Over the last few months, I have been conducting a search for a qualified candidate to fill the vacant Editor-in-Chief position here at IGM. The plan was for Vinny and I to hold down the..
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The night is punctuated by a guttural growl and then a high-pitched squeal. My brain goes into overdrive. I curse myself for letting my attention drift as my hands flick my mouse and spin my badger dad around to face the terror of the night. While the camera spins to face the unseen predator I’m also tallying up my badger children in an emergency roll call. There’s Burger, Dart, Splotch, …where’s Gnat? “Where is Gnat,” I practically shout at my monitor at one in the morning. I recklessly dash my badger into the darkness looking for the lost cub, and then hesitate, remembering I still have the other three to worry about. As I wait for my remaining three little ones to catch up, I give one last glance around into the nightmarish darkness, before turning back and resuming my night trek through the valley. Gnat, much like his brother, Zorro, is just another casualty of Shelter.
Turns out, I’m a horrible badger father. By the end of my hour-ish playtime with the preview build of Shelter, I had lost the majority of my badger babies to the dangers of the wild.
Shelter is an upcoming game from Might & Delight, the developer behind 2012′s stylish platformer, Pid. In Shelter, a game artistically and mechanically much different from Pid, players take on the role of the badger-parent of a small clan of badger babies, and the game revolves around the slow migration of this badger family through the wilderness, scavenging for food, and just attempting to stay alive. The babies follow the player around automatically, while being completely dependent on the player for survival.
Shelter ushers players through the zones by implementing a necessity to feed the baby badgers (who can starve to death if you neglect to feed them, as I found out with Zorro). Uprooting onions or headbutting trees to knock down fruit will be how players acquire the majority of their sustenance, but there are the occasional frogs or gophers that players can attempt to run down, as well. Survival comes into play when larger predators make an appearance, notably an eagle that will try to snatch up the babies if players stay out in the open for too long, —hectic dashing from cover to cover is required to stay alive.
From my time with Shelter, it feels like Shelter is more of an experience, rather than a game. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it just seems like to go from a very exciting platformer like Pid, to a game that is essentially slow-paced Mother Nature simulator, is a bit of a tone down. With that said, there will certainly be people who disliked Pid, but will find entertainment and joy (and a bit of morbid reality) within Shelter.
“The idea came to us, soon after Pid,” explains Johannes Wadin, Might & Delight creative director, in a developer diary video. “We knew we wanted to do something quite different, and we decided fairly early that it would be something like a fable, or that animals will have a crucial role. Once we decided on the mother protecting her cubs that’s when it all happened, when we decided we would focus on creating a game with a slower tempo…a more emotionally absorbing game.”
With that objective in mind, I would feel comfortable saying that Might & Delight has met that goal; Shelter presents an engaging and unique experience that is sure to change the way players view wild animals.
Shelter was recently approved through the Greenlight system on Steam, and will launch at $9.99, later this year.
[This editorial was originally published in issue 31 of The Indie Game Magazine in March 2013]
The Indie Difference is a new editorial series intended to highlight specific elements that make independently-developed games special. The series is a celebration of the indie gaming hobby, with a particular focus on what differentiates indie games from their big budget, AAA counterparts. This time it is Comedy that falls under the spotlight.
If you’re reading this, then you’re presumably a pretty avid fan of indie games. We all have our own reasons for getting into the wonderful world of independent videogames, but it is likely we all have one thing in common — we turned to indie games because they offered something that mainstream releases didn’t. For me, indie games provided an escape from the po-faced, humorless realism with which the AAA industry has been obsessed this console generation. My discovery of the smaller, self-funded projects opened my eyes to the fact that there was more out there besides hokum, gritty action — videogames could actually be funny!
By their very nature, independent titles are clearly better suited to comedy than AAA releases. For starters, humor has proven a risky business in the mainstream games market; most big-budget comedy games of this generation have either been commercial flops like Brutal Legend, or lowest-common-denominator tie-ins like Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse. In this climate, it’s very difficult for a publisher to take a punt on a comic title with any confidence. The resulting lack of humor in the market has left it up to indies to fill the void, their smaller budgets and lack of publisher-reliance giving them more leeway to explore niche themes.
