Category Archives: Gaming

Does Thomas Piketty explain why there are too many indie games? Maybe…

The Indiesplosion on Steam of 2014 has lead to a big ol’ argument over whether the market’s now crashing, 80s style. There’s an absolute TON of new games on Steam now, many indie, and many transparently terrible. So we get Jeff Vogel saying that there are too many games, there’s only so much money, and discoverability is impossible. “Only ‘x’ number of dollars that can pay for ‘y’ number of games”.  While Robert Fearon says “what, just because there’s a bunch of indies now there’s suddenly too many? Isn’t that conveenient?” in response. 

Okay, fine, that’s not a direct quote. A direct quote of Robert would be something like this:

It didn’t happen during the 16bit years when shareware, the demo scene, Blitz Basic, commercial games got spewed out one after the other! It didn’t happen with DOS despite there being thousands and thousands of games around the place and more being made week in, week out. It didn’t happen with casual, it didn’t happen with windows, it happened now, under our watch. Forty fucking years and that’s our lot, we nuked it in six. 

Uuuggghh…I hate arguments like this. They’re so well-meaning and snarkily uplifting that I feel like a jerk knocking them down. Nevertheless: Robert, the problem is gatekeeping and distribution.The reason why music didn’t die when a million different little grunge bands appeared in the 90s (or punk bands in the 70s) is the same reason why the thousands of DOS games weren’t a problem back then: because we had multiple levels of gatekeeping going on, and distribution was in the hands of those gatekeepers. It didn’t matter how many DOS games you made; they were only going to end up at the local store unless you found some way of distributing them, and the distributors made their literal business out of deciding who was worth it and who wasn’t. 

THAT ISN’T HOW IT WORKS NOW.

Distribution is trivial, especially for an indie game. Distributing something as small as most indie games is so comically cheap you could likely do it with many home connections. The only reason why Steam is so sought-after is because people want Steam’s easy library organization and patching. It’s not really about distribution

Because distribution is trivial, and duplication is free, there are no “local” markets anymore, and nobody playing gatekeeper. (Even Valve’s given it up.) There’s every reason for games to stay in “print” forever and be universally available.  As Vogel said, you aren’t just competing against free games, you’re competing against every game ever made, as well as almost every other piece of created entertainment ever made, not to mention thinly-veiled amusements like Facebook and HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Twitter and whatnot.  

On that I think that Fearon’s wrong, and Vogel’s right. There really are too many products chasing too few dollars, and it is unique, due to distribution. (See Everything That Clay Shirky Has Written Ever.)  

That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit, the one that neither piece talks about, is the economic side of all this. Why is the pool of people willing and able to buy games so limited? Why is Vogel’s “x” variable so small? Because people’s inflation-adjusted wages are stagnant at best. Free-to-play relies on “whales” for the same reason that Thomas Piketty wrote the most important book of our century, and why London, New York, and Vancouver are becoming empty cities of oligarch vacation homes: because the only economic model that works anymore is one that targets the vanishingly-small-but-fabulously-wealthy people at the top of the world’s economy.  

Remember, the concept of “whales” in F2P monetization schemes comes from casino lingo, referring to the people who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables. It’s all about extracting a majority of cash from a minority of players. The majority don’t have it to begin with.

And why are there so many indie devs? Because people want to be able to make a living actually making something, something that they see as valuable and worthwhile.  Game-making is one of the only places where you could conceivably do that nowaday–most other creative fields are in worse shape than gaming is–but you sure aren’t going to find it in AAA development. (See: any given Gamasutra piece on the industry.) Is it any wonder that people with any sort of skills in the field are piling into indie development? What else are they going to do, devote 90 hours a week to some doomed tech-bubbly SF startup or soul-crushing, economy-wrecking NYC finance gig? Or just resign themselves to a lifetime of poverty?  

So while Vogel’s point is right, but I think Fearon has a legitimate grievance about his tone. People are trying to make it big, yes, but it’s because “doing okay” is no longer an option in an economy divided between the rich and the poor. You need to swing for the fences, because there’s no such thing as a base hit. If indie can make you rich, the modern economy means that you’re compelled to try. That’s not their fault.

