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Console Certification, Capitalism, and You

We frequently discuss topics such as DRM, connectivity requirements, and PR/marketing stunts; topics that don’t necessarily impact our gameplay directly, but ones that most certainly affect our experiences as consumers. Last month, an update (and subsequently retracted update) for FEZ on XBLA brought the issue of certification to the forefront. The gist of the story is that Polytron Corporation had to decide between leaving a bug in the game, or paying tens of thousands of dollars to (hopefully) patch the bug and get re-certified.

Until last month, I have to admit that I had never considered the role of certification in game development and how the results of that process trickle down to us as consumers. Certification on consoles was the topic of recent editorial by Kyle Orland at Ars Technica, but I found the full-length opinions and examples offered by Jonathan Blow especially illuminating.

While certification is meant to provide standards, FEZ shows how the process can be equally counter-productive. In the end, neither the consumer nor the developer come out on top. This is opposed to a PC release that can be patched for free. But, as Blow points out, a major problem concerning certification is the time spent coding and tweaking required features that have little to no impact on the final product.

Dead Trigger, available for iOS and Android devices.

The increasing prevalence of mobile devices and gaming-capable PCs is the usual suspect used to explain the influx of high-quality games for those platforms, but certification is an undeniable factor in the equation. Peruse the forum posts and blogs of small/indie game developers and it’s not difficult to see a common theme; don’t develop for consoles unless you absolutely need to fulfill some sort of personal desire.

The console has traditionally been the core method of reaching gamers, but the playing field is shifting rapidly. In May of 2012, as reported by NPD Group, sales of console games were 28-percent lower than in 2011, while sales of PC games rose to 230-percent. Obviously, Diablo III played a pivotal role in those statistics, but that doesn’t change the fact that gamers and developers are increasingly moving away from consoles.

Perhaps more than ever, developers are faced with an important decision; spend precious money and time to jump through the hoops required for a single console release, or spend those resources optimizing a game for release across multiple platforms, including PC, Mac, web, and mobile operating systems. With the rise of engines and tools such as Unity and Adobe AIR, multi-platform porting is becoming easier all the time. Factor in the abilities to set your own pricing schemes, to get involved with promotions (eg Humble Indie Bundle), and issue regular updates, and the console market loses much of its appeal.

Dyad, available only on PS3.

Of course, there are two sides to the coin, and consoles do have benefits; less piracy, standardized system specifications, and guaranteed exposure. For anyone familiar with the navigational disaster that is Google Play (aka Android marketplace), that last point is especially poignant. And, as expressed by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson and Valve’s Gabe Newell, PC gaming could be in for a rough ride with the release of Windows 8 and the associated Windows Store.

App Store, Google Play, Windows Store, Steam, Ouya, XBLA, PSN, Wii Ware – present and future marketplaces for games are not in short supply. With so much money on the line, customer satisfaction and exclusive content are going to be vital in dictating the winners and losers. For this reason, I don’t foresee the certification process disappearing anytime soon, and I expect that we will see similar systems implemented more heavily in the mobile and PC realms. As Xbox LIVE Indie Games has taught us, the cream does not always rise to the top in an open market. Sometimes, it drowns in the slop.

A Slew of Persona 4 Arena Videos

What do I think about Persona 4 Arena? Let’s see…I’m a glutton for everything MegaTen, especially the Persona series, and I do love my fighting games. So yeah, you could say that I’m a wee bit excited (ie ten seconds from giggling like a man-child at Disney World). Below, you can see three gameplay videos, plus a behind-the-scenes view of the voice recording process. Enjoy.


YouTube video


YouTube video

Shadow Labrys

YouTube video

Behind the scenes: Voice Recording

YouTube video

Pick Up Bonsai Defense for Free

Who says that tower defense games have to be about fending off zombies or protecting military installations? Okay, no one likely ever said that, but the genre is saturated with clones of games obviously inspired by Plants vs. Zombies and Defense Grid: The Awakening. While Mate Cziner’s game still upholds the basic concepts of building and protecting, I believe we can assume that the setting of a bonsai tree is wholly original.

A thesis project at Moholy Nagy University of Art and Design (aka MOME), Bonsai Defense charges you with shaping the growth of your tree, and encouraging the growth of fruits to battle and inhibit infectious pests. In a welcome twist, the goal is not to survive, nor to destroy the pests. Rather, you need to accumulate nectar, which both dissolves over time and attracts even more pests.

You can see more screenshots below, or download Bonsai Defense and start playing.

DiRT Showdown in Review

This is not what I expected. I’m not an expert on the DiRT series, but I do know that it is the descendent of Colin McRae Rally, that DiRT 3 made a big deal of proclaiming that “Rally is back,” and that dirt usually refers to an earthy material found to the side of paved streets. Silly me, thinking that DiRT Showdown might be an off-road racing game.

