I’ve found myself stumbling across a lot more work from game developer students of late and I have to say I’m continually impressed at the work they’re putting out. To be sure part of it is because of my own history in trying to make games with mixed results although I do contend that they were crafted over a decade ago, long before Unity and its community were in existence. Still the fact that students make games is only part of it as it’s more about the quality of what they’re putting out which bears mention. Undefeated is a fantastic example of this as it manages to do what a lot of other, bigger budget titles fail to do: make being a superhero just plain fun.
Undefeated’s premise is simple: there’s a city in trouble and it’s up to you to save it. Initially this takes the form of beating down the hordes of rank and file bad guys who are getting in your way, stopping to help citizens in trouble as you do so for good measure. From there it turns into a kind of superhero anime where you’ll have to level yourself up through the ranks so you can take on the ever increasing threats to the city (mostly in the form of boss fights). In all honesty I went into this thinking I’d have yet another trash heap to review but, to its credit, Undefeated managed to get me hooked no less than 5 minutes into the game.
Visually Undefeated is quite simple, retaining that default “Unreal engine” feel that many games built on the platform have when they use assets from the store. The UI does appear to have been given some love though, mostly to give it that very distinct Japanese UI design that lovers of JRPGs and other such titles seem to favour heavily. This simplicity means that the game runs buttery smooth and will quite likely do so on pretty much any platform you care to throw it at. However it’s not the visuals that makes this game, it’s the rapid pace and careful selection of mechanics that makes it so gosh darn fun.
You’re immediately greeted with a game that looks a lot like the Earth Defense Force series of games but plays a lot more like Prototype. The basic premise is you’re a superhero that can fly, has super strength and is lightning fast. This means that you’ll be zipping from point to point, beating the living heck out of something before moving on. It sounds simple but the execution is spot on, giving you this feeling of being completely unrivalled as you tear your way through streams of enemies. The two mission types follow the same trope, either having you blow up a bunch of stuff or flying through rings. There’s also minor events which will spawn every so often, usually just another bunch of bad guys which you can take out in a couple hits.
Then there’s the boss fights which are where the game’s challenge really starts to kick in. Instead of you having a health bar it’s actually the city and the challenge comes from stopping the boss from doing damage to the city whilst you try to pummel them down. Each one of the bosses is another big step up in difficulty from the last one, with every one bar the first requiring at least some kind of strategy to take them out. It’s at that point where the game starts to struggle a bit as the shine wears off and the game’s more egregious errors start to come through.
Of course they’re the kind of things you’d expect from a small group of students working on their very first title. The controls can feel a bit janky at times, your character not responding exactly how you’d expect him to. Hit detection could also use a bit of work as it doesn’t seem to be 100%, especially with the boss fights (like trying to put out fires). The camera also routinely loses your character when he’s zipping around certain things which can make some challenges far more difficult than they were intended to be. The control scheme is also somewhat unintuitive, although I’ll admit to not having played a great deal of Eastern titles so it could feel a lot more natural to those who do. Overall these are all fixable things and they’re easy enough to ignore to enjoy a good chunk of the game.
Undefeated is a fantastic example of the results you can get when you focus on the fundamentals of what makes your game fun. Sure the graphics aren’t the greatest and there’s a bunch of rough edges that need polishing but the core game play is just, well fun. The fact that a handful of students from Japan were able to recreate the fundamental game loop of some bigger AAA titles is honestly quite astounding and I hope the team that put this one together has a serious look at building out a fully fledged title.
Undefeated is available on Steam now for free. Total play time was 33 minutes.
Portal is mostly remembered for its mechanics, and rightly so given how revolutionary they were at the time, but its storytelling was just as influential. Nearly all of the games that seek to capture some of Portal’s mechanical magic will also attempt to put their own spin on the omniscient AI who’s running you through experiment after experiment, with or without the added sarticial element. Gravitas, whilst not really innovating or providing anything particularly new from a mechanical perspective, did manage to make its story lighthearted and universally appealing. In this age of endless soulless clones of every popular title it’s somewhat refreshing to see one that’s given some good thought to the kind of experience they wanted to player to have beyond just the simple mechanical level.
Gravitas puts you in control of a mute protagonist who finds themselves on their way to a space station that’s home to the Gallery of Refined Gravity. There you meet the Curator, a small floating robot who’s spent an unknown amount of time building all sorts of puzzles that involve manipulating gravity and he very much wants you to experience them. So begins your journey into the weird and wonderful world of an AI who’s been left to their own devices for far too long.
