Friday, May 31, 2013

Thoughts on the Wii U

Since not all the information is available on the Xbox One or the PS4, I can't fully judge what they have to offer, but from what they have shown, I don't see anything really they're offering that really changes how games will be made.  Prettier graphics, more advanced motion controls I don't want that will be foisted upon me, and (so far) no games I have any interest in.  This made me feel even better about my purchase of the Wii U because the Wii U actually offers something new and unique to game designers to play with - a secret screen for only one player to see.

So far I have only played Nintendo Land and that for only one evening with a group of friends, so it's still mostly about the potential of the Wii U than anything concrete, but what I have seen so far has amazed me.  Three minigames of Nintendo Land, all with a similar premise: one player with the Gamepad containing extra information not available to the other players vs. four other players who really must work as a team to defeat the solo player.  In one game, the four are trying to catch the one, in the other two, the one is trying to catch the four.  This is precisely what I love about the Wii U's new game possibilities - the ability to have players having different experiences with the same game.  Nintendo originally had this same mechanic with the Game Boy Advance connecting with the Gamecube in Zelda Four Swords and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles.  The downside of those was that you had to have friends who each had not only their own GBA, but also the cable that connects the GBA to the Gamecube.  With the Wii U, I can have all the various gadgets needed and my friends merely need to bring their wonderful smiles.  Of course, the battery life on the gamepad is pretty poor, but it looks like (hopefully) that won't be an issue much longer.

I look forward to when more games come out and I can see how the Wii U works for single player experiences.  This has really been the reason the Wii U hasn't been doing well (and why the 3DS had such a slow start), but with all the announcements of things coming out starting in August (hooray Pikmin 3!), that shouldn't be a problem much longer.  We'll see what Sony and Microsoft have to offer at E3 in a couple weeks, but at this point, I feel like they'd have to offer quite a bit to get my interest (especially Microsoft).

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Continuing with the Nickelodeon theme, another great show I watched as a kid was Are You Afraid of the Dark?  I'm not asking a question...that's its name...The general premise of the show is that a bunch of kids, members of The Midnight Society, sit around a campfire telling each other scary/bizarre/supernatural stories.  Each episode was one of those stories played out for the viewer.  Occasionally the story would be interrupted by the other Midnight Society members, which reminded you this was being told around a campfire.  It always started and ended at the campfire and (as in most kid show fashion) the story would generally be relevant to what one of the kids was doing at the beginning of the story (if one of the kids was being a jerk, the story would be about someone being a jerk getting punished in a scary way, etc.).

I loved this show because of how varied the stories were and how not every story was scary.  Some were just paranormal without any kids being in danger.  Then there were the ones with the clowns...this probably is part of the cause for my aversion to clowns.  This and Tim Curry.  It probably also helps that one of the very first episodes I saw had lizard people and a giant sewer dragon/lizard thing.  The Goosebumps TV show came out near the end of this show, but it wasn't comparable at all other than they were both scary story shows.  This show was far superior in every way.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Things I'm Looking Forward To This Summer

  • Movies
  • Television
    • MasterChef - Started May 22nd
      • Cooking competition between more average people than Top Chef
    • Arrested Development - New Season released May 26th
      • If you have not seen this series before, do it.  You must watch from the beginning for full effect.
  • Video Games
    • Fuse - May 28th
      • Co-op sci-fi adventure with a couple buddies of mine
    • Remember Me - June 4th
      • Cyberpunk adventure about rewriting people's memories
    • The Last Of Us - June 14th
      • Survival horror after a fungal infection has taken over most of humanity
    • Pikmin 3 - August 4th
      • Control an army of little vegetable creatures to gather amazing "treasures" on a distant planet
    • Mario and Luigi Dream Team - August 11th
      • Another amazing RPG adventure for Mario and Luigi
    • New Super Luigi U - August 25th
      • Redoing of New Super Mario Bros. U focused on Luigi
    • The Wonderful 101 - September 15th
      • Control an army of superheroes to save the city (essentially another Pikmin!)
    • Batman: Arkham Origins - October 25th
      • A prequel to the two other amazing Batman Arkham games
  • Other

