Do You Watch Your Friends Play Games?

Not everybody enjoys watching others play videogames, just like not everybody enjoys others play sports. There’s something about games that demands that hands-on experience.

Of course, a big part of it depends on the style and personality of the person you’re watching. If you’re a stealth gamer, you probably wouldn’t enjoy watching a brawler barrel through levels, for example.

But assuming you’re watching someone who plays like you do, or perhaps faster than you do (!), do you enjoy watching them play? Or are you itching for them to get an urgent call from their significant other?

I don’t love watching gameplay video, but I’m watching theRadBrad on Youtube right now. He’s got a pretty good style, he moves quickly, and he’s got a friendly, funny energy to him.

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How Do You Meet Game Writers and Designers?

meet-game-writers-designersI got an interesting question recently on Quora and thought it might be useful to repost the Q&A here:

How do I meet game developers?

(I titled this post targeting game writers and game designers because that’s a little more relevant to this blog.)

Here’s my answer:

That’s not hard.

1) Find a local meetup for game developers and attend. Be courteous and research your questions before you ask them. Never ask anything that you could’ve read on Wikipedia. (Not so easy if you’re in a remote area.)
2) Go to the Game Dev Conference in California: GDC 2016.
3) Arrange a tour or informational interview with a local game studio for your school or interest group. (Not so easy if you don’t live near a studio)
4) Find the game developer group at your local university and join or support as best you can.

And of course be wary of the wannabes. There are a lot of “developers” who are just gamers with vaporware dreams.

See the Quora thread and feel free to weigh in.

Bioshock Co-Founder Calls It Quits

bioshock founder quitsSurprisingly, Irrational Games’ co-founder Ken Levine recently announced that he’s shutting down that studio. This means that future Bioshock games will almost certainly have much less of his handiwork. He did also say that he will start a new studio under publisher Take-Two that will focus on smaller, digital-distribution games. The new studio will only include about fifteen hand-picked heroes from Irrational.

With an announcement like this coming so hard on the heels of a well-received game like Bioshock Infinite, you immediately start to analyze the announcement and speculate about what happened behind the scenes. Levine’s rationale is put thusly:

To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.

Fair enough. Certainly you could guess that part of the problem was an unwieldy team rent apart by politics and backbiting.

For some really interesting analysis, go to the Gamasutra article comments to see what actual game developers are saying. Here are some of the more plangent thoughts and memes, paraphrased for your pleasure:

  • It’s serious trouble for the industry when a developer that released a top title a few months ago cannot sustain itself. You don’t implode your team without a good reason.
  • Take-Two may have decided to shut Irrational down after Levine picked the top 15 people and announced his intention to move on. But why didn’t he just form a small “special project” team of 15 within Irrational?
  • Bioshock was a critical success, but not a blockbuster and possibly ran a loss.*
  • Maybe it wasn’t Levine who shut down Irrational, but rather Take-Two, whose stock jumped at the news of the shuttering. Maybe Levine simply saved what he could from the smoking ruins.

None of these are particularly savory, but all of them sound quite plausible. I’d like to point to our article on why becoming a game designer isn’t all we’d hope it would be. Best of luck to all the Irrational staff who are reacting to this dramatic change.

* According to Wikipedia, BioShock Infinite was the top-selling console game for March 2013 and shipped 4 million copies by late July 2013. However, it wasn’t one of the top 10 selling games of 2013 and it placed #16 in the UK, where it sold particularly well.

An Indie Game Afternoon

Indie Game Madness at Fantastic Fest

Spent a chunk of the afternoon at the “Fantastic Arcade,” something I had no idea existed until a few weeks ago.

I was pretty impressed with the polish on most of these games, which are ripe and ready for DLC publication. Some of them are doubtlessly soon to hit Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. Here are some snaps of the most notable indie games my friends and I saw, but it was impossible to see them all in the time we had.

If you’re a developer on one of these games and want me to pull any of these images for any reason, or if you’d like a full review, just say the word.

Papo Y Yo

This charming game was a little rough around the edges, but has some promise. This shot shows one of the best sequences, where you (the little boy) lift a cardboard house, only to see a full-sized house on the opposite side of the gorge rip out of its foundations and hover in the air, mirroring the movements of the cardboard one. The protagonist also works with a little robot, reminding me of Ico gameplay, which the producer acknowledged as an influence.

