Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spotlight on: FarmVille

Today's spotlight is on none other than FarmVille, the latest Facebook application from Zynga, creator of Mafia Wars and all-round professional IP copycat. Zynga corporate strategy seems to be thus: churn out K.C. Munchkin-esq clones of every popular online social game out there. Their Mafia Wars was so identical to Psycho Monkey's popular Mob Wars that the latter developer sued over the coincidence. Their latest coincidence, FarmVille, is a clone of Slashkey's Farm Town, right down to the doofus copycat title. As in Farm Town, users labor to create successful harvests from crops and livestock, which in turn allow them to pimp out their farms. In other words, they both had ripped off the basic elements of the Harvest Moon series, so it, like, all karmically works out.

Unlike Farm Town, however, FarmVille is far more social, viral. FarmVille encourages you to make "neighbors" of your fellow Facebook users, transforming them into players with their own farms of which you can visit (and indeed, my own introduction to FarmVille was through one of M's friends, whom in turn is now playing herself), which in term provides gameplay rewards like expanding your farm plot (which means more neighbors, which means more gameplay opportunities and so on). Add to this a massive online ad push, a design that makes sure you can't so much as fart in your farm, let alone adopt that poor stray black sheep, without FarmVille trying to tell the Facebook universe about it, and it's easy to see how the application has begun to attract over 11 million daily users.

is also smart enough to know that Facebook is 2/3rds female; Zynga's app is more social, and has a cutesier, more charming and cleaner look from Farm Town (not sure if I've even seen more adorable videogame cows). It also manages to be even more streamlined than Farm Town is, which means the non-gamer girls that proliferate Facebook have no "global marketplace" or any complicated strategies to familiarize with; just fire it up and start growing those plums and strawberries so you can build pens for the flocks of ducks your friends keep sending you.

These sorts of casual games tend to grate on actual gamers; Harvest Moon fans in particular will likely see FarmVille as a ridiculously basic shill. Beginning players can easily abuse the game design early on for quick gold and experience (ProTip: Buy a frickload of Rest Stands and Hay Bales and you'll be sitting pretty past Level 10 in no time), but you'll otherwise not gain anything cool anytime soon unless you start paying real money. However, it terms of just keeping in touch with your friends via goats and artichokes, it serves that purpose well (and hey, there's always Farm Town if the other one doesn't work out).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rethinking Sales

I'm standing in line at a local department store, waiting to checkout. On my left is a display of snack cakes, nicely on sale. On my right is a display of scones, nicely on sale. I'm hungry. This familiar scenario resulted in the purchase of a box of chocolaty goodness that the health professions would unanimously condemn.

Ten minutes prior, in that same store, I noticed something similarly clever. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra: The Game was on display in the toy section, across from electronics. All other recently released console games were behind glass requiring an employee with a key to access. Except GI Joe. GI Joe was out in the open, on a high traffic main aisle, ready and waiting for impulse grabs by some of the millions of nostalgia infested eighties children in America.

Video games, given a similar impulse buy shelf placement to snack cakes? Brilliant! Attention all stores: Do This More!

Granted, with many video games, theft is a major concern. I'm not saying Halo 3:ODST should be displayed by the checkouts when it comes out. High profile and recently released titles are liable to be shoplifted. I get that. Then again, high profile or new release titles are destination games. We drive to the store with the intent of buying the game. They don't count as impulse buys anyway.

I'm thinking of games more along the lines of Tropico Reloaded, or the Fallout Trilogy on the PC, or the aforementioned GI Joe or Ghostbusters on consoles. As game publishers increasingly push to market themselves to a wider demographic, it does not makes sense to continue to hide all games in an out of the way section of stores hoping that people remember to wander back and look. Video games are becoming an ever more prevalent part of the typical consumer's entertainment budget. Why not place older classic title, lower budget titles, or movie tie-in games out in areas where sales can benefit from impulse buys?

