Sometimes I just want to play something dumb.
That’s partly the reason I keep playing Call of Duty; it’s the definition of “turn off your brain” kind of entertainment. But this also extends to experimental games their either throw convention to the wind (like the entire frustration game genre) or just those whose premise is silly enough to entice me. So is how I came across Snakeybus, a new take on the game which made Nokia phones the brand to have back when I was in high school (errbody wanted that snake action). You probably won’t play it for long, nor will you have to try especially hard to get most of the achievements, but it was pretty much exactly what I needed: a silly, short game that provided some good distraction between the myriad of AAA titles that have been banking up on me.
The premise is simple: you pick up passengers, deliver them to a destination and based on the number you deliver your bus gets longer. Initially this poses no challenge but you’ll quickly end up with a bus so long that you’ll be tripping over yourself in no time. So begins the challenge of figuring out strategies to ensure that you can make your way around the map without running into yourself whilst still being able to pick up and drop off passengers. Unlocks come fast as they’re just based off the number of times you play any level or some random currency that you get awarded far too much of. In a nutshell this is a game that does what says on the box and doesn’t make any attempt to stop you from playing it out as quickly as you want.
Snakeybus has simple graphics and each level has its own unique style. The initial level is kind of what you’d expect for your run of the mill indie title, but the later levels include one with cel shading, an outrun styled Miami and even a rotating space structure. At the time of writing performance was unfortunately pretty poor given its simplistic graphics although it appears that the developer has been feverishly at work attempting to rectify the problem, netting everyone a 20%+ performance improvement. The game could also use some more and varied sound tracks to go with it as it becomes repetitive quite quickly, even when you’re only spending a few short minutes in each session. Overall Snakeybus’ graphics are passable which, honestly, is exactly what you’d expect.
The core mechanic is pretty fun and quickly becomes quite the challenge, even in levels where you’d expect to have quite a lot of freedom to move around. Strategies in one level will likely not work in others as their layout will dictate what you can get away with. The above screenshot for instance is all about managing which side of the road you’re using because, if you don’t and snake around everywhere, you’ll have no room to move. Other levels though, like the space one, work best if you weave around like you’d do in the original snake game. Honestly I originally just tried to make sure I took the longest route I possibly could before working out that each level had its own strategy.
Of course part of the attraction of games like this is unintentional shenanigans you can get up to with a less-than-great physics engine implementation. The below screenshot is just one example of me getting into a situation which honestly should have been game over but the physics engine couldn’t really figure out if I was stopped or not. So instead it ended up with this weird tangle of buses all on top of themselves, seemingly flitting in and out of existence before righting themselves again. This cuts both ways of course as there were many times when my bus was only just barely stopped and the game cut me off. Whilst this is technically an issue really it doesn’t detract from the game play. In reality it’s a core part of it.
Snakeybus is the kind of title you play when you don’t want a game that asks too much of you. It’s B-grade implementation, OK graphics and numerous rough edges are all part of the charm of games like this. Sure every single part of the game could be done better but it doesn’t need to be. Snakeybus exists to explore the core game mechanic and little more beyond that. In that mission it succeeds in spades, providing a fun little distraction that you’ll likely play for a couple hours before putting down for good. In the end it’ll come down to whether or not you’re willing to part with a few dollars for something as silly as this. For this old gamer it was very much worth it.
Snakeybus is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 92 minutes with 88% of the achievements unlocked.
The biggest problem with having a game you really enjoy is that it sucks up all the oxygen for other titles. For me currently that’s The Division 2, a game that I will definitely review in the near future, but between it, our new baby and work I’ve had little time to look at many of the other top tier titles that have been released of late. So once again I turn to the indie scene, looking for more casual experiences that don’t ask much of my time but hopefully provide a good experience nonetheless. Feather, from Melbourne based developers Samurai Punk, fit the bill perfectly with its simple visuals, great music tracks and stress free mechanics.
The premise of the game is simple: you’re a bird and there’s a big island you can explore. As you fly around it you’ll find different things you can interact with, most notably the large circular totems that, when flown through, change the music to a new track for you to fly around to. There are no objectives, no enemies to fight or even an end to the game; it’s just simply a place to explore with a handful of different songs for you to enjoy. When we’ve been inundated with numerous games overflowing with mechanics, many designed to keep us coming back or to spend more money on microtransactions, it’s nice to have something that is as simple as it looks.
