This past generation has given us new ways of promoting accessibility in games, in no small part thanks to the Wii and Nintendo DS. The Wii has given us motion controls, while the DS has the stylus and touch screen. Since then, both Sony and Microsoft have followed suit with the Playstation Move and Kinect respectively. These devices have given rise to more accessible content, thanks to offering an alternative to button combinations. However, with the recent release of the 3DS, I’m starting to realize that in creating new forms of accessibility, designers may have created something inaccessible to me, and perhaps others.

Being able to use a controller to manipulate a character or action on screen has always worked for me, as it takes the majority of physical action out of the equation. The problem is that by introducing physical actions into game design, I find myself in some cases physically unable to play games. I suffer from fine motor control issues in my hands, whenever I try to do something very fine or intricate, and my hands begin to twitch. For games that require the player to perform very specific gestures, the constant shaking of my hand gets in the way unless I concentrate more on that then playing the game.

The whole dancing genre is forever out of my grasp, which is alright as I hate to dance to begin with. I have nerve damage in my right leg and foot, and have little use of them. There is no way in hell that I could stand for long periods of time, much less perform dance moves. Learning how to play the drums in Rock Band became a painful exercise using my right leg, which required me to shift to my left leg. While these last two examples are broad, on the DS I have been effectively shut down from playing two of the biggest games on it.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, both make use of the DS’s unique functionality in their game design. In Phantom Hourglass, there are spells the player can cast by drawing specific symbols on the map, and several doors that require a symbol drawn to open. The problem for me was that Nintendo made it so that the symbols had to be drawn close to perfection for the system to register it.

For me, due to my twitching hands I could not draw the symbols how the game wanted to move on. Another thing I noticed was how some symbols had to be drawn in a certain way, such as from left to right. Since I’m a lefty, I found it easier to go from right to left with some of the harder symbols, but the game was not accepting it. In order to keep going I had to grab a family member to draw the symbols on the DS for me, a first in my life of having to get someone to play a game for me to progress.

Unfortunately, with Spirit Tracks I wasn’t so lucky. The game makes use of the DS’s microphone to have the player play an instrument by blowing into it. Besides my physical issues I also have horrifically bad allergies, which leaves me with a semi stuffed nose at all times. For the life of me I could not get the game to recognize that I was playing the notes correctly. I spent roughly two hours attempting this to the point where I started choking, because I was running out of air trying to make this work; eventually I had to give up.

For the first time, I had to stop playing a game, not because I was stuck at a difficult challenge, or a boss fight, but because I was physically unable to play it. The prospect of not being able to play video games due to physical limitations is a scary one to me. There is a sense of irony that by creating tools to make games more accessible to casual gamers, that it has made them inaccessible to me, and perhaps others.

Thinking about possible solutions, the margin for error should be given a wide berth for people having trouble. Going back to Spirit Tracks for a second, I wonder if people who have asthma ran into the same problems I had. Having multiple options for performing the task would work as well. This would need to be handled on a game-by-game basis depending on the controls and actions required. Even having an option to take these actions and map them to a controller input in extreme cases could work.

Making games more accessible, has been a constant challenge for designers. From subtitles for hearing impaired people, to visual modes for color blindness, there are a lot of things for a designer to think about. As game design moves more into a realm where button presses are not the only form of input, designers will have more limitations from their fan-base to consider.

Josh

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I consider myself a multi-faceted gamer, there are days that I want to play a complex, challenging title that has me pouring over stats and information to make every second count. Then there are days that I want to blast monsters with giant guns, while explosions go off in the background orchestrated to the music of Black Sabbath or Queen. Bulletstorm is for those latter moments and in many ways what I like (and don’t like) about the game reminds me of Mad World.

There isn’t much to talk about with the story in Bulletstorm. Expect to kill a lot of guys and hear every kind of dick joke you can think of. The writing is definitely low-brow but got a few chuckles out of me. You can tell that the voice actors were having fun reading some of the crazier lines in the game.

What Bulletstorm lacks in mature writing, it makes up with graphical prowess. The backgrounds and environments look amazing, with just about every scene looks like something off of a painting. Later levels that take place in destroyed areas have a sense of awe from seeing how much destruction happened. Chances are however, you won’t be concentrating on how pretty everything is when the fighting starts.

