Posts Tagged‘casual’

Ballistic: Like Playing Pool in 3D.

I’m not usually a fan of reaction based games, mostly because they do a great job of highlighting just how bad I am at them. Sure there’s a sense of accomplishment once I get there, but it often feels like I’ve either brute forced my way through or just lucked out. However seeing people master games like that can be quite entertaining, like watching Rocket League pros juggle a ball like it’s nothing. Ballistic falls along similar lines for me, being incredibly frustrating to play but would definitely make for good watching should someone decide to take the time to master it.

There is a vague notion of a plot in Ballistic, you being some kind of weapon of mass destruction set out to stop someone from capturing a planet (or something along those lines). What you are is a giant geodesic ball that can roll along any surface, shooting itself in any direction at incredibly high speed. Anything you come into contact with is instantly obliterated and that includes any innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way. That sets up the premise for the game: wreck a bunch of things and then find the teleportation pad to take you to the next level. Like many skill/twitch/reaction based games it’s a simple concept that’s incredibly difficult to master.

Ballistic uses the Unreal Engine 4 which means that, at a base level, the graphics aren’t bad. They’re quite simplistic, consisting mostly of highly glossy surfaces and geometric shapes, which is fitting given the Outrun-ish theme it seems to be going for. When you’re moving everything turns into a glorious blur of neon but, when you inevitably hit something you get an up close look and things aren’t as great. All the people models have to be store bought assets as they simply don’t fit the aesthetic of the game at all. The other various models (like the guns and whatnot) fit a little better but they’ve obviously been designed to not be looked at too closely. For more skilled players this might not be an issue but for someone like me, who seemed to spend more time still than blasting past, it was hard not to notice it.

The challenges the game presents you are usually pretty simple. Most of them will be a variation on move here, kill this thing and then find this other thing to complete the level. Sounds easy in theory but wrangling the ball to do what you want it to do is a challenge all in of itself. You have a couple controls at your disposal: roll, which allows you to move whilst you’re flat on a surface. Boost which pushes you in the direction of the camera and bullet time allowing you to more precisely aim your shots. You’d think that with these tools it’d be relatively easy to navigate your way around however it’s akin to trying to play billiards in three dimensions more than anything else. In order to get to a certain point you’ll have to estimate your current momentum, what you can add via boost and your time in flight before you hit there. Doing all these things whilst you’re blasting past everything at a million miles an hour is quite the challenge.

That being said once you get a handle on how things all slot together you can more accurately place yourself than you would otherwise. Mashing the boost button the second you leave a surface is most certainly the wrong thing to do, often leading you into unrecoverable situations. Nor is attaining maximum speed the solution to everything as once you get past a certain point the amount of influence you have over where you’re going is diminished significantly. In the end the challenge that Ballistic provides is one of balance: you have to figure out the right mix of everything to achieve your objective. Suffice to say it’s not the easiest game around, one that’s barely deserving of the “casual” tag it’s got itself on Steam.

Ballistic is an extremely challenging momentum based skill game, one that this writer would likely recommend for fiends who enjoyed similar games like Rocket League. The retro soundtrack is what attracted me to it in the first place and, unfortunately, the game play wasn’t enough for me to stick around for too long afterwards. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game, one that will reward those who take the time to master its momentum based mechanics. If, like me, you were seeking something a little less intense though it might be the wrong thing for you. For a specific subset of gamers Ballistic’s challenges will provide the kind of intense action they crave however, for this old gamer, I think I’ll leave my play time with it where it stands.

Rating: 6.5/10

Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.

The Game Length Conundrum (or Time Flies When You’re Having Fun).

Just over a year ago I wrote a post exploring my own experiences with games of varying length and the gaming community’s views on what constitutes a good game length. At the time I strongly felt that gamers, as a whole, were annoyed with the trend for AAA titles to shoot for shorter lengths, feeling they were being cheated since they were no longer getting the same amount of value as they used to. For me personally the shorter lengths were actually somewhat of a blessing as 20+ hour games, whilst usually quite enjoyable, would take me weeks to finish at my usual rate of play. Thus I tended to favour the slightly shorter games that could be done in a single intense weekend which made titles like Heavy Rain feel far more intense and immersive than they otherwise would have been. 

The last year, for me at least, hasn’t seen my view on game length change much. I still balk at games I know that will take a long time to finish but if the hype and recommendations from friends are good enough I’ll make the investment in them anyway. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve become something of a Starcraft 2 fiend of late which soaks up a good portion of my gaming time which tends to push me towards the sub 10 hour bracket length bracket. Unlike me however it seems the gaming community, or at least some game developers, now believe the trend is towards such shorter titles:

The likes of social and casual games, particularly the cheap games available on mobile, have changed the expectations of gamers, the panel concluded. By gamers are paying less money, there’s less need to create 10-hour-plus gaming experiences, because consumers no longer feel shortchanged. This could be particularly beneficial for self-publishing indie developers, they said, who could charge less but gain a larger percentage of sales. 

