Gabe Newell at Games 4 Change

While Bill and Brandon are on vacation, sunning themselves and taking off in hot air balloons and such, I’ve been off gallivanting at the Games 4 Change festival. Picture E3. Then take away the noise, violence, 90% of the budget, and replace hoards of booth-babe photographing game journos with an array of feel-good types – educators, non-profit, government and NGO people and social/educational game developers, a former US vice president and an assortment of other big names, and voila! You have G4C.

The whole idea is that video games (and non digital games) can be harnessed for educational and social justice/social good causes. Games are (or can be) platforms by which charity organizations may raise awareness or funding for projects – like relief for Haiti or Japan after their respective recent natural disasters, for two particularly dramatic examples.

Today, I was lucky enough to attend Gabe Newell’s (yes, that Gabe Newell, Valve co-founder extraordinaire) keynote address to the Games for Learning Institute, where he basically gave a very entertaining – and interesting – whirlwind tour of all the ways games can be used for educational purposes.

He touched on everything from games as a supplement to curriculum (like Portal 2 and learning physics), to their inherent ability to teach concepts (i.e. the way all good games effectively teach you about the systems and mechanics of said game when you learn to play it), to machinima and other creative outlets that games can foster. He even touched on topics like virtual economies and the ways in which Valve, as a developer, learns directly about players through playtesting and iteration.

Ok, so he didn’t have time to delve terribly deeply into any one area, but as an exploration of what’s possible with gaming and virtual worlds, it was fantastic. Newell is simply a compelling, smart guy – and he took questions throughout from the audience on the fly.

In fact, two things that stood out the most to me were prompted by audience questions. The first came from a gentleman who relayed a story – his son was a huge WOW player, and his college application essay spoke about his experiences with the game, and his desire to “save the world” – oh, the idealism of youth, but read on – it gets more depressing.

Now a junior in college, this kid now says he’s far too afraid of screwing things up to go into any “world saving” field. Newell, a college dropout, claimed not to be sure what it is about our system that crushed this kid’s hopes, but I think I have the answer, and Jane McGonigal (now-famous ARG designer and author of Reality Is Broken) won’t like it. The twitter version of my thoughts? Games offer the ideal (the world can be saved through a “correct” path). Real life is infinitely complicated, and people need to feel empowered and engaged through real-life connection. Games can foster that, but they absolutely cannot replace it.

The second – and perhaps most impactful – stand-out moment came when someone asked about the state of current educational games. Not one to pull punches, Newell basically stated that they really aren’t very good – and game developers in this space need to try harder to make actually engaging gameplay, instead of using the “educational” qualification as a crutch to make boring games.

I damn near stood up and clapped for that. However, to really, really change this – developers and designers with AAA talent are going to have to get involved on some level, in the educational space. So how do we (as a culture) incentivize that?

As always, a great talk will prompt more questions than it answers, and this was no different. I came out of the room completely jazzed – and ready to tackle some of those questions on my own.

Game Critics Awards – The E3 Nominations. Huh?


No High Scores

We’ve talked a lot the past couple weeks, both on the site and on the podcast, about E3. We’ve always talked a lot about games criticism. Joining those two topics together, we’ve occasionally mentioned how completely useless E3 is as a venue to judge games. Yeah, we talk about what looked good, what didn’t look good, etc. and it’s all in good fun. But we know what we’re seeing are demos. We see at E3 exactly (and only) what the publisher or developer wants us to see. There is almost never room to step off the trail and because of that there is absolutely no judging whether or not a game at E3 will, in fact, be good. Every year we marvel at the ribbons that appear on game booths around E3 pronouncing which games earned the distinction of best of show. Woo! I’m not sure which is sillier, that sites make these banners to stick to various demo booths or that the companies put them up there to show off their inherent awesomeness.

