Dec 29, 2014

DualMondays: Gone Soft

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things. It usually appears on Mondays -- only rarely on Wednesdays. And some times fortnightly.

It's one of the last days of this year and I have to say that bothering with a retrospective for this article did cross my mind a couple of times. But, instead, I'm gonna talk about game difficulty and how we've gone soft and have been treating the player as a little baby. Keep in mind, that I grew up in the middle of the SNES vs Genesis era and that may make me a little biased - a lot probably.

After watching a Teens React video about teens playing Megaman, I couldn't help myself but facepalm. The players were kind of expecting everything to be explained and pointed out to them, no matter how obvious, but mostly they were into this delusion that the game was going to allow them to make mistakes and not punish them for it. Even if this involved the task of comprehending a pattern of an enemy's projectile or movement, to devise a strategy against it. My main concern however, stood in the fact that given a controller of 4 buttons and a directional pad, the players didn't even bother to press all the buttons to see what they do.

As far as I'm concerned, Megaman sports one of the most common and widely celebrated setups for the NES Controller, and it is so, because it's highly connected to the logic of any player that has grabbed that kind of a controller in his lifetime. It really baffled me that some didn't know they could shoot. Still, the general consensus was that the game was unfair, though the players were complimenting themselves saying they did good for getting that far, when actually only one of them reached the boss of the stage. Something I did agree with the crowd, however is that I also find myself setting videogames' difficulty level to hard, and still being able to beat them.

As a gamer, I have this feeling that we're de-evolving skill-wise converting certain aspects in game genres towards a less interactive, more forgiving experience. While the introduction of cinematic elements in videogames is something I'm a huge fan of, both as a gamer and a designer, I feel like, in an attempt to grasp a bigger demographic, game design has ripped us of challenges to portray a weaker aspect, but not for the sake of story driven gameplay.

And that explains the success of titles created within smaller studios. Even if diametrically different, Hotline Miami, for instance, compared to Call Of Duty, is stylistic and more interactive, even if in comparison it's quite more unforgiving. But that's the addictive part in it. It beckons the player from the very beginning to think - hone his/her skills and strategies and upgrade them, in order to overcome the hurdles placed in front of him/her. It doesn't mess around; from the very beginning. It sports a sort of realism - a truth that this is not one of those games that will be beaten without effort. I correct my previous statement, it doesn't beckon, it demands that you become a better player. It gives you the possibility with its arsenal of tidbits to cut through its logic core. At the same time though, it disallows you to master it completely by ever-introducing new elements and forcing you to adapt to them again and again.

And that's proper game design in my book. This whole rant of mine isn't about the difficulty of a videogame - god forbid, a game doesn't have to be difficult to be entertaining. But it always has to remain challenging, like a wild horse. Otherwise what's the point, where's the pleasure?

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Dec 17, 2014

Dual(Mondays)Wednesdays: Beta-love

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things. It usually appears on Mondays -- only rarely on Wednesdays.

Well, I've pondered about this a whole lot. This is a bit of a weird topic, but let's have at it. Let's talk about everything regarding properly testing your videogame. It may not be rocket science, in fact, I've checked, it's not, however that doesn't mean it's a walk in the park either.

As a developer, going through the testing phase of your project, you must not hasten to its completion by reducing it into a simple bug squatting pit. It should be the first step to shaping up the community that will surround your videogame.

Clarifying that to your head is vital in order to help you alter the focus from bug-finding to feedback. And specifically asking for constructive and detailed feedback from the beta testing team is one of the ways to go, and as a developer, if you respect yourself, you should make it so. After all, the beta-phase should always be about showing people your game and re-shaping it by going through as much feedback as possible. The lack of such, is and should be devastating for the progress of the game.

While the alpha version is about constructing the game based on self-feedback and testing, beta is about a private smaller group/demographic determining your efforts and helping you reshape them (if you're willing to accept the views of said group), before releasing it to the public. From this wonderful experience, which personally, as a developer, I adore the most out of the entire game-making process, you must learn to accept every opinion and be as open-minded as possible.