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by the game industry itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Vogel’s “x” and “y” are parts of bigger forces, so arguing about whether or not the industry has issues is a completely irrelevant waste of time. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either living through the transition to a new feudalism, or the slow self-destruction of the capitalist system. If you’re going to worry about something…worry about THAT. 

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Carmack’s Wrong. How can Carmack be wrong?

It’s a weird position to be disagreeing with John Carmack.

The man’s a well-known authority on everything to do with tech, and especially on VR. He’s the guy who made DOOM and Quake. His legendary Quakeworld address ignited public interest in VR. His decision to move to Oculus was hailed as one of the best signs for VR.

Doesn’t matter. I can’t buy this:

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting Facebook (or this soon). I have zero personal background with them, and I could think of other companies that would have more obvious synergies. However, I do have reasons to believe that they get the Big Picture as I see it, and will be a powerful force towards making it happen. You don’t make a commitment like they just did on a whim.

John, everything I read says that these decisions were made on a whim. The decision was made in literal days: 3 days by some accounts, 5 days by others. Oculus had just discovered that they have serious competition, including Sony’s own Morpheus headset. They were in trouble and needed a big wallet to stay ahead.

Meanwhile, Facebook was and is terrified over their inability to make a serious splash on mobile platforms,to the point of paying an unbelievable $20b for WhatsApp. Suddenly they’re given an opportunity to get in on the Next Big Thing, VR, by taking advantage of Oculus’ fragility and buying their way in. They had to do it immediately, though, before Google or Microsoft come calling.  Considering that Palmer Luckey is, what, 21 years old, it was never going to be that difficult. So they proceed to roll over Oculus like a semi carrying a load of gold bricks, and three-to-five days later it’s all over.

What about any of this doesn’t say “whim”? I suppose the sequence of events might imply that it’s motivated less by whim and more by desperation, but it’s still the opposite of a carefully considered decision on anybody’s part. This could blow up spectacularly, on the level of AOL/Time Warner, and nothing I’ve seen yet suggests it won’t.

Sure, VR in games will still be fine. VR in general will still be fine. Still confident about that. But everything I read about this makes me less confident in Oculus. And, sadly, that now includes Oculus’ CTO.

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Facebook Buys Oculus.

Yes. This is a thing that happened, and everybody’s up in arms about it, yelling about how Kickstarter betrayed them or some such thing.

Not a fan of the deal, certainly, but theoretically this is what Kickstarter is supposed to be for. It’s an early round of investment so that creators can get something together that they can sell to the big money men: a kind of crowdsourced angel investing.

The problem is that, well, sometimes the product isn’t what you thought it was going to be. Oculus is like a lot of companies in that it isn’t being bought for their product, it’s being bought for the expertise and talent that comes with it. The actual “Oculus Rift” may well never exist as a product; Facebook will probably take their version of VR in an entirely different direction.

(Yes, yes, FB are saying they won’t change anything. Everybody promises that. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of the gaming industry knows better.)

I don’t think it’s a good deal, simply because it was rushed into by all parties: Facebook are panicking because a mobile ecosystem is out of their reach and are trying to get in on the ground floor with VR. Oculus rushed into the arms of a company that isn’t a great fit simply because they solve the short-term financing problems and have a less notorious corporate culture than Google and Microsoft. There’s no real fit there, though: of all the applications that would be enhanced by VR, Facebook is just about the last thing you’d think of, and they haven’t demonstrated any ability to move into new sectors whatsoever. The debacle of social gaming proved that. 

Even so, this is still how this sort of thing works. Maybe it will be important for Kickstarter campaigns to assure backers that they won’t get bought out and have the product buried. Not sure how they can do that, but it might be a thing. Or, maybe, Kickstarter might well need to provide some sort of equity after all.  Either way, backers will need to recognize that other people might get rich off of something they backed. If they aren’t comfortable with that, there’s lots of honest-to-goodness charities for them to support.

As for the Rift’s gaming applications? I’m not actually worried about that. Sure, Oculus opened the door. Sony (and others) proved, though, that VR in gaming is something that’s coming no matter what. Oculus was a leader, but there’s lots of room for others. 

Don’t worry. You’ll still be able to play Minecraft in VR. It’ll just have a different logo on the side. 

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Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

So after about a year of waiting, I finally, finally got to try Bioshock Infinite! Joyous day! How I’d waited! How I’d anticipated! I’d even avoided (most) spoilers!

