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8:51 PM on 04.02.2015

Personality from Pixels: Kirby's Adventure

In any visual medium, the artist strives to convey more information about the story and its characters through "showing," as opposed to "telling." With the amount of technical wizardry that modern developers have at their disposal to convey personalities and emotions, how could games of the 8-bit era ever have offered anything approaching relatability?

Truthfully, many NES games relegated their stories and characters to the pages of their instruction manuals. Yet some developers managed to transcend the technical constraints of the console to create characters that truly felt alive.

Kirby's Adventure not only established the character and personality of Kirby, but also informed the aesthetic of the series for decades to come. It truly stands as an example of the potential of creativity to overcome, and even benefit from, limitations.


1:22 PM on 03.12.2015

Difficulty Done Right: Why is it fun to fail?

Difficulty may be impossible to quantify outside the context of a specific game or genre, yet the delicate balance that developers must strike with player input is essential to ensure that the game is more fun than frustration.

In this video, I take a stab at defining difficulty and attempt to identify how Dark Souls did well in achieving a sense of fairness.


10:32 PM on 05.10.2012

Kickstart to Lightspeed – An FTL Interview

In February, Double Fine Productions made international headlines for their successful utilization of Kickstarter to crowd-fund their upcoming game Double Fine Adventure. In the months since, many other independent videogame studios have attempted to generate funding for their projects in the same way. Many have succeeded, and a few have emulated the overwhelming reaction that Double Fine produced. One such work-in-progress is Faster Than Light, which raised 2000% of its fundraising goal. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the project with Matthew Davis of FTL’s two-man development team.

Faster Than Light (FTL) is a game that is inherently difficult to define. The official website describes it as ‘a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like,’ utilizing genre classifications that are unfamiliar to most (roguelike refers primarily to level randomization and permanent player death). Despite this somewhat ambiguous definition, many followers of the independent games scene have flocked to support this title.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun describes FTL as “the Star Trek Game I’ve Always Wanted.” Yet Star Trek isn’t the only property that science-fiction fans have identified with this game – many have claimed this to be the Firefly of indie games, and those who have played Weird Worlds and other games involving space exploration – particularly those from the 1990s – have found a lot to get excited about.

Interestingly, despite these comparisons to existing space strategy videogames, Matthew Davis shared that much of the initial gameplay design was inspired primarily by tabletop games and non-strategy videogames, particularly the Battlestar Galactica board game:

Matthew Davis: Looking at our game, you can quickly see how the static view and discrete room design of the ships are more reminiscent of board games than modern computer games. Elements of the 90's games I grew up with definitely found their way into the game as well. For example, I missed power management from games like X-Wing, which had you constantly shifting power between your engines/shields/weapons depending on the situation.

Power management is a significant gameplay factor in FTL, though it is utilized in a different way than in LucasArts’ X-Wing. As captain of a single starship, players will be tasked with managing their crews and material resources as they jump (faster than light) from one solar system to another, never knowing if the destination is host to friends or foes – all while the rebels, the game’s antagonists, continuously encroach on Federation space.

Matthew Davis left 2K Games’ Shanghai studio in early 2011, and he initially spent the following period biking through China. When he returned he began working on the project that would become FTL, and shortly afterwards he was joined by his former co-worker Justin Ma. Supporting themselves with the money they had saved, they set to work, adopting a design strategy that allowed them to develop the core of the game without comprehensive art assets:

Matthew Davis: Being small and independent allowed us to be extremely agile in our design. For the first six months, we were unsure what the final product would be like and we relied heavily on trial and error. During this period, art was kept to a bare minimum (mostly just squares for the rooms, and circles for the crew or asteroids), and we were able to quickly shift and tune the gameplay to find something that would be "fun." It wasn't until August of 2011, shortly before the China IGF, that the gameplay and art you see today was finally starting to solidify. I think it's easy to get bogged down in all the various elements of games (art/sound/story/etc.), and it really worked for us to just focus on the core game design before worrying about the rest.

The strength on display here is the utilization of two-dimensional graphics and text-based storytelling. While large developers must often fill every scene with special effects and design elements that entail multi-million dollar budgets, Matthew and Justin are able to create larger degrees of variation between the scenarios players will experience given that they are presented primarily through text and relatively simple graphics. While this game may not appeal to the mainstream, there are many gamers who feel that large development budgets and cutting-edge graphics often disallow the kind of engaging gameplay and customization that is present in FTL – these are the individuals who funded FTL’s Kickstarter.

