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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Valve’s single-player plus ideas

When game journalist Geoff Keighley released his iPad app dissecting one of Valve’s latest and greatest games, Portal 2, fans of the publisher couldn’t be more pleased at the hidden details within. That is until they happened upon one particular quote from Keighley: Portal 2 will probably be Valve’s last game with an isolated single-player experience. What this all means is something Newell is still trying to figure out.” He was given this impression after speaking with Valve top dog Gabe Newell and project manager Erik Johnson. Naturally, it caused upset and great concern among gamers as Valve are one of the few publishers who truly understands the importance of good narrative in games and the necessity for both off and online play.

But fear not, the comment doesn’t mean what everyone thought it did. It was misinterpreted as the end of the single-player game from Valve but in a recent interview with a high schooler, Newell felt the situation needed clarifying (via Kotaku). He said that Valve is still fully behind solo games and Portal 2 is a good example of just how far they’ve come over the years. However, this is the age of web 2.0 where everyone and everything is connected to one another and the inclusion of this in games can only increase their value to consumers. At the moment, Valve is a market leader in the various experiences they offer but Newell feels they’re missing the social aspect like Facebook and Twitter. He said “Every gamer has instant messaging, every gamer has a Facebook account. If you pretend that that doesn’t exist, you’re ignoring the problems that you’re taking on. It’s single-player plus, not ‘no more single-player.”

Plus what exactly is the big question now. If it is just a better connection to social network sites, those who enjoy detailing their days on micro-blogging sites are probably already well versed in the practice. More and more games have some link to Twitter especially and Facebook is increasingly being treated as a viable way to deliver news. Capy Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP allows players to tweet almost everything they do or see, potentially spamming said users timeline. It is however a neat marketing initiative as it places a hash-tag referencing the game at the end of tweets. Clever yes put it could be viewed as annoying too. Just last week, BioWare announced the delay of Mass Effect 3 on its Facebook page rather than the usual avenues for such an statement. That does of course then reach a lot more than the hardcore audience who actively visit game websites.

It would be interesting to see if Valve could take the idea of social connectivity in a new direction and not just let people tell their friends what Valve game they’re playing or where they are in it. With such ingenious writing in both Portal games there’s lots of ways these sites could provide a continuation of story lines or even a little more background to them. When the voice over from Cave Johnson in Portal 2 said (SPOILER) “Black Mesa can kiss my ass,” there were gasps-a-plenty. Imagine then if more stuff like that appeared on random Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Speaking of the inter-twining of Half-Life and Portal, Newell was also asked about whether a direct crossover would ever happen: “When you’re thinking about games, you sort of want to think about how characters collide,” he said. “In their current forms, Chell and Gordon are very similar characters. In terms of the phenomenology of their experiences. … In terms of having these people coexist at same time and same place, that’s … part of the reason Portal and Half-Life are in the same universe.” So it was definitely deliberate. Who knows what we’ll see in Half-Life 3

EA’s mass tweaking

After the news that Mass Effect 3 will be delayed until next year and to coincide with the release, a handheld/mobile version is also in the works, EA boss John Riccitiello spoke to investors yesterday (via Eurogamer) about the franchise and his plans for the third game. Some may interpret it as dumbing down and others opening up Mass Effect 3 but either way, I’m not sure what to make of it: “One of the things that Ray Muzyuka and the team up in Edmonton have done is essentially step-by-step adjust the gameplay mechanics and some of the features that you’ll see at E3 to put this in a genre equivalent to shooter-meets-RPG and essentially address a much larger market opportunity than Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 began to approach.”

Considering Mass Effect 3 is supposed to end the trilogy for Shepard, trying to broaden the franchise to a larger audience seems a little odd. I guess a lot more people will potentially by the game regardless if there are anymore to come. Like Mass Effect 2 on the PS3, it’s said to come with a digital summary of the previous two games so you don’t necessarily need to play them to get the full story. But you’ll be greatly missing out if you don’t. It’s hard to imagine what else can be done in order to tweak it even more to the genre of RPG shooter since Mass Effect 2 tread the lines between the two blurring them as it went along.