With no small amount of glee, the game got started, and things began in earnest. Great start, too: ominous lighthouse, neat ascension, and those early moments with the baptism and the fair were straight-up magical.  

Then the shooting started.  I started strafing and aiming and firing and whatnot. I hucked a few fireballs at people, and hid from automatic turret robotish things. I swapped out guns and bought ammo. And as I did all of that, the magic just sort of…leaked out. 

Don’t get me wrong. Not being any sort of Internet hermit, I’d heard this opinion before. It was a whole big thing in the reactions to Infinite from people whose opinions I trusted. What shocked me is that all of those people were people who were clearly sick of FPSes and that sort of gameplay. I’m not. I still like FPSes quite a bit. So what happened here? Wasn’t sure.

Sure, I was playing on a console, and I’ve never been a gigantic fan of console shooters, especially shooters that have aim-down-sight (ADS) mapped to R3. (WHY?) Once I remapped the controls so that ADS was sensibly mapped, though, I was able to play it like any other console FPS. It wasn’t really a problem. It even fixed Bioshock’s dodgy console aim correction. 

I kept playing, and kept shooting. I got to the section where you met Elizabeth, and started on my way with her. And, guess what? Elizabeth’s great! Irrational (RIP) did a good job of making her an asset instead of a burden. She’s one of the most visually expressive characters I’ve seen in gaming, rivalling Link in Wind Waker. She’s got personality to spare, and the scenes where she’s introduced and where you see her dancing on the pier were brilliant enough that they almost brought that early magic back. 

But, dammit, I’m still not having any fun.

I’ve just passed the section where you’re (avoiding spoilers here) “interacting with the soldiers and their general”, and it honestly reminded me of the amazing sequence in Bioshock where you’re dealing with that mad artist. And, yet, again, that was engaging, while this isn’t. I’ve just met the Vox Populi and their leader, and I can’t find myself caring. I’m neck-deep in a sequence mocking the hell out of company towns and “captains of industry”, and all I can think of is how much more I enjoyed it in Bioshock.

Maybe it’s the level design? Bioshock Infinite was sold as having expansive levels, and these ain’t that. It’s actually a step back from Bioshock’s intricate levels; these are basically corridors with a few mildly-large combat arenas scattered between them. The game doesn’t even bother providing a map; THAT’S how dull the level design is.

(Let’s not even try to compare it to System Shock 2. That’d just be depressing.)

Maybe it’s the “magic”? The Vigors also seem to be a step back from Bioshock’s plasmids. Bioshock’s very first Plasmid attack, the lightning blast, was not only easy to understand and to use but allowed for fun weapon/magic combos and devastating environmental attacks. It was your first ranged weapon, too, which tremendously encouraged its use. Infinite’s first Vigor is an overly-expensive (and temporary!) turret hack. The second one is a dressed-up grenade.  The third is a dressed-up stun. Woo. 

Maybe it’s the guns? They’re…guns. Aggressively generic guns. Pistol, machine gun, rifle, RPG, grenade launcher, etcetera. Even the upgrades are boring. “25% bonus damage”? “10% larger clip”?  Who cares? And you can only carry two at a time! In a SHOCK game!  Why is Bioshock making you upgrade weapons that you won’t even know you’ll have access to?

But I feel like all of those things are quibbles. I’ve played games that were objectively more annoying, and didn’t give a rat’s ass. Those things aren’t anywhere near enough to explain it. I’m not burned out on FPSes, I like the setting, and I like Elizabeth. I even like Booker, sorta. And this isn’t one of those games where you aren’t supposed to be having fun. I LOVE those. I have this whole huge writeup about Spec Ops: The Line that I still want to post up here. The thing’s clearly supposed to be fun.

So the question remains: Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

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Rock Band creator Harmonix is making a new game…and you won’t believe the genre!

Harmonix is making a new game! Harmonix is making a new game!

And it’s an…FPS? A free-to-play FPS?

Anybody else get Rez flashbacks just now?

The hell?

From Rock Paper Shotgun:

It almost sounds like a joke when you first hear about it. How does Harmonix, creator of wildly far-reaching rhythm hits like Rock Band and Dance Central, go for a more “core” crowd? Why, they make a musical shooter, of course. Hoho, what a topical yet preposterous notion! Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.

