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Irrational Internationals
12:40 PM on 02.26.2012

I bought Splinter Cell Conviction on PC, and it's fantastic. It's a great game, with tight controls and powerful contextual abilities. The only problem is the people who published it - Ubisoft. In the last few weeks, Ubisoft's servers (which are linked to their DRM) were being moved. This meant that all the features UPlay provided (nothing Steam couldn't do anyway) were knocked offline, along with save files, rendering one of my favorite games to play in quick sessions nigh useless, and my armored super silent super agent in Deniable Ops was reduced back to his starting weapons. It's one of the most irritating/nonsensical examples of DRM misuse in recent history, and it isn't the end of my complaints about the publisher. (If you'd like to hear more examples of Ubisoft being one of the worst companies in the industry, check out the Jimquisition show on either Destructoid or The Escapist - it's worth your time.)

This massive knockout gave me some extra time to think. DRM, and its reasons for existing, has been covered exhaustively by many other outlets far more knowledgeable about the subject than I. Something that interests me in particular however is the role of publishers in modern gaming. Why do they continue to stick around? How can they get away with such anti-consumer policies? And why is it they seem to be blind to the trends of other industries? Let's talk about these in order.

Games, now more than ever, are EXPENSIVE. Not just to buy at $60 CDN apiece, they also cost a lot to make. Independent games exist, sure, but very few are anywhere near the polish a triple A title receives. They also take a lot more time, with some games being in development for upwards of 4-5 years, potentially never seeing profit once released into the world. Publishers with deep pockets still need to exist to see to it that the bigger games get made, the ones with more features, polish etc. This also means that all major releases are overseen by publishers, thus guaranteeing their continued existence. Companies like EA and (ugh) Ubisoft do this through massive franchises like Madden or Assassin's Creed. It's best to think of these companies as Hollywood, and the independents as people with digital cameras living in boxes. The problems arise when there is no middle ground, as is more and more evident today.

This also enables the publishers to get away with more and more anti-consumer policies - because consumers have no alternatives. There are no 'moderate sized' publishers. The only real option is one extreme or the other, polish or depth, safety of AAA titles or the potential artistry of indie ones, but there is no middle ground consumers can choose to occupy. Because there is no where else to enjoy AAA titles except through publishers, publishers can throw all kinds of garbage at their customers and not lose any of them. Independents serve their customers with dignity and respect (generally), but can never really recreate the experience of a good AAA game.

What is irritating is that plenty of other industries have already dealt with this problem easily and effectively. Take a look at, say, the music industry. The large studios all have independent arms that foster unique artists and give them exactly what they need - nothing more and nothing less. In publishing circles, if it's not following on the coattails of the market leader, how is it supposed to sell? If consumers don't know what it is, why are we selling it? The other problem the industry suffers from is an even spacing of releases. Take a look at Hollywood's release schedule, then look at the game industry:



Every major release is crammed into one jam-packed holiday season. It's as though the entire games industry is a single procrastinator waiting for the last possible second to get everything done, regardless of whether that makes sense or if anyone cares. This is probably one of the biggest areas for improvement and where inspiration needs to be taken from other industries, perhaps shifting around release schedules etc. would allow for expanded profits all throughout the year, rather than waiting on two solitary months to pray your title doesn't drown in the other ones.

It's pretty clear: things need to change. A lot of things do. And it was all thrown into perspective with DRM on Splinter Cell Conviction. I suppose that's one of the very (very very) few things I have to thank Ubisoft for.
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I've played cute mobile games, deep mobile games, hard mobile games, and skillful mobile games. The only game I have ever played on my phone that embodies all of these qualities however is Meganoid.

Meganoid is, on the surface, an exceedingly simple game. Move left and right, tap the button to jump, and that's it. It never gets much more complicated than that, and yet it gets so much harder, challenging, and requires a lot more skill in the later levels to make it through alive. You get equipped with all kinds of things to make it through them as well - jetpacks, gravity switches, a gun, etc. All of this is either done by the character himself without any thought on your part or simply replaces the jump button. It makes for a game with an extremely small learning curve, allowing the developers to hurl all kinds of bizarre challenges at you from the get go. Speaking of the get go, the story is light but amusing. Aliens attack, but all the heroes have died, leaving, as the general from the opening puts it "...you." From there, you beat back aliens, robots, dodge lasers and make it to the exit in one piece. The story does expand, but only superficially as you shuffle back and forth between new threats to avoid/kill with crates/shoot to death. It's all very lighthearted and amusing. It's also one of the few mobile games that's rated 'everyone' that swears in the intro! That has to count for something.