That point established, guess who just announced a huge list of E3 award nominations – Game Critics! Yes, the folks that should all know better have linked up arm-in-arm, not just to list a few games that particularly stood out (which would be perfectly reasonable and harmless enthusiasm), oh no, but to hand out nominations spread across 17 categories, with each category getting five rock’n sock’n nominations. On the list of ideas that should be mothballed instead of being brought back for annual reprisals, critics nominating 85 games for awards based on E3 presentations ought to come out in the top 5. (I’m just bitter that nobody handed me a ballot with a #2 pencil. Do they use #2 pencils? It’s gotta be a ScanTron thing, right?)

Gamasutra has the full list, in all its ridiculousness, if you’re thinking of starting up an Oscars-style betting pool. I’m putting all my money down on Nyko’s Zoom for Kinect in the Best Hardware category. If they don’t win, then you’ll know it’s all politics.

Shadows of the Damned's Big Boner goes limp

So I’m playing Shadows of the Damned, the new “supergroup” game from Suda 51, Shinji Mikami, and Akira Yamaoka for a review at Gameshark.com, that I should have ready before the weekend. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that it’s disappointing. I’ve been totally powergaming it, I’m nearly through the fourth chapter and there’s only five so it’ll probably go into the mammoth Codex of Games I’ve Beaten by the end of the night. I was steaming right along until I hit one of the most poorly conceived action sequences in a game since that damned asteroid shooting thing in the first Dead Space. It took me over an hour to get through it, so I’ve got to vent a little rage here today.

In the sequence, which takes place in sort of a hot-pink neon red light district with an extremely cool synth soundtrack, Garcia Hotspur and Johnson have to fend off waves of these giant, Kaiju-sized “hellmonkeys” from a stationary position on top of a building. Johnson calls a phone sex line and becomes the “Big Boner” rifle (complete with a “scha-wing!”). The left and right bumpers pivot Garcia while these giant monsters converge on the building, and he says more puerile and inane one-liners related to male genitals while firing.

Crude, unfunny humor aside, the segment brings the game to a screaming halt because it’s so mechanically screwed up. The aiming throughout the game is crap, but in this section it’s particularly bad with questionable hit detection and the strange need for pinpoint accuracy. And when you turn from facing one street, you can’t see what’s coming down the others, so one of the monsters might be right up on you- and out of the firing radius of the Big Boner. So you die over and over again because you either can’t hit anything with the slow-firing gun or you’re taken by surprise. Then, you’ve got to watch a stupid death animation where Garcia gets thrown into a billboard, followed by the phone sex call again. You can’t skip any of it.

I finally got through the excruciating “Big Boner” sequence and felt relieved that I would never, ever have to do it again. Until the game made me go through two more subsequent- and more difficult- segments of the same horrendous gameplay. Seriously, It’s like a bad practical joke and the player is the mark. I’m really kind of shocked that none of the major (and favorable) reviews I’ve read have mentioned this terrible, terrible portion of the game. It’s one of those things where you find yourself asking, “am I just really bad at this, or is it badly designed?”. With my extensive experience with this section, I’m afraid it’s clearly the latter.

It’s such a terribly conceived, unfun, and annoying section of the game. The rest of the title has hardly been great, but the fact that this part of the game made it through any kind of playtesting or QA is rather shocking. The sequence looks great and sounds great, but playing through was literally a trip through hell. I’m all for difficult games that put up a good fight, but when the challenge is in overcoming s#!tty design, I’ll pass.

I’ve got plenty more to say about the game, which is at this point cruisin’ for a bruisin’. It isn’t nearly as maverick or exciting as anything these guys have done in the past, and if you’re a fan of horror or surrealism then its “weirdness” comes across as trite and silly. If you’ve played No More Heroes, Killer 7, Vanquish or even Bayonetta, this game looks and feels awfully tepid once you get past the death metal record cover style and the occasional bit of cockeyed inspiration. This might turn out to be a 5,000 word review.

Prototype 2 Facebook app goes live! Hello? Is this thing on?