Journey

Coincidentally, this game, another Ico-influenced experience as far as I can tell, was right across the aisle. I think our new pal Lauren said it’s from the same devs as the indie game Flower. Gorgeous minimalist art design.

Sideway

My friend Daniel was especially impressed (as was I) with the innovation of this title. You play as a graffiti character, and when you pass between, say, sidewalk and wall, the perspective shifts and suddenly you’re looking at a new set of Mario-esque challenges and rewards on that new plane.

Closure

Reminiscent of a top-notch Flash game, Closure’s gameplay seems to focus (ha ha) on the challenge of arranging floodlights so they properly light your path ahead. The moody grayscale environments and character design add to the flavah.

Fez

Like Sideway, this is another Paper Mario-esque game that puts rotating/alternating 2D gameplay in a 3D context. Very popular with attendees, featuring attractive yet chunky 8-bit style graphics.

Are Games and Workout Machines Crossing Over?

Will Your Next Game Console Make You Sweat?

A recent article about exercise equipment with gaming features caught my eye recently: Nexersys, a new Austin-based workout machine maker, is pointing out that videogames and exercise equipment are reaching convergence. It’s worth taking a look at this crossover phenomenon.

Fitness is a huge industry, and entertainment is already trickling into the gym. People want flat-screens on their treadmills to take their minds off their workouts. Other gym equipment taps into natural competitive instincts with simple videogames.

At the same time, gaming has always been a hotbed for accessories that extend the fantasy, from lightguns to plastic guitars to the Wii Fit. Maybe a device like Nexersys’ iPower — a striking simulator with seven punching pads and an LCD monitor that provides training and feedback — is the next stage in the crossover.

Action Games Are Getting More Active

Have you been jumping up and down in front of your TV lately? A lot of folks have been, now that Sony and Microsoft have tossed their motion-sensing input systems into the market.

One caveat in the “gaming workout” or “exercise gaming” sector is the form factor. It’s hard to control safety and ergonomics when gamers can be playing in all kinds of environments. Nintendo certainly experienced some amusing embarrassment in this regard when reports of Wiimote-flinging destruction caused them to issue safety wriststraps.

Traditionally, these kinds of games have been a better fit for the arcades, simply because the equipment for sensing a game player’s movements wasn’t available on a computer or game console. Dance Dance Revolution, Time Crisis, House of the Dead, all arcade draws. The arcade was the home of novelty input devices. Now, as arcades are fading into oblivion, that barrier has been shattered.

A Better Experience?

Although there’s a masochistic pride in mastering the universe with two tiny plastic joysticks, I believe most gamers would rather dominate with lifelike actions than with a controller. Some would argue that motion sensors and “exercise gaming” are the next stage in a button-mashing, casual-gaming flaming descent into the Great Sellout. However, these new methods of gaming are new and — in the case of the Wii, Kinect, and Move — tantalizingly well-distributed. If the market is big enough, these games can be as hardcore and diverse as any we’ve experience with a controller or keyboard. Motion-sensing gameplay has the potential to introduce all kinds of new ideas and gameplay.

At some point, though, the pleasure in realism starts to break down. Few gamers want to run 26 miles at Murchison High to get the track and field high score in their Olympics game. And should games require players to crawl on their hands and knees to sneak up on foes in the next Metal Gear game? Would you ask your mother to crawl around to play a game? Would you want your Nexersys machine to punch back? It’ll be interesting to see how game designers handle this problem as the games mature.

Will Nexersys and other workout hardware makers like Bowflex and Nordic Track horn in on Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo? I wouldn’t put money on that particular angle. But if Tony Hawk can make his own custom skateboarding controller, why can’t these muscular brands get in on the action?

Who knows. Maybe the next time we hear about “gaming” and “exercise” in the same breath, the story won’t be about childhood obesity but instead life-transforming fitness.

One of the Best MMORPG Info Sites

mmorpgFinding the Best MMORPG

Are you too time-constrained to figure out the best MMORPG for your gaming happiness? The Game Writer Central crew is sending a shout-out to WhatMMORPG.com, a very useful and noteworthy resource. Even figuring out the basics of MMORPG play can be a huge timesink. Who wants to wade through all the marketing fluff — or worse yet, subscribe and invest gameplay time in an MMORPG that turns you off?