Like any good mobile game, it's addicting. The later levels get extremely frustrating at times, especially level 69 (so hard Orange Pixel (the game's developers) had to hold a community vote on whether or not to lower the difficulty). However, a lot of the games frustration can be negated by putting the game down for a half hour. Then picking it back up again, because it's druglike. For those concerned about beating the game too soon however, worry not. While there are 100 levels total, all of those levels have 2 variants, each one harder than the last. The package rounds out to around 300 levels, then there's high score runs where you attempt to get through as many levels as you can without getting kicked back to the homescreen. It's also a nightmare for completionists. This game will haunt their waking nightmares, their fears and their ultimate desires. It's so tough to complete, the game has hidden walls that look exactly like normal walls, but loaded with diamonds (the game's version of coins). And if you want every variant of the level you're playing, you'll have to find all of these diamonds and make it to the exit before time runs out - in the same run. Sounds terrifying already, and that's because it is. It totally is.



Finally, this game is amazing because it's mostly free. A paid version was released towards the end of last year, however the free version has but a single ad at the main menu. No where else will it ask for you to pay a single cent for 300 levels, 3 different playable characters and high score runs. Orange Pixel is also one of the few developers to truly support the diversity of Android (the original platform of the game). It can be played with keyboards, WiiMotes, Game Grippers, Xperia Plays and so much more. It's also amazingly well optimized for multiple devices, with even my 600 Mhz HTC Legend playing it entirely lag free. The 16 bit graphics are more detailed than 8 bit, but it still runs like butter on nearly any phone you throw it on. And you will want to throw this on your phone. It's a long, treacherous but rewarding journey through a game that can be played in bite sized chunks or in lengthy gaming sessions (I am exempt from this as my phone has a 3.2 inch screen). It exemplifies what a mobile game should be - immense value for your non existent buck, easy for anyone to get into and difficult for anyone to master, and ultimately one of the greatest - and my personal favorite - mobile game of all time. Play it.
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Have you ever tried to convince someone you care about to buy a game that you can play online with them? It's something that is truly a Herculean task, especially with the price point of a new game (see yesterday's post). Sure, something like Left 4 Dead is easy to convince people to get on board with, it's Valve after all. But what about something like, say, Transformers: War for Cybertron? THEN you're going to start running into problems. From personal experience, TWfC has to be one of my personal favorite third-person shooters of all time. Unfortunately, that's difficult to make evident to someone else, especially if they're a part of a game that I call a 'massively multiplayer cult'.

This doesn't have to be an MMO. In fact, it rarely is. Typically, it's something like Call of Duty, a game with a rather unique following - one that is large and, in our experience, fairly closed to new experiences. Trying to get a team together even for a popular game like Killzone 3 was akin to banging our heads against a solid, oblivious wall. 'Why? COD is better' was a common, infuriating response. I'd wager that I am not alone in this experience, attempting to get people who play an MMC to at least try other ones. It's something a depressing amount of good games are crippled by, and while our discussion on price points may assist in helping the issue, slight price drops alone will not convince the masses to get on board with a new online community. However, I believe we are at a perfect time to try new tactics to get this community to open up to new games, and make it easier for new online communities to form.



Unfortunately, it will take publishers to open up a little, and if there's anything publishers are bad at, it's resisting the urge to monetize as much as possible. Consider: while demos are ultimately good things, they're a small, usually not online chunk of a much larger overall experience. 10 minutes with your game is usually not enough to convince me to make the investment. That's where coop games can help, as they are made to be played with friends from the ground up. So why not allow friends into the game? Perhaps take advantage of OnLive technology, for instance, and allow players who don't own a game to play the first few chapters with their friends. Perhaps even offer a discount to players who make it to the end, to encourage people to buy to continue playing. It's no more cutting into a publisher's profits than a split screen mode (essentially what it is) and it would allow for 'MMC' followers an easy route to try new games. Heck, even make the entire coop experience open to them (because players can't play without an owner of the game). How's that for an appetizer?

The various free-to-play models demonstrate this to be a perfectly profitable model for publishers to take. Other industries do similar things all the time - 'first time buyer bonuses', 'free first month' etc. In addition, the requirement for an owner of the game to be present in the game offers additional pressure to invest $60. Even if players never end up paying, it helps the industry overall. Would anyone buy an untested online game if they knew they had no one to play it with? By allowing this approach, publishers can generate future sales of other, untested properties by guaranteeing players they can play with friends. Ultimately, it's clear why games need a better incentive model for purchase. A system, allowing large, social chunks of games to draw people away from supermassive 'multiplayer cults' allows for greater competition in the market and ultimately greater enjoyment for players. And isn't that what it's all about at the end of the day?
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This one was written by my partner. I'll let you know which articles are his vs mine.

Retro Games were so compelling to so many of us, and it seems that the game industry has a strange fixation on them. For all you who donít understand or simply werenít part of that era, this article is for you. Today I will explain what made retro games so extraordinary.