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Downfall of Sitcoms

I've watched quite a few sitcoms in my day and I think I've started to narrow down one of the biggest differences between a good one and a bad one: the avoidability of the ridiculous situations that arise.  Sitcoms are all about taking real life situations to utterly ridiculous extremes.  In fact, I think it can probably be charted much like the Hot Crazy Scale.  The simpler it would be to diffuse a given situation, the less ridiculous the situation should get.  So for example, in this episode of Frasier, Frasier needs to get a book of his from Daphne's room and instead of waiting until she gets home and asking, he goes into her room to find it.  Now because it's a sitcom (and Frasier's an idiot), he doesn't just stop when he gets the book, but instead keeps looking through Daphne's stuff.  Daphne then comes in and (rightly so) gets super upset with him.  So if this is as far as it went, it would only be mildly stupid.  But, of course, it keeps escalating.  In his rush to get out of the room (instead of explaining what he was doing to Daphne), Frasier ends up taking a bottle of pills from Daphne's room.  Now, again, instead of apologizing to Daphne and explaining what an idiot he is, he decides to sneak in and put the bottle of pills back and ends up hiding around the room while Daphne comes in to undress and take a shower.  Later, both Frasier, his brother Niles (who is in love with Daphne), and their father are all sneaking around in her room to try to fix the situation only to spill wine everywhere and act like complete imbeciles with zero control over their own bodies.

A part of sitcom humor does seem to depend on the characters acting very stupid most of the time, but if they act so stupid so as not to be even remotely like a normal human being or stupid one episode and totally normal another, that makes it very hard to find the stupidity funny.  I think this sort of thing always happens at some point to any sitcom, so the question is how long a sitcom can last without depending on this large failure.  Or at the very least good writers can try to explain why the characters' brains stopped functioning momentarily.  The very worst case is that character becomes the dumb character and perpetually gets dumber and dumber.  I'm looking at you, Joey Tribbiani.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: Legends of the Hidden Temple

When I was writing last week's Blank I Grew Up On, it made me think of another wonderful game show found on Nickelodeon (I might end up having a Nickelodeon game show theme for the next couple weeks come to think of it...), Legends of the Hidden Temple.  Each episode would start with six pairs of kids competing to see which pair would get to find this week's treasure in the hidden temple.  Each episode had a theme filled with historical facts and questions about some different artifact.

The contest was split into three elimination challenges.  First, the six teams must cross a moat with whatever method they are told to use (swing across using ropes, use a raft, swim, etc.  The first four teams to completely cross first and hit the button on the other side continue to the next round: The Steps of Knowledge.  The remaining four teams answer trivia questions to step down from the steps of knowledge.  Each right answer moves the team down another step.  The first two teams to the bottom of the stairs move on to the final round of team elimination.  The last two teams compete in different physical challenges that fit that episode's theme to earn parts of pendants of life.  After three of these competitions, the team with more pendant parts get to run through the hidden temple and try to find the artifact and bring it back out for the grand prize.

The temple itself is a large maze of various rooms that each have some trick or method to access adjacent rooms.  Contestants are told which room the artifact is in and must find their way into that room and get back out of the temple within a time limit to win.  However, there are three temple guards hidden within the temple that are out to catch them.  Generally, the guards were hidden along the prescribed path to get to the artifact in places the contestants were likely to trigger.  That is, if a player had to find a button in a sarcophagus to open the door and the room had multiple sarcophagi, then a guard would probably be in one of the others.  If the contestants had a full pendant of life, they could give it to the guard to keep going through the temple.  At most, a team could have 1.5 pendants of life from the last round of team elimination and another half was in the temple somewhere along the path they were meant to follow.  However, most teams only ever had one and so would be eliminated when the third guard was found (the first guard took the pendant, the second guard captured kid 1 of the team, and the third guard captured kid 2).