Despite the fact that certain points being voiced will not be ones to keep, every other point that you cannot logically or game-wise argue against can be considered as valid and actions towards its suggestions can be taken. In simpler words, it's up to you to bother with and filter every single remark and comment about your creation. Don't be afraid or disheartened, but rather see everything as an opportunity to get better. The mistakes you've made so far have no impact on the end product, for this is the juncture to alter the result, kind of like having a time machine. Don't distance yourself from the testers, they're not a bunch of freeloaders, they're people who are willing to devote their time and energy to playtest your game and send you back a report containing various findings - wonderful things, that you've been accommodated to their presence, managing to ignore them in the same way you ignore the fact that you're breathing.

The testers don't bash your game when they speak of it, but rather, they judge it and criticize and hope, unlike reviewers, that you improve upon their findings. And exactly that, you should do.

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Dec 8, 2014

DualMondays: Point And Click Jam - Aftermath

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things.

Well, normally this would have been another philosophical rambling about some topic, but today, I felt the need to bother you with the very recent and wonderfully successful Point and Click Jam. Of all the jams I watched closely or participated in this year, this one seemed to out-polish them all. There were absolutely no amateur entries here. It felt like a bunch of veterans were against each other, fighting for the first spot. This may be a correct first impression, however, upon closer inspection, that is not exactly the case. 

The majority of the contestants, hadn't even done an adventure game before (some I believe haven't even made a game!), so why does this not feel as amateur hour (pointing at the Pewdiepie VS Indie Jam)?

Because, there's no way to pull off certain genres with half-arsed efforts, which explains the duration of this game-making competition and any other adventure game competition. Think about it! Even OROW (abbreviation stands for One Room One Week), that is about making an adventure game in one room/screen, lasts a week. For it is quite known and obvious to all developers, that you could make a platform game in a matter of hours, but as a genre, adventure games are focused on the story and atmosphere, and it's rather hard to set up pacing, flow, story arc, character design, interface, puzzles within the span of a day, let alone in a less time than that.

It's a genre that begs for lots of hours of work, but also for quality. Arguably and regardless of the design of your game, polishing it is a vital element. For adventure games in particular, it works on every little part they consist of, making it something you simply have to do with. And here I am two paragraphs in and I'm already transforming back into Plato.

Anyhow - about the Point And Click Jam.

It was organized by the good people down at GameJolt, and the rules were quite simple (and a bit on the annoying side too). In 15 days you had to make an adventure game of the point and click kind, whereas the interface was left open for developers to either make one that had already been famous from games of the era or construct a brand new one. The resolution was forced to 320x200 so that you could get that "1991 feel" and you could work on your story before the jam begun (but just the story!). The ultra annoying bit for me, was the palette restriction. To make things more challenging and closer to the Lucas Arts / Sierra Era we all loved when we were growing up, the rules stated that you had to use a certain palette (a number of colors) to make your entry.

That was of course set to maintain a retro feel, along with the rule that also made clear that you're not allowed to make use of a technology further developed after 1992 or so (contemporary technologies in making the assets of your game had to be used). While this did help create quality entries in a weird masochistic way, I found it rather unappealing. The jam should have at least broadened the restrictions by allowing the use of transparency, if not alpha channels on sprites.

Regardless I consider the jam to be highly succesful, as, through it, wonderful games such as "A Fragment of Her", "Max Greene", "The Exciting Space Adventures of Greg And Linda", "Void And Meddler", "There Ain't No Sunshine", "A Cosmic Song" and others, spawned. I highly suggest checking all the entries, but the ones mentioned are worth an extra bit of attention. Wait, aren't adventure games dead? :P

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Dec 5, 2014

The Watchful Indie Watch #5.12

Having criminally failed to provide you with a Watchful Indie Watch last week I decided to a) get myself thoroughly spanked and b) make it up to you with this particularly hefty round-up of news from the indie gaming world. 

The Point And Click Jam, the best jam ever for us adventure lovers, is live and happy to provide you with 23 mostly excellent point-and-clickers. Everything is freeware, varied, cutely retro and very, very lovely.

Incredibly promising survival RPG NEO Scavenger has made itself available for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam's Early Access. There's a demo for you here and you will definitely be reminded of the Superhero League of Hoboken.

Gorgeous arcade adventure The Deer God is also available for early accessing at Steam and is looking gorgeous indeed. It's available for Windows, Mac and Linux and you should at least watch its new trailer.

Oh, and brilliant political strategy simulation Neocolonialism has finally made it to Steam. It's turn-based, clever and playable on anything reasonable contemporary with a keyboard and a mouse.

