Monday, December 30, 2013

Playstation 4: The Future is Here

Playstation 4’s launch has been more successful than I anticipated, selling more than 2.1 million units globally. I was fortunate enough to grab one off Amazon at launch last month and was able to mess around with it. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a game that caught my interest so my Playstation 4 has just been collecting dust. I did get to mess around with the different features and play through Contrast and Resogun which came free with Playstation Plus.

The Playstation 4 box is surprisingly thin. It comes with a power cord, one controller, the PS4 system and an HDMI cable. Luckily the power cord is just a single cord and doesn’t have a bulky power brick attached to it. Right now I have the PS4 laying down horizontally but I might invest in a stand to secure it in a vertical stance to save some space. The power and eject button are extremely small and I actually couldn’t find it the first time I tried powering up my console.

The PS4 UI seems like an evolved form of the XBM found on the PSP and PS3. Every time you add a game to your console another icon for that game is created. Right now it doesn’t seem like a problem but when we start having a larger collection, the menu will become cluttered and increasingly annoying to navigate. There isn’t much customization features available for the UI such as setting custom backgrounds or changing the color of menu backgrounds but I believe Sony will add those features in future updates. I hope there is some sort of way to organize your collection by folders that doesn’t require an automatic sort by name, genre or some other predetermined method so that I could tailor my collection to my needs. I would also like an updated Trophy system. I prefer the way that Xbox live achievements work where if you press the guide button while an achievement is popped up you get taken to that achievement in the guide menu. It’s not a deal breaker but it certainly makes it easier to hunt for achievements/trophies if it would work similar to Xbox. Sony added a percentage next to each trophy indicating how many people have acquired that specific trophy which is nice to see how you compare to the general public.

There hasn’t been a single game that I am willing to pay retail for the PS4. But this is something I expected since it’s still very early into the launch. I didn’t want an Xbox 360 until Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released which was about 6 months into the life of the 360. I expect 6 months down the road I’ll probably end up picking a bunch of games that either dropped in price since the launch or some new games that have been teased for a mid 2014 launch. I did get Contrast and Resogun for free with my Playstation Plus subscription. As long as I continue to update my Playstation Plus every year I’ll continue to keep these games and any other Sony decides to give out for free.

Contrast is a basic 3D platformer with an interesting mechanic of going into a 2D shadow world. It has some clever moments for some of the puzzles but its a short game so many of the mechanics aren't as deep as I would have liked. The story line seems a little sparse offering very little incentive to revisit it. The lighting effects demonstrate the power of the PS4 especially since its an early release game and developers will eventually learn how to properly utilize the PS4 in the future.

Resogun is actually probably the highlight of the PS4 launch. When I first started playing Resogun I didn’t really understand any of the mechanics or why my humans were dying. The game doesn’t really teach you anything at all and I ended up having to look online to figure out the different mechanics and reading the manual in the in game menu. However after I understood the game, it became one of my favorite games to play. You’re basically flying a ship that can shoot either left or right and you move along a 2D plane that is essentially a circle. You’re objective is to clear through the enemies and save any humans who are imprisoned in boxes. Releasing humans vary from having to kill certain green glowing enemies to maintaining a combo during a certain time. However losing human’s doesn’t really serve a penalty. You can win the level without saving a single human. Saving a human and placing them at the safe point will gain you bombs, lives, shields or extra points. The real objective of the game is to try to continue to beat your high scores and try to get your name on the leader boards. It’s very similar to geometry wars but I think I still prefer geometry wars over Resogun.

The share feature for the PS4 is better than I expected. I always wanted a way to stream gameplay so that my friends can watch me play but until now there really wasn’t a way to do it without the aid of a PC. Pressing the share button brings up a menu that allows you to connect to your Twitch account very quickly and start streaming right away. You can even change the button to do different things like taking a screenshot or record the last 15 minutes of gameplay if something incredible just happened. Its definitely a feature I expect to use going forward when I have a collection of games available to play. There is even an app that allows you to watch other PS4 streamers which is a good way to see some gameplay footage of games that might not have a demo available on the marketplace.

The best aspect of the PS4 is the controller it self. When I first saw images of the controller I was skeptical that it would be better than the current 360 controller. However after actually picking up the controller, I can safely say it’s probably my favorite controller of all time. Everything just feels right, the way that your hand rests and curves to the controller, the weight of the controller and even the trigger feel great. I haven’t had any games that use the center touch pad so I can’t comment its responsiveness. The directional pad is still the same great directional pad we had from Playstation. The share and option button might feel a little too high up but other than that the controller fits perfectly in my hands. One huge negative is that you can’t turn off the light on the front of the controller. This can become a problem because the light will glare off a television set which can become distracting. The best part of the controller is the headset port at the bottom. It allows you to connect any regular headset to the controller and you can choose to have in-game audio to be played through the headset. This allows for those gamers who have irregular gaming hours or really late night sessions to play without waking up the entire house. This headset port also allows you to use your headset’s microphone which prevents you from having to buy very specific first party microphones that you’ll only end up breaking a few months down the road.

PS4 may not have a great line of games right now but it sure does deliver an amazing console experience. Sony has done a great job in marketing the PS4 towards the needs of traditional gamers. Sony just needs to make some UI improvements and start releasing some must have games for the PS4. I’m looking forward to the future of gaming on the PS4.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Arkham Origins: A Disappointing Dark Knight

Arkham Origins is the latest installment of the Arkham Series developed by a new team, WB Montreal. After the critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum and Arkham City I was expecting Origins to be just as refined as those two games. However with a new development team, I was already concerned that the team would not understand the nuances that made the previous two games amazing. Arkham Origins fails to meet the high standard set by its predecessors.

The first thing I noticed as soon as I played was the changes to combat. I felt like the enemies were slightly faster than the previous games which meant the player needed to use the counter button more often or dodge over enemies. This increases the length of combat making it become very repetitive. WB Montreal did try to add in a new enemy to the mix who can counter your hits or requires to press the counter button twice. However the enemy doesn't really increase the difficulty or abolish the repetitiveness. The main problem might be the fact that the balance between Predator Maps and Combat maps is tipped in favor towards combat. The addition of the shock gloves completely removes any skill required to perfect the combat system. The shock gloves allow the player to hit through most enemy variation without any penalty. This makes the combat increasingly more repetitive and I pretty much opted out of using them since I enjoyed perfecting my combos and raking up huge 50+ hit combos. Overall combat in this game is disappointing compared to the refined combat found in Arkham City.

Arkham City added challenges that could be done during the main story where the player has to do some thing very specific such as glide for a very long time or use certain gadgets in a fight. Arkham Origins tries to improve upon those challenges through their Dark Knight Challenges. The challenges during campaign are broken up into three types, Shadow Vigilante (combat oriented), Worst Nightmare (predator oriented) and Gotham Protector (miscellaneous objects such as gliding and stopping a crime in progress). All these challenges have 15 ranks that have to be completed in chronological order. The Shadow Vigilante isn’t too bad since most of the combat doesn't require anything specific other than having certain special combo takedown moves. There are plenty of opportunities to complete each rank since there is always a crime in progress or just a random group of thugs on the street to fight. The Worst Nightmare challenge track is where this system fails and the game designers make a huge mistake. Since there are already a limited number of predator maps the player has to actively remember to do each challenge. It becomes even more of a problem since specific ranks of Worst Nightmare can only be done in a select number of rooms predator rooms which do not respawn. If you’re not following a guide then you’re most likely not going to finish the Worst Nightmare challenge on your first play through. Another annoying problem was that one of the last ranks of Worst Nightmare require a very specific set of events to occur which can only happen in a small number of rooms. You need to have three people near a propane tank, with two of them knocked out and then attach a remote claw to the one standing to make sure all three are knocked out. The Gotham Protector track is relatively easy until the very last challenge. The player needs to stop a crime in progress in each district however the game is glitched and won’t count or spawn certain crime in progress for some districts. I did manage to get lucky and a crime in progress counted for another district even though it wasn’t located near that district at all.

