The ultimate non-gamers’ game

Video game awards tend to feature the triple A titles that get a mainstream crowd foaming at the mouth and beating their chest in excitement. Television channels like Spike TV have hyped up the medium and what’s expected from the ceremonies to be a glamorous affair mostly filled with traditional gamers and the odd B list celebrity who “remembers playing that Mario thing” with a relative. But this year saw the start of something very interesting by the people who organise Nottingham’s annual GameCity festival. The aptly named GameCity Prize 2011 gathered not the hardcore but the extremely casual and even non-gamers to award what they felt was the best game of the year.

The group included actors, comedians and politicians and were given the Summer to play through seven unique titles that GameCity hoped would start conversations about where video games are today and what they mean to the players. As you would expect, the nominees are all cult classics in their own rights and included: Child of Eden, ilomilo, Limbo, Minecraft, Pokemon Black, Portal 2 and Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP. A formidable list if ever I saw one and to me, there are two titles that stand out because of what they’ve done for the industry. They are Portal 2 and Minecraft. Now, for full disclosure, I haven’t played Minecraft but am fully aware of its impact and the unfaltering love of its players. Personally, I wouldn’t call it a video game in the traditional sense and instead would say it’s more if a fantasy toy box, a modern day Lego if you will. And while I would have preferred to see Portal 2 crowned king, it was Minecraft that picked up the award.

So does the fact that Minecraft isn’t as much of a game as the others (there are very strong arguments for and against and to play devil’s advocate, I’m going against it) mean that the awards are a bit of a farce? No. The fact that GameCity got a group on non-gamers talking and playing games is already a huge leap in the right direction and all the games in the list are the perfect examples of what makes the industry great. Minecraft may not be a ‘game’ in my eyes compared to, say, Limbo, doesn’t mean that’s not to say its influences will be felt in more traditional games in the future. And like it or not, the folks that nominated it the best game of the past year are the kinds of people publishers are desperately trying to figure out how to attract. From Minecraft you can jump to Angry Birds and from there onto the slightly dubious world of Facebook gaming. All three areas are huge and have companies like EA altering long term strategies for. They’ve even favoured such areas over the 3DS in the past.

Back to the point, the awards are an interesting if not altered view of video games and one that should arguably be taken a little more seriously than the aforementioned glitzy shindigs normally promoted. What would be even better is if there were two parts, one with non-gamers and one with a mix of hardcore enthusiasts. Two winners would be announced and how close they were to each other would be an even more interesting conversation.

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Angry bloke rants about Xbox live

Peter Vesterbacka has been in the news recently for many things most recently being his statement that consoles were dying, making way for the mighty Smartphone. Now it seems he isn’t pleased about Microsoft’s Xbox Live content approval system because of the current inability to allow frequent updates to games. In an interview with MCV about the success of Angry Birds, Vesterbacka said: “Is that our fault? No, that’s their problem. There is no reason why, when you do digital distribution on console, you couldn’t do frequent updates. It’s just a legacy way of thinking. If the consoles want to stay relevant they have to start mimicking what’s going on around them on app stores, Smartphones and online. It’s the only way, because people expect games to stay fresh.”

However, I would argue that the reason why games like Angry Birds need a constant stream of updates is because of the type of game it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one hell of a game but fundamentally you are doing the same thing in each level with the varying factor being the layout of said level. Adding more of these over time will indeed keep everything fresh but I don’t think games that are traditionally found on consoles require the same amount of updates.

Vesterbacka added: “If you pay $59 or $69 dollars and you get no updates – but you pay 99 cents for a game in the App Store and get updates every month, then it sets the expectations higher. So the pressure is definitely on those guys.” If I pay full price for a brand new game, I don’t expect to have it updated every month. I expect the price I paid for it to cover my entertainment for either a decent amount of time or deliver me a truly memorable experience. And constant updates aren’t always a blessing. I have a good number of games and Apps on my iPhone and feel like I’m forever downloading bits and pieces – be it content or patches – for them which has resulted in me deleting more Apps rather than keeping them.

