Monopoly city streets

The word wide Monopoly match is finally running smoothly without slowdowns or lag. The game is a fantastic experiment on the google maps platform. I've been wondering why it hasn't  been used more for games up til now, let's see if that changes. There is only one problem with the game. Chance has such a small effect on actual play that the main strategy in Monopoly (buy everything as fast as possible) is not only dominant but effectively the only one. Still pretty fun though, buying your own neighbourhood.

LOVE mmo is complete

At least according to developer Eskil Steenberg's blog. LOVE is a hugely interesting MMO since it's mostly procedurally generated with the world being constantly constructed and destroyed by players. Also noted for being developed solely by Eskil (except for the music) it looks to be quite an achievement. So far though the game is only feature complete, which since it's procedurally generated also means content complete, it does not mean it's ready for release though. Eskil is probably going to test the shit bejesus out of the product before launch or open beta. I for one will be glued to the site looking for a download button.

Playstation 3 drive error update

Got another PS3 on my warranty. Pretty decent by Sony I think, sadly it was broken as well. Went back to the store and got another one, courtesy of the Sony retailer in Sweden, this time it worked. Then I realized my enormous mistake. A PS3 drive is encrypted to specific machines. That means you can't swap drives to other PS3's.. Now this I just don't understand. There are no real security benefits with not being able to swap drives. If a hacker wants to pirate something they will, eventually, break the encryption. But besides that, why use a specific machine? Why shouldn't I be able to move my drive to another PS3.

Maybe I want to upgrade to the newest revision of the PS3 hardware some time in the future? No? Alright Sony, if that's the way you want it.

Since I'm now without save games and with no real must play titles out right now, I am seriously thinking about exchanging it for an Xbox 360 elite. At least there I know what kind of problems to expect...

Playstation 3 slim and pricedrop

Huzzah! The rumors were true. Sony has announced that they will release a slimmer, cheaper version of the PS3 September 1. Wow. That's great. A lot of more people will buy PS3s...

It's just a bit sad that Sony is already lagging behind with every service associated with the PS3. The online functionality is simple not nearly as good or entertaining as Microsofts Xbox Live. PSN has less games and content. PS3 developers are still not getting enough help to really push the PS3.

So, as I did smile for a short while at the very late price drop, I'm afraid it might not be enough. And while I do enjoy and respect the 360. Something tells me I just don't want Microsoft to dominate my living room as they have, for far to long, dominated my workspace.

The first Real virtual world

Oh alright, virtual worlds have been around a long time. But never as alive as this. One of the largest MMOG's in the world, Eve Online, is getting a sister game from the same developer. The game, Dust 514, will feature shooter gameplay in the same world as Eve. That's right. Games in different genres played in the same game world at the same time. Even if the games themselves do not interact directly the indirect possibilities of cross game effect and not to mention news has the potential to be amazing.

This could really be the first MMO world that might live on, with the games coming and going. A true perpetual world.

How fast do you want your data?

Media is becoming snippets of entertainment. Don't believe me? Check out a few Ted talks or simply watch something good on youtube. The reason I can say this is because the Internet is letting people choose their entertainment on demand. They watch, read and play what they want when they want it.

But since there is a lot more media available then you can ever consume in a lifetime people are choosing to experience what they want now. We see short funny clips, but we might spend hours watching such clips. We also watch high quality TV-series or a new blockbuster movie but not nearly as much as we check blogs or mail.

The point is, media is getting smaller, quicker, more effectively made for individuals. We can either use that knowledge to create content that will appeal to the new customer behaviour or we can fight it and say that the people using content this way are just tech freak pirates anyway.

The early adopters are not copies of the next generation of media consumers, but they do show the trend. It has been that way for the past hundred years with Radio, Cinema and TV. Why would this trend be different?

Adaptive difficulty level

Difficulty in games is always a hard balance to find. Since a game is a continuous loop of events you want each iteration to be a little harder to keep engaging the player while being simple and enough to overcome with the training the player got from the previous iteration. Simply put, developers want difficulty to work for everyone and smoothly ramp upwards as the game progresses. This pacing of difficulty is really hard. And today's titles mostly do this by hand and play testing, which works great for many titles but becomes increasingly hard as games become more complex. One of my closest friend, a developer for one of Sweden's largest game development companies, has told me that a few of their titles actually have a form of adaptive difficulty level, but in my opinion the system he explained was very crude.