Yet, here we are. And you know what? Chroma looks (and sounds, obviously) like a pretty darn cool idea. If you perform actions – from shooting to running and jumping – on song beats, you’ll do them with more aplomb. Moreover, different teams represent different musical genres, with weapons and environments creating sounds synced to a beat underlying each level. It’s a giant, rhythmically thrumming combat arena, with DNA that crisscrosses between music theory and Quake.

Put that way, it’s really exciting. One of my absolute favorite types of game is the synaesthetic one, where beat and music are incorporated into more traditional gameplay. It’s what made Rez (and it’s all-but-sequel Child of Eden) so beloved, and what makes games like Everyday Shooter so damned much fun. It’s gaming-as-dancing, true gaming-as-dancing without DDR’s often-hamfisted attempts to shoehorn quasi-dancing into a sort of gameplay.

Thing is, any decent game is already going to have a rhythm. Designing and playing games is all about loops; smaller activity loops, within larger activity loops, within larger activity loops. A well-made game will manage the pacing of those loops…and what is creating a rhythm other than managing complex, interacting sonic loops?

The free-to-play part is a bit concerning. We can only hope that they’ll take their cues from Valve instead of King, Zynga, or EA, and make the in-game transactions cosmetic and convenient instead of gruesome and annoying.  If anybody’s earned the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s Harmonix. So let’s see what happens.

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Merry Christmas

…and a happy humbug!

The New Consoles (with a slight digression on Default Platform)

Got into Toronto this past week, so I’ve now had the chance to try both the PS4 and the Xbone. Quick thoughts on each:

Xbone:

So I head into the Microsoft store to mess about with a Surface Pro. I see the Xbone display. I see it’s playing Forza and not-Panzer-Dragoon. I pick up the controller and play and…well…it’s basically an Xbox.

Seriously.

Yes, the graphics are somewhat better. But that controller still feels pretty much just like an Xbox controller. The finger rumble is sorta neat, though I found it distracting on Forza. I also like the weird angular trigger thing, which meant that you could easily two-finger the triggers. I’m absolutely down with that: I HATE four-fingering the triggers, always have, and likely always will. Since I’m not a huge fan of trigger-centric console game design anyway, though, it’s not a deal-maker or deal-breaker for me. Other than that, it’s just a 360 controller. You’ve used them.

Forza was “driving game”. Fun, convenient speed-up and slow-down lines, maybe slightly too realistic for my tastes, but that’s about it. We’ve been playing this since the PlayStation. Not-Panzer was Not-Panzer: you moved in a path and shot stuff, though it didn’t have that lock-on feature yet, and it didn’t have that classic Panzer aesthetic that made that series so damned good.

Of the two, I’d take Not-Panzer, though it made me pine for Panzer Dragoon Saga like you wouldn’t believe.

None of the weird TV stuff was available, so I have no idea how that works. Ditto with the Kinect stuff. I did scroll through the Home page to see what was there, though. I didn’t have time to see much, but what I saw was “lots of downloadable media bits”.

Verdict: Absent the weird media stuff…it’s an Xbox. Just, y’know, more so.

PS4:

I also head into the PlayStation store. (Toronto has a PlayStation store. Bet you didn’t know that.) I bellied on up to one of the kiosks and picked up that controller.

It’s not basically a PS3. The controller’s why.

No, I’m not one of those writers who whinges about the Dual Shock 3. I still chalk that one up to a review community that’s still just a wee bit too fixated on the 360 as the “default platform”, with everything else treated as a deviation from that default. The DS3 isn’t a 360 controller, so you read moans about how it doesn’t “feel right”. The PC uses a different kind of interface that’s more sit-forward instead of sit-back, so you read moans about how they “just want to play on the couch”. What it comes down to, I believe, is just the inherent conservatism of the community; they have a platform and ecosystem they’re invested in, and while they’ll venture away from it when they have to, but they’ll grumble the entire way.

The Dual Shock, a controller whose design nobody took issue with back when the PS2 was the Default Platform, just ended up the victim of that misguided conservatism.

But I digress.