One thought is that Mass Effect 3 will include a multiplayer component, often denied by BioWare but with EA hungry for the Call of Duty pie, anything is possible. Another idea could be the inclusion of motion controls by means of Kinect and PS Move but where would that leave PC gamers? Depending on how it could be implemented, they may not even want motion controls. EA has previously spoke of a desire to have some kind of connected experience in all future games with Frank Gibeau saying how the publisher’s job is to ‘inspire’ developers to “edit and tweak [their creative vision] so it’s a bigger commercial opportunity.” Sounds familiar huh? Who knows, maybe Facebook integration will be a part of Mass Effect 3 but without any more details, we’ll just have to wait until E3 when EA will reveal how they plan to extend (or insult) the franchise.

Review: DAGi Capacitive Stylus (iPad)

Steve Jobs once said that if you need to use a stylus on one of their iDevices, Apple had failed. However that hasn’t stopped consumers from wanting to use something other than their fingers and equally had little effect on the companies who make them. Considering the amount of drawing applications and the potential for the iPad to become a serious artistic tool, finding a good stylus among the many iPad accessories is essential. Most are fat with a rubber tip and resemble a swollen pencil but DAGi have made a thinner alternative that also offers a remarkable amount of precision.

Using the stylus for drawing works surprisingly well because of the clever design. DAGi replaces a rubber tip with a clear plastic disc that has a red dot in the centre. When held correctly, the red dot is the exact spot of contact between stylus and screen. It’s almost as if you’re painting with a laser sight. It must be said though because of the shape of the tip, there is a certain sweet spot for using the stylus. Drawing still feels natural and you won’t be holding the touchscreen pen at any obscure angles but it’s worth mentioning if you’re fussy about such things.

The Apps I used as a test for the pen were Brushes, Adobe Ideas and Facebook. The first two were to see how semi-professional art applications work with the stylus and they do so very well. If you’re going for detail and don’t want to keep zooming in to 400% or more, having fundamentally a red dot to follow makes everything a lot easier. As for Facebook, that was used to see how well the stylus handles as a navigational tool for people with portly digits. Again, it came up trumps, scrolling through screens and entering text wasn’t a problem at all.

Despite Jobs’ condemnation of iPad styluses, the DAGi Capacitive Stylus is a great accessory for anyone who wishes to sketch or draw precisely. I would argue that using one doesn’t mean Apple has failed but rather that DAGi have succeeded.

Your definitive way to play

In an effort to boost their status within the gaming community, Apple have hired two key members from Nintendo and Activision to help promote the iOS as the definitive gaming platform. Robert Saunders, who is currently working for Nintendo UK, is leaving to join Apple at the end of April for a PR position specifically created to focus on Apps while Activision’s PR director Nick Grange will look after iPad hardware (via Appleinsider).

The creation of both positions and head-hunting of two traditional video game veterans shows Apple’s dedication to iOS and the devices it’s found on. But they’re going to have a hard time convincing the sternest of critics that iPads and iPhones have become the definitive way to play games. It’s true, iOS games are vast in quantity with more and more people using them for entertainment purposes however that doesn’t necessarily make them replacements for console and PCs just yet. If such a claim is to be based on the sheer number of players, Facebook would surely be on top with Farmville and Cityville leading the way. Regardless of semantics, we still have a clear divide between the casual and hardcore audiences because of the kinds of experiences that appeal to each demographic. An overwhelming majority of iOS games are of a shorter bite-sized nature and even the grander ones work better when split up this way. Controls have become a big issue too with mechanics and gameplay being scaled down to make up for a lack of precision.

I’m not against this type of game, far from it if you see some of the games covered in my review section but everything has its place within the industry. In a report from the end of last year, Smartphone gaming has risen 43.8 percent whereas those found on DS and PSP fell 13 percent. Great news for Apple and Android for that matter but being mobile phones, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get into hands than it is for systems that predominately focus on video games. They are a threat, no doubt about it just as is the iPad with a recent survey showing 84 percent of owners using the tablet for gaming. Whether or not those games are comparable to ones found on traditional platforms is still to be understood but the potential market is growing seemingly everyday. I’m yet to be convinced that the iOS can be considered definitive but I’m keen to see how Saunders and Grange try and prove that it is. Who knows, they may just win me over forcing me to eat my words good and proper. To be honest I’d rather that and have more quality gaming experiences than the alternative.

