Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: $210m is quite a lot of money

Welcome one and all, to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. Pull up a chair, take the weight off your feet, and let’s try to work out just exactly what happened this week to OMGPOP and their outstanding runaway success, Draw Something.
ice cube draw something Sunday Sidebar: $210m is quite a lot of money
An inspired answer for 'Icecube'
wordfeud 207x300 Sunday Sidebar: $210m is quite a lot of money
It broke my heart to have such an appropriate selection, yet nowhere to play it.
Maybe two weeks ago, my fiancée recommended that I check out an app that she’d spotted whilst browsing the iOS App Store. It was called Draw Something, and it was sort of a turn-based Pictionary-style game. The two of us are already avid WordFeud (pictured right) players, and spend plenty of time playing these sorts of games together across a whole gamut of genres as a pleasant way to pass our working week. Unfortunately for myself, this fabled drawing app had not yet launched in the UK App Store, and so it was only this week that I managed to finally source it, but it turns out that this week was exactly the right week to have come on board.
With everyone and their dog tweeting and bloggingabout it, OMGPOP’s Draw Something has reached dizzying zeitgeist heights to become a craze rivalling that of the much-lauded Angry Birds ilk. The game successfully generated so much buzz that social gaming empire Zynga coughed up a deal reportedly valued at $210 million to buy the fledgling app developer and their wonderful finger-painting game. Of course, few enterprises would invest on buzz alone, and it’s once you get down to figures that the game becomes truly a shocking affair. As of this week, OMGPOP have been earning $250,000 per day from in-app purchases inDS, and that was coming in after Apple’s 30% cut. This means that, with the Apple profits taken into acccount, Draw Something has been generating in and around $360,000 per day from in-app purchases. Take a second and let those figures wash over you. That’s a heck of a lot of money for a choice of different colored paints.
draw something blood 219x300 Sunday Sidebar: $210m is quite a lot of money
The level of detail can be astounding at times.
The secret to this success, I feel, is that while the game may suffer from a few minor quirks, it is good, clean fun. It succeeds at uniting players, rather than pitting them against each other. No-one truly ‘wins’ inDraw Something. The coins earned for a successful guess are distributed between the two players. A player turn divides into three sections: Watching the person guessing your drawing, guessing the other person’s drawing, and finally submitting your next drawing for the other person to guess. These three stages elicit feelings of joy, satisfaction, achievement, and genuine creativity. It takes about five minutes to complete a turn in the game. Repeatedly playing snowballs into an understandably highly enjoyable game experience.
A parting word to those who may not be particularly artistically gifted: have heart! The game is not about who is better at drawing something. It’s okay to be terrible at drawing. I certainly am, and I’d almost encourage it. The game is particularly well designed because the pressure is not expressly limited to the person drawing, as the answer lies somewhere within 12 letters at the bottom of the screen, too. What the game essentially splits into is Pictionary bouncing off a wordsearch. Even if your drawing provides absolutely zero possible clue as to the answer, the other player has every chance of working it out by guessing the word hidden within the letters. I cannot put it simpler: if you have a smartphone, if you enjoy games, and if you have a few minutes to spare, you should be playing Draw Something.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Stranger than fiction

This week’s post feels almost inevitable. In a lot of ways, I am looking forward to whenever and whatever the next big game release shall be, because most of the gaming press have been sucked up into a vortex of recent. In a lot of ways, it’s almost inconceivable to consider thatMass Effect 3 is not even two weeks old yet. Read that again. That’s right, this game has been on general release (and only in terms of the United States, remember) for 12 days. Within the space of those 12 days, it looks as if everyone who has played the game has been compelled to state their position on the great gaming debate of March 2012: Should players be allowed to tell developers to change their stories?
