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Risen 2: Dark Waters Delayed on Consoles to July 31

As Brandon mentioned in his Calendar Man post this morning, Deep Silver has pushed the release date of the pirate-themed RPG to July 31st. It’s curious as to why the game would get such a deep push if the PC version is ready now but I suppose we must take Deep Silver’s word when it says:

…the console versions of Risen 2: Dark Waters will now offer extra content on both platforms. They contain the episode “The Air Temple” which features several hours of additional gameplay. Risen 2: Dark Waters for Windows PC remains on its charted course (set for its target release date). It has already gone into production and will lift anchor (release) on April 27, 2012. The game will be released exclusively via digital distribution for PC users in North America, and as a retail version for consoles.

So I guess PC gamers don’t need the “Air Temple” — good to know.

Jon Shafer on Lowering the Gates

The essay below is from Jon Shafer. Jon’s Wiki page says he was, “lead designer and principal programmer of the video game Civilization V at Firaxis Games.”

Yeah, yeah whatever. Show off.

Jon’s also a friend of mine. He plays in our Out of the Park Baseball league as owner/GM of the up and coming Caledonia Geckos. (Hey he named them…) His blog, Jon Shafer on Design should be a regular haunt for strategy fans, or just game fans in general. He asked me to post the essay below, in full, here at No High Scores, which I’m more than happy to do. It’s a great read.

The essay is about how to lower the point of entry for strategy games — making them more accessible early on. One thing Jon says that is spot in this:

More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined.

So consider this our first “guest” column here at No High Scores. It’s a good one.

***

Something I recently spoke about at PAX East was my number one hope for the future of strategy games: reducing the barrier to entry. There are several ways this can be done – without sacrificing a game’s depth or complexity. I’ll discuss a few in detail, namely: good tutorials, good user interface and good demos.

Tutorials have long been one of my biggest pet peeves. The ones you find in most games are terrible and the reasons why are obvious: they’re no fun to work on, there’s no glory in making a really kick-ass tutorial, and they’re really hard to get right. However, a good tutorial is extremely important, and well worth the required grunt work.

While the underlying purpose of a tutorial is to teach new players the rules of the game, this should really be secondary to another goal – being fun. The whole reason people play games is to enjoy them (duh) and their first impression will go a long way in shaping their future experience. If you have to spend a large chunk of time grinding through something boring in order to get to the good part – why bother? There are other games and forms of entertainment which don’t force you to pay this ‘time tax’.

Some might argue that it’s impossible to make a tutorial fun, but that’s absolutely false. How you ask? The answer is simple: by making the tutorial a priority and actually designing it to be fun. If all you do is haphazardly throw information at the player and don’t bother to incorporate actual gameplay, of course the tutorial is going to be as much fun as watching paint dry. The best tutorials always provide an experience very close to the core game. If your game is about combat, let the player have some say in how to attack the enemy, instead of providing a list of precise, inflexible instructions noting exactly what to click in what order. (Most) people are told what to do every day from 9 to 5 (or so) – they don’t also want to be told what to do in their free time.

Forcing the player to perform a series of actions where there’s no room for creativity or engagement is the worst possible introduction. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the reason why games as an entertainment medium are popular is because they give the user control over what’s going on. Also remember that the tutorial is someone’s first experience with the game. More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined. The first experience needs to be the part of the game which stands out and shines. Unfortunately, the opposite is often the case.

A good way to pace the amount of information a player must digest is to embed your tutorial in the core game experience, instead of having all of the instruction take place in a separate tutorial mode. The player jumps right into a game and is provided information about the different elements of the game as they become relevant. A good example from Civ 5 is that every time a new type of resource is discovered by the player, one of the advisors pops up and explains what it does. We didn’t bother teaching the player what iron or other strategic resources were good for until it actually mattered.

Some might argue that you need to know the whole context of the game in order to make informed decisions, and this is true to some extent. However, the reality is that most players just aren’t going to be able to keep everything in their head and apply all of that information the first time they play a game. It takes time and experience to build up to an understanding of deep strategy, and to get to that point players have to feel comfortable at every stage along the way. The end goal is to have as many people enjoying your game as possible, and throwing everything out at the very beginning undermines this in a major way.

Some players still desire the safety net of a formalized tutorial, so it’s wise to also ‘package’ all of the in-game help into a custom-tailored scenario which ensures the player runs into all of the learning moments in the order the designer prefers. This is the approach taken in both Civ 5 and Stardock’s upcoming game Fallen Enchantress.

The big downside to this approach is that… well… it’s a lot of work. It can be hard to ignore the allure of needing to spend only a couple days whipping together a few screens of text, but don’t forget the important point from above: the tutorial is the entry point for a large percentage of players, and as a developer you need it to be one of the best parts of the game. Do you want first-time players talking with their friends about your cool game, or just the few screens of text that you only spent a fraction of the total effort on? Or worse, talking about how the idea seemed neat but they just couldn’t figure out what was going on?

Outside of a full-on tutorial system, an easy way to ease players into a game is simply to nudge them in a direction at the start. “Hey, there’s this quest you should probably go on, and we’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to complete it, but if you want to do something completely different that’s cool too.” Players want freedom, but most also want at least a little structure and positive reinforcement, and throwing out a few optional goals is the best way to make everyone happy.

