At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony showed off the fruits of their acquisition of Gaikai, a company that streams video games over the Internet. This is something with which I have a little experience: in 2012, I worked for Big Fish on the now-discontinued Big Fish Unlimited, which did the same thing but for casual games. I was pretty sure that it was doomed then, and I'm pretty sure that similar platforms — including Sony's Playstation Now and OnLive — are doomed now, and for the forseeable future. The reason is simple: streaming just doesn't scale.
Let's say you're playing a game by streaming it to yourself from another computer you own, as in Nvidia's Shield or Valve's SteamOS. To do this you need two boxes: one to actually run the game, and one to act as a thin client, providing the display and input support. There are lots of things that can cause problems here — network connectivity, slow hardware, latency — but at the very least you're always going to have enough hardware to run the game, because you own both ends of it. Streaming scales in a linear fashion.
Now pretend you're doing the same thing, but instead of running the host machine yourself, it lives in a remote datacenter. For each person who's playing, the streaming service needs another computer to run the game — the scaling is still linear. You can't cache a game on a cheap edge node like you can a regular file, because it's an interactive program. And there's no benefit to running all those games simultaneously, the way that Google can leverage millions of GMail customers to lower e-mail transmission costs and spam processing algorithms cheaper. No, you're stuck with a simple equation: n players = n servers. And those servers are not cheap: they need hefty graphics cards, local storage, cooling systems, sound cards, etc.
And it gets worse, because those players are not going to obligingly spread their playtime around the clock to keep the load constant. No, they're going to pile in every evening in much higher numbers — much higher — than any other time of the day. League of Legends, a single (albeit very popular) game has had more than 5 million concurrent players. During peak hours, streaming providers will struggle to run enough host boxes. During off hours, all that expensive hardware just sits idle, completely unused.
At first, these problems seem solvable. When you don't have a lot of customers, it's not that bad to add new hosts to compensate for growth. Those earlier players may be more forgiving of wait times, attributing them to growing pains. But consider the endgame: if something like Playstation Now achieves real, widespread success (despite all the other network latency and quality of service issues these services always face), Sony's ultimate scenario is having literally millions of rack-mounted PS4s in datacenters around the country, many of them running at peak capacity for hours on end. That's more servers than Google, Microsoft, and Facebook put together.
But there's only so much you can move to the client when your selling point is "next-gen games without next-gen hardware." In the case of Sony and OnLive, no amount of browser wizardry or Playstation branding is going to solve that fundamental scaling problem. It may be workable for instant demos, or beta previews. But for mainstream gaming, without a miraculous breakthrough in the way games are built and executed, the math just isn't there.
Even if I'm sticking with Steam for most of my gaming, our new PS4 did get me interested in Warframe, the free-to-play shooter that's available on Playstation and PC. I don't normally care for free-to-play, if only because I feel guilty for never buying anything, but I liked the central conceit of Warframe: procedurally-generated levels and highly-mobile Mass Effect-style combat. In retrospect, I probably should have been more skeptical. To understand why, we have to look back at how shooters have been built over the last twenty years.
There was a time, way before Halo and before franchises like Battlefield ran the earth, when one of the main selling points of a first-person shooter was the quantity of unique weapons that it brought to the table--an actual arms race, peaking with Duke3D which (for all its flaws) had some clever joke guns to go with the ubiquitous pistol/shotgun/chaingun trio. I'm not saying this was a better time, or that they were better games, but there was definitely a sense that the genre was about creative destruction, in the same way that fighting games are about combo systems and special attacks.
Then id Software built a monster for competitive deathmatch: Quake and its successors had an incredibly bland set of weapons, because in "serious" multiplayer the goal is to streamline everything except moving and shooting. This was the second refinement of shooter design, and it focused on the levels themselves, but as topology instead of as setting. Players concentrated on learning the levels so that they could plot a path that would keep them supplied, while denying pickups to the other players. A good Quake or Unreal Tournament player knew the game's weapons and how to aim, but more importantly they knew where to go, and when. Navigation became the mark of quality for a deathmatch bot.
