June 13th, 2012
Walking down a hallway, solving an obvious puzzle and mashing a button for a quick time event: sounds like one of the most anticipated games of 2012 to me! Or at least, this was the response by many “critics” in print, the enthusiast press and on blogs to the Tomb Raider reboot showed off at last year’s Microsoft E3 event. The game’s second live demo at this year’s show, a bunch of disconnected; barely-interactive gameplay sequences, only provided further proof of the lack of concrete game design. Yet while the game’s gratuitous brutality has been rightfully questioned, the equally dubious gameplay has avoided heavy scrutiny. The uncritical eye of the majority of game “critics” continues to be distracted by flashy graphics and throat stabbing. (For many of the reasons why, read here. I’ll be exploring some more reasons later). This year’s E3 brought its fair share of Tomb Raiders including Resident Evil 6, Last of Us, boating in Assassins Creed, Star Wars 1313 and Sleeping Dogs—most of which will be hyped beyond reasonable doubt; some of which will probably win something at the game critics awards. Update: Turns out I was right on the money.
While there is growing disapproval around Tomb Raider and other games of its ilk, such voices haven’t reached a critical mass to drown out the marketing buzz. This E3, I compiled notes on the conferences and key games of the show, with a focus on insightful commentary and game design. Although my ideas are limited to trailers and game demos put online, I hope it gives you an idea of the type of commentary we’d be getting if critics valued gameplay as much as they say they do.
Please let me know what you think and what you made of the show in general with the new Disqus comment system. You can sign in with your social media handlers too.
- They mush have said “the power of Kinect” at least 10 times.
- Speaking of which, it seems that Microsoft have finally realised how difficult it is to design games for Kinect as most games/services they showed focused on voice commands. In which case, why not just use a headset? It’s great that Microsoft are exploring voice control game design, but it’s such a minor area to throwing so much money behind.
- An ill-considered idea which seems like more of a means to promote Microsoft’s new tablet and OS.
- Without standardised controls, no one will develop games for it and there’s little benefit in spreading information over several devices when they don’t seem to interact much with one another.
- Why not just use a PC to find extra information on music and movies? It’s faster, easier and you can find more specific information.
- The tech, however, is undeniably cool and I love the idea of unifying devices around the TV. There’s certainly a lot of potential here. I hope Microsoft can realise it.
- Considering the gung-ho nature of Microsoft’s press conference, the demo was a bit tepid and lacking cliffhanger.
- Some people noted that Halo 4 seems similar Metroid Prime. This is because some of the new enemies look like space pirates, while the others appear to be natural fauna. There was some visor switching going on too.
Tomb Raider and Resident Evil 6
- Both of these games look ridiculously bad. I think that game designer Matt Glanville put it best on Twitter:
“I’d get excited more if all the effort/money that went into spectacular-but-shallow set pieces was diverted to deepen the core mechanics. Look how much Mario does with a simple JUMP mechanic. That’s what I want to see from shooters: versatile core mechanics. Instead you get sequences that don’t gel with the core mechanics, so they get simplified into something that is incoherent with the game. We all know why they exist though: eye candy for trailers, to shift units.”
Dead Space 3
- Was partly leaked to death several months prior. I think it got lost in the shuffle, especially considering how similar it looks like Gears of War/Lost Planet.
- I guess Visceral didn’t have much choice, but to make the series more action-orientated. You can’t iterate much on well orchestrated jack-in-a-box scares.
- The large worm-like creature looks like the final boss from DS1…great.
- What a wicked trailer, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t look like sanity is incorporated into gameplay aside from tripping out the visuals.
- The 4 player co-op at the Sony presser looked pretty last gen.
Metal Gear Rising
- The story looks like Platinum added a layer of Vanquish-esque McCheesemo to Kojima’s already bad writing. MAKE IT RIGHT.
- The sword slicing segments are slowed down; allowing the player to cut cleanly, have transparent blue honeycomb highlights; for visual reinforcement, appear isolated or to run on a cool down timer; preventing the player from abusing the mechanic, and the blade leaves a shadow on the target; making it easier to judge depth. Clean game design. By comparison, in the pre-Platinum Games version it looked like Raiden could cut whenever the player wanted, following the original “cut at will” slogan. Putting the dexterity-heavy slicing with the analogue stick front and centre probably created a lot of design issues which saw the original version eventually get scrapped.
- I do hope that the other slogan, “cut anything”, still applies and, based on the trailer, it appears to be the case. How much so, I guess we’ll find out later.
- Sony started off talking about mortality and ended with a man begging for his life before getting shotgunned in the face.
Last of Us
- Hand-to-hand combat looks contextual and heavily automated. Lots of long animations taking the player out of gameplay.
