Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Walking Dead - Review

WARNING: I will try not to spoil any of the plot but this review will effect how you play the game if you already haven’t. 

Telltale’s take on the successful zombie comic book series has received exceptional reviews from critics. I just finished a play through of The Walking Dead on my Xbox 360 (on a physical disc). I was a little disappointed to find out that you can’t install the game to your hard drive because I own the original Xbox 360 model. These models had louder disc drives which can really take away from the experience especially in story-heavy games. There are also numerous complaints about the physical disc having game breaking problems on the Xbox 360 but I was fortunate enough to not suffer any major problems, only a few stutters that would be fixed by reloading my last save point. These are bugs that Telltale is currently trying to address and will hopefully be fixed soon. My review of The Walking Dead game will not take these bugs into account since they will eventually be fixed.

The greatest part of the Walking Dead is the amazing story that Telltale unfolds. You play as Lee Everett, a man on his way to prison when he lucks out and gains a second chance at freedom in a zombie apocalypse world. You eventually meet a little girl named Clementine who you decide to take under your wing and try to protect throughout the story. While you try to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, you encounter other survivors. Telltale does a great job in creating characters that I either loved and wanted to help out whenever I could or utterly despised and couldn’t wait till I could smash their skull in. Telltale also included some twist and turns throughout the story to keep the player interested. I also liked that some of the decisions that are presented in the game have an emotional impact on the player. You start seeing more of these kinds of decisions starting in Episode 2.  Telltale does an impressive job with recreating the feeling of living in a post apocalyptic world where nothing ever feels safe.

The unique art style of The Walking Dead helps flesh out the rest of the world. The best way I can describe the graphics is cell shading meets the ink style introduced in Street Fighter IV.  The art style fits well with the original source material since it was based on The Walking Dead comic book. The soundtrack created for the game is excellent and fits perfectly within the atmosphere that the game creates. The melodies from the songs generate a variety of moods that range from somber tones to eerie feelings. This is one of my favorite soundtracks in a video game and it is unfortunate that Telltale hasn’t released it officially. I've included one of my favorite songs so that you can have a sample of what the soundtrack is like.

I did enjoy the fact that some dialogue decisions had a limited time in which you could respond. This time constraint prevents the player from just sitting around trying to figure out what the best possible response will be. It also helps keeps the player grounded into the world by not having them taken out to a separate dialogue interface that would impede their connection to the game. Another feature that I loved was the Decision Stat page at the end of each episode. I’m not sure if this was available with the original digital download of the game but it is also available on Telltale's website . The Stat page shows each decision made in that chapter and the percentage of players that choose the different choices. While it has no affect on the game play or how you made decisions, it is nice to see what other people did on their playthroughs. It would be great if this stat page also showed you what your friends did in their copy of the game so you can compare their play style to your own.

The Walking Dead is not without flaw. The major problem I had with The Walking Dead is that your decisions don’t make a difference. The events of the story will happen no matter what you do. This is disappointing especially considering that at the start of each chapter there is some white text that states “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” This is far from the truth because nothing really changes when you make a decision. You will always end up going through the same places, and probably with the same bunch of people. This also affects how some characters can die. Many deaths are not preventable and scripted in a cutscene which means your decision to save them was pointless. Other times when you fail to save a character the game gives you a game over screen and forces you to repeat that section until you can save them. After playing a game like Heavy Rain where any of the four characters can die and will affect what happens in the story, I was expecting something very similar to that. Even a visual novel like 999 makes your decision matter by giving you a completely new part of the story. There is very little reason to play this game more than once since nothing major really changes.

Another flaw with The Walking Dead is that the quick time events did nothing out of the usual. Everything is basically pressing a button very fast or moving the cursor to aim and then pressing a button. Even with the aiming you just needed to go in the general direction and it would usually be executed perfectly. However this is just a minor flaw since the main selling point of the game is to experience being a part of a surviving group within The Walking Dead universe.

I believe that if you look at any game there will always be flaws. What matters is if those flaws have a substantial effect on the experience to that point where it is no longer an enjoyable one. So would I recommend this game to others? It really depends on what the person expects from the game. If the person is looking for a game that really takes into account the decisions you make and affects the story then I would not recommend The Walking Dead. However if the person is looking for a great story, with an amazing atmosphere and exquisite soundtrack then The Walking Dead would be perfect for them. Overall I did enjoy the game for what it was and I am looking forward to the next season.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pokemon: Gotta Improve 'em All

There have been five generations of Pokemon games since the original release of Red and Blue (or Red and Green in Japan). Each new release has brought minor changes or new features that have generally pushed the series a little closer to perfection. The original games captured the minds of many children because of clever game design and a great understanding of what children would find fun. Players could embark on a journey that lets them travel to different towns, explore caves and dungeons with mysterious Pokemon and even become the world’s best Pokemon trainer. Even after defeating the eight gym leaders and plowing your way through the elite four and the Champion, there is still more to do. You can try to finish your Pokedex which means collecting all the Pokemon available (originally 151 but the latest generation has 649 to collect), enter in Pokemon contests or even build a team to compete against other real life players.

Pokemon took full advantage of the hardware available on the Nintendo DS. Players are now able to use their internet connection for battling and trading with others. This made the number of trainers you could battle or trade grow from being only a few friends around your block to anyone in the world who had a wireless internet connection. Game Freak also included a new feature called the Global Trading Center. This allowed for trainers to put up a Pokemon and request any other Pokemon with the ability to specify gender and level. It allowed players to trade efficiently even if they lived in different time zones. The latest Black and White 2 games added the ability download the Champions’ teams of the real life Pokemon tournament winners and see how your own team does against them. This helped introduce competitive battling to a larger audience and showed them how the battle system can actually require skill and strategy instead of just power leveling through like in the regular story mode. Before the DS games had arrived, the only way to get some Pokemon officially (such as Mew in the original Red and Blue) was to attend Nintendo events. However since the release of Diamond and Pearl, users are able to connect to the internet and download the event Pokemon through the Mysterious Gift option making these Pokemon much more accessible to everyone.

