Epoch-olypse

I have often expressed my disinterest in Smartphone and tablet games that try and replicate traditional buttons virtually. Very few have worked and even less have had any kind of lasting appeal for me. Simple finger swipes and taps are what work best and with the App Store crammed with awkward on-screen controllers, it’s always nice when a game comes along that promises something different. Uppercut Games are doing just that with their upcoming shooter, Epoch, which will be available from November 10th.

Epoch has been developed on the ever popular Unreal Engine and if one mechanic is synonymous with that engine it’s a cover system and Epoch is all about taking cover and taking out enemies when it’s tactical to do so. The post-apocalyptic setting may not be the most original and the Gears style combat is often mimicked but from what I’ve seen of Epoch, the fun comes from the aerobatic manoeuvres of the robot you control as it works its way through various arenas battling the hordes of approaching enemies (check out the pre-launch trailer here). I do like a good horde mode in any game so one that is boasting the ability to do this on the go with simple and intuitive controls has got me interested. The story? the press release states Epoch definitely has one but “Uncovering the mystery is part of the fun, so the best way to find out more is to play the game.” Uppercut Games aren’t discussing whether Epoch is to have in-app purchases or multiplayer but the fact they’re not giving an outright ‘no’ would suggest that both will be coming at some point.

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How long is too long for a demo?

How long would you like your demos to last? Enough to get a good sense of the game? Enough to leave you wanting more? How about long enough to actually complete it? That’s what one PSP game is offering. According to Famitsu (via Kotaku), the PSP’s version of Ragnarok, an online strategy RPG, the demo released by GungHo Online Entertainment lasted around 16 hours allowing the publication to see on of the many endings. And that’s why this model works for Ragnarok, because if people want to see the other ones they’d have to purchase the full game. If you fancy giving it a go, the demo can be downloaded here.

Technically, this can be considered a freemium model which may not be big on consoles, but is something that’ll have to be considered in the long run. The PSP has already had a freemium game and again it’s an RPG. Bakumatsu Revolution could be downloaded from PSN and then distributed among PSPs via wireless connectivity. A genius way of virally spreading your game inside a tight community and then charging for additional quests and loot thereafter. Sony seem more keen to adopt the freemium model than other platform holders and are even changing PlayStation Home to incorporate free-to-play games.

Microsoft initially appear less than on board with the freemium model. When Dungeon Fighter Online comes to XBLA, the current plan is that it won’t be the free-to-play version seen on PCs but a fully paid-for game. However, in June, several sources claimed Microsoft was collecting data and discussing the possibility to bring free-to-play games to the 360 where gamers exchanged MS Points for in-game items. Maybe Dungeon Fighter Online will stay a freemium game after all.

Nintendo is adamant that free-to-play games will not be a feature of their consoles. Time and time again Satoru Iwata has scoffed at the idea of this model so don’t expect to see any on the 3DS or Wii U which could make them less relevant to gamers in the near future. On the nearest supposed contender to Nintendo, the App Store, in-app purchases and free-to-play games account for 72 per cent of its revenue. Like it or not (and I don’t), the freemium model is very big business and a better way for console publishers to combat piracy and pre-owned sales than DRM or pre-order bonuses. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next generation of consoles focused on this type of gaming pushing us almost entirely into a digital distribution. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not

Apple, in ten years time, all this will be yours…

Phil Harrison helped the launch of the original PlayStation all those years ago and was on board right up until the early days of the PS3 where he once famously said rumble for controllers was ‘so last-gen’. But poor Harrison was merely playing the PR game and only said that because Sony was in the middle of a legal battle and not his true feelings. Now he’s no longer at Sony but an advisory for a cloud-based delivery network, Harrison’s thoughts aren’t murky with legalities but clear and most recently, rather divisive.

In an interview by Edge magazine a couple of weeks ago Harrison spoke about future of gaming and how, in ten years time, Apple will eventually become the games industry. Why? Because of the “proliferation of devices,” he said. “You’ve got iPhones, iPads, iPods, which are all part of the same ecosystem; the speed at which Apple sold 15 million iPads is phenomenal. And the number one activity on an iPad, according to some reports, is games, and I think that will only continue.” He went on to praise the App Store for how well it’s integrated and how easy it is to buy things. One click and you have content straight to the device. Harrison called it elegant and continuously refined but as an owner of Apple products, I’m not sure elegancy is a word I’d use.

But it’s the talk of Apple becoming the industry because of the size of its market which is really interesting. With that logic surely the Wii is currently the console industry, Primark is the epitome of fashion and Call of Duty: Black Ops is the best game ever made. Sheer volume doesn’t directly equate to an absolution of an industry. Yes, it means those markets are currently healthy but I would propose the notion that it shows Apple are capable of making a powerful entertainment device which gaming is a by-product. Apple’s approach to gaming, best seen in their press conferences, isn’t one that fills me with confidence of an overall take over of the video games industry. They talk about it but with the mediocre response to Game Centre, the praise and boasting, what little there is, centres around the tech driving it not the experience itself.