To get a perspective from within the industry, I contacted some independent developers whose games heavily feature comedy. First up is Andrew Goulding of Brawsome, developer of Jolly Rover and MacGuffin’s Curse. He suggested that the stagnation of the mainstream market was just a result of sensible business decisions by publishers.
“The rising cost of AAA development makes publishers risk averse.” he said. “Sequels and licenses sell, so do big genres, such as FPS, so anything that’s not one of those can be hard to get made with AAA publisher money. There are also smaller publishers in the casual/mobile space, but they generally have even smaller margins, so they want to spend a little amount on something that might be a big hit. Sequels, licenses and big genres in this space also apply. Publishers are a business, out to make money, so are after hits, so whatever is popular at the time will be what they want to invest in. This just makes good business sense. So yes, in a roundabout way indies are important for working in niche genres and creating new ones.”
As is the way of the world, business concerns naturally outweigh the search for creative fulfillment in the publishing business. However, in the indie space this is often reversed, with small teams working on games with individual passion and little concern for their resulting popularity. This creative community atmosphere is obviously great for nurturing and encouraging less common forms expression, such as comedy, and gives the resulting works a far more personal feeling than would be possible in a triple-A game. I contacted Jesse Ceranowicz of GZStorm, developer of surrealist comedy title Vidiot Game, to ask him his thoughts on how implementation of comedy differs between mainstream and indie releases. Unexpectedly, he defended the current state of humor in videogames.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say triple-A titles are distancing themselves from humor”, he said. “Franchises like Saints Row and Borderlands (just to name a few) employ humor in various ways and are quite successful at it. Indie developers tend to embrace humor in slightly stranger ways, but that’s mainly due, I think, to the fact that indies work in such a closed-in environment. That is to say, they work in such small groups, if not on their lonesome, that their humor cannot help but be geared more towards their own inside jokes and such.”
He raises an important point here, as it’s important to remember that humor isn’t completely lacking from the AAA landscape. The two examples he gives, Saints Row and Borderlands, have both enjoyed widespread popularity, managing to successfully avoid the curse of comedy. However, I maintain that there remains a distinct difference between how humor is implemented in independent and mainstream productions. When looking at it from this perspective, one could say that Saints Row: The Third and Borderlands 2 are the gaming equivalent of the big-budget, crowd-pleasing comedies which have a broad appeal in their catch-all brand of humor. Not necessarily a bad thing, sure, but meanwhile games like Frog Fractions and Vidiot Game represent the slightly more niche comedic efforts which have a significantly narrower audience, but are ultimately more rewarding for those in the know. It is their independence that gives them the edge. Their freedom to dabble in surrealism and in-jokes gives them the all-important feeling of something hand-crafted and personal, something which I feel is very difficult to convey in a game developed by a huge team.
In games like Saints Row, there’s the unshakable feeling that the inclusion of comedy was a decision made at a marketing level. It helped to give THQ a unique selling point and to differentiate their franchise from the oft-imitated Grand Theft Auto. Not to detract from the humor — Saints Row: The Third is a barrel of big, dumb, thoroughly enjoyable laughs — but it felt like the result of a focus group. Conversely, the comedy of indie games is often obscure, surreal, and feels human. The appeal is in its absurdity and unpredictability, the feeling that anything and everything can happen, creating more and more amusing gameplay dynamics and scenarios.
Frog Fractions is a great example of comedy that only an indie could have created; a multi-genre arcade game which evolves as you play, posing as an educational game for children. Even more incredibly, it was so bizarre and funny that it attracted mainstream attention, and ended up being promoted by major gaming websites such as Destructoid. Does this suggest that humor can be used to create a buzz around indie games, and help attract new players? Sparsevector, developer of Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, certainly thinks so, and this became clear when he told me of his development experience.
“Humor is a pretty big part of my game, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure“, he said. “In the game you control a 19th century wagon party facing surreal and bizarre dangers as they journey west. I think a big part of the appeal of the game is the dark humor in seeing your party die off one-by-one in strange and surprising ways. At its core my game is a simple side-scrolling shooter with some twin-stick shooting segments mixed in, but I think with the game’s unusual theme and humor I was able to draw in players outside of the traditional shmup fan base. While the humor doesn’t really affect the game’s mechanics, it has a big effect on the feel of the game.”