I believe the Pokemon games are great but like all great games it has flaws. The first thing that I have noticed in all the Pokemon games I played was the constant random battle. Almost every step I take triggers a random battle, and usually is the same Pokemon over and over again. The battles end up becoming a chore and something that prevents me from enjoying the franchise. You can just buy some Pokemon repel but then you might be under leveled for the next Gym battle. I would love to see the next Pokemon game have a lot less random battles and increase the general experience awarded so the player doesn’t have to grind  to stay at the proper level. It would be great if there was a feature that allowed you to increase or decrease the likelihood of a random encounter. That way if you just want to get to the next area without having to fight too many Pokemon you could do so but if you were in the mood to level up then you could increase the chances.

Another problem with the battle system is that it takes forever to finish a battle or even farm a Pokemon to level 100. Pokemon Stadium and its successor had a feature which allowed players to connect their Pokemon game and play them on their TV. It also allowed for players to speed up the game to almost three times the normal speed which made grinding to level 100 feel like less of a chore. I would love for Game Freak to somehow include this in later generations through an attachment to the Wii or Wii U which they could sell at a reasonable price.

I’m surprised that a New Game + feature has still not been added to the Pokemon series. I would love to play through the story of a Pokemon game again (especially since the Black and White story is much more involved) but the fact that I will lose all my data has prevented me from replaying the story line. The New Game + would allow the player to retain all the items (other than key items) and all Pokemon in their PC and team. This way the player can choose to start fresh and just place their team in a PC box or just plow through the story line with their leveled up team. The argument that many people will state is that people will be able to get duplicates of legendary Pokemon. However simple scripts can prevent those events from triggering again on a second play through so that people cannot abuse the system to get more legendary Pokemon.

The last thing I would love to be added to the Pokemon RPG series is a cloud saving service. After collecting all 493 Pokemon in the Diamond and Pearl generation, I never want to try collecting that many all over again. It would be nice to have my entire Pokemon collection transfer over to the next generation so I wouldn’t have to sit there and manually trade over all Pokemon that I managed to keep on that game. I would then be able to just focus on collecting the new set instead of trying to recapture what I had already did in past games. The cloud saving service would also help reduce the losses whenever someone receives a corrupt save file message and had no other way of backing up their data.

Pokemon has been around for about 14 years starting with the original games on the Gameboy. It is one of the few franchises that has gotten better with every installment and will only continue to grow closer towards perfection as the years go by.  I hope some of the features I have listed here will become available in future generations but only time will tell. I decided to end this post with one of my favorite Pokemon songs from the original Red version:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Diablo 3's Post Launch Problems

Happy Halloween!

Diablo 3 has been a game fans have wanted for over a decade. The final product was far from perfect and received harsh criticisms from fans. I've played over 350 hours of Diablo 3 since the launch of the game exclusively on my Barbarian. The game has gone through a few patches with each patch creating a significantly better game. I want to focus this post on how Blizzard can help improve the game even further through some minor changes.

Random Number Generation (RNG) is a player’s worst nightmare. The obvious reason why people despise RNG is that they have no control over it. My marketing professor once told my class that negative word of mouth is about 7 times more powerful then positive word of mouth based on human behavior. This means that players notice the negative aspects of RNG much more than a good RNG effect unless that good RNG is on the extreme of good. So how does RNG work its way into Diablo 3? Well first, rare quality items that drop can have anywhere between four to six magical properties (stats). There are hundreds of different properties that can be chosen from but only a handful is useful to a player. After these magic properties are chosen, they can roll a range of numbers depending on the item level or monster level. The last patch allows for more items to drop with the highest possible range of stats but I believe Blizzard can do more.

The last patch updated one of the magical properties to actually provide some benefit to the player. Bonus to Health globes would originally increase the amount of health orbs that drop from monsters by a small amount. While on paper this sound nice, in actual gameplay it was useless. In order to see a benefit the player would need to stack the stat or rely on healing through health globes which only dropped at set intervals based on champion monster’s health. This type of healing is something that players can’t really control and thus found other ways to recover health such as finding items with life on hit which returns health based on how often the player hits an enemy. The last patch made the Bonus to Health globe property include an increase to health potions. Blizzard was able to kill two birds with one stone because players were complaining about potion’s not healing enough and health globe bonus was a useless property. While the health globe property is not a stat players will automatically look for when searching for upgrades, it now provides a nice bonus.

Thorns Damage is a magical property that deals damage to the enemy whenever the player is struck. However the amount of damage is minimal compared to the amount of damage a player can dish out even if that player had stacked the thorns damage property on all their gear. Blizzard can easily buff this property by having it scale to a degree from the player’s primary stat. I do not expect it to be the main damage source but it should deal enough damage that it is viable for a tank build to try to stack it on their equipment.