Since then, these tendencies have mellowed as the possibility of more complex interactions and narratives has become available. Environments are built more for realism and story, weapons are more traditional and not usually why you buy the game. Which brings us to Warframe, which has basically none of these things. There's hardly any story, the "levels" are randomly generated from a series of tilesets, and the weapons are part of the free-to-play grind: either buy a new gun with real money, or spend a lot of time crafting one within the game's economy. Unlike the Mass Effect and Gears of War titles it resembles, there's no explicit cover system, but players do have a much wider range of movement options than a typical shooter: there are slides, flips, and wall runs available through various key combos.
If Warframe's computer-generated levels were any good, this would be a different post. Good levels would give players a way to put their acrobatic movement skills to good use, rewarding people who have learned the parkour system and can improvise in response to new environments. But the random generator mostly builds long, boring hallways connecting wide-open, pre-designed rooms, none of which require any particular skill outside of strafing and taking cover behind walls. Since players can't learn the levels and their flow, they can't optimize or get better at moving through them. And since new weapons require an investment of serious cash or time, almost everyone's using the same rifle and the same melee weapon, which means you never see anything that makes you want to spend any money or time in the first place.
The irony of this problem is that someone already got the formula right for doing procedural FPS games, and they did it by almost exactly reversing Warframe's formula. Borderlands has hand-built levels and enemy placement, combined with randomized weapon generation: each gun consists of components assembled onto a set of base bodies, which vary by "manufacturer" with certain preset tendencies and aesthetics. For example, Mariwan guns always inflict status effects (poison, fire, etc), while Jacobs weapons are Western-themed and can often fire as fast as the player can mash the button. Within those simple parameters, however, the results when you pull the trigger can vary wildly.
The result is a game that combines the two old-school driving forces of FPS design — clever level design and weapon variety — with the collector's urge that powers massive multiplayer games (Borderlands even borrows the color-coded quality markings from World of Warcraft, making it easy to evaluate a weapon drop in an instant). The innovation is not proceduralism — games like Diablo have long offered that — but figuring out how to balance it with the formula for a replayable and rewarding shooter. As someone who almost totally lacks a collection instinct, but loves the classic FPS genre, Borderlands 2 hits the sweet spot with remarkably few missteps (it's also surprisingly smart and funny, which is a welcome change).
I don't think procedural generation is impossible for first-person games — indeed, I think it's likely to have a bright future, particularly as web games mature and optimize for delivery size — but it illustrates just how difficult the challenge is likely to be for anyone who attempts it. For all that people talk about the genre as if it's just a collection of bro-heavy manshooters, there is undeniably a huge amount of craft that goes into the fundamental mechanics. As Kevin Cloud notes in Dan Pinchbeck's analysis of Doom (now 20 years old!),
Every genre has its real strengths, but in a shooter... if running and shooting is not fun, doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t feel visceral and powerful, then I think you are going to lose out.Movement in FPS games is not just about how the player transitions from point A to point B, but about all the obstacles and decisions that make up that route. As such, building procedural content is not impossible, but it needs to provide good options for cover, paths for moving between pickups, and unexpected chances to either ambush enemies or be ambushed. Warframe may do this one day, but right now it's failing miserably. In the process, it's showing how little the developers have really thought about how the game they're building fits into the traditions of its genre.
Belle and I were planning on getting a Roku to replace our five-year-old XBox this Christmas, since the games are drying up and it doesn't make any sense to pay for a Live subscription just to watch Netflix and HBO. I still kind of bear a grudge against Sony for the CD rootkit they passed around years ago, but then my employers at ArenaNet bought everyone a PS4 as a holiday bonus. I am, it turns out, not above being a hypocrite when it comes to free stuff.