The graphics are a very low poly affair with little to no texturing, just plain solid colours. This simplicity is augmented slightly by the implementation of some more complex lighting effects and the inclusion of a full day/night cycle for the island. I played this on my now 3 year old XPS, which happens to rock a Geforce 970M, and initially had some issues with the frame rate not being the greatest. Granted it’s not as powerful as the desktop equivalent I have in my gaming rig but it was a little disappointing to see it struggle with something so simple. It may just be how the default configuration was set up as it does have a very high DPI monitor and running the game again on my home rig showed no issues.
The flight mechanics of Feather are pretty great; simple enough to be approachable yet there’s a few subtle things thrown in that you’ll need to master if you really want to explore the island fully. Climbing high and diving down will allow you to approach speeds that you won’t be able to normally and using space bar to hover is a necessity if you want to explore the underground cave system. Unfortunately other players (who will drop in you session from time to time, ala Journey) don’t seem to be as masterful of the controls and so interaction with them can be a little hard. I often found myself and another player going in circles trying to look at each other.
You’re probably not going to spend too long in Feather as even exploring at a leisurely pace would see you get around the island in under an hour or so. That’s likely to make the $15 asking price a little high for some, especially with no plans for the game to grow beyond currently what it is today. This is certainly one of those titles that could benefit from integration with the Steam Community Workshop as there’s already a solid fanbase who love the game for what it is. I don’t usually gripe about price and playtime but it’s sure to be a key deciding factor for many.
Feather is a fantastic, if a little short, experience. The simple premise and it’s solid execution make it a great distraction, something to play if you’ve got a bit of time to spare and don’t want something that asks much of you. However its greatest attributes may be the thing that drives some players away, not wanting to spend their money here when there are many other greener pastures to farm. Still I enjoyed my time with Feather and hope that the concept helps Samurai Punk delve further into developing titles like these.
Feather is available on the PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with 27 minutes total play time and 100% of the achievements unlocked.
I never reviewed Adventure Capitalist but boy, did I put a lot of time into that game. It started when I met up with some friends of ours when we were on holiday and one of them kept whipping their phone out every so often to check up on their progress. I had avoided the game up until that point but, with time to kill between things, I installed it and instantly fell prey to the clicker genre. So it was that every spare moment was filled with me spinning it up, checking on my progress and buying upgrades so I could reach that next level. I’ve since then avoided everything to do with the genre, not wanting to fall into that same trap once again. Cheeky Chooks however managed to fly under the radar, seemingly being a farm management simulator on first blush but is really a clicker at heart. Thankfully it’s one that can be completed in a reasonable amount of time and is completely free of microtransactions. With it being free to play I’m not quite sure what Trilum Studio’s play is here, but it’s at least a fun distraction whilst we’re in the middle of a lul in big name releases.
The premise of the game is simple: you’re an aspiring chicken farmer with a small space to start pursuing your dream of raising chickens. You’ll get a set amount of cash to start you off and you’ll build out your farm from there. Once you’ve exhausted your initial cash reserves though you’ll need to rely on selling eggs to make enough money to upgrade your farm. The mechanics follow the usual affair, your base income determined by the number of chooks with multipliers for “egg quality” that come from various sources like rare chooks or buildings that provide a small benefit. This has to be balanced with the chooks’ happiness, so you’ll also have to provide them with various items to ensure that they can happily lay eggs in your little chook pen.
Cheeky Chooks is visually quite simple with most models being highly stylized, devoid of textures and utilizing a very simple muted colour scheme. That simplicity flows through into the menu systems and other UI elements as well, having an almost childlike feel to them. The sound track and foley work is equally simple as well, giving the whole game a very minimalistic feel. Overall it’s quite nice and given that I feel like the game is designed to either be played in short bursts or left on in the background the visuals fit that idea well.
The game starts off with a pretty decent tutorial, walking you through the main mechanics before setting you off on your own. There’s a list of missions for you to do, most of which will help in pushing the farm towards the next level. Whilst you can likely progress without achieving all of them you’ll likely hit most of them by default and others you’ll want to get anyway in order to get certain achievements or just make your life a little easier. Annoyingly the Legends missions will always be highlighted after a certain point and, unfortunately, there’s no way to get rid of it since it’s tied to a specific event that has since passed.
