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Monday, November 22, 2010

I Could Use Some Help, Here

Hey, everybody. I've a bit of a conundrum. Maybe you can provide some assistance.

You see, my wife and I are developing a fun little card game together. It's going well--we're getting close to hammering out the major kinks. We'll probably start introducing our friends and family to it soon, partially as a way to advertise how freaking awesome we are, but mostly because the game needs beta-testing. We're hoping to actually get the thing published.

Here's the thing, though: Both of us happen to be lousy at naming things. I'm hoping that all of you faithful and brilliant readers can help us out.

I won't both explaining the exact game mechanics in this post--I'm not worried the ideas will be stolen, it's just that not everything is hammered out to our satisfaction. However, I'll give you an overview of the flavor behind it, and hopefully you can give us some good suggestions.

The game is a cooperative card game. Everyone works together to try and beat the clock. The idea is that each player is a goblin working in an underground factory. Each player draws a certain number of cards a turn, representing machine components coming down a conveyor belt. The goal is for every player to add components to machine and try to finish it in less than five minutes.

The reason for the time crunch is different each game. There are various Challenge Cards representing different bosses. For example, perhaps a big momma ogre is coming to eat all the goblins. The players have to build a machine that will either distract the big momma ogre or help the goblins escape. Or, in another challenge, a dragon is invading the goblin warrens, and the players must assemble a machine to either kill the dragon or appease it by helping it dig for treasure.

I'm stumped about what to call it. "Goblin Factory" doesn't exactly have a lot of zing. Any suggestions?


Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Sony is Doing Wrong

I may write a follow-up to this post about what Sony is doing right.  Maybe.  We'll see.

First off, I don't understand what Sony was thinking with its marketing scheme when the Playstation 3 was released a few years ago.  Check out this ad they ran:


What the heck?  That's supposed to make me want to buy a PS3?  It creeped me out!  Made me want to take a really hot shower to burn the disturbed off my skin.

Only the fact that they had a legitimately good product saved them.  The PS3 was very powerful, and could double as a Blu-Ray disc player.  Plus, legions of Final Fantasy and Metal Gear fans figured that Sony would continue to keep their precious game series exclusive.  (Metal Gear Solid 4 did end up a PS3 exclusive, but Final Fantasy 13 was sold on both the PS3 and X-Box 360.)  People bought it despite, not because of, the advertising campaign.

And how about that PS3, huh?  Quite the machine.  Although, just like the 360, early models of the PS3 suffered hardware problems that cost the company money.  That's understandable; most machines are buggy when they're first released into the market.  The problem is especially bad in the video game industry, however, where companies rush to release their new products without adequately testing them, just to race the competition.

The original PS3 was massive and heavy, which likely hurt sales, especially with the Nintendo Wii was about the size and weight of a Pop-Tart.  Sony did eventually manage to release a new, slimmer version of the PS3, but this came with a major drawback:  it wasn't backwards compatible.  No more PS2 or Playstation games for you!  This doesn't really make sense to me, and here's why:  The PS2 Slim was tiny.  I could hide it under a DVD case and no one would know.  It weighed next to nothing.  Yet somehow, dropping the Emotion Engine (the bit of the motherboard that ran PS2 games on the PS3) led to a 33% slimmer, 36% lighter PS3.  I really don't get how that works.  How big can that chip possibly be?

Okay, so, I can't play my favorite PS2 games on this new system.  Fine.  At least I can play the cool new games coming out, right?

Nope.  Developers found the PS3 was difficult to program for, and many nearly abandoned ship and moved to the 360 and Wii.  Despite the PS3's power and potential, no one made any notable games for it until about two years after its launch.  Sony has since cleaned up its act somewhat, with a much more developer-friendly PS3 Slim.  Still, the PS3 is lagging way behind both its competitors, trying to offer an extremely pricey system with fewer game options.

Here's another thing Sony is handling wrong:  Final Fantasy VII.  The seventh installment in the uberpopular series is one of the most-loved video games ever.  People bought the freakin' Playstation just so they could play Final Fantasy VII.  Heck, the Playstation came into existence because Square Enix wanted to created a game of epic proportions.  Originally, they were going to program the game for the Nintendo 64, but Nintendo wanted to stick with cartridges instead of trying out this new-fangled CD thing.  A cartridge couldn't possibly hold all the data the game would need, so Square asked if Sony wanted to have a shot at making a game console.

