Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Paris in the fall, a Broken Sword soliloquy

As gamers, there are some games that throughout the years we return to over and over. It may be because we consider it to be the perfect game, or the pinnacle of a certain genre. Or it might be that they remind us of a specific time of our life and playing that game brings back all the emotions associated with it. Whatever it might be, as gamers we invariably have such games and today I would like to talk about one of mine.

Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars by Revolution Studios is not only one of my all time favourite point-n-click adventures, but also one of my all time favourite games. Over the years I have played and replayed this game many times. Whenever I am feeling slightly fatigued with gaming I know I can always load up Broken Sword and it will help to rekindle my joy of gaming.

The first few bars of music and then the opening words of George Stobbart, the main character, that greet you when you first click into the game, still send shivers down my spine.

"Paris in the fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me – of caf├ęs, of music, of love... and of death."

I don’t think I have ever played a single game that from its opening line has drawn me in so quickly. The combination of the softly spoken voice-work with the wonderful orchestral music sets up the mood expertly and really puts you in the shoes of the protagonist.  

As you progress through the first few scenes you get a great feel for George and the world in which you are about to become embroiled. He strikes the perfect balance between being a hero and an everyday man, someone who you would love to go down the pub with for a pint or two, if only to hear about the scrapes he manages to find himself in. In addition to George are a host of other interesting characters: including my favourites such as Sergeant Moue with his collection of matchboxes and Lady Piermont with her outrageous sense of entitlement based on the fact that she is British. Characters like these litter the game and help make the puzzle-solving a joy.

Alongside these characters is a soundtrack that has, in my opinion, yet to be surpassed. It fits the game perfectly and whether it is the opening piece that I spoke of earlier; the Irish ditty that plays when you are in the pub in Lochmarne; or the little tinkle that plays every time you solve a puzzle; it all just seems so right and contributes to creating an amazing atmosphere. I think it is this soundtrack and the atmosphere it creates in particular, that makes me come back to the game so often. It’s haunting, uplifting and stirring all at the same time and every time I hear the first few bars of the music from the opening scene, all the memories I have of the game come flooding back to me. It is this association that really draws me in each time. 
The final ingredient Revolution added that will forever have me returning to the game is the story and, more specifically, its focus on the Templars. For most of my life I have loved reading about history and the Knights Templar in particular has been one of my favourite areas of study. It is the mystery surrounding these Crusading Knights that has always fascinated me and it is this mystery that Revolution puts front and centre throughout the game and indeed the whole series.

When you add all these ingredients together they create a heady mix that results in the perfect game, one that continues to delight me every time I fire it up. There are those who say that Day of The Tentacle and Sam and Max stand head and shoulders above Broken Sword and although I can see the sense in that, as both those games are great, for me Broken Sword has the edge because what Charles Cecil and the team at Revolution have done, gives it that extra little something.

Friday, 24 February 2012

History can be fun.

Today I would like to do something a bit different and recommend a book to you. Now this might seem a bit strange, a gaming blog pointing people towards a book. However this is no ordinary book. It is called Replay: The History of Video Games and is written by Tristan Donovan and published by Yellow Ant media Ltd. But why, I hear you ask, should we read such a book?

As a history buff I have always been interested in the early development of the games industry; the characters behind the major players in the late seventies and the eighties. So naturally I sought to find a book that would give me a bit more insight into this period. After several searches on Amazon, Waterstones and Google I found that there wasn’t much to choose from, and most of what there was either out-of-stock or available for around £30. Now I like my history, but I was unwilling to fork out such a large amount of money for a book that I had no idea about whether it would be any good. One title though did catch my eye–the book in question–and I suddenly remembered reading a glowing review of it in a back issue of Edge magazine. Unfortunately it was out-of-stock on Amazon, but my lovely, beautiful wife was working in a Waterstones store at the time and I asked her if she could see if she could get hold of a copy. My luck was in as there were copies available, so I duly asked her to order me one in and was soon in possession of my first book on the history of the gaming industry.

