Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Archive for March, 2008

So I'm an idiot.

Okay, whoops.

SEGA was at the event. Although it was only with a few titles, and the one that would have been cool was very broken. It was a dinosaur hunter game, which you used a touch screen at the center console to navigate your character around and then used a decently hefty shotgun light-gun to aim and shoot weak points on every kind of dinosaur you could imagine on a huge screen in front of both players.

You could change weapons, and even pull out an RPG on a poor dino and blast away. At the end of each board, they’d tally up the dinos you just blew back into the stone age. It was kinda sad.

One kid would blast away the dinos with total glee, shouting and constantly firing and cocking the shotgun over and over, in that kind of kid sugar-high aren’t-the-lights-so-pretty-wow-I’m-amazing state that kids can get into.  Between rounds he’d kiss the gun and then get that embarrassed smile like a girl had just kissed him and he didn’t know how to react. It was… weird. I think that 12 year old kid has likely seen Full Metal Jacket already.

The guns on the machines were so out of calibration that I’d aim at the center of the screen and hit the top instead. Our games were quickly over because we simply couldn’t get a shot to go where we wanted it to. We just put the controllers down and walked away, saddened.

And you know who had the most accurate guns? The America’s Army game and the Paradise Lost one they did, which reminds me of Operation Wolf back in the day. Unreal powered both of them. Interesting again to see console and PC game tech being used in arcades in yet another way.

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The circle is complete…

So myself and Driph went to the Arcade amusement show here in Vegas yesterday. Aside from a few racing games and a nice Indiana Jones pin, it was mostly amusement stuff you’d find in Chuck-e-Cheese or the like. There were also a few sad realizations that we saw as we walked around that disappointed me, especially from a design point of view.

First up, one interesting trend is that several of the arcade games were ports of console games — racing and flight games. So now you’re paying quarters (and multiple judging by the size of these sit-down cabinets) to play the same game you can go home and play on your 360.

Wow.

Arcades were essentially killed by consoles, and now we’ve got console games bleeding back into that space and propping up the arcades that they killed in the first place. Interesting.

I realize that most arcades exist to take kids’ allowance, and nowadays the crane games and other games of “chance” are much cheaper and quicker to manufacture than designing a video game or a pinball for that same purpose, but it’s still disappointing to only see Stern turn out for the pins, and the Japanese no where to be found. SEGA and Capcom were distinctly absent, which was sad.

Of course, I’m only sad because I wanted to get my hands on Street Fighter IV.

So the other sad thing was seeing pinball, one of my all-time most impressive things to design, being trod upon. I can’t imagine the amount of engineering and design that goes into making a good pinball game. There’s more physics than I ever could handle in every curve, slope, and angle in those games. I can understand that creating a pinball game likely takes a good amount of time and effort, and since all the tables are unique to that pin, there’s a big risk in not making back your money on that specific table.

Oh, until now, that is.

STERN had the brilliant idea to take the same board — same layout, same light locations, same ramps, same mechanical workings, flipper arrangements, and mini-game — and re-skin it as two different machines, “Shrek” and “Family Guy”. All the components are identical in both, with the audio, figures, and shot names changed. However having both machines next to each other made me sigh. Driph and I were enjoying a game on the Family Guy one, and then while he was playing a ball, I simply meandered over and saw… the same pin with different skinning. I didn’t finish the game of Family Guy after that. It kinda sucked at my soul a bit.

It’s a sign of the times more than anything else. When I was a young arcade kid, I thought pinball was stupid — something that the stoned older kids would waste their time with because they were too high to play a game that required “skill”. It was only when I got older that I could appreciate that there was a game behind the flippers and ball, typically one that was much more nuanced than a lot of those quarter-eaters that I would play instead. Considering that pinball is all but nonexistant on consoles, I bet kids today wouldn’t have the patience for it either, nor understand how cool they can be.

Generational? Nah, more like a barrier to entry. “You must pay this much attention to what you’re doing before you get how cool this is”.

On STERN’s site you can find out it takes a year from prototype to production of a pin, so with that much time wrapped up in one, it’s no wonder. I guess the Shrek license was announced in January, so wow — fast turnaround on that one!

The Indiana Jones pin appeared to have a unique board, and was a lot of fun. The 8-player multi-ball was a blast… until I broke the game during it… whoops.

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Did Geometry Wars hurt LIVE as much as it helped it?