You can explain a lot about the last three generations of consoles by remembering that, at heart, Microsoft is a software company and Sony is a hardware company. Why did the XBox 360 suffer regular heat failures? Why does the PS Vita interface look like an After Dark screensaver? Our 360 was clearly on the edge of another DVD failure, so I bear them no particular good will. But you have to admit: up to the point that a given XBox malfunctions in one way or another, Microsoft knows how to build a usable operating system. Sony... well, it's not so much a core skill of theirs.
For example, after you turn on the PS4, and after the hundreds of megabytes of updates are done downloading and installing themselves a few times, you're greeted with a row of boxes:
Apparently I'm a little grumpy about the menus.
Anyway for us, this is a media player, which means we'd like to have a remote control, but those don't exist for PS4 yet and it can't use regular IR remotes. The controller layout may make sense to someone who owned a PS3, but it's just baffling to me: why is the button normally used to go backwards assigned here to play/pause duties? To be fair, the XBox never really had a great controller story for DVDs either (both of them put fast-forward on the triggers, where you're guaranteed to accidentally hit it while setting the controller down), but at least it tried to be consistent with the rest of the OS.
You can pair a smartphone with the PS4, which one would think could be a chance to show custom controls for media, what with the touchscreen and all. You'd be wrong: the PS4 app dedicates 90% of its surface to a swipeable touchpad, apparently on the assumption that the three directional inputs on the actual controller are insufficient.
The whole time you're watching a movie, of course, the controller will glow like some sort of demented blue firefly, which helps the camera (which I don't have) to see where I am (hint: the couch). Since you can't just turn off the LED, I've got the whole controller set to shut itself off after ten minutes. This solves the glow, and keeps the batteries from draining themselves at an alarming rate, but now when I want to actually use the controller for something — say, to pause the movie because our dog has started making that special "I'm going to throw up" face — it interrupts with a bright blue screen, every single time, to ask me who I am. Meanwhile, my movie keeps playing in the background.
This is worth some emphasis: on the XBox, a console where we actually had multiple accounts, each new controller that was activated would either log in as the current user or just kind of wait in "guest" mode until the player actually signed in. On the PS4, a console where we have one account, to which I was already signed in with our only controller 20 minutes ago, Sony needs to know my identity before I can perform the critical, account-bound task of pausing a movie. Meanwhile, the dog is now standing sheepishly in front of a vomit-stained rug.
I'm a little grumpy about the media functions, too.
I'm well aware it's a little ridiculous to gripe this much about a free game system. It's not that the PS4 is a bad machine — it's on par with your average DVD player in terms of usability — but I tend to feel like maybe they should aim a little higher. I'm really hoping that these kinds of fixes will be easy to update, since most of the UI is apparently built using web technology instead of painstakingly coded native widgets.
What's really interesting about comparing consoles from both companies is that the kinds of things I really miss from the XBox (pinned items, Kinect voice commands, good media apps) weren't there from the start. Microsoft has gone through at least three major revisions since they released the 360 in 2005. Even though there have been regressions (and the ads have certainly gotten bigger over time), the overall trend has been for the better — in part because they've been effectively allowed to throw the whole thing away and start over. As far as I can tell, the PS3 was also improved, even if it wasn't reinvented in the same way. It takes a lot of nerve to make sweeping changes like that, and as well as a conviction that the physical box is not what you're selling — a philosophy that's well-suited to Microsoft's software background, but that even hardware companies can no longer ignore.
I've been so embedded in a constantly-shifting web environment for so long that I sometimes forget that not everything updates on a monthly basis. Sony will be more conservative than Microsoft, but even they will be rolling out patches to the PS4, many of which will probably address my complaints. We live in a world where you can turn around and find that your DVD player, or your phone, or your browser suddenly looks and acts completely differently. That's great for people like me who thrive on novelty, but it now occurs to me just how disorienting this might be for ordinary people. It may be worth considering whether a little stability might be good for us — even if it means preserving the bad with the good — and whether the technical community might benefit from a little sympathy to users overwhelmed by our love of change.