Certain missions are pretty pointless to overall progression though, like the one requiring you to max out the level on a certain number of buildings. As you can see from my nearly completed farm below achieving those meant spamming lots of low level structures so that they could be upgraded cheaply. The game does increase the cost of each subsequent structure as you place them but the upgrade costs remain the same regardless of how many are placed. Sure, if you were truly min/maxing, I could see reasons for using the other buildings in order to jack up the egg quality but for the most part that doesn’t seem necessary. I think I could’ve completed the game in half the amount of time I played if I hadn’t stayed logged in, having the game on in the background whilst I watched videos on my second monitor.
The game was developed in collaboration with the RPSCA to be an educational tool for kids, teachers and parents which is a commendable feat. In that regard it succeed for the most part although nothing can replicate the true horror that is cleaning out a chook cage. That also explains why it’s a free to play game that’s devoid of microtransactions, something which is usually par for the course for these kinds of games. It’s also not an endless game either (although you can play for as long as you want) and given that they’ve only had a single event so far there’s no much reason to come back once you’ve blasted through all the achievements. Of course if you just like ambient clucking in the background and seeing numbers go up then you might get more out of it than I did.
Cheeky Chooks is a simple, straightforward game that many will be able to find several hours of enjoyment in. Whilst it is most definitely a clicker game the more nefarious mechanics that are typical in the genre are nowhere to be found. Instead what you have is a light-hearted take on what it’s like to raise chickens, something which hopefully will have an impression on those who play it. If you just want something simple to pass the time then there’s really not much reason to not give Cheeky Chooks a go.
Cheeky Chooks is available on Android and PC right now for free. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours playtime and 100% of the achievements unlocked.
Given my last 2 reviews have been for MMOs you can probably guess that I’ve been a little strapped for time to get around to playing other titles. It even got to the point where I was playing Destiny and WoW in the same night, something which I knew wasn’t going to be particularly sustainable if I wanted to keep my 1 review per week cadence going. So I went in search of some shorter titles and stumbled across Donut Country, another Annapurna Interactive published title, which seemed to be charming and, thankfully, quite short. Whilst I might have been drawn in by the game’s brevity the visual style, kitschy dialogue and simple mechanics made it far more enjoyable than I was expecting.
Racoons have moved into the quiet town of Donut County, taking over the local donut shop. Every time someone orders a donut however a mysterious hole shows up at their house, devouring everything in sight. The hole is piloted by none other than BK, one of the new racoon residents, who’s doing so in order to get enough points to get his hands on a sweet new drone. However once he falls into one of his own holes he finds the citizens of Donut Country trapped 999 feet below the surface and they’re understandably quite mad about his recent shenanigans. What follows is the story of how the town became swallowed up and their journey to get back out.
The single developer behind Donut County, Ben Esposito, set himself a few constraints when designing the game’s visual style: no lighting effects, textures or gradients. Whilst those rules aren’t adhered to 100% they are the driving force behind the games minimalistic aesthetic. The result is a kind of flat, cartoon like environment filled with bright, solid colours which is really quite charming. Indeed whilst there’s a lot of games with a similar visual style I’m actually struggling to come up with one that’s exactly like it as most games won’t go so far as to abandon the use of textures, nor even simple gradients. As someone who’s worked as a sole developer on a couple projects I can definitely appreciate setting yourself boundaries and working within them; sometimes there’s really nothing as liberating as working within a strict ruleset.
The game’s mechanics are simple: your a small hole which grows bigger as it consumes things (kind of like a reverse Katamari Damacy). There are a bunch of small challenges which will require you to get a little inventive with how you use a few mechanics but other than that the game play doesn’t deviate too much. That being said it’s kind of fun to try and figure out which things will fit and which ones don’t as sometimes you can get away with getting bigger things in if you know how to position them right. That being said this is a physics based game so there’s many opportunities for things to go pear shaped, with items flinging themselves wildly across the level and getting stuck in areas that you won’t be able to reach. Of course you’re only a restart of the level away from fixing that so it’s not that much of an issue.
The story is a simple affair, seemingly reflective of the developer’s own conversational style (as evidenced in their Gamasutra interview here). It’s a lighthearted commentary on their experiences in Los Angeles and it issues they want to touch on certainly come through. Overall though there’s not much to write home about, it’s simply there to set the scene for the various puzzles and to tie the whole thing together.