That said, the new PS4 controller is, yes, better. The new wider shape and paddle elements are easier to hold, leaving your hands at slightly less of an angle. The L2/R2 triggers are definitely easier to use, since they feel like they’re travelling slightly farther and don’t feel as spongy as the old DS3 triggers or as flimsy as the 360 controller. (I actually preferred it to the Xbone controller, though I’ll still grant that nice  The concave design of the thumbsticks and slightly higher tension works, too. The touchscreen is a clever addition. The “share” button feels gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick I can get behind. I don’t have a problem with the DS3, but the DS4 is an improvement.

Playing Knack, though, showed that although things might control slightly differently, they just don’t look that much different. Launch games are never examples of the best a system has to offer, and they certainly aren’t usually gameplay powerhouses, but they at the very least are supposed to look different enough that you get that “Wow!” reaction. Every previous PlayStation had one of those: The PS1 had Toshinden, the PS2 had Dynasty Warriors 2 and Ridge Racer V, the PS3 had Resistance: Fall of Man…but the PS4′s big all-audiences exclusive, Knack, just didn’t have it. All those little parts were neat, but just made me think of a somewhat fighty version of good ol’ Katamari Damacy. Beyond that, it looked like an HD console game. That’s it.

There was a standout moment, though: Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Octodad on a controller works exactly as well as I’d hoped. It’s silly stretchy fun that has you maniacally swinging those sticks around like you’re back catching monkeys in Ape Escape on the PS1. It’s an utterly ludicrous concept that shows why indie gaming is so damned much fun, and seeing it up on display at that kiosk was a genius way for Sony to demonstrate that they’re as indie friendly as any console in industry history. It also kinda cements that whole “it’s utterly PC-developer friendly” thing. I’m still used to PS3 being the Weird System of the generation, like the Saturn or the Turbo. Having a Sony box be accessible after all this time is something to get used to.

Verdict: It’s not a PS3. It’s not even a PS2. It’s something new. It doesn’t look new, but between the controller and the sheer joy of Console Octodad, it feels new.

Sort of ironic that this ended up that way, and I might feel differently once I get a chance to play around with the Kinect 2. But there we are.

(Postscript: I don’t hate the Kinect concept, and truth be told, I don’t have a problem with MS or the Xbox, either. I like that the 360 gave Sony the kick in the ass they needed, and Halo’s good stuff. I just dislike the whole Default Platform thing. I have ever since it was the NES.)

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Hearthstone Impressions (And a wee bit of personal stuff)

It’s been far too long.

It’s been hard to write lately. I’d underestimated circumstances’ ability to affect one’s ability to sit down, focus, and communicate. Starting to think I’m a bit like Spider Jerusalem, who “never could write when [he's] out of the city”. Urban and suburban/exurban life are more strikingly different than I’d ever known–and while I might still take up a standing offer to enjoy true rural existence for a little bit, this exurban exile reminds me of how much I appreciate and depend on the energy and vitality of the city.

I kind of sympathize with Andrew Ryan’s Periclean Bioshock slogan about how “all good things flow into the city”. An odd sentiment in a profoundly physiocratic country like Canada.  It’s still never felt truer.

(Oh, and if anybody from Bento Miso in Toronto reads this: I profoundly miss your space and the company I found within it.)

Anyway, I did get into the beta of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It’s been a great experience. It’s amazing how such a slight game has revived my bruised faith in Blizzard.

Why “revived”? Several reasons:

  • It shows that Blizzard still understands game design. Hearthstone takes the core of Magic: the Gathering, with its strategic-level deck building and tactical-level in-game card management, and removes a lot of the difficult and idiosyncratic elements that make Magic so hard to learn. Resources are straightforward, interrupts are kept to a minimum, and card effects are easy to understand. I’d never played more than a few hands of Magic, and I was up to speed in Hearthstone after a few games.
  • It shows that Blizzard learns from its mistakes. The Diablo auction house was an absolute disaster, a disaster that I’d identified over a year ago and that Blizzard is only now rectifying. There was real danger that a free-to-play game Hearthstone would be as blatantly “pay to win” as Diablo 3 had been. It was quite plausible that Blizzard would (once again) dangle the prospect of profit in front of their audience, creating yet another ultimately unsatisfying metagame.

That didn’t happen. You can get by quite nicely without paying for cards, and cards aren’t tradeable at all. You won’t make money playing Hearthstone, and you shouldn’t.