There's a fine line between nonchalance and disregard for the player, and I'm not sure that Aquaria doesn't cross over it. As one of the best games on the Shield right now, I've been playing a lot of it — or, rather, alternating between playing it and looking up clues online. In a way, I respect the sheer amount of content the developers have put together, and the confidence they have in players to discover it, but I could use a little more signposting and, to be honest, a bit more challenge.
For example, the middle section of Aquaria is mostly non-linear: certain areas are locked away until you've beaten a few bosses and taken their abilities, but the order is still mostly flexible. Although it sounds great in theory, in practice this just means you're repeatedly lost and without a real goal. Having enormous maps just makes exacerbates the problem, because it means you'll wander one way across the world only to find out that you're not quite ready yet and need to hunt down another boss somewhere — probably all the way at the other end.
I'm goal-oriented in games, so this kind of ambiguity has always bugged me. The Castlevania titles post-Symphony of the Night suffer from this to some extent, but they usually offered something to do during the trip that made it feel productive--levelling up your character, or offering random weapon drops. Aquaria has a limited cooking system, but it's only really necessary in boss fights and it rarely does anything besides offer healing and specific boosts, so it's not very compelling.
According to an interview with the developers, Aquaria was originally controlled with keyboard and mouse, and they eventually moved it to mouse-only (which came in handy when it was ported to touch devices). Every now and then the original design peeks through, like when certain enemies fire projectiles in a bullet-hell shooter pattern. The Shield's twin-stick controls make this really easy (and fun) to dodge, but since the game was intended for touch, these enemies are relatively rare, and the lengthy travel through the game tends toward the monotonous.
Look, I get that we have entered a brave new world of touch-based control schemes. For the most part, I am in favor of that — I'm always happy to see innovation and experimentation. But playing Aquaria on the Shield makes it clear that there's a lot of tension between physical and touch controls, and it's easy to lose something in the transition from the former to the latter. Aquaria designed around a gamepad (and an un-obstructed screen) could be a much more interesting game. Yes, it would be harder and less accessible — but the existing game leaves us with "easy and tedious," which is arguably a worse crime.
I'm starting to think that in our rush to embrace casual, touch experiences (in no small part because of the rise of touch-only devices), we may be making assumptions about the audience that aren't true — such as the idea that it's the buttons themselves that were scary — and it's not always a net positive for game design. At its heart, Aquaria is a "core" game, not a casual game: it's just too big, and the bosses are too rough, for this to be in the same genre as Angry Birds or whatever. Compare this to Cave Story (its obvious inspiration), a game that was free to cram a ridiculous amount of non-linear content into its setting because its traditional platforming gameploy was so solid.
There is a disturbing tendency for many people to insist that there must be a winner and a loser in any choice. In the last two weeks, every tech site on the planet decided that the loser was Nintendo: why don't they just close up shop and make iPhone games? I think it's a silly idea — anyone measuring Nintendo's success now against their performance with the Wii is grading them on the wrong end of a ridiculous curve — and Aquaria only makes me feel stronger about that. For all that smartphone gaming brings us, there are some experiences that are just going to be better with buttons and real gaming hardware. As long as that's the case, consoles are in no danger of extinction.
Let's say that you're making a new game console, and you're not one of the big three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo). You can't afford to take time for developers to get up to speed, because you're already at a mindshare deficit. So you pick a commodity middleware that runs on a lot of hardware, preferably one that already has lots of software and a decent SDK. These days that means using Android, which is why most of the new microconsoles (Ouya, Gamestick, Mojo) are just running re-skinned versions of Android 4.x.
Nvidia's Shield is no different in terms of the underlying OS, but it does change the form factor compared to the other Android microconsoles. Instead of a set-top box or HDMI stick, it effectively crams the company's ridiculously powerful Tegra 4 chipset into an XBox controller, and then bolts on an LCD screen. I like Android, I like buttons, and I spend a lot of time bored on a bus during my commute, so I bought one late last week.