I really enjoy Geometry Wars, although my Robotron skills (i.e. dual stick shooter) are much diminished these days from what they used to be. We had some fierce competitions at EALA when it was in Brentwood on the Ultracade machine there. Whomever was competing from the EA side would make all kinds of creative entries for the high score like “Westwood SUX” and such. Ah yes, fun. =P

I find it a bit hard to believe that the creator of Geometry Wars had never played Robotron, as he mentioned when asked in an early interview after Retro Evolved hit LIVE. Oh come on, really? I could understand if you’d not played Crazy Climber, Rock n’ Rope, Cloak & Dagger, or a host of other semi-niche arcade games… but not playing or having seen someone playing Robotron is like not having played Pac Man or Space Invaders. Sure, I’m dating myself, but having historical knowledge of classic games is what allows you to make better ones nowadays instead of making similar games over and over again — even though they can certainly be fun.

Let’s dive into that for a bit.

So Geometry Wars was one of the best games LIVE had to offer on release… well OK it was the best. It’s fun, fast, competitive, and aside from stages vs. a free-flowing structure, almost identical to Robotron in gameplay mechanics. You move and shoot, and different things with different types of mannerisms attempt to kill you.

I think it would be safe to say that GW caused the industry to collectively say “ooh! Retro can be profitable!” and start cranking out straight ports of retro games, “re-imagined” games that are suspiciously similar to retro games, and a host of quick smaller games, many of which rip off larger games from the DS or PSP that didn’t make their way fast enough to the service. It’s become a “reto renaissance” in some ways, but this renaissance made developers think one thing, while publishers see something completely different.

Monetarily, I know some people did well off of retro download games, but did it advance the console downloadable game industry, or set it back? We went from fairly advanced PC and Console titles to… Rally-X and Frogger 2 : This time it’s personal! And not only did we get titles like this, we got great games that no one had a clue how to handle in this day and age. No on-line multiplayer? In CYBERBALL?! One of the best competitive pre-Street Fighter arcade games ever? Are you daft?! No, more likely the person that made that decision wasn’t old enough to have played the game in an arcade in the first place.

Or, better yet, perhaps it was the “play it safe and then we’ll see” plan from the publisher. In this scenario, an on the cheap version is released in the “original” form to test the waters and see how sales do. If it sells well enough, they can justify a larger budget to “do it right”. Of course, the original game is so dated that it doesn’t sell and they don’t make the game they should have made… which of course is the one they should have made in the first place.

Sorry, I’m ranting at whomever’s decision that was, because it was a dumb one. The problem here is that there’s a minimum standard now for having a quality on-line game. You can’t go under that any longer, yet some people still try.

I have to agree with the N+ developers that LIVE is suffering from a glut of not-great titles, burying the gems in a sea of mediocrity. Again, I’m dating myself here, but something very similar happened back in the 70s with Atari and the 2600. They had zero quality control on their titles, and allowed anyone to put any kind of “game” onto the system that they wanted. I put game in quotes because there’s no way that many of the titles even qualified as real games. Sure, Atari made some money, but eventually there was so much crap out in stores that no one could tell which games were worth buying and which were not, so everyone stopped buying them all together. I’m seeing a similar trend with LIVE, and it’s bothersome, because it’s a great service with some really good titles on it, but the majority of them are not worthy of being on the service in the first place.

So here’s some helpful hints for people that are thinking of “re-imagining” classic games onto these services:

  1. If the game was able to be played by more than one person in the arcade, it damn well better be playable over the internet as well as on the couch in the new version.
  2. If the game can add cooperative play in some fashion even if it didn’t have it before, add it.
  3. Play the original game for more than 15 minutes. If it’s multiplayer, play it with other people in the same room because arcades had a social element that you can’t recapture easily with today’s on-line unless you understand what was exciting about the game in the first place. MAME doesn’t get you there unless you’ve got a cabinet for it. Try an Ultracade instead.
  4. #3 will help you to get to this one as well, which is simply to understand what makes the game unique. Let’s take BattleZone for example. This entire game is about shooting enemies and not being shot. Aiming and timing was critical, especially in higher stages. Using cover was also critical. So when you go to “re-imagine” it, making your tank’s shot fly in a spiral with pixie dust particles flying from it in a rainbow of colors (or was that flavors?) which render it impossible to gauge if you were on target or not is a bad idea. You broke the game’s core mechanic, bravo! I can no longer sneak shots past obstacles because my shot will move into them on its own. Yay another broken windshield for me! You have any idea how much those cost on a tank?!
  5. Don’t take the “port and then improve” route. Most download developers aren’t charging an arm and a leg for their services. For publishers out there, throw them a bone and let them do the game right the first time. I realize that the returns publishers are expecting for download games are decreasing… but perhaps that’s because you’ve been doing these on the cheap for too long? Hmm….
  6. If there’s someone at your company saying that just porting the game alone is enough, and you don’t need any new features like multiplayer internet or cooperative play, nod in understanding and then fire them.
  7. For the platform providers, kill the bad ideas. Just because you have a relationship with a publisher >cough< Sierra >cough< don’t allow them to just shovel games onto your system. For every gem they put out, 4 other mediocre ones clog the system up and make all of us less likely to download any games you offer.
  8. Just because one type of game sold well, doesn’t mean 20 more of that same type of game will. How many tile matching games do we need? At least Puzzle Quest added to the formula rather than just re-hashed it. Bunnies, Hexes, Mystical orbs — yeah OK they’re all colored and they go away when I put them in a pattern. Can we move on now?
  9. And a corollary to #8 — just because a bad game of one type failed, doesn’t mean that another one of quality will not. Consumers aren’t stupid — they know quality vs. non-quality in a matter of minutes. Killing a game idea based on genre alone is a bad idea.