The Arkham Origin sidequests are completely boring. Granted Arham City side quests were very short and weren't anything too special, Arkham Origins’ sidequest become extremely tedious. One of the side quests is to fight 20 groups of thugs. But this can’t be completed until the end of the game which means it’s just a time sink and pushes the repetitiveness of combat onto the player who wants to finish the game 100%. Another sidequest is just to fight 4 sets of very large groups under the disguise that these are gang wars. The Enigma data sets are another low point of the sidequests. The puzzles required to reach a data set are very basic and require very little thinking. Arkham City had placed Riddler Trophies all over the map in plain site but had elaborate puzzles to solve which had satisfying solutions. 

Its clear that WB Montreal didn’t want to take any risks with this franchise and tried to give us a little more of what Arkham City offered. However the changes they did make towards have generally turned out worse then Arkham City. Aside from combat changes, WB Montreal changed how the player gains skill upgrades and level ups. In Arkham City you’re experience was based off how high of a combo you achieved plus some increases for variation. WB Montreal instead awards experience for not taking any damage, not breaking a free flow combat or using a lot of variation. There is also a bonus experience given depending on how they rank the fight, as in taking no damage and defeating the entire combat encounter in one free flow combat will net you the most bonus experience and the highest rank. They also rank each fight as different difficulty levels depending on how many enemies and the types you fight. I’ll admit at first I didn't like the way experience was awarded but thinking back on it, it helps promote learning a diverse moveset to try to maximize you’re rank to level up faster. The upgrade system is complete downgrade to the one offered in Arkham City. Arkham City pretty much allows the player to take any upgrade that were available and ignore anything they don’t need early on such as armor. Arkham Origins forces the player to take certain upgrades such as combat armor to gain combat skills. What’s even more frustrating is that you are required to take every combat armor upgrade before you can even get a new combat skill. They also prevent the player from receiving the critical strike upgrade and reduced combo for special takedowns for awhile which makes the combat extremely dull and repetitive. WB Montreal did make an excellent change towards health regeneration. Instead of health regenerating based on combat experience, Batman’s health will recover full after a combat or predator encounter. It makes the game slightly easier but it’s a much more convenient.

The level designers at WB Montreal seemed to lack the understanding of how enemy types work in the Arkham series. Towards the later half of the game, there are a set of sniper’s that respawn at the top of the buildings in the Diamon District. However these sniper’s are placed in a position where it makes navigating that section of the town a nightmare. Even if you start taking down the snipers, they are positioned in a way that alerts them to your position which makes for an even more frustrating to deal with. New Game Plus also begins to suffer from the new enemy placements. It seems like the level designers just placed armored enemies in the most inconvenient spots and literally placed as many as possible throughout the maps. The problem with placing too many armored or shielded enemies is that there are only a few ways to deal with them which makes fighting them more of a chore then an exercise in skilled variation combat. The motto that WB Montreal should have stuck with was a “less is more” which would solve all these problems. Another problem with level design is the large central bridge that serves no real purpose other than one boss fight. It doesn't allow easy access to the top half of the map since the player has to glide across the large bridge but luckily WB Montreal realized this and added in a fast travel method.

WB Montreal did a wonderful job with the storyline. I was a little disappointed that Black Mask doesn't have as large of a roll as the trailers make it out to be but the overall story does take some inspirations from the famous Killing Joke comic book. They did a great job in showing a younger Batman who is still in his earlier years and doesn't rely on the help of others and arrogantly tries to handle all the situations alone. We get to see Batman’s first encounter with the Joker and how the Joker becomes infatuated with the Dark Knight. I absolutely loved how they portrayed Bane in Arkham Origins. They made him a strong fighter who has an excellent mind for combat strategy which is more accurate to the comic books. The Bane in Arkham Asylum and City was more of just a brute who had no real fighting technique. I was disappointed in the 8 assassins since they each get very little show time. I think I would have preferred a smaller selection of assassins but each getting a larger portion of the game time. Two assassins are extremely brief encounters that I wouldn't even count as a major part of the game. One of them wasn't even a real boss fight and just a way for WB Montreal to progress the story.

Boss fights have always been tricky in the Arkham Series. Asylum had some terrible boss fight but could be forgiven since it was their first attempt at a new mechanic. However Rocksteady completely improved most of the boss fight in Arkham City and has one of my favorite boss fights of all time (Mr. Freeze).  Arkham Origins’ boss fights fall somewhere in between Asylum and City. I did not like the Bane fight at all since the dodging mechanic felt off since Bane could change his charge direction if you dodged too early. I did love the Deathstroke fight and is easily one of my favorite boss fights in this game. It is a one on one free flow combat fight that does an excellent job in adjusting the free flow combat style to one enemy. The Firefly fight was also another interesting fight that revolved around gadget use. It was an easy fight but it was still pretty fun to throw batarangs and batclaws at Firefly to bring him down to your level.

I tried the multiplayer for a bit but it was pretty much dead by the time I started playing it. Matches took forever to create and require all 8 players to start. When you finally get into a match, the third person shooter aspect feels unrefined. Its something I would avoid unless you need to get the achievements like I did which then I suggest finding others who will create matches just for the achievements. The other game modes are very similar to Arkham City. You have New Game plus which is tougher enemy types and no counter icons above enemies and I am the Night Mode which is a one life type of deal to beat the campaign. I didn’t find I am the Night Mode any more difficult then New Game plus but I was a little nervous on the Bane fight since I ended up dying on it in New Game Plus. You also have the Challenge Maps, Custom Maps and Campaign Maps which makes its return from Arkham City. I really wish WB Montreal would have just left out two of those types of maps. It was one of the biggest negatives of Arkham City. Challenge maps are essentially the combat and predator encounters found main story mode of the Arkham game. The combat maps go through four rounds where your goal is to score as high as possible reaching certain high scores to achieve medals. Predator maps require you to do three different goals which earn you medals while you clear out the encounter. Campaign Maps just take 3 maps, either 2 predators and 1 combat, 2 combat and one predator or 3 of predator or combat encounters and forces you to obtain the medals of all three maps. Campaign maps also require you to add extra criteria by giving you like 4 or 5 different requirements such as no silent takedown, weapons are active in combat or no detective vision in predator maps. By the time you finish the last map you need to have used all the criteria to succeed. Campaign maps are just single challenge maps but with the ability to toggle as many of the extra criteria from the campaign maps. You’re essentially doing these challenge maps over and over again if you want to complete the game 100%. It would be fine if the experience really differed between them but I literally played each map as if they were the same. It would have been great if WB Montreal would have left all this repeated content out but unfortunately my need to complete Batman games 100% forced me to endure these challenges.