This argument needs to be pared down a touch. Whilst we can sit back and wax philosophical about what the endings really meant to us, or whether or not we feel as if all of those individual do-or-die key decisions that we all made throughout the franchise were respectfully catered to by the time we reached the end-point, none of that is something that particularly interests me. However, the aspect that strikes me the hardest brings it all back to that grand old other cause that most of us seem to feel quite passionately for: Can games be considered as Art?
art critic 300x214 Sunday Sidebar: Stranger than fiction
Imagine this guy telling you about his thesis 'Snaaake! Hideo Kojima and the American Hero through a Japanese lens.''
If we want our beloved little billion-dollar industry to ever be taken seriously by folks with the halfmoon spectacles and velvet jackets with leather-reinforced elbow patches, if we ever want to see high society proudly displaying a coffee table book with a title akin to ‘Molyneux’s God: A Personal Journey through the Mind‘ then we need to accept that this stuff that they’re selling to us is art (and it is, by the way). In other mediums, there are countless debates over character ambiguity and how plots progress. In literature we have, for example, Macbeth’s demise, unfortunate since he’s such a fearless and successful warrior up until Macduff kills him. In film, people love to delve into the whys and wherefores regarding Rick Deckard possibly being a replicant in Blade Runner. People may be unhappy with the way a story winds up finishing, but it doesn’t give them any right to change it. Not one. Not a single one. Nuh uh.
I choose these two examples completely out of the blue yonder of my mind. Whether or not they relate to Mass Effect 3‘s outcome is irrelevant, particularly at this point. The final events of that game, if you haven’t finished it by now, are so thick with the hype and fuss that so many have expressed over them that you may find yourself, as I did, playing it and constantly asking yourself ‘Is this the bit I’m meant to be annoyed about? Wait, maybe it’s this bit?’ For a particular stretch, I thought the vitriol was actually over the fact that it didn’t even end, amusingly because I just happened to be having a particularly tough time with a final section and I began to wonder if the game was rigged to never properly finish at all. That’s an ending I could really get behind for controversy, and even if BioWare had gone for it, this backlash to Mass Effect 3 would still remain invalid.
rick deckard 300x225 Sunday Sidebar: Stranger than fiction
Does Commander Shepard dream of electric sheep?
But the game doesn’t end like that. It doesn’t take spoilers to tell you that there is an ending to this game. Not onlyan ending, but multiple possible endings, just like every other important milestone in the game. It’s not even as if BioWare leave you powerless at the end. You get a choice, and you make a choice, and that’s it. It’s over. Or is it?
One particularly interesting little nugget is that the game doesn’t actually finish at this ending sequence. I’m not sure how many people have missed it, but there’s a cutscene after all those credits that seems to pretty clearly state how the story is going to continue. Not only that, but it’s got Buzz Aldrin in it too. It’s nothing awe-inspiring, but it’s a poignant bookend to the story that I have the feeling a number of people may have actually missed.
If you happen to have donated to the impressive jar of money currently being raised for Child’s Play in some kind of peaceful passive-aggressive protest, then I think you’ve done a very good, if misguided, deed for this week, but you still don’t deserve to get what you want. And glory be, if you think that sending the message ‘we will give you money to get what we want’ is an encouraging one, then we’re going have to have a serious, serious talk next week. Project Ten Dollar pales in significance to this. If you’re willing to sell your stories to the highest bidder, then you’re turning art into soulless business. Let’s not do that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Make your story fit your gameplay, and vice versa

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. As I mentioned last week, and as you may have begun to notice, a lot of people are playing Mass Effect 3 this weekend. I, myself, have managed to sink 17 hours into it so far, quite to my shock as I checked my playtime before sitting down to work on this article. The most striking thing about this is that I didn’t actually find myself to be enjoying it for most of those first ten hours or so. The Sunday Sidebar isn’t a place for game reviews, and I am not about to sit you down and tell you what I think about Mass Effect 3 on a whole, but it has brought one particular aspect of itself to light, and there are a few others who seem to have picked up on it, too.
jessica chobot 300x169 Sunday Sidebar: Make your story fit your gameplay, and vice versa
Among the ridiculous side missions that clog the Citadel, you at least get the chance to outright deny Jessica Chobot entry into your game.
