Wednesday, October 14

Spore Metamorphosis Challenge

Today I was ecstatic to discover an official Spore challenge tasking creators with generating an entire developmental lineage of creature. We all know how awesome Poke'mon are, and this challenge gives players the opportunity to express how their own creatures might evolve. The finalist results feature some amazing work. Choosing amongst them was extremely difficult, though I eventually settled on the kmart666's Goae Fish because of its creativity. The thing is half-fish, half-plant. Come on. All of the creations are spectacular, though, many of them involving not only highly intricate aesthetic work, but also wonderfully imaginative stories.

These are just a few of the creations, but encourage you to check out all of them at the official site, as  the entire metamorphosis is really what makes the fondu.

It would be very interesting to see this idea carried over to Spore itself. Since the creatures are code-driven, it could be feasible to create offspring mixtures of any two creatures, much like the offspring in the Sims series works (not to mention real life).

Tuesday, October 13

Thomas Mahler's Sein

Assuming you haven't already, you'll probably be hearing a lot about this soon,. Thomas Mahler is a freelance character artist and cinematic artist for Blizzard, currently working on Starcraft II. In the meantime, he has also been developing his own independent title called Sein. Sein, Mahler says, is inspired "heavily" by the works of Team ICO and Eric Chahi (1991's Another World). The above image is a screenshot of Sein, which is pretty darn incredible I must say. You can view all of the screenshots of Sein as well as other work of Thomas Mahler at his official site. Mahler also writes a game design blog called The Banana Place.

Last but not least, Mahler has modeled a gritty version of the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, a game of which lately I am quite obsessed. If you want to play with me on Steam sometime, my username is Gryffin.

Source: Split-Screen

Thursday, October 8


This just in: Single-player adventure already declared Game of the Year. Also, single-player is dead.

Wednesday, October 7

Optional Obligations

 A few days ago, my friend was kind enough to show me iD Software's new Wolfenstein on his PC, I not having seen it yet.The game is a throwback first-person-shooter, favoring linear gameplay and intricate, gorgeous level design over the now-standard cover system or necessity for tactical forethought. Honestly, its great to see this type of shooter still in existence; Wolfenstein satisfied my Perfect Dark roots. Wolfenstein, however, does have its gameplay hook, veil powers, four abilities that allow players to enter the occult realm while granting them various boosts. Using veil powers drains an energy meter, though, so the spamming of or prolonged use of them is restricted. Or, at least, one would think.

Quite the contrary, spamming veil powers is not only easy but, potentially, inadvertently encouraged. Veil powers, you see, have absolutely no casting time and no cool-down time. That is, the veil powers require zero time to activate and zero time before they may be used again. This allows players to freely ignore "use sparingly," instead permitting "spam-at-will."

One of the veil powers is called "empower" (activated by "2" on the keyboard) You may watch a video of empower in action at this conveniently hyper-linked text. When activated, empower causes shots to do critical damage, often boosting damage to an extent that enemies fall with a single bullet. It may or may not be safe to assume that empower is meant to be used by players as a last resort, as it is particularly powerful and causes the energy meter to quickly dry up. But in reality, the functioning of the veil powers allows for a considerably more frequent use of empower, a use that could easily be considered cheap or cheating.

Players will take advantage of every gameplay possibility or quirk to be as effective and efficient as possible. My friend demonstrated to me how he played through Wolfenstein, by using empower every shot he took. 2 Click 2. 2 Click 2. Because before each shot he activated the ability and after each, deactivated, every shot he fired was charged with empower, . He also never drained his energy, as a fraction of a second is no where near long enough to affect the meter. Yet more efficient, he used minimal ammo. One shot, one kill.

"It's annoying," he said, "because I have to play as best as possible. I don't know. It's hard to explain." Wolfenstein allows players the option to spam its powers for maximum efficiency. Is it cheap to take advantage of this fact? Maybe, but it's also human. It's like the board game Clue. If you happen to glance Professor Plum in your opponents hand, it is very difficult to consider him a potential suspect. Once players realize that they can spam empower, is it really that easy to go back to pretending their supposed to use it sparingly? How optional is efficiency?

On one hand, constantly rapid-activating empower could quickly become tiresome and annoying. Aligning yourself with your interpretation of the game's intentions (use sparingly) could make for a considerably more enjoyable play-through; after all, the rules are there to maintain fun. However, as a person, who is both innately precise and also trained throughout one's life to be efficient, ignoring perfect execution is difficult.

I can speak for my friend, at least (and would be very interested in hearing your own opinion), that he felt obligated as a person of efficiency to take advantage of the rapid-use allowance of the veil powers. His rapid-use of empower completely side-stepped that whole "energy meter" thingy, which is obviously there to specifically limit use. It also breaks the difficulty system, which also is tuned to the limited use. Is the game better with the rapid-allowance? Is it more fun? This is something each player must answer for his or her self, but, unquestionably, its power to affect a player's experience, either by adhering to efficiency or forcefully ignoring it, is definitely something of which the developers should be aware.

Options aren't always so optional, I've found recently. The mere option itself may, to some players, feel mandatory. I think people assume too much with the "optional" angle. "Hey, why not throw in some side-quests?" or "Players can choose to help this NPC for extra benefits if they want." I'm sure the decisions aren't that trivial, but how many players really choose not to help that NPC? How many don't feel like side-quests are obligatory to maximize their character or see more story?

