Group Think: E3 2014

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Now that E3 2014, the biggest gaming press convention of the year is over, we here at Pop Modern have some opinions on it. It was an odd E3 for sure, with plenty of announcements from all parties, but a clear directional shift in the games industry.

Allen: I’ve always had a weird relationship with E3. The first one that I ever watched online was E3 2008, where Todd Howard shot teddy bears out of a makeshift cannon in the Fallout 3 demo, and Cliff (then still going by Cliffy B) sliced through the stage with a Gears of War chainsaw gun. So yeah…that’s where the industry was then. But it was an early period in the last generation of consoles, and developers were just starting to figure out how to maximize that hardware power.

However, my strong attachment to E3 didn’t come until 2009, when I began watching Giant Bomb cover it live from their hotel near the convention center. Their coverage felt more honest than the IGN videos and Gamespot interviews because they were always about the people. They had on guests, and many drunken stories have been told over the years into the E3 Giant Bombcast microphones. But these guests have come and gone, and even Ryan Davis, by far the best host and hype man at the website unfortunately passed away almost a year ago. Times have changed since I first tuned into the show, and it was only this year that I was finally able to stay up late into the night and watch every Giant Bomb E3 show late into the nights. That’s what E3 is to me; it’s staying up until 2:30 on their chat channel waiting for them to shift out guests. It’s Paul Barnett’s “And that was E3” joke from several years ago. It’s the faces behind the content, not the games. This was a boring E3, yes. And I came out of it only kind of wanting a new console, but mostly just happy that the video games industry really has progressed so far in the last few years, and I can reflect on where I was mentally at the time of each year’s conferences.

Magellan: Lemme sum up my E3 2014 thoughts in one sentence: I want a Wii U. I REALLY want a Wii U. (Okay, two sentences.) As the guy who got a Wii at the height of the XBox 360’s popularity and then promptly got an XBox and forgot all about that silly white box except for the occasional game ofMario Kart: Double Dash!, that’s something I never thought I would admit. Now, maybe it was just random chance that I heard about more quality announcements coming out of Nintendo than anyone else (I didn’t watch any E3 coverage this year save for Conan O’Brien’s: http://teamcoco.com/video/conan-visits-e3-2014). Still, I think what’s really going on here is that the Wii U has had time to figure itself out, to get to the critical-mass point where the next year will see the release of new games from MarioLegend of Zelda,Kirby, and Star Fox, not to mention Mario Kart 8 which just came out and the ever-looming hype-specter of Super Smash Bros. In my mind, the PS4 and XBox One have yet to fall into their grooves (understandable, as they’re not even a year old). You can’t possibly get me excited about new Halo or Call of Duty games, and even if there are great new IP’s headed our way, nothing has seemed earth-shattering enough to warrant buying a new console, as opposed to just waiting to get it used in a few years or waiting for a PC port. God knows I’m still playing through last-gen games on Steam (GTAIV, the Mass Effect series, Skyrim, the Bioshock series, etc.). Of course, you can’t get Super Smash Bros. on Steam. Which leads me to reiterate: I REALLY want a Wii U.

James: E3 this year was a bit of a disappointment to me. After all of the hype and expectation that came with the unveiling of two new consoles last year, the range of titles and the limited options available seemed to be little more than just filler for 2015. Take the new Star Wars: Battlefront. Last year, the announcement thrilled and shocked me. After years of waiting, another Star Wars: Battlefront was coming out! Come this year, I desperately wanted the title to get an in-depth look at one of the conferences. However, instead of in-game footage, there was a live action trailer describing how DICE is trying not to make everybody mad at them. No single announcement thrilled me, with either sequels to games or the beginning of new franchises dominating the show. E3 last year pushed through all of the creative ideas, leaving a paucity of any real excitement. The one thing that was remotely interesting to me was the fact that every game is receiving multiplayer. Formerly single player games like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry are receiving new entries which show an increased emphasis on multiplayer, and  <shudder> co-op gaming. Trying to get together with friends to play games on the computer is hard enough, even with the lower prices that people pay on games. The increased push towards multiplayer games is no longer exciting to me, as I can’t bring myself to care about playing multiplayer games with people that I don’t know. In fact, when I see such an increased focus on multiplayer games, I tend to worry about the final quality of the finished product. While competitive multiplayer does not impair my experience, an environment meant to hold 2 people is going to feel radically different. As such, I wasn’t a huge fan of the last E3, and I look forwards to a better conference next year.

