Monthly Archives: June 2012

New Game Hype

The E3 just passed has been an extreme let-down. Virtually every single developer and studio has been ‘playing it safe’ this year, with ‘shooters’ (as they seem to be called now, their old short-hand name ‘first-person shooter’ now becoming something of a technical term – the word ‘shooter’ does nothing to distinguish an FPS from a rail-shooter, third-person shooter &c) dominating the raw number of game releases/development being performed. This is the first sign/indication that ‘something is wrong with video games today’.

The second indication is similar to the first. That indication is that many of the games yet to be released are poor sequels. Further to this, many popular games that’ve been released in the medium-term past (2005-present) have been poor sequels to games, or unimaginative implementations of the formula of a particular game genre.

The reason why games have become unimaginative and poorly executed can only be speculated. It is, perhaps, chiefly because game developers have decided that the best way to make games is to make money, and that the best way to make money is to make games that focus on special effects and spectacle. The most recent ‘anecdotal proof’ of this is the developers of the up-coming Splinter Cell game stating that the newest iteration of the ‘series’ (iterations of games that are effectively the same do not become ‘series’ of games) doesn’t actually differ in gameplay, it’s just a better-looking implementation of the exact same game concepts.

The Halo ‘series’ should have stopped at the first game. The Call of Duty franchise must also stop attempting to represent that each new game they release is actually a ‘new game’. Killzone is another set of games guilty of the same wrong. Borderlands 2 may also prove to be similar.

First-person shooters are just the most common games to repeat the same formula of game concepts over and over. Nintendo has just been re-releasing the same games they made ten, fifteen years ago. Releasing Ocarina of Time on the 3DS should not have been done. Neither should Lylat Wars/Starfox64 have been re-released. Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 were brilliant games, but every side-scrolling Mario game on the Wii was just a repetition of something already achieved. Many games on the Wii have been passed of as actual ‘new’ games when they were not.

To avoid passing judgment on every game released in the last five or so years (I can’t help myself: Skyrim was just a copy of Oblivion), a really retardedly simple conceptual framework will now be offered up in an attempt to give some sort of guide/direction as to what does and what does not make a good sequel to a game. This conceptual framework will be a good framework if it successfully helps people achieve deeply satisfying entertainment experiences when playing a game sequel.

The two conditions that must be satisfied to make a good sequel to a game are:

  1. Original concepts
  2. Good execution

“Original concepts”

Original does not mean unique. Original is also not equal to ‘simple’. The word ‘authentic’ could just as easily have been used here but it doesn’t capture the essence of the importance of the concepts in games, and, arguably, really begs the question. Whether an original concept is any good is also not of any concern here because we are only interested in sequels, and so a game must merely have different concepts in order to exist as a separate game. A concept is what drives a game, and it is what causes it to exist in the first place.

A game concept is not running, jumping and shooting, it is what creates a kind of ‘potential energy’ in a game. This ‘potential’ exists for the purpose of presenting the player with a challenge to ‘satisfy’ or ‘annul’ that potential energy. Examples of the major concepts in games are:

  • Killing/murdering other people from a first-person perspective with fire-arms for the purpose of gaining tactical supremacy of an area by force (FPS);
  • Commanding numbers of things in real-time for the purpose of gaining strategic supremacy of a large area by force (RTS);
  • Controlling and customising single or multiple character(s) over varying periods of time (short, medium, long term) for the purpose of completing tasks (RPG);
  • Controlling one character for the purpose of incapaciting one other in a very small area (Fighter)

These examples are hideously simple, and a game like Thief or Assassin’s Creed fits into both half the FPS-genre and half of the RPG-genre. Borderlands fits into the same two genres but for incredibly different reasons.

Game concepts that are not original make two pieces of software that are games exactly the same. Counter-strike 1.6 is exactly the same as Counter-Strike: Source. Some people argue that the controls were changed to such an extent that the game was radically changed but this is a poor argument to answer the charge that CS:S was a game in terms of concepts any different to 1.6.

Graphics and special effects do absolutely nothing to the ‘core concepts’ of a game. There have been calls to re-release Final Fantasy VII with better graphics. This is a poor wish, such a thing will only reward someone with, conceptually, the same game. This should be repeated to people who profess their eager anticipation for ‘the next Smash Brothers’.

“Good execution”

Execution is the way video game concepts are implemented. Poorly executed games mutate good concepts into poor game-play. Because the two conditions prescribed here are independent, it is of course possible to have a game with incredibly well-executed game concepts that are unoriginal, or just lacking in any virtue to begin with.