I usually draw a line in the sand between what I call traditional gamers¹ and those who just play games when it comes to points like those stated above. Social and casual games typically don’t attract traditional gamers (and yes I’m talking out my ass on this, if you have figures to the contrary please share) and I believe the opposite is true for traditional console and PC releases. However with the gamer population seeming to age at a rather rapid rate (it felt like only last year that the average age was 30) there may be a tendency for traditional gamers to trend towards more casual-esque games simply because they can’t afford the same time investment they used to.

As I said in last year’s post the length of the game is usually quite irrelevant to the overall experience. My most recently completed title with 10+ hours of game play, L.A. Noire, was extremely enjoyable for the 22 hours I spent with it. Compare that with say Duke Nukem Forever which made 8 hours feel like 40 and it becomes quite clear that game length, whilst definitely an initial factor in my purchasing decisions, ultimately does little to affect my overall perception of the title. This does mean that I agree with one of the panel’s points though, rarely do I feel short changed now when a game only lasts 10 hours, especially if said game was a complete blast to play. If I’m honest I am spending more on games now than I have done previously (because I’m more honest now than I was back then, if you get my drift), but the price per game is usually a lot less than I used to pay thanks to Steam.

All that being said however I can’t deny the impact that social and casual games are having on the market. I might not partake of many of them myself (although Bejewled on my iPhone claimed a good 10 hours of my life) but an overwhelming number of people have and that tidal wide of people is changing the gaming landscape. Many developers are now realising the potential of the free to play, micro-transaction supported platform and independent game developers now have multiple viable avenues in which to push their wares. All this would appear to be pushing towards shorter, more easily consumed titles. However I personally believe that it will be limited to the non-traditional gamer market as they’re the ones driving the changes. Traditional gamers on the other hand seem to have no problem with longer titles, as long it’s appropriate.

¹Traditional gamers in my definition refers to those of us who would identify as a gamer in the demographic sense. For us traditional gamers it’s part of our identity as we’re involved in the gaming community in some way (whether that’s blog posts like these or being part of a gaming group like a forum or clan) and generally we’ve been gaming for a good portion of our lives. Social and casual gamers don’t tend to fit this mould instead seeing games as something of a distraction in the same vein as TV shows or movies. 

Were Casual Games Always This Good?

As a rule I used to avoid any games that were labelled “casual” as they were usually aimed at the bored housewife, cube dwellers on lunch break or those who wouldn’t identify themselves as gamers. Additionally they tended to be of very low value game wise deriving their replayability from pseudo-random puzzle generation or simply luck based game mechanics. Still when my copy of Half Life 2 came with a free (albeit gimped) copy of Peggle I decided I might as well give it a go, I didn’t really have anything to lose. I must say it was pretty enjoyable despite the short length but my stigma about the casual game scene remained in tack and I left them to whom they were built for.

Fast forward and the game has changed significantly, so to speak. Whilst just 3 years ago it was nigh impossible for a lone developer to build, distribute and profit off a game they built today there are a multitude of platforms that enable them to do just that. For the most part games made by independent developers would fall into the casual genre (although there are many notable exceptions to this), usually due to the fact they don’t have the time or resources to develop anything more in depth. What that also means is that the indie/casual space has seen an explosion of titles over the past couple years giving those typically non-gamer gamers a whole wealth of choice that they just didn’t have previously. For someone like myself who used to shun the genre I’ve found myself playing quite a few more examples from this fledgling genre and I have to say I’ve been surprised with how enthralling they’ve become.

Whilst I snoozed on the Humble Indie Bundle I was intrigued by the idea and kept my eye peeled for any other deals like it that might cross my path in the future. After buying a couple indie bundles on Steam (mostly for a single game out of the lot) I eventually came across the Bundle of Mega Love from Cipher Prime Studios which I snapped up since I had been meaning to buy at least 2 of the games on the list already (World of Goo and Captain Forever) but I figured that the others would be worth the price of admission, and boy were they ever.

The first of the unknown lot that I got into was Eufloria a sort of colony simulator where you direct your little flying “seeds” to inhabit other worlds, turn into trees and fight other colonies vying for the same habitats. I think I lost 2 hours in it initially, losing myself in the tranquil music and muted colour palette. What kept bringing me back was that most levels could be done in 10~20 minutes but there was still a real sense of completion afterwards, something I had found lacking in many of the other casual games I had played previously. Flush with success from playing one of the unknown games I set about looking for another and I eventually settled on Auditorium, an online light and sound puzzle game.