Developed on the Unreal 4 engine Gravitas’ visual style is pretty basic favouring simple textures, basic lighting elements and uncomplicated level design. It’s certainly not a bad looking game but it does feel like the majority of the assets have come from the Unreal store, which isn’t a bad thing per se, it just makes the game feel somewhat generic. Still I don’t think the main focus was on the mechanics however, with the story elements being much more fleshed out. Overall Gravitas’ graphics aren’t terrible and don’t distract from the experience.
Mechanically Gravitas is your typical platform puzzler that relies on a certain trick mechanic, in this case being the use of a “gravity glove” that allows you put down columns of manipulate gravity that pull things, including yourself, towards them. Puzzles consist of most of the standard tropes for this genre: getting blocks from A to B, moving things around so you can get to the next room or blocking off deadly obstacles so you can pass through. If you’ve played any of the multitude of games in this genre then none of the mechanics will be much of a surprise, or challenge, to you and you’ll likely be able to complete most on the first pass.
However it’s the story and its performance by the voice actors is what makes Gravitas worth playing. Whilst the narrative isn’t anything new it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, striking the right balance between its satirical and sinister parts. It’s also well paced with the only real breaks in the story coming when you’re working your way through the puzzles. Given that most of them can be solved pretty quickly this means the story keeps going on at a steady pace throughout the game’s short play time.
Gravitas is one of those rare short indie games that gets the storytelling right, ensuring that the core gameplay loop doesn’t get in the way unnecessarily. The mechanics are simple and unchallenging, ensuring that you’ll maintain a good pace through the game. It’s short play time works to its advantage too as much longer would see a lot of the comedic elements wear thin and the basic game play would then become more of a chore than anything else. Hopefully the success that Galaxy Shark Studios has found here with its first title will give them the confidence to try something more ambitious next time around.
Gravitas is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 51 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Free to play used to be a taboo word for me, usually indicating that the game was some microtransaction infested hell hole that would do little more than soak up my time in an effort to get to my wallet. More recently though it seems a lot of developers, including a non-zero number of really talented ones, are choosing to release their games for free with no other strings attached. To be sure most of them are usually pretty short and light on other features you’d see in big name titles but I doubt most of them would lose many players if they’d asked for a dollar or two. Such is the case with BirdGut, a bizarre hand drawn platformer that is equal parts fun as it is weird and obtuse.
A bee hatches in the hive, but something’s wrong. Born different from the others, the bee is exiled from the hive and forced to survive the world on its own. That is, until a bird attacks and eats it. Inside the bird, all of the bugs that it eats are brainwashed and put to work in fantastical, mechanical factories that exist in the place of its organs, except for the outcast bee, whose very disability prevents them from being brainwashed. The bee takes it upon itself to destroy the massive bird from the inside out, and free all the enslaved critters within.
BirdGut’s visuals are all hand drawn in a greyscale colour palette. Honestly the amount of effort that went into putting these visuals together is quite phenomenal, even for a less than 2 hour game. Each of the screens is its own little unique world, filled with all sorts of random detail. The animations are buttery smooth too, something you don’t see often with hand drawn games. This is all then juxtaposed with ludicrousy that this is all supposedly taking place inside a bird’s digestive system, something you’re reminded about in the most weird and unusual ways. It was this weird styling that first attracted me to the game as it’s rare enough for a game to be done this way and rarer still for it to be free.
The main game mechanics are puzzle platformer based with all the usual tropes making a showing in BirdGut’s short play time. You’ll start off slow, just needing to jump your way past a handful of obstacles, and will gradually move up to more complicated maneuvers, many of which will require semi-precise timing to pull off. The game’s simplicity negates many of the opportunities for emergent gameplay to occur so if you find yourself struggling against a particular challenge it’s quite likely that you’re approaching it the wrong way. Other than that there’s not much more to the game other than trial and error.
That of course means that the main increase in difficulty comes from the lengthening of time between checkpoints and the game exploiting that relentlessly. The later platforming sections consist of minutes long timed encounters that will take you at least a couple tries to get past as there’s no way of knowing what obstacles are coming up before you hit them for the first time. I’m not a huge fan of these “fuck you player” kinds of moments as it just punishes you for not knowing something that you had no way of figuring out. That being said it’s not like these challenges waste a ton of time but it still feels like a kick in the pants every time you have to repeat the same section again.