I always wondered if the kids had to travel along a certain path (the one the audience was shown/told about before the team entered the temple) or if they were free to try going other ways.  If they could only ever go along a certain path that it seemed designed to never let a team win ever.  I guess some teams did win, but I never witnessed these episodes.  This sort of goes along the lines of Nick Arcade where I understand that not every team can win, but at the same time it seemed unnecessarily harsh.  Of course, other times the kids were just idiots.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Illusion of Danger

One of the lectures I went to for my first GDC was "Everything I Learned About Game Design, I Learned From Disneyland", by Scott Rogers.  It was filled with all sorts of wonderful ideas and lessons, but one of the ones that has really stuck with me was the illusion of danger.  A couple examples of this from Disneyland would be the "darts" in the Indiana Jones ride (before they lowered the air pressure) that actually felt like real darts or the splashes of water from the cannonballs in Pirates of the Caribbean.  Neither of these dangers are real and everyone knows this, but it still adds to the thrill of these rides.

This false sense of danger is even more important in video games to give a similar thrill to the players.  Uncharted seemingly does a great job of this because Nathan Drake is almost always seemingly just about to fall to his death or barely escape from a runaway train.  However, this sense of danger is only if the player keeps moving.  If you stand still on that pipe that will obviously break when you jump off of it, it will (usually) stay in place indefinitely until you move.  So the obvious solution to this would be to have the pipe actually break if you stay on it after say 5 seconds or so.  Another good example is if enemies in the background are shooting at you, they should all miss you unless you stand still for a little bit.  This will give the illusion that you have to skillfully dodge the enemy fire, but without having players frustrated trying to focus on both the foreground action and background action at the same time.

This sense of tension and imminent danger can sort of be mimicked in board games by having the game balanced such that the line between winning and losing is very fine.  If it's a cooperative game, then the ideal ending would be the players barely making it through the harrowing adventure or possibly losing someone on the way (bonus points if you can mimic the stereotypical blaze of glory or grand sacrifice seen in action movies).  If it's competitive, then making all players a threat to the current winner will keep that feeling of danger going.  This is definitely the aspect of the illusion of danger I'd like to work on some more in my future games.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Paper Prototyping For Work vs. Board Game Design For Fun

  • Paper Prototyping For Work
    • Pros
      • Getting paid for doing what I love
      • Having people immediately available to ask for help/advice
      • Cabinet filled with game prototype materials (legal pads/pens/paper clips/etc)
      • Nearby cafe for lunch breaks
    • Cons
      • Less control over project direction
      • Frequent misunderstandings between current progress and full game design
      • Working with a bunch of people (myself included at times) who want to jump ahead to programming the game before it's fully designed
      • Meetings
  • Board Game Design For Fun
    • Pros
      • Can watch TV while working
      • Can bring my dog to work
      • Full kitchen to cook my own food for lunch breaks
      • Can work in my pajamas
      • No deadlines or crunch time
    • Cons
      • Must pay for prototype components/scavenge other board games
      • Have a dog to interrupt working
      • A little too easy to become a full fledged hermit

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: Nick Arcade

It's probably no surprise that being such a gaming aficionado, that I grew up watching a variety of game shows.  One of those shows was Nick Arcade.  This show had three parts: a video game related trivia game, arcade challenges, and a  "real life" video game kids would run through.

The trivia aspect was nothing new or phenomenal.  If you've seen one trivia game, you've seen them all.  The arcade challenges tasked players to play through a stage or section of a stage in recent Super Nintendo/Genesis games trying to score a certain number of points.  Since every game had a different point system (or no point system), the goal required would be adjusted to fit the game - although I always felt some goals were ridiculously hard to obtain and others were super easy, so it seemed kind of arbitrary.  The team who got the most points in the first two parts of the game would try to defeat the boss of that episode by entering a VR simulator.  Note: I have no idea how this actually worked, so this is only speculation.  I believe the simulator was some sort of green screen that would show the kids running through a video game trying to collect three items around the level and then hit the boss, but all sorts of obstacles and traps were scattered around the level.