 

 

 

Random Encounters: Do As I Do

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By Allen

Games are, at their core, metaphors for greater ideas that can be interacted with. Metaphors can be a few crumbled buildings signifying a larger ruined city, experience points to signify progress and character growth, or even points signifying success and accomplishment. Not all metaphors are aesthetic though. From a mechanical standpoint, every action the player takes should be a metaphor for something greater, since pressing a button on a controller does not directly equate to, say, swinging a sword. Looking back on my gaming history from the past decade, most of my favorites blend mechanics and metaphor seamlessly, and games as a whole are stronger when these two ideas gel.

It is admittedly difficult to find a AAA game that uses its mechanics to further a point without running into some sort of ludonarrative dissonance. I’ve been playing quite a bit of Assassin’s Creed III lately to catch up on a series that I used to adore. One of the reasons I dropped off of the series after Revelations was an unavoidable feeling of disconnect from the protagonists and story. By the third game in the Ezio/Desmond storyline, the games were leaping back and forth between present and past, piling on mechanics that seemed frivolous, and trying too many things without being good at any one of them. One minute, you’re hunting corrupt politicians in Constantinople, the next you’re rebuilding property around the city, and then you’re running around outside of the Animus doing first person block-shifting puzzles while learning about a character that barely served as more than a player stand-in in the last few games. Elements like this do not fit with the story being told. In these side missions, you’re supposed to be uncovering clues about Desmond’s past as he himself tries to cope with them. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the actual game part is just an ethereal-looking, poorly-controlling first person platformer. It creates such a huge disconnect that I barely touched those missions.

Fast forward to Assassin’s Creed III. The game starts you off as Desmond yet again, relearning his parkour skills in the Animus as if this isn’t technically the fifth game in the series and the player doesn’t know how to control the basic movement. Granted, very minor elements of the parkour were changed and improved in this title, but these improvements would work much better as an in-universe, contextualized tutorial. I’m all for contextualizing tutorials. Instead of reading a “How to Play” menu option or starting your game off with a plodding introduction, trust the player to learn. Mastering the nuances of a game’s control makes manipulating its systems that much more satisfying.

Eventually, the game puts you in the shoes of Haytham Kenway, a grumpy man with next to no personality. After a shockingly long first level in an opera house and eventually a ship, Haytham finds himself in 1700s Boston. Once set loose, he sets out to hire men who can help him find a secret artifact from thousands of years ago. This is where the game brings up questions about how its mechanics are supposed to make you feel about Haytham: why does the game’s minimap at this point function solely to label groups of British soldiers walking around as bright red dots raring to be killed if they only attack provoked? Why can I attack civilians three times before the game forces me to stop with a game over if Haytham is never at any point shown to be a clumsy killer or one who would ever kill random people? Moments like these just show a lack of polish and mechanical stability in a series that famously has been worked on by hundreds of people.

I’m not simply using this article to criticize the Assassin’s Creed series for not being mechanically resonant. Rather, I’m surprised and impressed when it is. Once the game truly opens up and you get to play as Haytham’s son Connor, many of the UI’s subtle nudges toward violence make more sense. Connor’s village was burned to the ground by British men, so it makes sense that they are all red dots on the map when you play as him. He is new to the Assassin lifestyle, so it makes sense that he might kill a civilian by accident here or there. But the game really shines when you step away from the big cities. In the frontier and homestead, where the game hides some of its best missions, everything you do as a player makes perfect sense with Connor the character. Of course you hunt animals and skin them with ease, because the game shows that Connor’s been doing it since he was a young man. And of course you climb trees and hang evil Redcoats from them with a ropedart; Connor’s home was surrounded by woods, and the Iroquois were known for using ingenuity to create tools for hunting. You’re still stalking enemies and sneaking around British encampments, but the fact that Connor is much more noticeably foreign and, specifically, Native American, means that yes, he’s going to be watched and persecuted at the slightest misstep in the cities, and yes, he uses the animal skins he finds to improve his home and upgrade his tools. Some of these concessions are understandable given the constraints of modern game design, but the frontier missions with Connor really highlight how much better this series (and all games, for that matter) are when the mechanics make narrative sense.

