So last night in a moment of sheer boredom because I couldn’t find a Left 4 Dead server I did the unthinkable, I downloaded Peggle for the first time. This was the mythical casual game that I’ve heard some people relate it to crack, the ultimate casual game that made Pop Cap rich. I played it for exactly 10 minutes then un installed it never to be seen on my computer again. Now I could just rant about how much it sucks but I find it interesting to explain why I didn’t like it.

There is a difference between being easy to learn and difficult to master and just being simple. In the former the easy game play is just the foundation for players who want to master the game to build on. However in the latter there is nothing else there, sure you can dress it up with some flashy lights but the game play will never grow beyond what is shown in stage 1-1. There is no true control in Peggle, once you shoot the ball it is out of your hands. I felt like I was just going through the motions and finally at stage 1-5 I decided to walk away. Now granted that there is an expert mode but unless it lets me shoot multiple balls at once or has some kind of obstacle to avoid then it is just more of the same. This is really the main crux when it comes to casual games.

So far every casual game I’ve played is a one trick pony, now that doesn’t mean its good or bad but unless you’re wowed by the first level then the game is not for you, which is the case for me with Peggle. A few days ago a family member caught me playing World of Goo and said how I like to play the simplest games. Here is the main difference between a game like World of Goo and a game like Peggle. Both have simple mechanics however World of Goo builds on top of that, each world requires a different type of thinking to succeed. Games like Peggle plateau in terms of complexity after the first level. Being able to create a game that looks simple at first glance but really isn’t is a great trait of a game designer.

Before I end it I want to say that my thoughts on Peggle are completely my opinion and should no way interfere with someone else’s thoughts. I have enjoyed casual games in the past such as Wyx and the Fable of Souls; however Peggle is not for me.

Josh

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As another year winds down I’m officially declaring it the year of the downloads. The main theme that I remember most about this year is the growth of the download market across the board, as well as numerous unique titles released through it. The reason why this is as important as it has helped alleviate several problems with developing niche titles in the Indie market.

Being an independent developer can be great, you can work at your own speed making the games you want without having anyone telling you otherwise; however there are a few things holding you back. First is the market itself, niche titles made by Indies do not find themselves in a retail store as the games aren’t mainstream enough to be able to be placed next to Halo 3 or Final Fantasy. Speaking of retail stores, the cost to get a game on the shelves would probably blow most indie developer’s budget. Thanks to the rise of the digital market, developers have found a way of getting their games to the gamers without having to deal with the stores. Now here are some great examples of downloads over the year.

Mega Man 9 (XBLA): Of course I had to mention it and one of the prime examples of the benefits of digital content. There is no way in hell Capcom could have released MM9 in the stores today (in 1994 yes) and have it be profitable. Add in the price of marketing and stocking the game would have made it a disaster. However with the savings on making the game downloadable and of course the retro graphics, made it a hit I believe; hopefully give Capcom ideas for a MM 10.

Bionic Commando Rearmed (XBLA): Even though I did not like BCR due to its difficulty and game mechanics, I still need to give the developers credit for an excellent remake. Expanding on the original while still providing a great graphical update makes it a great addition to XBLA.

World of Goo (PC and Wii): Now this is what I’m talking about, a unique game which could have only come from an indie developer. The game truly oozes style (no pun intended) and makes me relive my days of playing Jenga as I try to build a tower. The developers were even nice enough to release the game with no copy protection.

Good Old Games (PC): While not an actual game, I’ve been dreaming of a service like GOG for some time. The ability to buy legitimate copies of hard to find games at a low price guaranteed to work sounds like a dream to me. GOG already has access to several hard to find classics and the site should only grow from here.

Braid (XBLA): Well duh, after I put it on my best of list; I couldn’t imagine this title being released in the retail market but quality is on its side and it is one of my favorite games this year.

With this short list, I probably didn’t even scratch the surface of the indie market. 2008 has proven though that retail isn’t needed for your game to be a hit. Even though the cost to develop a game has risen dramatically, it has become a lot easier to get your game to the people; as the indie market has proven, you don’t need millions of dollars to create an amazing game.

So happy New Year, I’m ringing it in with the X-Com collection I bought off of Steam, so now I officially own a copy of the X-Com series. I’m also ringing it in with the fact that I’m going to go bankrupt with all the games I still need to buy… well technically I don’t need to buy them but you get my point.

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No not literally of course you sicko. One of the toughest things anyone creative can do is to tear apart something that they’ve created and try to rebuild. A few weeks ago I went to the East Coast Games Summit and had my reverse lord of the flies game idea critiqued at the game pitch. The idea was liked, however the main suggestion was to go further with my sociological aspect and less on combat. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to do that would be to drop the undead angle completely and focus on mutants and humans. I’ve been racking my brain about this; this was one of the main concepts when I first thought up the game, how would this impact the design? After some soul searching and some walks to clear my head, I came to two important decisions.