It's a bulky chunk of plastic, for sure. I don't particularly want to try throwing both it and the Chromebook into the same small Timbuktu bag. But in the hand it feels almost exactly like an XBox 360 controller — meaning it's very comfortable, and not at all cumbersome. It's definitely the best package I've ever used for emulators: playing GBA games feels pretty much like the real thing, except with a much larger, prettier screen. I'd have bought it just for emulation, which is well-supported on Android these days.
Actual Android games are kind of a mixed bag. I own a fair number of them, between the occassional Play Store purchase and all the Humble Bundles, and most of them aren't designed for gamepad controls. The Shield does have a touchscreen (as well as the ability to use the right thumbstick as a mouse cursor), but the way it's set up doesn't promote touch-only gaming: there's no good way to hold the screen while the body of the controller sits in the way, and portrait mode is even more awkward.
But if the developer has added gamepad support, the experience is really, really good. I've been playing Asphalt 8, Aquaria, and No Gravity lately, and feeling pretty satisfied. For a lot of games, particularly traditional genres like racing or shooters that require multiple simultaneous inputs, you just can't beat having joysticks and physical buttons. It also helps showcase the kinds of graphics that phones/tablets can pump out if your thumbs aren't always blocking the screen.
So the overall software situation looks a little lopsided: lots of great emulators, but only a few native titles that really take advantage of the hardware. I'm okay with this, and I actually expect it to get better. Since almost all the new microconsoles are Android-based, and almost all of them use gamepads (for which there's a standard API), it's only going to be natural for developers to add controller support to their games. I think the real question is going to be whether Android (or any mobile OS) can support the kinds of lengthy, high-quality titles that have been the standard on traditional, $40/game consoles.
If Android manages to become a home for decent "core" games, it'll probably be due to what Chris Pruett, a game developer and former Android team member, calls out in this interview: the implicit creation of a "standardized" console platform. Instead of developers needing to learn completely new systems with every console generation, they can write for a PC-like operating system across many devices (cue "fragmentation" panics). Systems like the Shield, which push the envelope for portable graphics, are going to play a serious role in that transition, whether or not the device is successful in and of itself.
The other interesting question if microconsoles take off will be whether there's a driver for innovation there. In the full-sized console space, it's been relatively easy for the big three companies to throw out crazy ideas from time to time, ranging from Kinect and Eyetoy to pretty much everything Nintendo's done for the last decade. PCs have been much slower to change, a fact that has frustrated some designers. Are microconsoles more like desktop computers, in that they have a standard OS and commodity hardware? Or are they more like regular consoles, since they're cheap enough to make crazy gambles affordable?
The Shield, perhaps unsurprisingly from Nvidia, points to the former. It's an unabashedly traditional console experience, from the emphasis on graphics to the eight-button controller. It's good at playing the kind of games that you'd find on a set-top box (or indeed, emulating those boxes themselves), but it's probably not the next Wii: you're buying iteration, not innovation--technologically, at least. It just so happens that after a couple of years of trying to play games with only a touchscreen, sometimes that's exactly what I want.
There's a common complaint about the Bioshock games, which is that they're not very good shooters. People writing about Bioshock Infinite tend to mention this, saying that the story is interesting and the writing is sharp but the actual game is poor. And this is true: it's not a very good first-person shooter, and it's arguably much worse than its predecessors. But this implication of most of these comments, from Kotaku's essay on its violence to Brainy Gamer's naming it the "apotheosis of FPS, is that Infinite is bad in many ways because it's a first-person shooter--that it's shackled to its point of view. In doing so, it has become a sort of stand-in for the whole genre, from Call of Duty to Halo.
I sympathize with the people who feel like the game's violence is incoherent (it is), and who are sick of the whole console-inspired manshooting genre. But I love shooters, and it bugs me a little to see them saddled with the burden of everything that's wrong with American media.
Set aside Infinite's themes and its apparent belief that the best superpower is the ability to literally generate plot holes--when we say that it's not a good FPS, what does that means? What is it, mechanically, that separates the two? I'm not a designer, but as a avid FPS player, there are basically three rules that Infinite breaks.