The book itself is a weight tome with around 500 pages stuffed full of facts, anecdotes, and interesting comment which gives a real insight into how our great industry was born. After reading it I really felt that I knew a lot more about the birth and evolution of gaming. It’s not without its faults. I felt that the Personal Computer didn’t get as much recognition as it deserved, especially in respect to the birth of 3D graphics, and the last third motors through the Playstation/Saturn/N64 era where it finishes. But even these bits are a good read and when you factor in the depth and detail that is given over to the very early years then you have a very wide-ranging history of the period.

This piece isn’t really a review though, other than to say it’s great, more of a call for people to find out more about the history of video games. The reason I say this is because not only were the formative years of our hobby characterised by, at times, shear madness which makes for a cracking read, but also because without everything that has happened previously, the trials and missteps, the hits and the breakthroughs, the industry would not be where it is now. By having a better understanding of this story you appreciate more what we have today. This is what books such as Replay can do. They help enrich our industry and remind us of what has come before, and for a sector that is constantly looking towards the future, it does us good to stop for a while and look back at our past and the journey video gaming has taken.

To that end I think that anyone who has an interest in gaming should go out and buy Replay: The History of Video Games. It’s currently in stock on Amazon for just £12.65, or if you are more technically minded you can get the ebook version from Waterstones.com for £7.67. I highly recommend the book itself and guarantee you will learn something you didn’t know already, but above all I think it will increase your understanding of gaming and ultimately your love. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Nintendo 3DS, more like the Nintendo £DS.

Figures coming out of Japan today show that the Nintendo 3DS has set another sales record. This one is relating to the time it has taken for the machine to sell through five million units. The previous record was held by the DS at 56 weeks and before that the GBA at 58 weeks. According to Japanese site Adriasang the 3DS managed the feat in just 52 weeks.

It has certainly been some turn-around for Nintendo’s latest handheld. Only a few months ago experts were lining up to declare that the handheld market had moved on, that Apple’s way of doing things was what customers preferred, and that game-orientated handhelds were doomed. A price-cut and a deluge of great titles later and the 3DS is consistently breaking sales records–shows how much the supposed experts know.

Personally I never subscribed to the belief that the public were happy playing games on their phones and were not looking for a dedicated portable games machine. After all while Apple and Android were having a great deal of success in the download market, whilst smartphones were flying off the shelves and Angry Birds was being downloaded over 200 million times, people were still buying DS consoles and games. So it wasn’t like the market for a DS style handheld had disappeared.

There is also the fact that the 3DS wasn’t really a failure when it was launched. Between the launch of the system on the 26th of February and September 30th the console shifted 6.68m units compared to the original DS, which managed 6.65m over the same timeframe. The trouble was that due to the massive subsequent sales of the DS the 3DS was always going to be judged unfairly. It’s the same problem that the successor to the Wii will no doubt have. It is very rare for a console to launch and then reach the kind of numbers that the Wii and the DS were doing during their height. It is accepted fact that it takes a couple of years before a console reaches its sales peak. With the 3DS it seems that the industry expected it to be a blockbuster out of the gate and when it wasn’t they were quick to call it a failure.

True, Nintendo did make some mistakes with the launch, chief of which was that it didn’t have a great slate of games available for it, but then that has been true of most console launches. More importantly was that they didn’t manage to get across the message to the public that this was a new console rather than just another DS with 3D added. The price was also probably a little off; they perhaps should have sold it for around £229.99, but I’m not sure it was such a significant factor.

I do think though that the media were too quick to jump on the 3DS and call it a failure and this is a problem with our media as a whole. Nothing is given time anymore. You have to be able to launch and be an instant success, if you don’t then prepare to be called a failure, something which quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy–as no-one buys your machine as they think it is a failure due to what the press has said. This puts incredible pressure on anyone looking to launch a new product, be it a home console or a handheld system. Expectations are being set way too high and when those expectations aren’t hit the condemnation is swift and vicious. It’s damaging to the industry and something that needs to change.

I’m glad that Nintendo were able to prove the doomsayers wrong, but it was only their deep pockets that allowed them to combat the negative press with a sharp price-cut that was able to combat the furore over whether the console was a failure. Without that pressure from the press I think the 3DS would have gone on to have a good Christmas and going into 2012 would have been able to follow the traditional path of a console launch and reduce its price accordingly. All the press managed to do was push that chain forward a bit and make themselves look silly in the process.

