Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bad At Games III - Demo Disc-overy

Where was I? Oh yes, the wife and I had bought a second hand Playstation and she was busy jumping through tombs in the legendary Tomb Raider.

In these days before the consoles hooked themselves up to Skynet and could read your heartbeat from a room away, the only real way to discover (pardon the pun) what new games were coming out was to buy the magazine. If you were wise, you’d go for the Official Playstation Magazine and eagerly slam in the demo disc that was glued to the front of each issue. The demo disc held samples of around half a dozen games, just the first level usually, so that you could tell if the game was going to be worth your hard earned cash.

Some months it was a bit of a waste of time – a handful of rather bad games that were not worth the time or the energy. But once in a while, there was a gem on there that had you instantly hooked. A demo you kept reloading over and over again.

There were four demos that really stood out for me as being real high points in my gaming history. These are in no order really, just ones that come to mind.

MTV Sports: Snowboarding
The first was MTV Snowboarding. Yeah, I know. A snowboarding game. How could that be cool? Well, it had an awesome soundtrack. My first real exposure to Blink 182, and there were also cool tracks from Fear Factory and Ministry. The controls were simple, you could play two player, and although the demo only had two slopes we played it over and over and over again. Of course, when the game came out, we did eventually buy it, and blasted through it in about two hours… and then it was kinda over…

Hogs of War PS1 Game
The next of the demos that grabbed me by the face and kept me reloading the game was Hogs of War. A simple 3D version of Worms that had a comical Rik Mayall voiceover that you would eventually turn off after half an hour in the full game. You took it in turns, shooting bizarre weapons at each other as odd little racial stereotyped pigs in a WWII style setting. I don’t know what it was about this game, but I did rather enjoy it. Possibly too much. Of course, I played for the glory of the Soviet Union in most of my games.

Thirdly was Final Fantasy VII. The demo was a disc to itself, and took Cloud through to placing the bomb early on in the game. Playthrough of the demo took easily twenty five minutes to play, and it was just stunning. I think I only played the demo through a couple of times before I realised that I needed to buy the full game. And what a game it was. I loved FFVII. And it is, still, to date, the only Final Fantasy game I’ve actually completed to the end. 
Final Fantasy VII - Genius!

The final boss battle with Sephiroth took nearly three hours, and I only managed it thanks to getting the Knights of the Round Materia and the Mime Materia to copy its effects over and over. Man that was a hard fight. Sweaty palms, shaky hands and a weak bladder by the end of that, but FFVII is still a work of genius. At a time when I didn’t get to tabletop game very often (if at all) it filled a hole in my gaming life, and made me wonder why there wasn’t an official Final Fantasy tabletop RPG…

A special mention should also go for the demo disc that included the opening title sequence to FFVIII. Good lord that was amazing…

The original Grand Theft Auto game
Finally, and holding the record for the most times I reloaded the demo had to be one of the most unlikely and simplest games ever – one that would produce a series of amazing games – Grand Theft Auto. The original GTA was a top-down and incredibly basic game, with a little guy who was barely more than a dozen pixels jumping into cars and causing carnage. The whole of the city was open to you, and the complete game seemed to be there on the demo disc, but it cunningly timed the demo to switch off after five minutes. But every time you reloaded it you could do something different, explore a different part of the city, try some of the missions, cause more mayhem, try to jump that gap, steal that police car, and more.

I loved GTA, bought the game after almost wearing the disc out. I played GTA and FFVII so much we had the regular PS1 problem where you had to stand the console on its side or upside-down to get the discs to load. 

And then, Sony announced the PS2… it had to be done…

Friday, June 14, 2013

E3 Special II - "I Got Your Open World For You Right Here!!"

A bit of a follow up to this week’s earlier E3 post (“I got your backwards compatibility right here!”), I’ve been following the big announcements from E3 to see if there was anything that remotely made me excited for video games again. On the whole, it’s just been shooty-shooty-shooty.

There was the surprising announcement that Microsoft were launching a new Xbox360 and were dedicated to supporting the console for the next twelve months. Lots of new games coming out for it, but it’s really just putting off the inevitable – when the 360 has become a thing of the past and all my old games are redundant. Microsoft were not doing themselves any favours with their comments about the 360 being their product for people who don’t want to be connected to the internet all of the time, and Sony’s potential library of back catalogue being available may give us some hope that older games are going to be available to keep in some form or another (though probably not).

But on the whole, besides a couple of interesting exceptions to the rule, the whole of E3 was about carrying a gun, and shooting someone. Or carrying a sword and stabbing them. Or maybe just punching them in the face.

I’m not the only one bored by it all. 

Variety reported an interesting panel at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where the biggest names in cinema – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – discussed the future of movies and video games. Lucas said, “the games industry can and will create empathic characters, but it hasn’t so far because it’s been driven by hard-core gamers who enjoy onscreen violence.”

I’ll come back to that panel in a future blog post to discuss Lucas’ theory of entertainment taking to controlling your dreams.

However, in amongst all of the bloodshed, shooting, fast cars and the inevitable zombie plagues, there was one phrase that kept being repeated over and over again.