This is my suggestion, bear in mind that it is purely theoretical and not based on any single product though I will use the shooter genre as my general example:

Stop using levels and number of enemies as difficulty setting. These elements affect the players emotional response to situations and should be used as tools to do that. Nothing else.

Instead, use adaptive AI to make the difficulty adapt to the players performance. This system can be susceptible to breaking if it's not made to be imperceptible, which is a problem, but not near as big of a problem as pacing issues in current titles.

Take a shooter, make enemies miss ratio increase as players health diminishes, at the same time make enemies hits do less damage. Make sure however that these changes are small, I predict that changes larger then around 10% will be noticeable by players. Change things as much as needed, but strive to make it unnoticeable. Even 10% makes a huge difference. So far so good, this level of adaptability is surely used in titles already.

Next, monitor how often and how much damage a player takes, compare that to the kills or percentage of damage the player does (the percentage where 100% is a kill, this way HP won't affect the statistic). Use this data to restrict or increase the difficulty decrease. If a player scores a lot of kills and takes a lot of damage but does not die the difficulty might be good. If the player doesn't do any real damage however the difficulty is probably quite tough.

If monitored for the last 10 to 30 minutes of game time the numbers should give you a general performance for the player, in any situation and however good they get. And if a player tries to fool the system by playing badly it won't affect the balance for very long, the player that does very low damage for a half an hour might take less damage for a few minutes but the player wont win anything by playing this way and therefore has incentive not to try to cheat the system.

Of course, this adaptive system would also need balancing: how fast should it react? what statistics should be most important? Should it keep track across game sessions?  But the point is you'd only have to balance this system once. It could then balance your entire game, from tutorial to boss fights without the developers needing to tweak levels. They could instead spend their time creating interesting situations.

Playstation Portable Go $249

Sony finally released information about their new incarnation of the PSP. The PSP Go. Without UMD it will sell in paralell with the PSP 3000 while all new PSP titles will be available on UMD as well as digital download. It has 16GB internal memory and place for a memory card. It's also about the size of an iPhone but with about the same size screen as the PSP 3000. I want one.

E3 information overload

E3 is back and with a vengeance, it's more news then ever and the quality of games has increased by an order of magnitude since the last E3. The things I've found most interesting so far are:

Motion controlling for the future by Microsoft with project Natal and by Sony with the playstation motion controller.

Games of unsurpassed quality with Uncharted 2, Assasins Creed 2, modNation Racers and God of War 3.

Did I mention that Xbox 360 is adding applications for Twitter and Facebook as well as opening the renamed Zune Video Store in Europe? The Wii gets more peripherals and circa two games but honestly, who cares?

Project Natal

You've probably seen Microsoft's new interface for the Xbox 360: Project Natal. If you haven't, project Natal is a 3d stereo-optic RGB camera with a microphone. So it sees depth, color and can hear. Coupled with the Xbox 360 it allegedly allows you to do full body motion capture in real time as well as facial recognition and voice recognition. If you have no idea what I'm talking about watch the video(s) for the quickest look at what it does.

Project Natal at Xbox.com

If you do know about Natal, consider this:

Milo is probably scripted and pretty fake though surely the technology is possible just not Milo's AI. As a gaming interface Natal might be hard to use with the normal games of today, this does however not mean that it wont sell well or be fun to use. It certainly will. But with less gamish games probably.

There is a seed I'd like to place with all of you though. Think about the iPhone, what it really does well is that it forces applications and games to use a very easy to use interface that looks good. Microsoft are trying to do the same with Microsoft Surface technology but it is very expensive and hard to implement...

And along comes Natal. Not only does it implicitly force the use of an easy interface, your body is quite probably the best interface you'll ever use, but it's also available for existing technology. And it doesn't have to be very expensive.

This might be the interface that really leads us to ubiquitous computing. Typing still needs a keyboard, even on an iPhone, but navigation and normal use could be done by Natal.

Let's hope it works.

Blur dev gives stupid quote about online leaderboards

This is quoted, out of context, from developer magazine. Just to be fair. “I don't think the majority of people really care about being number one in the world.”

No?´Really? That might be because only a couple of hundred even have a chance to make that list. Leaderboards where you're way of down around the millionth place seem to loose their charm don't you think?

I'm glad Blur have good arguments behind their design choices.