It’s a bit unfair to criticize modern blockbuster games for not being mechanically resonant. Bioshock: Infinite clashes heady idealistic drama about violence and control with first person shooting, but it’s hard to deny that the shooting is fun, and it helped the game sell millions. Indie games tend to not have ludonarrative dissonance because the small team size and limited scope mean that there is little compromise needed.  Spelunky’s explorer protagonist has déjà vu and the caves he goes to explore reset themselves magically, which explains away the random elements and repetition of his quest, and Super Meat Boy is harkening back to the brutal platformers of yesteryear while still appealing to a modern audience, meaning it is brutally difficult but offers infinite, fast continues. If we want big budget games to improve, we need to ask more from them than simply to be fun or look good. So many shooters empower the player, but also ask them to believe that they are part of a small, rag-tag group of soldiers who barely get by. Why then, do so many shooter protagonists have regenerating health, incredibly fast reload times, and crackshot aim? If we want to see games as a whole improve, we need to expect developers to not slouch when it comes to emotionally resonant mechanics, because they are at the heart of what makes so many games go from good to amazing.

Random Encounters: Licensing Legends

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By Allen

Nintendo’s handling of their most popular licenses has always fascinated me. In the early to mid-90s, Mario was infamously licensed to Phillips for the poorly-received Hotel Mario among other games. Since then, they’ve kept their charming Italian’s likeness out of non-Nintendo titles for the most part since then. However, in 2004, they partnered with Japanese developer Camelot for yet another sports title. Mario Golf: Advance Tour is well-regarded as one of the more well-designed Mario sports games, but what interested me the most playing it now is how, within the universe of the game, Mario and friends are treated as mythical golfers, only playable in multiplayer.

Essentially, Mario Golf: Advance Tour was a tie-in title to the much more popular GameCube game, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. Characters from the former could be transferred to the latter via the GBA link cable, which allowed players to essentially level up a golf pro on the go before bringing them home to play against the pros in the GameCube game. The linking feature was interesting, but Advance Tour stands on its own partly because of how deeply its characters accept that the Mushroom Kingdom and its residents are simply a few tournaments and a lot of dedication awa. The intro of the game deliberately starts with action shots of the main cast of the game, followed by even more dramatically framed poses of Peach, Donkey Kong, and Yoshi before finally cutting to the titular plumber about to swing a golf club. That’s the last time that he or any of his friends are mentioned or seen by name until the very tail end of the main single-player campaign.

From there, the game essentially becomes Golf: The JRPG. You and your oppositely-gendered partner compete in various tournaments and challenges dotted around a camp devoted to golfing, and finishing these challenges awards experience points to be placed into stats like “drive distance” and “ball control”. There’s an entire glossary of incredibly specific golf terms ranging from “pin shots” all the way to intricate definitions of topspin and backspin. These elements all make a lot more sense when one realizes that Camelot was also the team that the acclaimed Shining Force series, Mario Tennis, and just a few years before, the Golden Sun series came from. With this JRPG and sports game cred under their belts, it’s no surprise that Nintendo hired them to create a unique experience to go along with their flagship GameCube golf game.

I have yet to find another game that utilizes its license as bizarrely as Mario Golf: Advance Tour. It’s not bad in any way; in fact, it makes getting to the final tournament where you do play against Mario and co. that much more exciting, because you know that they’re these legendary pros within the context of this game. Some of the references aren’t as clever, such as naming the first cup of the game the “Marion Cup” and featuring a recognizable mustached man’s face on the rug in the Marion lobby. But this game got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of game licensing. Lean too hard on your license, and you get a Star Wars Kinect scenario where the game and license don’t mesh. Focusing on the game first and the license second gives you more successful titles like the recently released South Park: The Stick of Truth. But making your license an unattainable, nonplayable cast of heroes in an otherwise solid game is much more interesting, and Mario Golf: Advance Tour shines even in 2014 because of it.

Pop Modern Interviews: Tanya Short from Kitfox Games

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(Editor’s note: Excuse the bulk of just interviews on the site lately! The three of us are kind of shifting into summer break these next few weeks, so content has been kind of hard to get out consistently. Bear with us, and enjoy.)

 By Allen

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Short, lead designer at the Montreal-based independent game development studio Kitfox Games. We met briefly at the Boston Festival of Indie Games last year, and I’ve been following the progress of their latest project, Shattered Planet, pretty closely since then because it looks incredibly impressive. We talked about the game, being an indie dev in 2014, porting from mobile to PC, and more!