BirdGut’s story is lighthearted and tongue in cheek, with some sparse bits of dialogue providing some comic relief between the longer puzzle sections. It’s not particularly deep but I didn’t expect to be so it did its job of providing a little bit of background whilst I stumbled my way through the various platforming puzzles.
BirdGut was a surprisingly fun distraction that I still can’t believe is free. The hand drawn visuals alone warrant a small entry price and the decent platforming with the lighthearted story make it all worth playing. Is it perfect? Absolutely not but even at $5 I’d say I got my money’s worth with it. So if you’re in the market for something quick, concise and a little weird then BirdGut is likely to fit the bill.
BirdGut is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 88 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Games built by students are, for the most part, completely terrible. Many of my friends went into game development courses and the games they developed as part of them were clunky, god awful messes that never made it onto their resumes. That’s part of the learning experience though as it’s one thing to play games and think you understand how they’re crafted and a completely different thing to actually sit down and do it yourself. With the democratisation of game development and distribution tools however we’re starting to see more games from students that will likely become the foundation upon which their creators look to build their future careers. Burning Daylight, made by a team of 12 students from The Animation Workshop, is likely to be one of those games as, whilst far from perfect, it does showcase just what that team is capable of producing.
Waking up naked in a grotesque slaughterhouse, you have no recollection of who you are or where you come from. Your only clue is a mysterious tattoo on your chest. You must now escape and travel through a dystopian society in order to uncover the mysteries of your origin. The story is set in the future where life cannot sustain outside, what remains of human society, now lives in megastructures waiting for the day, when they once again can live outside.
Burning Daylight’s artwork is quite an interesting array of barren dystopian corridors, oversaturated neon futurscapes and minimalistic nature scenes. Given that the game is really just a walking simulator these different landscapes are mostly just there for you to get a sense of the world you’re in, giving you different views of what life in the the giant megastructure is like. The artwork simplistic but still above par for what I’d expect from an all student team. The animation could do with some work though as all the interactions feel incredibly stiff and unnatural. Strangely the team did a good job of making the Unreal engine feel like Unity, something about the modelling style and lack of overused specular maps. All things considered though Burning Daylight does a good job of communicating story elements through its visuals, a key concept in walking simulators like this.
There’s really no mechanics to speak of, save for a few extremely rudimentary puzzles that you’ll have to solve. That’s likely for the best too as the ones that are implemented are a little janky, both in their implementation but also in their logic. Indeed whilst I’d consider the visuals above par the rest of the game’s implementation is very mediocre. The game crashed on me once and for some reason didn’t record that I’d actually gone past a checkpoint, forcing me to replay an entire section for no reason at all. In a 45 minute game this is no real drama of course but it’s not like checkpointing is a NP hard problem.
The story is an interesting one, told mostly though the activities of those milling around in the background as you run past. It’s nothing original but thanks to its short duration it gets right to the point. There’s some overemphasis on things that don’t mean anything to the overall story, like your character being naked from the waste down for half of it, but thankfully you can ignore them. The story in the game is self contained however the Steam page paints a picture of a bigger world that I think the developers want to explore. Given the game’s success I think there’s a real possibility of that happening.
As a standalone game Burning Daylight isn’t much: a 45 minute walking simulator experience with good artwork that’s marred by its janky animations and rudimentary mechanics. However what it represents is something much more: students can now go from concept to public release, giving them real world experience that they can then leverage into something more. Whilst Burning Daylight isn’t exactly game of the year material it is a solid first try from those who’d never attempted the craft before.
Burning Daylight is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 47 minutes.
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.
I have to admit to having an aversion to free to play games. Mostly its due to many of them resorting to questionable tactics to extort money from you, usually in the form of microtransactions. For those, like Marie’s Room, I often think it’s because the devs didn’t believe their work was worth charging for and thus likely not worth playing. However I’m very glad to be wrong in this instance as the developers behind Marie’s Room have created something that is very much worth playing. Due to the nature of the game, much like Gone Home, the rest of this review is just for those that have played the game as I can’t really discuss it without diving deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned.
I’m not usually one for stories told in retrospective, feeling that much of the tension is lost, however in Marie’s room it works quite well. Part of this is due to the non-linear story construction, with you piecing together the various elements of the story as you go along, but also locking away key moments until you’ve heard enough story elements to progress. The developers have also done a good job in ensuring each of those story fragments works towards building out the bigger picture, rather than just being different parts of a single cohesive story cut up and thrown around randomly. That’s probably the biggest distinction I’d draw between something like this and say Dear Esther with the latter feeling like a confused mess of story elements that didn’t all drive towards the same conclusion.
