Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Pretty lights and explosions

Williams Electronics flyer courtesy of TAFA
People play video games for different reasons. Some like the intelectual challenge of puzzle and strategy games. Others want a respite from reality, and like to pretend they are elves in a fantasy world, or football players in a big green field... There are some however, who just want to shoot things and watch the world explode in a cloud of multicolor fireworks. To quote Batman's butler: 

«Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.»

This became a possibility in 1980, when Defender came to the arcades. Defender is a game about protecting little humanoids from aliens who try to pick them up to eat them. If an alien succeeds, it subsequently mutates into an aggressive and hyperactive version of itself. If all the humanoids are eaten, the planet explodes and all the aliens become hyper and a lot harder to hit.

It is therefore smart to shoot them down as quickly and accurately as possible, and for doing so you are rewarded with pretty lights and explosions.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Final Fantasy XI, Part 1 - Introduction



Back in 2005 when I was a student and had copious amounts of spare time, I decided that it would be a good idea to play an online role playing game. «World of Warcraft» had just been released and it was tempting, but «Final Fantasy XI» had been on my list for a long time and was the one that I ended up playing.

It was originally announced simultaneously with «Final Fantasy X» (the greatest «Final Fantasy» EVER), at the Japanese Square Millennium Event in 2000, and it reached my attention in the form of blurry page-scans from the Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. It came out in Japan on May 16 2002 for the Playstation 2, for PC in the United States in 2003 and in Europe the year after. It was also ported to the Xbox 360 in 2006. It was the first MMORPG that allowed players on all three platforms to play together on the same servers, as well as across geographical regions.

«Final Fantasy XI» was quite hard to get into. I remember spending the whole first day just downloading the updates and completing the registration procedure. Initially I had trouble figuring out how to use the mouse and keyboard to walk around (a game-pad made it much better) and after that, I couldn't find the way out of the starter city. After I did, I was summarily executed by a killer bunny-rabbit. Under normal circumstances, this would probably be the point where I would discard the game as unworthy of my time. But I really wanted to like it... Because it was «Final Fantasy», and it was online. So I stuck with it.

A not so final, Final Fantasy update

Last month's Distant Worlds concert made me reflect upon just how much time I have invested into the Final Fantasy franchise. Recollections of years of adoration for the series crept back into my mind, and as a result I think that now is as good a time as ever to take the trip down that particular memory lane.

I would like to start with Final Fantasy XI. This is the online one, and a game that I played more or less exclusively for five years. As such, it will be hard to put all that needs to be said about it into one post, so I expect there will be quite a few before I am done. I will try to sprinkle in stuff about other games along the way, but in the mean time... Please bear with me while I reminiscence about airships, crystals, dragons and men with somewhat oversized swords :)

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Distant Worlds, Edinburgh Playhouse

It is nice to be at a video game event where the majority of attendants have put on their fancy clothes. Most people were either in full cosplay gear, suited up... or both, in the case of those dressing as "Turks" from Final Fantasy VII.

I knew the concert was going to be great when the first number started playing. It was the Final Fantasy Prelude. Initially just a solo harp playing, reminiscent of the early NES games, but it was eventually overlaid by the choir arrangement from the japanese Final Fantasy: Pray CD. Halfway in, the string parts added to the Prelude in Final Fantasy VII were incorporated, and at this point I must admit that sentimentality got the better of me, and I might have shed a nostalgic tear or two :)

After winding the composition down to its basic form again for the ending, the choir transitioned into Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII, complete with video from the game's intro sequence, giving the Edinburgh Playhouse a chance to shine both as a concert venue and as a cinema, the purpose for which it was originally constructed in 1929.

Subsequently, the conductor Arnie Roth addressed the crowd, presented The National Youth Choir of Scotland, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the evening's representative from Square Enix in attendance: Final Fantasy XIII composer Masashi Hamauzu.

After doing a short Victory Fanfare the orchestra continued with a moving rendition of the Zanarkand theme from Final Fantasy X.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

From Diablo to Torchlight

Diablo CD Cover © Blizzard Entertainment
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away... There was a company called Blizzard North. 

In this company there worked a developer named David Brevik, two artistically inclined brothers called Max and Erich Schaefer, and a multi-instrumentalist by the name of Matt Uelmen, whose 12-string guitar picking skills were devil-iscious. Together, they made a game called Diablo, and it was awesome.