Safety comes first for Pokémon

Ever since Nintendo sheepishly embraced the world of online gaming they’ve had somewhat of a guarded approach. The convoluted Friend Code system of the Wii and DS has thankfully been replaced with a solitary code, linking friends similarly to that of Xbox Live and PSN. Online safety is paramount to Nintendo and even more so with their developers. Junichi Masuda, director of Game Freak, told MVC that he believes traditional boxed retail games offer a safer environment than predominantly online games. He was asked if there’s any pressure for him to change Pokémon because of the newfound popularity of social network games and those found on mobiles. Turns out he doesn’t feel any pressure at all. “What I consider to be most important when releasing a video game is to ensure it reaches everybody and to make sure it can be enjoyed by players safely and securely,” he said. “For example, Facebook and MSN are mainly for adults, but what’s very important is that everyone can enjoy a Pokémon game without feeling any fear. So that’s what I think about whenever I produce a new video game.”

Facebook in particular is notorious for having easily accessible games though their aims are more often than not about gaining more members and selling micro-transactions. This model can work for games with a varied age range but the constantly-connected nature and dubious privacy features of Facebook makes it easy for accounts to get hacked and information to leak. If you’re trying to maintain a position of the family entertainment system, security and a stricter control over the audience is key. Pokémon in all its forms is loved by almost every age of gamer. The trading card game, comics, anime and video games are just part of a massive franchise that continues to grow in strength with every new iteration.

In the past, Game Freak has expressed their reluctance and even refusal to make an MMO-like Pokémon game because the whole idea of trading and battling is to do it with friends in the same room, not separated by a telephone cable. It’s not always practical and to some seems dated but the newer games have all had online features yet Pokémon gatherings are still quite popular with Nintendo’s handhelds being perfect for the series. Masuda’s comments today echo those earlier statements and frankly, it hasn’t hindered the franchise in any way.

The good, the bad and the boycotting of 3DS

If the weekend’s release of the 3DS in Japan is anything to go by, Nintendo are going to be a whole lot better off at the end of their fiscal year. Confirmed by Adriansang, the 3DS sold its entire 400,000 units in 24 hours with another shipment arriving yesterday morning to appease the hordes of gamers who missed out. In total, Nintendo plans to ship 1.5 million systems to Japan before March 31st and 3.5 million to the rest of the world. It’s highly probable if not a certainty that come April 1st, the 3DS would have already hit the 4 million mark and continue selling out for the rest of the year.

So Nintendo are happy and first impressions seem all positive too, especially for all those who have R4 cards. Those scurvy pirates managed to get the infamous hacking device to work on the 3DS within hours of it going on sale. But since the system is backwards compatible and the R4 works by tricking the device into thinking its a real DS cart, it was inevitable really. New 3DS games are still safe from the evil ways of R4 for the time being.

Apart from that little hiccup, all’s well with Nintendo’s new baby right? No. A group on Facebook (via Destructoid) is urging people to boycott the 3DS due to their belief that it uses material mined by downtrodden workers in Congo led by armed rebel groups. A spokesman from the Enough Project who started the movement said: “allowing people to die and suffer grave human rights abuses for the sake of video game console production. What I am asking you to do is to refuse to buy a Nintendo 3DS system until Nintendo announces plans to halt use of conflict minerals in production — and this can only happen through monitoring of trade systems. I am not in any way opposed to the 3DS itself — I actually think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve never seen in person. But I am not going to be one of the millions who looks the other way purely for entertainment, and I hope you will join me.”

It should be noted that the organisers do not have any proof that Nintendo are using the materials of which they are accused so you really have to make your own mind up on that one. Before I bin my pre-order, I would like to have a bit more evidence but still wish the Enough Project all the best as their overall cause does seem for the greater good.