From the China Independent Games Festival, FTL began to gain attention from both videogame news outlets and industry peers. An article in P.C. Gamer gave the game a significant amount of exposure, and when Justin and Matthew showcased their game at San Francisco’s IGF earlier this year, they struck a deal with OnLive – an online game distributor that specializes in streaming content – to host a demo as part of OnLive’s Indie Showcase. At the same time, money was getting tight for the development team. Their sound/music engineer Ben Prunty had thus far completed his work without pay, and the team knew that they would need to pay publishing fees (and a lawyer) before their fledgling studio would be able to distribute FTL come August.

The development team determined that $10,000 would be enough to meet their financial obligations and allow them to deliver the finished product by August. Aware of the success that Double Fine and others had experienced, they turned to Kickstarter. With a successful demo build from the OnLive promotion, they were able to provide potential funders a good look at the game in action and detail many of their game’s selling points – exploration, randomization, and setting.

Within the first day of their Kickstarter’s launch on April 1, their funding goal was surpassed. But the money kept coming, and word started spreading to those who had not yet heard about FTL. The flow of funding accelerated, and by the end of their campaign, 9,818 backers had pledged $200,542.

One of the challenges that crowd-funding success creates is allocation. When a project receives 2000% of its funding goal, funders usually expect some expansion of the project itself. For their part, Justin and Matthew intend to hire additional writers and programmers, and to expand the music order. Yet it’s not as easy as throwing money at the project:

Matthew Davis: It's difficult to balance staying on schedule and expanding the game. Initially, we're just focusing on succeeding in our original goals for FTL. But we hope to be able to expand our original soundtrack/sound design as well as flesh out other sections of the game where possible with additional contractors. The extra funds will definitely allow us to continue working past the initial release of FTL to continue adding any features that we've needed to cut because of time constraints. FTL can be taken in a lot of new directions and expanded nearly infinitely, so we're excited to be able to explore that in the future.

The team remains committed to their original release schedule, so you can expect to see Faster Than Light available on Steam and other digital distribution platforms this August.   read

9:43 AM on 04.09.2012

Upcoming interview with FTL dev team: Submit your ?'s

Later this week I'll be interviewing the Shanghai-based, two man development studio behind the upcoming FTL: Faster Than Light space strategy game.

If you're not already familiar with FTL, you'll likely be familiar with the recent trend of Kickstarting in the games industry. FTL is one of the many indie games to take advantage of crowd funding, but they are one of the few to exceed their goal by a significant amount - in this case, by 2000%! The FTL Kickstart raised $200,000 of their $10,000 goal. Not bad for a team of two working on a labor of love!

As a fan of old-school space-themed strategy games like X-COM and Star Control, I'm really excited for FTL, and so I couldn't pass up the chance to interview Justin Ma and Matthew Davis. These guys both worked for larger studios' Shanghai subsidiaries previously but have taken the last year to focus on FTL. I have a ton of questions for them, but I'd also like to bring in some questions from the Dtoid community. If any other readers are interested in indie game development, the games industry as outsourced in China, or would like to know more about the game itself or about the development team, please ask in the comments!

You can find out more about their game here:   read

4:47 AM on 11.27.2011

Being the nice bad guy - SW:TOR beta weekend impressions

I played the SWTOR beta all day Saturday. Given that the confidentiality clause has been lifted with this latest beta weekend, I figured I'd share my impressions regarding the story/conversation system because maybe writing them down might help me to decide whether I'll buy the game myself.

Chiefly, I'm impressed - this game definitely does a terrific job of tying KOTOR-style decision-making and story-telling into an MMO, which remains one of Bioware's primary selling points. Even when in a group, you can make decisions that alter the outcome of the mission or quest. Most of these outcomes are contained within the immediate conversation, but nevertheless they do much to make the player feel like a unique character in the game world rather than just another hero destined to slay 30 womp rats.

For example, I did a Flashpoint (dungeon) run with one other person after finishing the introductory planet. As it began, rather than buffing up and meeting the first mobs just inside the first hallway, we were instead welcomed aboard a luxury ship making the transit to the Empire homeworld (apparently those flying first-class do so through hostile). The second-mate realized my partner was Sith and kowtowed, telling her 'what an honor' it was to have someone from the Academy of Korriban aboard. I, being an agent of Imperial Intelligence and with no love of the Sith's sadistic ways, chastised her for doing such.

The multiplayer conversation system is basically a dice roll to decide who says what they want to say after each player has chosen their desired response. This determines how the conversation progresses, but each player gets the appropriate light/dark side points for their decision. In practice, it can lead to some entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential conflicts of interest: After receiving an encrypted message from the Grand Moff ordering us to seize control of the ship in order to intercept a Republic cruiser, we confronted the Captain. My Sith counterpart wanted to simply strike them down, but I spoke first and convinced them to cooperate (my companion wasn't happy with my decision either).