Point being, Final Fantasy VII is ridiculously popular.  And yet it has never, not once, been rereleased since it's original launch in 1997.  It's the most popular game ever to be released on pretty much any Playstation, ever.  And Sony used sections of--with cool updated graphics--at the E3 convention in 2005 to show off how cool the PS3 was going to be.  A "Final Fantasy VII testing group" was mentioned in the credits of the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children movie and in the Final Fantasy VII spin-off video game Crisis Core.  The team that worked on the original game has stated--repeatedly--that they would love to revisit it and update it for modern consoles.  Yet still we get no updates, no rereleases.  Sony is sitting on a gold mine, and it seems to have no interest in mining it. 

Also, Final Fantasy 13 sucked.

Here's how a good business makes money:  learn what consumers want, and sell it to them.

Here's how a lousy company fails to make money:  release a product with a lot of potential, then do nothing with it.

Admittedly, some companies came come up with a product that nobody was looking to buy, and then make that product popular.  See the iPod as an example.  But that's not what Sony is trying to do.  The PS3 was a highly-anticipated machine that gamers were salivating over.  Then it hit the markets and failed to live up to expectations.

Here's what Sony needs to do to turn things around:

1) Rerelease Final Fantasy VII for the PS3.  It will sell consoles.  Guaranteed. 

2) Release good, quality games that are enjoyable to play.  Not Final Fantasy 13.  And definitely not Metal Gear Solid 4.  They are very pretty games to watch, but they are so dull to play.  Good game play trumps good graphics every time.  That's why the less-powerful but incredibly fun Nintendo Wii has seen so much success.

3) Advertise better.  Tell people why they should spend hundreds of dollars on your product.  Don't give them creepy babies in an empty room.

4) Respect the past.  A lot of people loved their PS2 games.  They PS3 is so expensive that a lot of players hawked their PS2 in order to get it.  Retool the Slim if you must, but make it backwards compatible.  If nothing else, at least make all those old game downloadable onto the PS3.  We'll pay ten or fifteen bucks to be able to play them again.

This has been another post from L33t Games.  Until next time, spend some quality time with your sweetheart.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pure Perfection

I want to tell you about a perfect video game.  Really, it is perfect.  It cannot be improved.  There is not a single crack in the entire code that can be altered to deliver a more seamless and inspiring gaming experience.

The game is Shadow of the Colossus, for the Playstation 2.  It was released in North America in 2005 and is the reason that I discovered the art of video games.  I used to believe that video games were merely entertaining.  It wasn't until playing Shadow of the Colossus that I realized something:  video games can be a high form of art, just like film.  They have a script, actors, costumes, architecture, music, sound effects, visual effects, everything for which we praise movies.  Video games add one additional element to the mix, however, that film does not have:  immersion.  Players actually participate in the story.  They drive and create the plot as they play the game.

I have in the past compared Shadow of the Colossus to the more recent Legends of Zelda games, but boiled down to the core and most interesting elements.  The plot of Shadows involves the hero, Wander, scouring a vast enchanted land searching for sixteen colossal creatures.  He must slay each one of them in order to resurrect a young woman who was unfairly and cruelly sacrificed.  There are no minions or mini-bosses.  There are just the sixteen colossi, and sixteen puzzles to solve in order to reach each colossus' lair.  Solve a puzzle to get to the boss, then have a really fun boss fight.  How could I say no to that?

In the game, you only have a bow and arrow and a magical sword as your weapons.  Your arrows do little to affect the colossi, unless they have weak points you can hit to bring them to their knees.  Your magical sword is your only weapon that can actually injure the creatures, and can only do so on their weak spots.  Thus, you inevitably have to climb onto these massive creatures, clinging desperately to them as they try to shake you off.  Equipping the sword will allow you to see a glowing sigil at the colossus' weak point, although some colossi have several weak points which must be stabbed in order. 

After a gorgeous cutscene that establishes the setting and the basic plot, the game begins at a ruined temple in the center of a forbidden land.  You, as Wander, step out of the temple into the sunlight.  You learn the holding your sword up will cause a beam of light to shine directly towards your next foe.  Mounting your horse, Agro, you ride towards your first challenge.  You find yourself at the bottom of a cliff, and must dismount and leave your horse behind as you climb toward the first colossus.  This climbing acts as a tutorial, teaching you the basic moves of dodge rolling, leaping from ledge to ledge, clinging, and other skills you will need throughout the game.