Innovation:
Games as a entertainment medium is incredibly young, but back in the 16 or 8 bit era they had only just begun to establish themselves. This meant that any well made title was bound to innovate in some way. Iím not saying any decent game innovated. But Mario, Sonic, and Madden NFL football made huge leaps for the industry and brought gaming to whole other level, and introduced games to a completely different level. Not to say all games did it in this time, but it certainly was more common. Mario and Sonic took the easy to play, hard to master formula to whole new levels, adding water mechanics, enemies and final bosses like no other before them. Needless to say games would not be the same without these two characters. Then take Madden Football, maybe not as innovative as a game, but it did take technology to new levels. Incorporating eleven players on either side was no easy task. Of course this wasnít the end with the franchise continuing for over 15 years, and branching off into all other professional sporting leagues.

Difficulty:
For those of you who played games in the 80s and 90s you remember the stunning difficulty. This was largely because games tailored so much for the consumer like the way today, but partially because of the space limitation. It goes without saying that the cartridges of the SNES or Sega Genesis hold a fraction of what a blu-ray can, and as a result they needed a way to compensate for game play. They achieved this with a emphasis on replay ability and being shockingly hard to beat. This was well achieved in many games, but the best example I can think of is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (the mystery cave levels in particular). If youíre in for a more modern take on this give Dark Souls a try, which translates this idea onto modern platforms (check out Climb to the Top of the Castle if you want a modern-retro approach).

Games Wars:
As we all know graphics, technology and functionality can only take a console so far, what takes them to the next level is good games. This was more understood then ever in the 16 bit era. The fierce war between Nintendo and Sega was not fought through technology, but instead by quality games and marketable characters. This is largely why Sonic was born, and Mario was taken to new heights. While the SNES may have had better graphics it was barely noticeable, and so ascetics became more important than graphics (go check out the Extra Credits video for an in depth look at the difference). This is why so many iconic characters and revolutionary genres were born out of this time period.

So retro gaming will always be dear those who experienced it, but for those of you missed the boat hopefully I gave you some insight into the impact of the era and why it is still relevant and so important.








If only to prove I was right 2 years ago that is.

WARNING: If all the environmental stuff with the sand is scripted I take it all back.

I remember feeling as though I was the only person who was genuinely excited for this game when the first trailer premiered at the Spike VGAs a few years ago. And the more I heard about it the more excited I became. It looked great visually, and had an unusual anti-war theme, without a trace of that melodramatic 'war is hell let's go kill more people thoughtlessly' crap. There's actually quite a few reasons I like the game aside from this however.

1) IT DEALS WITH MORALITY PROPERLY

I can't say I'm not a sucker for morality in games. Done right, it's made for some of the most relentlessly addictive games I've played. Even such black-and-white games such as Infamous 2 tie karma excellently into gameplay, providing an entirely different experience the second time around, with two uniformly fantastic and vastly removed endings. From what I understand about this game, it's akin to Heavy Rain: The Shooter: Off Rails: Less Crap edition. Moral decisions take place during gameplay, meaning there are tons of choices to make each time, with tons of different results. Reading the previews, critics had to decide between something seemingly one choice or the other: save the father who stole water, or the soldier who killed his family. Dark, I know. Snipers were apparently monitoring the players to force them to make decisions (in game snipers naturally/hopefully? :/ ), and all the journalists chose one or the other. However, when the developers played it, they simply marked the snipers and had their comrades dispatch them simultaneously before cutting down both the soldier and the father. Hopefully the game is front loaded with this stuff, because it's totally refreshing for a game to give you complete control over a situation like Spec Ops appears to be doing.

2) IT LOOKS FUN

You shoot people and they go splat. Splat!



In all seriousness though, the game looks like it has a lot of environmental tricks up its sleeves with its sand... things that it does, presumably in real time. Dumping sand on people sounds like fun, but in addition is its unique take on genre staples, such as execution moves. Typically, these are rewarded, and at first in The Line they are rewarding. However, they quickly become gruesome, excessive and depressing, ultimately feeling hollow, prompting journalists playing to simply shoot enemies in the head vs performing execution moves that in other games would be rewarded with point dumps. I'd go far as to saying it could be akin to the next Bioshock, deconstructing the ideas of common genre tropes vs deconstructing linear gameplay. It sounds twisted, like something I would play, or a sentence ripe for immature jokes. With any luck, there's a randomness enabled within the game so as to make scenarios vary in different playthroughs (i.e. that sandstorm that blew through the first time you played that level doesn't show up but the ground is more unstable). From what I understand, it's as cinematic as Uncharted, and if it had this element of surprise on its side it could even surpass it in terms of SPECtacle (I'm going to hell aren't I)!