That’s where WhatMMORPG shines. Just click on the genre you like, and you’ll see all the basics presented in a simple chart. Date of inception, cost, grinding level (!!!), uniqueness, usability, PVP, crafting, and customizing, all laid out easy-peasy.

Grinding level, talk about a timesaver. This is a valuable service, my gamerz.

Game Cover Showdown: Motorstorm

Videogame Cover Art One-on-One

The MotorStorm team at Evolution Studios just posted their cover art for the new MotorStorm Apocalypse. They’ve got two covers, one for the EU and one for the U.S. Same game, two covers.

Why do marketing teams do this? Well, for one, there are different requirements for the labeling and legalese. But also it’s well-known that certain approaches do better in different regions. Sadly, in my opinion, the demographic studies seem to indicate that, when selling an over-the-top racing game in the U.S., your goal should be to look like a generic traffic jam with a generous dollop of asphalt crumbles, flames, and (especially) motion blur. The EU version is more cohesive, dramatic, and most importantly, sharp.

Here’s the art – take a look and decide for yourself. EU on top.

game cover-eu

game cover-us

Can You Be-Gleeve It?

The Gleeve: Frog’s New Power Glove

So Frog Design has a new unstructured-play concept called the Gleeve. Cool concept that lends itself to horrible blog puns and nightmares of Nintendo’s abortive power glove.

I think it has potential, although the description does seem a little light on details. I’m not about to criticize a simple introductory post for lack of structure, but I do want to plant a suggestion in the Froggies’ heads — a little structure can be a good thing.

It might be premature to proclaim the complete death of imagination. I’m sure there are kids right now, sitting in an empty lot or on a baseball diamond, making up their own games as I type with nothing but enthusiasm and body language. However, attention spans are short and a blank canvas can be as intimidating as prison bars.

If I were in the Frog’s shoes, I’d package that product with a few addictive, premade games that have prominent tunable characteristics or several radically different rulesets that invite experimentation.

Or better yet, I’d hire a game writer/game designer to make those games. :)

I also found this diagram in the Fast Company announcement quite thought-provoking, although I don’t know if I’d rank the Sims as more open than a mod. Click to see the full size image.

LOTR Conquest: Tolkien-Flavored Cheese

Rapidfire Review: Lord of the Rings Conquest

Some quick game designer’s observations about this PS3 game. This thing is hilarious. Yes, unintentionally hilarious, but I give Pandemic points for making the formula easily digestible.

Admittedly, I’m kind of fond of Pandemic because they’re kind of scrappy and they did a solid job with Star Wars Battlefront and Army Men RTS, the latter of which was published by 3DO, one of my previous employers.

He Has Infiltrated Their Lines with Scout Invisibility! Yes!!!

If you yell this with a British accent and buckets of false enthusiasm, you will approach the humor quotient of the demo. Or you can simply watch this video:

That’s pretty choice. Maybe you don’t remember masked, invisible scouts chucking satchel bombs when you read Tolkien, but you probably weren’t reading closely enough. They were all over in The Silmarillion. No, seriously!

Similarly, the wizard class can heal and cast chain lightning, fire wall, and earthquake at the press of a button. A bit of a contrast with Gandalf, whose strongest magicks were providing therapy to Theoden to get him out from under Wormtongue’s control, and +5 chaperoning of stupid Hobbits.

But of course, providing gravitas and guidance is not really what the kids want to do when they’re fantasizing. So Pandemic has taken a few rather generous liberties with the source material.

Gameplay

All would be forgiven if Conquest provided a luxurious gameplay experience, but sadly that’s not the case. Conquest is a lowbrow experience built for simple orc-bashing fun and the exploitation of a license, and it really shows in the brain-dead camera, the simplistic combos, the lack of a “lock-on” control, and the unresponsive controls.

When I say “unresponsive controls,” I’m using a bit of shorthand, actually. Many reviewers use this phrase to describe the disease that afflicts many games, including Conquest. It’s not really the controls that are frustrating; it’s animation cycles and the granularity of the input that the game can accept. This is a topic that has to wait for another day, but let’s just say that sometimes it feels like an eternity to get your character to do what you want him to do.