All other entertainment mediums have strong comedic presence, so why shouldn’t games? The growth and development of humor in videogames — nearly all of which is now coming from indies — is surely conducive to the growth of the medium as a whole. Humor has a great quality of attracting people, and could help games to find an audience outside from the typical ‘gamer’. This has certainly been the case with Frog Fractions, and by the developer’s own account it is also true of Super Amazing Wagon Adventure.
It’s the indefinable human touch which makes the comedy of indie games so great. Never afraid to be nonsensical, silly, or even self-indulgent, you can always count on indie devs to deliver the unexpected. I think it’s a great step forward that humor is showing signs of revival in the mainstream games market, and I have the utmost respect for titles such as Borderlands and Saints Row. However, I think the gaming comedy renaissance will come not from the big publishers, but from the bedroom coders and small studios who are willing to go the extra mile.
Auroch Digital has released a new relevant game, Cow Crushers, around the recent scandal about fast food beef tainted with horsemeat. I’ve written about GameTheNews’ previous titles, My Cotton-Picking Life and Endgame Syria, and mostly concluded that although I admired the motivation behind relevant games, both titles ultimately fell flat for me.
But Cow Crushers is exactly what relevant gaming should be.
The mechanic is clear and engaging, and never deviates from the message. At it’s most basic, Cow Crushers is a pattern matching game. Animals appear in front of the players, as if brought in a conveyor belt, and the player needs to tap a burger, steak or chop button to smash that cow into the assigned cut of meat. Blood splashes up as animals become meat, and it’s surprisingly gristly for a stylized 8-bit game. As the game progresses, horses come in with the cows, and the player’s goal is to makes as many cow-burgers as possible without tainting the meat with too much horseflesh by accidentally making horse steaks. The contrast of gristly blood splash and the cute burger icon is particularly effective.
An effective message game needs a solid, playable mechanic like Cow Crusher’s pattern matching. Players engage the game, and then Cow Crusher’s message, through the conveyer belt, the repetitive actions, and the scoring system that allows a certain percentage of horsemeat into the food. Hey, that’s just a simple mistake made by someone hitting buttons on a hurry to make steaks and burgers. The player is that “someone”, not some faceless baddie, and we’ve already seen how effective it can be to put the player in the role of the villain in many other serious games like Train and McVideogame.
Cow Crushers is available to play online, like Auroch Digital’s previous titles, but it’s also available for iOS, despite Apple’s policies against publishing serious games. The policy has been well discussed, but the crux is this passage from Apple’s developer guidelines.
We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.
LittleLoud’s Sweatshop game, Molleindustria’s Phone Story, silly border-crossing game Smuggle Truck, and even Auroch Digital’s Endgame:Syria have run into App Store trouble on this account. Endgame: Syria was renamed Endgame: Eurasia, the specific names were changed, and the game is now available on the App Store. Molleindustria’s Phone Story is a snarky satire about iPhone manufacturing, including sweatshop conditions and worker suicides, so it’s not entirely surprising that there would be some difficulty in getting it onto the App Store. Still, a policy against messages in games and serious games is distressing information for developers of serious indies and other devs experimenting with pushing the art form in new ways.
I’m glad that Cow Crushers made it onto the App Store to allow more potential players to check it out, and try such an engaging, and clever relevant game.
Last September, Expeditions: Conquistador was successfully funded on Kickstarter, raising $77,247…seven-thousand dollars over the goal. Danish development studio, Logic Artists, have been at work finishing development and polishing the game, getting it ready for its February 28th release. I managed to get my hands on a preview-build of Expeditions: Conquistador, and as one normally averse to tactical strategy games, I was pleasantly surprised with what Logic Artists did with Expeditions.