This element here is the only justification anyone can point to to legitimise the existence of sequels to games. The sequel to a game must somehow substantially better execute the same concepts than the one(s) preceding it, if it does not employ (substantially) any other different concepts.

Special effects and ‘magic buttons’ (now becoming more prevalent than ever in games, rendering them into marginally interactive movies) usually have nothing to do with the concepts of a game, and just render particular events in the game more spectacular than what they would have been, given that the hardware on a game’s platform had been less powerful.

Good execution of a game’s concepts usually have nothing to do with a game’s graphics. Perfect example of this would be: FFXIII, Crash Bandicoot (any of them), Age of Empires III, Civ V.

Conclusion: “Ranking” games

Games and their sequels tend to be ranked in popular culture. Sometimes, a sequel to a game is better than the original. Broadly, a good example of this is Pokemon Gold and Silver. Crystal is debatable (- the battle tower). Games cannot, of course, be ‘ranked’ (load the page, then refresh it a couple of times). There does not exist some essence which resides in all games that makes them commensurable with one another, but for the purpose of illustrating the difference between game execution and game conceptualisation with respect to game sequels, see this livejournal post.

Super Mario 3

It’s probably been picked up by now that I seem to sing nothing but praises for games and people, but if I did otherwise there’d be no time to recommend anything. And there’s a tonne to recommend to people scrolling through endless lists of really average games on the Steam ‘marketplace’.

I seriously consider this to be one of the best games ever made. I’ve always found the controls of the original Super Mario Brothers to have been pretty terribly mapped, so the final form that the controls took in this final NES version of the Mario franchise is extremely satisfying.

When all you can do is go from the left of the screen to the right, you need those tight controls. Holy moly are the controls tight in this game. Best played on the original NES with it’s two-button controller, this game has singly seen me spent entire evenings and nights attempting to conquer as much of its fascinating content sheerly because the ability to run and jump is so freaking masterfully programmed.

The learning curve is perfect, with an almost impossible number of permutation of 2D enemies and terrain challenges. Ghosts in castles chase you when you turn your back to them, forcing you to run when you encounter one on either side of you – combine this with platforms of knives and falling ceilings and you have probably the most authentic rendering of a haunted castle you’ll see unsurpassed until Super Mario World.

The fact that this game achieves so much in 384 kilobytes is the reason why I prize it above Super Mario World. The SNES was a beast when it was released (1992) a year after Mario 3 debuted (1991 – we’ve always been short-changed) here in Australia, what Super Mario World achieved was on top of the shoulders of giants – the fact that Mario 3’s score-panel was achieved at all (two screens were drawn to make the score panel, so, conceptually, it was separate from the play area, which was revolutionary for the time) is testament to the fact that Miyamoto is one of the best game team managers/concept designers to have ever lived.

This game is proof that you don’t need incredible graphics just to pull a game off, let alone make a near-perfect one. Every platforming game after this one owes it some sort of artistic debt. There are so many hidden items in here that only person to person conversations will reveal. You need to talk to your friends/someone else in order to complete this game:

A: ‘Yeah you get the magic whistle by crouching on the green box in the third level on that world.’

B: -brain literally explodes-

The fact that seasoned players knew this stuff before game-sharks and ROM-mapping was easily available is one of the universe’s greatest mysteries – if it was just by sheer empirical trial and error that we discovered all the secret stuff Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development department (they actually have such a department!) crammed into this game, I can only continue to be astounded.

Every 2D platforming game is just a slight variation on this game. I’m completely certain. This game has me seriously considering buying NES consoles for the sole purpose of making sure people know this game exists. I realise Megaman 3 is a close competitor with Mario 3 (it’s worth noting that the new 9 and 10 released on the current generation of consoles were a disappointment, and are probably worth a look) but the infinite amount of varied substance in Mario 3 makes it practically perfect.

Get this game at all costs, and play it until you develop arthritis in your thumbs.

NB. Notice I’ve made no mention of:

– The tanooki suit.

– The fact that this game is still awesome despite you can’t save.

– Koji Kondo’s brilliant music.

Yet Another (Really Good) Half-Life Mod

This mod has copped a bit of criticism for still being a little ‘unpolished’, but from what I’ve seen of Cry of Fear, not only is the Half-Life engine still freaking awesome, but it goes to show that you don’t have to be a huge-arse game corporation to develop an incredibly immersive and engaging video game.

I might go and pull up a list of good Half-Life mods that have been handed down throughout the ages.