Based on how the kids performed, I always suspected it wasn't clear to them where the traps were or how it would hit them.  Either that or they just picked really dumb kids.  I understand that like arcades, game shows are designed to only let a few people win - they'd lose a bunch of money if they gave away the grand prize every episode.  However, it was always frustrating watching it at home and seeing the kids just stand on top of a spike trap and not realize they're getting hit until they get killed.  Since it was also a team, it  was especially disappointing to see when one team member knew what they were doing, but lost because their teammate didn't know what they were doing.  It was still a very entertaining show for the most part and apparently it was quite the technical marvel in its day.

Monday, May 13, 2013

PlaneQuest Kickstarter

My dream future involves a wonderful combination of tabletop gaming and video gaming.  The closest I have seen to the future I envision is this Settlers of Catan on the Microsoft Surface.  One problem with that is that a Microsoft Surface is super expensive and difficult to get into my house.  The next closest thing I've seen is what the company TabletTop is trying to start with their Kickstarter for PlaneQuest.  Quick synopsis, they are developing a game for the iPad and other touch tablets that uses special figurines to control the virtual avatars.  I'll be perfectly honest, it's not the specific game they're creating that I'm supporting, but more the idea behind it.  Unfortunately, I get the feeling other people aren't willing to be so forward thinking with their money because this project doesn't seem to be going so well.

It was at £2,900 or so when I backed it over 10 days ago and it needs £150,000 total...this may be the first project I've backed that fails, but if it pops up again, I'd gladly help again to strive for this future.  Just imagine a world where you don't have to do any of the tedious board setup or having the game be able to compute things for you to make games go faster, but still getting cards and tokens and figurines that make board games so fun to play in the first place.  I guess for now I'll have to keep dreaming.  Either that or buy myself a Microsoft Surface...

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: The DeathSpank Series

There are three different games in the DeathSpank series, but there are so identical to each other that there's not much point in reviewing them separately.  That sounds like a bad thing, but really, the games are so funny, the settings so bizarre and clever, and the gameplay is good enough that there's nothing wrong with that.  The series is created by game designer, Ron Gibert - famous co-creator of the Monkey Island series and also eventually The Cave.  Ron definitely has a certain style because the humor is consistently good in all of these games.

The games revolve around DeathSpank, a hero to the downtrodden, adorned with the Thong of Justice, his only objective is to vanquish evil.  Although, he tends to easily get swayed about who is evil and who isn't.  For example, he'll gladly help sentient Mind Barnacles (think Brain Slugs from Futurama) take over the local tribe population because they seem nice.  What could go wrong there?  Basically, the game is constantly poking fun at the typical adventure game trope that anyone who gives a hero a quest must be good.  In fact, that's what the game does mostly, use, take advantage, and make fun of all sorts of typical adventure game tropes.

Gameplay is simple enough, you can equip a weapon to each of the four face buttons, consumable items to the four directions of the control pad, select one of three aspects to improve upon leveling up, and talk to people to start or resolve quests.  You'll generally find equipment that matches your level as you go, so there's a constant feeling of progression.  Dying will merely teleport you to the nearest Outhouse (which also function as fast travel points).  Some quests involve some somewhat basic puzzles (a few riddles here and there, a few puzzles requiring finding, combining, and using items correctly).  The game also allows a second player to join DeathSpank as his companion (different companion depending on which game), but I didn't get to see how this affects the game.