The NoHS party line is that transmedia and gimmicky, novelty marketing sucks…and on my personal s#!tlist is anything that may be billed as “interactive marketing”. This includes these clever shills cooked up by marketing agencies under the guise of silly Facebook games and funtime activities. Seriously, this junk is like getting a coloring book advertising a bank or grocery store. Maybe I’m in the minority or maybe I’m too old to be in the target audience, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about exclusive screenshots, screensavers, wallpapers, fan communities, or anything like that. You know what I care about? A good freaking game. The first Prototype was fair, but I can’t say that all of this Facebook garbage is enough to get me interested in a followup. We got a nice email from “Steve” at the NoHS office about it, so I’ll post it here if you want to get in on this “//Blacknet” crap.

Hello there:

Radical Entertainment is extremely proud to announce the launch of //Blacknet, a free and exciting new fan-focused Facebook application located at http://www.facebook.com/Prototype.

Modeled after PROTOTYPE 2′s //Blacknet in-game interface, Facebook fans will be able to work together as a community to “hack” into Blackwatch’s encrypted network and uncover new exclusive content, including behind-the-scenes file access, gameplay videos, screenshots, wallpapers, interviews, commentaries and a whole lot more!

With awesome new content unlocking every week, Radical intends to continue giving back to the PROTOTYPE fan community all the way up to and beyond PROTOTYPE 2′s launch in 2012.

- Steve

Punchers Impact unleashes Lucha Fury on XBLA

In case you’re just not interested in today’s XBLA release of Double Fine’s very fine looking Trenched, there’s another new game available for download. Punchers Impact (awesome name) has just released Lucha Fury, a game that looks to be an intense, side-scrolling beat-em-up. Oh, what do you know, it says that in the press release.

I dunno about this one. After reviewing Konami’s disappointing Lucha Libre and the absolutely horrid Shank, I don’t know how keen I am on a game that seems combine elements from both of those titles. Besides, it couldn’t possibly be better than Guardian Heroes, which will be out soon. Anyway, nobody knows Lucha like the French (um…right?), so let’s see what their press has to say…word of advice guys, if you put “crude humor” in your description, the Barnes dollar is likely to go elsewhere.

Put down the nachos and grab a can of Pollojo! Lucha Fury, the intense, side-scrolling beat-em-up from developer Punchers Impact, is now available on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points. Combining the style and grace of Lucha Libre with a healthy dose of crude humor, Lucha Fury supports up to four-player cooperative play and pits players against a bevy of baddies and a plethora of poultry.

In the world of Lucha Fury, the lost, ancient recipe for Pollojo, the nectar of the gods, is discovered by a struggling bar owner, who turns it into a highly successful energy drink. The gods, however, are not so happy about humans stealing their drink, and they set out to reclaim what is theirs – destroying humanity in the process. Four masked luchadores, having never accomplished much of anything in the past, suddenly find themselves without Pollojo and are sparked into battle to take down the old gods and return with their precious energy drink, possibly saving the world along the way.

Lucha Fury Features:

Four distinctive player-controlled luchadores, each with their own special moves
Dozens of unique moves and combos that feature a mix of traditional fighting style (punch/kick/grab) and wild Lucha inspired moves (Planchas, Submissions, Aerials, etc.)
Highly detailed and colorful, comic-style animation
Intuitive controls that allow for fighting-game style moves and combos
Up to four-player cooperative play

Today In Bad Puns: Gods & Heroes Goes Full Steam Ahead


No High Scores

So Bill evidently has Internet access from his balloon, as he just sent me a press release announcing that the Roman Mythology MMO Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising has just been made available on Steam (in North America; international gamers of mystery don’t get it until the 24th). This release comes with the obligatory bonus item in the form of “access to the mythical minion Gorpal,” who evidently does extra damage with claw and bite. I’ll be honest. I know absolutely nothing about this game, but as an obedient little web monkey I post about it anyway. The full press release is below…

Heatwave Interactive today announced its new massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising, is now available in North America for purchase via Steam, a leading digital distribution platform for PC games. Full worldwide distribution on Steam is scheduled for June 24.