Increase Pickup Yards affects how far you can be away from gold and health globes to pick them up. With 0 increase pickup yards, the player has to manually walk over every gold stack and health globe which becomes a pain (this is something I learned very recently when I upgraded my boots which was my only source of this property). My solution to this is to increase the base pickup radius to about 6 or 7 yards and change the property to Pickup Tiers. There would be 3 tiers and each property would add a plus one pickup tier. Having no pickup tiers will only pickup gold and health globes within 6 or 7 yards.  A plus one Tier would allow for auto pick of up health potions, gems, and tomes of secrets. Another plus one tier (Tier 2) would allow pickup all magic quality (blue) items within the base radius. The final Tier will allow for auto pickup all rare items. Now the problem with this approach is that some people do not pickup magic items or do not pickup potions. Any easy way to rectify this is to have an option on the character sheet which allows the player to check off the items they wish to auto pickup such as only gold or item level 63 rare quality items, potions and gold. It would take some work to program this into the game but I believe it would be a feature appreciated by the fans.

After playing World of Warcraft (Blizzard’s cash cow) for many years, I expected Diablo 3 to contain some of the same interface options. There should have been an interface option that allows the player to select builds from a list that players has assigned so switching specs would become a much more fluid experience. I can see this becoming a requested feature when PVP becomes available because the builds will change so much since PVP will be a whole different game. An equipment manager would also be necessary with PVP since I am expecting Blizzard to have a new set of gear that is specific to PVP. Also having another set of gear means we will need more stash space. I’m surprised Blizzard hasn’t already implemented a feature where we can pay real life money for more tabs in our stash. I’m sure many people would be outraged at the idea of having to pay for more space but realistically creating more space means more data for the servers to maintain which does cost Blizzard money.

There are few other minor changes that Blizzard should make towards Diablo 3. The first is releasing more transparent information in game with regards to life on hit and life steal. From what I’ve noticed there doesn’t seem to be anywhere in game to let the user know that life steal has a penalty on it while playing the higher difficulties. It would be nice to show the actual life steal amount on the character sheet and an explanation when hovering over the stat. Also proc coefficients should be explained somewhere so that the user can begin to understand how various abilities and life on hit actually work. The argument Blizzard would make is that, many users would become confused by the technical math behind the game but realistically I believe having some of that information readily available could help users make better decisions. Another stat that needs to have light shed on it is average damage. It makes a huge increase in your damage when compared to other stats such as your primary stat or even critical hit chance yet there is no explanation to as how average damage helps to increase your damage.

The final few minor changes I would like to see are in regards to the leveling system. I think followers should be shared across all characters on an account. Players should be awarded for leveling another character after maxing out their first character and using a high level follower could provide some incentive. The Paragon leveling system could also use a few tweaks to make it worthwhile. I honestly do not think that gaining 3% magic find and gold find makes hitting Paragon level 100 worth it. Instead it should be something unique such as allowing the user to have an extra passive ability or maybe even allowing an ability to use two runes. Paragon leveling system is counter intuitive for anyone who wants to have multiple characters since the Paragon level is specific to each character. Blizzard could alter the system so that your magic find and gold find carries over to other characters but not your primary stat or any other bonuses such as the extra passive so you can still farm efficiently for items on any character.

Diablo 3 had a rocky start but Blizzard has shown the fans that they are willing to put in more effort through patches to make the game that fans have been waiting for since Diablo 2. Every game has its flaws and Diablo 3 is no different but thanks to Blizzard’s dedication post launch they will be able to minimize those flaws. My goal was to address some minor issues that are overshadowed by the major issues of PVP combat and lack of end game content and hopefully will be addressed in a future patch.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Unique Modes

My last article discussed the details about Mortal Kombat 2011 and how it had many unique modes. This is probably a good time to discuss some of the other fighting games and how they have contributed to creating unique experiences.

Super Smash Bro’s for the Nintendo 64 was a new approach to fighting games. Outside of just brawling with other Nintendo characters, the developers introduced two mini games based on the game engine. Board the Platform had character specific stages where the player must maneuver through traps to land on the ten platforms. The other mini game was an obstacle course specific to each character where the player had to break ten targets placed strategically to utilize specific character abilities. The level designers had to figure out ways to make each character’s level unique to their abilities so that the player can learn to use the entire arsenal of moves to beat the mini games. It was an excellent way to show players what the characters could do without having them train in practice mode or fight through the arcade mode. I remember a time when I was having trouble with Jigglypuff’s board the platform stage. There was one platform at the very bottom of the stage which seemed almost impossible to reach. After many attempts and repeatedly hearing “Failure” from the announcer’s voice, I smashed a random button out of frustration. That’s when I noticed Jigglypuff’s neutral smash attack allowed her to move forward while still floating in the air. It was a great feeling to finally be able to complete the stage but I also learned more about character.

The Tekken series has introduced quite a few mini games over the years. Tekken Ball was featured in Tekken 3. It is a variation on volleyball where the players have to juggle a ball back and forth. Every time the ball takes a hit, a meter at the bottom of the screen fills up for that character. When the ball either hits a player or falls to the ground, the meter resets and inflicts damage based on how full the meter was.  It was a nice change of pace from just playing the normal arcade or versus mode. I would have loved to see the mode fleshed out in later installments but unfortunately it has never reappeared in the series.

Tekken Force Mode was also introduced in Tekken 3. The best way to describe this mode is a traditional beat-em up game like Streets of Rage. It even had a roasted chicken that recovered a player’s health just as it did in Streets of Rage. You were able to choose any of the characters from the roster and retained their move set. The game featured four stages set on a 2-D prerendered background. Tekken Force reappeared in Tekken 4 with full 3-D stages and a longer campaign. Tekken 5 changed the formula by forcing the player to use Jin Kazama who can transform into a much more powerful character, Devil Jin through a special bar. This was the first time Tekken Force mode had an actual storyline.  Tekken 6 continues the Tekken Force mode with its Scenario Campaign. At first only two characters are unlocked but as you progress through the story, more character become available to select. Scenario Campaign also introduces the ability to use weapons and features a co-op mode for some of the stages. It also features an arena mode where character endings are unlocked.