My view of my character evolved naturally given the fully voiced dialogues and options for realistic light/dark decisions. A light-side Jedi Knight or a dark-side Sith Warrior is relatively self-explanatory, and I imagine few players would deviate from those paths, yet I chose a different route. A light-side Empire character would seem odd until you view it as I did for my character: He has loyalty to the Empire and its citizens and an underlying distrust and dislike of the Sith. This meant I often acted with mercy or compassion in my dealings - though oftentimes 'mercy' meant killing someone quickly as opposed to torturing them.

It's notable that the dialogue system is in place for every quest on every world, too, though most don't involve as much variability as the Flashpoints besides often being able to kill a quest-giver rather than let them go. The quest lines are varied enough - the few quests that asked you to kill X amount of bad guys were usually auxiliary to the story-driven quests - you could skip them, but you'd miss out on a fair chunk of XP. In regards to the stories within single questlines, you know what to expect if you've played Dragon Age and KOTOR. People with problems and slight twists here and there when secondary characters are introduced.

The system to encourage grouping in otherwise soloable areas is interesting - you earn 'Social' points whenever you have a multiplayer conversation. In return, you can use those Social points to buy items that serve a fun or... social purpose, such as dress clothes or fireworks. The tradeoff is the now-and-then lack of control over the story, as exemplified in my Flashpoint example, but in the end most small quests would come to the same conclusion anyway. It's worth noting that it's especially rewarding to group in this way as a single group member can turn in a quest and save others time, as the others can 'holocall' in to join in the conversation, and thus complete the quest, while they're off doing something else. Bioware has even put in the effort to modify these conversations to consider whether you're a hologram or not (you can't physically intimidate an NPC if you're actually miles away).

Overall, the game is in stable condition, with a few bugs here and there, but nothing that stopped me from trying/enjoying everything I wanted. The companion system is neat - you can send companions to craft items and get materials in addition to selling your 'grey' items if you don't need them at your side in a fight. The PvP was a little poor, especially for me since my class relied heavily on the cover system, which didn't work well in the arenas. Lots of balance issues, perhaps, but overall it was impressive for being a month from release, and given the magnitude of this beta weekend I'm guessing they'll probably have a smooth launch. Maybe I'll pick it up a few months in, depending on what people have to say about the late-game experience.   read

4:14 PM on 08.10.2011

Chinajoy - China. Joy. 2011

You read correctly - Chinajoy 2011, bud, it's what E3 could have been if it had stood up for itself when all the sissies started complaining about the booth babes stealing the show a few years back. Granted, I've never been to E3. But Chinajoy is pretty much E3 + Evo + San Diego Comic Con and is reserved only for the coolest people in town. Naturally, I received an exclusive invite, and I was oh-so-pleased to attend.

See, China has got its shit together; it ain't about the games, technology, or creative innovation, it's about this:

Sure, you'll have some nerds dressed as wizards and jokers competing in Starcraft II or League of Legends -

- but that's all secondary to the booth babes. Honestly, I was hard-pressed to find representatives that weren't booth babes, besides those working for American developer Red 5 Studios, which is comprised of former Blizzard employees who worked on World of Warcraft and think they know something about launching a successful persistent world in Asia:

See, this is something that the games industry in the West doesn't get - there's a positive correlation between the positive previews of your cookie-cutter MMO and the number of girls that wear your logo and pose for pictures at Chinajoy:

Sure, you could argue that the Electronic Entertainment Expo couldn't possibly compete with a convention that brings together the industry's top talent and the world's best cosplayers:

But even so, everything else is so far behind Chinajoy, it's embarrassing. In every aspect. Electronic Arts get it. They had girls AND cars:

As any industry veteran knows, avoiding addressing the actual aspects of your project is what really counts, right? Good thing they stuck all the local indie studios and their unique ideas in an unreachable back corner.   read

9:17 AM on 07.18.2011

Blizzard theme park 'Joyland' EXPOSED

You may recall reading about a certain theme park here on Destructoid in months previous. Several gaming-related sites carried stories relating the apparent effort of CCJoy, a large, online game developer in China, to open an amusement park based largely on Blizzard's mega-hit series, Starcraft and Warcraft, but details were scarcely available to those who could not translate the official website. Without the consent of Activision Blizzard, the park owners weathered several delays and opened the park in early May of this year.