A game’s interface (UI) also has a huge role to play in bringing new players into the fold. The most important interface items should have the most weight on the screen. Size matters (at least with UI) and the more prominent something is the more likely a player is to pay attention to it. Organize logical groupings of UI controls in a single area, and section them off from unrelated ones. Make sure buttons look like buttons, and that it’s obvious that everything you can’t click on is to be ignored. For good reason, artists like to play up style but always remember the most important part of a user interface is the usability. You don’t want players to feel like they’re fighting the game in order to perform actions or get the information they want. I’ll have more to say on the topic of UI in a future article.

The last thing I’ll talk about is demos. I’ll sum it up this way: demos are great, and every game should put one out before it’s available on store shelves (digital and otherwise). If you’ve made an awesome game then you want people playing it and talking about it. Someone is a lot more likely to try out a game that’s free than one that’s 30 or 60 dollars (just ask any free to play developer). Going free-to-play is a big leap and definitely not right for every project, but every game benefits from a demo. This is especially true for strategy games, where demos are by far the best tool in a marketer’s arsenal. There’s a big difference between seeing a few screenshots and actually getting to play and find out first-hand what all the fuss is about. Like a good tutorial or UI, a demo takes quite a bit of work and is usually not the most exciting development task, but they all can make a huge difference in a game’s visibility, player enjoyment and ultimate success.

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 Coming to iOS…Next Week

Interesting bit of news from Capcom today and the kicker is that this drops a few days from now.

Today, Capcom announced the impending arrival of the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 App on the App Store for iPhone and iPod touch in North America and Europe. Sporting a robust 56-character roster featuring Wolverine, Ryu, Iron Man and Mega Man, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 gives players the opportunity to pit their favorite characters from the Marvel and Capcom universes against each other in an insane, action-packed tag-team arcade fighting experience.

Staying true to the original release, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 will include the “Variable System,” which allows players to tag in other team members at any time. This system, specifically designed for Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is also key to the execution of the most powerful attack, the “Team Hyper Combo,” where all three members of a team combine their ultimate powers.

The Marvel vs. Capcom 2 App will be released on iPhone and iPod touch on April 25, 2012.

I can feel Barnes readying his Ryu as we speak.

Diablo III Open Beta Weekend

For those of you eagerly anticipating the upcoming release of Diablo III, which is likely a rather large swath of PC gamers worldwide, this weekend Blizzard is opening the door a tad early so you can get a taste for — OK look, you know what you are getting with a Diablo game, right?

Get your finger ready and tell your mouse you are sorry and that you don’t mean it any harm. It’s just the way things have to be.

We’re pleased to announce the Diablo III open beta weekend, which offers open access to all players with a valid Battle.net account! Beginning this Friday everyone is invited to log in and help us put the game and servers through their paces in this three day stress test as we march toward the game’s release on May 15. You can begin downloading the Diablo III client right now! From Friday, April 20 at 12:01 p.m. PDT (noon), until Monday, April 23 at 10:00 a.m. PDT you’ll be able to log in, team up with friends, and play each of the five heroic classes to level 13 as you fight to save the world from the impending demonic invasion.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Sales and Expectations

Word out of NPD is that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has sold roughly 400,000 units in the United States since its launch a couple of months ago. Again this is strictly US sales. Globally, if you believe the unofficial figures, it puts Amalur just under the million sold mark. That’s not bad at all. It’s not a mega hit, and with the time spent developing it, I question what sort of return EA got on the game even with that very respectable number of sales.

Still, regardless of how you look at it, it clearly wasn’t a sales flop. Now, I won’t lie — I didn’t really care for Amalur. It nestled snugly in the “meh” column. But hey what do I know? A lot of people bought and enjoyed the MMO-esque RPG. Godspeed.

But let’s look at a few comparisons:

Skyrim sold over 11 million units.
Fallout 3 sold over 7 million
New Vegas — over 3 million
Dark Souls over 1 million
The original Dragon Age came in around 5 million (DAII not as much)
The Witcher 2 passed the million mark and with the Xbox 360 release will crush that number (a figure Amalur is doubtful ever to get near by the way)
Mass Effect 2 around 5 million
Around 5 million for Fable III (damn people, really?)

The point here isn’t that Amalur wasn’t as popular as these games because EA would quickly tell you, “Hey it’s a new franchise! Lighten up, Francis.”

And EA would be right. But I go back to the used game rant from former THQ suit Richard Browne. Remember when he said this?

The real cost of used games is the death of single player gaming. How do I stop churn? I implement multiplayer and attempt to keep my disc with my consumer playing online against their friends. It works wonderfully for Call of Duty – no doubt it can work wonderfully for me. The problem is, at what cost? Countless millions of dollars would be the answer. Let’s take a great example, one of my favorite game series released on this generation – Uncharted…

The sales figures for these primarily single player role-playing games (Dark Souls is iffy here) takes Browne’s theory and turns it on its head, right? Is this just a phenomena with role-playing games? Could be. Is it that these games are all pretty damn good? Possibly. (I’d fight you on Fable III.)

So we have a few things going on here. Our options seem to consist of:

1) Browne’s just another greedy tool without enough yachts to ski behind.
2) He’s right and although those games all sold well the development costs were so extravagant that they failed to turn ample profit.
3) The people calling the shots in the industry are losing money because they still have absolutely no idea what people want, want they will pay full retail for, and continue to sink money into projects that have no chance at succeeding at a full $60 retail cost. Oh, and that 11 million people bought Skyrim — and it wasn’t a used copy.

Fact is, using Browne’s example, if we’re really at the point when a game like Uncharted can sell over 4 million units worldwide and Sony felt the need to add useless multiplayer in order for it to reach its potential and make more money — the big publishers are royally screwed.