In terms of pure construction Marie’s Room is well put together, especially considering it’s not done on the indie dev darling Unity (it’s actually Unreal 4). I will have one slight quibble with the hit detection used for showing you items that you can interact with as it seemed a little finicky even at the best of times. Whilst I was able to find the vast majority of the story objects there were many I had to try numerous different approaches to in order to unlock. Also it would be nice to know which items you’d already listened to, just so you don’t accidentally click on them again. Given that the game barely tickles an hour in total play time though these are minor gripes.
The story flowed well between the different core elements giving ample time to each of them to grow and flourish. I do wonder how I would’ve felt about the story if I had explored the room in a less methodical way. The way in which the story unfolded to me felt quite organic, focusing the early story on Kelsey and Marie’s relationship with a small sprinkling of external factors. Then as Todd entered the picture and Marie’s past starts to come into the picture the real core of the story, and the reasoning for your character’s motivation for being there, begins to unfold beautifully. Thinking about it going the other way, knowing Kelsey’s past before knowing about how Marie’s family saved her would give you insight into why she acted the way she did in the first place. I’d be keen to hear what other people’s experiences were and whether or not their particular story path resonated with them.
Overall I quite enjoyed the story, the full gravity of what happened really hitting home in the game’s final scenes. Whilst that exact situation is rare I’m sure many of us can resonate with the guilt of having done something they regret and how revisiting the scene of the crime can bring that all back. Indeed I think that’s universal for all grief and loss as our memories and experiences are tied to the places and people we create them in and with. If there’s one lesson to be learnt from the story of Marie’s Room its that we can’t remove the pain we caused in the past, we can only try to move forward and deal with it.
Marie’s Room is a great short story presented in game format. On first look the retrospective, fragmented presentation of the story would imply it’d be destined for disaster however the developers have done a great job in crafting a narrative that works well in the format. The craftsmanship is on point too with good visuals, great soundtrack and only a few small niggling issues that could be easily addressed in future patches. In all honesty I wouldn’t have any hesitations recommending this at the $5 price point so the fact that it’s free makes it a no brainer. If you find yourself with an hour to kill and are craving a good narrative experience then you shouldn’t look past Marie’s Room.
Marie’s Room is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 39 minutes with 86% of the achievements unlocked.
Last week I wrote about how Blizzard has been working to revamp itself over the past few years with new games that didn’t follow it’s traditional business model. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are both wild successes that followed the free to play model and many were wondering when their other titles would follow suit. Indeed it was assumed by everyone that the upcoming team shooter title, Overwatch, was likely going to follow the F2P trend. However at BlizzCon over the weekend Blizzard made the stunning announcement that for the US$40 asking price you’d get access to all the heroes and maps. Plans for future heroes and other content were less clear however and this sent the vocal Internet minority into a tail spin.
There were numerous interviews floating around where Blizzard employees were pressed about the future of the game and what content they could expect. On the subject of heroes they typically stated that there weren’t any current plans and there would definitely not be any additional heroes at launch. This led everyone to speculate that there were plans to release more heroes in the future and that it’d likely be something that players would have to shell out for. This was concerning due to Overwatch’s emphasis on reactive play, switching up your hero class to counter the enemy’s tactics, which would break if some heroes were locked away behind a paywall. Whilst I’ll admit that the last point is accurate it makes an assumption which I don’t believe to be true.
That Blizzard knows exactly where Overwatch is headed.
As I’ve mentioned before, and which has been mostly confirmed by numerous other sources, Overwatch is the bits and pieces that Blizzard was able to salvage from the failed Project Titan MMORPG. The cancellation of that project occurred in September last year and Overwatched was announced only a few months later in November at Blizzcon 2014. Now here we are, 1 year later, and the game has a solid release date and a closed beta that just got started. Essentially Blizzard has gone from having almost nothing to a fully fledged title ready for release in a year so the project is still very much in the nascent stages, especially by Blizzard standards. To think that they’ve got the whole future of the game mapped out is a huge assumption as Blizzard has likely spent the last year getting the functional, let alone thinking about where they want to take it.
When you also consider the fact that this will be Blizzard’s first FPS title you can see why they’d be a little cagey on what their future plans are. They have a wealth of experience in the MMORPG and RTS genres but little beyond that. Whilst they’ve been successful in some of their recent endeavours there’s a trail of failed ideas behind them which never met the light of day. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been so heavily focused on getting the initial game right that the future runway has been left undefined for the time being. One thing Blizzard has shown a talent for (and I’m ignoring some of the larger issues with Hearthstone for this comment, I know) is reacting to how its community plays its games. My money is on the fact that they’re going to wait until after launch to gauge where everything is at and then, at that point, they’ll see how they want to grow Overwatch further.
