It’s booths all the way down

e3 2013So! Now that I’m all grown up and some sort of official game industry person, I finally made it to E3 this year. Here are a bunch of random observations:

  • I have never before seen “convention booths” that are two stories tall, and are so big that they have office space and a break room for the staff.
  • Everywhere I looked there were attendees sitting in rest areas, against walls, etc. with 3DSes. There were a few people checking their phones, but they were vastly outnumbered by the 3DS people. I saw zero people with PSPs / Vitas. Conversely, of the games being shown, there seemed to be significantly more Vita games than games for any other system.
  • The PS4 controller feels really heavy. The Xbone controller has a pair of tiny additional vibrators inside the triggers. The Wii-U controller is ridiculously unwieldy, and the few Wii-U games I saw didn’t use it at all. Some of the Wii-U games gave players the option of playing with either the Wii-U TV Tray controller or the “wiimote and nunchuk”, and everyone I saw playing those games was opting for the latter.
  • Both Microsoft and Disney are trying to make Minecraft. Microsoft’s version is called “Spark“, and Disney’s version is called “Infinity“. Infinity does that extra-impossible thing of trying to be Minecraft and Skylanders at the same time. Given Disney’s track record and resources (in terms of money, IP, and positive reputation), it’ll probably work.
  • All of the buses in downtown LA were wrapped with Dark Souls II ads, and there was a giant Dark Souls II billboard on the side of the convention center. Being a Dark Souls 1 fan I thought this was pretty neat, but on the other hand I thought it was weird that this much effort was being put into advertising a game that isn’t going to be released until March of next year.
  • There was an enormous 180 degree semi-circular screen with additional 60″ flat panel screens on huge robot arms, and a laser light show and a giant vibrating platform that people were herded onto. It showed a movie that simulated a sort of “mission control” as the US failed to defend itself from space nukes. As a huge timer counted down, the nukes rained down on the eastern seaboard, and then gradually made their way across the country to southern California, blowing up San Diego as the timer reached zero. The screen went dark, and then we were told that “10 Years Later…” there would be another Call of Duty game. They’re like cockroaches.

And here are the games I played:

  • Contrast (PC): This was my “game of show”. I played a PC build, but it was also being shown off on PS3. You control a little girl’s imaginary friend who can toggle between moving in the 3D world, and moving on a 2D plane as a shadow. Neat mechanics, great art direction. Feels like the full game will be pretty short, but long enough to be fun.
  • Octodad (PS3): I’ve been hearing a lot of love for Octodad for a while, and now that I’ve finally played it I understand. You play an octopus disguised as an average human dad, trying to do average human dad things, but with crazy flailing octopus tentacles, and delightfully-obtuse controls. It reminded me of QWOP, but much more forgiving and fun.
  • Rain (PS3): A surprise disappointment. You play an invisible little boy in a rainy city, who’s only visible when he’s out in the rain. There’s a similarly-invisible little girl who you’re following for some reason, and some similarly-invisible dog monsters who are trying to eat you for some reason. It sounds like a neat concept, but there’s just not much there in the execution.
  • Mercenary Kings (PS4?): I think this was playing on a PS4… I played it with a PS4 controller, but the controller’s cable led into a nondescript wall with no indication of what hardware was on the other side. I backed this project’s Kickstarter, so it was fun to get to play a little of it. I didn’t play much, but what I did play felt suitably Metal-Slug-esque, with some unexpected hints of Monster Hunter (namely gathering and crafting, and bosses who disappear into the underbrush if you take too long to defeat them) which was neat.
  • Puppeteer (PS3): Dynamite Headdy! No, really, it’s exactly like Dynamite Headdy, but a much bigger pill 3D. And you can’t attack. But otherwise the entire game is presented as a puppet show, there are huge crazy bosses, and you have interchangeable heads. Unfortunately, the pacing was really really bad, and the audio was broken on the kiosk I was playing it on, so I lost interest and wandered away after only finishing the first segment, even though I love Dynamite Headdy. Hopefully the pacing problem was just for the demo, or just the very beginning of the game and it gets much better later.
  • Open Me (Vita): A cute AR game that’s all about opening puzzle boxes. The boxes appear in “real” space through the camera, and you have to move around them to look at the various sides (no mean feat in the cramped quarters of the demo kiosk) while using the touchscreen to interact with them. The three boxes I saw all had a very “programmer art” look to them, which is a shame since I think this game could’ve really benefited from a “Hellraiser” aesthetic.
  • Tearaway (Vita): It’s that adorable papercraft game! Overall pretty fun, but marred by some bad platforming controls near the beginning of the game that made me have to redo a very simple jump a dozen times before I finally got past it.
  • Wonderful 101 (Wii-U): I think this was the only Wii-U game I played. And it really wasn’t fun. It looked really fun, what with being about dozens of tiny superheroes all working together to form enormous fists and swords and things out of their bodies (and they all have quirky little costumes with things like stoplights and toilets on their heads, and individual names and bios), but the gameplay was really chaotic and repetitive and instantly boring. The Nintendo guy babysitting the kiosk assured me that, over the three days that he’d been babysitting it and playing it off and on, he’d gradually discovered some really deep gameplay. I was somewhat incredulous. But not outwardly.
  • Fresh (Sifteo Cubes): Warioware for Sifteo Cubes. I’d played a different Sifteo Cubes game at Indiecade, and while this one was certainly much more fun, I didn’t feel inclined to play it ever again after the 10 minutes it took me to beat it, and the other Sifteo Cubes games I played really weren’t worth mentioning.
  • Hohokum (PS4): I only played a little of this at the very end of the day as they were closing down the Sony booth and pulling the plugs on the kiosks in the middle of peoples’ games, like the good old days when the arcades let you know it was closing time by turning off all the machines. It had sort of a groovy Keita Takahashi / Vectorpark vibe to it, and I was some sort of space tadpole, and I think I was supposed to find a mermaid and bring her to a fisherman. I’d just found the mermaid and was trying to figure out how to get her to follow me when the kiosk was switched off.
  • Toro’s Friend Network (Vita): A Toro game finally made it to the US! 🙂 It’s Farmville! 😦
  • olli olli (Vita): Played about 5 seconds of this until I discovered that it’s Canabalt on a skateboard.
  • Atelier Meruru (PS3): Played a few minutes of this where I ran around a house where exactly the kind of anime characters you’d expect to find in a game with “Atelier” in the title were just sort of hanging out. Apparently it’s some sort of super-generic JRPG. With a character named STD.
  • Frogger and Asteroids (Arcade): There was a classic gaming store that had some arcade games setup. I played some Frogger and Asteroids, and wandered away from both without finishing my first game. I also do this on the Galaga machine at my favorite hotdog place while I’m waiting for my hotdog. At this point I think I’ve spent more on unfinished Galaga games at a quarter each than I have on most iOS games. There’s some profound insight to be gained from that, but I don’t know what it is.
  • Tim’s new game and Brandon’s new game (Vita): I played Tim Rogers’ (and Brent Porter’s) new sliding-block puzzle game. I also played Brandon Sheffield’s new sliding-block puzzle game. I recommended that they combine their sliding-block puzzle games.

Games I did not play but feel that I should mention:

  • Knack (PS4): The premise of this game is the same idea that we all had after our first marathon session of Katamari Damacy, where we thought, “ooh, what if there was a more fighty game built around this same mechanic, and you start out fighting really small enemies, and gradually grow by attaching random junk to your body, until eventually you’re enormous and fighting enormous enemies”. However, the presentation appeared to be very very linear and scripted and totally contrary to the sandboxyness that one would expect from that premise.
  • Dragon’s Crown (PS3 / Vita): Between Sony’s megabooth, Atlus’s booth, and a couple other places, I think there were more kiosks playing Dragon’s Crown than any other game, but I still somehow managed to not play it. I’m honestly not that fond of brawlers.
  • Game & Wario (Wii-U): This really confused me. I loved the original Warioware, and liked Twisted almost as much, but it seems like every game in the series is getting further and further from the simple greatness of the original. As I watched someone else play, he first chose the specific minigame he wanted to play, then sat through a very long cutscene, and then played the same minigame over and over. And here I was hoping they were making a Warioware game.
  • Transistor (PS4): There were long lines for this every time I walked by, and I didn’t know anything about it, and finally found out at the end of the day that it’s the new Supergiant game, but it was too late to play it.