I sincerely hope the GI Joe shelf placement is the start of a trend, and not a mere aberration. Better shelf placement should result in stronger game sales and a stronger gaming industry overall. And even the worst game ever made can't be much worse for us than snack cakes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Warranty Voided! Shocking Footage!

Ok, so not so shocking footage. But hey, extremist headlines are all the rage these days.

iFixit has posted the first PS3 Slim dissection photo shoot, and there are some interesting tidbits exposed as the layers come off. First of all, we now know how Sony is keeping this pint-sized reactor cool. Check out Steps 10 and 14, and meet the mother of all console fans. Checking in at 17 blades, this thing is probably larger than the palm of your hand (unless your name is Shaq). Lots blades combined with a massive size is a strong indication that Sony was going out of its way to keep the Slim as quiet as possible while still moving the heat out of the device. The new PS3 may be first console to give the PC case modding community a bad episode of fan envy.

Some good news appears in Step 5 as well. We already knew that the hard drive was supposed to be easy to access and replace, and now we have confirmation of that. Slide out the 5400 RPM Toshiba drive, and slide in in your preferred SATA Massive Tome of Storage. Expected news, but pleasant to see all the same.

Delving deeper into the device, we get some lovely high-rez shots of the processor itself (Steps 24 and 27). Huge. Silver. Huge. Yeah, its a processor. Not that exciting for most of us, but your mileage may vary.

And there we have it. Before its official release, the PS3 Slim has been dissected and its innerds exposed for the amusement and education of gamers everywhere. While it is certainly a nice piece of engineering, ultimately the fate of Slim will rest on its games, not the device. If upcoming titles for the PS3 are as impressive as the fan in the Slim, then Sony is in for some brighter days.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stand by your nastiness

Konami commences the publishing of a "docu-game", depicting in excruciating detail the events of a real Iraq War battle and the very real veterans that fought and died in them. It's a groundbreaking artistic concept that was sure to acquire some degree controversy as these things tend to do, something Konami itself must have been aware. Unfortunately, Konami would later disgracefully dump it like a hot potato anyway in mid-production the instant said controversy actually came calling, completely stiffing not just the developer, but the many actual Iraq War veterans who worked on the project and just wanted their story told.

Rockstar accidentally leaves naughty bits lying around for some unused sex mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It's later discovered by "hackers" (or at least what the mainstream media thinks passes for hackers), leading to the "Hot Coffee" scandal and an "outcry"...of politicians, interest groups, and media talking heads looking to cash in. Since Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto are already frequent victims of pols and media making their bones off their notoriety, you'd think they'd actually fight back a little on this one. Apparently not.

You'd have to back ten years for the kicker. In 1999, two students from Columbine High School in Colorado kill thirteen victims in a shooting spree. The media falls all over itself in portraying the murderers as some kind of uber-evil arisen from sinister pop culture items; pop culture items, that is, that were already controversial enough to sell papers/magazines/ratings on their own. The most salacious of them was TIME Magazine, declaring the shooters "THE MONSTERS NEXT DOOR", and their chosen scapegoat was id Software's portfolio of games. "Quake and its ilk...helped desensitize a generation", hissed the magazine (as opposed to real-life violence continually pimped by the news media?), and they even had a Stephen Colbert-style "chart of videogame violence" using the Doomguy's various head portraits as the barometer (next time I'm at the library, I'll see if I can find the issue and scan that chart). All of this baseless conjecture linking id Software's games with the killings was naturally without merit, as a slew of dismissed lawsuits would later prove. So did id Software take TIME Magazine on for that outrageous series of articles? Did they even mention how the magazine themselves devoted a glowing article DOOM just years earlier? ("No gorier than a Sam Peckinpah movie", the magazine then declared) Nope, nothing. id Software simply took it and moved on.