Other companies have done well to capitalise on the success of iPhones and iPads  but there is still a huge separation between the majority of games you find on those systems and the ones seen on traditional consoles. Often they try and emulate each other with varying results. One major issue, which is pointed out time and time again, is the lack of a physical controller, mainly the analog stick. Look how important it was for Sony to include a second stick on the PSVita and how awkward it can be for virtual versions to run on touchscreens. To become not just a leader but an industry itself, you’d have to better what came before and that goes for all aspects, not just sell lots of your device.

Mobile developers and publishers can be handsomely rewarded for their games but the 59p model does come with a few restrictions. Lets say the average gamer buys three titles a year and spends £120 doing so. Compare this to a purely mobile gamer who buys 59p games. They have to buy 203 of them in order to match the average gamer’s spend. And while there maybe well over 203 budget titles hitting the App store each month, that shows another problem with this market, it’s almost too big for its own good. Perusing a bloated store with games of drastically varying quality can only take up so much of anyone’s time before it becomes laborious. There would have to be some major changes in how the App Store works over the next ten years for it to be the ultimate place to shop. In that time who knows, Sony and Nintendo could perfect their digital distribution methods. We’ve already seen a huge improvement from Nintendo with the eShop on 3DS.

There’s no denying the popularity of Apple products. Selling 15 million iPads in nine months is superb but Microsoft are shifting a ridiculous number of Kinects with around 10 million of them already in homes worldwide. Is that too a contender for games industry? There’s no doubt Apple have been eating away at the traditional gaming space and the 59p experience has changed the habits of spending but I don’t know if ten years is enough for it to go from where it is now to ruling the entire industry, supporting the kinds of games found on todays consoles and PCs. I do like Phil Harrison, I think he’s a great personality and was a valuable asset to Sony but have to agree to disagree with him on this one.

iOS enters the third dimension

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Companies like Sony and Nintendo are defiant that in one way or another, 3D entertainment is the future. The former relies on fancy TVs, glasses and a PS3 whereas the latter is marketing their latest handheld, the 3DS, as a better alternative, doing away with the need for glasses and instead using a dual-layered screen to generate 3D images. But what if you didn’t need either or those solutions? A pair or developers from the University Joseph Fourier have created a tech demo for iOS devices that creates the illusion of 3D on existing 2D Apple hardware (via Slide to Play).

The App called i3D (available on the App Store now) was developed by Jeremie Francone and Laurence Nigay and uses the front-facing camera to track your face as move the device around. Since your head stays still (or at least should), i3D changes the on-screen image in real time according to its position relative to your head. Or, to put it another way, iPad 2 or iPhone 4 + i3D + head = 3D images. The video above shows just how impressive the demo is at the moment and the potential for this kind of technology rather than investing in expensive glasses or multi-layered screens. The downside – other than i3D currently only showing five proof of concepts, one of which being Mii heads so it’ll probably be pulled soon – is that no matter how cool this kind of thing is, it’s generally seen as a gimmick. Nintendo’s previous DS has a DSiWare title called Looksley’s Line Up or 3D Hidden Picture in Japan, that was pretty neat but puzzlingly not a concept adopted by other developers. Maybe now that i3D has been made for iOS devices, there’ll be more interest from smaller indie studios who regularly create iPhone games. I hope so because in the right hands this kind of thing could be awesome.

The future of 3DS

With the UK launch of the 3DS looming on the horizon, Chris Kohler of Wired sat down with the man behind the third dimension, Hideki Konno, producer of the upcoming handheld firing questions at him specific to the automatic system update feature. If you’re a console owner, you can relate to the sometimes barrage of firmware upgrades, particularly on the PS3, that have altered the way we play with them significantly over the years. Nintendo could have a similar intent to reshape the 3DS as it ages with the first example coming in May with the addition of an eShop and web browser.

The last generation of Nintendo handhelds offered a clunky online multiplayer experience so this time around, the company are trying to position the 3DS more in line with current hardware by allowing the user to trade their friend code with others to then see what they’re up to and the games they’re playing. But that’s it. No chatting, no game invites no real communication at all. Konno hinted to Kohler that a messaging service may be headed in a later update: “We are going to be making updates to the system, and I think [text chat could be] something that would be really interesting to do.” I hope so or it would feel like the online functionality has been left unfinished. A crying shame when the system is full of such promise for a thriving online community. The fear of unwanted text messages or game request from those will ill-intent is a barrier that a little common sense can overcome.

One area that Nintendo lags behind all other systems is their approach to demos, or rather lack of. They flirted with the idea for WiiWare games a while back but only released a select few for a short amount of time. Similarly, the Nintendo channel offers a few DS downloadable demos which tend to generate a flurry of excitement from fans so the reluctance on Nintendo’s part is even more bizarre. But Konno argues whether or not demos are actually worthwhile. It’s not that they can’t be done on the system as he said entire games could be automatically sent to your 3DS. Konno simply isn’t sure whether they’re effective: “There are cases where people play a demo game and they’re satisfied with that play experience and they don’t buy the game. There are also times when they play a demo and think, ‘Wow, this is great, I’m going to buy this when I have the chance.’ So whether or not it’s an effective use of resources, I’m not sure.”