My favorite mini game from all of the Tekken series has been Tekken Bowling. It was first introduced in Tekken Tag Tournament and then reappeared in Tekken 5 Dark Resurrection for the PSP. It is a traditional bowling simulator that allows you to use the Tekken cast. Each character has a unique set of stats that determines how fast the ball will travel and the type of spin. The robot characters feature a different heads up display and have targeting assistance. While it has nothing to do at all with the fighting game, it’s a great way to end off a long Tekken session.

I’m sure there are many more examples of fighting games with unique mini games but unfortunately these are the only one’s that I have played and had an enjoyable experience. While some modes are more related to the basics of a fighting game, I believe all the mini games listed here introduce some creative gameplay mechanics.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mortal Kombat 2011, Raising the Bar

I recently was able to acquire a copy of Mortal Kombat 2011 Komplete edition for the 360. The last Mortal Kombat game I remember playing was back on the Sega Genesis with Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. But I was young at the time and barely knew how to perform fatalities without the aid of the code books that were sold at Blockbusters. I still remember being fascinated by all of the over the top gore and violence along with the realistic digitized sprite graphics. It was a unique perspective to the fighting game genre that was made so popular with games such Street Fighter II and Killer Instinct. Mortal Kombat 2011 does not disappoint. It creates a new standard which all fighting games will be judged upon.
My expectations for a fighting game have usually been the same across all the different series. While Tekken is my preferred fighting game series, I’ve played various Street Fighter, Marvel Vs Capcom and Dead or Alive games. Until Mortal Kombat, none of these games really reinvented themselves in a meaningful way. Most fighting games will have an arcade/story mode, a training mode and some form of online multiplayer mode. Capcom is notorious for pretty much providing these basic features and nothing more. Mortal Kombat 2011 goes above and beyond the traditional fighting game features.
The arcade mode in Mortal Kombat 2011 is your traditional styled fight X amount of brawlers to beat the game. The real gem is the revamped story mode. The story mode is broken up into 16 chapters, each with its own character. This mode essentially gives you a taste of most of the fighters available throughout the game. The story mode goes through the events of the original three Mortal Kombat games. It features cutscenes in between battles to help progress the story and explain what is happening. Each chapter consists of fighting four or five combatants either for the actual tournament or if the character is off doing some side mission. This is the first time that I've actually seen a coherent storyline for a fighting game where it makes sense. Sure Tekken provides an intro explaining why the character enters the King of the Iron Fist tournament but this new approach to the storyline in a fighting game has raised the bar.
Often times sequels for a game are not as great as the original because the developer seems to lose focus on the elements that made the original so great. I’m sure this happened to the countless sequels produced in the Mortal Kombat series. However with their latest edition, they have returned to the basics and made one of the best fighting games released in a long time. The fatalities have returned to being awesome. They are over the top, gory and very brutal. The unique abilities of the different fighters really shine when they are used to decapitate the losers in a match. The realistic graphics really help the fatalities flourish, especially when a character rips the torso off an opponent and you can see the blood and the entrails dangling from the lifeless body.
The new mechanic added to Mortal Kombat 2011 is the X-ray move given to each fighter. X-ray moves are equivalent to the super moves from Street Fighter where you need three full bars to activate. X-ray moves are some of the best looking and satisfying fighting moves to land on an opponent. When an X-ray move hits an opponent, the game goes into slow motion and zooms into the area to show a skeletal x-ray vision of how the hit impacts the opponent such as the cracking of bones and blood spraying out of the body. Other graphical improvements featured in Mortal Kombat include garments ripping from combat damage, skin becoming bruised and torn asunder showing organs such as the brain or other blood filled muscles. Again, these graphical details all add to what made the original Mortal Kombat such a popular series, the gore and violence.
Mortal Kombat does add a new feature to the series known as the Challenge Tower. Here the designers went all out in providing a unique experience outside of just a fighting game. The tower contains about 300 challenges that range from just playing through a regular fighting match to having to fend off a zombie invasion using only projectiles. Various other mini games are found here such as "Test your Might" where you have to repeatedly press a button to break the stack of brick or wood, or "Test your Sight" where you have to find the skull hidden under the moving cups. These are all refreshing ways to experience Mortal Kombat outside of the traditional arcade style fighting. The challenge tower rewards the user with "koins" that they can use towards unlockables.
Like in every game, there are flaws to this almost perfect fighting game. One of the most frustrating aspects of the game was the two-on-one battles. Essentially your character has to fight a tag team and win two rounds. While this wouldn’t be a problem in arcade mode since you would be able to use a character you are comfortable with, in the story mode you’re forced to use the one character for that chapter. You are put in a position where you don’t really know how to properly do combos with a character and then placed with a handicap. It would have been nice to have some extra health or some extra damage to help mitigate this handicap. The other frustrating battle was against Shao Khan who I only managed to defeat after using a cheesy strategy. Shao Khan’s moves hit like a truck and he doesn’t get interrupted if you hit him in the middle of his swing animation. He also has powerful projectiles which can stun you from afar. Luckily he does have flaws like every major villain. Once in awhile he’ll stand around and mock you which allows you to get some decent hits in. My final issue with the game is the training mode. Again, this is an issue that really impacts all fighting games and not just Mortal Kombat. Training modes seem to just feature the basic cookie cutter style modes such as cpu controlled, player controlled, auto block or combo recorder. While those are fine, fighting games should really strive to add in ways to show you how to make combos or add in a feature where you can see the list of moves without having to pause the game. You should be able to select a move and have it appear on the screen while in training mode. You should be able to see a demo of what the move looks like when you select it. Also, if a move is selected then there should be some sort of confirmation that you just did it in practice so you know you did it correct.
Other than those few flaws, Mortal Kombat 2011 is probably one of the best fighting games ever. If it is not in your "kollection" already you should go out and try it. I really doubt anyone would be disappointed with variety of gameplay offered in the game.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ouya, the Unneeded Competitor