I am unaware of the measures Blizzard has taken against CCJoy, if any, but I am not surprised that they've been unable to prevent the opening. The government of Changzhou, the host city, has high hopes for this park, and Blizzard's only formal presence in China is in the form of a joint venture/licensing deal with a Chinese company.

As an expatriate living in Shanghai, I was in a good position to check this place out - and I admit, I had wanted to go since I first heard rumors of its construction. The idea of building an amusement park around the World of Warcraft IP intrigued me - I was a on-and-off subscriber until 2008, but I still find the characters and setting to be rather memorable. As an aspiring game designer, I'm also very interested in China's game industry - particularly in it's tendency to stoop into the grey areas of 山寨 (counterfeiting). A few other blogs have already carried coverage of the place, but yesterday I finally made the trip with my brother and recorded what I saw.

We were not prepared. We were not well-equipped... for this instance... sorry, I'll keep the puns to a minimum.

The level of copyright-infringement on display here really took me by surprise - and, personally owning several devices that are Apple in appearance only, I'm no stranger to blatant cloning. On Taobao street (imagine naming Main Street, U.S.A. ' Avenue'), there are Warner Brothers, Transformers, Coca-cola, and Disney stores selling their respective products. Although park operators have attested that these products are legitimate, I can attest with relative certainty that they are not. I believe that the only permissions CCJoy received, or even sought (considering their company overview webpage features stolen Ubisoft concept art), were from the Chinese-owned manufacturers of the products in question. After all, it's not uncommon for Chinese manufacturers to produce a few extra goods for 'alternative business opportunities.'

Mickey Mouse wasn't the only thing to remind me of Disneyland. As I made my way towards the Warcraft-themed zone, I quickly realized that the park is laid out in much the same way Disneyland is - several themed sections surrounding a lake, with a shopping street and a 'magical castle' along a vertical axis.

Terrain of Warcraft

The Warcraft area is certainly the main draw of the park in terms of characters and setting. There are imposing statues at the main gate and along the as-of-yet-unfinished Holy Mountain that take heavy inspiration from the series. The Warcraft zone itself has more statues - some better than others. I liked the naga and Kael'thas statues, but the draenai statue looked more like a hoofed dwarf who had fallen into a vat of blue cleaning solution.

In addition to uninteresting stores, there are a few attractions. Most were closed, save for the log ride, which is entitled 'Splash of Monster Blood' and features a duo of Arthas' that seem to be missing their Frostmournes. I was a 'coward and loser', so I didn't 'bring back peace with my sword' as the ride description urged.

The attendants for the attractions and the Warcraft-themed restaurant (too expensive for my tastes) wear silly leopard-print leotards:

I saw a few workers in cheap costumes, including some goblins and more Arthas' (I think they were Arthas'). They seemed rather miserable, and when I took a closer look just under the mask, I realized...

They were children! The park is using CHILD LABOR! It was a hot day, too... making this fact even more depressing. Luckily, most of the performers and characters disappeared as the day progressed.

True to style, CCJoy was also employing young Chinese girls and dressing them in skimpy outfits, though they too seemed to be avoiding the heat, as they passed by but once. I couldn't exactly tell what they were doing, but it seemed that tribals and dryads had captured a night-elf and were transporting her somewhere - the other visitors and I gathered around in anticipation of a show, but we were left scratching our heads as they disappeared into the employee-only areas behind the park. Note to Joyland employees: Don't beat drums ominously if nothing's going to happen!

Despite being titled the 'Terrain of Magic' on the website and in some areas of the park, the inspiration is clearly named on the map above and in other areas. I'm guessing that park operators only made the changes to cover their asses online, probably in reaction to pressure from either Blizzard or investors. They clearly didn't care enough to right the English names at the actual park, which is certainly true in the Starcraft area of the park as well:

Universe of Starship

Notice, on the far right of the above picture, Stitch and Fox McCloud.

This area of the park has less going on as far as the scenery and is concerned. Certainly the Protoss aspect of the buildings is clear, but even the blaring Starcraft II soundtrack couldn't get me in the mood for a Plants vs Zombies face-paint. As I hurried through the faux-Koprulu sector, I stumbled upon the premier roller coaster of the park - a sleek silver construction named the Sky Scrapper, or Sky Scraper, or Starry Sky Ripper, depending on which sign you read.

As a general rule, I don't ride amusement park rides in China, but this roller coaster seems rather safe and, after strapping myself into the carriage that rides along the underside of the track, I had a great time. When they finish the construction and install all of the blue mineral deposits and vespene geysers that the park's concept art suggests, I can imagine this section of the park, particularly the coaster, being pretty entertaining.