Expeditions: Conquistador puts players in the position of a prominent Spanish conquistador, setting off to the New World. The game starts off by letting you define your character name, his traits, and who you want on your crew. I chose the historically accurate name “Olympus Mufasa” for my conquistador, and I decided, with a name like that he isn’t too keen on diplomacy, but would be above average at survival and leadership. I left the other three traits (tactics, healing, and scouting) alone. From there, Expeditions allows the player to choose their crew: ten slots are available, and there are five classes to choose from. My crew ended up being composed of two doctors, one scholar, two hunters, three soldiers, and two scouts. I just wish I could have named them too, perhaps as a nod to the days of Oregon Trail.
The tutorial begins as soon as your ship docks in a port, in what I think was Santo Domingo. One of my initial fears going into Expeditions: Conquistador was that I would spend more time learning the game than I would actually playing it. I like to spend about an hour with a preview-build before I start forming opinions; I didn’t want to spend forty-five of those sixty minutes reading about attrition or supply-lines. Luckily, the tutorials in Expeditions are incredibly noob-friendly, and I had no problem keeping track of what was what and where it all was.
One thing that I particularly liked about Expeditions that I normally dislike in any sort of game, was the text-based dialog. As much as I like to read, I don’t like to in video games, and normally I skip through texty chat windows. But, the dialog in Expeditions was so engaging: you are given options of what to say that are not clearly paragon/renegade, and what you say affects how some members of your crew regard you, and can go on to affect their moral for better or worse. This system helps you to grow familiar with your crew, so when they all die at the hands of your less-than-skilled strategic moves, you feel a bit bummed about it. Not that I’m speaking from experience, or anything like that.
Once the tutorials are over with, I progressed out into the jungle, and got my first feel at how the rest of the game would play out. Basically, I could move Senor Mufasa (has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) a certain distance every “day” before I would have to set up camp. Setting up camp involves choosing which crew members take over what responsibilities for that night. Based on where your campsite is (road, jungle, beach, mountain, etc.) there are a number of options available. The tasks include posting guards to keep out the thieving natives; sending out patrols which can result in nice bonus discoveries from time to time; having hunters go out and gather extra rations; and having crew members tend to preserving the meat or putting together medicine from the collected resources (both animals and plants). If a crew member has sustained a wound in combat, assigning a medically-proficient crew member to care for them at night will help improve their condition.
Then there is the combat. Say you don’t post enough guards one night and some pesky natives sneak in and attempt to make off with rations or valuables; Expeditions switches into its combat mode, which will look familiar to anyone who has played a turn-based strategy game before. Of the combat scenarios I played in, I was only able to select up to six of my chosen ten crew members, to take into battle. I had no trouble gradually decimating my crew over a few combat scenarios, but that’s more to do with my ability than the difficulty of the game.
The combat gameplay is very straightforward, and I wasn’t overwhelmed with minute details about combat maneuvers and avatar placement. There are only a few “tricks” to learn, like using a ranged character to attack a melee-based character in a neighboring tile allows the melee opponent to immediately counter-attack (I’m assuming to simulate the reload time that was an issue with arquebuses). All together, the part of the game I was most hesitant about, was not a bad experience at all.
Expeditions: Conquistador has a planned release date of February 28th, and while the Logic Artists website is currently under construction, which could be disastrous for their sales if they don’t get that back online, I suggest that you all give their Facebook page a look for where to find Expeditions, upon its release. Even if turn-based strategy isn’t something you normally go for, I fit in that demographic and I still had fun with Expeditions: Conquistador.
Recently, the Path of Exile open beta launched, and my friends —ever eager to migrate on to the next free-to-play game, convinced me to give the game a shot with them. After all, they argued, at the very least I’d have a bad experience to write about. I scanned over the Path of Exile website as the client downloaded, not really impressed with what I was seeing. The game looked like a stock Diablo 3 clone, and still being slightly bitter at Blizzard after paying $60 for their one-shot linear 4-level slaughter-fest, I just wasn’t too excited to sink any amount of time into Path of Exile. So, with the odds of my favor already against the game, I loaded up Path of Exile and created a Shadow (aka a thief-class) and named him Shrat.
Two Acts, probably around a half-dozen hours, and a few thousand dead zombies, monster-bears, squid-beasts, and enraged monkeys later…I am having a blast with Path of Exile.