My review of Arkham Origins seems very negative but that’s because the bar was set extraordinarily high for the Arkham series.  If this was just another game and not attached to an already popular and well refined IP, it would have been great. However after playing Arkham City which came out two years before this, it’s hard to recommend Origins over its predecessors. Arkham Origins is more like an Arkham City DLC. Those who really enjoyed Arkham City and want more of the same, Arkahm Origins will fit well. For most people I would recommend only Asylum and City and if they really enjoyed those to try Origins. Its not a bad game, it just doesn't live up to its predecessors. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Blizzard’s latest mega hit is their brand new collectible card game. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a beta key a few weeks ago and would like to share my impressions and any improvements that I feel like should be made. I haven’t played Blizzard’s original World of Warcraft trading card game but I believe it has had a large amount of influence on the way Hearthstone was designed. I have played a few different card games in the past and Hearthstone feels like a more simplified version of Magic the Gathering. However even though the basic concepts are very simple, Hearthstone has great depth with regards to strategy and play styles provided by each class type. I won’t go into the basics of how the game works or any particular strategy since most gaming sites have flooded the internet with those types of posts. I want to give my personal impressions of playing through the beta in the last two weeks.

So far I’ve loved the game. I’ve been looking for an entertaining card game to play and Hearthstone has hit the spot. I generally prefer playing in the constructed play mode over the arena mode. Arena feels too RNG for me, since I never get any of the useful class cards and I generally avoid things that involve RNG. However Arena has the most value in terms of gold spent. You can buy regular sets of booster packs at 100 gold or enter the Arena at 150 gold. Basically it comes down to spending 50 extra gold on the chance to make more gold, arcane dust, gold cards or an extra pack. Arena mode will always give you one pack no matter how many wins you have. I don’t feel like this is a problem since I’m not forced to do arena and people who really despise arena can just use their gold on buying regular packs. You also always break even at 7 wins and anything higher will always be a profit. However 7 wins isn’t always possible since the deck you have might just be truly awful or just run into some bad luck with card draws.

Arena mode is probably where most people will want to spend their time. The Arena mode gives you a chance to sometimes use the cards you normally wouldn’t and see some awesome combo’s that you would have normally disregarded. It’s definitely an interesting mode that lets you come up with some very random decks but I feel the randomness can sometimes be a bit too much. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and get a bunch of cards you need and other times you’ll end up with a terrible deck. Arena also throws away the 2 card limit rule and allows the player to have as many of the same cards as they want. This becomes a problem when trying to predict what an opponent can do because you can no longer rule out cards just because they used two of them. However this isn’t much of an issue if you always expect the unexpected in Arena. I think the RNG issue of getting the right cards is something that needs to be addressed.

The first solution is to allow the player to postpone some of their selections until the very end. This would allow players to return to that selection with a better idea of how their deck will work. I’m not sure how many selections they can postpone but I think the range from 3-5 should be enough to allow the player some flexibility and still have a randomness associated with the deck that gives the player a unique play mode.

The other solution I have is a bit more dramatic in terms of the change to arena. The player would be able to see all 30 sets of selections and then would be able to pick one card from each set in any order. This would greatly minimize the randomness associated with deck building in arena but it would also make Arena much more like constructed play mode. I’m guessing this won’t happen since people generally like to be surprised in their decks from Arena.

Hearthstone lacks any social features at all other than incorporating your friends list. During player matches in both arena and play mode, both players can only use six different emotes, a greeting, a well played, thanks, sorry, oops, and a threaten. This works for most of the time since I feel like most online communities end up having people curse at you for playing certain cards or just talk nonsense which really hurts the long term community.  However I would like the ability to add players I face as a friend after a match so that I can eventually have a rematch against them. I’ve had quite a few matches where both us were pretty much even for most of the game. There isn’t even a general chat where you can discuss the game or find players to match up against. You pretty much have to become an active member of a forum to find new friends to play against.

Another feature I would love to see is a tournament mode where players can face off against each other in a tournament fashion and crown someone the winner. It would be nice to have a tournament mode for both random players and one with friends. Logistics would be the biggest problem for the random player tournament since not everyone can dedicate an entire afternoon to gaming. However I think a friendly tournament mode would work best for people who just want to make a day out of the event. Maybe even allow for an entry fee that gets split up among the top three winners which would give incentive to play in this mode.

One thing I noticed about the game right away was the fact that the basic deck can only take you so far. Eventually you will reach a point where you’re only facing people who have bought a good amount of packs and will end up losing to them constantly. Farming for packs doesn’t seem reasonable since it takes at least 30 wins in play mode to get enough gold for a single pack or 45 wins to get an arena entry. However that first set of 40 packs for about $50 will help you secure a lot more wins when you end up in the higher ranks. It’s hard to resist the temptation of buying even more packs since there are so many cards available.  Even after buying 120 packs, I’m missing about 128 cards (this includes 2 copies of regular cards to make complete sets) with about 25ish being legendary. I’m tempted to get another set of 40 packs in order to close out that gap but I think I’ll resist my urge in order to conserve some money. I’m sure Blizzard has made a killing off Hearthstone since almost everyone I know that has a beta key has spent on average about $50.

My overall experience with Hearthstone has been great.  I believe Blizzard has created an awesome cash cow with a lot of opportunity to expand their future revenue. Hearthstone is very welcoming to new players who may have never picked up a card game before. It also has enough depth to keep players entertained for months especially with all the different types of decks available. I look forward to Blizzard continuing to add new cards classes through future expansions for Hearthstone.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Downloadable Content

Downloadable content (DLC) has been a major part of current generation of consoles. I generally like the idea of downloadable content but I feel like some developers have been abusing it. I don’t mind paying for new content that helps invigorate my desire to play the game by adding content that enriches my experience. It does bother me when a company tries to make a cash grab by removing features that should have already been in the game only to force users to pay for it later on.

My earliest experience with DLC goes back to the very first Splinter Cell on the original Xbox. I didn’t have Xbox live at the time but I was able to bring my xbox to a friend’s house and download the new levels. Surprisingly, the extra levels were all free which is something you rarely find nowadays. I remember when I was reading up on the original Xbox, Microsoft stated that developers would be able to update games such as sports titles with current rosters and updated stats through downloadable content. Obviously most sports titles just release a new edition every year instead of using DLC but it certainly was an interesting approach.

While DLC may have its origins in providing players with more content for their favorite games, it has been used more recently as a passive deterrent to used game sales. Developers hope that players will hold on to their copy of a game until all the DLC is released therefore reducing the supply of used games available. Other developers figured out that they could attach DLC to brand new copies which would also dissuade people from purchasing a used copy. Some developers even decided that they would use online game passes to convince users to buy new or at least for used copies to provide some revenue through purchasing an online pass from the developer. Fortunately online passes are becoming a thing of the past since companies like EA are removing them from current games and finding alternatives to deter used game sales.

My current issue with DLC is the idea of season passes. It sounds great on paper, the player get a discount on a set of DLC and the developer gets the money early to produce the DLC. However what happens if the developer goes under before all the DLC is made. Does the player get a refund for the amount of DLC they are missing or are they just out of luck? While there haven’t been any cases of this occurring yet, it still makes me weary about purchasing any season passes from developers that aren't as well known.

Another issue I have with more recent DLC is the fact that costumes are becoming more related to micro transaction instead of as incentives to completing the game in unique ways. In Ninja Gaiden Black for the Xbox, the player would be awarded different costumes based on the difficulty they beat. Harder difficulties usually had the more popular costume choices that ended up looking amazing and helped the player feel rewarded for beating the harder difficulties. However in Ninja Gaiden II for the Xbox 360 the costume rewards for beating the harder difficulty were just color swaps whereas the purchasable costumes were significantly different. I don’t mind the idea of adding new costumes that let player personalize their character, it just seems like developers are getting rid of any incentives that players used to have before the days of DLC. Imagine if you played Metal Gear Solid and you weren't rewarded for either of the endings. You would have to buy the active camo or bandanna off the games marketplace in order to be able to use them. It doesn't really make a huge difference in gameplay but you also don’t have any rewards that make subsequent play through more enjoyable.