The concept of Auditorium is pretty simple, a single source of particles that when passed through the meters starts a music loop playing. You’re given various implements which can redirect the stream in certain ways and there can be a multitude of colours in one level. Since each of the meters plays a different loop the full song develops right in front of you as the puzzle progresses, hopefully culminating in your success. It’s absolutely addictive and the possibilities of emergent game play are quite spectacular. There have been many times when I’ve managed to complete a level in a completely random way by some random interaction between the modifiers that would not work if any one of the pieces were a fraction away from their positions. It has the added bonus of really annoying anyone who isn’t playing it, especially if you’re stuck on a single level for more than 30 minutes (ask my wife about it ;)).

I guess it just goes to show how powerful these platforms are at enabling those with a desire to create to have that work made available for the world at large. There’s some amazing stuff coming out of independent studios these days and in a world where the major titles will set you back $100 or more here in Australia the mere pittance that they ask for their wares is far beyond the value that they deliver. You can then imagine my excitement when I learned that one of my good friends started up his own independent games house, TOME Studios, and is currently working on his first title Lost Company. Whilst I might not have made the cut for an alpha tester I’ll more than happily shell out for a copy of the game once it’s released just so that he and people like him can keep doing the great work that’s kept me away from the 2 other major titles I have sitting by my desk, waiting to be finished.

Game Length, Opportunity Cost and Replay Value.

When I switched from being a salaried employee to a contractor I underwent a paradigm shift in regards to how I spend my time. You see when you charge by the hour you start to think about how much something costs you to do if you do it yourself vs getting someone else to do it. If there’s a solution to a problem and it’s available for less than my current hourly rate then it’s good value for me to get that rather than trying to develop a solution on my own. This also comes back to how I spend my leisure time as it becomes hard to turn off that part of my brain that tells me every hour used purely in the pursuit of leisure is an hour that could be spent generating some income, although I haven’t seemed to have any trouble with that for the past month or so. 😉

The majority of my spare time is spent playing games simply because they’re by far one of the most relaxing activities for me. Additionally the bit of blog fodder that I get from completing one and then writing a review of it (which are some of my most enjoyable posts to write) are yet another benefit of spending my down time immersed in these virtual worlds. Unfortunately though I’m no longer the young 20 something university student I used to be and the amount of time I can spend on games is quite limited when compared to days gone by. Thus, whilst I still find time to cram in an epic gaming session or two every so often, the vast majority of my games are either played out over the course of a month or in a few shorter sessions in a single weekend. I think this is where my love of cinematic games has sprouted from as they’re an intense experience that I could conceivably sit down and play through in one session.

However the gaming community always seems to lament games that have a length that’s shorter than about 20 hours. One great example of this was Heavenly Sword, arguably Sony’s flagship game on it’s only recently debuted PlayStation 3. The hype leading up to the release of the game was nothing short of fever pitch and the demo released about a month prior wowed everyone who played it, even with it’s foreboding that the game itself would be drastically shorter than everyone was used to. On release it became apparent that the game totaled at most about 6~8 hours of game play and the critics slammed it for that very reason. Granted the game had set itself up for this as the hype far outpaced the resulting game but really the length, at least for people like me, wasn’t such a let down as many of the critics would have had us believe.

When time is at a premium game length starts to become something of a concern. It’s for that exact reason why I’ve avoided games like Final Fantasy as whilst they are amongst some of the most highly praised games on Sony’s gaming platform they’re also an incredible time sink, with play times exceeding 40 hours not uncommon. Ah ha! I hear you saying, but you reviewed Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, games with lengths approaching that of the games you said you avoid! OK you got me, there are notable exceptions that I can and will make the effort to play through usually on the backs of raving reviews from friends and the gaming community at large. Still a game like Modern Warfare 2 which packed only 6 hours of game play which I managed to blast through in 2 sittings rates as highly as some of those longer games despite its short length. There is also Heavy Rain of course, but I think everyone knows how much I enjoyed that and I’ve gushed enough about it to last everyone a lifetime 🙂

I think the crux of the matter is that the opportunity cost for longer games is so high that I have a tendency to shy away from them, lest my hours be wasted. Thankfully in this day and age of instant on access to information I usually have a good feel if a game will be worth it before taking the plunge, but at heart I’m still a completionist and I can’t stand letting games go unfinished. I think that’s the reason why Bayonetta and Red Faction: Guerrilla bug  the hell out of me as they’re just painful enough for me to not want to finish them but at the same time I’d love to get them off my list forever. Still slogging through something that just isn’t fun for completion’s sake doesn’t rate highly on a cost benefit analysis for my time, so I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

There is of course games that have significant amounts of replay value which kind of skew my whole game length argument. Something like Lumines for example probably only has about 6 hours of game play in it total however I still find myself picking up my copy of it from time to time for a 30 minute bash to try and beat my top score. That’s probably more thanks to the genre than anything else as casual games like that tend to have quite short single play throughs however the competition element with a healthy sprinkling of procedural generation makes them almost infinitely replayable, something that the casual gaming market craves.