Ouya is the latest competitor in the home console market. It has been gaining popularity through its Kickstarter campaign, raising over 5.5 million dollars with 43 thousand backers. But what is Ouya and why so much hype over this new console? Ouya is a home entertainment console that runs on the Android operating system. One of the reasons for the development of this new console is the idea that smaller developers want to make console-esque games. Creating a game on one of the three primary consoles usually requires high costs associated with buying developer kits and licensing engines. Ouya will allow developers to forgo the various fees associated with creating games on a traditional console. There won’t be publishers to deal with or retail merchants to negotiate shelf space. The essence of Ouya is to allow developers as much freedom as possible. While this seems like a great idea, is it really needed?

One of the great things about Ouya is the pricing. The console will cost $99 and come with a controller and SDK. The SDK will give user the tools necessary for developing games. The console is also hacker friendly in terms of software and hardware. In terms of software, users can root the console in order to get access to system files and various other superuser functions. The hardware hacking refers to the  user having the ability to create their own peripherals that connect through USB or Bluetooth which allows for even more unique gaming experiences. Ouya can become more than just a simple game console. Since it is based on the Android operating system, any developer can publish their apps to work on Ouya. Ouya has also announced the ability to play OnLive games on the console which helps it compete directly with current generation consoles. Thus Ouya is a fully capable media system which will put pressure on Microsoft and Sony future plans.

My main concern is whether there is a need for this type of console. Indie developers have many outlets to create their own games. Microsoft has a specific section for Indie games that is available on the Xbox Marketplace. If Microsoft can start working to make the Indie community feel more welcomed along with finding ways to promote the Indie marketplace, Ouya will have fierce competition. Steam has recently announced the Steam Greenlight program which allows the community to decide which projects should be released on steam. Developers could start showing their early prototypes to the Steam community where they will get feedback quickly and can adjust their designs to fit demands. Also many smart phones have the capability of connecting to an HDTV’s through an HDMI port. Add in the ability to wirelessly connect a Bluetooth controller and we pretty much have an Ouya. All you really need at that point is a game to recognize the controller inputs and you have a TV experience. It seems like the overall videogame industry is finding ways to accommodate indie developers.

I am wondering who Ouya is going to be marketed towards? So far it seems like its marketing towards the indie crowd but that does not seem like a large enough user base. If Ouya’s target audience is much broader, say a casual market then why would someone who owns one of the three leading console want to spend an additional $99 on something that has features similar to their current console. There needs to be more incentive for people other than developers to purchase Ouya especially since the new Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony consoles will be released soon. Incentives could include some new exclusive intellectual properties by well known developers. The software is really what’s going to sell the consoles.

While on the topic of software for the Ouya, there is another major hurdle that it needs to climb over. Reducing the barriers to entry for developing games means a lot more people will start publishing their own games. This means a lot of shovelware will be found on the marketplace. Shovelware discourages buyers by forcing them to look through all the terrible clones to find the one good game. Ouya can add a rating system to the games which allows users to differentiate between good and terrible games. However there will still be thousands of games to look through which can become overwhelming. The last thing Ouya wants to be known for is having a ton of terrible clones.

There is one thing I believe Ouya should incorporate into its strategy. Since Ouya seems to be targeting indie developers, creating a user friendly interface for their SDK should be a priority. This will allow those with less programming experience to have an easier time to break into game development by prototyping their basic designs. They should also encourage users to get together to collaborate on ideas through special events hosted by Ouya. People with different backgrounds could come together to form teams. Ouya events could help teams fill in the necessary roles that they are missing such as designers, programmers or artists. These events could all be done through the Ouya console by hooking up a camera and microphone to create a type of conference call.

While Ouya seems like a great idea on paper, I feel there is very little reason for it to exist. The current market seems too small to create a substantial impact on the gaming industry. These indie developers already have a plethora of option available in order to create games on a “big screen TV.”

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Contextual Saving

It is rare for a game developer to give a contextual reason for the need of a save point. Often times the save point is only included because it is convenient for the player. Games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger use a shimmering light to save the player’s progress but do not indicate why there are save points scattered all around the world in various dungeons. There is an area in Chrono Trigger where the player is stuck in a room with four save points. If the player approaches the wrong icon, the player faces an encounter that uses the save sprite file as an enemy. However this type of incorporation is minor compared to how some game designers have approached the issue of contextual saving.

Xenogears has one of the most impressive storylines to ever grace a home console. While many found issues with the second disc feeling incomplete, the overall experience of Xenogears is spectacular. The save points in this game are called memory cubes. They aren’t actually cubes but something that looks similar to a dark yellow transparent Playstation memory card with an intricate design in the center. These memory cubes store the memory, emotions and thoughts of the person who accesses them. The memory cubes also have a role in the plot of Xenogears but since I believe everyone should really play or watch Xenogears, I won’t ruin it.