Heatwave also revealed an exclusive in-game bonus item for Steam customers. Players who purchase Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising from Steam will have level three access to the mythical minion Gorpal, a damage-dealer Phorcid that protects players by fighting with claws and poisonous bite.

Launching in North America and Europe this week, Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising is a full-scale MMORPG that immerses players in a universe of authentic Roman myth and legend. Players take on the role of a Demigod and celebrated hero of the Roman army who sets out on a quest for vengeance against an ancient enemy. While battling in the midst of Roman landmarks and legendary scenery, players can build and command their own squad of minions, customize their massive estate, combat mythological creatures, and unleash an arsenal of weapons.

New Magicka Trailers Are Always a Good Thing + Paradox Release Schedule


Fan of Magicka or no (I really do need to play this at some point), you have to admit those crazy bastards at Arrowhead Studios put together some great trailers. The one embedded here announced yesterday’s release of the PvP mode for Magicka as free DLC. This morning I also received a press release with the full Paradox release calendar into 2012, which I’ve included below along with the Magicka PR that includes mention of some new 99 cent maps and details on the three PvP modes (Deathmatch, Brawl, and Krietor)…

First, the release schedule:

JUNE
Magicka PVP (free DLC) June 21st
Hearts of Iron III: For the Motherland (digital download expansion) June 28th

JULY
Supreme Ruler Cold War July 19th

AUGUST
King Arthur: Fallen Champions TBC
Pirates of Black Cove August 2nd
Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter August 16th

SEPTEMBER
Sengoku September 13th
King Arthur II September 20th
Defenders of Ardania (PC, iPad, PS3, Xbox) September 27th
Hearts of Iron The Card Game (online) September TBC

NOVEMBER
Hearts of Iron III Collection November 15th Q4
Gettysburg: Armored Warfare (online) TBC

2012
Crusader Kings II January 17th
Naval War: Arctic Circle Q1
Magna Mundi: An EU Game Q1
Mount & Blade Collection Q1
Victoria II: A House Divided (digital download expansion) Q1
Salem (online) Q2

And Magicka:

The mages of Paradox Interactive are proud to announce that the PvP mode is live, free, and available online. If you are the unfortunate owner of a conscience that prevents you from retaliating against your friends when they “accidentally” explode your head, your chance to seek sweet revenge in one of Magicka’s sanctioned arenas is finally here! Nothing feels better than taking matters into your own hands, right? Plus, we’ll be on the sidelines cheering! Cheering for hysterical demises, that is.

Players will be able to wreak havoc in the Havindir Arena and Training Ground maps, and a new Reservoir wizard robe will be available as new free content.

To celebrate the occasion Vlad, who isn’t a vampire, is sending the wizards on a new special mission: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgcEZ8jz_Hc

Available for sale will be the all-new Final Frontier Map Pack, priced at .99, which include the never-before-seen Vulcanus Arena, a sci-fi themed map that doubles as a PvP map and a challenge map. Also available for purchase is the chilling Frozen Lake map as well as a “stop staring at me, you’re freaking me out” Watch Tower map, both priced at .99. As always players will be able to play the maps even if they didn’t purchase them – as long as the player hosting the map owns the map. Players will be able to don new robes suited for the new PvP game modes – a tank robe, a support robe and rogue robe.

Magicka PvP offers three modes of gameplay:

Classic Deathmatch: Instead of accidentally zapping your companions, you kill them on purpose! It’s every wizard for himself as up to four physically inept beings duke it out in a one mage takes all battle.

Brawl mode: In Brawl, each player/team only has a set number of lives, and the last ma…wizard standing wins. Just make sure your “friends” don’t squander those precious lives.

Krietor mode: A fiendish new mode named after a clever Magicka fan who modded the game, the round-based Krietor mode unlocks Magicks at special intervals during the match, forcing players to come up with different strategies as new spells become available.

Swords & Soldiers coming to IOS- day late, dollar short?