Blizzard North was originally a small company named Condor, but were bought by Blizzard Entertainment and re-branded in 1996, six months before they released Diablo. The man who incorporated them into the Blizzard fold was Bill Roper, at the time a producer for Warcraft II.

Diablo was one of those games that drew you in primarily because of its atmosphere. It was dark and Gothic, with phenomenal ambiance and beautiful music. It was exactly how a game for fans of dark fantasy in the Alternative/Post-Grunge era should be.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Apps on Steam and indie game creation

As of today, Steam is offering productivity applications as well as games on their online store. On the surface, this may not necessarily seem like a big deal. After all there already are online stores for productivity applications, for instance the App Store from Apple. It is however a big deal for budding video game makers, and here is why: Steam Workshop.

Steam Workshop is a mechanism that allows easy distribution and consumption of user created content for games on the Steam platform. Popular games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, has an active modding community that so far has released over 10.000 user modifications of variable quality on the game's workshop channel.

One of the seven applications currently being offered on the Steam App Store is GameMaker: Studio from YoYo Games. And it just so happens, that it has Steam Workshop integration built in right off the bat. 

At the same time, numerous indie-developers are currently engaging in the gated popularity contest that is Steam Greenlight to get their game considered for publication on the Steam platform. The contestants are many, but the winners are few.

Now, if your game is made with GameMaker, you can now put it or a demo on Steam through GameMaker's workshop channel, thus bypassing the nomination process of Steam Greenlight.

At the time of writing there are currently just over 50 titles being offered as workshop items for GameMaker. Many of them just demos or works in progress. Expect this number to increase over the next couple of days as creators realize the buzz-making potential this gives to a game in development.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Dark Souls

The current buzz about the excellently though game Dark Souls, is primarily about how badly ported the PC version is. For instance, it requires a user generated mod by a guy called Peter "Durante" Thoman to enable high resolution rendering, a feature which for many is the whole point of playing games on the PC in the first place. 

The game has been on the top sellers list on Steam since release, and like many others I feel a little conflicted with regards to having bought it for full price. On the one hand, we are sending the message that we want awesome games like this on the platform, which is good. But on the other hand we are also telling publishers that it's OK to do a bare minimum of effort on the conversion, which is bad.

I am not asking for a redesigned interface, tailored to the mouse and keyboard fetishistic FPS crowd, I am quite comfortable with the whole game-pad-for-computers thingy. I am however a huge graphics-whore, and do expect to be able to crank the graphics up to match the native resolution of modern displays. I also expect the frame-rate not to be soft-capped at a measly 30 FPS. Even old games like Space Invaders run at 60 FPS.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

There are some who call me... 'Timmy'...?

«Diablo III» © Blizzard Entertainment. Painting by Brom
Twelve years have passed since the previous chapter in the «Diablo» saga, and for most of that time the franchise has had a dedicated player base. Will «Diablo III» have as long a lifespan? In its current form, not very likely.

In order to explain why, I must introduce you to the three player arch-types of «Magic: The Gathering»: Timmy, Johnny and Spike.

For years, Wizards of the Coast R&D have done psycho-graphic profiling on players of their collectible card games.

From this profiling they were able to come up with characteristics of three player arch-types:

Timmy (The Power Gamer): Timmy wants to be bigger, stronger and tougher than his opponent. Timmy is not concerned about winning all the time, but if once in a while he wins big, Timmy has fun.

Johnny (The Creative Gamer): For Johnny playing is a form of self-expression, and winning is not as important as being able to play on his own terms. Thinking about ways to play the game is often more fun for Johnny than actually playing it.

Spike (The Tournament Player): Spike has fun when he wins. He is not particular about whether he wins by his own devices or some strategy he read on the Internet. If something gives him an edge and it's allowed, he will use it. Spike looks for efficiency and consistency.

And now for something completely different...

This week, instead of writing about the classics, I will focus on something contemporary. More specifically I am going to bitch about Diablo III. For the record, I actually liked a lot of what Blizzard Entertainment had done to modernize the franchise, I just got tired of it faster than expected. Stay tuned...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Paku-Paku

Pac-Man "geek picture of the day" courtesy of Forbes
"Did you know that the original name for Pac-Man was Puck-Man? You'd think it was because he looks like a hockey puck but it actually comes from the Japanese phrase 'Paku-Paku,' which means to flap one's mouth open and closed. They changed it because they thought Puck-Man would be too easy to vandalize, you know, like people could just scratch off the P and turn it into an F or whatever."