The real meat of Bulletstorm’s game-play comes from the “skill-shot” system. Skill-shots are creative ways of killing enemies, either using your weapons, or the environment. Why just blast an enemy with a shotgun, when you can blast an enemy with a shotgun that splits them in half and send the top half into a giant cactus. Performing skill-shots earns you points that can be used to buy ammo and upgrades for your weapons.

The weapon design in Bulletstorm is great, which comes as no surprise given People Can Fly’s (the designers) track record with Pain Killer. Each weapon has an alternate fire that changes the dynamic of the weapon. For instance, the assault rifle gets a super shot that can obliterate enemies and can pass through them. The alternate fire requires the player to spend points on charges and is most likely going to be where the majority of your points go. The only real complaint I have with the weapon system, is that the player is limited to only holding three weapons at once

Chaining together multiple skill-shots requires practice and a lot more thinking that is normally required for these types of shooters. Helping out, is how maneuverable the player is. Besides running, you also have the option to slide across the area which not only knocks enemies in the air, but gives you time to regenerate your health. However besides sliding and skill-shots, the coolest mechanic in Bullet Storm would have to be the leash.

Basically, it is an electric whip that can pull enemies and objects to the player. While the enemy is floating in mid-air, this gives you the perfect opportunity to set up for the harder skill-shots. Later in the game, you can purchase the “thumper” upgrade that gives the leash the ability to blast all nearby enemies’ straight up into the air. When all these different factors come together, Bullet Storm can be a fun game, however, like a certain other ultra-violent game; I have some issues with the design.

Linear stages, while nice to look at, are not the best format for games like Bulletstorm or Mad World. The reason is that there is only so much you can do in a linear environment before it gets repetitive. Because of the linear layout, there isn’t too much experimentation with the skill-shots. You can only do so much in each area and environmental deaths are the easiest to get a high score from. Every level is essentially a long corridor, with exception to a few turret sections. Due to the linearity, I could only play Bulletstorm for a few hours at a time before I had to put it down from being too repetitive. While the skill-shot system is fun, there isn’t much to gain other then ammo for your weapons.

Besides the single-player story, the game offers score based challenges in the form of “echoes”. In this mode, the player will replay sections of the single-player campaign to rack up as much points as possible. You are graded on how long it takes you to complete the section, along with how many different skill-shots you made. Distilling the levels down to score runs was a good idea and reminds me a little of The Club, that was released a few years back. However I think there is something better that can be done and it comes from the extreme sports genre.

One of the best design changes in my opinion from games like the Tony Hawk series, SSX and Skate, was transitioning to an open world environment. This is where skill-based games are at their best in my opinion, as it allows gamers to try out different things and see what they can do. You can still have linear events set up in the area, such as the races in SSX 3.

Now picture a game like Mad World or Bulletstorm, in an open world setting. The player is free to equip different weapons at their leisure and go around trying to perform the craziest attack combos they can think of. Points earned are used to open up new weapons and upgrades, along with boss events or linear sections.

Another way that this can help is making the combo system more fluid. In Bulletstorm, only the last few hits you do to an enemy count towards skill-shots, I would love to see the system transition into a more fluid combo system, allowing the player to rack up multiple skill-shots as long as they keep the body in air or not destroyed. In other words, give me Skate but replace skateboarding with guns, killing and explosions.

Lastly there is a multiplayer mode that has people working together to earn enough points to win. From descriptions it looks really fun; however like my time with Kane and Lynch 2, I couldn’t find any friends to play with and did not try it out.

Bulletstorm is definitely not for everyone, from the crude writing to the simplified level design. However, there is a glimmer of greatness here that I would love to see them expand upon with a sequel.

Josh

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Team Fortress 2 is one of Valve’s banner titles and is still going strong since 2007. With that said, I can’t play it anymore and no matter how many hats, guns, replay editor, in game store and tutorials will keep me playing.

I started playing TF2 when the Heavy update was released in 2008 and played it consistently until Left 4 Dead was released. Since then my time spent has declined gradually until this point where I’m giving it up. Originally, I thought I was the only one who felt that way, however the more people I’ve spoken to the more I hear about long time fans quitting the game as well.

