Missing the Obvious: Limited World

Open world games are a fundamental part of modern video gaming.

The technology exists now that vast, incredible, imaginative worlds that a player can explore and find lots of completely ingenious things hidden in every nook and every cranny can be created.

But to quote a line from Star Trek (movie number six if you’re feel feisty) – “Just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.”

Just to point out to you that during the Xbox 360/PS3 era alone there were no less than forty, FOUR ZERO, open world games. Off the top of my head I can give you both Dragon Age games, all three Mass Effects, both GTA releases, all three Saints Rows, the Elder Scrolls, another two Rockstar games, the Fallouts, the Far Cry’s and the Fables (including the recent HD remake). That’s twenty-one games there alone, and I haven’t even put in the Assassin’s Creeds, the Mafias, the Godfathers and any other PlayStation exclusive games. Or the Batman games! I’ve criminally excluded three Batman games there too. That’s another thirteen on top of the twenty-one. Dishonoured is another, Sleeping Dogs…

Batman-wrong-1Whilst I’m making a point of the vast quantity of open world titles available, the amount of games isn’t what bothers me. It’s that sometimes a much better game is missed because of the decision to make something open world, in my opinion. So my point of missing the obvious here is that we sacrifice something because we create too much. We lose the quality.

Let me give you a few examples of what works and what bothers me. Sometimes you want to go around and explore a vast world where everything is dynamic and the story is well thought out and encapsulating for the player that the vastness and scariness of the world is put aside. In this case I would raise Red Dead Redemption as the pinnacle of that. Over Grand Theft Auto 5, you ask? Yes, because Rockstar actually did something they are normally criticised for which was providing an ending for the game that was incredibly satisfying and well thought out. A well designed linear game.

I’ve mentioned scariness because some games actually scare me because they are too much. The world is so big, so massive and so populated with things that once you’ve completed the main storyline you are left with an utterly bewildering set of options and to be honest, I have enough trouble organising my own life to worry about finding enough to do to level me up past level 25. In this regard, I offer the Bethesda games, specifically Skyrim. If Skyrim has any fault in its beautiful visuals, epic scope and atmosphere it’s that is was too epic, too overwhelming and too lonely.

bioshock infinite 2Come on now Sean, you’re just being particularly picky now aren’t you? Yes. Maybe I am, but some games actually benefit from not being open world and I also think that helps the longevity of a game. Grand Theft Auto online, for example, has a major flaw in that there is no real narrative or direction to be guided in past a certain point. GTA Online suffers from the fact that the levels are designed around the environment, which doesn’t give me, personally, a full enjoyment of a game.

Now, Bioshock on the other hand is something that has benefited very well from the rise of technology without getting in to the open world bracket. Yes it’s a very open shooter that allows you to explore the beautiful crazy art deco inspired environment of Rapture or the steampunk-esque floating Columbia. But they are levels. Regardless of if you can travel around them, they are all specifically designed levels that have an incredibly beautiful immersive environment. Irrational Games’ nuance at storytelling is (or was) second to none. Could that have been achieved if Rapture was a fully open world autonomous environment? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as atmospheric.

A second example of this is a game that was originally open world and still retained some open world elements, but discarded them because it made the game too open, too complex and hard to achieve the narrative exposition that they were looking for. That game was Alan Wake. This wasn’t scrapped because it was too much for the technology to handle after becoming an Xbox 360 exclusive, but because the thriller element of the game could not be delivered with it. Frankly, Remedy made the best possible move there. Thriller games (Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark) benefit more from being enclosed, small and well designed. If the world is too big, it becomes a bit convoluted to program a random scare in to a design with no levels.