The first thing I noticed about Path of Exile is how smoothly the game runs. Cranked up to the highest visual level, I checked the in-game FPS-counter (F1, for those interested) and I was dancing safely over 100 frames-per-second. With that said, the game doesn’t look bad at all. I don’t know how Grinding Gear Games did it, but Path of Exile looks super crisp, plays incredibly fluid, and is hardly taxing on my system. Granted, my PC was built for gaming, but all of its hardware is 2-ish years old…hardly spearheading any PC-gaming technology race.
The controls and interface are what I expected to find in a top-down Action-RPG like Path of Exile. While hardly innovative, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as I knew relatively instantly where things were and what buttons to press for the different attacks. The only awkward interface design choice I ran into was that by default, players must hold the left-ALT key in order for dropped loot to be displayed on screen. However, with a simple look-through of the key-bindings in the options menu, I noticed that by simply pressing ‘Z’ the player can turn loot-labels on and off, at will.
While I’m on it, the loot system could use some tweaking. Now, I understand that Grinding Gear Games wants the loot-system to be a cut-throat experience, and while I do think that is a strange design choice, I applaud them for not bending under pressure and changing something they feel, in the end, adds character to their game. Currently, the way the loot system works is that when something is killed, loot explodes over the ground like a loot-pinata. All of the gray “trash” loot is free for all, but the rarer items are assigned to specific players…but only for a few seconds, and then it becomes free-for-all. If you’re playing with a group of friends, this isn’t really a big deal and you can go by the honor-system, like my friends and I did…leaving the loot that wasn’t dropped for us, and pointing out things that dropped for someone else if they’re not in the area. That works, and it’s no big deal. But if you plan on playing online with strangers, you will want to be paying attention to the loot as it drops, because there will probably be greedy ninjas about.
Aside from the arguably unfair loot system, I was hard-pressed to find anything else to take issue with. The “pay-to-win” fear that hovers over every free-to-play game is absent from Path of Exile thanks to what Grinding Gear Games calls, “ethical microtransactions”. There are no skill boosts or one-price-unlocks-all bonuses that people can buy to achieve greatness faster than anyone else. Instead, things like added account features (extra stash tabs and character slots), pets (frogs, bugs, lizards, etc.), cosmetic effects to weapons and armor, skill effects that change the default effect to something much cooler, and character animations (time to /dance) are all available for purchase. And the prices are not too bad either, where else could you get a pet frog for roughly $2.50?
The amount of detail in the environments in Path of Exile is stunning. Every zone looks incredible, and some of the levels are straight-up spooky. From the foggy ship graveyards, to the claustrophobic torture dungeons tucked deep within the mountains, Grinding Gear Games‘ level designers did an amazing job. Also, the lighting effects in Path of Exile put the game’s contemporaries to shame. In the darkest of dungeons, the only source of light comes from your character and the occasional explosion he or she might cause by using spells. This single source of light casts perfectly dynamic shadows on everything, creating a spectacular effect when there are multiple characters on screen at once.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Path of Exile is something I would never have expected to enjoy as much as I am: the gem system. In short, your attacks come from the gems you find. Players have to strategically place gems in their gear, as most items have a color coded slot that only a matching gem can go into. Anyone can find any type of gem, but obviously the Witch would have more use for a fireball gem, than a Shadow would. However, there is nothing stopping that Shadow from equipping, and using the fireball gem. The “talent tree” that is the staple for most character progression systems in RPGs, has been replaced with what I like to call a “talent forest”, which is to say that all of the character’s talent trees are connected, and no character is limited to one set of abilities. As a Shadow, if I spend enough points, I can work my way across the talent forest and fill in all of the Witch’s talent points. The only limit is the number of talent points you have, and you get one per level, and some are given as quest rewards.
Path of Exile is the first free-to-play game that I feel compelled to support. Sure, I bought crate keys in Team Fortress 2, but that’s because the weapons inside came with new abilities. In Path of Exile, you are given the game in its entirety, and Grinding Gear Games oh so politely (and most importantly, ethically) asks that you spend a handful of dollars and support them. Throw down $15 and buy a pet frog and a glowy helmet, support these guys. Because this is how you do free-to-play.