Even at that point however I sincerely doubt that Blizzard would break the game in the many severe ways that fans are describing now. The auction house debacle of Diablo III taught them a valuable lesson in how breaking core game mechanics ruins the experience for many and I doubt they’ll look to repeat that with a fresh IP. The good news is that Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, has gone on record stating that Overwatch won’t be adopting a Heroes of the Storm type model. Whilst this has done little to quell the vocal swell it does reaffirm my position and should give everyone hope that Blizzard is committed to the Overwatch business model as it stands today.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
The once strict definition of what constituted a video game has taken a massive beating over the past couple years. There’s been numerous releases that just weren’t different enough to be excluded from the game genre but yet also didn’t feel like they had enough game-like aspects to be included. For me these types of games are quite intriguing as their lake of gameplay is usually made up for in story or the gameplay itself is what builds the story. Velvet Sundown is one such title, including some of the basic elements of game but feels more like a digital version of a murder mystery party. It’s hard to describe how I feel about it as whilst I think the concept is novel the execution, one that relies on other players playing their part, is both the best and worst thing about it.
You’re aboard the Velvet Sundown, a private yacht that caters to the rich and famous. You’ll find yourself in control of one of many characters in the game ranging from crew members all the way up to famous tennis players or wealthy socialites looking for a good time. However everyone aboard this ship has a secret, maybe something about them or a desire they want to fulfill, and your interactions will determine whether those secrets come to life or if those desires will be fulfilled. How will you play your role? Will you seek out your goal with reckless abandon or will you be the troll that tries to fellate everyone aboard?
Velvet Sundown has this kind of Second Life vibe to it which I think mostly stems from its graphics. The environment, that is to say the ship that you can walk around on, is pretty barren in terms of detail and feels quite sterile. This is only amplified by the rigid animations that all the characters have, especially when they’re walking around. It seems this might be due to the fact that Velvet Sundown is built upon an engine called Dramagame which appears to be geared more towards social simulation rather than something with game play. Usually I wouldn’t hold this against a game, especially one which focuses on other things, however when they’re asking for a monthly subscription fee for premium content I do expect a little more bang for my buck.
A the beginning of each scenario you’ll be randomly assigned a character to play and then given a background blurb on who they are, what their motivations might be and usually a goal to start you off. After that you’re essentially in a 3D chat room with a bunch of other players which, depending on how lucky you are, will be filled with a mix of serious players and trolls. You can engage people in conversation (and, if you’ve got premium access, you can hear them talk in wonderfully horrible text-to-speech) to try and figure out who might be the right person to talk to regarding your objective or use various items to progress the scenarios story. For some characters you’ll receive prompts every so often about your changing motivations, hopefully inducing a bit more drama into the overall experience.
As a concept I think the idea is really strong. You get given what’s essentially a character breakdown but how that character plays out is all up to the players behind them. I had some pretty fun scenarios where other people played to their characters aptly, like the Nigerian prince who spoke in slightly broken English and tried to get everyone to welcome Nigeria into their hearts. However at the same time if people don’t play to the story exactly the scenario doesn’t really go anywhere and then you usually end up in boring conversation that inevitably leads onto someone trolling. The best example of this was my last scenario whereby one person, playing Lora, tried to get everyone on the ship to do sexual things to her. Whilst it was funny at first it just ended up distracting from the overall game, and it eventually went no where.
Velvet Sundown could be vastly improved by adding in a little more interactivity and freedom into the game in order to generate more interesting narrative. The rigid structure that the story requires to be followed in order to progress it means that there’s really no freedom outside of it, even if you’re allowed to say whatever you want to anyone. Adding in some other interactions that you could apply to anyone else in the game would mean that, even if the original story wasn’t panning out, players would be able to create their own stories within the bounds of the scenario. I’m not suggesting they put in full cyber-sex animations for everyone (like the slutty Lora in my last game would love) however a few more interactions would go a long way.
Velvet Sundown is an interesting concept, taking the idea of a murder mystery party and translating that into a digital playground for players to fool around in. However it feels like a beta product, with all the environments feeling sterile and the character animations making them all look like robots with back problems. The player to player interactions are the main source of entertainment however and whilst they can be amusing at times if everyone doesn’t stick to their story exactly the scenario just ends up going no where. I feel with a couple years worth of polish Velvet Sundown could really be something but for now it’s just a curiosity that simply not worth paying for.