The topic of discussion here concerns the relationship between story and gameplay. Not all games have to have a story, or at least anything more than a rudimentary ‘You own this bat, and must use it to return the puck from whence it came’. But when a game has a story, it’s mostly taken as understood that the story is in some way going to be implicated in the actions of the game.
Whether that amounts to something as personal as getting out of somewhere alive, or to rallying a galaxy-wide army to defend against an onslaught of synthetic organisms, is held somewhere between the designer and the player, depending on player willingness to indulge in cutscenes, and so forth. Most players like to know the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. What sparked this topic is the interaction between what’s happening in the over-arching events of Mass Effect 3, and what is happening in the player experience, or at least throughout my 17 hours up until now.
Warning – mild early-game spoilers follow
me3 engineer adams 300x285 Sunday Sidebar: Make your story fit your gameplay, and vice versa
Hey, Engineer Adams, I don't give you my shopping lists. Don't give me yours.
It doesn’t require me to delve deep into the rich tapestry of spoilers to inform you that Mass Effect 3 asks you to rally up troops for an impending battle against the Reapers, and it opens with the invasion of Earth. Shortly after, you will find yourself near Palaven, where a Turian soldier informs you that, during their own current invasion, they have lost “3 million the first day, and 5 million the next”. That’s a lot of people in two days, so suffice it to say that the pressure is on. What then follows is Shepard being persistently labored with a multitude of fetch-quest tasks alongside a quite important galaxy-wide recruitment initiative. The disconnect that this causes serves to pull me out of the game. It ruins immersion in the world when we are asked to believe that things like this would happen in such a situation. Yet they do, and it’s ridiculous. It ruins it because I feel like we should be feeling rushed and at pressure to finish the story in due time to succeed, and yet, in my own playthrough the game is currently asking me, among other things, to go and hunt out a fixture for the Normandy. Surely there is someone else who can be doing these sorts of things. Surely that is why I already have an engineering team, no?
*Spoilers over* 
I understand that Mass Effect as a series is billed as an RPG and that it is not the first of its kind to feature fetch-quests, nor to receive such similar criticisms as I am laying upon it here (RE: being who you are in Skyrim, and doing the monotonous things you do there, too). It would just be great if player exploration and interaction in the world didn’t seem expressly composed to have both the look and feel of wasting not just our own, but the whole galaxy’s, time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: BioWhere do we go from here?

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. It could be construed that I’m writing this article perhaps a week early, but I cannot realistically envisage that anybody keen to start playing Mass Effect 3 will be spending too much time next weekend browsing the Internet to read about the series, so let us have a little thought-piece today on where the franchise ought to go from here.

The Jumping-Off Point

Oh, from such small acorns the mightiest of oak trees do grow. In November of 2007, BioWare releasedMass Effect, an action RPG to follow in the footsteps of their acclaimed Star Wars titles, only now that they had lost the licence for their critically-acclaimed Knights of The Old Republic series, it had been necessary for them to develop a whole new universe alongside the perils of a new game. What resulted was a science-fiction universe that sits at just around the halfway point between Star Wars and Star Trek: a world drenched in space opera that still retains a deep science and technology aspect, something that isn’t all that surprising when you consider that all three of BioWare’s founders – Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip - were medical graduates when they started out.
Five years later, and we’re just one week away from the release of the closing chapter in Commander Shepard’s story, a trilogy that has taken us across the Milky Way galaxy in a quest to save the world from the Reapers. Whether our respective Shepards succeed in saving the galaxy or not, and bear in mind that there’s every possibility that they won’t, it is safe to say that no-one is quite ready to be finished with the universe as a whole. With this first trilogy now drawing to an end, we’re poised, fueled, and impatiently waiting before our own proverbial Prothean relay. Which begs the question: Where do we go from here?