 

Pop Modern: How did Kitfox Games start?

Tanya Short: We actually started with the creation of Shattered Planet! We joined Execution Labs, which is an incubator/accelerator for indie mobile games, in order to create Shattered Planet full-time. We’re four folks who met in Montreal, at local indie meetups.

PM:  How would you describe Shattered Planet to someone who’s never heard of it?

TS: To most people, I say it’s a survival strategy RPG, where you’re a space captain, exploring a dangerous alien planet. As a clone, you die (often!), but it’s all right, you can keep going with the knowledge of different species and technologies discovered. It’s free to download on iOS and Android right nowwww! And it’s coming to PC soon, as a premium game.

In reply, a certain gamer will say, “Err is it a roguelike?” to which I say, “YES!”

PM: When did development start, and what was the original impetus for making a rogue-like tactical game on tablets and PC?

TS: About a year ago! We actually didn’t set out to make a roguelike at all. We started prototyping a game all about exploration. We made a prototype that was more like Minesweeper, and one that was more like a board game… but the isometric RPG was our favorite, so we kept working on it… and a month later we realized we had accidentally made a roguelike!

Working in Unity made it easy to simultaneously develop for iOS, Android, and PC — so we did! We focused on mobile first so we could try out the base idea and see if people liked it, and after 250,000 downloads, we’re glad we did. Now we can focus on making the PC version super-extra-awesome with more confidence.

PM: Now, a common question that I’ve found gets developers thinking and entices people to try their games is this; If you had to recommend three other games, any platform or time period, that fans should try or know about to get a grasp on what SP is like, what would they be and why?

TS: Interesting! I’ve never had that question before. Hmmm. I guess I’d say the first would be Rogue Legacy, for the central idea of progression (loss, but steady empowerment). Then Brogue, because it’s my favorite roguelike ever and definitely had a strong influence on the core systems. And maybe Don’t Starve? It’s also an “uncompromising survival strategy”, with a hapless so-called scientist following where you click.

PM: The art is by far the most striking thing about the game, mainly because it feels like it’s pulling from so many inspirations. What were a few of them, and what were you going for with the art style and creature design?

TS: Well, Xin Ran Liu (our artist) is a classically trained painter, so we almost went at it from scratch! He tried out more painterly, more cartoony, and we ended up somewhere in-between, with bright colors to match the light-hearted tone of writing. I think his closest inspirations are probably traditional painters! He teaches classes at a local art school, and you can follow him on Facebook to see his awesome watercolors and other experiments.

Interestingly, for our next game (Moon Hunters), it has such a different style, with chunky pixels, muted colors, and frame-by-frame animation, people have asked if we’ve changed artists… but it’s always Xin! Well, we have brought in the talented Graham Lackey to help Xin out and give advice based on his experience working on Fez, Spaceteam, and various Adult Swim games.

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An early screenshot of Moon Hunters, the next game from Kitfox Games.

PM: Game development has been making huge strides towards accessibility in the last few years. What tools did you guys and gals make Shattered Planet with, and how do you feel about the current state of the independent games industry today?

TS: I AM SO EXCITED! We work in Unity 3d, and it’s empowered us so much, we’re thrilled with the direction game development is going. Jonathan Blow got some flak for saying game development was much harder 10 years ago, but he is so incredibly right — there’s genuinely no way 4 people could have made the equivalent of Shattered Planet in a year for PC 10 years ago, never mind across various platforms. It means that making games is almost as competitive as writing (making a game is still marginally harder than writing a poem), which is stressful, but definitely good news for consumers and art aficionados.

There will be more and more different kinds of games, made by different kinds of people, and that’s 100% pure awesome.

PM: Now, Shattered Planet has actually been complete and playable on tablets for a while now, but you recently announced that it will be coming to PC as a sort of enhanced version without the microtransaction options if I’m not mistaken? What was it like porting from mobile to PC, and what specifically are you planning to do besides change the controls and UI for PC players?

TS: Well, actually, we’ve been building with PC in mind all along — we announced it was tablet-and-PC back in the first month of development! But obviously PC as a platform has a longer history of hardcore gamer and expectations are different when you sit down at a desk.

In addition to UI and controls tweaks, we’ll be adding in whole spankin’ new features that unhappily got cut for the mobile launch: character classes, a daily challenge system, and a more robust datalog system…we’re still debating whether the datalog system will change the way pets work. But the core idea is to increase the depth of possible strategies and the appeal of experimentation in the game… and it’s really exciting to not have to worry about mobile memory constraints!