Metal Gear Solid is widely known for its impressive stealth action gameplay as well as its captivating story. The designers behind Metal Gear Solid also have a great creative mind when it comes to tackling issues of breaking the fourth wall. The protagonist, Snake, can use his codec device to contact a handful of specialists throughout his mission. You can contact the Colonel to gain advice on where to go or call up another member who will explain properties of a weapon you have equipped. These codec conversations have some really great moments and fortunate enough to have talented voice actors. The save system is disguised in Metal Gear Solid through the codec system.  Snake can save the game by contacting Mei Ling who will record all of the mission data for Snake. Another ingenious idea that the developers had for the original Metal Gear Solid was using Psycho Mantis’ psychic powers to read the players mind. When a player encounters Psycho Mantis, he tells you that he will do a few things. One of them is reading your mind which he then lists the other Konami games that you have played based off your memory card. He goes even further by commenting on how often you have saved, how many times you have been spotted, how you fare in hand to hand combat and how well you have evaded traps. The breaking of the fourth wall was successfully accomplished only by a handful game such as Eternal Darkness.

The Resident Evil typewriters are probably one of the most famous save icons featured in a video game. While it may not seem like a big deal, the typewriters perfectly complement the atmosphere created by the game designers. The eerie sounds of metal pieces working to type in your save add to the silent loneliness that is only broken by the moans of a nearby zombie. The typewriters will only save if a player has an ink ribbon on hand which means the player is limited on the number of times they can save. This limited amount of saving augments the suspense and horror that is shaped by the designers. The sound designers did a remarkable job by composing the perfect song to fit the save rooms. “Secure Place” (theme for the save room in Resident Evil 2) evokes emotions of feeling safe yet apprehensive of what lays in the next dreadful corridor. I’ve included the “Secure Place” theme as a good way to end my discussion of save systems that go above and beyond the call of duty.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Saves Part 2

 The next save method I would like to discuss is the use of checkpoints. I like to break checkpoints into two categories, the strict checkpoints and random checkpoints. A strict checkpoint is a checkpoint that is triggered whenever the player meets a certain criteria such as completing an objective or clearing a room full of enemies. These checkpoints will always occur in every game as long as the criteria are met. Random checkpoints are not set in stone and every user will have different checkpoints. I’m not really sure what the criteria behind random checkpoints are but it seems to do with staying out of combat or letting enough time pass. The final save system that I will describe is the ability to save anywhere at anytime.
Checkpoints are controlled by the game and require no assistance from the player. Thus the player never has to worry about remembering to save when they are fully immersed in the game’s atmosphere. Checkpoints also save the player some time if dying is a natural part of game progression such as Limbo where death lingers in every shadow. However my experience with strict checkpoints has been awful. Strict checkpoints suffer from the same problem that plagues manual save points. The designer has to place the checkpoints where he or she believes the player will need them the most. However since most players generally have different levels of skills when playing a game, they will essentially get stuck at different parts of a level. Again you can propose the idea to add in more checkpoints throughout the level but then the player is rushing to the next checkpoint and not really learning why they are failing.
Gears of War utilizes this strict checkpoint system but fails at utilizing the system to its fullest. Gears of War on the hardest difficulty forces the player to play defensively and rarely allows for mistakes. I believe the player can only take a few hits before the crimson omen splashes on their screen. I’m generally not a fan of harder difficulties that only change how much damage the player can take and deal but I still managed to play through all the Gears of War games on insane. The problem I had throughout the series was the terribly placed checkpoints. I would usually do fine through an entire segment of a fight but then at last wave of enemies I would get obliterated. It is understandable that I didn’t account for the new type of enemy or maybe I became too aggressive towards the end which leads to my downfall. The last checkpoint is at the beginning of the fight which means I have to sit through an entire fight that I already am capable of defeating. Since I barely had time the first time to see what killed me due to the harsh nature of getting two shotted in the game I try to prepare my self. However I end up dying again trying to learn where the new enemy formation is attacking from. I am again forced to repeat the same battle but this time a bit more weary of doing the same area over and over again which means I’m bound to make a mistake. This cycle repeats it self and leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the series since it has occurred throughout the entire series.
Limbo on the other hand has a wonderful strict checkpoint system. Limbo is a platformer with puzzle based elements. While the game is short, the checkpoints are placed strategically at the beginning of every puzzle so that player rarely has to redo an entire puzzle. Strict checkpoints work remarkably because the game’s atmosphere was exceptional. With a simple artistic design and the use of ambient sounds, the automated saving from checkpoints allows the user to play continuously without worrying about pausing the game to save and losing that strong sense of immersion.
While I do not know of many games that use a mix of random checkpoints and strict checkpoints, it seems to be a much better system than the strict checkpoint. Randomness is usually looked down upon by players because there is nothing that skill can do about randomness but I believe adding in random checkpoints can help alleviate the frustration of repeating segments. The Halo series seems to use this mix of random and strict checkpoints. After playing through the entire series on Legendary, I found that the check point system is definitely more complex then just stationary checkpoints. I remember quite a few times that after failing about three to five times in a single area that the game would remarkably give me another checkpoint right before the part that I was having trouble in. This has happened many times in all five games which makes me think that Bungie has really worked on making checkpoints work with the user. It seems like the game might run some sort of mini program that checks to see how many times a user attempts a battle and the increases the probability of a checkpoint if the player is slowly progressing. But then again this could all just be in my head and I got really lucky when those checkpoints appeared.
The last saving method I can think of is the ability to save anywhere at anytime. This save relies heavily on the user remembering to save or all progress will be lost. This method allows for the most flexibility that can cater to the needs of more players. However remembering to save can be a difficult task especially in games like the Elder Scrolls Series where you become fully immersed in the lands of Vvardenfell, Cyrodiil and Skyrim. I have many accounts of forgetting to save for a few hours and then having an untimely death that forces me to repeat the last few hours of exploration. Fortunately Bethesda has thought of this and added in ways to counter the forgetful player’s dilemma with an autosave feature. They have even improved upon it with their latest installment Skyrim. Autosave would only save when you would rest, wait or entered a building. There was only one auto save file in the earlier games which meant if you rested at the wrong spot and did not have a save for a few hours you were stuck. Skyrim tackles this by allowing up to three autosave files that rotate every time the game autosaves which means there is a higher chance that you won’t lose all your progress. Another game series that uses this save anywhere system is the Pokemon series. This is probably by design of how the games are meant to be played. All the traditional Pokemon games have been on handhelds which meant the player was usually on the go and had play time experiences between a five minute train ride to maybe an hour long bus ride. Thus designers allowed the flexibility to save anywhere so players could pick up right where they left off and play for either a short amount of time to battle a few trainers or for a longer amount of time to actually progress through the story. While the save system did not allow for saving in mid battle, most battles only took maybe a minute to two minutes depending on the difficulty of the trainer which meant that the player could save shortly after.
 I believe that should cover most of the save methods used throughout various game genres. I’m sure I have left out a couple that if I ever remember will try to address in a future post but I believe this should be enough on just describing the save mechanics. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Save that Game!

