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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Limbo for PSN next week

In case you missed all the hubbub recently involving Playdead’s brilliant XBLA hit Limbo, the story goes as follows; A rumour surfaced that Limbo was headed to PC and PSN some point this year and now it’s been made official on the game’s website. Next Tuesday (19th) sees Limbo saunter onto the US PSN and Europe will get it a day later with Japanese customers having to wait a little longer as a date is still unknown for them. Steam shoppers will be able to pick up the game on August 2nd.

As part of the announcement, Dino Patti, ceo of Playdead set interest alight, teasing us of how there’s to be a “little extra secret” added to these versions. Hopefully whatever this secret is, it’ll find its way over to the Xbox 360 too.

Happy days then for anyone without a Xbox 360 as one of its best downloadable titles will soon be available for all to enjoy. I gave it top marks in my review, noting the absence of a traditional soundtrack and instead having a haunting score, adding to Limbo‘s creepiness. As of today, said score has been released onto iTunes for £3.49, including six tracks of melancholy and woe with equal measures of glee. Nice.

A shift in thinking

There are so many video games getting released nowadays it’s hard not only to keep up with everything you want to play but also finding the money to pay for them all. The two solutions to this are both frowned upon by developers for taking away potential profits. The first, renting, sees only a handful of games bought by a distributer but never the same as if those who rented actually went out and picked it up themselves. Second is the pre-owned market, a practice loathed by many publishers. But ceo of Saber Interactive (makers of Timeshift), Matthew Karch, believes the industry has only itself to blame because the cost of retail releases are far too high for the average consumer. To him, digital distribution is the way forward because the £40/$60 price tag becomes an immediate barrier for entry, especially if you’re spending a few hundred quid on a new console or PC.

“People in our industry are in a panic about used games, but honestly, can you blame people for playing a game and then trying to get some value back out of it? The only way for many gamers to currently play multiple AAA games is to shell out quite a bit of money and that definitely limits our consumer base.” I agree, paying full price for a game can be hard to justify but Karch’s comments to CVG come on the same day that EA announce how last Friday’s release of Crysis 2 has become the publisher’s biggest UK launch so far, beating Dead Space 2, Dragon Age II and Bulletstorm. While some may feel like trading the game in after completion – or even before – the £40/$60 price wasn’t enough to put those consumers off in the first place.

Karch adds: “If you want to reach an audience that is not accustomed to spending or can’t spend that kind of money, then you need to give them an alternative. I think this also applies to our core audience. Smaller, high quality digital downloads are a great way to do that. It not only provides people with games that they might actually finish, but it also enables them to play a variety of titles.” The target audience in question is quite important to the argument. Referencing those who aren’t accustomed to spending the normal price for games aren’t necessarily the kinds of gamer who are hesitant to spend vast sums of money to fuel their habit. It’s become an accepted normality to pay around 40 quid for a game and has been for the core market for a good number of generations. I remember paying £60 for Mortal Kombat II on the SNES back in the 90s so for me, games have come down considerably in price while offering a great deal more in terms of longevity.

But Karch does point out the powerful draw of the sequel due to such high development costs. He states how expensive it is to make, manufacture and market a game can be resulting in less innovation from developers who are keen to pump out the next Call of Warfare, Modern Shooter. Karch hopes that markets like XBLA and PSN begin to see more “high end” games that are smaller in size and cost to the consumer. It’ll be interesting if this does indeed happen because the downloadable space has been very profitable for a number of publishers though still the debate about a game’s length is called into question. Limbo was chastised by a small number of people for being “only four hours” and costing around £10/$15. I believed Limbo was worth every penny.

I don’t know if the future of games, more specifically triple A shooters, will become smaller, cheaper downloadable releases. With all the competition from mobile Apps costing a little as 59p, full retail titles are still incredibly popular with publishers announcing record-breaking numbers seemingly every month. The numbers may indeed be falling but there are various initiatives in place to counteract the fall including preventions to buy pre-owned games and strong advertising campaigns. If anything, I’d be more likely to pay full price for a game that gives me value for money be it a superb single player campaign leading onto a full featured multiplayer mode or just a lengthy adventure RPG. I’d be reluctant to only have shorter, easily absorbable experiences even if it does save me a lot of money. I think Karch does have a point that games need to offer more in order to stay in gamers’ houses but I’m not sure if this is the way to do it.

The best games of 2010: Limbo

PlayDead Games didn’t just make a brilliant puzzler, they made an artistic masterpiece. Yeah, I know, the whole ‘games are art’ debate again but seriously, just look at Limbo and play the disturbed whimsy inside. A lot of love went into this game and is proven by its endearing art-style. Like a creepy shadow puppet theatre, Limbo relies on subtle contrasts of black and white creating a frightening world, thick with atmosphere and haunting audio. Not a word spoken or phrase read yet the game has a lot to say and features hints of a story that lets players come up with their own interpretation. And whereas continuous auto-saves feel like a cheat for other games, the structure of Limbo revolves around it, urging you to try every option and worry not about death. The flow between the challenging puzzles and the journey you take is seamless and addictive, never once becoming stale or forced. One of the XBLA greats for sure.