PM: Any advice for the aspiring indie devs out there? I know we have a couple who read this site, so I know they would appreciate any tips.

TS: Three major things:

1 – Make to-do lists with tasks you actually can achieve in a very short time-frame (i.e. things that will take you 1 hour or less). Trello is free and very good for this.

2 – Make a delivery commitment you can’t cancel. Agree to show the game publically, either to testers or to a festival or to whoever, and work backwards from that date to figure out what you can and cannot get done. Cut things that don’t get done in time.

3 – For the love of all that’s fun, don’t tell anyone about what you’re doing until after you’ve already done it. Pre-bragging removes motivation to actually follow through.

 

The best way to keep up with development at Kitfox Games is to subscribe to their newsletter. They’ll be announcing things like release of the PC version (due out sometime this summer!) and other updates about the studio there. You can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/EbbjT

And if you’d like to download Shattered Planet, search for it on iTunes or the Google Play Store, or click either of these links:

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/shattered-planet-rpg/id698929655?mt=8

Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.kitfox.shatteredplanet

PAX East 2014 Interview: Dan Teasdale

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By Allen

PAX East, a video games-centric convention held in Boston, Massachusetts annually and run by Mike Krahulik, Robert Khoo, and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade was this past weekend. I had the fortune of attending on Saturday, and I spent most of my time scouring the crowded show floor for independent developers looking to share a word about their games and position in the industry.

Dan Teasdale has probably helped make one of your favorite games of the last decade or so. He’s been all over the industry in many capacities, but now he finds himself at the head of No Goblin working on Roundabout, a top-down game where you play as a limousine driver in the late 70s driving passengers while spinning madly through stages and scoring points along the way. The game also features plenty of full-motion video, or FMV, which gives it a delightful comedic touch. Dan gets points from me at least for comparing his game to KuruKuru Kururin, a Japan and Europe-only Game Boy Advance game where you played as a helicopter-piloting alien similarly spinning through stages at high speeds. We talked about what brought him to No Goblin, what Roundabout is aiming to accomplish, and why FMV is an inescapable trap for Dan that he just can’t get enough of.

PAX East 2014 Interview: Greg Kasavin

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By Allen

PAX East, a video games-centric convention held in Boston, Massachusetts annually and run by Mike Krahulik, Robert Khoo, and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade was this past weekend. I had the fortune of attending on Saturday, and I spent most of my time scouring the crowded show floor for independent developers looking to share a word about their games and position in the industry.

By far the most well-known person that I interviewed at PAX East 2014, writer and creative director at Supergiant Games’s Greg Kasavin had a lot to say about his company’s new game Transistor. You may know Greg from his period working as an editor at Gamespot or his brief time at various other game companies. I had the pleasure of playing the demo that they were showing at the convention privately, and I was absolutely floored. Supergiant’s previous game, Bastion, took players by storm as it blended voice actor Logan Cunningham’s excellent narration with the player’s actions, and Transistor is shaping up to outdo that game in every conceivable way. We discussed the concept of pressing your luck in combat, blending story and gameplay, the game’s influences, Final Fantasy Tactics, and what it was like working with Sony as a PS4 launch exclusive for so long. Transistor is coming to PS4 and PC by the end of May, and I can’t recommend it enough based on what I’ve seen and played so far.

 

PAX East 2014 Interview: Will Brierly

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By Allen

PAX East, a video games-centric convention held in Boston, Massachusetts annually and run by Mike Krahulik, Robert Khoo, and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade was this past weekend. I had the fortune of attending on Saturday, and I spent most of my time scouring the crowded show floor for independent developers looking to share a word about their games and position in the industry.

Will Brierly is an interesting person. He’s the man behind Soda Drinker Pro, a game that represents one beautiful joke taken just far enough to actually loop around and be hilarious. I only managed to ask Will a few questions not for lack of time or words. Rather, I was just utterly stunned by the beautiful weirdness that was Vivian Clark playing on the screen next to us. For a game inside of a game, it sure looks cool, and Soda Drinker Pro needs to be seen to be believed. I love it, I love Will and his sense of humor, and it’s this kind of enthusiastic willingness to never let up on a joke that makes him and this game so fascinating.