- The enemy AI looks heavily scripted too.
- The menu reveals light inventory elements.
- Few survival mechanics were shown off, which makes me think that, despite its flaws, I am Alive, may be a more progressive post-apocalyptic survival game.
- The developers were supposedly inspired by The Walking Dead, which I’m currently reading, yet Walking Dead is hardly this senseless.
- What a statement by Sony to put this as their first act.
- I was really excited for this game and then they just showed a cutscene, WTF?
Call of Duty Vita
- “For the first time ever you’ll have a AAA first person shooter in the palm of your hands with a beautiful 5 inch screen, dual analogue sticks and seamless online connectivity” Resistance: Burning Skies only came out last week guys…
God of War: Ascension
- The Wikipedia page describes several of the changes made to the combat system, all of which sound great, albeit, hardly the overhaul the series sorely needs.
- I’m curious how they player will know that they’re still in control and what inputs they can make when the visual prompts are taken out of the QTEs.
- I don’t like that for the existing QTEs the face button icons are all orange. Colour makes it easier for the player to read the prompts. This is why QTEs on the Wii are so horrible. Putting the prompts to the side of the screen, corresponding to their placement on the pad, makes them even harder to identify.
- I like how the grapple pull mechanic has been remapped to the triggers, which is more intuitive. The animation doesn’t look as slick as in God of War III though.
- Sub-weapons that Kratos can take from enemies: Sensible idea as the combat system needs constant variety to keep it interesting. Mapping it with the other face buttons, to circle, gives it precedence in the player’s consideration set.
- It would be cool if Kratos could disarm enemies. For example, when not holding a sub-weapon, Kratos could stun an enemy with a hard attack and then press circle to disarm them.
- It would also be good if the sub-weapon degraded over time, this way, the player would be forced to use a variety of weapons.
- Kratos didn’t have the block-and-re-fire-energy mechanic in the demo. I hope they keep it in as Kratos has few defensive moves, let alone moves that require the player pay attention to the enemies’ attack patterns.
- Looks like spells and/or the rage moves return.
- Most of the WiiU games they showed were already mentioned, prototyped, featured in montages or name dropped by developers last year. The lack of surprises is baffling.
- After wheeling John Richettello out last year to spout praises for the system, EA only showed Mass Effect 3 this year.
- Pikmin 3 appears to benefit as much from the Wiimote as it does the gamepad. Similarly, New Super Mario Bros. U seems to innovate as much with new game ideas (coloured Yoshis, squirrel suit) than gamepad and online functionality. Nintendo Land looks just magic and makes the most use of the new console and its controller. Unfortunately, fair or not, “hardcore” gamers don’t find a selection of smaller games as convincing as a “full” game. A fully-featured single player game by Nintendo’s first party studios which uses both the social and gamepad innovations of the WiiU would have gone a long way to appease these people and make a stronger case for the system.
- The criticisms made against the WiiU’s 3rd party support are all about parity with the other consoles, which will naturally take some time to happen. Still, it’s disappointing that more 3rd party “ports” aren’t making their way to the console at launch. Why isn’t Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 going to be on the new console at launch? If Activision can downgrade the Xbox 360 version to the Wii, then they can surely port it to the WiiU. With this said, Nintendo had the most 3rd party exclusives at the show and almost all of them look new and innovative. Further, the extra features and gamepad elements of the ports are in many ways equivalent to exclusive DLC. By virtue of developing for the gamepad, developers offer extra exclusive content to the platform. In terms of fresh ideas, I think that the 3rd party titles haven’t been so comparable to Nintendo since the DS.
- The small talk with the Ubisoft and Warner Bros. CEOs was just…awkward. At least they were warmly greeted onto the stage though and with titles too, unlike the Capcom guys at the Microsoft press conference.
- If Miiverse’s note system is closed or can’t connect to existing social networks, it will fail.
- Why did Nintendo need to bring in the 3DS guy just to show off 3 games that we already saw last year? They could have shown Project P-100 in that time.
- Nintendo Land should have swapped places with Pikmin 3. Nintendo should have focused less on the amusement park aspect of the game which just looks abhorrent. A fire work display? I wanted to vomit.
- Why not show Game and Wario at the conference?
- I hated the campy pre-show video with Non-specific Action Figure, but absolutely loved it on second viewing. E3 needs more camp.
- They need to put a Non-specific Action Figure trophy in the next Smash Bros.
- Demos at the 3DS Software Showcase were perhaps better suited to their E3 hub as they went on a bit long, but it was nice to have the games discussed in detail. Why not announce Fire Emblem as well? It freaking stormed the Japanese monthly charts on release, outselling the other 19 titles after only a week on the shelves.