More specifically, an optional game feature which has particularly affected my play experience of late is the presence of collectibles. Who doesn't love collectibles? You get to search for hidden Easter-eggs, explore the crevices the game world, and unlock extra content or features in doing so. Additionally, collectibles expand not only gameplay objectives but invested time as well. But I believe that collectibles have an additional affect of hogging focus.

Several weeks ago, I played the then-new PS3 demo for Mini Ninjas by IO Interactive. I really enjoyed the game and would love to someday play through the whole thing. In fact, I came back to the demo several times, spending probably three hours or so memorizing the level and mastering the gameplay. The real reason I came back, though, was to find every flower, jizo statue, and trapped animal there was. I was obsessed with catching 'em all, with hunting down every collectible.

Eventually, I realized that my entire play experience had been acutely focused on finding things, a tunnel-visioned experience, rather avoiding of the peripheral elements of combat and progression. Every step I took, I made sure to back-track three and to rotate my camera 540 degrees, just to be sure I hadn't missed a single hidden item. Every time I fought, my eyes would be glancing to the corners of the screen, hoping to catch the glint of a coveted collectible. It didn't help that the game tracked how many you had found, either. For me, the collectibles were the primary focus of the game, obligatory, not optional. However, I read Edge Online's review of Mini Ninjas, and the reviewer had quite a differing opinion of the collectibles:
It’s a peculiar miscellany of diversions that, along with the game’s uniquely soothing cartoon-fauvist style, sets a meditative pace. In between skirmishes with samurai, you find yourself wandering amiably through quiet twilight woodlands to search for ingredients or bobbing on a river with a fishing rod while peach blossom descends.
For some people, optional means optional, maybe more of a little surprise to happen upon a collectible than a die-hard manhunt. But that is not to say I did not enjoy myself. Rather, I loved searching for the collectibles. I didn't come back to the demo because I felt like I had to. I came back because I wanted to. However, it is important to note that the optional existence of collectibles greatly affected my play experience, diverting attention from other potential foci of the game such as combat. I do not believe this to be a good nor bad thing, just an affect of which, again, I believe people should be aware.

Similarly, playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum has shown me how collectibles can affect gameplay. "Detective Vision" in Arkham Asylum is an alternate vision mode, allowing players to see through walls, see structural deficiencies, highlights intractable objects (like grates and gargoyles), and, to get to the point, shows collectibles. Hidden question marks are painted around Arkham island that can only be seen in detective mode. There aren't even many question marks, to tell the truth, but the few that their are have contributed to me switching on my detective vision innumerable times through the game. Detective vision aside, I am constantly looking for hidden question mark statues, riddles, joker's teeth, interview tapes, and Spirit of Arkham stones. I have a mostly good time looking for them (although also annoying being so constantly present), and I enjoy when I succeed, but I can't ignore the nagging feeling that searching for collectibles occupies a significant amount of my gameplay focus. Now, there is no doubt that I am an OCD gamer, so I speak with significant bias, but I also know that the presence of collectibles impacts the play experience of many more besides me.

Collectibles, like other optional inclusions, come with a price: your players will want to find them. Collectibles may potentially detract from other spheres of gameplay, or at the very least, they should never be written off as "only optional."


For several days now, I have been trying to think of an eloquent analogy for Zach Gage's genius Lose/Lose. But I have failed, largely thanks to the blatant artist's statement that accompanies the game. I really can't describe it better than the author himself. So here you have it.
Lose/Lose is a video-game with real life consequences. Each alien in the game is created based on a random file on the players computer. If the player kills the alien, the file it is based on is deleted. If the players ship is destroyed, the application itself is deleted.

Although touching aliens will cause the player to lose the game, and killing aliens awards points, the aliens will never actually fire at the player. This calls into question the player's mission, which is never explicitly stated, only hinted at through classic game mechanics. Is the player supposed to be an aggressor? Or merely an observer, traversing through a dangerous land?

Why do we assume that because we are given a weapon an awarded for using it, that doing so is right? By way of exploring what it means to kill in a video-game, Lose/Lose broaches bigger questions. As technology grows, our understanding of it diminishes, yet, at the same time, it becomes increasingly important in our lives. At what point does our virtual data become as important to us as physical possessions? If we have reached that point already, what real objects do we value less than our data? What implications does trusting something so important to something we understand so poorly have?
Just wanted to bring that to your attention.

Source: I Heart Chaos via Geekologie via Zach Gage
Image: BlitBlit

Also: Mr. Gage wrote an awesomely enjoyable book called "The Most Self-Involved Book That I Have Ever Written." I would highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 6

Nation Red

Today, I played the Steam demo for Nation Red, by DiezelPower. Like several other titles released recently, including Burn Zombie Burn! and Zombie Apocalypse, Nation Red is an isometric zombie shooter. I enjoyed the demo, the frantic struggle to stay away from rushing zombies while simultaneously being forced to run amongst them, dropped weapons, health, and power-ups essential for continued success. The constantly-available option to adjust the difficulty is also much appreciated.

But, without a doubt, the coolest part was the freaking dive-roll. When I pushed the E key for the first time and shot across the screen, I audibly yelped. Aside from the dive animation looking spotless, the feel is extraordinary. The seemingly-insignificant addition of the dive-roll shifts the game's focus, adding spice to the ever-more-standard strafing still pulled from Smash TV. It's interesting how the dive-roll, extracted from the action game (where it is standard), serves to excite the arena-shooter. Honestly, I'm not yet sure if the dive roll is entirely practical in-game, nor if it only muddles the crisp simplicity of the arena-shooter, but it is dane cool.