I thought Ronimo Games’ Swords and Soldiers was fair. When it came out, WiiWare still had some faint promise and it looked like this quirky, 2D RTS was a good fit for the console. But when I played it, I kept thinking “I’d like this better on a handheld”. Flashforward a couple of years. Lo and behold, Ronimo (along with Two Tribes and Chillingo) is bringing their game to IOS. At first I thought this was cool news and that I’d be interested in trying it again on my iPhone. But then, I remembered that there are TONS of games like this in the App Store, many which took some of this game’s core ideas and improved on them. Trenches and Legendary Wars, for example. And this also puts the game in more direct competition with titles like Plants vs. Zombies, too. So I have to say I’m not all that excited about it. It’ll be interesting to see how the game does based on its brand recognition in a flooded market. I hope they’re shooting for a 99 cent price point on this one, otherwise they might be doomed. More optimisic press follows.

Dutch game development armies Two Tribes and Ronimo Games partner with leading independent publisher Chillingo, a divison of EA, to bring highly acclaimed indie hit Swords & Soldiers to the App Store.

This summer iPhone and iPad gamers will be able to command armies of brutal Vikings, vicious Aztecs and devious Chinese, each with their own hilarious storylines. Gamers will go on a globe-trotting single player campaign and unlock addictive high score bonus games! On iPad, gamers can even hone their skills and go up against friends and family with the game’s fully featured multiplayer mode.

A sneak peak at Swords & Soldiers can be viewed here:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=12vXEypXT3s

Key features
Hilarious characters and storyline mean you’ll be playing with one huge grin
Command hordes of Vikings, Aztecs and Chinese warriors, each with their own unique skills
Three epic campaigns with unique challenges to keep you entertained for hours
Fully customizable Skirmish mode means endless replayability
Stunning HD graphics

Swords & Soldiers will be arriving soon on the App Store, details will be revealed in the coming weeks through the Two Tribes website.

Visit us at: www.twotribes.com

Obsidian Talks Dungeon Siege 3 and Insect Control


No High Scores

I have my copy of the PC version of Dungeon Siege 3. Actually, I’ve had it since last Thursday, but Steam said I’m not allowed to play it until today. Thanks so much, technology! So, when I escape work this evening (and after a quick beer with friends), I’m heading home to finally get hands-on with the game. I do so with some trepidation, however, after reading this Eurogamer interview with lead designer Nathaniel Chapman, who notes the PC controls of the game are going to get some improvement in a patch…

Eurogamer: You weren’t worried about a backlash from the series’ core PC fanbase?

Nathaniel Chapman: Honestly, we were less worried about that aspect of it. Actually this is one thing I would have liked to have spent more time on, and we are actually spending time on now. Basically, I think as long as PC gamers have a good way to control the combat they will enjoy it. One review – I can’t remember which – said if you play with a game pad the combat is great, so right now we’re working on improving the PC controls through an update.

I think if there are PC gamers who are having a negative reaction it’s less about what the combat is, it’s more how the combat controls.

Sigh. Did you people learn absolutely nothing from Alpha Protocol? As a PC gamer, I’ve long ago accepted the fact that design decisions are typically made first on how things will work with a console interface. I don’t like it, but I accept it. What I don’t accept is a developer or publisher putting out a PC version of a game without sufficient attention paid to the fact that you do, in point of fact, have different and unique control schemes when playing on the PC. Seems it should be obvious that mouse and keyboard do not work the same as a gamepad, but evidently, even after Alpha Protocol’s truly abysmal PC controls, Obsidian still hasn’t gotten the memo that they need to actually spend some development time on this stuff before the game is released. If I wanted to use my gamepad, I’d of had Bill send me the 360 version.

Look, I’m glad they’re working on a patch. Also, maybe it’s really not all that bad as is. I’ll find that out when I get home tonight, but if they’re already saying publicly they’re patching the PC controls to make them better, then I’m thinking it’s not too frigg’n good. I’ll come back tomorrow with some quick impressions on that front. If it’s really not that bad with mouse and keyboard I’ll admit to being too touchy on that front.