First of all, the enemy progression can't be just about "bigger lifebars." A good shooter increases difficulty by forcing players to change their patterns because they're not able to rely on the same rote strategy. Halo, for all its flaws, gets this right: few of its enemies are actually "tough," but each of them has a different method of avoiding damage, and a different weapon style. By throwing in different combinations, players are forced to change up their tactics for each encounter, or even at multiple points during the encounter. Almost all of Infinite's enemies, on the other hand, are the same walking tanks, with similar (dim-witted) behaviors and hitscan weaponry. I never had to change my approach, only the amount of ammo I used.
Along those lines, weapons need strengths and weaknesses. Each one should have a situation where they feel thrillingly powerful, as well as a larger set of situations where they're relatively useless. This doesn't have to conflict with a limited inventory--I loved Crysis 2's sniper rifle, spending the entire game sneaking between cover positions in stealth mode, but it was always paired with a strong close-in gun for when I was overrun. A good game forces you to change weapons for reasons other than "out of ammunition." Infinite's close-range weapons feel identical, and its sniper rifle is rarely useful, since a single shot alerts everyone to your position.
Finally, every fight cannot simply be about shooting. Most shooters are actually about navigating space and territory, and the shooting becomes a way of altering the priorities for movement. Do you take cover, or dodge in the open? Do you need more range, or need to close on an enemy? The original Bioshock made the interplay between the environment and your abilities one of its most compelling features: electrifying pools of water, setting fire to flammable objects, flinging scenery around with telekinesis. But at the very least, you need an objective from time to time with more complexity than "kill everything," both as a player and in terms of narrative.
Bioshock Infinite has, in all seriousness, no period I can remember when my objective was not reduced to "kill everything." Combined with a bland arsenal and blander enemies, this makes it a tedious game, but it also puts it at complete odds with its characters. The writing in Infinite is unusually good for a shooter, but it's hard not to notice that Elizabeth freaks out (rightfully) during one of Booker's murderous rampages, comes to a cheery acceptance with it a few minutes later, and then spends the rest of the game tossing helpful items to you under fire. That's writing that makes both the narrative and the mechanics worse, by drawing attention to the worst parts of both.
It's not the only shooter with those flaws--people just had higher expectations for it. The average FPS is badly written, and it's a favorite genre for warmongering propaganda pieces. But that's true of many games, and yet we don't see pieces talking about the "apotheosis of platformers," or talking about RTS as though they're emblematic of wider ills just because Starcraft II is kind of a mess. And there's still interesting stuff being done in the genre: Portal and Thirty Flights of Loving come to mind. To say that FPS have reached their limits, ironically, seems like a pretty limited perspective.
During one of those 24-hour colds, when I curl up under every blanket in the house and just wait for the fever to break, I often lose track of reality. It's not like I hallucinate. But, drifting in and out of consciousness with my body temperature far above normal, the line blurs between dreaming and my rational mind, which means I find myself thinking quite seriously about things that are either entirely absurd, or which never actually happened. It's the closest I get to doing drugs.
It may just be that I was playing it after recovering from a cold during the holidays, but Hotline Miami often feels like it comes from a similar place (fever or drugs, take your pick). Although it pays homage to Drive with its setting, violence, and a selection of trippy electronic dance tunes, Hotline adds a gloss of unreality: heavy filtering (including a subtle screen tilt), an increasingly unreliable narrator, and an astonishing sound design. The darker half of the soundtrack leans heavily on synth drones, distorted bass, and indistinct vocal echoes, walking a line precisely between captivating and terrifying.
So it is atmospheric. But in the wake of Newtown it is difficult to talk about Hotline Miami without talking about violence, since it is also a game about brutal, sickening violence. Dressed up in a retro 16-bit facade, the blood and gore is made more abstract, and thus more palatable, but that's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? The NRA recently blamed video games for school shootings, drawing on such contemporary examples as Mortal Kombat and Natural Born Killers, and while that's obviously laughable (and more than a little disgusting) it's hard to take the moral high ground when a prospective game of the year for many people involves beating anonymous mobsters to death with a crowbar.