I would like to see DLC as a way for developers to try out new ideas that might have not worked in the original game. Developers could experiment with ideas that didn't make it in the retail copy because of time shortages or budget restraints. They could use it as a test for ideas that may be incorporated in sequels. Alan Wake is a good example of how the developers were able to throw in a new idea into the DLC that definitely kept the gameplay refreshing. Remedy, the developers of Alan Wake tossed in the idea that the player could shine light on words that would then spawn safe areas or even items for the player to use. It was a risk but since the DLC is much shorter than the campaign, it wouldn't be a huge issue if the player disliked the new mechanic.

DLC is definitely something that will continue long into the next generation of gaming consoles. I like to support developers, especially ones that seem to want to provide quality experiences instead just trying to make a quick buck by releasing the latest version of their game. I honestly don’t mind the idea of buying costumes if it will help the developer continue to create more games. While I do miss the old days of unlocking new costumes and accessories in games, I understand that game development costs have risen with each new generation and developers could use the extra cash to help offset those costs. I just hope developers are not trying to nickel and dime the consumer by taking apart a finished game and selling it as extra content.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Super Mario Bros. 3: A platformer above all others

Super Mario Bros. 3 is considered to be one of the best platformer of all time.  I’ve never played it until very recently when I was able to find a copy of the Gameboy Advance version, Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 (you have to love how they named all the super Mario advanced games). I have played the original Mario Bros. on NES and Super Mario World both on SNES and the GBA release. I much more fond memories of Super Mario World since I played that more often and it is the main Mario game from my childhood. I have very little platformer experience in my years of gaming. I’ve played a few here and there but for the most part I generally stay away from the genre.  The main reason I avoid platformers is because I am terrible at them. The number of lives I’ve gone through in this playthrough is more than I care to remember. The number of times I cursed up a storm in SMB3 is comparable to my playthroughs of Ninja Gaiden 2. However even with all this frustration I thoroughly enjoyed the game.

Some of the great songs in video game history come from the Mario series. SMB3 delivers another excellent soundtrack. My favorite songs from this game are definitely the Airship theme, Big Island and King. The Airship song has a heavy emphasis on percussion instruments, similar to percussions used in military drills which are very fitting for the Airship levels. The Big Island song me represents one of the brighter and goofier levels which accurately captures the feeling of seeing a giant Goomba for the first time. The King song just doesn’t seem like it would come from a Mario game but it fits perfectly in the mini cutscenes when Mario transforms the king back to normal.

SMB3 features a number of unique power ups, more than what was present in Super Mario World. My favorite power up is still the fire flower since it generally makes most levels a breeze after you chuck fire balls at enemies. I actually didn’t learn what the difference between the Racoon Mario and Tanooki Mario was until after I had finished the game. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference in my experience but it would have been nice if there was some message to let me know the difference. Hammer Mario was probably my second favorite suit to use since it was very similar to the fire flower. I used the frog suit the least amount of times because it is only useful for the handful of underwater levels present in this game. I would prefer to be small Mario then Frog Mario on dry land but in the water, Frog Mario was king. The Frog suit made all the water based levels much more bearable which is great since I generally hate all water based levels (those damn Water Temples in Zelda).

The level designs were very interesting, especially toward the later part of the game. The Sky world had some unique ideas such as the vertically scrolling sections or ascending the vertical tower to get to the second half of Sky world. The Pipe World also featured an interesting design. The player can walk off the screen and appear on the opposite ide which leads to some interesting vertical platforming. I did find the overworld to be annoying to travel through since you         have to use the pipes to get around which increases the time it takes to travel around the map. Bowser’s castle features a number of unique areas such as fighting through tanks and battleships (similar to the airship battles at the end of each world). The levels in general are much shorter than Super Mario World and do not have any mid way gates. Most levels contain either 1 or 2 power ups throughout the level, with one located near the beginning.

The enemy designs are what you generally see in most Mario games, some Koopas with variations, Goombas, Lakitu, Piranha Plants, beetles and some Hammer brothers. There were some enemies that I haven’t seen before such as the Angry Sun, Fire Snakes, Stretch, and Fire Chomps. The Angry Sun probably wins first prize for the most annoying and scariest enemy of any Mario game. It literally only appears in the game twice but it has such an intimidating presence that I will never forget it. Its only life goal is to just scare the crap out of you at the worst possible times.

SMB3 does have some flaws within its design. The first thing I noticed was that a lot of the power ups that were available in a level were placed so that there was an immediate danger right next to it making it difficult to attain. If there was no danger and the power up was a regular mushroom then it would have a good chance of moving away from you into a pit or a bunch of enemies. Power ups should be items that are available to help players that are unfamiliar with the game. Another problem with the power up system is that if you lose a power up in the middle of a level you can’t access your reserve until after that level. While the reserve in SMW let you only old one item (SMB3 allows you to hold about 36 items) it allowed you to access it during the level. This made SMW much friendlier to new players since you weren’t as severely punished if you took a lot of hits in one level. I have a hoarding mentality when it comes to items in video games. I had 35 items available to use when I was at the final castle in Bowser’s lair. With the SMW system, I ended up using the items more often because I could only hold one. In SMB3 I played through about 75% of the game as small Mario because I didn’t want to spend on item because of my conservative play style. SMB3 is generally a much harder Mario game then most of the other version, World 8 has a huge spike in difficulty. I can see many people arriving at World 8 and then just giving up because the difficulty is so much harder than what you were used to. The last thing that I absolutely despised was that the airships moved after every attempt. This wouldn’t be so bad if it only moved a couple of squares away, but I’ve had the airship move off the screen which then I had to pursue it through pipes only to lose and then have to pursue it back to the other side of the map. The worst was when this occurred in the Pipe world which at one point made me want to quit playing this game.

Now the question is if I would recommend this game? It really depends on who is asking. If the person has some experience in platformers and is looking to play a slightly harder game then it would be perfect for them. However if the person is someone who is looking to get into platformers then I would probably recommend either SMW or one of the newer Mario Bros. games on the DS and Wii. I did enjoy this game and can see why it is generally considered to be one of the best Mario games of all time. I would recommend playing the GBA version over the NES since the GBA version lets you continue from the last world you played and has a more lenient saving system. My friend also let me know that the GBA version allows you to go back through any of the levels after you defeat Bowser where as the original NES did not allow this. If you are looking to conquer this platformer I can give you some advice. Play very short sessions of SMB3. I did about 15 minutes every few hours or so (sometimes once a day) where I would try the level out and if I kept dying within those 15 minutes I would stop and come back later. There something about taking a break that let me absorb some information and made the levels much easier. I definitely recommend you try this if you're stuck at a level for sometime. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Game Design Fundamentals: Know Your Audience!

I decided to start writing about my ideas of what game design entails. Game design is not an exact science or mathematical formula. However we can study it as a subject and try to learn some ways to approach game design that can help promote a successful design theory. Game design to me boils down to creating many solutions to a single problem and then seeing what best addresses all the issues presented. There are many different aspects of game design that all contribute to the success of a game but this post is only going to pertain to a small but important aspect, the target audience.

One of the first decisions you should make as a game designer is to decide on your primary audience. People like to believe that they are individually unique which is true but they also tend to share a lot of similarities. Companies spend vast amounts of money and time on market research to learn more about their customers. As a game designer you should tailor your game towards a specific market segment. You can try targeting more than one type of audience but it can leave the users dissatisfied with the overall experience. Trying to appease everyone will leave you with a game that has satisfied no one.

