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]