So I’ve likely passed the TLDR barrier a while ago, so I’ll just end this here. Maybe I’ll add to this and update it at a later time.

One consolation is that some developers are getting it right when taking an old game to download service. Bravo for that gents, you’ve already got my MS points. If I could pre-order a downloadable game, I would on that one.

Wait, scratch that. The last thing I want is for online to turn into Gamestop. =P

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Things I've learned from Lost Odyssey (disc 1)

I just finished Disc 1 of Lost Odyssey, and wanted to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned so far:

  1. This is one of the saddest games you can currently play. It’s steeped in misery, since it deals with an immortal that watches 1000 years of humanity pass before him. My wife cried during one of the cinematic scenes, and I was right there with her. In some ways, it reminds me of Battlestar Galactica, in that characters just don’t get off easy — ever. If you think that things can’t get any more morose, just play for 20 more minutes.
  2. When you load the game up, expect it to crash on a transition after about 10-20 minutes of play. It’ll hard lock your machine completely — not even a “disc can not be read” message. Reboot and then you can enjoy without any further crashes that session. Just accept that this will happen.
  3. You will lose most of the boss encounters at least once, unless you pay close attention to…
  4. Elemental Counters are important. In most JRPGs, the counters are pretty obvious — light / dark, fire / water, air / earth… and they’re usually more for min/maxxers. Yeah well not so in this game. Let me just help you out here right now — Fire beats Wind (huh?), Wind beats Earth (huh?!), Earth beats Water (Earth! The quicker picker-upper!), and Water actually beats Fire… the only one that makes sense. It’s very 5th Element don’t you think? I’m waiting for the love element to show up and conquer all… which given where I think the game is heading, may very well be the finale.
  5. You will also lose boss encounters because this game requires pre-knowledge of the boss fight in order to prepare for it. You can’t equip in combat, so you can’t change your ring configurations, which give your characters elemental bonuses and such, which make a substantial difference. You want to hit the monster for 10 damage, or 120 per turn?. Sucks to be you if you have the bosses’ own element equipped on one of your fighters….
  6. (spoiler) At one point in the game, one of your characters is blocking you from fighting a boss monster. DON’T ATTACK FOR THAT ROUND. The important piece of dialogue you need to hear comes AFTER your current turn. Of course, slash-happy Adam went and told everyone to attack, figuring they wouldn’t let me… yeah well they do and it’s a quick way to a GAME OVER screen.

I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised that at least the boss encounters require some thinking. You can’t really slash your way through them, and even some of the normal encounters require thought more than just attack, attack, attack. Likely this is because save points don’t restore your mana / health (unless you’re reloading from the machine being turned off — an interesting twist) and the potions you can buy for the first disc are crap.

I’m also fascinated in how leveling is very tightly controlled. You can easily level in a few fights to the level the game deems is appropriate for any area, and then leveling slows way down. Even then, I found I had to run around in circles for a while in order to gain a few additional levels (in order to get parts for some specific rings) in order to beat the first boss.

So at the close of Disc 1, so far it’s pretty good. The game gets much better once you have a party of more than 3 characters, simply because you can divide monster attention and you have more than one healer, which makes quite a difference in combat.

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Reboot in progress…

Stay tuned… it’s going to be basic at first until I get a hang of WP’s features.  Pardon the frilly stuff, but I’ve not yet dived into customizing the themes.  That’ll come next.

Feel free to sign up so you can comment. I think I finally got that sussed out. =P

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