If you notice any pattern from the above paragraphs, it's that game creators have too often a habit of rolling over in the face of creative oppression that is being legitimized as "controversy" or "public concern". The creative oppression of videogames goes back as far as its earliest consumer days, when the mainstream media, lead by 60 Minutes, began a successful crusade to ban the 1976 Exidy game Death Race (yes, this is what passed for "controversial violent videogame" in the 70's). And yet, there's been little pushback from creators and publishers in defense of their own work, then or since. So it was some small consolation when French developer David Cage lectured the industry this week at GDC Europe for not doing just that, more often.

Cage used his 2005 title Fahrenheit to illustrate his position, citing a shower scene that was forcibly censored in some countries (laments Cage: "we had to put a swimsuit on the girl... to take a shower."). At the time, Fahrenheit was already coming on the heels of the Hot Coffee scandal that Rockstar precipitated, and so the censorship pressure then was even more intense than usual. And so Cage drives the point home: Rockstar makes a "stupid game" (and the Hot Coffee mini-game was pretty stupid), then garners bad press, and finally does nothing to defend their own creative decisions, or even just call out the hypocrisy (Cage on the relevance of videogame pornography: "Have you seen the Internet?"). Rockstar's irresponsibility was not Hot Coffee, rather it was not standing up to the gilded lead robe-wearing establishment, which leaves the field that much more messy for when some other creator comes along with legitimate, tasteful nudity. Sure, there's plenty of tactical reasons to just shut up and let the controversy earn its keep; despite getting banned, Death Race still "doubled or quadrupled" the profits of Exidy. But ultimately it does both the industry and the artform a severe disservice to not fight back.

In fighting back, Cage specficially cites the Fox News/Mass Effect conflagration, which is something definitely worth repeating. Last year, Fox News assaults Mass Effect with blatant yellow journalism over scenes with brief nudity, declaring Mass Effect pornography aimed at kids and its home console the "SEXbox". While Microsoft rolls over with a tepid public statement, a guy from Spike TV, Geoff Keighly, rather casually puts Fox News in its place. ("Have you ever played Mass Effect?", asks Keighly. Take a wild guess what the answer was). No doubt emboldened by Keighly, three days later Jeff Brown of EA goes on to give Fox his own backhand slap in the form of a letter that correctly cites the hit piece as "insulting" and notes that the "sex" in Mass Effect is actually less racy than many of Fox's own shows, such as The OC. (Actually, I think even the failed early 90's Fox TV show Herman's Head had more nudity than Mass Effect)

The result was ultimately a massive recant from all involved in the debacle on Fox's end, including a rare apology from the network itself. That's something that not even Fox's natural enemies could do, such as the Obama Administration, whose agenda has been directly and explicitly savaged by the impact of the misinformation the network regularly puts out. It's true that ultimately the confrontation over Mass Effect did not directly benefit its creators, but it did draw at least for the time being a new line in the sand over the creative and artistic rights of game creators. In other words, Fox and the like-minded now know it is in fact possible to get the horns from fucking with the bull. Now if only this sort of thing would happen more often than a blue moon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Not Exactly Breaking News

This has been (and will continue to be) a fairly eventful week in gamingdom. For a random week in the middle of August, a surprisingly eventful week in fact. I haven't rounded up everything here, but I've managed to corral a good chunk of it. No doubt tomorrow the internet will be awash with Blizzcon goodness, so definitely stay tuned.

Blizzcon. Sort of a big deal. Expect the announcement of the next WoW expansion, at least one Diablo 3 class and more D3 footage, and maybe some information on SC2 multiplayer and the new A brand new IP title is not impossible either, but probably not likely. If there is a Santa Claus, we may even get a Diablo 3 release date! Might want to check out the potential WoW leaks via mmo-champion if you haven't seen them already.

PS3 Slim. The smaller, more effecient, cheaper (!!!!!!), but fully featured version of the PS3 is here! Ok, will be here in September. The new lower price is in effect now, though some reports indicate that not all stores know this yet. Given the pile of pent up demand for the PS3, this could be a major holiday seller regardless of the less than lovely economy. $299 is a fair price for the Blu-Ray player capacity alone.

