit over the years. Mom still plays a mean game of Tetris, and my sister was the first person I knew to beat Super Mario Brothers 2.Wii Family

With all the downtime around the holidays, it’s only natural that we play a lot of multiplayer games when the whole family gets together. Last year, a still-functional Super Nintendo, Super Mario All-Stars, and a lot of time on our hands made for a holiday filled with some of the most intense Super Mario action this side of The Wizard.

This year, I brought along the Wii for some Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports. The DS Lite came along as well, and we got to take advantage of the superb download-and-share feature in New Super Mario Brothers. Almost as an afterthought, I brought along Settlers of Catan.

SettlersYou’ve already read the title of this post, so you can probably guess which game we got the most play out of. I was pleasantly surprised to spend so much time with a non-video game over the holidays.

Settlers, like other European designer board games, is exquisitely balanced and relatively easy to learn. Out of the 4 games we played during Christmas, we had 4 different winners, and each one capitalized on a different strategy. The more relaxed, turn-based play of a board game fits well in a family setting, and was a nice break from faster-paced games of Bomberman and Mario 3 on the Wii’s Virtual Console.

There’s a real lesson here for videogame designers, particularly those pushing hard to attract casual gamers (and who isn’t these days?) The RULES in a game like Settlers or Puerto Rico are complex, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. A well-designed game, in any format, has plenty of rules that apply just the right amount of pressure on players. To hold our interest, a game needs to be hard enough to remain challenging throughout a new player’s learning curve (so we don’t feel like an adult playing Candy Land with children), but not dauntingly difficult (so we don’t feel like that guy doing the enormous crossword puzzle in the SkyMall catalog, or anyone that ever played Super Ghouls and Ghosts).

Along with those complex rules, however, are very simple CONTROLS. Obviously, that terminology stretches a little when we’re talking about board games vs. video games, but in either case, the range of player inputs shouldn’t feel like you’re learning a second language. Settlers offers a few actions for each player to use on each turn (trade, purchase, roll) and the entire game neatly fits within that framework. By contrast, every second of a game of Halo presents the player with an astounding number of choices, so the barrier for entry is significantly higher for rookie players.

The brilliance of a game like Settlers is it marries the rules and controls that govern the game to a fairly simple storyline, so each player’s role makes sense in the loose “story” that’s unfolding on the board. Further, the story makes all of Settlers’ rules easier to grasp, and easier to see how the individual player decisions affect the game.

As stories in games get more and more sophisticated, control schemes and rules shouldn’t have to. Epic found an elegant compromise with their context-sensitive, all-purpose action button in Gears of War, and it looks like Metal Gear Solid 4 will boast a simplified control scheme that remaps action buttons based on circumstances. Mario Galaxy introduced a ton of new rules, with different gravity on quite a few of the planets in each level, and I never felt like it snuck up on me, or was a cheap way to up the difficulty in some stages.Mario Galaxy gravity

Hopefully the new generation of game developers hasn’t entirely forgotten gaming’s roots and plays a new board game once in a while. After all, there are only so many original Nintendo and Commodore 64 games that a developer can draw inspiration from.

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E3 2005The Escapist, essential reading every week, posted a great article on this week on the state of game industry conventions, post-E3.

As an E3 veteran, I can see why the ESA pulled the plug on the show. Those cavernous booths that EA, Microsoft and Sony put together year after year had to be crazy expensive (in case you missed it, these things were huge – I hope someone’s planning a memorial to the brave young men that got lost and starved to death in Sony’s E3 2004 space). Also, there’s no way to track all the expenses for invite-only dinners, private parties, bands, and staff per diem back to actual game sales. The fact is, this media-and-industry-only show reached critical mass right around the timeany fan could become a journalist with a blog like this one.E3 2006

On the other hand, E3 was a blast! And more importantly, it was a one-stop show for face time with the gaming press, retail purchasing directors and developers. Out of the bumper crop of replacement shows to surface since the end of E3 (as we know it), I’ll be interested to see which ones actually stick around for a second year. IDG World Expo’s E for All had a rough opening this year, but if anyone can right the ship, it’s the people that gave us MacWorld and, well, the original E3.

DLBy all accounts, the Penny Arcade Expo is a stellar time for fans, and it just keeps getting bigger. Multipurpose shows like the Wizard World comic conventions and Digital Life have done a decent job with fan service as well. They don’t, however, seem to have any solution on the table to replace the business functions of E3, like formal retailer meetings or press tours with specific company booths.

The Big 3, and a few huge publishers like EA have supplemented their stops at the open-admission fan shows with their own invite-only press days, usually at their offices, under their control. Honestly, it works great, and I’m sure the whole thing can be done for a fraction of their staff mini-bar expenses in LA during E3 week in previous years. I’ll be interested to see if the Game Developers’ Conference, the reorganized “Min-E3” invite-only show, or a new event entirely meets the critical business needs that have gone unserved since The Big Show went away.

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