At the top of the cliff, you encounter a huge minotaur, perhaps ten stories tall.  It mostly ignores your presence, at least until you leap at its ankles and begin climbing up its legs and back.  It will shake to try to dislodge you, and will really get serious about getting you onto the ground once you reach the back of its head, where its weak spot waits.  Timing your blows carefully, you must grip its fur with one hand while drawing back your sword with the other.  The longer you hold off stabbing, the more strength you will stab the colossus with, but if you wait to long, you could be flung loose.  Three or four good stabs, and the minotaur collapses, dead.

Here, the music softens to a mournful choir.  The colossus falls to the ground in slow motion, a mighty, timeless creature, brought to an end by cruel fate.  As the game progresses and with each slain colossus, you have to wonder if you are really doing the right thing, killing off these creatures.

After the death of the colossus, black tendrils rise from the corpse and zap you.  You collapse to the ground, then find yourself transported back to the temple, where you receive new instructions from the mysterious voice guiding your quest.  This is not only important to the plot, but a useful game mechanic, because you do not have to take the time to backtrack before moving on to the next colossus.

One of the many, many things I like about this game is its seamlessness.  By that I do not just mean the map, although it has one giant map with no load times--you can travel from one end of the land to the other without having to wait for a portion of it to load.  But I also mean seamless in terms of graphics.  The cutscenes and the in-game graphics are identical, which helps add to the immersion.  Granted, the graphics are not as sharp as other contemporary games, but they were and remain quite good, particularly with the use of lighting.  The physics are also incredibly real--Agro moves like a real horse, and will even stubbornly pull away or fight against your control if he doesn't like the direction you're going.  He will absolutely refuse to jump over a cliff for you, and will hesitate before making leaping small hurdles.

The music is spectacular and very well-integrated with the on-screen events.  The plot is simple, yet deep and moving, as Wander becomes more and more infected with the souls of the colossi, and must decide how far he is willing to go to bring back the woman he loves.  The puzzles and the boss fights are spectacular and extremely enjoyable.  Only one of them was perhaps less than perfect, and even that's debatable.  One of the colossi, a smaller one about the size of a large SUV, is afraid of fire.  I had to climb a ways to reach the platform on which it waits to attack, so once I picked up a torch, I started backing it towards the edge from which I entered.  Apparently that's the wrong edge, which I didn't realize until after I had gotten the thing to fall off.  It didn't die, it wasn't even stunned, and it's armor plating was still intact, yet it couldn't get back up to me, and there was no way I was going down into a narrow corridor with that thing.  Eventually, I had to restart the battle and force it to the opposite edge, from whence it fell a long ways.  It became stunned, and several armor pieces fell off, so I was able to jump down onto it and slay it.  It wasn't THAT hard, but I do wish that the game designers had made it slightly more clear exactly where you were supposed to push the creature.

At any rate, I love love love the game.  It's one of the reasons why I am so annoyed that Sony stopped making Playstation 3s backwards compatible.  My favorite games are on the Playstation 2!  Why would I give that just to play PS3 games? 

If you have the console on which to play it, I would highly recommend purchasing a copy of Shadow of the Colossus.  You will not be disappointed.  It is pure perfection.

Bohnanza: A Lesson in Free-Market Economics

My wife and I were introduced a few weeks ago to the bean-planting game Bohnanza by Rio Grande Games.  It was designed by Uwe Rosenberg (of Agricola fame) and retails for between fifteen and twenty dollars at most game shops or online stores.

The concept was initially difficult for me to swallow.  We plant and trade beans?  How can that possibly be fun?  But I swallowed my skepticism.  After all, there are a lot of games out there that sound odd when you try to describe them.  (Case in point:  Puerto Rico.  You're a Spanish plantation owner during the height of the slave trade.  Not something an American audience would normally latch onto.  Yet the game has been selling well since it's release in 2002 and is still played in gaming groups across the nation.)

It turns out, the game is pretty fun, and it teaches some of the principles of free-market economics.  Surprise, you can learn valuable lessons from games.

The regular game rules are for three to seven players, although there is a variant that allows for a two-player game, so it's good for married couples that can't always get together with their friends to play games ;) .  Players draw cards from a community deck.  One of the interesting game mechanics of Bohnanza is that hand rearrangement is forbidden.  The cards in each player's hand must remain in the exact order they were drawn, and must always be played in that order.