Traditional races involving laps and cornering skills are few and far between, and even those typically have hooks, such as the familiar Elimination mode. You can reasonably divide Showdown into three styles, each with its own set of vehicles; racing, demolition, and the technical maneuvers of gymkhana (eg performing hairpin drifts and 180s for points). Without a common theme, Showdown feels like a handful of prototypes polished to acceptable standards and lumped into a retail package.

The menus are big and flashy, the soundtrack is studded with EDM stars, and the average event clocks in at less than two minutes. If you’re too busy bopping your head to the beat and being dazzled by the abundance of particle effects, maybe, just maybe, you might be too distracted to notice the lack of challenge or how useless the vehicle upgrades feel. I suppose it’s only appropriate that car customization is limited to pre-made liveries, and usually god-awfully tacky ones at that. Seriously, can’t I just paint my car blue?

Much of Showdown’s mechanics are poorly explained. Each event has its own set of rules that necessitates a brief, but still irksome, trip to the pause-screen. Even then, the actual rules for scoring (eg points for t-boning an opponent versus a head-on collision) are kept a mystery. It was only when I set out to write this review that I learned of the tuning options accessible in Advanced difficulty. Then again, the effectiveness of tuning is another topic for debate.

The physics of Showdown are weird. You can go from zero-to-drifting-donut around a pole in a marked section of a gymkhana event, while trying to drift in other sections usually sends you straight into the wall. Showdown’s guiding hand is so powerful that traditional emergency maneuvers – twisting the wheel to avoid a rollover, or a reverse-180 after being spun – end up being counter-productive.

Joyride was a hit in DiRT 3 and is sure to attract a following for Showdown. The two sandbox-style stages – an industrial complex and a shipping yard – each have maneuvers to perform and hidden packages to locate, but most people will probably get their kicks out of cruising around and coming up with their own challenges. I suppose this is the point where I might normally call Joyride a “selling point” or something like that, but two stages hardly constitute a new game, especially when one of them is a repeat.

Showdown lacks the punch of more focused racing titles. It has plenty of style, but unless you enjoy posting videos of your 360s and drifts on YouTube, there is very little substance. Like slapping a HFP body kit on a stock Civic, it looks sleek, but it won’t be crossing the finish line in first place.

Diaries of The Secret World #1

I rarely play more than a single MMO at a time, and, if the past week of playing The Secret World is any indication, Guild Wars 2 is going to have some ferocious competition when it arrives. I’ve been aching for a good MMO set in a modern world. The Secret World still has swords and sorcery, but the combination of Lovecraftian horror, secret societies, and grand storytelling has firmly planted its teeth.

I had some initial doubts. The sight of everyday citizens dual-wielding pistols and performing backflips stands in stark contrast to the gloom and grime of the atmosphere. And, unless your goal is to create a Gordan Freeman doppelganger, a blue-haired clubber, or a half-naked hottie, character creation is bland. This is especially surprising given the variety of NPCs. The voice-acting is heavy on poetic exposition, but NPCs are distinctively memorable and they effectively instill The Secret World with a livelihood that boxes of text can’t match.

The introductory segment falls short in both excitement and explanation, leaving you to navigate a miserably planned Help section. Here’s a tip for future UI designers: if your document contains numerous sub-menus, a ‘Back’ button is mandatory. It’s not as if the menu system is all that helpful anyway; nearly skipping the process of Assembly (crafting), breezing through the ability system, and neglecting other key details. For any questions, the in-game web browser is greatly appreciated, and makes a person wonder how such a feature is not yet a staple of the genre.

The seaside town of Kingsmouth is the most engaging starting zone I have encountered in an MMO. I have yet to feel the jaded cynicism that early missions tend to inspire. The usual tropes, such as ‘defend this’ or ‘kill that’ or ‘go there,’ are brilliantly masked. You don’t ‘just’ kill zombies. You dump napalm in the sewers and bludgeon the burning remnants. Instead of escorting a courier, you watch him get mangled and then follow the blood trail to retrieve the package. Even the simplest of side-quests, of which there are plenty hidden throughout the town, have a wonderful tendency to expand upon the overarching storyline.

Investigative missions are particularly worth mentioning. These are missions that require players to utilize the in-game web browser to find clues beyond the confines of the game. Clues might be hidden in dummy websites created specifically for The Secret World, or they may be based in real-world trivia. The nature of search engines makes me question the longevity of this system though; the more people search for clues, the higher particular topics are ranked, such as guides for The Secret World.

When the missions in The Secret World fail, they fail hard. There are a few notoriously buggy quests, which are to be expected. My main concern is with quests that both require and assume, without any indication, that you are simultaneously performing other specific quests, or that you are looking in a specific direction to notice a vital clue. Fail to follow the developers’ invisibly assumed path and enjoyment quickly transforms into frustration. I can only hope that such instances are the exception and not the norm.

What surprises me most is not only how long I have been in Kingsmouth, but that I have yet to grow tired of the town. I already know the streets and much of the terrain by heart, and yet, I still look forward to the few missions that I have yet to complete. Whereas my focus in other MMOs has been on progression, on completing the next quest and moving to the next section, The Secret World has managed to make me care about the well-being and stories of its inhabitants.