Are FPSes the enemy?

A man of many talents, Hideo Kojima is best known for his pioneering work in the stealth-action genre with the Metal Gear franchise. In a recent interview with Official PlayStation Magazine he expressed his concern with the state of the video game industry and how first-person shooters are the dominating force, making it harder for original ideas to blossom. Kojima told the mag that there are only about ten big name games that can grab the public’s attention and that Japan-centric games will find it hard to compete with them.

“I think it’s more consumer demand – right now, consumers are happy with what they have. First-person shooters sell like crazy, so there’s not really a strong demand for anything else, and that’s why [original ideas] stop being made. People are satisfied with making minor upgrades and tweaking things here and there – as long as that’s the landscape, it will keep on happening. I don’t see a problem necessarily, but at the same time it is nice to see new things come.”

While I agree that the FPS genre is a hard one to beat it’s also hard to master and the number of titles that can get away with incremental updates gets less every year. Take the most famous shooter series, Call of Duty. The third Modern Warfare release sold very well and floats nicely near the top of the charts but the excitement for the franchise is definitely wearing thin. I’ve hardly seen it appear in my Friends’ Lists of games on Xbox Live and the general buzz about it felt less enthusiastic than last year. Partly due to the other big military shooter and partly because gamers do look as if they want something more than an FPS. The relatively poor sales for id’s Rage eludes to this as does the fact that Skyrim took the Christmas number one spot in the UK’s all format Chart not to mention the almost universal praise of Portal 2 throughout the year.

But it’s fair to say that publishers who are keen to make a quick sale will often go down the FPS route whether the game calls for it or not. And shooting in general is a mechanic that is found in the vast majority of titles. Though I would say that just because the wider audience gobble up a first-person-shooter, that doesn’t mean developers should exclusively cater for them. Yes it makes far better business sense in the short term but a great original game will resonate with the masses regardless of genre. The aforementioned Skyrim shows this as does the Assassin’s Creed series. The latter may be experiencing its own stagnation but has been very profitable and playable for both publisher and consumer.

Kojima added how that a digital distribution method or even off-shoot could be a good way of getting new ideas out with less risk than traditional releases.

“Maybe for new ideas, the way to do it is [by] releasing things via online services first and then seeing how people react to that. Or even if you’re making something from a game-design perspective that’s completely different, you could tie it to an existing franchise – like even if it had the Metal Gear Solid title, it could be completely different. Maybe you can make a Batman game that has the Batman title, but you can still be free with what you make the game into. Making something that’s completely new – where the gameplay, the characters, the world, everything is completely from scratch – that’s very hard to realise in this day and age.”

Batman is an interesting example used because Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are two huge successes. I may not have been as wowed by Asylum, City has been a joy to play and the franchise took very big risks with the potentially repetitive combat and lack of stereotypical content. Like how there is now Batmobile in either games. If asked what a Batman game would feature before 2010, I would have expected there to be a driving level complete with a poorly handled Batmobile. For all intense purposes, you could view the Arkham series as an off-shoot to the typical Batman or indeed action-adventure-brawler game. Kojima mentioned a Metal Gear Solid title that was completely different and while Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance isn’t part of the ‘Solid’ collective, it’s still very a Metal Gear game that, from what we’ve seen, will play quite differently.

I do very much enjoy a good first-person shooter and understand Kojima’s frustrations, equally wanting to experience some new and interesting ideas in gaming. Luckily, BioShock Infinite is set for to come out this year and from what Ken Levine’s team have done in the past, it should be a good combination of FPS ideas with new ways to play them. Perhaps a better way of combating the languishing genre is to take a similar approach rather than admitting defeat.

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The sequel to success

The business of video games is a sequel-driven industry. Just look at this year’s E3, we had a number of franchises well into their third iteration and the most commonly criticised annual series, Call of Duty, will be on its eighth release this holiday. Some refer to this trend as an unhealthy obsession from publishers to basically milk a name for all it’s worth but others have a more forgiving outlook like id Software ceo, Todd Hollenshead, currently working on Rage. He believes (via Eurogamer) not only that sequels are a good thing don’t deserve all the hate they so often receive: “Sequels are unfairly criticised. One regard is they’re not original. You can do a lot of original things in a sequel as long as you’re consistent and true to the universe that game comes up in.” You certainly can. Take Portal 2 for example. It added liquids to the puzzle-solving mechanics and felt as fresh as the first time you entered a testing chamber. But in all honesty, games like Portal 2 are somewhat outnumbered by the new-setting-same-old-experience types of games. However, that doesn’t mean the idea of a sequel is unoriginal, it’s the money-hungry developers and publishers who lack originality.