I think the key is making a good demo, one that teases your interest leaving you wanting more and not seemingly showing you everything the game has to offer. It’s true, a bad demo can be disastrous, take Hour of Victory on the Xbox 360 for example. That played terribly in demo for leaving gamers soured by the experience. But on the other hand, the necessity to include a demo version of every arcade game has helped those with decent tasters to go on and become profitable titles. A quality demo can be crucial and should really be the norm what with ever expanding game prices compared to the ever shrinking budgets of players.

Speaking of budgets, Konno was asked about the possibility of sales or reductions for games akin to that of Steam and the App Store with his response confirming Nintendo’s defiance of the flexible pricing scheme: “If what you’re coming up with [is something like] the Apple iTunes store, where people can freely set their prices, I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” adding,  “Having a business model that allows for the prices to be driven down that low, as a developer it’s kind of scary because we want to protect our content, and the only way we can justify creating good content is if it makes business sense. It’s more than a pricing issue, it’s a company value. We want to compete with ideas, we want to surprise our consumer base.” I like the idea of competing with ideas rather than price tags but ultimately, price flexibility is what a large proportion of people would want. If you have a great idea that goes on sale for a week, it’s more likely to give a boost to sales than a crappy concept which is always cheap. At the moment, Nintendo are still in a strong position but with a market as fickle as that of video games, it could change rather quickly.

Lima Sky doodles on Kinect

Normally, publishers instruct development teams to awkwardly port console games to mobile devices but Lima Sky have turned that idea on its head with their announcement that Doodle Jump is to soon become an XBLA Kinect game. On the second birthday of the often-copied seldom-bettered platformer, over 10 million downloads has made Doodle Jump a very hot property with more improvements coming to the iPhone versions soon like a multiplayer mode. How it’ll work exactly is still under wraps but the hope is that two players will be able to go head-to-head on one playing field, potentially knocking one another out of the picture. A numbered life system would probably have to be implemented too because imagine the rage if your pal kicks you out in the first few seconds?

Lima Sky are also at work on an iPad version for those who prefer a more two-handed approach to their doodle jumping. Video games are just the start too with toys and comics coming later this year. Lord knows what the comic will be about but I quite fancy getting my hands on a cuddly Doodle the Doodler, the game’s aptly named protagonist. But it’s the Kinect port that is the most interesting for me, a new owner of Microsoft’s motion device. Will it be controlled via hand movements or a shifting of the whole body? The former wouldn’t be as much fun as the latter so that’s my guess. Another point of interest will be the price. Currently, Doodle Jump is only 59p on both Apple and Android marketplaces but the cost will no doubt rise when it comes to XBLA. Just how much is dependant on the time and effort put into porting the game but you can bet there’ll be a few disgruntled gamers if it goes too far beyond the 400 MS Point mark.

It’s funny how a medium which has been said to be in decline, or dying if you will, is the next port of call for the games which are said to be killing it. Perhaps the popularity of mobile gaming is just part of the continuous broadening of the market rather than anything to do with one platform replacing another. Either way, Doodle Jump headed for XBLA Kinect could be something that all types of player will appreciate.

World of iPad

Bridge, tower, something building simulator, World of Goo has had a decent first month of sales shifting 125,000 units on the iPad which pleases developers 2D Boy to no end. So much so, they believe that maybe the traditional methods of indie game distribution has come to an end with the iPad being the way to go. Over at their site (via Eurogamer) Ron Carmel flooded an article with all sorts of stats and figures regarding World of Goo‘s sales revealing a startling truth that these kinds of games sell the best on an iDevice: “In 2008, with the successful releases of Castle Crashers, Braid, and World of Goo, it became fairly clear that consoles were “where it’s at” for independent developers, and a lot of attention was given to which console provided the best distribution opportunities. Nintendo had the largest install base, XBLA had the largest number of registered users, and PSN had the strongest growth momentum. This discussion is still going on today and the landscape is constantly shifting. World of Goo’s launch on iPad gave us a new perspective on that discussion.”

The Wii with it’s largest install base sold half the amount of the iPad’s sales, 68,000 units, whereas on Steam, the figure was around 97,000. Both Wii and Steam had successful marketing promotions too so it’s not as if either didn’t have a fair old crack. Carmel said: “So far, the iPad version is by far the fastest selling version of the game, both in terms of number of units sold and in revenue generated. What makes this even more amazing is that this is a two year old game released on a platform that is less than a year old. The iPad doesn’t have the benefit of an install base built up over several years.”

But Carmel still thinks that it’s safer to release a game for consoles rather than “playing the App Store lottery,” with the seemingly endless amount of Apps to fight for the consumers’ attention though wondered if the winner of the downloadable space on consoles will be inconsequential to the strength of the iDevices. Again, I’d use the words ‘for these kinds of games’ because something like the wonderful Limbo or charming Braid are simply not suited for touchscreens. Games on iPhones, iPads and other Smartphones are best when they use the limitations of the systems to their advantage. World of Goo is perfect for a large touchscreen and no doubt why it was so popular. Add that too the youthful existence of iPad gaming where titles of that ilk are highly desirable and the 125,000 units begins to look unsurprising. Though still impressive.