Open world games do push you in a directional narrative and you could argue that the Assassin’s Creeds aren’t truly open world compared to the other games. But there are many games that, whilst it is great that they exist, might be better with a scaling back of thought and a better implementation of level design.

south park review 2I’m not saying that open world is becoming an easy or lazy option, not by any means. But there is a tendency I feel to let the world be the level and dictate your moves and personally I don’t like it. I think a good game can suffer because of it.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is an interesting case here and an example of why open world isn’t always the answer. Firstly the town of South Park is small. That makes the open world a bit more limited, but completely able to be explored. Secondly, the narrative of the game does drive you in a quest laden turn based combat game. But to get to these fights, you have to negotiate designed levels. Because of the 2D visuals of the game, this looks like a platform game, but actually it’s quite a designed level as the lampooning of Canada in the Zelda/Pokémon series style neatly shows. Thirdly, everything in the game, the sub-quests and the story, guide you but still allow you free reign to explore and do it on your own terms without being overwhelmed.

Now the game industry has a choice here and I think the rise of independent gaming will make that choice for them. The next two years are going to see heavy lighting/physics based stunning driving games, incredibly smooth and frantically busy first person shooters aimed at multiplayer audiences and vast open worlds full of quests to explore. But would they be missing the obvious if they took a step back from these types of games to deliver a more stable, concentrated and well-designed progressive game?

I think so. But I’m not you so tell me to shut up and go away if you want.

[author]

Missing the Obvious: Silence SCUMM

The day I write this (currently a Monday with all the trimmings of Spring) is a glorious day. I’m putting aside Mass Effect, which I’m doing an article on. I’m ending my quest to get 100% on Lego Lord of the Rings. I’ve even stopped my foolish crusade at restarting Skyrim from scratch including deleting all of my old save games.

Why?

The BBC has released the 30th Anniversary edition of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy game. It’s a text adventure game originally released in 1984 based on one of the most seminal pieces of British comedy radio/TV/play/books/film to have ever graced the mushy neuron sponge that is the human brain. It’s an important game for me. Along with the original Hobbit, it was the game that infuriated my five-year-old self, amused my parents and had no graphics. Yet its sense of adventure, and surprising capacity to teach you how to spell was apparent.

Hitchhiker's GuideThis is being mentioned because it is without a doubt, one of the major forbearers for the greatest series of adventure games ever produced. LucasArts were the masters of all with their terrific Monkey Island series and the following one off games that accompanied them like Full Throttle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones, The Dig, et al.

Their success in triumphing over the text based and even simple graphics based games was the point and click mechanic. They created games that were as funny, as intuitive, as puzzling and as enjoyable as their predecessors but, with the simplicity of pointing and clicking along with great graphical content to accompany your controls. This was the game engine of gaming. Not just graphics, or physics or destruction modelling but actual gaming. This was SCUMM.

It stands for ‘Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion,’ which was the first game to use this invented language. The idea took the concept that you use your adventure by selecting the appropriate verb for the action you want or need to do, or want a humorous comment on behalf of your protagonist on. It replaced the typing of words with a clickable sequence of easy commands to advance through the game.

Of course there were others in the gaming world that used similar mechanics based on the success of this. Broken Sword, Beneath a Steel Sky, several Star Trek tie-ins and Discworld 1 and 2 (still my personal favourites). But as the PC market began to lose touch to a console era in the late 90s these games slipped away, unable to be played by a generation with snazzy 3D graphics and no mouse controller.

Recently a comeback of sorts has happened although in a very low-key way. The ScummVM PC software project has enabled the old games to be played on any operating system practically (that includes console and mobile). The recent indie release Broken Age is a great homage to this era, even being written by one of the masters of the game genre Tim Scahfer, the architect of so many LucasArts titles.

Broken-Age-Act-I 3In fact it is this release and the combination of easy to transfer developing code that is why we are missing the obvious. I don’t mean for nostalgia though. The amazing remastering of the Monkey Island games was amazing and successful, as I presume the Broken Sword remasters are too for nostalgic gamers. But we are missing new intellectual property, to coin some industry lingo.