Disclaimer – I will try to touch upon as many saving methods as possible but most of my knowledge comes from my memory which can be faulty.

Designing a game is really just making decisions about that game. Most people think that a game designer only designs combat systems or player interactions. However a designer has to make sure that all the other aspects are appropriate for this game. These aspects are often over looked by the player when they are done well and are usually reasons for hating a game when they have been implemented poorly. The aspects of game design range from designing the user interface for menus to creating a useful world map. This and the next few entries will focus on discussing the various methods of saving in video games.

Save systems have been around in various forms since the NES days. However many games for the NES did not allow players to save their progress and thus developers had to create games based on this limitation. Developers knew that players should be able to finish the game in one sitting but had to find some way to make sure the games felt long enough to justify a purchase of somewhere between $40 to $60. Some developers tried to increase a game’s longevity through frustratingly difficult gameplay (the original Ninja Gaiden comes to mind, along with Contra). Other developers pushed for more levels but were relatively easy so the player could finish the game in a reasonable amount of time. However to add in replayability developers could add in secret items or collectibles that affect high scores so friends can compete for top scores.

One of the earliest save systems I can think of is the use of passwords. I’m sure many people can remember using passwords in Mega Man X. The password system was great at that time. It allowed players to continue previous plays with most of their abilities intact. Developers could take advantage of this through creating elaborate levels that would be larger since time was not a significant limitation anymore. Players would receive a password after they finish the level and can return the next day to play the next level. The password system had other advantages such as allowing for friends to share passwords and the ability to have passwords work on other cartridges. If your cartridge was lost or broke and you acquired a new copy of the game, passwords ensured that your save file would allow you to continue your progress regardless of what happened to your previous cartridge. One of the main disadvantages of the password system was the complexity of the passwords. The amount of character used for passwords could range from 9 to 20 characters and a single error would often make an invalid password. Also it can be easy to lose a piece of paper with some random letters on it because your mom thinks its just some garbage. Eventually cartridges were equipped with a battery backed RAM that allowed for saved games to be stored after the console was turned off. Nintendo used this technology to allow adventurers to save their progress in their quest to save Princess Zelda in the Legend of Zelda on the NES.

Another save system used frequently is the manual save points. RPG’s use manual save points along with the ability to save anywhere on the world map. The manual save point is usually some spot or item that allows the user to save their progress as many times as they want as long as they can continue to access the save point. Designers could use manual save points to break up a larger dungeon into smaller sections or use it to alter the difficulty of an area. RPGs tend to allow users the ability to fully recover either through an innate ability of the save point or through an item such as a tent. This allows designers to place save points right before a tough boss battle to ensure that the player had a chance to recover from all the battles throughout the dungeon. The only problem is that the designer has to assume where the player will need the save point. Different players get stuck at different places when playing through a game. Thus it is the job of the designer to make sure save points are dispersed at strategic locations by understanding the players need. A designer could place a save every few feet but then the player will feel that the game is more about saving then actually playing. Designers need to justify using save points by placing them either before or after a tough battle or puzzle because nobody likes to do the same thing over and over again.

One of the flaws found in Ninja Gaiden II is the improper placement of save points. During the start of one of the later chapters, the player has to fight about five alternating battles between two enemy types. Each battle is self contained and only features one type of enemy. At the end of the gauntlet is a large circular room with both sets of enemies. While from a design perspective this is great. The smaller sets of both enemies fought individually allow the user to have an idea of what waits for them at the end. However fighting both types of enemies at the same time is a different experience. After losing the battle, I find my self at the start of the gauntlet. I have to fight my way back to the final room through the same enemies that I have already mastered because of the lack of any save point before the end of the gauntlet. This only frustrated me since I was wasting my time fighting the same encounters that I have already mastered when I should be at the final area. Fortunately there is a save point after the final fight so I never had to repeat that fight.

I originally intended this entry to incorporate all my ideas for the save methods but I think it might be better to break up the entry into three sections. The next section will discuss saving anywhere and the usage of checkpoints.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Microsoft's Future

The Xbox 360 debuted late in 2005 and offered two different packages for consumers, a pro console and a core console. The pro bundle came with a twenty gigabyte hard drive and one wireless controller while the core console only came with a wired controller. The only aesthetic difference that I know of is that the pro console had a chrome plated DVD tray while the core console’s DVD tray was white. What is so important about selling two slightly different packages of the console? Well it showed that Microsoft knew that there was a market for people who only needed a basic version of the console. This two product segment approach allows for an increase in sales since people who normally would wait for a price drop have a cheaper alternative from the start. However Microsoft didn’t need any incentive in selling their console since it was sold out for a few months after launch. According to rumors it seems like Microsoft might try something similar to this strategy again with the next generation of consoles.