3) IT GIVES ME HOPE

When I look at Spec Ops, I see not a great idea that will end up disappointing. Indeed, I've been burned too many times by games I thought were going to blow the doors open to my mind and ultimately didn't. Indeed, my heart gets colder as each Lost Planet 2 hits store shelves, as each Mirror's Edge reaches my eager hands, even when downloadable games show up mangled on my virtual doorstep like Fat Princess (at launch, of course). I understand to be skeptical of the game press, as they tend to exaggerate a game's merits, but there are reasons this time it will be different. First of all, they allowed the journalists to play approximately 3 hours of gameplay, showcasing their confidence in their title. Secondly, the worst thing I had read about the game was that it had collectibles. Yes, collectibles are now a bad thing because this game is so good and I WANT IT ALREADY Finally, it's got money behind it. And that's never bad now is it?



I thought we had something together...
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There are tons of FPS games hitting the market. It's not exactly a big secret that developers are pumping out games faster than manufacturers can make copies, but it's not likely to last for too much longer. The next 'genre trend' will appear in its place, like how shooting replaced platformers, and in general the industry will move on. Looking over the horizon, there is still a barrage to come, yet at the same time an identical complaint is layered against them - the idea that some of them are 'generic'. I, for one, am not a fan of this term applied to games in the slightest, its definition vague and generally leveled against things that displease the person accusing it of being so. In general, it's an opportunity to dismiss something without even thinking about it - it's generic, what is there left to say? However, I feel a discussion is merited about generic being a legitimate complaint at all, and if it is, where it falls in the broad sense of criticism.

First of all, we have to discuss what 'generic' really means. According to www.thefreedictionary.com, the term means, when used as an adjective, 'relating to or descriptive of an entire class, general.' Unfortunately for those who enjoy the word, the games industry is not that simple. Take a look at some of the shooters stepping up to bat for top honors this year. Bioshock Infinite, for example, takes place in the skies of a fictional version of the 1920's, and is full of epic action, philosophy and dizzying heights. Spec Ops: The Line, however, is set in present day Dubai ravaged by a sandstorm. This creates all kinds of tactical situations, from sandstorms or pits that form beneath your feet from shifting sand. (Personally, I'm really excited for this game, especially because from what I hear it deals with morality extensively. Consider it with my personal seal of approval for what it's worth.) Then, a game I held specifically in mind when I wrote on Monday, Aliens: Colonial Marines is finally coming out this year. Existing on a dark alien planet, players must band together to survive and figure out what happened in the aftermath of the movie Aliens leading up to its sequel that I like to pretend never happened, Alien 3. When placed side by side, it is clear that they are all shooters, yes. But guns are where the similarities end.



So what is generic, really, in comparison to anything else on the market? Most argue shooters with a military theme can be marked down as 'generic', yet some of the most popular shooters on the market are science fiction, like the Halo series or Gears of War. The market is diverse enough, it seems, that one subset of the genre cannot come to define it as a whole. Ultimately, the term generic implies that a game is too much like everything else of its genre, yet the genre in question doesn't appear to have many tropes outside of guns. Shooters would have to be divided into possibly dozens of sub categories, and how would they be defined? Besides, we haven't seen everything guns can do for a game. A gun, like a jump button, is a means to an end. Most games, they have only one end - killing or defeating the thing immediately in front of you. In some games, they can do all kinds of things, like shoot interlinked portals or grapple you to new heights. Guns in games are ultimately tools to complete tasks at range. There are so many places to take the idea, and developers have merely scratched at the emotional possibilities guns can have in games. As of right now, not many games have analyzed how a situation changes when the player is given a gun. How does their perspective change? Would their response to the situation have been different had they not been armed? (Hopefully Spec Ops does this... fine I'll stop now)

Games are, as Extra Credits once put it, the ultimate way to explore the human condition because they are totally interactive, thus forcing players into making choices and more than any other medium revealing who its participants are inside. I hope as the era of shooters begins to wind down, developers may begin to explore these sorts of ideas and attempt something truly raw and emotional, something truly great. A gun in a game is far more than a weapon like it is in the real world. It's ultimately a tool, a sign of power, a dangerous thing in the wrong hands, and a simple yes/no choice in the palm of the one using it. If more shooters begin to turn away from its more obvious uses and towards the great fields of potential yet untapped, there may be more life to shooters yet. It's perhaps this feeling of missed potential that the 'generic' label arises as a means of dismissal, to lash out at games that are simply content to live in the shadows of their predecessors or simply don't push their boundaries far enough. Maybe it can be used as a sort of rallying cry, one to bring shooter fans together to demand innovation. Perhaps the term generic must mean something different in the game world for it to hold meaning, even becoming a key part of a game player's vocabulary. One thing is clear however: it needs to stop being used to compare games to other games, and change to compare games to ideals. Or we could just use another word entirely. That works too.
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