Picking apart the hype of new and classic video games.

Observation/Opinion

One Single Life will make your commute even more stressful

The name says it all. In physics-based iPhone platformer One Single Life you have one life to make increasingly difficult jumps from building to building. Screw up and the app sits locked on your phone (until you delete and re-download the free game.)

So why design such a nail biter of a game? Lead designer Anthony O’Dempsey explains on his company website:

“The reason I was never truly afraid of that ‘perilous’ jump in an otherwise thrilling adventure game was that deep down, I knew the worst possible consequence was having to start the level over or be returned to the nearest checkpoint.

The rules of the game told me “Failure is just a speed bump” and sub-consciously I relaxed just a little.”

I can’t say I dislike where his head is at. You can practice jumps in a no-risk training mode, but the tension of  finally nailing a jump (and warned by a sign that says “x% of all players will die here) in the actual, lethal mode is a discouragingly rare feeling in a video game.

I’ve played with the idea of death/lives/checkpoints for a few weeks now, trying to come up with a less gamey way of handling mortality, and Escapist Columnist Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw ran a nice piece inspired by the no-deaths experience in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but this all-or-nothing approach really has teeth I hope other development teams can recreate.

…As long as the game is free.

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World Bank: Gold Farming Benefits Developing Nations

The research arm of the World Bank recently released a report indicating players forked over more than $3 billion in gray-market transactions in 2009.

Although practices like gold farming and power leveling, in which wealthy players pay others to either generate in-game currency or grind characters to build up their stats for real-world money, are almost universally frowned upon by the video game industry, the World Bank says these services can provide the foundation for a bustling online economy in nations with few economic prospects.

According to the report, gold farming businesses can in some cases be more beneficial than traditional agricultural trade because the majority of the money stays within the earning countries.

“The gross revenues of the third-party gaming services industry were approximately $3.0 billion in 2009, most of which was captured in the developing countries where these services were produced. In comparison, the global coffee market…was worth over $70 billion – but only $5.5 billion was captured by the developing countries that produced the coffee beans,” the report says.

Given the margins, it’s easy to understand why the practice has spread like wildfire through many developing nations where more traditional job opportunities have become scarce. According to a 2006 New York Times article, China accounts for about 35 percent of the farming business and was estimated to have over 100,000 people working 12-hour shifts at the time (and making up to $250 a month for their troubles.) The World Bank estimates that number has increased in the past five years.

Although farming was predominantly found in online role playing games like World of Warcraft, the recent social gaming boom has drawn farmers out to greener pastures like Farmville, the Facebook focused farm simulator/feed clogger. Last year Farmville developer Zynga leveled a suit against farming hub playerauctions.com claiming the website has been siphoning money away from Zynga-approved transactions by offering cheaper rates on in-game goods.

I’ve always believed the journey is greater than the level 60 destination when it comes to role playing games and that being pounded into the ground as a low-level player in COD Black Ops simply makes ranking up that much more of a reward. But at least the time-strapped, financially-solvent gamer, buying into the online gold economy seems to have a better net social impact that purchasing from any of these 10 major companies.


Hot Coffee Controvesy Scarred Rockstar Bigwig, Few Others

Wired Magazine’s GameLife blog posted an interesting exceprt from journalist Harold Goldberg’s new book All Your Base Are Belong To Us, which could shape up to be the definitive history of the video game industry.

The excerpt details some of the mental anguish experienced by Rockstar Games co-founder Sam Houser, who was forced to testify before the Federal Trade Comission in 2005 after a Dutch hacker found files for a sexually explicit minigame in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Although the content was impossible to access without downloading a difficult to find user-created patch, lawyers pounced on the in-game hanky panky for a quick buck. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and less than 3,000 individuals claimed they had been offended by the cartoony love-making of San Andreas protaganist C.J., netting each person named in the suit a settlement ranging from $5 to $30.


First Impressions: Crysis 2

I picked up Crysis 2 over the weekend for Xbox 360 on a ($60) whim based on Developer Crytek’s strong track record at open-ended first person shooters. Despite a few nagging shortcomingsI’ve been pretty happy with the title.

Crysis 2 puts you in the boots of your standard silent grunt protaganist and quickly drops you in a nanosuit, basically a fancy suit of armor that lets you sprint, take giant leaps, absorb tons of lead or render you invisible (while emitting a cool Predator-esque sound effect) and sets you loose in New York City to stop an alien invasion. I think.

The controls are tight and the wide variety of special abilities, weapons and equiptment can all be swapped on the fly, so you can go from long range machine-gunning to stealthy close quarters fighting as soon as you decide to jump into the fray. Unfortunately this slick action is hindered by a decidedly boilerplate story. Bad humans want your suit, which has plot-convenient anti-alien plague applications, while a revolving door of good guys pop onto the radio to yell where you should go next.

Sadly those screams will be the only real way to figure out what you should do next unless you own an HDTV. Like many EA-produced titles you are expected to own a high resolution screen and text is rendered nearly impossible to read on a standard format TV. I often found myself standing up and walking up to my television in order to figure out what a particular waypoint was meant to indicate.