Backtracking on his previous comments, Vesterbacka withdrew his “consoles are dying” remark replacing it with how he thinks consoles and there markets are important – possibly because he’s trying to get his game onto those markets – but they’re not the fastest growing platform whereas mobiles are. Team Meat, makers of Super Meat Boy on XBLA, are well known for their contrasting opinions to that of Vesterbacka and believe, despite the numbers of Smartphones out there, such a format isn’t best suited to be the sole provider of a gaming experience: “A phone is not a generic gaming platform. It works for some games, but not everything. I cannot stress this enough. Just because something has the ability to run games that doesn’t mean every game should be made for it.” They go as far as to express a hatred to the App Store, preferring to stick with consoles and soon PC and Mac, with their updates for Super Meat Boy taking a little as a day in some cases. It clearly can work for them.

Microsoft and for that matter, Sony, do have a legacy way of thinking for their stores but Vesterbacka has to remember that those stores are very different from those found on Smartphones. The games are different (for the most part) and expectations from gamers is different. It’s just different, not necessarily wrong. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change nor do all developers for XBLA and PSN feel comfortable with the system in place but if anyone can point Rovio in the right direction, it’s Team Meat.

Super Angry Birds

The battle continues. Another developers has chimed in about their thoughts on the future of gaming and again champions Angry Birds as the way to go. Dan Gonzales, vice president of Sourcebits is echoing Peter Vesterbacka’s quotes last week, saying the mobile platform is eroding the significance of traditional portable handhelds. Gonzales told IndustryGamers: “The hardcore gamer, while fairly large in a historical context, is completely dwarfed by the number of casual gamers adopting smart phones and tablets. The world is changing and fast. Angry Birds is the world’s new [Super] Mario Bros.

The context of such a claim is quite important however. If Gonzales think Angry Birds has given purpose to a platform, showing how games could or should be played then yeah, it just might be the Super Mario Bros. of mobiles but the idea that it could be a replacement for a series spanning over 25 years, I have to disagree. Mario as a name and the games which he stars in are increasingly popular with the genius of Nintendo making him adaptable for all ages.

Angry Birds is huge, there’s no disputing that. It’s been downloaded over 100 million times and is one of the most profitable games in history but with that being said, it’s also a massive obstacle to over come if you’re a mobile developer. Games that are completely different genres often get compared to Angry Birds (in user reviews) with the Boom Blox inspired bird-flinger often coming out on top. Rovio have nailed the market developing a game that almost everyone buys when they get a new mobile. So in that respect, you could say the game is the new Call of Duty, an enormously popular and profitable franchise bridging the hardcore and casual gamers spectrum and the title all your friends tell you to pick up if you’re new to gaming.Taking on these giants of the mobile space is going to be quite a task for any developer.

Back to the original point, Gonzales downplayed the existing handhelds saying: “My kids will never own a DS or PSP. They have everything via smartphones and tablets. When I travel, I love to walk from the back of the plane to the front and see what people are doing on their devices. Not surprisingly, it’s mostly games. I particularly see a lot of Angry Birds on iPhones and iPads. Not just one or two, but ten to 15.” The danger is that we’ll see a lot of Angry Birds clones too which does little to further a market. And depriving his youth of either a PSP or DS is just cruel! How will they experience the brilliance of games like Zelda, Professor Layton or even Pokemon? Until we get more of those to contrast the bite-sized offerings, both Nintendo and Sony’s portables are fine. The record-breaking achievements of the 3DS and buzz around the NGP is proof of that. Mobile devs have a right to gloat but the “anything you can do I can do better talk” is getting old fast. Without one the want for the other diminishes.

More complex Android games. Do want?

David Hilton, head of Sony Ericsson’s UK marketing believes that the company’s upcoming Xperia Play will fill the void between casual and hardcore gamers, around 9 million of them, according to Hilton. How it will do this is down to the system’s built in controller that Hilton argues will give the Smartphone gamer an experience similar to home consoles. And he claims that this is just what they want.

Speaking with MCV (via CVG), Hilton reveals the tactic Sony are implementing in order to beat the Xperia’s rival, the iPhone: “The main thing is to offer something different. iPhone is a hugely popular product and Angry Birds on iPhone is a delight. But now the hardware allows you to play far more complex games. You don’t want to be playing these with your fingers all over the screen. You want full visibility and the ability to control the games with the sort of interfaces you have on your games console.”