Choosing an audience depends on a number of factors. If you’re designing a game for a firm chances are they are trying to increase their profits through the game. So then you need to figure out which audience would be able to best support the profits needed. Sometimes a firm will need to make an educational game which already has an intended audience. If the project is something more personal then you can decide who you would like to play your game and then tailor the experience around them. You also have to take into account your specific skill set and how they translate to different audiences. Let’s take for example someone who can design very challenging levels that require a specific set of skills. This designer’s skills would be better suited for a more traditional and skillful player than someone who prefers to play casual games.

After you decided on a primary audience you should then understand their needs. Your goal from this point on is to design a game that is tailored towards your target audience. You need to learn as much as you can about what they enjoy, how they play, how often, how much time they dedicate per session, the different genres they play and their skill level. The better you understand your primary audience the better you can mold your game to their needs.

You should begin to design your game while catering to their skill level. The earlier sections of the game should be slightly easier so that players can be introduced to the ways your mechanics work and to ease them into your game. Frustration early into a game will make your audience annoyed and they will most likely avoid playing the rest of the game. When I refer to difficulty here I am referring to it as a relative value. An easier difficulty means that it should be something easier for that target audience. So an easy level for a skill traditional player could probably be something that would be a medium or hard level for a person less familiar with the genre. Difficulty should slowly ramp up as the player continues through the game. The audience should be able to gradually increase their skill as they continue to play slightly harder levels.
Listening to your audience is probably one of the most critical skills a designer needs. As a designer, you should be constantly visiting forums and reaching out to your primary audience. You should look at similar games to the one you are designing and see what your primary user’s enjoy and what they loathe. You need to be able to listen to their feedback and understand what they really dislike about it. If they tell you that the game is too hard, then maybe you should try to change the section so that it eases them into the area. Maybe they find your game too similar to other alternatives. You should then try to find out what other types of games they enjoy and try introducing those mechanics into your game. Everything revolves around trying to appease your audience.

Knowing your audience is one of the most important skills a game designer needs. The scope of this post does not include everything you need to know about your audience but it does address what I feel are some important points. I’m sure in the future I’ll continue to address a few more ideas about a primary audience but I feel like this post should provide a certain way of thinking when designing games. Hopefully I will continue to provide some of my insight toward game design fundamentals in the future.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Google's Gaming Console

There are rumors that Google is currently developing their own home gaming console that will run on the Android operating system.  This is something I have been expecting for a long time since a gaming console fits well within their capabilities and helps unify the different products and services that Google offers. There are a number of issues that Google will need to address if they want their console to succeed.

The Google console needs to be on par with the current generation of gaming consoles. Its technical capabilities should be somewhere between the Wii U and the Playstation 4. Offering a device that uses smart phone hardware will just be ignored by the gaming audience. The arguments I had against the Ouya apply towards this type of design. By releasing a console that is on par with the current generation, Google will be able to generate interest among the traditional gaming audience.

Third party support will be crucial to the success and longevity of the Google console. Sony worked with developers when engineering the PS4 architecture because Sony understands that quality game franchises are what sell consoles. Games that become available on both Xbox One and PS4 need to be available on the Google console in order to be considered a viable alternative. By having a console that is similar to its competitors, third party developers will have an easier time porting their games to the Google console. More high quality games will interest the traditional gaming audience and can help boost sales for the console.

Google needs to show that their new console is an indie developer’s friend. There has been a huge surge of indie developers releasing quality games in the last few years. Indie games such as Super Meat Boy, Dungeon Defenders, Stealth Bastard Deluxe, Superbrother: Sword & Sworcery and Cave Story have been well received by the core gaming audiences. More freedom for indie developers will allow for more creative games which in turn will help sell the Google console.

Google cannot rely on only third party support and indie developers to sell their consoles. They need to work on new intellectual properties that will be exclusively available to the Google console. If all the consoles share the same third party games, then the exclusive first party titles are going to be the deciding factor for the traditional gaming audience. Google’s first party games need to be better than the Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Halo, Gears of War, Uncharted, and Little Big Planet series in order to succeed. A strong first party line will nudge the traditional gaming audience towards owning a Google console.

Distribution of games for current consoles has been primarily through retail stores with an addition to a digital marketplace. I believe Google will rely on an all digital approach. This however means there will be issues of DRM that could create some concerns. I believe the best approach to the issue of DRM is how the Xbox 360 handles DRM on digital games. When the user purchases a game, that game is locked on to that console and can be played offline and by any other user. That original purchaser also has access to that game whenever they access their profile on a different console as long as they are connected to the internet. Also the original purchaser can transfer all their licenses to a new consoles every few months just incase something happens to their original console.

Another concern with an all digital approach is the fact that users will not be able to sell their games. The primary concern is that games cost a lot of money and selling old games allows people to have the funds to play the latest games. However used games sales do not benefit the developers. Google can follow the same business plan as Steam. Since all games are locked to a Steam account, there are no used games and all sales go back to the developers. However Steam games generally cost less then physical retail copies in order to compensate for losing the ability to resell games. Steam also hosts sales on a huge assortment of games and at regular intervals. Even though Steam has a harsh DRM policy, the fact that games become so cheap during sales justifies the DRM used.

Google will obviously include all its other services such as Gmail, Gchat, Play Music store, and Youtube. I expect this console to become more than just a gaming device; it will be an alternative to the PC market. As smart phones gain more features, desktop PC’s are becoming less essential towards every day use. Tablets are already capable of performing similar tasks as low end PCs but are much more convenient for every day use. Google’s gaming console would be able to provide the same function as a PC through the various apps that Google will release. Google can sync is different products like Chrome and the Play store to generate more ads which in turn generates more revenue for them. Another incentive for Google is to place unobtrusive ads within the console’s dashboard which generates another revenue stream for them.  The ads available from the console would be selected based on purchases and other relevant information that is taken from user Google account in order to provide the user with appropriate ads.

I believe Google has the best shot at making a quality game console that can compete with the big three. I really hope Google tries to cater towards the traditional gaming markets. More competition in the traditional gaming markets is generally much better for the consumers in the long run. Google has been working on making their Android games better with different features such as a multiplayer system, leaderboards and achievements. Hopefully Google will release more information about its plans for a gaming console.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The All In One Box

Microsoft’s big reveal for this month was their all in one entertainment powerhouse, the Xbox One. Microsoft’s event relayed a lot of information about its latest console with regards to the different ways that the Xbox One will change televised entertainment but any information on games was severely lacking.  The console specs are comparable to Sony’s Playstation 4 with some minor differences. The user interface is a mix between the Xbox 360’s latest interface and Windows 8. Every Xbox One comes with a Kinect sensor and is fully integrated into the system.

The Xbox One’s Kinect has to be connected to the console. Microsoft seems adamant about forcing people to use the camera technology by allowing users to navigate through console‘s menu with only voice commands and hand motions. The problem I have with the Kinect is that amount of space required to use it. My Xbox 360 is hooked up to a television in my room which isn’t a large as a living room. A Kinect wouldn't work in such a small space which is why I've been hesitant to purchase one (along with the fact that no game I want requires a Kinect). So unless Microsoft has found a way around the issue of space, a Kinect in my room is worthless. The Kinect is always on which may cause users to become hesitant towards the Xbox One. Players can use voice commands to start the Xbox up which means Kinect will be listening even when the console is turned off.  It feels like Microsoft is walking on the fine line for customer privacy with this always on Kinect sensor.