Hollenshead went on to say how beneficial sequels can be because it shows the developers are doing something right. If enough people are left wanting more at the end of a game – and not because they felt short-changed by the experience – then the devs have done a good job in creating a universe that gamers want to play in. How many times have you played a game and thought it was so close to being great and with a bit of tweaking it could be? That’s where sequel can play an important role in keeping a good idea alive. I would argue L.A. Noire falls into this category for me. The facial tech and attitude towards story and maturity is outstanding but the its average shooting and chase sequences weaken the game for me. Make a second game (not necessarily using Phelps as the protagonists) without all the ‘action’ and it could be amazing. As Hollenshead says: “Why throw it all away and have to start over every single time?” For as bewildering it seemed for Human Head Studios to be developing Prey 2 with barely any linkage to the first game, it makes sense when you think all the hard work of creating the initial fiction had been done for Prey 1.

Another way of looking at it, suggests Hollenshead, is to consider Mario games as sequels or at the very least off-shoots to the original Donkey Kong: Mario Kart, just because you’re not calling it Donkey Kong 17, doesn’t mean it still doesn’t have Mario in it,” he said. “The reason why Nintendo has been to a great extent inoculated from criticism along those regards is they execute very well in the games they make.” Which brings me back to the point of Portal 2. Yes it’s a sequel, but a mighty fine one at that and I would hate to not be able to go back into that universe and story for the sake of not advocating sequels.

True enough, annualising a game to ride out its previous success and hype often ends in tears for us gamers who get an awful feeling of familiarity but like Hollenshead, I agree that sequels can be awesome and deep down if you love one game, chances are you won’t scoff at the idea of it becoming a franchise.

Tactile Plus gives your iPhones ‘nubs’

Last week after excitedly writing about id’s Rage appearing on the iPhone, I suggested that one of the biggest barriers for touchscreen gaming – for console-esq experiences – is the lack of tactile buttons. Slipping and sliding over what feels like a forced control scheme doesn’t do it for a lot of gamers, myself included, though there are a few exceptions to the rule. Our prayers could have been answered by a Japanese company called Strapya who are selling Tactile Plus stickers; translucent ‘nubs’ that can be fixed to the screen of your mobile device, ridding you of any further frustrations. But of course now you’ll be up against that dreaded situation of having fragments of gelatinous residue left on the screen when the stickers are removed. I would hope the nubs’ glue is that which doesn’t mark screens but I for one am not willing to take that risk! So how about leaving them on? Well, would you want to read texts and watch videos through nubs?

When iPhone OS 3.0 was released, it was said to unlock the ability to add third-party peripherals to iDevices with many hoping that gaming cradles would be produced, adding real buttons but also bulking out the frame. Nothing ever came to fruition and is unlikely to ever do so since Apple new ethos on their handhelds is that if customers need a stylus, Apple have failed. Viewing the humble stylus as the work of the devil would suggest an aversion to allowing some form of casing with buttons to be plugged into iPhones and iPads. Shame.

{Thanks Joystiq}

Early impressions of Rage: Mutant Bash TV and the future of iPhone raging

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Yesterday saw the release of id Software’s mini version of its post-apocalyptic shooter, Rage: Mutant Bash TV, on the App Store. I say mini because the experience you’ll receive maybe incredibly grand in the visual department but is and was always meant to be a taster of next year’s FPS. And boy did it taste good. I managed to pull myself away from the likes of Fable III to give Rage a chunk of my leisure time which, inevitably, spilled over into my working time and is now staring at me while I write this, tempting me back in.