It’s true, rubbing your finger or fingers over the screen is problem that Smartphones in general face, not just the iPhone and is something that can become quite off putting. But the best games or at least those which have the broadest appeal take controls into consideration – like the aforementioned Angry Birds. There’s definitely an allure to the Xperia Play which a lot of Smartphones simply lack because of the control pad and promise of classic PSone games along with potential integration of the PlayStation Store (thanks to the PlayStation Suite) however I’m not sure the complexity of mobile games will increase because of the Xperia Play’s existence. Nor would I imagine that gamers who do seriously want a grander experience wouldn’t opt instead for the NGP or 3DS. Both of those will offer games and a control scheme comparable to home consoles and they wouldn’t be reliant on Smartphone developers.

That’s not a dig at Smartphone developers though, there are phenomenal games on the Android and Apple marketplace. But because the majority of Android phones will not have a built in controller using the touchscreen instead, the complexity of a game’s controls can only go so far before the market begins to become fragmented. I like what Sony are trying though and am very intrigued by the Xperia Play but I’d still prefer to save up for a NGP than become an early adopter with the hope that more games I want will come to my yet unproven new Smartphone. However, if you see one going cheap, let me know! (I’m so fickle with gadgets!)

The angry man of Angry Birds

Peter Vesterbacka, head of Rovio spoke with a panel at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference and told the attendees that console games are dying. But then he would say that seeing as his company are behind the portable phenomenon Angry Birds. He claimed that innovation in gaming is no longer a found on consoles but has moved to the mobile and social space because of those developers’ ability to be nimble, easily updating their games and providing new content. Vesterbacka believes that while portable gaming is on the rise, traditional games are dying, mocking the existing format of $40-$50 titles and the difficulty to upgrade. Thankfully some sanity was on board in the shape of Tero Ojanpera of Nokia who said they will always be a place for consoles because gamers aren’t likely to plug tablets and mobile phones into their TVs in order to play.

It’s sad that a developer reaches a certain amount of fame and thinks it’s okay to crap all over an industry where he was no doubt inspired by. The concept of Angry Birds can be traced back quite firmly to console/PC beginnings but the success is down to the hardware and type of games found on it. These kinds of experiences are best suited for the pick-up-and-play mentality and while there are those who spend hours trying to beat the top score, console and PC titles for that matter offer a great deal more for people serious about gaming. And I’m not talking about how much you play in a week or your knowledge of the industry but if you want a game with competent controls, rich story, immersive worlds, engrossing gameplay and gorgeous graphics, chances are you’re not solely playing mobile games. Angry Birds delivers on some of those; the competent control – for the simplicity of its mechanics, great art and engrossing gameplay but it’s the depth which for me and a lot of gamers that is missing from mobile games.

Price points are equally a factor when it comes to the sudden popularity of the bite-sized game. Angry Birds can either be downloaded for free or costs 59p. Prices like that aren’t a major investment so when the game surpasses the 100 million mark, it a commendable feat indeed but not the beginning of the console downfall. And as Anthony Ha who wrote the original news story over at GamesBeat (part of VentureBeat), games with a $40-$50 price are more likely to have a greater return on investment. Publishers may start and in some cases already are looking at the mobile and social platform as an area for ‘easy money’ but will do so potentially to fund their bigger and more profitable ventures.

Another thing Vesterbacka has a problem with is the phrase ‘casual games.’ His argument is that we don’t consider films either casual or hardcore so why do it with games. He said that Angry Birds players are just as connected to the game as the so called hardcore are to theirs. I believe that, my wife is hooked on Angry Birds but the kinds of games she plays aren’t the sort I want to sit down with. I may not call her a casual gamer but the way she approaches her games are certainly on a more casual level then how I do.

