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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.

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.

Resonance In Review

resonance adventure gameI can’t recall a game that has achieved better harmony between nostalgia and more modern game design. Resonance takes a decidedly old-school aesthetic and genre (the classic, pixellated point and click adventure), innovates on the interface and the gameplay and it ties it all into a well-written, well-acted, simply well-crafted story. It’s a fantastic game, and worth playing whether you even liked adventure games back in the mid 90s or not.

You play as four different characters, all of which have their secrets and motivations. Each person is involved at some level with an accident that occurs at a high-tech lab, and throughout the game, you’ll switch off amongst the group, interact with one another, and generally muddle through using their various skills.

In terms of gameplay, you have your usual inventory system (and interestingly, some items can only be carried by a specific characters), as well as a “long term memory” and “short term memory” lists, which can be used in conversations with other characters. Long-term memories offer story clues and important background details, while the short-term memory system works much like a conversation inventory – you can add almost any selectable object to the list and use it in conversations. It’s handy (and necessary), since many of the puzzles make heavy use of the conversation system in order to gain inventory items.

There’s also a very welcome “rewind” feature that mitigates the annoyance of death in the game. If your character(s) happens to perish, the game simply rewinds to the point where you made a serious mistake, and allows you to start from there.

The writing and voice acting are standout features, especially for a genre known for being on the lower end of the old production budget scale. The characters are exceptionally well written with rich back stories and compelling motivations. The overall plot is interesting and exciting, with plenty of nice little sci-fi/action nods. The voice work is outstanding, with Bastion’s Logan Cunningham starring as hardboiled detective Bennett. He sounds as if he’s in a noir film from the 40s, and loving every moment of it.

It’s also a beautiful game. In much the same way that Fez came along and made me a believer in the 8-bit palette’s ability to make a gorgeous, evocative world, Resonance takes the 16-bit mid 90s PC adventure game look and feel and does marvelous things with it. It looks a quite a bit like the grungy, lived-in Beneath a Steel Sky (a true classic in the genre, and often overlooked next to its more cartoonish LucasArts brethren), and each animation, object and even background image has been lovingly rendered. I adored the pixilated art style and sweet, fluid animation.

One detail that impressed me especially was the inclusion of a main character that is not only a woman of color – but also a doctor. There’s been a lot of noise lately about the representation of women in games – much of it negative. I can practically count the number of non-white women (who are actually written as such, I’m not talking about characters created in an editor) in prominent roles in narrative-based games on one hand. Anna is a fantastic character – as are all four of our leads – and Sarah Elmaleh expertly voices her. It’s a small touch, certainly, but Resonance deserves a nod for going against the grain in this way.

That’s not to say Resonance is flawless. A couple of throwaway characters that were clearly intended to be comic relief fall flat – especially compared to our rich, interesting (and non-stereotyped) leads. And yes, there is a bit of pixel-hunting and an obscure puzzle or three (though nothing that comes truly out of left-field), and I will admit to checking a walkthrough when I thought I had encountered a bug (I hadn’t), but nothing that spoiled my enjoyment of the game.

The adventure genre has been evolving as of late – games like Machinarium and Botanicula seem to be carrying the torch for the more “classic” style with a heavy emphasis on art style, where LA Noire showed just how adventure can be brought about on the AAA scale (and merged with GTA, but that’s a story for another day). TellTale is doing its own thing as well with the awesome (so far) Walking Dead games. Resonance is a throwback to an earlier era, but it’s a smart, elegantly polished one, full of excellent writing and a few modern niceties that keep the genre’s less pleasant quirks to a minimum. Here’s to XII studios and their achievement – I hope to hear more – much more – from them in the future.

Adventures in Playing PC Adventures

Resonance indie adventure

Everyone who knows me here knows I’m a Mac girl. While I do use a pc for work at my new job, I have my trusty OSX machine by my side, with an interface that I know and love.

The funny thing is, half of the games I’ve been playing lately are PC games. Not explicitly “PC” until very recently – I’ve been gorging on Mac versions of the latest Humble Bundle (mostly Limbo, though I’ve tried my hand at Super meat Boy as well). Yes, 2009 is calling and, it wants it’s indie explosion back. The point I’m trying to make is that I’m kinda, sorta becoming a PC gamer – and I’m running without a PC.

Finally, I got my grubby little hands on a copy of Resonance, the Beneath a Steel Sky-looking indie adventure game that I wrote about a couple of weeks back. Its PC only, and I needed to play it. So I jumped down the rabbit hole of Wine and here I am, still alive to tell the tale.

It’s not the only hoop I’ve jumped through to play something lately. I recently had a rather unsuccessful run in with a wired xbox controller (I have one that works now, thanks), and a truly epic, 3 week saga involving a scratched disc from LA Noire that took no fewer than 3 separate trips to different Gamestops across the city of San Francisco to remedy. But I’m finally on to Arson now, and hoping to actually finish this thing before the end of the summer.

But I digress. Wine is a neat little application that lets you run PC apps on your Mac without having to spring for Parallels or get into the dirty business of partitioning your drive, so it’s awesome. It takes quite a bit of setup, and it’s not perfect, but well, whatever.

I’ve finally spent some time with it, and the game is wonderful so far. I’m really loving the aesthetic – this is pure mid 90s-level point-and-click goodness. The writing is particularly strong – and the central caveat – that you play as four different characters with intertwining storylines – makes for a fun blend.

I’ll have more thoughts – and a proper review – shortly. Until then, I’ll be enjoying my excursion to 1995 and Wine-land.

Resonance Shall be My New Obsession

resonance adventure game

First Fez, now Resonance – it seems that the theme for 2012’s indie retro-styled games is in taking the aesthetic so many gamers are now tired of (oh, hey, this looks like it’s 8-bit/16-bit! My childhood!), and making it relevant all over again. With Fez, it was the magic of the utterly obscure secret world behind the puzzle-platformer veneer. With Resonance, it looks to be a genuinely interesting, well-written story.

I should preface this with saying that Fez and Resonance are very different games, similar only in their embrace of all things retro. This time around, it’s early to mid-90s point-and-click adventure games, complete with lovingly animated characters and slightly fuzzy backgrounds. It looks just like beneath a Steel Sky, if you squint a bit.

YouTube video

However, the demo (which is out now) belies an involved storyline with four playable characters, and a seemingly-awesome storyline. From Rock Paper Shotgun:

“The plot immediately reminded me of NBC’s ill-fated Flash Forward. There was a reason that show was ill-fated – it was rubbish. But the premise was not, and it seems not to be here too. At a certain point, explosions go off all around the world, caused by some mysterious device. You play as four different characters, whose stories run simultaneously in the build up to that moment (and maybe after it – I’ve only played the demo so far), in a combination of near-future sci-fi and just general everyday life stuff. Which is a splendid combination.”

I’ve been following this one since GDC, and I’m excited to finally get my hands on it next week (with a little help from my good friend, Parallells). It launches on Tuesday.