- Dark Souls-esque passive online, where if one of your friends dies in their game, their zombie appears in yours (with their name overhead).
- Unlike Resident Evil 6 and Last of Us, ZombiU actually seems to be designed around survival and horror. Here’s 3 examples:
- You play a variety of characters who inevitably die throughout the game. After one character dies, the player embodies a new character and must relocate their previous self to recover their lost goods. That is, the player takes on a unique role as an overseer and uses the information gained from this outsider perspective to help the different characters progress through the story. I love the idea of this daisy-chained narrative.
- Because the player’s looted inventory is their “power”, so to speak, the player, the collective unit of the individual characters, starts off weak and slowly becomes more powerful.
- At various points the player will need to ransack lockers and lock-pick doors among other things, which are done on the WiiU gamepad. While the player is looking down at the controller, the TV screen frames the character in a 3rd person perspective which allows the player to see if any zombies are approaching from behind. Simulating real life, looking up from the gamepad allows the player to “peak over their shoulder”. This set up facilitates tension and all manner of scares without the need to handicap the player’s movement and attack mechanics.
- No idea why they showed an ugly CG trailer in the press conference.
- When zombie Reggie moved his face in the press conference, you could see the edges of the texture map.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star
- The way stickers are used as battle commands, items for side-missions and ways to interact with the environment looks magic. Not only does it unify these disparate parts of the game, but it removes the text commands from battle.
New Super Mario Bros 2
- I’m concerned that the 1 million coins conceit will ultimately devalue the coin as a game element.
- Grouping coins together creates a stronger pull for the player to scale the difficulty.
- With 2 players, the camera only tracks the player in front, pushing the other player off-screen. This forces the 2 players to stay together and communicate. What was likely a consequence of the 3DS’s low resolution screen has been turned into an advantage. This is like what Miyamoto said: one solution can often solve many problems.
New Super Mario Bros U
- Coloured Yoshi’s return. From the trailer one can see that: the yellow Yoshis are light sources, blue Yoshis spit out bubbles which act as platforms and trap enemies; turning them into coins, and the pink Yoshis act as inflatable balloons.
- In the Iwata Asks videos, the terrain has red outlines around it. So it seems that the player with the gamepad will be able to manipulate the terrain. This is far more interesting than the spawning platforms they showed off.
Game and Wario
- I wish they had videos on Nintendo’s E3 portal explaining each of the games.
- The player using the gamepad takes the role of a green fly character. Touching anywhere on the screen moves the fly to that position. Because the player on the game pad has a variety of things to interact with at the one time, the fly is constantly twitching around the screen. This would normally make the avatar’s animation appear jerky and distracting, however, it perfectly fits the way flies often buzz in and out of our vision, and works with the animation and voice overs to further exaggerate the zany character.
- When Nintendo first unveiled the name, the amusement park hub and Katsuya Eguchi started talking about his love for theme parks, I hated it. It just seemed too sickly sweet.
- The amusement park is cluttered, ugly (Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts anyone?) and doesn’t even look like an amusement park. It’s a giant floating disc with icons. If they never said it was an amusement park, I probably would’ve never realised.
- After watching some videos though, I must say that the individual games are impressive; lots of thoughtful nuggets of good game design.
- I’m most excited about the Donkey Kong game, although, it might be tiresome holding the controller up at the TV all the time.
- For the Animal Crossing game, I love the idea of handicapping the player with the gamepad by designating the control of the 2 guards to the 2 analogue sticks. This way, they need dexterity and knowledge to win.
Batman: Arkham Asylum Armoured Edition
- On the surface, the gamepad implementation is varied and well suited to the existing mechanics, and it seems that they’ve made smart decisions in reworking the game for the WiiU. However, it all hinges on the small details, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
- Graphics don’t look so crash hot. Seems like they farmed it out to the B team.
- Wii Fit U – The tobogganing game requires that you lie on the balance board. Controlling a game with your ass, that’s innovation.
- Castlevania 3DS – Slick visuals. Made by Mercury Steam, the developers of the console reboot.
- Watchdog – Refreshing because it is relevant, something which can only be said for..well, maybe just this game at E3. It’s pretty amazing how few mainstream games are about contemporary issues. The gameplay demo looked far less impressive than the initial trailer suggested.
- General – Why don’t Sony and Microsoft have isolated game demonstrations with explanations on their portal sites? It would have helped me write more about their games.
June 9th, 2012
Recently I was contacted by Jayne Gackenbach about her recent book, Play Reality: How Videogames Are Changing EVERYTHING, which she co-wrote with her son Teace. Jayne is an established researcher in lucid dreaming and states of conciousness. Teace is a “gamer” and author of several books. Play Reality is broken into 9 chapters, each roughly 8 pages long, covering topics like game addiction, gamification, video game violence and the effects of games on our health. The dreams chapter in particular draws on Jayne’s more recent research on conciousness, realities and video games. Jayne provides the academic credibility while Teace presents it in a more accessible format with anecdotes, language and references to appeal to players.