Next time I think we should wait before pronouncing the death of a product, especially a Nintendo one. You would have thought that the media would have learned their lesson after what was said about the original DS and Wii when they were first announced. However it seems whilst the media is quite prepared to make swift judgements, it’s a little slower when it comes to learning from its mistakes. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Publishers? We don't need no stinking publishers!

I have been following, with interest, the developments of Tim Schafer’s appeal for money via the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to develop a new adventure game. Part of my interest is down to the fact that I would love to see Schafer and the team at Double Fine make another PC adventure game, but the other thing that spikes my curiosity is what this could mean in the wider context regarding the role of video game publishers.

If Schafer can start making games this way, by directly appealing to the games-buying public for funds, then what is stopping other leading lights of game development from doing the same? Already Chris Avellone at Obsidian has said that he would be interested in developing a game this way. Could we be about to see a deluge of top class studios leave the arms of publishers and rushing to raise funds directly?

Obviously this model is not going to work for everyone. For a start you need to be a pretty high profile developer as they have the required following and can garner the attention necessary to raise the money needed. Also you are unlikely to be able to raise the amounts currently needed to produce big budget games like Halo and Mass Effect. But all those medium-sized games that are supposedly under threat because they can’t compete with the triple A titles and so aren’t worth the risk, through this model suddenly become a lot more viable.

These middle-tier titles only appeal to a small section of the market and are often games that serve genres long forgotten by those of a mainstream ilk. Such titles need in the region of a million pounds to make–and as Tim Schafer and Double Fine have shown; if you can capture the public’s imagination then these kinds of numbers are easily within reach. (Currently Double Fine has raised $1.6m with 29 days still to go.)

Couple this new way of funding with the growth of downloadable services, in particular Steam, and as a studio you have to be thinking about whether you really need to sign-up with a publisher when you want to develop your next idea. Sure there are risks involved if you choose to go down this path, but then the same can be said for any deal you make via the traditional route. At least this way you have total control over the direction of your game and get back a larger portion of the profits.

It has been exciting to see how many developers have taken notice of what Double Fine have achieved and whilst it would be a bit premature to make any far-reaching predictions based on one-off success, part of me wonders whether this move could see a seismic shift in the role of the publisher. 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Innovation, is it the be all and end all?

Should every game reinvent the wheel or is it ok to just be competent and fun without really moving the genre forward? I ask this question because tomorrow sees the release of 38 Studios Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning an RPG that many had billed as being an Elder Scrolls killer due to the involvement of Ken Rolston who had previously worked as lead designer on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

As the reviews for this game have hit the net they have been fairly polarised between those who have enjoyed the action-orientated combat alongside the world that Big Huge Games have managed to create, and those who have marked the game down because it ‘doesn’t move the genre forward’.

I really dislike that phrase. To me it just smacks of elitism and downright ignorance of what a game should be about. It is also an easy and lazy way to criticise a game without having to delve into specifics. The argument could easily be thrown at many of the top tier games that came out at the back-end of last year.Gears of War 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Zelda: Skyward Sword and even The Elder Scrolls V:Skyrim all scored highly and found themselves on many game of the year lists, yet I struggle to think how any of them innovated and drove their perspective genres forward.

So why are those games given a free pass with regards to innovation yet a game like Reckoning is lambasted for doing exactly the same thing. This is where my theory of elitism comes from. Reckoning is produced by a fairly new developer without a good track record behind them whilst the games listed above all come from respected hit-makers. Time and again I feel games produced outside the top tier of developers are often given a rough ride when it comes to innovation and as for the big boys they can continue to churn out the same old guff and no-one bats an eye lid.

Now I am willing to accept that some of these games are not as good as the triple A titles and for that they should be rightly criticised, but that doesn’t mean reviews can avoid giving any solid reasons and just plump for the old ‘no innovation’ chestnut. You can only do that if you are going to apply the same tag to every game you review. The trouble is, reviewers aren’t about to do that because if they did they would have to mark down nearly every title they review as very few ever 'move the genre forward'.