Conquest does deliver a 16-player online experience which is reminiscent of Battlefront and another 3DO game, the long-forgotten Legends of Might and Magic. Online is good.

Endgame

I also got a good chuckle out of the end of the demo, which allows you to play as the hero Isildur in a crowded battlefield dominated by none other than Sauron himself. Talk about giving up the goods – Pandemic threw subtlety to the winds and trotted out the Dark Lord in the demo. Ol’ Sourpuss draws a beeline for Isildur at every opportunity and bounces him around like a superball, often incurring the wrath of the craptacular camera code (you can’t see Isildur after he gets whacked) and the clumsy object boundaries (Isildur gets popped up on top of environmental objects).

Not a problem — a few dozen good pokes with a standard-issue sword or arrow puts him in the grave. If only Frodo had known!

The Janus Fund Fee Game

janus fund feeThe Janus Performance Fee Proposal

The Janus fund fee (“performance fee”) recently pitched by Janus Funds is a good example of gamesmanship for higher stakes than seen in your typical RPG or RTS. We don’t usually talk about financial matters here at Game Writer Central, but I believe that it’s important to recognize game elements in all environments, especially when those elements are subtle and insidious.

Just like the manufactured financial instruments that were a large part of our recent economic meltdown, mutual fund fees are arbitrary structures that exist only on paper. Like the rules of a board game, mutual fund fee rules don’t come from any governing body — they’re agreed-upon between the shareholders and the fund management, and they can be changed by a simple vote. Like the Janus fund fee that’s being proposed for their Janus Forty, Janus Fund, Janus Global Opportunities, Janus Overseas, and Janus Twenty Funds.

Janus Funds wants to change the usual percentage management fund fee to a base fee plus or minus a performance-based amount. If they beat their benchmark index (an unmanaged group of similar investments), they get more money; if they don’t they get less.

The Janus Fee: Fair or Fail?

This sounds great until you realize that Janus is never going to pitch something that’s not in their best interests. A little investigation on the Janus fund fee proposal reveals it isn’t really in the shareholder’s best interests:

  • A simple Google search yielded this article from Smart Money that cites a NYU/Fordham study showing that performance-based fund fees actually caused fund managers to take abnormal risks. Unsurprisingly, when given short-term goals, people often sacrifice what’s best for all to grasp at the dangling carrot. If you ask me, this kind of thinking infects Wall Street in general: CEOs sacrifice the company’s well-being for quarterly earnings, because the CEO plans to cash out ASAP and ride his golden parachute away from the smoking ruins.
  • Benchmark indexes are by nature mixed bags. They’re representative of a certain slice of the market, and they contain dogs as well as stars. Although it’s true that many managed funds struggle to beat the S&P 500 on an year-over-year basis, sector indexes are often much more motley. Here’s an example: Janus Overseas Fund is benchmarked to an index that it consistently beats. Of the eight sample periods shown on Janus Funds’ own website, the Janus Overseas Fund beats the index six of eight times, including the entire past decade.

So… this is some interesting game design. If you’re an investor, do you want to change the game rules so that the game scalps up to 15% more off your hard-earned winnings with that kind of frequency? Or do you vote to keep the rules the same?

Of course, if fund management takes abnormal risks and performs badly, the fund could perform worse than its historical tracking and be penalized by the Janus performance fee. But if the Janus fund fee is ticked down, so are your earnings. That’s a lose-lose game, with you holding the bigger share of the risk.

Don’t Play Hooky On Fund Fee Proxies: Your Power Is Your Own

It’s my opinion that we Americans as a nation often fail to look out for our own best interests because it often requires a bit of painful research and thought. Whether it’s investigating the track record of a politician or taking the time to vote on school board elections, we don’t like doing our homework. And as a result, we get “gamed” by the entities we’re supposedly overseeing.

Keep this in mind the next time you get a boring fund fee proxy statement in the mail. If they’re asking for your signature, you have power. Signing blindly isn’t as dramatic as kneeling in fealty to a demonic end-game boss, but the consequences can be more dramatic for you and your family.