Elder Scrolls 5, Mass Effect 3 and a very tired writer

The 2010 Spike Video Game Awards have just finished and here in England it’s really really late. So late that I won’t even begin to pad this article out with fancy words I found in a thesaurus but will simply give you the facts in all their glory. And glorious they are with the announcement of Elder Scrolls V that came with its very own release date too. November 11th 2011. There goes my winter! Mass Effect 3 may no longer have been a surprise but it was still really cool to see it at the show. Read on for all the reveals and titbits at this year’s VGAs as well as a couple of debut trailers too including Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Enjoy, I’m off to bed!

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Offline gaming is dead. Long live offline gaming

I don’t know about you but I very much enjoy the offline experience in games. Developers have proven that shoehorning in an online mode, usually multiplayer, doesn’t make a better game (anyone tried The Darkness online?). But EA Games label president, Frank Gibeau, thinks single-player games are dead and that all future titles from the studio will pretty much have to feature some form of connectivity: “I volunteer you to speak to EA’s studio heads,” he said in an interview with Develop. “They’ll tell you the same thing. They’re very comfortable moving the discussion towards how we make connected gameplay – be it co-operative or multiplayer or online services – as opposed to fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out. I think that model is finished. Online is where the innovation and action is at.” Really? Some of the best games this year have been solitary experiences and the ones that do include online aren’t always best implemented. Games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect 2 were fantastic as stand-alone products with their respective online features merely playing a supporting role. And even then they were DLC. To say that an online space is the only area for innovation is a little shortsighted when a lot of developers’ idea of a connectivity will either abuse your Twitter and Facebook accounts or add a multiplayer component that has its servers closed down shortly after release. PlayDead’s Limbo was innovative in how it approached storytelling GoldenEye 007 for the Wii shows how you don’t need a game to be connected to the internet in order to have a great time playing with friends.

To be fair, Gibeau isn’t forcing the inclusion of online to every type of game – Develop cited Dead Space as part of a genre where being alone adds to the immersion – but does want to see how developers can broaden their ideas with online services; “I don’t go up to every game team and ask – what is your deathmatch mode?” He chuckled. The PR manager added “It’s more about educating the developers. Not on the creative side, but on the way people play games. Social media has really changed the way consumers look at entertainment. Everything’s more interconnected and 24-7 these days.” EA don’t want to insist but “inspire” game creators and Gibeau believes his role is to “edit and tweak [their creative vision] so it’s a bigger commercial opportunity.” But ‘inspiring’ teams to add some kind of online feature to their games seems a waste of resources if it’s not key to the experience. One area where it could work is an extended version of Mass Effect 2‘s Cerberus Network, an nonintrusive screen that tells you of new DLC etc. Expanding on that idea could be hints and tips from other gamers, promotional information that helps gameplay, user videos etc. Again, such a thing would be pretty cool but not integral and I’d rather the developer concentrate on making a better game than making sure it’s always online.

It’s still way too soon for the industry to put all their eggs into an online basket. We’d need to see real evidence that doing so would be entirely beneficial for all concerned, not just the publisher before a move like that would make sense. That and a promise to keep servers alive regardless of user numbers plus continuing support for these 24-7 connected realms.

Musings: The celebrating or disregarding of Blops

Without discrediting Activision, Treyarch or, to a lesser but ever so important extent, Infinity Ward for making Call of Duty: Black Ops the biggest entertainment launch in history but we all knew it would happen. Even back when Modern Warfare 2 was still riding high before all the backlash, it was so very apparent that the next CoD game would improve on its success. So celebrations all round right? Our favourite medium is the greatest of all forms of entertainment! Well not quite. Not everyone is waiting to support the franchise as much as those die hard fans who play little else. There are a distinct group of gamers who couldn’t care less and aren’t so proud of such an achievement.

Where do sit? Would you boastfully tell all your non-gaming friends that Black Ops has bested everything from Hollywood and the music world? Or would you instead champion the ‘little guy’ and speak of successes like PlayDead’s Limbo on XBLA which sold incredibly well for a downloadable game? And while we’re on the subject of downloadables, Dead Rising 2: Case Zero‘s slim price tag and early peak into the main game helped it sell almost 500,000 in two weeks. A rather impressive number for what it was.

Of course there is a level of crossover but if push comes to melee, what do you feel most proud of? The fact that a triple A franchise has proven its seemingly unstoppable power giving the video games industry another record breaking milestone or the fact that we’ve gotten to a stage where two experiments (for lack of a better term) sold above and beyond expectations, smashing their own personal achievements?