Mining for pirates

A lot of interesting talks are coming out of this year’s GDC and at the Indie Games Summit (via Edge), Minecraft creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson gave an alternative view of video game piracy. He believes if you pirate a game, then it shouldn’t be considered as theft but the potential to obtain new customers. The assumption of course is how those choosing to pirate a game will cease doing so and start buying products. I find that a little hard to believe. Persson compared piracy to other types of theft like stealing a car saying it differs because, “If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.” More that people are not paying for however. But Persson hypothesised that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a ‘lost sale’ concerning piracy because couldn’t a bad review also be considered a loss?

I think there are mixed messages going on here and the concept of piracy differs depending on the game. Take Crysis for example. Crytek has twice now been stung by people illegally downloading and distributing their product, impacting sales. They state a committal to PC gaming despite these leaks but a business can’t continue supporting a platform whose users are abusing it. Remember, we don’t actually own the copies of games, merely the license to play them, kind of like watching TV. The overall product may still exist and be seen or played by a larger audience but I fail to see how publishers can easily turn the pirates into consumers.

But like I said, it’s a different situation for different games. Persson referred to his own game, Minecraft and Rovio’s Angry Birds suggesting that because they’re constantly updated, it provides a better experience for gamers who will be less inclined and unable to pirate it. He said: “Treat game development as a service. Make a game last longer than a week. You can’t pirate an online account.” That’s fine for those kind of games and something that EA are seemingly working towards with their EA account, having players log into it when gaming. But certain genres and game types don’t work the same way as the likes of Angry Birds. With something like that, you can offer more and more content over time without it massively impacting the experience of people with vastly different gaming habits. When you propose this idea to a more traditional game, they begin to take on the episodic format which so far hasn’t been able to work for all genres.

I agree in theory, if you can win over the potential pirates and give people a reason not to steal your product, everybody wins; publishers make a profit and continue producing games, consumers feel satisfied that what they’re getting is true value and do not or simply cannot easily pirate it. Until we reach that point, piracy is still theft.

Infinity Blade. You can do it too!

Epic’s Infinity Blade swiped its way onto iDevices last year after beginning life as a tech demo called Epic Citadel. That proved the Unreal Engine could work remarkably well on a mobile device and gamers were eager to see how the team of ChAIR Entertainment used this to make a game. The result was a very casual experience wrapped in a veil of hardcore ideas and a simple control scheme, taking only five months from start to finish. That includes concept and distribution. The team revealed their timeframe in a talk at GDC (via Joystiq) called: Infinity Blade: How We Made a Hit, What We Learned, and Why You Can Do it Too!

What they learned was to always have some ideas in mind for future projects. ChAIR’s employees pitched around 30 ideas a day with the stipulation that it had to built by the six people in the team in less than a year. When Epic Games bought ChAIR, they knew the kinds of games they wanted to make and already had a plan for them too.

After the honeymoon period between gamers and Infinity Blade was over, the backlash began with many claiming the game was repetitive and too easily controlled which limited what you could do with it. When you look at the internal rule set ChAIR implimented when developing Infinity Blade, their decisions make a whole lot of sense. They came up with the ‘Pocket Pillars’ which defined how to make a touchscreen experience with the number one point being it must be playable with one finger, finding ways to use that finger then remove it. Presumably this is so the player’s digits don’t obscure their view of the game like so many other smartphone titles we’ve complained about. The game also had to be “Super short” with meaningful and fun gameplay, progressing the player every two minutes and if it was something that worked great with a traditional controller, they were doing it wrong. Lastly, Infinity Blade had to be purely skilled based, easy to learn, hard to master.

All of these points are incredibly valid points into how great smartphone games are and should be made. They can be attributed to the likes of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, two immensely popular mobile games with legions of fans between them. They all excel because of how they’re perfectly designed for the device in hand, not a compromised version of something else. The fact that Infinity Blade was criticised for offering a similar experience seems a bit harsh to me as it does cross the boundaries of both casual and hardcore quite nicely.

Donald Mustard of ChAIR said last December how Infinity Blade started life as a Kinect project and hinted if the game proved popular in over the holiday period it could be headed for the motion controller. With a little tweaking, the Pocket Pillars would equally work well when making a Kinect game, keeping it simple, fun, skill-based and specific for the device. For now, I’ll keep on levelling up my knight on my iPhone but am increasingly intrigued as to how it would work on Kinect.