 As I thought about Team Fortress 2 and compared it to other multi-player games I’ve played, it dawned on me as to what the problem was and who to blame for it. Team Fortress 2 is a victim of being too open to customization and the influence of a Meta game, and the blame is split between Valve and you, the fans.

I know that many fans are into the whole Meta game of getting items, but for me the game-play has to hook me first. My problem is that while Valve has gone to great lengths to improve the Meta-game but have done nothing to fix a problem that they let get out of control. The actual game-play has devolved into nothing but imbalanced death matches and the inclusion of a meta-game has further pushed this over the edge.

When Team Fortress 2 was first released, maps were supposed to be played with a fix number of players. The primary reason was to keep the game from being imbalanced. The map design falls apart when you have a huge # of players. Just about every map has bottlenecks or one way areas where all it takes is a few extra demo men or engineer turrets and the area becomes a death trap. When that happens the only options are to get multiple medics with uber-charges at the same time or wait for time to expire.

To give players more freedom with their options, Valve allowed people to set up their own servers and to alter settings at their leisure. Unfortunately as it turns out, gamers weren’t interested in balance. The majority of the servers available have re-spawn timers set very low and usually have a twenty plus player limit. This kills any kind of team strategy and devolves matches into meat grinders at bottlenecks. With the reduce spawn timers even if one team makes any head way, the other team will be back in full force in seconds.

Sadly Valve has made this problem worse with the inclusion of item drops. Valve designed the system to work on time spent playing ,which at first led to the idling problem which was soon corrected. The issue is that this kind of system rewards the wrong type of play. Instead of rewarding players who help their team or work together, it rewards that mindless game-play that I didn’t like before. Every game I join amounts to me running to one area, getting killed by seven rockets and six grenades and then replaying it three seconds later.

When items were originally introduced, they were a reward for getting so many achievements for a specific class. I agree with Valve that limiting items to achievements only was not a good idea. However with so much design spent on the meta-game, nothing was done to make sure that it integrates well with the actual gameplay. Currently with crafting, dueling, recipe formulas and the in-game store, the meta-game has become more complex then TF2’s actual gameplay.

Putting on my designer’s hat for a minute, here are the changes that I would implement. First, I would either remove the ability for servers to alter spawn timers and player limits or only allow items to drop on servers using the default settings for these. Second, I would keep the same item drop system in place but add the following additions. The team that wins the current round of play will have a positive modifier to their drop chance rate. On the other team the top three players for that round will also receive a modifier but smaller then for the winning team. Lastly on multi-map games, if a team wins every round they will automatically be rewarded with a random item.

These changes, while still giving some rewards to the people who just want to death match all day long will reward people for contributing and being a team player. The actual game-play should come first and not the Meta-game, as the former is supposed to hook players and the latter should keep them around. The more people I’ve spoken to, I hear the same story of how their departure from TF 2 began with the introduction of items.

There is a reason why in Left 4 Dead that you don’t see many servers that allow more survivors or special infected at a time, because the maps are not balanced for any less, or any more players. Why Valve has let it get out of hand with Team Fortress 2 is beyond me. In the past, I thought how cool it would be if Left 4 Dead had a similar Meta-game style as Team Fortress 2, but now I wonder if that would ruin Left 4 Dead for everyone.

The concept of Team Fortress 2’s Meta game looks good on paper, but when it comes down to it, a good meta game should be secondary to the actual game-play. If the designers mess up, we’ll have a situation where the Meta game takes precedence over playing the game when it should be used to supplement the gameplay.

Josh.

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It’s time for another deep, dark gamer secret. For those keeping track : I hated Bioshock, find Bioware overrated and didn’t care for Call of Duty or Gears of War (this one I haven’t written about yet). Today’s rant is all about the sandbox genre. I have never been able to get enjoyment from these games. I’ve tried to play both The Sims 1 and 2, and got bored fairly quickly. Even Minecraft, the game I raved about last year has been un-played for at least six months. I started to think about why these games have never hooked me and realized that it has to do with what motivates me to play.

When it comes down to it, I need to have some form of motivation to play from the game. Whether that is in the form of the challenge of the game, or simply achievements to check off. As someone who loves to come up with game ideas all day long, I’m horrible when it comes to making my own fun in sandbox titles.

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