Xbox 360 controllers or other accessories will not be supported on the Xbox One. This isn't something I’m too concerned about since every generation does upgrade their controllers. The updated controller for the Xbox One has an new directional pad, updated triggers, the guide button closer to the top of the controller, a bezel to each of the analog sticks and the start and back buttons replaced with two different icons. The new directional pad looks better but I can’t be sure until I actually try it. The original dpad on the 360 controller was awful. I would press down and the controller would register a left or right input. What seems like an awkward design choice was moving the guide button to the top center. I feel like my thumbs wouldn't be able to hit the guide button as easily as any of the other buttons. A new feature for the controller is the triggers have a rumbling feature. I can see this improving immersion in first person shooters by having triggers jam up or provide feedback directly to our fingers. Other than the oddly placed guide button, the controller seems like an improvement over the great Xbox 360 version.

Microsoft was eagerly showing off the different ways that the Xbox One was able to multitask. Players will be able to utilize the snap feature from Windows 8 to pull up a second app while playing a game or watching a video. Microsoft’s latest acquisition of Skype will begin to show some synergies in the upcoming console. Microsoft showed off the ability to Skype call a friend while playing a game using the Kinect. Xbox One’s player chat will be controlled by Skype allowing users to access both their Xbox live friends list and their Skype contact list. It is also rumored that Skype will provide players the ability to remotely take over a friend’s console and play their game. Users will also have access to local television broadcasts as well as a horde of apps dedicated to bringing you the latest media entertainment. Microsoft is really pushing to dominate the home entertainment market share by creating a device that will encompass everything you need for your living room.

The one thing that I believe will hurt the Xbox One is the lack of backwards compatibility. While Sony’s PS4 won’t have backward compatibility support from the launch, they stated that they are looking into streaming capabilities to allow users access to the extensive backlog of Playstation games. Microsoft didn't indicate any plans of allowing any form of Xbox or Xbox 360 games to be playable on the Xbox One. Backwards compatibility will essentially make a difference depending on how well the launch games are received. Better launch games will mean that customer’s won’t have to rely on last gen games to help buffer the time it takes for the top games to be released.

One great feature added to the Xbox One is the ability to immediately play games while they install to the hard drive. This feature is also complemented by the fact that players can suspend and resume games instantly with the Xbox One. This allows players the ability to stop their session mid game to handle some emergency and then resume right away when they can. It helps promote short play sessions and allows users to commit as much time as they want.

The Xbox cloud processing system sounds great at first but makes me weary for the future of gaming. The cloud processing system will allow for more calculation to occur on Microsoft’s servers which means more dynamic lighting and physics. However it also means that the user has to be on Xbox live to take advantage of these features. Some users don’t have readily available high speed internet in there area or a consistent connection. I’m more worried about the future when maybe 10 years down the road when the Xbox One is no longer supported. What happens to the games that relied on these cloud computing servers if they are not available? Will I not be allowed to play a single player game that I purchased for the Xbox One because it requires a connection to the cloud servers which were eventually shut down? These are questions that I begin to ask my self when I purchase games digitally. I almost always prefer to own a physical copy of a game just in case something happens to the servers in the future. However with the Xbox One, owning a physical copy might not entitle me to play the game in the future. This also points to another feature for the Xbox One. The discs will have a DRM on them that locks the games to the console. However what happens 10 years from now when the Xbox One isn’t supported and I happen to find some extremely rare used game. Will my Xbox refuse to play the game because it is linked to another console?

The Xbox One is an interesting console. Microsoft’s strategy for creating an all-in-one media monster is seen throughout the Xbox One, both in software and hardware. The physical design of the Xbox One rivals the design of VCRs, DVD players and Blu-ray players. The Xbox One does not resemble a gaming console because Microsoft wants to take the Xbox brand and create a multi-media experience. However I am still worried about the privacy we are giving up by having an always on Kinect and the future of our games that might require access servers that will eventually be taken down. While Microsoft didn’t show much gameplay at their reveal event, I believe they are saving most of the game related details for E3.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Randomness, What is it good for?

I used to actively raid in World of Warcraft with some real life friends. My friend one day decided to switch roles for a raid. He no longer wanted to play a melee role and decided to play a caster role. Luckily for him his class had a wide range of roles to choose from. However after sometime he became discouraged because his abilities relied on a chance to activate off of other abilities. This meant that his damage output was somewhat random. Most players that are in the role of dealing damage are competitive and are always looking at the damage output charts. So even though my friend was a competent player his damage output would change based on his luck during that fight. This eventually made him revert to his melee role which was based less on random factors.

As we can see randomness has a negative connotation. It is easy to see why most players would dislike randomness. A player is given control over certain variables in a game. They are able to manipulate these variables to solve the problems set by the game. However the randomness of a variable is something that player cannot control. If this variable has a large impact on the decisions the player has to make then the randomness will be seen as a negative. However if this variable has very little impact then the player might not even realize there was some sort of random factor that contributed to their decision.

I want to take a look at how some games have actually used random elements that have negatively impacted the game.

Diablo 3’s loot system suffers from relying on too much on randomness. The game throws a large amount of items at you but due to how much randomness there is in determining item stats they always amount to being sold to a vendor. Luckily the designers at Blizzard have been working towards creating a more meaningful loot system which will reduce the amount of randomness when items are generated.

 Another game that always manages to irritate me is the Mario Party series. You can do very well throughout the entire game and then at the very end someone can easily take your stars away with no hope for recovery. I wouldn’t mind it as much if it happens earlier so that you have a chance to make a come back but usually these random star taking events occur towards the end.

The Pokémon RPG series on Nintendo handheld systems is notorious for using randomness when generating stats for Pokémon. This doesn’t have a major impact on anyone who is just trying to beat the game. However for the players who play competitively, it will take them hours upon hours to get the perfect Pokémon.  It even got to the point where players have learned how the random number generation for Pokémon works and are able to eventually manipulate it to help obtain the perfect Pokémon. Gamefreak probably initially intended for the randomness to create unique Pokémon so that it would be rare to find a friend with the exact same Pokémon. Gamefreak has tried to help reduce this issue by allowing for some of this randomness to be controlled by using items to pass down specific statistic which is much better than just having to farm Pokémon eggs till you get the right stats.

I believe that randomness can be used to create positive gaming experiences even with all the negative associations.

Trading card games use randomness when players are forced to shuffle their decks. This helps keep the game fresh instead of just pulling out the same 5 cards for the start of each hand and creating a predictable set of moves. The random cards in your hand means you have to be actively thinking about your deck strategy and how your current position can help you to achieve your original strategy. Players can complain that the randomness means you were dealt a terrible hand which ultimately cost you defeat. However if you balance out your deck with a variety of cards you can minimize these effects. As we can see here, randomness does play a role in trading card games but there is some way to limit how much it affects your game.

Earlier I stated that the random stat generation in Pokémon was a poor use. When Pokémon are generated there is a chance for them to become a different color, known as shiny. The chance for this to occur is 1 out of 8192. You can pretty much go through almost all the Pokémon games and never see one. However once you do encounter one you will probably be in disbelief. The fact that it is such a low chance means you won’t actively go for it unless you can find a way to manipulate the randomness in the game. Also since the difference between a shiny Pokémon and a normal Pokémon is only an aesthetic difference, it does not provide any real advantage to farm for such a rare outcome. Since the randomness in this situation only creates a visual change, I feel like it is something that makes the game series better.