The start of Rage has you choosing from one of three levels, or seasons as they’re called, because the game is set around some twisted TV show where contestants work their way through arenas laying waste to tooled-up mutants. Much like modern day rail shooters, the movement is all done for you but there is control over the camera allowing for precision aiming. And it works. Surprisingly well in fact but only after a couple of goes I might add and after I turned off the frustrating tilt-aiming option. Something about rotating my iPhone as if it were one of those ball-bearing toys found in crackers that just doesn’t mean fun to me. But sliding my finger to move the cross-hair and tapping a button to shoot began to feel effortless and clearly to method to use.

I’m really enjoying Rage on the iPhone with its stunning graphics and shooting gallery gameplay though I hear it may be only around 30 minutes long. Clearing levels unlocks newer ones but I found that replaying older levels had the enemies spawn in the same locations so going through them all again, unless you up the difficulty, could get tiring. There are bullseye targets dotted about so hunting them all down is another option for longevity. I must admit, shooting them was almost as satisfying as doing so to a violent mutant . So far Rage is so very good and dirt cheap too.

What next then? What does the iconic John Carmack do from here with iDevices? He’s already proved the previously untapped power they posses and wants to continue just that. Speaking with Joystiq he revealed plans for a game using the driving aspect of big brother Rage: “I think we have a really good idea of what we can do in this format, and I’m really excited about getting onto the next game, getting onto what we can do with another slice of Rage. Taking some of the wasteland material and having riding along in the dune buggies, jumping over ravines, that kind of stuff. There’s more graphics stuff that we can bring in and add yet another level of improvement and polish to the visuals.” Greater visual improvements? This man wants it all doesn’t he?! Hopefully, this next game will arrive early next year before the console and PC version of Rage is out.

But that’s not all, Carmack continued with more id franchises that could receive an iDevice port: “I would like to do a Quake Live derivative for iOS, maybe focusing on the lightning gun, and call it ‘Lightning Arena’ or something, that would be a full roam-around FPS game. I may yet push for that, because I’ve got things I want to try there, both from a networking technology standpoint and what we could pull out of that, but I just don’t know when the hell I’m going to find time for all of this.” Fingers crosses that he does find the time because all of the above sounds awesome!

iDevices feel the RAGE!

The future is now with the release of Rage: Mutant Bash TV for iOS devices. The handheld variant of id Software’s dirty shooter has found its way onto the App Store today and is only 59p/$.099 or £1.19/$1.99 is you opt for the higher resolution iPhone 4 and iPad versions.

Built specifically for all manner of things with ‘i’ at the start if their names, Rage: Mutant Bash TV is an on-rails shooter based in the post-apocalyptic universe of next year’s console. That makes Apple gamers the first to experience the world of Rage, something of a first for western mobile gaming. Usually iDevices get a watered down port of a game that already had its moment on consoles but things maybe slowly starting to change. When the beautiful Infinity Blade was renamed from Project Sword, Epic Games hypothesised that within only a few years time, we could see something like Gears of War appearing on iOS systems and lets not forget (though it may be better if we did) the Mass Effect game which linked into the story of ME2 that was exclusive to the iPhone last year.

But the issue that is always brought up and difficult to truly argue with is the lack of responsive buttons or control scheme that plagues many great console-centric iDevice games. It would only take one developer to really crack that problem and for the rest to follow for the critics to be finally silenced.

And until we get there, an on-rails solution seems a great fit for a vision like Rage to start its life on a handheld over its console and PC brethren.

Project Sword in glorious motion

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Jaws officially dropped at Apple’s recent press conference when Epic Games unveiled Project Sword for the iPhone, a game powered by the Unreal Engine 3 and developed by Chair. Now that you’ve just managed to lock your jaw back into place, be prepared to have it fall once again after watching the game in action. It is gorgeous. Not only does it look good but it moves well too with the first section of the demo gliding through the street of a medieval town, all controlled by the user. And to show off even more, Epic have released an early tech demo of the street navigation called Epic Citadel on iTunes so you can see how the iPhone and or iPad handles Unreal Engine 3 yourselves. How very kind. Epic Citadel took only eight weeks to develop and features such Unreal Engine 3 tech as Global Illumination and Texture Bending.

Project Sword is still in development but its release is only a few months away (around Christmas) and so far shatters most other handhelds in terms of in-engine graphics.  First Rage and now Unreal Engine 3? On an iPhone? What a world we live in!