Part of the problem is that Hotline Miami is and isn't about those things. Someone playing the game isn't sitting at a computer plotting murder--they're primarily thinking about navigating space, line of sight, and the AI's predictable response. Most violent video games are only superficially violent: mechanically they're just button presses and spatial awareness. That's not an excuse, but it does explain why gamers get so huffy about the accusations of immorality. It also begs the question: if these games aren't actually about death and destruction, then why all the trappings?
In the case of Hotline Miami, there's a studied juvenile quality to the whole affair. It's the interactive version of some smart-but-disengaged stoner's doodling on their high school chemistry notebook. It's gross because its influences are gross, and because gross things are fun to draw, and because chemistry is boring, dude. This accounts for some of the feverishness as well, since it taps into the same powerful imaginative impulse that we have as kids and mostly lose when we have to start paying our own rent.
It's not a bad thing for Hotline Miami to draw on those influences, or for it to be ultra-violent. There's a place for ugly, childish things in our cultural stew: I don't think you get Death Proof without Saw or Dead Alive. I like the game. But it bothers me a little that its violence is so unremarkable, and that it wants to use self-awareness as an excuse or an explanation. Using excess to criticize gaming culture was old with Splatterhouse (another up-to-the-minute reference from the NRA, there). So since we don't have a lot of variety in video game narratives, maybe we should stop letting "bloodthirsty" pass for "profound."
Why is it all capitalized? That's what I want to know. XCOM isn't an acronym for something--presumably it stands for Extraterrestrial Combat (or Command?)--so shouldn't it be XCom? I guess that doesn't look as good on the posters. Maybe they should add an exclamation point. (Or a dash, according to the purists. Luckily, having never played the original, I'm not really interested in purity.)
There aren't a lot of games where I finish them and immediately start a new session. Mass Effect 2 was probably the last example--I did two straight playthroughs, and possibly started a third, just because the basic mechanics were so solid and enjoyable. XCOM might be just as catchy, even though I didn't expect it to be. Here are three things that surprised me the first time through:
I didn't think I'd get so attached to my squad. People talk about doing this in the old X-COM, being genuinely upset when a soldier bit the dust, and I just figured those people were crazy. But about half-way through the game, letting Col. Zahara "Werewolf" Mabuza die just stopped being acceptable. The nicknames must have a lot to do with it. I knew every nickname on my squad, especially the ones that got funnier as they got more panic-prone ("Padre," indeed).
XCOM gets a lot of mileage out of only a few maps. I think I saw in an interview that there's only 30 or so maps in XCOM, which is not a lot considering the hundreds of encounters in a typical game. Partly, the maps are just well-designed: just starting out in a different space and direction is enough to make many of the UFO capture maps completely disorienting. But they're also partially-randomized, meaning that you never entirely develop a single cover strategy for each map. Add in the day/night filters, and it feels like a lot more content than it actually is.
Everything is short. Six soldiers means that you're doing with a turn in roughly 60 seconds. A mission in XCOM takes, at most, 30 minutes. Between missions, you pick your research tasks and your engineering projects and then you hit the big "GO FAST" button in Mission Control and see how far you get before the next invasion. Sometimes a movie plays--they're all skippable, as are all the little interstitial animations (launching a fighter, landing the SkyRanger, etc). Everything in the game is made with the understanding that you Should Not Wait, a convenient side effect of which is that it's compulsively playable.
It's not a particularly profound game. It's not even particularly well-made--bugs pop up all over. Even with the tutorial, I restarted the game twice trying to figure out how to keep everything balanced, which is pretty hardcore. But it's so consistently fun that those problems don't halt the experience. I never really got the Halo philosophy of "30 seconds of fun" because I find Halo to be a boring, frat-boy knockoff of better shooters, but XCOM pulls it off.