Other Areas of the Park

Not long after its opening, Joyland broke the Guinness record for most cosplayers in a single location. Apparently, they are aiming to become a center for gaming and cosplay conventions. I didn't see any non-employee cosplayers during my visit, but at the back of the park, they offer costume rental and a photography studio for those lacking creativity and not cash:

Lightning, but no Dagger? Bullshit.

There is plenty else to do in the park, provided you don't keep your expectations too high. Here's a short list of some of the other experiences to be had at Joyland:

Play a Ghostbusters-style game where you wander a haunted house and use a gun-mounted monitor to track and shoot spirits. It actually uses an original IP! (Spoiler: It sucks.)

Take a ride on a mine cart through Thunder Moun-- I mean, a giant dragon skeleton mountain:

Discover the hidden pagan/satanic imagery in the kid-friendly Mole World section of the park...

... Pentagrams? 'Transform?' At a second glance, this seems rather dark! WHAT DOES THIS PARK HAVE AGAINST CHILDREN!?

'Study magic' at the blood elf castle with the botched color scheme:

Finally, trade in that lame ground mount and upgrade to an epic flying mount:


All told, I had a lot of fun at Joyland, though my brother and I were ready to head home to the comforts of Shanghai by mid-afternoon. I'm unsure if any of the shows or parades or fireworks are worth seeing, though I'd imagine some are.

As Shanghai gears up for Chinajoy later this month (an equivalent of E3), I'm glad I had a chance to take a look at how Chinese game-makers are targeting their core audiences in a medium outside online games. I'm looking forward to blogging about my experience at Chinajoy, but if any fellow Dtoiders want to know more about Joyland or the Chinese game industry, I'd be happy to respond with more detailed blog posts. I'm already planning on doing so with what I learn from the industry insiders and dealers residing in Shanghai.   read

5:02 AM on 07.07.2011

Another One Bites: EA/PopCap Deal

It would seem that Electronic Arts is poised to devour another developer in an effort to dominate the casual sector of the games industry. This in and of itself isn’t anything new for a company that has earned a reputation for acquiring the best developers of their respective genres in order to maintain dominance over the industry as a whole. In fact, this isn’t even the first casual development studio that they’ve acquired, and it’s certainly not the first attempt they’ve made themselves.

PopCap Games was, however, a company that was considering going public, and I would’ve invested my spare kidney into that IPO. Perhaps some executives at Electronic Arts feel the same, considering that they’re willing to spend $1 billion on the deal.

Perhaps this acquisition is evidence of a shaky market for IPOs, as some outlets suggest, but I can’t see how LinkedIn and Pandora could do so well in a supposedly volatile market when their success is largely based on social trends and are, in my mind, relatively risky as compared to a company that has consistently proven it has the creativity and leadership not only to dominate the casual games industry, but to pull in customers that would otherwise disassociate themselves from the genre.

Case in point: Plants vs Zombies.

Perhaps my interest in PopCap intensified over the last year as I came to appreciate their presence here in China (I live in Shanghai). While I’ve heard plenty of people in the States enjoy Bejeweled or Plants vs Zombies on their iPhone or iPad, the number of Americans doing so pales in comparison to the number of Chinese consumers. Both games are hugely popular here, especially in the mobile space, and speaking their English titles here will spark recognition even in those who otherwise know very little English. Although PopCap has a studio in Shanghai, their marketing presence is minimal – as with most successful digital entertainment in China, PopCap has achieved popularity through word-of-mouth.

It should be noted that PopCap’s games are victim to the overwhelming amount of piracy that plagues the most successful games in China, and so it is difficult to estimate the amount of profit that the company is making in Asia as compared to the number of people playing their games. PopCap has been smart about this point, however, and seems to charge very low rates for their products in the Chinese market (seemingly 1/10 of the U.S. price when converted).

Nevertheless, the fact that PopCap has achieved such popularity and have even considered their pricing strategy in the Chinese market places them leagues ahead of their Western competitors. The Chinese games industry, like most Chinese markets, is extremely difficult for Western entrants. If anyone could pierce the jade shroud, I’d place my bet on PopCap.

So it is with a heavy heart that I accept that I will probably not own shares of PopCap Games. To be fair, Electronic Arts has come a long way since the days when it was known as ‘the publisher where companies go to die.’ I would guess that EA would allow PopCap to head up its casual games departments and maintain some autonomy, as it did with Bioware and its respective specialty in role-playing games.

I have no doubt that we will continue to see great things from PopCap, even if this deal is finalized.   read

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