Jayne’s intention is to bridge the divide between players and academics in order to equip players with the tools they need to understand and stick up for video games, particularly given the media’s often twisted and unfavourable portrayal of the medium. For this reason she contacted me and offered a free copy of the book. I read the it, gave her some feedback and there’s been a healthy dialogue back and forth. Since I haven’t written anything original for the blog in such a long time, and my feedback fits snuggly alongside the other book reviews on the site, I’ve decided to post my impressions on the site. It’s refreshing to engage in such an open dialogue with another writer, so I thank Jayne for that.
Teace writes very clearly and has a strong, generally-likeable and occasionally humorous personality. The topics are well chosen and covered with the right amount of depth. Although in some chapters the evidence isn’t as conclusive so as to be so assertive. I found the last few chapters of the book to be better than the first few. Perhaps this is an indication of my own editing style, but I think the book could have been reduced to maybe 60 pages and still retained it’s meaning and personality.
One thing which bothered me about the book is Teace’s intentionally-juvenile, slang-filled “gamer” voice which is generally great, but sometimes irritating. It’s not so much the writing that bothers me, but what it implies about people who play games. Personally, I don’t like the “hardcore” and “casual” gamer labels, let alone “gamer”. These terms are inaccurate and contradict each other all the time. As is mentioned in the second chapter, the average age of players is 37 and the population of players is wide and diverse, including a large proportion of girls. I think that his gamer voice, like too much of the discussion around games, plays to and validates this “hardcore gamer” group which is only a minority.
I liked the introduction a lot, it has a great personality and sets up the premise well. I didn’t read the chapter on the history of games, because I’ve read a few books on this before.
The culture chapter feels very much like clichéd academic writing and the gamer language doesn’t quite meld as well as it does in later chapters. It seems like the academic stuff is paraphrased and then the gamer terms are interjected in between the paraphrasing: they don’t meld together. MMORPGS are always used in academia to validate the study of games which I’ve always found frustrating as anyone who plays games knows that mainstream games are where all the interesting developments are happening. By primarily focusing MMOs/Second Life, I’ve always felt that academia has never properly acknowledged video games.
For the addiction article, the examples from China and Korea are dwelled on too long before the real problem is identified, that these people live in highly-stressed societies. So, for a good part of the chapter, I didn’t think that much was being said.
The violence chapter is much better. A few good examples are provided, Teace used the No Russia mission which is refreshingly relevant and then the conclusion of temporary aggression is promptly reached with suitable examples.
I love the 3rd quote at the start of the perception chapter. Again, Teace’s Splinter Cell example grounds the topic with the audience. The points in this chapter aren’t as strong as the later ones. This feels like a minor chapter which leads into the later discussion on dreams, conciousness and gamification.
The serious games/gamification chapter provides a great overview of serious games with suitable examples that highlight a surprising amount of issues. I liked 2 of the points made about gamification 1) that the future is always in the hands of the affluent and just needs to be spread 2) the generally theorising of the way games could be integrated into our society. The former got me thinking a lot and the ideas are well conveyed. However, I felt that there wasn’t enough writing on the negatives of gamification which seems to often be discussed most amongst players and developers. For example, New Labor’s reforms to improve the UK’s public service in the late 90s are an example of gamification that turned out to be a catastrophe. Artificial rewards can be extremely dangerous and I was surprised the book didn’t cover it more.
The health chapter was fine. Personally, I would have been more interested if it was focused on finger strain, sight and sleep as I think most players already know that moderate play isn’t bad for them.
The dream chapter has a lot of little insight into dreaming which I found interesting, like the way we usually dream before we wake up and how our brain can’t determine the difference. However, the research and assertions, which is primarily focused on just one example; at least in this book, are quite dubious. I’m not sure if it’s because of a lack of research or just the way you presented it in the book. (Jayne has assured me that her other research explores this more thoroughly and suggested that I plug some of her more recent work here)
The final chapter had me thinking the most after reading the book. Sure, the examples are a bit out there and I don’t agree with all the predictions, but the examples of the 6th sense tech from MIT carries this chapter in a big way.
Play Reality covers it’s topics well, with enough depth and clarity while still appealing to a wide reader base. For players looking for an entry point into many of the key issues surrounding games at the moment and a peak into the academia, this book comes recommended. If you’re like me and already familiar with the key ideas, there’s still some good insights. Some of which I haven’t been able to free from mind and may eventually make their way into blog posts.