Quality as an USP

I recently gave my first impressions on PopCap games latest casual title Plants vs Zombies. It's a really fun game that has very little in common with the other hit titles from PopCap except for one thing: quality. All of PopCaps games are genuine quality products with little if any glitches and no flimsy art that cramps their style. Well so what? It's simple, quality is lacking in a lot of big titles. And quality is the ultimate deal breaker with entertainment. Let's explore why:

Most games are quality products that have bugs, glitches or unfinished parts due to last minute feature additions or late night crunching to ship the title. This is all well and good. We seem to be selling a lot of games. But looking at the numbers in another light we also see that individual titles seem to sell less from year to year. This decline can't be solely based on one factor of course; competition, piracy mega hits like World of Warcraft have very clear effects on the sales of games. But quality is a factor that has been overlooked for a very long time from the developers point of view. Quality over a certain "it works dammit" threshold just isn't cost efficient enough.

Before I give a few examples of why this is not necessarily true let me just define what I mean with quality:

Quality doesn't mean that the game is good. It means that whatever your game or product does it does good.

You never see a Ferrari with a wobbly steering wheel. That would devastate the drivers experience of the Ferrari. Likewise you seldom see cartoon characters in real world sitcoms. Or a pinkish plastic cover, that falls off, on your new MacBook. So why is it we find crashes, graphical glitches, strange sounds and missing textures in AAA games?

Because quality was not an issue for the developer. The features were.

Look again at PopCap games, do they have the features of other casual titles? In some cases yes, in others no. Apple's iPhone isn't close to cheaper smart phones in terms of features and power. Yet it outsells them ten to one. The list goes on. But the point is that production companies might want to start looking into quality instead of features.

Maybe you don't need to be able to customize everything in the game. Maybe it just needs to look great from the start.

Plants vs Zombies first impressions

Popcap have released their newest casual venture Plants vs Zombies. Basically a simplified tower defense game with levels and really cute graphics. My first impression was, truthfully: "Wow! This is great! This is so much fun!". Yes, I committed the exclamation fan-boy crime.

My second impression, 20minutes later was: "What? Is this it? This isn't that much fun..."

The next time I had a conscious thought was an hour later. An hour of hard concentration trying to kill zombies. Have no doubts, this is a most excellent game. And I will get into detail on why I think this is shortly.

UPDATE:

Downloaded the demo on my girlfriends Mac, two hours later she'd bought the full game. Two days later she was stuck on one of the final levels of the game. She'd grinded the entire game. Yes, I'm proud of her!

Final Fantasy boosting PS3 sales in Japan (Console Wars)

PS3 sales skyrocket as Final Fantasy Advent Children complete is released with the playable demo of FF13.This is quite probably one of 2009s biggest releases on the PS3 and points to the outcome of this generation in the console war. There will be no #1 gaming platform.

The Wii has outsold everything x2 and but still has poor support from and to third parties. The Xbox 360 has a clear lead over the PS3 but is clearly not a winner though Microsoft has made both a ton of money and millions of new customers. The PS3 continues to stagnate with good support but far from the great support of the golden PSX days.

In conclusion I miss those days, there was a clear winner, a clear platform that every developer aimed for and a wide spectrum of games. Maybe the next generation will see a renaissance of games development. Maybe we'll see total domination by Adobe Flash or OnLive.

Opera and storytelling

Last night I saw Macbeth at the Swedish royal opera house. It was stunning. My first opera and live Shakespeare. Very intriguing. In the intermission my friend, a producer at EA DICE, said an interesting thing: While opera is clearly far behind most other media in terms of storytelling the music holds up the experience making it excel as an art form.

First I just thought he had a fair point. Then I realised the same can be said for most games, which I'm sure was a thought he shared.

So what can we use to hold up storytelling in games? Interaction is what holds games as experiences up to a level of excellence but can it be used to save storytelling?

Streaming Online Games

Two services have just been announced that host the game rendering and mechanics in the cloud. Basically this means that you install a small client that only sends your input (keyboard, mouse) commands to the game on the server which returns the games video frames in seeming real time. You wont know the difference from playing locally. This sounds to good to be true, we all know about lag online and the technical issue seems to be insurmountable. But there isn't one player on this, there are two large services (OnLive and Gaikai) with proper backing being developed and possibly shortly released.

The OnLive demo from GDC left reviewers in awe but still not convinced. Gaikai only focusing on online games might make it a lot more technically possible (as most lag is from game state calculation any way) but still to be proven.

What do you think?

Visit OnLive and Gaikai and check it out.

Dawn of War 2 impressions

Dawn of War 2 is Relic Entertainments follow up on the massively succesful Dawn of War series. Relic being the only remaining RTS studio competing with Blizzard sure has it's work cut out for it but the success of Homeworld, Dawn of War and recently Company of Heroes seem to indicate that they are somewhat good at what they do (understating for effect). Dawn of War 2 is a game that is more focused on small unit tactics compared to the massive armies of it's predecessor but apart from that not a lot has really changed. Don't get me wrong, it's a big change. And for the better in my opinion.