Donut County is a fun little distraction, combining simplistic art work with lighthearted dialogue for an interesting experience that’s really like no other. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a game idea that was born out from Peter Molydeux; something completely left of center that pays little heed to the creed and conventions of modern game design. After chewing my way through too very heavy game experiences over the last couple weeks I was incredibly glad to cleanse my palate with something a little lighter. So if you like me are experiencing a little fatigue with the AAA barrage that comes this time of year then Donut County is most likely the game for you.
Donut County is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with 104 minutes of play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a sucker for eye candy. Sure I’ve played (and enjoyed) my share of games that have gone for substance over style but I’m far more likely to enjoy something if it’s visually pleasing and manages to get all the usual trappings in as well. However that penchant for visual flair can easily lead you astray as judging a game by its screenshots is the same as judging a book by its cover. That, dear reader, is how I ended up playing NUMERIC, a bargain basement platformer that suckered me in with semi-decent visuals, tricking me into thinking there was actually a game underneath it to be played.
NUMERIC has a story but it’s so ham fisted in its implementation it’s barely worth mentioning. It’s clear that English is a second language for the developer, as the description of the game on Steam will attest:
After a long sleep, the Model “98” finds itself in an abandoned place away from the usual house. There is little left in the memory, in addition to the memory of old friends. Where are they? What happened, why is everything so empty and lonely around?
With no story to drive the game along there’s only 2 things left for it: the visuals and the gameplay. One of those is above average, but that won’t be enough for the astounding lack in the other two.
So visually NUMERIC has a lot going for it. It manages its own spin on the current low-poly aesthetic that’s all the rage with indies these days. If I had to hazard a guess though the majority of those assets have come from the Unreal Marketplace and all of them have been dumped directly into the game’s files. That means for a game which has barely an hour of gameplay in it and a handful of environments the entire package clocks in at a whopping 6GB; not something you’d expect given its low-poly nature. NUMERIC does make good use of modern lighting effects to make for good screenshot bait but, beyond that, there’s really not much more to it. Honestly I should’ve expected as much when I was trawling through the new releases section of Steam, but a man can dream can’t he?
The core game play is 3D platforming, with all the usual pitfalls coupled with a distinct lack of any refinement or inspiration. You simply have to get to the end of the level, usually through hitting a few switches to unlock doors whilst avoiding a few obstacles. The game will always trigger a cutscene whenever you’re triggering an action which is skippable but, honestly, after the first time we’ve seen it there’s no reason to trigger the cutscene again to remind us of what is happening. Worse still the hit detection is very unreliable, often failing to trigger multiple times until you figure out where the hitbox for the switch your or character is. Couple that with level design that isn’t exactly well thought out and you’ve got a bunch of levels which can be finished in obviously unintended ways and others which are just exercises in frustration as you work you way around the developer’s mistakes.
NUMERIC then comes to an unceremonious end with a screen that says “Thanks for playing The End 2018” not even trying to attempt to close off the loose jumble of threads it thinks counts as a story. I would be kinder to the developer if this was their first title but it’s not, they’ve got no less than 3 titles for sale on Steam, all of which were released this year. Looking at the others it’s clear that they’ve found their formula and are running with it, hoping to churn out title after title until they hit on something. Whilst admirable it doesn’t lend itself to developing quality titles and won’t do them any favours when it comes to standing out of the torrent of games that are released on Steam every day. What they’re producing isn’t as egregious as some of the asset flip titles I’ve seen, but its close.
NUMERIC does the very bare minimum to be counted as a game, luring in visually driven idiots like myself in the hopes of finding something worth playing. Whilst they’ve managed to make some good looking visuals with the help of marketplace assets that’s where the substance stops. There’s nothing about this game that warrants playing it, nor even watching a stream of it on Twitch or a Let’s Play on YouTube. The fact that the developer is churning out title after title should tell you a lot about the motivations behind this game’s creation and none of them should compel you to spend money on this game. You’d think I would’ve learnt my lesson after Elementium, but alas, it seems I’m a slow learner. Hopefully you’ll head my words and let this one pass through to the keeper.
NUMERIC is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was 54 minutes that I’ll never get back again.
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.
Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.
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.
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.
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….
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.