Lords of the Realm on GoG. Before there was the Total War series, there was Lords of the Realm. In particular, for me, Lords of the Realm 2 stands out. Turn based medieval strategy with realtime battles. Sure, the diplomacy was basic and the battles were a touch rock-paper-scissors-ish, but the level of fun to be had in these games was absolutely unmatched in strategy titles until the Total War series hit the scenes with Shogun. The re-emergence of this classic is the best news since... well.... since the price drop on the PS3. Lords of the Realm 3 is also available.

Fable 3 announced! Ok, not sure this one qualifies as news, seeing as the dev team for Fable 3 has been leakier than an old sponge, but it is really and truly officially announced this time. With a trailer! Not much of a trailer, but hey, at least its officially official this time. I think. Here's hoping Molyneux isn't severly overpromising... again. We'll know in late 2010, or thereafter.

Guild Wars 2. One of the first and best of the "free-to-play" model MMOs is back for more. Not a great deal of information on this one yet, but well worth keeping an eye on.

And, of course, tomorrow all eyes will be on Anaheim for Blizzcon '09.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Great arcade cab or Greatest arcade cab?

Just when it looked like the Ultracade scandal might turn us all off commercially available multi game cabinets, along comes AllStarArcade with an invention that restores not just my faith in Arcade cabinet manufacturers but humanity itself.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Arkeg. What is the Arkeg you may ask? Well I'll tell you. The Arkeg is a customized arcade multi cabinet that's loaded to the gills with classic arcade games AND sweet sudsy beer. That's right. It's an MAME cab with a built in professional grade keg and tap. I think that this is a case where pictures will speak louder than words, so I won't waste any more of your time. Just check this out. And if anyone actually buys one, please invite me over.

via: Kotaku

Monday, August 17, 2009

StarCraft 2: Invasion of the Single Player News

So, Blizzard has this title coming out in the not too distant future. It's called StarCraft 2 and I hear it is supposed to be fairly popular. I mean, it is only the very (very, very, very) long awaited sequel to one of the most successful games of all time.

Not too long ago, word emerged from Blizzard HQ that SC2 would have no LAN play; the only multiplayer option would be via the New and Improved Battle.Net. This resulted in much internet weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Today, Blizzard may have dried some of those tears. No, they haven't relented and instituted LAN play. And since we don't even know what the new Battle.Net will look like or how it will work, there really isn't much call to worry over that one yet. Instead, Blizzard has provided us with some decent insights into the single-player campaign.

Last year it was announced that StarCraft 2 would ship in three installments. The given reason was to allow time to really make the single player campaigns something amazing. Then a few weeks ago, the Blizzard-Activision stock price dropped on the news that SC2 would be delayed until 2010. Knowing Blizzard, that simply means they needed more time to up the awesome, and would take the stock hit to get it. The future status of Blizzard-Activision's bank account not withstanding, it does appear that when Blizzard said they wanted to make the StarCraft 2 single player something special, they weren't kidding.

Several members of the gaming press were recently invited to Blizzard HQ to see the SC2 singleplayer campaign. Despite writing for this fine establishment and living just down the road from Blizzard, I was not among the fortunate few. So, rather than simply rehash what those who did get to make that trip have reported, I'll just link you to their words.

There is alot of good stuff coming in StarCraft 2. So far, it looks like it will be well worth the wait until 2010 (for the first installment). These writeups are all excellent reads; I highly recommend you scan through all of them. Enjoy.

StarCraft 2 write ups brought to you by:
Ars Technica - did not actually see the game first hand, but a good read none-the-less.
Destructoid - has been loading slowly today. Be patient with this one.
And GameSpy promises to have a preview up in the near future.

Art of the Arcade site explores the design wizardy of a bygone era.

After several months of posting retro game related bits and bytes over at the Retro Gaming Roundup official forums, the site's founderSo Cal Mike asked me if I'd like to start posting to the RGR blog. I'm going to start off my blogging stint here with a link to a classy site who's stated aim is exploring the exciting design work that existed in the late 70s and early 80s in the video game industry.