FTL: Faster than Light is a game based off random events. At first you would think the randomness just makes the game unfair forcing you to restart. The designers for FTL probably accounted for this and made sure the game was relatively short. You can probably complete the game within an hour and a half. Since the game is so short you don’t mind if you fail because you can just start up again. A great thing about this game is that each time you play the game you learn a little more about how to handle each scenario presented to you. After a few failures, you will get the hang of it and be able to progress much further through the random encounters. Randomness works well in FTL because of the short sessions. If you get dealt a lot of bad random encounters, you can always just restart the game since you probably wouldn’t have lost more than an hour or so. Also that hour you just lost probably taught you a lot of valuable lessons to take with you in future playthroughs.

So what can we learn from these games and the proper use of random number generation? One thing is to make sure you aren’t using random number generation that overwhelms all other mechanics. You want to also avoid penalizing players for things that they have no control over. An important way to use random number generation is to make sure the player has some way to minimize the effects. It is important to understand that randomness helps to reduce the monotony in some games and without it every playthrough would become the same as the last.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Modern Day Fighting Games, A Beginner’s Nightmare

When the first Street Fighter IV was released, I remember inviting a bunch of my friends to come and play. Most of us were familiar with traditional fighting game inputs of quarter circles to pull off specials like hadoken’s but one of my friends never played fighting games at a younger age. So he was at a disadvantage since he didn’t know how to properly input the moves. It’s obviously no fun when you can’t pull off moves and end up losing most of your matches. However after everyone had left, he stayed a bit to try to learn some moves for the next time. I started off showing him how to do simple hadokens and the super hadoken. After awhile he was able to pull it off in the practice mode and decided it was a good time to leave since it was getting late. I knew however pulling off a move in practice is much different then actually being able to pull it off in a live match let alone knowing when to properly utilize the move to your advantage. There is also the fact that he doesn’t know how to properly link the move into a combo which would be whole another lesson. That’s when I realized that current fighting games are something that needs to be simplified.

Let me first start off by saying that I know all the hardcore fighting gamers are probably going to be screaming out the idea that fighting games don’t need to be dumbed down for casuals. Simplicity in a game does not necessarily mean a lack of depth. Simplicity just means reducing the barriers of entry for newer player who may not have a background in the genre. As it stands current fighting games are geared towards veteran players who are already familiar with the basics. Thus newer generation of players are less likely to stick with the series.

The first thing I see as problem is the complex inputs needed to pull off a simple move. A simple hadoken motion requires the following inputs: down, down-forward, forward and a punch button. By it self it doesn’t seem too complex to pull off and in reality it’s very simple. However if you want to incorporate it into a combo you need to start adding in some punches before which increases the required number of inputs by two, not counting if you want to start off in a crouching stance. The combo is starting to get more complex but it is still manageable. If you start looking are more complex combos in the latest Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition (I’m wondering what else Capcom can add to make this title longer, maybe throw in a 2.0 after edition), a 5 hit combo can require 7 different moves which is a lot more than 7 inputs plus precise timing required to execute successfully.

Another problem with the fighting genre is the need for pure memorization of full move sets. With enough practice someone would be able to memorize move sets and would be able to input them with ease when they need to. However the amount of time needed to get to this point just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I’m all for the idea of the more time you spend the better you should get at a game but for me it seems like fighting games require the most amount of time to get very little gains. Again this problem stems from the complexity of the actual gameplay which requires large amount of time commitments.

As a fighting game series matures, the gameplay becomes fine tuned with balancing characters, increasing movesets and creating a fluid experience. However the tutorial or practice modes rarely ever receive any new options or significant upgrades. Developers have added in some missions where the player must perform specific combos that vary in difficulty but this is pretty much where innovation ends. I would love to see a training mode that allows you to have specific moves on the HUD and indicate if the move was preformed correctly. I know Tekken (one of my favorites series) has a training mode where you can pull up moves but it would be great if there could be an option to show you what you did wrong or let you know that you hit the move with some sort of confirmation sound. Surprisingly the best practice mode I have ever seen was found in Tekken Dark Ressurection for the PSP. It allowed you to select any of the fighter’s ability and then every time you execute the move it would give you a confirmation. Unfortunately Namco didn’t bring this feature into the new releases of the Tekken franchise.

So far I’ve laid out problems with the way fighting games are evolving. I’ve stated earlier that simplicity does not translate into a lack of depth. An example of this is the Super Smash Brothers series which simplifies the gameplay mechanics to a few buttons. Super Smash only features two attack buttons, a jump button, grab button and a shield button. The directional inputs are basically the 8 direction plus an attack button. There is no need for doing quarter circle motions since everything is just a direction plus attack button. There are still combos to perform and they still require skill and coordination to execute perfectly. So we can see that even a simplified fighting mechanic still requires some depth and knowledge to perform well but doesn’t rely solely on memorization for combos. Also since every character has pretty much the same input commands it is much easier to learn new characters after getting used to the speed and power of each. I don’t expect developers to out right copy everything from Super Smash but using some ideas would help improve the fighting genre.

One thing I would love to see in new fighting game is a stronger online community that would be promoted by the developer. The developer should create an online environment that is friendly towards new players in order to retain an active online community. One way to do this is to set up a mentorship program where a veteran player who knows the mechanics can play with a novice and teach them on a one on one basis. This would help new players learn some of the hidden mechanics which only veterans would know and help on a more personal level such as specific areas that the new player needs to work on. They can even integrate this mentorship program into the online menu as a possible option instead of just the generic ranked and player matches that is usually available. Creating an active online community that generally wants to help new player is crucial to the longevity of a game and should be a priority for most online games.

I know most of my ideas towards a simpler fighting game seem to go against all the competitiveness of the fighting genre but I feel like it would create a better experience for more people. Obviously series like Street Fighter and Tekken won’t abandon their tried and true formula but new intellectual properties should experiment with a simpler fighting mechanics. If I were to develop a fighting game I would try to keep it as simple in order to make it easier to pick up and just to have fun even if the person is new to the series.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Live In Your World, Play in Ours

Sony unveiled their latest console, the Playstation 4 a week ago at a New York City event. So far the competitors for this console generation are the Wii U, Ouya, Gamestick and Steambox and Microsoft’s next Xbox console. The Sony event released some information on the technical specifications of the Playstation 4 along with some ways that Sony will innovate the home consoles market.

Playstation 4’s technical specifications are what I would expect of a new Sony console. It has eight CPU cores, a much stronger GPU and has 8GB of RAM. The Playstation 4 has 16 times more RAM than an Xbox 360 (512MB) and 4 times as much as the Wii U (2 GB). Obviously the Xbox 360 is going to be outdated since the console has been out for about 6 years but its shows you how behind the Wii U will be when Playstation 4 is released. Sony is gearing their Playstation 4 towards the traditional gamers and I believe that is the right step for them to stay viable in this industry.

Playstation 4 is much more developer friendly then its predecessor. The unique Cell processor that Sony boasted about at the release of Playstation 3 was harder to program for and thus made it some what more difficult for developers. However Sony has learned from the past and decided to work with developers in creating a new console that would be easier to create games. A great third party support will help Sony capture a larger market share of traditional gamers (very reminiscent of Playstation 2 era). Bungie’s Destiny was announced to appear on the Playstation 4 which is not too surprising since they have been recruiting Playstation experienced programmers. A new Final Fantasy made by Square Enix is also not very surprising since it is generally expected to have a new numbered Final Fantasy game. However these two announcements indicate that two top developers are already working towards creating games that could be released early on in the Playstation 4’s life helping Sony capture the interest of more gamers.