Speaking of geopolitics, Viktor is all about becoming the Emperor of Austria-Hungary while simultaneously remaining a jolly, cartoony and rather wild boar. The adventure is currently being crowdfunded over at Kickstarter. Here's the demo.

There's a trailer that teased me on forthcoming adventure game Unforeseen Incidents and you should watch it. It's teasing. And intriguing.

To overcome the teasing, well, you could always play freeware platformer OverPowered. It was released as part of GameJolt's Indies VS PewDiePie Jam which you should definitely check out too -- there are hundreds of great freebies in there.

Polyology is a smart and freshly released puzzler you can try out with a little help from its demo. You can also grab it here and, possibly, vote for it on Greenlight.

Oooooh, look! It's a wild west cutesy RPG and it's called Boot Hill Heroes! From what little I've played it seems a pretty excellent game and one that's available via Steam for Windows.

And if you are into both the imaginary wild west and retro visuals, you'll also care for Thief Town; yet another Steam release for Windows, Mac and Linux. It's a multi-player, stealth, backstabbing thing.

Medieval-loving, hack-and-slashers, on the other hand, could do worse than help KRUM - Edge of Darkness hit its incredibly humble funding goal on IndieGoGo. Yes, obviously, it's a RPG.

Keeping with the holiday spirit, here's this year's Advent of Indies. It's brilliant and festive as ever and provides you with a hand-picked freebie and a suggestion for a great game each day.

If you loved Mudlarks, which you probably did, Cloak and Dagger Games have released a new freeware adventure for you: A Date In The Park. Expect a mystery, puzzles and lovingly digitized graphics.

Dec 1, 2014

DualMondays: Fan Service

DualMondays is a more or less weekly column by Jim Spanos (a.k.a. Dualnames) on game design, adventures and all sorts of highly intriguing things.

"Currently, I have to admit, I'm a bit swamped with work, cause we're planning a wonderful patch for Primordia", is what I wrote a week ago to save myself from writing last week's article. Though this means I just abused this webspace for personal promotion, I promise I'm not going to reference the game on this article again. It's not even what the article is about, it's only but a spark. But, returning back to it, why would anyone bother with something released over 2 years ago? Doesn't that make you wonder? What are the reasonings behind it? Well, the answer is not logical in itself. But let's take things from the top.

In anime and manga any material added or adjusted to please the audience intentionally is clarified as Fan Service. In the weird cultural differences between the Western world and the Japanese, fan service could even mean about having a long shot of a woman's body and/or generally gratuitous nudity. But it's not just about that. Prolonged scenes, extra violence, references to other shows are also deemed as fan service. But what is this term I've been throwing at your face actually about?

It is about servicing the fans, if you will, providing the audience with the premise that was initially hinted at or directly promised, or somewhere in the process deeply desired. For its about giving your fanbase, regardless of size, what they want, to put it bluntly. As it has been said before, it could be fixing an annoying issue, fixing a crash, it could be adding content, adjusting previously existing content, it could be virtually anything. 

What helps clarify it as such, is the fact that you've went out of your own way to provide a version of the product closer to the desires of the fans. A direct nod of appreciation, to show the bondage between you and the audience. Every remake of a game, every remastered version of it, despite being approved for profit reasons is also falling under the rule of servicing the fanbase.

A big example of that, are the Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shin - Seiki Evangerion) movies. Categorized as a fan service because they are created to satisfy the fans desire for a better (perhaps alternative is a better word) ending to the series. It's even stated on last addition to the saga, Evangelion 3.33, You Can (Not) Redo, that the movies have been partly if not entirely for the fan's satisfaction, as they will continue till the fourth movie gets released. The original television series first airing almost two decades ago (October, 1995), ended rather philosophically and abruptly. 

The finale itself, mostly abstract in its nature (containing concept drawings, unfinished sequences, real-life stills and voice-over dialogue), has being heavily criticized by critics and fans alike, who considered even the possibility that the ending was forced from budget cuts. Thus, the creators have embarked on a quest to satisfy the thirst of the fanbase (cult, would be more appropriate) for a proper closure.

Fan service is a weird kind of love, nobody gets it, except the parties involved. Then again we could rule it down to explicit sexual content, but that's not what it's about. It's not logical, it's not even always good for business, it's the opposite of value-per-time-spent, but it's a wonderful thing we do, a silly anniversary to form a wonderful relationship.

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