The fourth Humble Bundle for Android is wrapping up today: if you like games and charity, it's a ridiculously good deal, even if you don't own an Android device--everything works on Windows, Mac, and Linux as well. Although it turns the Nexus 4 into a toasty little space heater, it would be worth it just to get Waking Mars, the loopy botany platformer I've been playing for a couple of days now.
If nothing else, I like that the Humble Bundle proves that it's still feasible to sell software the old-fashioned way: by putting up a website and taking orders yourself. Digital retailers like Steam or the various mobile platform stores are all well and good (the Bundle comes with Steam keys, which I usually use to actually download the games), but a lot of my favorite gaming memories come from this kind of ad-hoc distribution. I don't want to see it die, and I think it would be bad for independent developers if it did.
In the last few months, people like Valve's Gabe Newell and Mojang's Markus Persson have raised concerns about where Windows is going. Since the PC has been the site of a lot of really interesting experimentation and independent development over the last few years, Microsoft's plan to shut down distribution of Metro-style applications on Windows 8, except through a centralized store that they own, is troubling. At the same time, a lot of people have criticized that perspective, saying that these worries are overblown and alarmist.
There may be some truth to that. But I think the fact that the Humble Bundle is, across the three or four mobile platforms in popular use, only available on Android should tell us something. Why is that? Probably because Google's OS is the only one where developers can handle their own distribution and updates, without having to get approval from the platform owner or fork over a 30% surcharge. That fact should make critics of Newell and Persson think twice. Can the Humble Bundle (one of the most successful and interesting experiments since the shareware catalogs I had in the 80s) and similar sales survive once traditional computing moves to a closed distribution model? It looks to me like the answer is no.
When I bought a new computer a little while back, I figured it would be a chance to play some of the Steam/GOG.com games that I bought while they were on sale, knowing that my laptop couldn't handle them. And in one or two cases, it is. But for the most part, I spent last week's small amount of gaming time buried back in a trio of titles from Blendo--a one-man shop that's becoming my favorite indie developer.
Blendo (AKA Brendon Chung) is best known right now for Thirty Flights of Loving, sequel to his absurdist spy short Gravity Bone. It's a funny, cinematic little nugget of first-person narrative. It's also about seven minutes long. I'm not sure it was worth the $5 asking price, but Chung's definitely playing with some ideas here that are worth rewarding.
Besides, he had my good will starting from my first minutes playing Flotilla last year. This was a game that I'd wanted, but somehow had not been able to find: full 3D space tactics within a randomly-generated campaign. The missions themselves are tense, slow-moving affairs set to classical piano pieces, while the overworld screens are Blendo's typically jazzy blend of surrealism (rastafarian pirate cats, defanged space yeti, and wandering Greek goddesses appear along your journey) and procedural storytelling (decisions along the way are assembled into an illustrated ship's log). The combination of the two should be dissonant, but instead the funny bits serve as a nice break between the tense turn-by-turn bits.
And then there's Atom Zombie Smasher, which is the most unbalanced and most compelling of the three. It's basically a tower defense game, which means I should hate it, and yet somehow I really don't. It's ridiculously unfair--sometimes you get an overwhelming mix of units for a stage, and sometimes you just get barricades and mines, meaning that I tend to win or lose the whole game depending on which two units are randomly assigned in the first stages--and yet tremendously addictive. Maybe that's just the surf guitar talking.
Ultimately, I think what charms the most about these is that they almost remind me of board games in their approach to design and replayability. Even though they're radically different genres, Blendo's stuff shares a common sensibility in the way that they construct stories out of small vignettes and procedural generation. Each takes, at most, an evening to play completely through, and yet there's plenty of detail and reward for digging in. They continue to surprise players outside of all proportion to their actual size. There aren't a lot of people making games in this space--it's all either bite-sized casual fare or sprawling epics. Chung's genius is making the former feel, if only for a little while, like the latter.