DoW2 is simple put: fun. It's a lot more like the classic Myth series then Command & Conquer style RTS games which makes play a lot more focused and immersive. The graphics are great and the different units with their different abilities make for interesting game dynamics. But there are a few glitches in this new way of playing.

First though, I wonder why it requires such outrageous system specs? It's not prettier then Company of Heroes but it makes my core2duo 2,4 Ghz, 2GB DD2, XFX 8800GT 512MB machine stutter and jerk. Sure, I'm running the game in 1080p but I have no problem running CoH in the same resolution. Isn't DoW2 based on the same engine? Recommended system specs are way below my machine so I can't help feeling Relic somehow forgot, or didn't have time for optimization. Please patch this up, this is just silly.

Gameplay wise there is also a question of complexity, long time readers will know by now that I've been an active advocate for simple games for the past 5 years but DoW2 is plain weird. It's a game made to be simple to pick up, small units, distinct advantages for different units. Small skirmishes and simple to understand goals. Sounds great right? So why does each unit has 3 interchangeable special abilities that seem to come in enormous variety, all with different uses and hot keys?

It's like if some part of the design was just hammered into the game without following the same rules as the rest of the game: Overall game design "simplicity and stream lined experience" Unit and ability control "pre 2000's complexity comparable to text based logistic shipping simulators from the early 90's?" I'm drastically exadurating now but the complexity is really strange to find in this game. It just makes little sense. Why aren't the unit abilities locked to special roles? Or at least the ability groups locked to certain units? Does a sniper really ever need to use melee-charge? And why can't I control all the abilities with the same keys, as I do in World in Conflict? Button A for ability A, button B for ability B and so on. No matter WHAT that ability is?

Oh, and the multiplayer gameplay is copied without shame from the original version of Dreamlords. But that's just awesome.  ;)

Steam tax

I just bought Dawn of War 2, the sequel to the massive juggernaut of tactical gaming Dawn of War from Relic Entertainment, so I thought I'd offer some thoughts on it. But first, let's gripe about digital distribution. Why on earth am I paying 10$ extra to buy the game on steam? Look, publishers, I LOVE game boxes and special editions and such. But I hate optical media discs. The reason being I always lose them and never, ever, use my optical drives anymore so I'm never sure they're installed. Steam on the other hand is always ready to go. I will therefore always buy games from Steam, but if I like the game I will probably buy a special edition box, for art books and such. I'm certainly not alone in this since Steam has, at least, over 15 million active users, so why on earth are you charging us a "steam tax" when your obviously already making more money from a digital distribution sale because you won't have to pay for box printing and such?

I suspect that the answer is either "publishers are dumb old-school people with no clue" or possibly "publishers want to make third party digital distribution unpopular and then launch their own digital distribution platform when it's ready in 2025". Because these are the only answers that seem to cover all the information. Neither is a very good answer, anyone have any alternative possibilities?

Flower impressions

Sublime. Flower is the most engaging experience of movement, speed, atmosphere and space I've had in any game. The runner up, Eve Online, is not even close but even Eve is light years ahead of most games. Flower has room for improvements, nothing is perfect. But it might be the most innovative game I've played since Dune 2. It is not a classic game in almost any way, it is more an interactive experience of engaging fun rather then a computer- console- arcade- game. And it's better for it. It breaks most of the molds that hold this medium from growing but is never artsy or pretentious.

The only complaint I have with flower is that I have to play it with the SixAxis controller. Don't get me wrong, the 360 controller would certainly not be better and I doubt even the wiimote would be an improvement. A clunky piece of plastic simply doesn't do the experience justice. For preference I would have liked to play it using an iPod nano. But we can't have everything can we?

Flower. It's the best game in it's range (a short, small, cheap but luxurious experience). Buy it. You'll not regret it, I wish I was home playing it right now.

Thatgamecompany has really hit the mark with this one, let's hope they keep reshaping our perception of games and entertainment!

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BDG5ax_eTo]

Amazon game shop

Amazon has tossed down the gauntlet on the casual games industry and started a downloadable casual game portal. Check it out and tell me what you think. Games are priced at a competitive $10 and with amazons huge customer base it will certainly be interesting to see the effect this might have. More and more mainstream businesses are approaching the games industry, hard core developers tremble and might go extinct.