This Tumbler site is being maintained by Nick Dart, a designer out of the UK who describes himself as:

'a frustrated 24 year old arcade collector and designer, I decided to put Art Of The Arcade together to make people aware of the forgotten design and illustration work that took place in the golden era of arcade gaming in the 70’s & 80’s. The idea behind the site is to try and show this work in a new context, and give exposure to the designers that helped create a billion dollar industry and a new social past time.’

It appears that Nick has only recently begun posting images to this site, but the stuff he has up there is already worth a look. I've included a few images here to give you an idea. Check it out!

Source: Offword (via FromFiftyFive)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back in the Game

Well, hello there folks!

Remember me? I've been a busy lil' beaver in recent weeks (I began a new job at a giant, game company - which shall remain nameless) but I'm trying to reconnect with my virtual, game -loving homeslices.

What have I been playing lately? I'm glad you asked! Other than the perennial WORLD OF WARCRAFT, I have been enjoying the fantastic PLANTS VS. ZOMBIES, the in-need-of-polish-but-still-enjoyable CALL OF JUAREZ, and FAT PRINCESS.

I'm also slowly but surely working my way through SACRED 2. Last night I got an achievement for killing 10,000 enemies. Yes, 10,000 - and I'm only a third of the way into the game. Now, that's what I call hack and slash!

What am I looking forward to this Fall? Again, I'm happy you care enough to inquire. That would be BORDERLANDS, BRUTAL LEGEND, LEFT 4 DEAD 2 and DRAGON AGE. My goodness there's a ton of gaming goodness in the pipe. Keep surfin'!

- David 'Two Hammers' Moore

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Duke Nukem To Go!

To tide you over while the 3D Realms legal wranglings over the future of The Duke continue, old school Duke Nukem 3D is now available via the iPhone App Store. If ever you were worried about aliens invading your morning commute, the iPhone now has you covered. And, as I noted when commenting on the Duke legal disaster earlier this year, you can still get still get The Duke in all his glory on PC for $5.99 from Good Old Games.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wii What?

Somewhere in the hype of E3 this year, a tiny little tidbit was dropped by Nintendo. And no one knows what to make of it. During their press conference, Nintendo announced the near-future release of the Wii Vitality Sensor. And the gaming world collectively said "What the...?"

Since the announcements of this device went over with a thud, a bit more information has leaked regarding the device. Basically, we're talking about a sensor that clips onto your finger and measures heart rate and, maybe, blood oxygen levels. Certainly a useful device, and certainly out of place on a console. It is hard to see what sort of use this could have in a game, but as Ars Technica points out, Nintendo has been absolutely right with odd devices in the past. I for one don't really care to bet against them.

Which leads to the question: What in the world are they going to do with this thing? Sure, there is probably a niche for one or two yoga-esque titles. Hardly the sort of the thing they would expect the gaming press at E3 to get excited about, but I'll concede a small yoga market. Now... what about the rest of us? What sort of a game could convince Joe Gamer to clip a vitality sensor to his finger before an evening of gaming?

A partial answer might already be found in some of the Wii Fit and Wii Sports titles. The vitality sensor could certainly add an element to the long distance running or fencing mini-games. I'm not sure the fun factor would be increased substantially, but there does seem to be a fit. But those games, mini-games really, are already out. An improved running in place title will hardly sell the vitality sensor.

I could see it used as a timing mechanism. By syncing some element of the game with the player's heartbeat, Nintendo could add an almost hypnotic aspect to a title. What sort of title? Excellent question. Rhythm games are the obvious choice, but I could imagine some potential in racing or RPG titles as well.