At the beginning of each player's turn, he or she must plant at least one bean card, although two cards is allowed.  (In my experience, it is rarely useful to plant two; one usually suffices.)  The forced planting is a curse more than a blessing; you only have two "bean fields" in which to plant beans, each of which can only hold one type of bean at a time.  There are maybe a dozen different types of beans, each with a different regularity.  For example, there are only eight red beans in the deck, but twenty-two wax beans.  Red beans are worth more coins, but are more difficult to accumulate, while wax beans are hardly worth anything, but you're likely to see a lot of them.  The goal is to plant as many of one type of bean in a bean field before having to harvest it.  The forced planting sometimes requires you to harvest a particular bean field before you really wanted to in order to make way for the next bean in your hand, and you lose out on potential coins.

When a bean field is harvested, some of the harvested beans are flipped upside down and become coins in your coin pile, while the extra beans are placed in the community discard pile.  The player with the most coins at the end of the game wins.

After the forced planting at the beginning of his or her turn, the player then flips up a certain number of cards from the deck (the exact number changes depending on how many people are playing) and either plants any or all of the revealed beans or trades them away to other players for favors.  Players may also trade away cards from their hands, which is a good way of getting rid of undesirable beans.  Don't want to plant that chili bean next turn?  Try to trade it away to someone who wants it.  All traded beans immediately get planted.  There is one final chance to make trades, after which, the next player gets his or her turn and must plant at least one bean from his or her hand.

The game is simple to pick up and play and is very amusing.  One aspect of it that I enjoy is how it encourages cooperation.  Hoarding beans and only making trades that benefit you will discourage players from trading with you, and everyone will have very low scores by the end of the game.  On the other hand, trading freely and helping all the other players will lead to a high scoring game.  You may not win, but you will have earned a lot of coins.  That's how a good free market economy works.  Everyone could just do what's best for themselves and try to undermine the competition, but it just stagnates the cash flow.  If everyone is looking out both for themselves and everyone else, the money flows freely, and everybody ends up in the black.

In conclusion, not only is Bohnanza a fun and inexpensive game, but it demonstrates how a healthy free market economy functions best.  Ideally, in the game, everyone tries to specialize in their own particular type of bean, instead of directly competing with someone else for the exact same bean.  Ideally, in the real world, companies will release unique products and services, rather than copying another company's product or service.  Maybe that's why the Zune never caught on?  It wasn't different enough from the iPod.

Anyway, we liked Bohnanza.  The holidays are coming up.  You should all consider picking up a copy of this light but amusing game.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Welcome to L33t Games!

It's time to take the plunge and do what I love.  And what do I love?  Games!  Video games, board games, card games, you name it.  I cannot claim to hold any degree in game design--yet--but I am a game enthusiast, and an amateur student of game theory.

The purpose of this blog will be to study games--what makes them good, what makes them fail; why some of them sell well, while others fall flat.  There will be game reviews and maybe even a few rants about the game industry (I'm looking at you, Blizzard). 

This will all be skewed, of course, by my own biases.  That means that I may bash on some games that you love, while touting games that you cannot stand.  I preemptively apologize.

To help you understand what sort of blogger I intend to be, I thought I'd demonstrate what sort of gamer I am.  For starters, I have been a Magic: The Gathering enthusiast for years.  I have dabbled with various role playing games, but have struggled to find both a gaming group and a world in which I really want to play.  I am a fan of Dominion, Carcassonne, and Betrayal at House on the Hill.  I have been talking myself out of starting a Warhammer 40K army for about a year, now. 

On the video games side, I prefer action/adventure type games with interesting stories, characters, or settings.  I own a Playstation 3 and a really lousy computer, so my previewing of current video games will be extremely limited.  I tend to like games that have a clear and satisfying end, which is why I rarely play online or multiplayer games, although the occasional Halo frag fest can be fun.  Shadow of the Colossus is my all-time favorite game.  Silent Hill 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are some of my favorite games.  I have recently enjoyed the God of War series and inFamous.

It behooves me to explain that I am married, and that my wife and I are working our way through college.  We both enjoy playing games together, and we try to meet up with our friends regularly for a good gaming session.

This has been my first official L33t Games blog.  Until next time, don't forget to floss.