On the bright side, later in the interview there are a couple references to the game being, “relatively bug free,” and that Obsidian is not hearing about, “bugs or performance issues.” If so, bravo! Obsidian badly needs a reasonably bug-free game. Kudos, too, to Eurogamer’s Fred Dutton for actually asking about Obsidian’s not-too-good history with excessive bugginess in their games. The number of Obsidian interviews I’ve seen in which they’re not asked about this stuns me. Chapman’s answer to the question (it’s on page 2) is a bit irksome, though. It’s not totally unreasonable and I get he’s trying to be diplomatic, especially since he had nothing to do with New Vegas (or other past games), but for future reference (and this is truncated from a much longer response), this is not a good answer:

I’ve played games that are more buggy than other games but I enjoyed them a lot more. It’s hard for me to say whether gamers have a right to less buggy games. Where a developer spends their time is often… It takes time to fix bugs and it also takes a certain… there are some really ambitious games that have bugs because they’re ambitious, and they don’t have the time [to fix them], or they spend time on making the content cooler rather than fixing the bugs.

Obviously, if the game is so broken that you can’t play it then it’s not worth your money. On the flipside, if you have an amazing game that has some bugs and you spend $60 on it, maybe you can feel OK with that.

No, no, no. To this day there are players who cannot finish New Vegas without scrapping tens of hours of play and starting over. Alpha Protocol on the PC was a complete and utter disaster saved only by the fact that there was some incredibly cool gameplay in the midst of all the stuff that didn’t work. Neverwinter Nights 2, by reputation, was nigh unplayable until its first patch and took an expansion to really hit its stride. Knights of the Old Republic 2 was incomplete and was basically finished by its fans.

Do not, do not, DO NOT tell me how you can’t say whether or not gamers have “a right to less buggy games” or that how there’s not always “time [to fix them].” As you noted, we pay money for games that work. You’re absolutely right that bugs are a reality. I don’t know any core gamer who doesn’t get that. And, yes, the bigger the game the tougher it is. But that’s what you sign up for when you make a complex game. The game, if nothing else, has to be complete and completable (by the player) and your company does not have a great track record in that regard. Your only answer here is, “We know we’ve got a bad track record here, we regret it, and we’re working very hard to do better.”

I love you guys (Obsidian). I really do. There is genius in just about every one of your games (that I’ve played). But with your company’s track record we pretty much have to poke you with a stick over this stuff until it stops happening. Hopefully DS3 has started moving that needle in the right direction. If not, you’ll hear about it here.

Peter Molyneux Interview on Fable: The Journey and Kinect


No High Scores

GamingUnion.net has posted the first part of an interview with Peter Molyneux they conducted at E3 this year. The topic is Fable: The Journey, but I found it interesting that Molyneux, completely unprompted, addresses what many people (myself included) feel is the core issue with Kinect…

I’ll admit that Kinect has got some problems. As an input device it has some real problems. Without a thumb stick, navigation is a real problem. You haven’t got any buttons, so ordering the player to do something can be somewhat of a problem. But what Kinect does have is a great sense of freedom and emotion. So that’s what we’ve tried to do with Fable: The Journey.

Welcome to what we’ve all been saying for a year now. This is why I don’t roll my eyes when I see games like Forza 4 and Mass Effect 3 looking for ways to use Kinect in conjunction with existing controllers. There’s cool tech here, but as a stand-alone device for interacting with games it will never, ever, get the job done. It’s a novelty that fades very quickly for anyone over the age of ten. But you find small, simple ways to use it along with existing control schemes and suddenly you have options. Maybe not options worth $100 out of pocket for players, but options all the same.

The full interview is worth checking out. Molyneux goes on to protest the notion that the game is on rails, saying that Fable has always been “about freedom,” and that Fable: The Journey will encompass that by allowing you to move around your caravan using body or hand gestures. At this point I’m not totally writing the game off, but it’s got a lot to prove before I put any money down on it.

Spotted at Eurogamer.