If you like light-hearted, simple action RPGs with loads of dark humor, stupid chickens, orphans, and bacon, then this series is probably for you.  They are very well polished and there are definitely some very interesting twists and turns to more than just the story, but I don't want to say anymore lest I ruin things.  I would suggest at the very least to try the demo and if you find the gameplay enjoyable, go through the first for a mere $15.  You might find yourself hooked after that.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Books I Grew Up On: Disney Adventures

I guess every kid has at least one magazine they grow up with.  Or at least they used to, not sure what the equivalent for kids nowadays would be...anyway, the magazine that I subscribed to was Disney Adventures.  The magazine was filled with tidbits about the current movies, music, and television that was popular (obviously heavily focused on ABC, Disney, Touchstone Videos, etc.), random educational tidbits about whatever the current issue's theme was, and it had a bunch of comics from all sorts of Disney cartoon worlds.

One random thing I remember from my issues: the magician themed issue taught me that statistically, it takes 7 perfect shuffles to completely shuffle a deck of 52 cards.  I think this magazine also cultivated my love for everything Disney and helped solidify Walt Disney as one of my top role models.  I don't know about the later issues, but when I got it, it never felt like it was just a big advertisement for anything, but actually seemed like useful and worthwhile information.  I'm not sure how exactly to explain what I mean.  It felt Disney focused, but not blatantly biased "Disney is good, all else is bad".  I have the same feeling towards Nintendo Power and the opposite feel to Gamestop's magazine, Game Informer.  Of course, I'm probably the one that's super biased since I grew up with Nintendo systems and watching Disney movies...

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Bioshock Infinite

This is mostly going to be a review of the game design elements of Bioshock Infinite since I dare not say anything about the story lest I say too much.  The vast majority of game play is the same as it was in the first two Bioshock games.  You have an array of guns to choose from to shoot your way through a vast array of enemies, you have essentially magic powers to help as well, you can rummage through desks, barrels, crates, and trash cans looking for money, ammo, delicious cake and pineapple and other foods to help you heal.  The game feels more linear than the other Bioshock games, but I think that's mostly because you can't revisit areas after they are finished in this one or because only one area had multiple paths to get to your destination.

There are four distinct differences they have made this time around: Elizabeth's resupply, tears, two weapon limits, and the skyline.  About a third of the way into the game, you'll be joined by Elizabeth, quite possibly the best AI companion I have ever played with.  She never annoyed me, she never made combat more difficult, and she restocks your ammo, health, and salts when you are low (the harder the difficulty, the less frequently she'll restock you).  This is both a total blessing when you find yourself overwhelmed, but it also makes the game significantly easier.  I found myself taking much larger risks and doing stupider things because I knew as long as I could get away and hide for a few seconds, Elizabeth would patch me up.  If you want some actually challenging combat, I would recommend you play on Hard for this game.

Another thing Elizabeth brings with her is the ability to open up tears between dimensions.  Essentially, there are pre-determined things you can bring into the world to help you in combat.  So when you enter a new area, you might see a potential medkit crate up ahead, a potential gun turret up above, and a potential freight hook to swing from.  All you have to do is point at it and tell Elizabeth to open the tear.  Only one tear can be opened at once, but this gives combats a very interesting set of strategic choices for how you want to do battle.  Masterfully controlling the battle field is an incredibly powerful tool to use against your enemies.  Perhaps you'll bring in an ally to distract the enemy or use that freight hook to get away when you start getting overwhelmed.

In previous Bioshock games (and most FPSes), you get an arsenal of weaponry that grows as the game progresses.  You'll get to switch to any weapon you've collected up to that point whenever you want.  In Bioshock Infinite, you have a two gun limit.  Those two guns can be any you find, but if you have the machine gun and the carbine rifle stumble upon a shotgun, you have to choose which one to leave behind.  Much like the tears, this makes combat much more about strategic choices and choosing the weapons that best suit your style.  Maybe you love to be in the middle of the action, so you take the shotgun, but you want a good backup weapon if the enemies are too far away, so you take the rifle.  Most weapons are available all over the place, so switching to a different set happens fairly frequently.