And this brings me neatly back to my original question; does a game have to move the genre forward? Personally I would love innovation in every game I play, but I’m a realist and know that that is just not possible in the modern gaming industry. I have no problem playing a game that does very little to move the genre forward as long as it is a well-made game. The reason why games tend not to deviate from well-known tropes is because those well-known tropes have become such for a reason: they are good well-known tropes. It feels churlish to criticise a game for including game mechanics that have, in the past, been praised.

So reviewers, I say to you; either criticise each game equally when it comes to innovation or confine‘doesn’t move the genre forward’ to the dustbin of journalism where it should remain alongside other nonsense terms such as ‘playability’ and ‘if you are a fan of the genre’.

As for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning I enjoyed the demo and look forward to checking out the full game. Fable mixed with Elder Scrolls you say? Reviewers be damned, that sounds right up my street.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Game over...please insert £295m to continue

At the back end of last week rumours started to circulate that the largest video game retailer in Europe, the Game Group, had lost its credit insurance, meaning publishers selling games to the company would have to take risks on games that do not sell, something they are normally unwilling to do, leaving Game in a position whereby they would have to pay cash in order to secure stock. In total it is believed that Game owe suppliers around £295m. That's a lot of cash to suddenly have to rustle up.

This kind of situation is often the first sign that a company in about to head out of business. If you can't secure funds to buy stock then it won’t be long before you start to run low, profits then fall and finally you end up going out of business. Luckily by Friday, Game Group announced that they had managed to make a backroom deal to secure revised terms with their lending banks-the proviso being that in return Game looked at selling its overseas arm. However whilst this deal secures Game's immediate future long term, analysts believe they will have to acquire sustainable working capital in the run up to Christmas.

All of this might sound a bit dull and dry, but the wider point is what would be the impact on the gaming industry if Game were to go under? With HMV also in trouble, theoretically by the end of this year we could be in a situation where there is no video game retail presence on the high street. With the growth of internet shopping and the digital market some would say good riddance to bad rubbish, an opinion borne out by the majority of comments left on sites like Eurogamer, but would such an occurrence really be good for the industry.

When the story first surfaced about Game's troubles, EA CEO John Riccitiello was quoted as saying the following about a major European retail partner:

"We are concerned with the financial condition of one of our major European retail partners, which could lead to both increased bad debt and lost sales,"

If one of the largest publisher in the industry are concerned about how any failure of Game's business might affect them what about smaller publishers and developers. 

When it comes down to it, whilst internet shopping and digital sales account for a growing percentage of video game sales, bricks and mortar sales still provide the lions share, especially during the key fourth quarter. To suddenly see a large chunk of that sink beneath the waves would be pretty damaging for the industry. All you would be left with are the supermarkets and as they only tend to stock the best-selling games you can say goodbye to anything that isn't mainstream enough to sell in the millions. Publishers and developers could theoretically go out of business as the UK currently sits behind the US and Japan as the third largest video games market.

It's pretty scary stuff if you think about it and that's why it saddened me to see so much glee expressed on message boards and comment threads when the news first broke. Game provides a vital service as for many they are the only point of contact they have with the industry and to see that disappear would be a massive blow for everyone: publisher, developer and consumer. This isn't to say Game deserve a free pass. Some of its business practices leave a lot to be desired, especially their belief that selling games at RRP in the face of major competition is the way to build a solid business, but lets hope that this serves as a wake-up call to the company and that Game are able to turn it around and continue to provide a much needed source of income for the industry. If not we could be in for a rough ride. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

Oh Zelda, Zelda, wherefore art thou Zelda?

I think it's apt that for the title of this blog I have adapted a classic Shakespeare line as you could argue that the Legend of Zelda series has had a similar impact on gaming as Shakespeare has had on literature. The various merits to this argument are maybe best saved for another blog, but suffice it to say my first experience with the world of Zelda was not unlike my first experience of the Bard.