My favorite possibility is that the device may have a more passive impact on the gameplay experience. It could be that in the early levels of a game, the vitality sensor will monitor your body's response to various events. If you respond strongly to a zombie chucking headless squirrels at you, then the game will make sure that chucking zombies are found deeper in the game. Perhaps it can keep track of your reaction to certain NPCs or storylines, and adapt the story or artwork to better reflect that which draws the stronger physical responses on the reasoning that anything you like or dislike enough to affect your pulse is something you probably like or dislike enough to keep you gaming.

Or it could be that Nintendo has completely lost it and is flushing away money. There are some indications the vitality sensor will appear next year. At least we won't have long to wait.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wheel of Time is going MMO

This one will be interesting. A Wheel of Time MMO could be a fantastic product, or it could be a complete disaster. A Wheel of Time MMORPG has some potentially strong points. First of all, there is the world itself. Robert Jordan sculpted a masterpiece fantasy world that stands head and shoulders above any of its contemporaries. The detail, depth, and cultural flavor of each of his nations and peoples is nothing short of remarkable. From a game development standpoint, it is a world so rich with possibilities one needs only choose where to begin.

And that source of greatest strength is also the source of greatest danger. Jordan's world is a masterpiece just as the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece. No artist would dare add a polka-dotted scarf around the neck of the Mona Lisa. But does anyone think a game developer will be able to resist tinkering with Jordan's world in similarly grotesque ways? Remember, a game is only a success if it is fun. For the game developer, nothing can stand in the way of creating the most fun gameplay experience possible. If that means aspects of Jordan's world have to be scrapped or changed, then those aspects must be scrapped or changed and one can only hope the fan base won't lynch the developers for doing so.

This danger is multiplied tenfold when the game becomes an MMORPG. If you have read the novels, answer this question: What type of character would you most want to play in a Wheel of Time MMO? I'm guessing the overwhelming majority of you answered Aes Sedai or Asha'man. And that is the first major problem for the developers to overcome; Jordan's world doesn't have every third person channeling the One Power. Does the developer add that polka-dotted scarf, or try to give the audience a non-channeling game experience they will still enjoy? The easy answer would be to add the scarf and let the One Power run wild in everyone. But is that the best answer?

Even with such potential disasters in mind, there are several ways a Wheel of Time MMO could be crafted without trampling wholesale over the world Jordan has created. To start with, if Red Eagle simply does not set the MMO in the time period in which Jordan writes, many potentially conflicting issues can be overcome. For instance, suppose the MMORPG is set during the Trolloc Wars. What fan of the series would not want the chance to walk the streets of Manetheren, visit the capitals of the Ten Nations, and fight a centuries long war in which the force of Light face near certain annihilation in every battle? The Breaking of the World provides similar options. Or, perhaps, the game could take place during the Consolidation of the Seanchan Empire. That particular avenue offers very good reason to not allow Aes Sedai to be playable, and sets the game in a part of the world that Jordan very rarely has his readers visit. The possibilities are numerous... this game could work. And then again, it could be an utter disaster for the developers and fans of the franchise alike.

The article on the Red Eagle website does reference other games that will be developed in addition to the MMO. I have much higher hopes for these titles. Perhaps an strategy title covering the rise of Artur Hawkwing? Maybe a single player role playing game, or a series of them, in which the gamer plays an Aes Sedai during the founding of the White Tower? How about a city builder style game that unfolds the history of Tear from the Breaking? Even without an MMO, the possibilities for games set in the world of Robert Jordan are so numerous and so exciting as to keep Red Eagle busy for decades without making a single sequel or repeating a single genre once.

In the end, I can't complain that Red Eagle is bringing the world of Robert Jordan to life via games. The prospect of an MMORPG worries me, but only time will tell how valid those worries are. Perhaps they will resist the urge to paint over the Mona Lisa and make the hard choice necessary to develop a great game within the confines of Jordan's creation, and not over the top of it. Perhaps EA will actually be patient and let these games develop completely and force them onto the market before they are truly ready. Either way, this is a momentous day for gamers and fans of the Wheel of Time series alike. We can only hope it is momentous for good reasons.