Supposedly Microsoft plans on releasing a compact version of its current Xbox 360 that will focus on arcade games, Kinect apps and media apps. According to the same rumor the next Xbox will launch a year after this mini version and will play all the same arcade games and apps.  It seems apparent that Microsoft has created an all-in-one entertainment hub with its Xbox 360 at the center. Microsoft has been inching its way to this media focused console ever since the introduction of the Xbox 360. From the start the Xbox 360 was able to stream audio and videos from computers connected to the same network. Eventually through Xbox Live, Microsoft was able to secure a type of On Demand movie service that was eventually incorporated into Microsoft’s Zune Media network and Netflix. With the latest dashboard upgrade Microsoft has updated the user interface to match the Windows 7 Mobile phone interface (which is also the style used in Windows 8) and allowed for various media firms to develop apps to run on the Xbox 360. Apps include things like Facebook, HBO, Netflix, SYFY, Hulu and ESPN. Microsoft understands that customers want the convenience of having all your favorite television programs, music and games in one simple package. Consumers are going to be demanding this sort of device because Xbox Live users are spending more than 50% of the time on Xbox Live watching videos and listening to music
Well what should Microsoft focus on doing in the future for this compact Xbox 360? I think they should price the device somewhere around $100 to $150 to compete with Apple TV. Microsoft should also try obtaining more Cable Television Networks to display their content on the 360 eventually allowing the device to be a substitute for cable television boxes. The gaming aspect of the device should not be limited to Kinect apps or arcade games but should embrace new technology. They can essentially use this device to enter the cloud gaming market and compete against OnLive for a part of their market share. Cloud gaming allows the consumer the option to play traditional games if the demand ever arises and lets the customer have a sense of safety if their future demands are uncertain.

It seems that Microsoft has a first mover advantage over Sony and Nintendo in providing an all-in-one media package. It is quite odd to find that Sony hasn’t tried to embrace all these media apps considering the Playstation 3 slogan was “It only does everything.” Sony has however begun using these various apps within its latest handheld, the PS Vita, which indicates that Sony may incorporate apps into future Playsation 3 firmware or the next Sony home console. Nintendo has always been cautious in approaching a media centered device and has tried to keep its consoles strictly as a gaming medium. Microsoft’s future in the gaming industry is going to be determined on how well they can balance providing quality gaming content while still maintaining their advantage in a convenient all-in-one media device. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

About Me

I'll continue with the theme of the last post and describe a little about myself and the types of games I enjoy.

The name of this blog comes actually from something a friend called me in freshmen year of college. One of our friends asked if I was some sort of hardcore/professional gamer type of person and my other friend responded "No hes more of a video game connoisseur" and I guess that thought really stuck with me years later. I believe my skills in playing video games vary somewhere between average and slightly above average. The only games that I'm confident in saying that I'm significantly above average would be the Splinter Cell series and the Batman Arkham Asylum/City games. The earliest console I can remember playing and owning was the NES with games like Super Mario Bros., Batman (1989), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Little Ninja Brothers.  Turn based RPGs are one of my favorite types of games to play but it seems that these types of RPGs are not in popular demand. First person shooters are great but I've gotten to the point where I've played so many that I haven't found any that set themselves apart by innovating the franchises. I enjoy watching and playing survival horror games and I hope one day firms will return to what made the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill so popular and avoid this rush to create games that are heavily action based. I have been a fan of stealth games since I've first played Splinter Cell back in 2002. Most people like to compare Splinter Cell to the Metal Gear Solid series but I feel that both are stealth games that approach the genre differently. Splinter Cell really focuses on using the shadows to remain invisible while the Metal Gear series is more about avoiding line of sight of enemies along with camouflage to blend in the user's surroundings. I will probably write a piece on the differences between the two series and their strengths and weaknesses some time in the future. I try to keep an open mind about new games and will usually try any game that has seemed to have thought out the game mechanics.  Well that's all for now. I'll leave you with some Batman NES music which had an awesome soundtrack but was probably one of the hardest games I've ever tried to play (keyword is tried to play, I don't think I have ever beaten this game).


Thursday, March 15, 2012

I am alpha and omega....

Well I guess the first post I make should be less about video games and more about why I am writing in this blog and what I might end up writing about.

The reason I am writing about the video game industry is to keep a coherent document of all the ideas and thoughts I have of video games. It will also help me to see how my thoughts have changed over time and what I've learned from the past. Its always interesting to see how things have changed over the years by keeping some sort of log or journal entry. Another reason is to gain some feedback on the ideas I have about game design. The feedback will help me when I begin to develop games because I will have already hammered out some of the flaws that people may point out.

I plan to write mainly about various video games and the design behind them. Game design in my opinion includes things such as level design, character design, story layout, user interfaces and game play. I will also discuss my thoughts on new information released such as the specs for the new generation of consoles, cloud gaming, and other related business decisions that firms make. I am a little skeptical about writing reviews since they usually end up being subjective but I'll try to be objective when I do write a review (Batman games are usually going to be heavily skewed to the right, just a little warning ahead of time...). One of the reasons I do not like writing reviews is because my feelings for a game can change with subsequent play through and as the years go on my rating of a game can change drastically. Thus I will most likely forgo the use of a numbered system to avoid putting any superficial number that will probably change by the end of the week. Another topic I will write about is video game music. I've been listening to video game soundtracks as far back as I can remember and I believe they are a large part of developing a game. A soundtrack can make or break the mood for a game and can set an emotional theme. On that note I'll end this entry off with one of the opening songs from Xenogears (the title of the post is the opening lines for this game).