What I mean is that there hasn’t been a new original series of games that has new characters, fun worlds or exciting things for use to point and click on. Sure there’s licensed games but practically nothing brand new. The tools are there, and it is relatively easy to develop, code and release. All it takes is a great imagination and the firing of some of those neurons around the sponge to start developing these titles.

Broken Age was developed though Kickstarter and is a large-scale project compared to my thoughts. But the fact that a small team could create an easily portable and enjoyable game means that publishers are missing a trick here, right? Well… Not all of them.

If you had any doubts that this wouldn’t be a viable option, that there isn’t an audience for this genre, that consoles won’t abide by it, that mobiles won’t let you play it properly and, most importantly, that it will gross income, then let me point you in the direction of Telltale Games and The Walking Dead series.

I rest this case and return to figuring out how Douglas Adams intends me to get out of my bedroom with only a dressing gown and a hangover. Don’t Panic.

[author]

Missing the Obvious: Strategically Console

I can list the amount of strategy games that worked on a console this past generation on one hand. Shall I list them for you? OK, I will, and just so you know whilst this is also my opinion, it is complete irrefutable fact… Honest:

  • Halo Wars
  • Civilization Revolution
  • Tropico (Series)

Suffice to say that it has not been a popular genre. I am also aware that I’ve missed things that are classed as strategy games like R.U.S.E and XCOM. I’m on about the proper classic strategy games, those isometric games that rob you of several months and – if you’re lucky – several years of your life. Civilization, Black & White, Theme Park/Hospital, Dungeon Keeper, Command & Conquer, Caesar, Anno 1602, Heroes of Might and Magic… Just so it doesn’t look like a Molyneux rap sheet of course.

Civilization Revolution 1I mentioned on a recent review that console gamers, in the least insulting way possible, don’t particularly have an aptitude for strategy in gaming. Maybe patience should be a better word. But to be honest, this has been well known by gaming developers and publishers. Hence why we haven’t really had that many strategy games on console platforms. Even the most recent iteration of Command & Conquer, that 90s powerhouse of strategy gaming, was cancelled.

But it isn’t because the games aren’t popular anymore. Look at the success of Tropico, Civilization V, new indie game Banished and even SimCity. These games are not only successful but still raise the bar in what is considered to be good for the genre, especially in the PC market.

The problem is that developers have never found a way to engage with the console audience with strategy games. It sounds crazy that in this world when SimCity has been released and Transport Tycoon has been remade for iOS that the console market has no way to allow the strategy market to gain a foot hold in the living room/gaming den of your console owner.

That’s because publishers can be quite dumb. Yes, I said it. But they have had, at least for one console, a way to make intelligent forward thinking strategy game with a control method that will suit every Next Gen owner. One of the big problems with this of course is the control method for strategy games being rather elaborate compared to the capabilities of the control pad. Not graphics, audience, IP or anything else except that there isn’t a suitable control method that will allow a console gamer to play a game.

WRONG! There is one. There has been one for the past three and a half years and it has been improved greatly and re-released since. I am of course talking about Project Natal, or as you know it, Kinect.

xbox one kinect feat

Kinect has been utilized in the poorest way possible in the development of games. Its use as a semi-alternative controller or voice command unit in some games is a start, but the controller has basically been used for fitness/dance/sport game tracking and occasional camera use. If we’re honest, that’s it, right?

WRONG! The Kinect has been used for one thing, specifically non-gaming, and the idea and ethos behind it would be perfect for strategy games. That particular thing is the Xbox dashboard. It’s simple. Hand controls on squares to move things select things and now intuitive voice commands that can tell the Xbox what to do.

Let me immediately evoke for you the picture of Tom Cruise from Minority Report. This is exactly how a strategy game could work. If you will, imagine the future world of Command & Conquer on your screen. This time with seven translucent boxes displayed, four each side of your screen except one side which would have three with a mini-map as well, and your isometric view of the world in the middle of your screen showing you the world.