This little piece of trivia from the title character in the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which is awesomez by the way) is actually true. The original Japanese version of Pac-Man from 1980 was called Puck-Man, but it was changed to Pac-Man by the time it was released in the west.

The objective of the game is to eat all the dots in a maze and not get caught by the ghosts. If Pac-Man eats one of the four larger "power-pellets", he can also eat the ghosts for a short time.

The game was designed by Tōru Iwatani at Namco. He felt that video-gaming at the time, with its predominantly Space Invaders inspired themes was male dominated, and wanted to create a concept that could have wider appeal, hopefully bringing females into the arcades. The concept he settled on was eating. The ghosts were also specifically designed to look cute as opposed to scary, and were colored in pastels. It worked brilliantly, and Pac-Man ended up being the first video-game that had a significant female player base.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The rise of Mario

Donkey Kong flyer, courtesy of TAFA
Once upon a time in the early eighties, when Nintendo was trying to break into the US gaming market, one of their games called Radar Scope which had been quite successful in Japan was shipped in large quantities across the pond. Upon arriving it didn't sell. In order to move the unsold inventory, one of Nintendo's designers was tasked with converting the excess machines into something that would appeal to an American audience.

In order to do this, the designer wanted to create a game based on Popeye the Sailor, in which Bluto kidnapps Olive and Popeye has to save her. The licensing deal with the Popeye character's owner: King Features Syndicate, did however not work out at the time, so the designer had to change the concept. Instead Popeye became a jumping, hammer-wielding carpenter in blue and red overalls called "Jumpman", Bluto was changed into a gorilla named "Kong" and Olive became a generic damsel in distress, originally just referred to as "Lady". The object of the game is to climb to the top of the screen to save the girl, whilst avoiding or jumping over stuff that can hurt you and collecting objects along the way for points. When the new game arrived at the offices of Nintendo's newly established American division, the head sales manager hated it because there was no shooting in it.

Friday, 10 August 2012

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."

Star Wars movie poster by Tom Jung (1977)
Space was considered very awesome in the late seventies. One of the main reasons for this was the movie: Star Wars which premiered in 1977. I grew up in a small fishing village in the North of Norway, where we didn't actually get Star Wars until sometime during the early eighties, because that was when the late seventies got there... But i digress!

About a year after Star Wars, the game Space Invaders was released. This was the game that imprinted on my mind the awesomeness of gaming. I had seen video games before... Mostly variants of the game Pong which came out before I was even born... But what all those games had in common was that they were lame interpretations of sports like tennis or football. But Space Invaders had ALIENS that you had to shoot with LASERS in order to stop them from eating your face!!! (At least that was how it was in my imagination)

Space Invaders was so awesome for its time that it is generally considered to be the game that started off the golden age of arcade video games, which lasted from about 1978 - 1983. A lot of the games from this period were about space, aliens and lasers.

Another likely reason for this was that the hardware used to run the games at the beginning of this era, had only a monochrome palette to use for graphics, so you could either have a black background with white objects or the other way around. Large white areas are however somewhat headache-inducing on bright screens, so most developers went with the black background option, which lends itself nicely to a "spacey" kind of look.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Games today vs. in the "Old Days"

When I grow old enough to sit on my porch in a rocking chair and shout at people in the street, I fully intend to shout about how the young whippersnappers of today have it too easy with their Internets and whatnot... And that in MY day we had to load OUR games from analog magnetic bands and floppy discs that were actually floppy!

If you grew up before the beginning of the new millennium, and cut your teeth on video games in the 8-bit or 16-bit era, you probably have thought to yourself at some point: "Games are not nearly as good today as they were when I was young. Sure the graphics are better, but the game-play is just not what it used to be!"

...And you would be right! ...And wrong. My opinion is that gaming is now awesome again and have been for some time, after having been a bit dull for a few years before that. The gaming industry has had ups and downs in the 30+ years it has been an industry.

It is my intention with this blog to look back through the decades and examine the important developments, trends and titles that have had an influence on games up to today. I will probably not do this chronologically, and updates will most certainly be sporadic at best, but I WILL aspire to make it all fit in a context that by the time I'm done, will all make sense.

I am doing this mostly for my own benefit, as my brain has accumulated so much data about gaming over the years that I need to get it out in some structured form to make space for new stuff. However... If someone out there browsing through my stream of consciousness also find it somewhat interesting... Well, then a winner is you ;)