The last new element (and the first weapon you get in the game) is the Skyhook.  This little device lets you (very brutally) kill people who get up in your face and it also lets you latch on to skylines and the aforementioned freight hooks.  You can use these to escape battle or use them  as part of your battle strategy.  They don't appear in every combat area, but when they are there, it's pretty darn fun to leap out of the way of a mob of guys and then swoop down and knock one out by leaping at them.  Just keep in mind that most enemies have Skyhooks as well, so they can follow you if you are just trying to get away.  Of course, if you're like me, you'll use that knowledge to set up an ambush for when they follow you.

Even with all these changes, the game play of Bioshock Infinite feels very similar to the original two games.  You're still running from one area to another, dispatching troops of enemies to make your way from point A to point B so that you can achieve your goal.  And then right when you think you have achieved that goal, the story tosses you for a loop, which is really why you play a Bioshock game anyway...

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: The Cave

Created by Ron Gilbert, of Monkey Island fame, The Cave is an interesting game filled with dark humor and puzzles.  The game starts with the player selecting three characters from a set of seven, each with their own backstory and unique ability.  Once you have selected your three characters, you explore The Cave to try to resolve the character's moral choice.  The Cave is made up of a series of puzzle areas: four major ones you will go through no matter which characters you choose, a couple minor puzzles, and three puzzle areas based on which characters you have selected.  At the end of all this, you'll find yourself back at the beginning where you get to see how the character's story ends.  You actually get to decide if it's a good or bad ending, which I was not aware of until I had already beaten the game with all the characters once with the bad ending.

The whole game is beautifully narrated and almost every line is some joke or ominous foreshadowing (a lot like the story in the Deathspank series).  The puzzles themselves are interesting the first time you solve them.  Some require all three characters to work as a team, some require a character's special ability, some are just made easier with the special abilities.  The downside of the game is that if you want to see everything, you have to beat the game at least six times with the majority of the game not changing and (I still don't understand how this happens nowadays) with unskippable cinematic bits.  So the first time through The Cave is 100% fun and awesome.  The second time through is roughly 42.9% awesome since you have already done the four major shared puzzles before.  The third time through is 14.3% awesome since you are now only seeing one new area.  For the remaining three playthroughs, the only difference is the ending you get based on the choice you make at the very very end.  I've already mentioned how much I hate backtracking, so you can imagine that this doesn't go over so well with me.  On the plus side, it did allow me to watch Netflix on my laptop while playing the game because I didn't have to pay attention that much, so at least I was getting two things on my mental checklist done at once...if you're not a completionist and the game is on sale for like $10 or so, I would highly recommend this.  If you really like dark comedy and puzzles and don't mind a little backtracking, I would also recommend this.  If you enjoy doing speed runs and trying to cut down the length of a playthrough to as short a time as possible, this would be a lot of fun, too.  If none of those apply, I'd probably avoid it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cartoons I Grew Up On: Darkwing Duck

I was blessed to grow up during the years of The Disney Afternoon, a 2 hour block of cartoons that ran immediately after school.  Every once a year or so, the four cartoons shown during this time would shift, so overall The Disney Afternoon was home to 13 or so different shows.  One of my all time favorites of those was the show, Darkwing Duck.

Darkwing Duck was a Disnified parody of superheros a la The Shadow.  By night, the titular character tries to stop crime by using a gas gun, scaring criminals with flashy appearances, and slapstick-fu.  The show is filled with parody, slapstick, puns, and goofy comedy.  It also crosses over with the Ducktales universe multiple times - DW's sidekick is Launchpad McQuack, his rival superhero is Gizmoduck, and cameo appearances by the Beagle Boys, Flintheart Glomgold, and Magicka De Spell.

I think what makes me love Darkwing Duck so much is the lineup of villains, just like Batman.  They are all varied with their own shtick, origin stories, and motives, but every once in awhile they all team up to take down DW.  And just like Batman with the Justice League, Darkwing has the Justice Ducks, only they are much more inept than their DC counterparts.  This show is definitely filled with the kind of goody, wacky, and stupid humor that I love.  Probably because I grew up with shows like this...