My point is that for any game you might play the length is somewhat of a subjective metric to use when judging its quality. Certain genres of games will come with expectations of play times such as RPGs being traditionally quite long and cinematics being short, but overall a games length is no measure of its quality. There is of course the argument to be made that a game is too short and therefore omits details or similarly a game that is too long that drags the plot out longer than it really needs to be. Still for a game that’s worth its salt the length seems to barely matter as I’ll remember how I enjoyed my time playing it, not how long.

That probably explains my past addictions to various MMORPGs over the past 5 years….

OnLive: Can They Handle Being a Niche?

You might recall a while back me ranting about Cloud Computing and how it was just an idea that died a long time ago but managed to resurrect itself under a flashy web 2.0 name. In that post I made a passing mention to a gaming service called OnLive which promised to deliver high definition gaming experiences to any platform that was capable of streaming video over the Internet. Although I really didn’t mention it in that post I was pretty skeptical that it could deliver on any of its promises and had many conversations with my gamer pals along those lines. Still they had open their services up for a closed beta for carefully selected people (most notably only in the US) but details had still been scant. That was until one of the guys at PC Perspective managed to wrangle himself a login:

Of course things aren’t always as easy as they seem.  Immediately after the 2009 announcement technology and game journalists began to wonder how the game service could work as easily and and as effortlessly as OnLive claimed.  By far the most troubling question was regarding latency – how would a service like OnLive deal with the input latency (time between data leaving your PC and arriving at the data center) of a mouse, keyboard or controller?  With as much as 100 ms of delay between servers on the Internet, that is a potentially long time between your mouse movement and your mouse movement appearing on screen.

Well, obviously looking for answers, I found a login for the closed OnLive beta and decided to sit down for a couple of weeks and give the service a thorough evaluation.  In this article we’ll look at both the ease of use of the service as well as the real-world experience of playing a few of the games.  I think you will find the results to be interesting!

Indeed the results were and I encourage you to follow the link above and read through the article in its entirety. He raises some good points and also highlights what the big road blocks are for the service. There was one thing that he didn’t end up mentioning though, and that was the business model that OnLive is going to be relying on.

For game publishers OnLive is a dream come true. No longer are gamers buying physical copies of their games which have that nasty effect of generating the second hand market they can’t profit from (not for lack of trying, however) and are also rife with piracy. Instead you’re now only renting a copy of the game and the second you stop paying, you stop playing. It has the effect of turning a one off sale into a continuing revenue stream. Much like a MMO without the continual investment in providing new content. You can see why nearly every major publisher has jumped on the OnLive bandwagon, it’s a huge potential cash cow.

However the problems that Shrout notes in his review of the OnLive service are real threats to their bottom line. For instance let us assume that their service works flawlessly given you’re within a certain range of the data center. The range limit then shrinks the potential customer base substantially since, although Internet access is pervasive amongst the gamer community, not all of them are within a short distance from a data center. There’s still a large potential market of people who are (namely any city with a population over 100,000) but this still requires that OnLive servers be installed at these locations and here’s where the problems start to arise.

With any new installation there’s going to be an overhead of minimum equipment required to provide the OnLive service. This then rules out most of the smaller cities since they won’t be able to guarantee there will be enough subscribers to justify the install costs. As such it would appear that OnLive would be limited to medium to large cities who could have a large enough population to guarantee the minimum number of subscribers to make the installation viable.

There’s also the fact that the service really only appeals to the casual gaming crowd. Sure I’d love to be free of the upgrade cycle but if I have to deal with input lag, blocky compression and having to pay a continuing fee to access the games I want suddenly buying my own PC capable of playing the games doesn’t seem like so much of a hassle. Casual gamers on the other hand would rather that they just be able to play the game and would be less concerned about the issues I meant above.

So in the end the target audience for OnLive is the casual, city dwelling gamer and to be honest most of them are pretty satisfied with their consoles or Pop cap game collections. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely people out there who would use and love the service however I keep getting the feeling that the idea of OnLive somehow revolutionizing the way we play games is just plain marketing hyperbole. But then again I guess that’s what all good marketing companies do when they’re pushing a product that’s completely different from anything else that’s been offered before.

The real question then becomes: can OnLive survive and profit from this niche? Only time will tell. With our gaming rigs lasting a lot longer due to the console revolution most gamers aren’t too fussed when their rig needs an upgrade. Couple that with the average age of a gamer being somewhere in their early 30’s with a much larger disposable income and the advent of digital distribution you’re looking at a market who doesn’t really need the services that OnLive provides. They may attract enough of a crowd to continue on for as long as they need to but I doubt they’ll ever become the pervasive service that they were initially marketed to be.