The possibilities are manifold, and even dangerous for the fiction. While I think I would be happy to try out most of them, that which I least want to see is perhaps the most likely. Still, we’ll get to my personal tastes later on. For now, let’s throw a few genres at the wall and see what sticks:
  • Massively Multiplayer Online – It didn’t take long for people to make the logical leap between an exciting new sci-fi universe and a desire to that into yet another MMO world. While plenty of fans are enthusiastic for such a release, BioWare are likely to be tied up in SWTOR long enough that an MMO for Mass Effect will be a few years away at least. On the flip side, having invested so much time, research, and money into learning how to construct an MMO world, this is a genre that seems to me to be an inevitable, if not proximal, direction for the franchise. In a recent interview with Ben Kuchera of Penny Arcade Report, Greg Zeschuk seems cautious, if willing to entertain the notion:
“It’s daunting, but the neat thing is it would lend itself to a different type of game play. It’s fun to think about. I imagine people think it would be just like Mass Effect as it is… but there’s lots of people there. It’s really interesting, I don’t know. It’s a tough one.”
  • Space Simulation – I love the idea of the series moving in this direction, but it’s probably unlikely that enough people would be interested in it. Something akin to Star Trek Legacy, or EVE Online, would be an excellent way to further develop the Galaxy At War storyline, assuming there is enough of a story there to pursue. Managing whole fleets of Alliance ships in tactical dogfights against Cerberus, the Geth, or even taking on a lone Reaper would be exhilarating stuff.
  • Real Time Strategy - The apple doesn’t fall far from the Space Simulation tree here. Ground-based combat in Mass Effect has been traditionally of the Away Team variety: a small team taking on a series of objectives before returning to base. How about setting a title around long-term life on the ground? How about managing your own settlement in the Terminus Systems, like Freedom’s Progress for example?
  • FP/TP Shooter – I think a first-person shooter is highly unlikely, but there is little point in separating these two perspectives into separate genres for discussion. While some hardcore RPG fans might shy away from the prospect of an all-out, action-packed shooter experience, it occurs to me that with the right kind of cinematic story, and a somewhat more cerebral approach, it could wind up being a lot of fun. And of course, do not forget that next week’s iOS venture, Mass Effect Infiltrator, is pretty much exactly this. There’s every chance that this could appear – and in my hopes, should appear – as a downloadable adventure on your home console, depending on how successful it is.
    mass effect mako 300x186 Sunday Sidebar: BioWhere do we go from here?
    Imagine racing these little guys! Worst game ever.
  • Kart Racer - Mass Effect: Mako Racer is already the greatest game that never was. Unlikely as it may be to ever see the light of day, take a little time to consider racing through the Citadel, or a Collector Ship, or a time trial where you’re pursued by a deadly Thresher Maw. Pursued whilst constantly flipping over and losing traction with the ground. Don’t you ever miss the Mako? Yeah, me neither.
  • Action RPG - Why put this last? It seems like the laziest progression of the series, yet at the same time it is the most commercially viable option and therefore, by default, it becomes the most likely. While I am sure that I would still invest in the new starter entry ofMass Effect RPGs, I’m not sure if part of me would totally agree with having finished up the adventures of Commander Shepard, only to start all over again with a new character this time around. To make this option into something interesting, I think it would take some kind of serious tweaking to the canon as it currently exists. Otherwise it will be fine, but simply not an amazing step forward.
Although some or all of the above may not seem terribly appealing, they serve to demonstrate the breadth of possibilities that lie before BioWare as they decide how best to continue with this most beloved of franchises. It’s not for discussion here, but a movie and an anime are both currently in the works, too, though neither of them involve BioWare too explictly. Still, anAnimatrix-style treatment of the universe seems very pleasing. Going back to the world of games, though, which of these options appeal to you most? Have a great Sunday, folks.