  • It reveals that amazing Blizzard polish. The game is beautiful. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Cards have top-notch art and animate beautifully: minions transform into gamepieces and drop onto the board with a satisfying “thunk”, while spells really animate and fly across the gameboard with every bit of the dazzle of the World of Warcraft abilities they were based on.

If anything, spells and abilities are almost better than their WoW counterparts.  Almost all are immediately recognizable, even if you don’t look at the description. That’s a lot more like DOTA2 or League of Legends, boding well for Blizzard’s newly retitled MOBA, Heart of the Storm. That’s probably why Hearthstone is rivalling those games when it comes to streaming popularity right now.

Yes, the game still has balance issues. Rogues were overpowered and Priests useless right before I got in, and from what I’ve seen, the reverse is now the case. (Though I’d hate to see them remove Mind Control, since it’s one of the most interesting effects in the entire game, and used to great effect in a way that it never was in World of Warcraft.) There are still too many classes that are near completely dependent on rare cards to be viable. And I feel that the way the matchmaking rating system works could stand to be a bit more transparent.

Honestly, though…those are minor issues and almost certainly why this beta is happening in the first place. They’ll sort ‘em out. I, finally, have faith in them.

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JUNICORN!

(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 

Juunicorn!

(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.

UNITY.

Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.

———–

So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Falloblivion and the Weirdness of VATS

(Or, as it’s technically called, V.A.T.S.)

As I mentioned in the last piece on Fallout 3, the game really feels like a Elder Scrolls game. It feels a LOT like an Elder Scrolls game. The way you explore, the way you interact with NPCs, the way that you engage with the maps…there’s a reason I called it “Elder Scrolls 4.5″.  It really does feel like Oblivion, almost without exception.

VATS is the exception. VATS, for those of you (who are you?) who haven’t played a 3D Fallout yet, is the system where you pause the game, pick your targets, and the game shoots for you, with the success based solely on the character’s statistics, instead of your own reflexes and ability. It’s a callback to the turn-based nature of the old Fallout games, where they played more like Baldur’s Gate in that you were able to pause and give orders.

VATS is one of the main reasons I wanted to try Fallout 3. It sounded amazing. Calling your shots and watching it unfold? Awesome, right? No. Not awesome. VATS just feels weird.

First, it means that the game doesn’t really play out much like an FPS, since you don’t have the fire-and-response gameplay cycle. You can try to play it like an FPS, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have down-the-sights aiming, you don’t have aim correction (keep in mind, I’m playing on a console),  and the weapons feel like peashooters, which is a really big problem considering players have strong expectations of what assault rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers are able to do derived from thousands of hours of modern multiplayer manshoots. It’s understandable, since VATS means that the weapons would be totally unbalanced if they hit hard. But without VATS, the game’s just unpleasant.

Worse, though, is that I end up finding disconnected from the environment and what’s going on in it, because the game’s constantly pausing for these slow-mo shootouts. That sense of connection is what makes Elder Scrolls games work. You aren’t “directing”, you’re acting. You don’t tell your character “swing the sword”, you just swing the damned sword. That’s been the case going all the way back to Arena. Bethesda have been progressively learning this lesson over, and over, and over again, and each time they come out with a new Elder Scrolls, it shows they’ve understood and embraced it that much more.

(Plus, the fact that hunting rifle is a better close-up weapon than a machine pistol is ridiculous, yet that’s how VATS works, since you’re near-invulnerable while you’re inside it and there’s no way for them to get “inside” your range.)

What results is something that’s neither fish nor fowl. The “direction” element of VATS that was supposed to mollify fans of the old Fallout games won’t, because this is fundamentally an Elder Scrolls RPG, not a Baldur’s Gate-style RPG, so you don’t have that tactical feel that made the turn-based gameplay of those older games compelling. Yet the game can’t fully embrace its status as a FPS or as a modern, immersive, Elder Scrolls-style RPG, because the game simultaneously near-mandates the use of immersion-breaking VATS while making the non-VATS combat surprisingly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t make it a bad game. I’m enjoying it immensely. It also doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy using VATS on occasion, though I never really find myself enjoying the non-VATS shooting. It’s just more than a bit of a surprise that something I’d looked forward to trying ended up being less of a blessing than a curse.

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