Minority ReportSimple controls: everything you need building wise is in these boxes, you can use iOS style controls to zoom in and out of the world (parting your hands across or bringing them in), movement can be controlled by a hand in one direction and voice controls can tell your squads what to do. You can use your voice to “select all” or “attack” or even “special function”… Do you see where I’m coming from? It’s the most immersive thing to happen to this genre and exactly what it needs to “Kinect” with gamers… PR teams may steal that line if needed.

What I’m saying is that the platforms and tools are there for strategy games to work but they must be based around the controller rather than the controller be adapted to the game. Which is why Halo Wars and Civ Rev especially were so good at what they did. They developed a game around the controller. And with Kinect, people have the most intuitive and free-controlling system around.

Admittedly if you developed a game or pitched such a thing it would not be an easy sell. But as long as you made a good enough game and succeeded in making the controller a vitally useful part of the game, rather than the quirk that it has been marketed as since inception, then there is no holding back.

Not convinced? Imagine playing Black & White or such style of game using a Kinect controller. If you aren’t playing it out in your mind and getting excited by it, then visit your local GP.

[author]

Missing The Obvious: The Next Decent Star Trek Game

The fall of Star Trek in video games is nothing new, although it isn’t really documented properly. What do I mean by that? Well, every time you see a Star Trek game released, or mentioned, budding journalists – who are all my age and have very fond memories of getting in from school and watching The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 on TV, but thankfully were too busy to pay any attention to Enterprise – lament the lack of a decent game to play.

However, journalists and fans, I test you. Do you actually recall the name of the last decent game? Do you even get to look past the fan-boy nostalgia and remember an enjoyable experience playing one? Because I don’t! Let me list for you the last Star Trek games I recall that were actually good.

  • Starfleet Academy (PC)
  • Bridge Commander (PC)
  • Elite Force (PC… Yes I know it was console ported but it was PC)
  • Judgement Rites (PC)

[divider]

star trek science phaser

You see where I’m going with this. Sorry, consoles, but you’ve sucked at producing good original Star Trek games. Does anyone remember Invasion? No. Legacy? Maybe, because it was recent-ish. But the two most recent games (a non-tie-in-movie-tie-in and a MMORPG/DOGFIGHTING game) are mostly PC based as well. You can find Anthony’s review of Star Trek here if you need a reminder. I’d certainly argue that there hasn’t been a great amount of Star Trek games that go above an “OK” rating. Probably the two Elite Force games mostly and maybe Klingon Honour Guard.

So your point is, Sean, that Star Trek games have failed because the good ones are only on PC? No. Star Trek games have failed because there is a very limited scope of people that play them, enjoy them and who are ultimately unhappy at the quality so much they tend to not impart their money for them. It’s not just Star Trek but Star Wars and most other space based games.

Arguably, Kerbal Space Program and Eve Online are the most popular and successful space-science-fiction based games at the moment. And the latter being kept that way due to a fanatical community who subscribe to play it. But you wouldn’t say that either are popular in the mainstream sense and therefore in the big AAA console game world, they are unlikely to gross large amounts.

The last Star Wars game that was incredibly successful on console was probably Lego based. Something that the original ten Star Trek Movies would actually really benefit from. Which is why we are missing the obvious. We aren’t looking for the right Star Trek game! Let’s face it, in this world of Call of Battlefield, Forza Tourismo and independent gaming, there isn’t a lot of room for the dogfighting/FPS/RPG stylings that Trek and Wars could do excellently.Lego-Star-Wars-02 Purely because for the longevity of their intellectual properties, they really haven’t produced anything new in ten years. I know the new Star Trek movies have come and new Star Wars are coming and that the Clone Wars was a big hit. But they weren’t really new, were they? They were still that enjoyable science-fiction romp you enjoyed in your pre-pubescent years. Not exactly the core gaming audience nowadays.