Enough blather lets get to the crux of this blog posting. Whilst I will always revere the Zelda series for its fairytale story, stunningly realised worlds and quirky characters I currently find myself troubled. Since The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening on the SNES I have played and adored every Zelda home console release. Whether it was a console defining game such as Ocarina of Time, an interesting oddity like Majora's Mask or a new direction in the case of Wind Waker, I have enjoyed each and every one. Each game has been hurriedly put into the console and devoured with gusto. Skyward Sword has suffered an all together different fate. You see  for the first time in the series I have found myself not enjoying myself whilst playing and this has to a certain degree horrified me.

You see there is just something about the game that wont sit right. All the usual goodness is there: a beautiful world; interesting characters; challenging dungeons; a malevolent evil that must be vanquished; and for the first time Nintendo have sought to develop the relationship between Link and Zelda. I should be hurrying home each day from work keen to continue my adventure to save fair maiden and the world.  Yet...

Something is missing. At first I thought it was a mainly down to my problem with the heavily integrated motion control. In general I'm a fan of motion control having enjoyed thrashing Rafael Nadal in Grand Slam Tennis, been beaten by my sister at Wii Bowling and rejoiced at the brief resurgence of the light gun genre. I didn't even mind the motion control that was crowbarred into Twilight Princess. So I had high hopes for the sword combat in Skyward Sword and to start with these hopes were met as I dispatched logs with precise strikes. However once I transfered these moves to combat things became a little trickier as some of my movements were not registered and Deku Babas started to munch at my health bar. Things became worse as I faced off against the final boss. As I tried to swipe in the opposite direction to which he was defending I found the Wiimote unwilling to interpret my motions correctly like a nagging spouse who insists that their way is the best way. 'A strike from the right? I think you mean a strike from the left,' the Wiimote seemed to say. Eventually I ended up just thrashing the controller around wildly in desperation. I'm sure anyone watching would have had a good laugh, but it was hardly conducive to an enjoyable experience. On reflection the Wiimote might have needed recalibrating, but I couldn't find an option to do so from the in game options. Once I had defeated the boss I made sure to save my progress, turned the game off and I have had no inclination to turn it on since.

So the erratic behaviour of Wii Motion Plus was what initially put me off playing any more of the game. But on further reflection whilst the motion malfunction wasn't fun I don't think that is the main reason for my reluctance to play. There were other nagging thoughts that had been at the back of my mind and had started to make their way to the surface. Why was the pace of the game so slow, why did it feel like I was playing with training wheels on, and what was with the AI companion Fi. I felt like I was adventuring with a Hollywood Blockbuster writer with an annoying habit of feeling they had to spell every single thing out to me at every turn like I was some kind of child. And then it hit me...child.

Now Nintendo are known for their ability to appeal to generation after generation with their games and always being able to find an audience that is predominantly on the younger side of life. In the past this has never bothered me, but with the Wii there is an added problem. For the first time since the original Legend of Zelda Nintendo is making a Zelda game that the majority of its customers will have never played. I don't know whether this was at the forefront of their minds whilst developing Skyward Sword, but it certainly feels like they believed they had to go out of their way to make sure anyone who picked up this latest Zelda would get a good introduction to the series and at no point would they feel lost.

Having made this realisation everything about what I had played began to make sense. The 3 minute long unskippable video that played at the beginning of the game explaining how to take the Wii Motion Plus attachment on and off, the left hand side of the screen being partially obscured by a button layout guide, the interminably slow pace, and the incessant nagging Fi.

It was this simplification of the series that had really driven me away, the malfunctioning motion control hadn't helped, but for the first time I felt that Nintendo weren't making Zelda games for me any more. Have I finally grown out of my love for all things Ninty or has the company just moved on to a new audience? It's hard to tell right now, I enjoyed Mario Galaxy so I can still enjoy some of the games they make. I don't think I will be able to make a proper judgment until I see the way they plan to go with their next console, but after years of defending Nintendo against the complaints that they were pandering to the masses with the Wii I have more of an idea of where those people were coming from.

I'm sad that it has taken one of my favourite gaming series to make me realise that I might have finally out grown Nintendo. As it stands I'm not even sure I will bother with their next console, sticking instead with my PC and the next Xbox and if you had sat 17-year-old me down and told him that one day he would be considering no longer purchasing Nintendo products he would have given you a look of disdain and turned back to his N64.