Despite the drawbacks, Crysis 2 encourages players to experiment with different tactics and really consider their strategy before beginning a fight, often rewaring crafty players with easier solutions to tough firefights.

I would estimate I’m about halfway through the campaign and will follow up with part two of my review once I’ve hunted down the evil squid creature is behind this nefarious-if-not-hapazard plot.

 Oh, I forgot to mention, the aliens are bipedal cephalopods.


Duke Nukem Forever delayed…again.

Old school FPS gamers and chauvinists alike received some painful news today.

Duke Nukem Forever, the 13-year-old vaporware champion of the industry, will be delayed another six weeks.

Gearbox Software’s president and DNF executive producer Randy Pitchford announced the retro shooter/strip club simulator will now be released internationally June 10, not May 6 as originally planned.

Delays like this are hard to avoid with any big budget title, but Duke’s legacy of burning out before hitting store shelves means the is drawing plenty of attention.

Hardcore fans of the series are probably not taking the news well, but given the delay I’ve asked myself just how many hardcore Duke Nukem fans actually exist.

I’ve written before about the retro shooter renaissance, but while new IPs like Bulletstorm and Painkiller focus on the run-and-gun strategy and frenetic pacing, Gearbox seems to have bought whole hog into what looks to be an increasingly dated approach to humor and consumer tastes.

Recently at PAX East I caught a glimpse of the DNF booth, where onlookers could sit for a picture in a throne with a school girl booth babe posing along side them.

I was not entirely  surprised to see that despite all the online posturing, next to no one was willing to publicly participate in what amounted to an awkward trip to Hooters . Combine that with the recent unveiling of the butt-slapping “capture the babe” mode and you are looking at a game a lot of consumers may not be willing to stomach.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that DNF may be aiming for the same pubescent male market they mined in the early 90’s, an age before the ERSB. Problem is the 13 year Duke Nukem hiatus means the gamers at the right age to be entertained by the game have none of the nostalgia their older, slightly more tasteful counterparts may hold.

Ultimately game sales are going to decide where we as a community stand on Duke’s brand of humor in 2011. At least, if there aren’t any more delays.


PAX East: Twitter Coverage and Retrospective

I spent most of yesterday checking out PAX East here in Boston, Twittering all the way.

You can check out my 140-character musings on my Twitter account, I should have some pictures of the event online in the coming days and I’ll follow up on a few leads I stumbled over throughout the course of the week.

As it stands, I was pretty impressed with what I saw yesterday. Despite it being the third and final day of PAX East, the place was packed with eager gamers, media and some very exciting new info on upcoming games. Below are a few of my first impressions:

-I finally spent some hands-on time with Epic’s Gears of War 3 multiplayer. I expected a few graphical glitches and slow-downs given they have a while until the official release, but the basic mechanics behind the game still feel a little too floaty. The larger team sizes and new respawn modes mean you spend less time watching your teammates get cut down, but combat still seems to favor bumrushing over any actual tactics

I was also pretty impressed with the indie game presence on the show floor, it seems like many small companies are banking on XBLA and PSN to dodge disc-printing costs and make an end run on a lot of the industry’s biggest players.

Of these, Primal Revenge seems like a cult-classic in the making. Where else can humans and dinosaurs replace cat and mouse for online deathmatches? The game seems to borrow heavily from the original Alien Vs. Predator multiplayer (an extremely good thing if you ask any old school PC gamer.)

I was surprised to see that the Playstation Move was largely a no-show at PAX. Despite being integrated into some recent high-profile releases like Killzone 3, the half-Wii, half-Kinect gizmo was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Kinect proved the most popular non-controller format for tech demos and seemed to be holding up well to the varying degrees of physical coordination amongst show goers.

Expect more pictures and predictions in the coming days.


Grammys lead to an unexpected gaming milestone

In a surprising turn of events, composer Christopher Tin found himself making an acceptance speech on the fly during last night’s 53rd annual Grammy Awards.

Why is this news? Well if you’re a fan of the Civilization series, you will recognize the tune, “Baba Yetu,” from the 2005 release of Civilization IV. The song won in the Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists category.

Tin seemed taken by surprise when he took the podium and after a few shout outs, reminded the audience he had just made history by being the first musician to win a Grammy for a song originally meant for a video game.

“This nomination, well I guess this win is kind of historic because this song was written for a video game,” Tin said. “I hope this brings more awareness to the fact that great music is being written for video games.”

“Baba Yetu” is a half haunting, half inspiring arrangement that plays heavily on a gospel chorus singing the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. According to Tin, he was approached to write the song by Soren Johnson, a former college roommate of Tin’s working as a programmer for Fireaxis Games.

Since that time, the song has garnered a solid reputation, having been played internationally by gamers and classical music fans alike.

The win is a step forward for those of us still sore at Roger Ebert on the games-as-art argument, but the six-year lag between the song being recorded and receiving any accolades tells us something. Grammy judges would have likely taken an interest in the song when it was first released in 2005, but what are the odds anyone on the panel was actually exposed to the song at the time?

It could be that Tin was ineligible to win the award until the song was released commercially in 2009, however it seems more likely that judges simply were not aware that the video game music industry has moved on from this.