So I do see journalists, bloggers and observers remark how they’ve lamented a decent Star Trek game, or that the closure of Lucasarts has left a void of classic space gaming like the X-Wing series (more on that next month) that no one can or has yet filled. But I ask you, given the hammy-ness and nostalgia that Trek has now especially, could you do worse than a two/three part Lego series of games? The Original six movies, the four Next Generation era movies and maybe a nod to the five television series it graced us with for nearly 40 years? No. No you couldn’t.

You want to know the obvious thing everyone is missing here?

A cinematic with a Lego Kirk shaking in anger to a point where he screams “KAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHNNNNNNN” and spontaneously falls apart. I’ve already pre-ordered that game in my mind.

Oh and if you think I’ve criminally missed Mass Effect, you’re right, I have. But for good reason, which you will read soon.

[author]

Missing the Obvious: Easy Money

Note: like most articles on casual games, this article has been created with little research into the subject or my fellow commuters, much to their annoyance of hearing my iPad keyboard tapping.

Video games are the in the business of making money, correct? Well mostly, It’s the people that give you the games, the retailer, that want to make the money. Then it’s those huge publisher entities that distribute those games that enjoy the ol’ green paper. Then maybe, just maybe, the people that actually make the games, the developers, are next in the table. (That was sarcasm in case you thought otherwise)

pokemon red iOS games have changed that. Kind of. Apple still take money as the retailer and distributor. The developers can get more money, unless the studio is owned by one of those big publisher types. Why am I explaining this fairly obvious business and wealth distribution model? Because it baffles me, seeing as how much that piece of paper with the Queens Head/Pyramid with eye/local dictator on it is desired by all of these people and yet, they miss a very obvious easy money.

Retro games have slowly come in to the mobile fold over the past four years as technology has increased. Rockstar are probably the most commercially successful with the releasing of a back catalogue. Sega have released a few things at a far earlier stage in the mobile games market. But here is the one I’m really confused about. Pokemon.

Ok, let me point out the obvious flaws in my plan. This is a Nintendo exclusive and so they never release a game on other platforms really. There is probably a hilariously complex set of rights issues stopping not only a rival release but also a previous game. Also releasing on a mobile platform might belittle the sales and effectiveness of their consoles, most notably the 2DS and 3DS. So why would they want to do it?

pokemon blue red yellow 2

Simple. In the US, UK and Japan combined, Pokemon Red, Green and Blue (the original 1999 Gameboy releases) sold 23,810,000 copies approximately. So the reason to do this would be £47,381,900. I get that figure by working out that almost 24 million sales to the fair and modest figure of £1.99 on the App Store.

A mobile release of the original three games would cause such a nostalgia trip (remember most of these people with iPhone specifically probably had the game on the Gameboy) that you couldn’t resist. I couldn’t and I didn’t even have a Gameboy! The games are old enough not to dent anything that Nintendo are currently doing and it’s a very fat cash-in at a time where the company are arguably going to be on the back foot due to the now current generation’s ‘charge’ attack on the dazed gamer.

But those rights issues and competitor conflicts of interest – Nintendo would never allow a release of a Nintendo portable game on a mobile device at all. They would never… Oh wait. LOOPHOLE!!!

ace attorney 1I present the evidence that the company will allow games to go to competitors for sales by developers. You can sit there in the dock, poor Nintendo; pleading innocence and feigning ignorance, but take this: EVIDENCE!!!!! POW! Alex Wright Ace Attorney. This game has in fact been released twice on iOS, once as a big complete edition and before as an easier package with add-ons for the fairly non-modest price of around £8.

So we’re saying that actually Nintendo could release maybe a coloured upscaled Pokemon Red, Green and Blue? That they could actually charge a more fair and profitable £4.99 as a guess? That’s a possible £118,811,900 in sales. I’m pretty sure once presented with those hastily constructed figures, shareholders would make Nintendo find a way to make this happen.

[author]