One being this idea is mine and the success or failure of it is completely on my shoulders. Yes the game itself (if it is ever made) is a group project, however the game play itself is completely from me and I have to make the final call on it. Second if I can’t come to a decision about this, then what right do I have to call myself a game designer in the first place? Another fact about creating a game, when coming up with major decisions it is not a democratic process, it is more a dictatorship. At the end of the day someone has to stand up and decide for the group and be done with it, no more arguing about what if.

I now have greater appreciation for bringing in people outside of the development to look at your work; it is true, working on a project for so long can make you oblivious to certain flaws. The trick is to know how much to listen to these people and when to stick by your original work. For my idea I’m going to play up the mutant angle more and give more personality to the mutant king. I decided to reintegrate the idea of undead as basic mutant grunts; they will still be a threat early on and will now become more powerful as the mutant king improves his troops. However they will not be the main problem, instead the mutant king will have a bigger presence in the city. Now the player will find opposition from other survivor groups along with the growing power of the king.

Getting down into the detail of your idea has got to be one of the most challenging elements of design, and is truly what separates the designers from the dreamers.

Josh

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For those like me still lamenting the death of Ensemble Studios, a great piece is up on Crispy Gamer. The three part feature looks at how ES got started; how they ended and can be found here, please note this links to part 1 and there are 2 others on the website. It’s never a good thing when a game company gets shutdown but I really took the death of ES hard.

ES has done a lot in their time; even though they have only worked on the Age of series it has garnered them numerous awards. Age of Kings (their first title) manage to compete against the monopoly of Westwood Studios (another great company) and Blizzard in the late 90s for RTS dominance. They have never made a game that failed which is no small accomplishment; from playing their games over the years you could tell that this was a company that cared for their products. Now that doesn’t mean the company didn’t have a few slip ups over the years.

Age of Empires 3 had a rough start, patches to the game actually removed important game mechanics by accident and not everything was promised made it into the game. Going back further Age of Mythology had trouble in the market as people didn’t think it was part of the Age of franchise (what, people didn’t notice the ES logo on the front?! but I digress). The company was called to create a new strategy title in the Halo universe for the consoles, which would become their final PC game. Even though AOE3 would be their last game it will stand the test of time as one of the most interesting RTS games out there.

AOE 3 started out as another real world setting RTS title, it had your Rock Paper Scissors like strategy and unique sides with their own advantages and disadvantages. The first big difference was the Home City, a way of having Collectible Card Game like mechanics into a RTS. You would build your deck with shipments (AKA cards) that can be sent over from your homeland to assist in your fight to take over. These cards range from a quick influx of units, to unique researches and equipment further improving your strengths. I LOVED this idea, as it easily destroyed one of the main complaints I have about RTS games, having the game play become mundane. In most RTS games you can figure out the main tactics of someone by the side they use, in AOE 3 however the deck of cards each person has can have a huge affect on their play style making it impossible to know how someone will fight until you play them. Add in random resources on maps kept the game from becoming too predictable, but ES did not stop there.

Over the lifetime of AOE 3, two expansions were released that turned the game into something else entirely. The first one “The War Chiefs” added Native American sides to the game, with their own unique way of handling things, they could perform rituals improving certain areas of their base at the cost of not having villagers gathering resources, and one side didn’t have any cavalry units and instead had special infantry for that role. The original nations receive the end game bonus of Revolution allowing them to have an end game counter to the other factions. If you thought that things couldn’t get any bigger, it became huge after the next expansion.

“The Asian Dynasties” would be the last and would impact the game play the most. TAD was guest designed by Big Huge Games which did the Rise of Nations series and they brought numerous interface and quality of life improvements to the game. More importantly they added another unique group of sides, the above mentioned Asian Dynasties with of course their own unique units, cards and researches. Wonders (Real life Monuments) returned to the series for TAD giving unique bonuses to whoever can build them. By the end, the world of AOE 3 was huge, perhaps too huge as the amount of details to keep track of could easily overwhelm a new comer to the series. Still AOE 3 will probably remain as one of the most feature enriched RTS titles ever made.

The reason why I’m still upset is that the studio did nothing wrong, as mentioned none of their games were commercial flops and the talent at the studio was overflowing. We may never know the real reason why Microsoft pulled the plug on ES and that pisses me off. With studios that produce bargain bin quality titles every year still in existence, losing such a prominent game studio is absurd. This is one of the main reasons why if I ever do own a game studio in the future, I will fight tooth and nail to keep it independent so that crap like this cannot happen. Now I should end this before I get myself anymore worked up. At least ES ended on a high note for PC gaming and will be remembered as one of the best, I do wish that everyone at ES good luck and hoped that they have found more work since the studio’s closing.

Josh

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