Velvet Sundown is available on PC right now. It is free to play with an optional subscription fee for premium content.
Make no mistake, in the world of gaming PCs are far from being the top platform. The reasoning behind this is simple, consoles are simply easier and have a much longer life than your traditional PC making them a far more attractive platform for both gamers and developers a like. This has lead to the consolization of the PC games market ensuring that many games are developed primarily for the console first and the PC becomes something of a second class citizen, which did have some benefits (however limited they might be). The platform is long from forgotten however with it still managing to capture a very respectable share of the games market and still remaining the platform of choice for many eSports titles.
The PC games market has been no slouch though with digital sales powering the market to all time highs. Despite that though the PC still remains a relative niche compared to other platforms, routinely seeing market share in the single digit percentages. There were signs that it was growing but it still seemed like the PC was to be forever relegated to the back seat. There’s speculation however that the PC is looking to make a comeback and could possibly even dominate consoles by 2014:
As of 2008, boxed copies of games had paltry sales compared to digital sales, and nothing at all looks to change. During 2011, nearly $15 billion is going to be attributed to digital sales while $2.5 billion belong to boxed copies. This is a trend I have to admit I am not surprised by. I’ll never purchase another boxed copy if I can help it.
The death of PC gaming has long been a mocking-point of console gamers, but recent trends show that the PC has nothing to stress over. One such trend is free-to-play, where games are inherently free, but support paid-services such as purchasing in-game items. This has proven wildly successful, and has even caused the odd MMORPG to get rid of it subscription fee. It’s also caused a lot of games to be developed with the F2P mechanic decided from the get-go.
The research comes out of DFC Intelligence and NVIDIA was the one who’s been spruiking it as the renaissance of PC gaming. The past couple years do show a trend for PC games sales to continue growing despite console dominance but the prediction starts to get a little hairy when it starts to predict the decline of console sales next year when there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it. The growth in the PC sales is also strikingly linear leading me to believe that it’s heavily speculation based. Still it’s an interesting notion to toy with, so let’s have a look at what could (and could not) be driving these predictions.
For starters the data does not include mobile platforms like smart phones and tablets which for the sake of comparison is good as they’re not really on the same level as consoles or PCs. Sure they’ve also seen explosive growth in the past couple years but it’s still a nascent platform for gaming and drawing conclusions based on the small amounts of data available would give you wildly different results based purely on your interpretation.
A big driver behind these numbers would be the surge in the number of free to play, micro-transaction based games that have been entering the market. Players of these types of games will usually spend over and above the usual amount they would on a similar game that had a one off cost. As time goes on there will be more of these kinds of titles that appeal to a wider gamer audience thereby increasing the revenue of PC games considerably. Long time gamers like me might not like having to fork out for parts of the game but you’d be hard pressed to argue that it isn’t a successful business model.
Another factor could be that the current console generation is getting somewhat long in the tooth. The Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 were both launched some 5 to 6 years ago and whilst the hardware has performed admirably in the past the disparity between what PCs and consoles are capable of is hard to ignore. With neither Microsoft nor Sony mentioning any details on their upcoming successors to the current generation (nor if they’re actually working on them) this could see some gamers abandon their consoles for the more capable PC platforms. Considering even your run of the mill PC is now capable of playing games beyond the console level it wouldn’t be surprising to see gamers make the change.
What sales figures don’t tell us however is what the platform of choice will be for developers to release on. Whilst the PC industry as a whole might be more profitable than consoles that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be more profitable for everyone. Indeed titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield have found their homes firmly on the console market with PCs being the niche. The opposite is true for many of the online free to play games that have yet to make a successful transition onto the console platform. It’s quite possible that these sales figures will just mean an increase in a particular section of the PC market while the rest remain the same.
Honestly though I don’t think it really matters either way as game developers have now shown that it’s entirely possible to have a multi-platform release that doesn’t make any compromises. Consolization then will just be a blip in the long history of gaming, a relic of the past that we won’t see repeated again. The dominant platform of the day will come and go as it has done so throughout the history of gaming but what really matters is the experience which each of them can provide. As its looking right now all of them are equally capable when placed in the hands of good developers and whilst these sales projections predict the return of the PC as the king platform in the end it’ll be nothing more than bragging rights for us long time gamers.