Pay to Win

For free users, tiny slimes; for paid users, gigantic dragons.At first, Puzzle and Dragons seemed like something pretty cool- a mobile game which, roughly, combines something like Pokemon with a match-3. Form a party of elementally-themed monsters and explore dungeons with them; fight enemies by matching tiles. Monsters have special abilities that can be triggered with time, and can also be made more powerful by combining them with other monsters. Monsters come in one of five different elements- matching three or more tiles of a given element makes every monster of that element in your party attack, and may do more or less damage depending on their target’s element. The obligatory twist to the match-three gameplay is that rather than simply swapping a tile with one next to it, you’re given the ability to grab a tile and then drag it around for a few seconds, meaning that with speed and foresight you can put together a couple matches in a single move, or build ones larger than would otherwise be possible. With a variety of elementally-themed dungeons to visit, each providing a set of missions with a fixed series of battles, it seemed a pretty solid game.

I played it off and on for a couple days. As seems standard for microtransaction-based games, it featured two currencies- coins, which are earned with every dungeon run and are used for ‘normal’ tasks like combining monsters, and Magic Stones. Magic Stones are earned slowly; you appear to gain one every day, and clearing all missions in a dungeon for the first time gives you one as well. The latter can be spent to refill your stamina, continue if your party falls in battle, and gambled in a virtual gumball machine for new monsters.

That last bit is the sticking point.

After a few days, I’d assembled what I thought was a pretty decent party- strong enough, certainly, to complete the dungeons I’d run without a whole lot of trouble. The monsters you win at the conclusion of normal missions, however, are fairly generic, common types- weak slimes and goblins with the occasional mediocre warrior or decent Ogre thrown in. To get rare monsters, you need to drop a couple magic stones in the aforementioned gumball machine- something I’d done as frequently as I could. The first couple times, I got interesting, unique monsters that were akin to the fire-breathing dragon I’d started with in power; a Naga with the ability to stop enemies from attacking, a Golem with the ability to reduce incoming damage, a Knight with decent stats. My fourth spin, however, yielded the Hell Golem Mk. III.

Before every mission in the game, you’re compelled to bring a ‘helper’ along; a monster recruited from another player, either a “friend” or one of a handful picked at random. I’d observed in the past that an abnormally large number of these folks had suspiciously high-level nonstandard monsters, but I’d always chalked it up to folks who’d been playing longer than I was or had put all of their resources into building up a single character rather than spreading them around.

Hell Golem Mk. III was ranked five stars, denoting the rarest and most powerful tier of monsters. While specific five-star monsters are nominally the rarest in the game, getting five-stars from the slots couldn’t be that unusual, given the number of similar examples I’d seen helpers come with. Hell Golem Mk. III started at level 30; my highest-level monster was at level 15. Hell Golem Mk. III, like the other five-stars I’d seen as helpers, was significantly more powerful than the rest of my monsters put together.

Seeing my carefully-assembled party so totally outclassed by a virtual die roll pretty effectively killed my desire to keep playing the game. Why bother leveling my party up, when simply spending Magic Stones was so much more effective? I tried running another mission anyway, with the Hell Golem on point. Having effortlessly steamrolled it, I sighed, hit ‘home’, and deleted the app.

I’ve said before- perhaps not in this space- that this sort of nonsense is the bitter fruit of the race-to-the-bottom that is app pricing; I draw a direct line from the inability to sell a game on the App Store for more than $3 unless it has the words “Final Fantasy” in the title to reliance on microtransactions and ‘encouraging’ investment of real money into the game. In this case, the advantages that could be won with a fistful of Magic Stones and a moderate amount of luck were so great that building a party the ‘normal’ way seemed a waste of time- and without the need to strategize and work my way up that ladder, there didn’t seem to be any purpose to playing the game at all.

Maybe this is an argument that, despite previous evidence, it is possible to strip too much gameplay out of something- or at least that it’s possible to go too far in providing a real-money end run around it.

– HC