I was frustrated by the indie games scene before being frustrated by the indie games scene was cool.

The esteemed Bennett Foddy gave a brilliant talk at Indiecade East on the history and current state of “indie games”:

Especially poignant to me is the fact that he starts out the talk with a quote from Edmund McMillen, complaining that the “indie games scene” no longer fits his definition of the indie games scene. In comparison, here’s something I wrote 9 years ago — when Edmund McMillen was just getting started — complaining that the “indie game scene” no longer fit MY definition.

I suspect a little digging could turn up a usenet post from 16 years ago, when I was just getting started making video games, complaining about how the indie games scene wasn’t what it had been in the late 1980s.

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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.

Gameplay? Where we’re going, we don’t need gameplay.

robZOMG! USE MY REFERRAL CODE TO GET 10,000 MONEYS AND A RARE CARD! [dzr67332]!!!

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Rage of Bahamut. Rage of Bahamut has been getting a lot of attention lately because it’s currently the top grossing app on both iOS and Android, but in all the excitement nobody’s actually talking about how it plays. So here’s the rundown.

Initially, the game’s a little confusing, because it’s essentially a browser game of the old “click a link and wait for the page to refresh” variety; you scroll up and down a series of (extremely cluttered) webpages, clicking on hyperlinks. Also, there is no audio anywhere in the game. No music, no sound effects, not even a “click” sound effect for clicking on the hyperlinks.

The first layer of the game is “Quest Mode”, which looks superficially like the first-person battle interface from Dragon Quest or any other 80s-era console RPG. Except there’s only one button. And your only stats are “Stamina” (energy mechanic), “XP”, and “Progress”. Each “battle” in quest mode presents you with a grainy flash clip of a random static enemy sprite and an “ENTER” button. You click the “ENTER” button and the enemy dies, and you get some money, XP, and Progress, and lose some stamina. The enemies don’t have stats; they don’t need them. Whatever the enemy sprite is — werewolf, slime, praying mantis, succubus — it dies when you click the “ENTER” button. You can change your “leader” for questing, but all this does is change the 4-frame attack animation to something thematically appropriate to the leader; the enemies still die when the click “ENTER” regardless of whether your leader is a mighty dragon or a lowly goblin.

Every three enemies you get a random reward, which is either money, a card, or a treasure. Treasures are only useful for completing sets, and each completed set gets you another card. Cards can be “evolved” by consuming other cards with the same name; add two Goblins together to get a Goblin+, add another Goblin to get a Goblin++, and add a final Goblin to get an “[Imp] Goblin+++” (which can’t be evolved any further). This is the one mechanic here that I think has promise and could have interesting applications in something else that’s actually a game; as cards evolve, their artwork changes slightly — male characters get progressively cooler-looking armor, and female characters get progressively less clothing (which is actually kind of icky since most of the female characters in this game look like 8-year-olds) — and it’s intriguing to evolve cards just to see what minor adjustments will be made to the next level of artwork. You can also “enhance” cards by consuming other cards in exchange for a slight stat boost, but this doesn’t change the artwork.

The final layer of the game is “Battle”, where you make a set of up to five attack cards, and match their combined attack values against the combined defense values of another player’s set. If your set’s attack is higher, you win, and see a grainy flash animation of the words “YOU WON!” and get some money. Otherwise you lose, and see an almost identical flash animation of the words “YOU LOST”. And that’s pretty much it.

The CEO of ngmoco, the game’s US publisher, calls Rage of Bahamutlike getting secret knowledge from the future“, because it comes from Japan where they had cellphone games for roughly 4 years before the US had cellphone games, and from that fact he concludes that they’re still 4 years ahead of us on cellphone games. If this is a vision of the future, it’s a pretty bleak one, but there’s no denying the game’s success. Studying its minimalism, and what I perceive as a lack of depth, I’ve come to the conclusion that Rage of Bahamut is only as much of a game as it needs to be, which it turns out really isn’t very much at all (a point which Ian Bogost inadvertently made with Cow Clicker). Players don’t need anything approaching an actual RPG experience to continue playing the Quest Mode, they don’t need the tactical depth of Magic: The Gathering to enjoy the Battle Mode, and they don’t need anything more than a messy webpage tying it all together. And even those elements are superfluous; Dark Summoner, a very similar game that’s also storming the “top grossing” charts, skips the whole fake-RPG-battle and just tells you what reward you’ve found at each step of Quest Mode, and provides a handy button to just skip straight to the results of PVP battles without having to sit through the half-second-long battle animation.

As a game designer, particularly one who’s in love with developing innovative game mechanics, it’s depressing to see something that can barely be called a game at all enjoy so much success. But on the other hand, it’s kind of morbidly fascinating and extremely educational to see a game not only survive but thrive with virtually every aspect of “game-ness” stripped away. Ideally, this is a “secret message from the future” only as far as it provides precise, clinical insight into how minimal you can go with gameplay and still compel people to play, which could force designers to reconsider their sacred cows, and build even better games from a foundation that’s even more rudimentary than they’d previously considered.

I was going to mention somewhere in here how Rage of Bahamut‘s “faux-RPG” Quest Mode is very evocative of the “faux-gameplay” of pachi-slot machines, and then ruminate on the implications of that, but I couldn’t find a good place to shoehorn it in, so I’m just slapping it on here at the end. But without the rumination. Because it’s time for bed. Insert your own rumination in the comments!

You join the undead…

hungryThis morning for some reason I was thinking about “Hungry Are the Dead”, this groovy little indie turn-based survival horror Gameboy Color (yes) game. Most of the links for it are dead, but I was able to track down a copy on the website of one of the creators here. So, grab a Gameboy emulator and check it out.

I was kinda hoping that they’d turned it into a full game, perhaps for Android or something, but alas it is still just the GBC demo. But it’s a really cool GBC demo.

W** U

CHORUS:
I see you playin’ Angry Birds on your mobile phone,
and I’m like, Wii U! (Ooh ooh ooh!)
I guess Animal Crossing wasn’t casual enough,
and I’m like Wii U, and Wii Farmville too!

I said the bluer waters were full of dollars,
Heh, and it was true. (Yeah, it was true!)
But Apple went there too and now the water’s not blue,
so, Wii U!

Yeah I’m sorry, I can’t track your whole body,
but I can tell how much you weigh!
What’s so great about Xbox? It just emulates Atari,
while we’ve got all the classic games!

From back in the daaaay, we made stuff you’d want to play,
(Where’s Earthbound and Terranigma? Please let us know, Iwata!)
Heeeeey, they might show up some day.
(Go and post that on your rumor blog.)

[CHORUS]

Now I know, good games are a no-show,
among the fitness apps and shovelware,
but here’s a new Zelda! and a new Mario!
There, that should hold you for a year.

And now there’s a neeeewww way, to repackage our old games!
(The fifth remake of Ocarina! This time with a touchscreen-a!)
Yaaaay, and no easy way to pay!
(Why do we need your county anyway?)

[CHORUS]

Now baby baby baby, we don’t really mean to hurt you so bad,
(so bad, so bad, so baaad!)
We made Wii Fit for your mom and Big Brain Academy for your dad!
(your dad, your dad, your daaad!)
And we’re like uh… wait! Uh, wait! Uh, WAIT! Gamers!
We love you! We still love yooou!

[CHORUS]