Sony recently acquired the cloud gaming service Gaikai and is planning on using the knowledge from Gaikai to incorporate streaming into the Playstation 4. Media streaming from your favorite provider such as Netflix and Hulu will still be a part of the Playstation 4 experience however the Gaikai merger allows for games to become integrated into this streaming framework. Playstation 1, 2 and 3 games will work on a cloud service to allow for maximum compatibility but will not be available at the launch of Playstation 4. Gamers will also be able to download and instantly play the game while it continues to download because of a specific processor working in the background. Sony has even stated that they are working on a way to identify which games you would be most likely to purchase next and then have it automatically download before you even purchase it so you have immediate access.

Sony stated early on that they wanted the Playstation 4 to become a much more social console. I was mistaken in believing that they wanted to become similar to the Wii U’s socially driven hardware choices. However Sony’s view of a more social console is one that I especially looking forward to. The Playstation 4 controller has a “share” button that allows users to stream their current gameplay on to the internet. Other gamers will be able to watch this stream and partake in helping the person out by giving items, helpful hints on where to go and even joining the session. This is actually a feature I’ve been hoping for since a lot of my friends enjoy taking turns at a playing a single player game or like to back seat play while one person is playing. The Playstation 4 will also connect to various social media networks and allow your friends to come join your game sessions. Sony has also stated that players will be able to turn off the social features and play offline. The live video game streams will also be available on other devices through a Playstation App so that friends who don’t own a Playstation 4 can still watch you play on their Apple or Android devices.

So far the Playstation 4 announcement seems to have no flaws but under close inspection there seems to be a few minor details. Obviously the Playstation 3 Dual Shock 3 will not be supported since the new controller utilizes a touch pad and a Playstation Move light sensor. It would have been nice to be allowed the use of the Dual Shock 3 for older games on the cloud service but the Playstation 4 controller does not deviate to far from the original design. It is a bit more rounded then the Dual Shock 3 so I would need to actually hold the controller to see if that ends up becoming a problem. We also did not see any pictures of a prototype or final image of the physical console. While this is not really crucial at the moment, it would have been nice to see maybe a design or concept of the Playstation 4. Something that I noticed looking back at the list of games becoming available on Sony’s latest console was the lack of first party games. I’m sure Sony is working on those games as I write this but it would have been great to see some of those games in action since Sony should be furthest along in developing games compared to third party developers.

The major flaw that I see so far is the lack of any physical backwards compatibility. While you will be able to stream all the original games, any physical copy that you own will be useless on the Playstation 4. This also means that any digital purchases of Playstation 1, 2 and 3 games will not work natively. Hopefully Sony will be able to transfer your purchases from the Playstation Network into the streaming service so you won’t have to buy these games again but only time will tell. However this streaming service is a long term solution for Sony. If Sony tried to create emulators for all the Playstation 1, 2 and 3 games, it would raises costs for every system after the Playstation 4 since they would need to adapt those emulators for each of the new structures. However adapting a cloud based streaming service is much easier and will reduce costs that hopefully will be transferred over to the customers.

Playstation 4 seems to be an incredible system aimed towards the traditional gaming audience. Their utilization of the cloud gaming service Gaikai and creating a much more sociable console will certainly help them create a great gaming experience. I believe that Sony’s Playstation 4 is moving the video game industry in the right direction towards a brighter future. I’m looking forward to seeing what Microsoft and Valve will have to offer for this generation.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gotta Snap 'em All

Pokemon Snap is one of my favorite games on the N64. Pokemon Snap was a great game that had a colorful world to transverse through, a variety of Pokemon and a lot of replayability. Nintendo even incorporated the ability to print out your pictures by taking your Pokemon Snap cartridge to a local Blockbuster. Pokemon Snap was a unique perspective of an on the rails shooter. The goal for each level was to take as many photographs of the various Pokemon that would net you the highest score. You then get to choose one photograph to represent that Pokemon which Professor Oak grades based on if the Pokemon is in a special pose, center of the image and if there are multiple of the same Pokemon. You were also given apples to feed Pokemon, pester balls to knock them unconscience and a poke-flute to either wake them up or to cause the Pokemon to dance. HAL Laboratory also included an infinite boost to use if you were replaying a level to only photograph a specific Pokemon. There were even some puzzle elements included through each level such as finding a way to hatch the Legendary Birds, or finding a ways to getting better pictures of a Pokemon that were originally obscured by objects. I’m surprised that over 13 years have passed since Pokemon Snap was released in North America and no sequel has ever been announced.

Pokemon Snap deserves a sequel and I believe will work well with Nintendo’s latest home console, Wii U. The Wii U GamePad is the perfect controller for a Pokemon Snap type of a game. The controller could be held up like a camera to the  television screen and capturing a photo would be as simple as pressing one of the shoulder buttons. The player would be able to control the in game character using either the analog stick or the gyroscope ability of the controller. The Wii U controller would create an interactive experience that would be a prime example of how Wii U can create unique gaming experiences.

A feature that Nintendo could bring back would be the ability to print out pictures. Since the Wii U has a slot for SD cards, users would be able to transfer over pictures and then print them out at a local photo store. Nintendo could also add in connectivity with the new Pokemon RPG games X and Y. Players would be able to use augmented reality to take pictures with their hand trained Pokemon team through Pokemon Snap 2. The player could also use the controller’s screen to edit pictures and add in effects to personalize the photographs.

Pokemon X and Y will have over 700 Pokemon available to capture and train. Pokemon Snap 2 would probably not utilize all 700 Pokemon throughout the game since it would be tough to place all the different Pokemon in the levels without it overcrowding. However I would like the game to still contain all the models for the Pokemon so that players will still be able to take pictures through the augmented reality when connecting the 3DS games to the Wii U. I’m sure that the 25 gigs available on the Wii U optical discs is more than enough space for 700 Pokemon models. If the 25 gigs is still not enough they could do a two disc special where the second disc is installed on to the hard drive for users who want to have the extra Pokemon models.

A criticism of the original Pokemon Snap was the length. There were about six full levels which the player had to repeat to photograph all available Pokemon and solve the puzzles to unlock the final area, Rainbow Cloud. Each level was themed differently such as a cave or volcano which would then have the appropriate Pokemon types. Pokemon Snap 2 should use a similar style for level design but instead should be based on the different regions. Nintendo could start off with the latest region that would be featured in Pokemon X & Y which would exclusively have Pokemon found in that region. Nintendo can then utilize their online marketplace to release downloadable content of the other regions such as Kanto, Johto, Hoenn and Sinnoh with their own levels and respective Pokemon. The levels could reference certain areas such as Mount Moon or Ceruelean cave to further reinforce the diverse regions found in the Pokemon world.This way the game would be able to incorporate a much larger number of Pokemon that would appeal to both old and new fans of the series.

I would love to see some online interactions such as using leaderboards and tournament ladder systems. The leaderboards would work for each Pokemon available throughout the game and then also a separate leaderboard for each overall level. The tournament feature would be a more direct competition between players. Players would create a tournament and invite other players to enter. After all the entrants are available to play, the game would choose a random Pokemon to photograph from the game and the players would be allotted a certain amount of time which they can go find the pokemon and photograph it the best way possible. At the end of the time, the player with the lowest score will be eliminated. Each round will eliminate the lowest player until there is only one player left who is then crowned the top photographer. Nintendo could even try to create like a monthly or weekly contest where places try competing for the best photograph of a specific Pokemon for that time period.

Pokemon Snap 2 is definitely a game I’m waiting to be announced. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo decides to test the markets with a remake of the N64 version on the 3DS which would show how much interest there is in a sequel. Pokemon Snap 2 would make me consider purchasing a Wii U which I currently have no interest in since I haven’t found any of the games appealing. Hopefully there will be some news in regards to a sequel at the next E3 or Tokyo Game show.