Open World Environment.

They’re taking it to mean that you can go anywhere, and do anything you like. 

The first one I really remember being like this was Grand Theft Auto, though (in my opinion) this was truly perfected in Red Dead Redemption. But let’s stick to GTA shall we? 

GTA IV - Gorgeous looking isn't it?
Before I start, let’s just get this clear – I LOVE GTA. GTA IV, and Red Dead Redemption are possibly my favourite video games ever. Sure, you could say they’re the usual men-shooting-each-other games, but certainly in Red Dead’s case, the shooting was done reluctantly, and there was an emotional plot that would but many blockbuster movies to shame. 

Grand Theft Auto IV is another work of genius. The “open world environment” is huge, the whole of Liberty City (though this is tiny compared to the open plains of Red Dead). Once the plot had opened up all of the islands of Liberty City, you could drive around everywhere. Get in a boat and go out in the sea, or take a helicopter around the city. Fantastic. You could do lots of cool and crazy stuff, like jump out of helicopters, drive cars off of rooftops or through the subway system, or just take in the sights. Go to the bar, have a few drinks. Go to the golf driving range, play darts, or just cause mayhem and wait for the police to take you down.

Seems pretty open world doesn’t it?

Let's look at this...

It’s an image of the game, looking at a borough of Liberty City. Fantastic isn’t it? The detail, the size of it all. 

However, can you go in the buildings? Well, you can, but only a select few. You can go into the shops, the bars, the houses that you own, and ones that are either locations of prearranged action scenes and missions, or the houses of the filthy crims you’re working for. But that's it. The rest are just blocks that have graphic images of fake windows and doors.

Suddenly, your open world isn’t quite so open.

You can drive into the airport, but you can’t book a flight on a plane. You can steal a helicopter, but you can’t leave Liberty City. You can hijack a boat, but you can’t sail off into the sunset. 

Your open world is a snowglobe, filled with fake plastic buildings with fake doors that don’t open.

This is not a criticism against Rockstar Games. As I’ve said, I love GTA, I love them all with a passion, and I still play GTA IV now, many years after it came out. I can’t wait for GTAV, though I get the feeling that I’m going to be rubbish at it (because, as I discuss elsewhere on this blog, I’m bad at video games). No, this is the limitation of the console, of the computing power, and what it can do.

My wife is brilliant. I’m not just saying it because she’s my wife, but she has this knack – this ability to think outside of the box. She loves video games too – she plays a lot more than I do. She’s actually finished Assassin’s Creed (all of them), the new Tomb Raider, and all of the Halo games (I still haven't finished 4 yet). But while she’s playing video games, you can see the frustration there. She doesn’t want to run into the next area to start shooting at the next wave of pre-destined goons. She wants to have a look around, see the scenery, look for any little areas she may have missed, look for secret passageways, and find the cool stuff.

This may come from the first couple of Tomb Raider games where you could take your time, find new ways around, find secret areas and investigate. But this seems to be lost with modern games and their “run in blasting and don’t look at the surroundings” mentality.

If she was playing GTA, she’d be off wondering why she couldn’t go into the neighbour’s building, go into that shop, climb to that roof… all of the things you can’t do. 

In order to be able to go into every house, to leave the city, to talk to random people, to go off on new adventures that are spontaneous you'd need a computer the size of a college dorm, or to get into MMORPGs.

But you know what does have a truly open world environment?

Tabletop roleplaying games.

Yes, we’re back to that argument again. Want to go into the neighbour’s house? No problem. Talk to the neighbours and ask if there have been any strange happenings recently? Maybe the neighbours have been having a problem being hassled by a cruel and manipulative landlord in an unexpected plot that the gamemaster is making up on the spot. A plot that’ll lead to a whole new adventure going off on a tangent that’ll last weeks. Who knows?

That’s one of the wonders of tabletop gaming. No limitations. Sure, the GM may have put a lot of work into an adventure or setting, but the option is certainly there for the player characters to do something different, leave the area, and find something new to discover.

Not only is wifey brilliant at questioning the logic of games (not only video games, but also roleplaying games – certainly keeps me on my toes when game designing) but she’s great at doing the unexpected. I remember we’d been playing Kult quite intensely, and I’d just purchased the epic and gorgeously designed Judas Grail adventure for it. I set the game up, tweak a couple of the characters so it fits with our current storyline, and start the game… only to have her lead the entire group to a completely different location, and end up in a nightclub full of vampires. 

But it didn't matter. The game was still awesome, and everything that came out of it was just as unexpected and cool for me as the GM as it was for the players. And that's something video games cannot do. At least not yet. Not for a long while.

Speaking of game designing though, I should get back to that. WILD isn’t going to write itself.

Until next time, stay multi-classy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

E3 Special: "I Got Your Backwards Compatibility Right Here!"

It’s E3 again this week, and this has to be the first year when I really don’t care what they announce. As I started covering in my Bad at Games features, I used to love video games. There was a time when I did little else except watch little pixels fly about the screen. My childhood was filled with video games, playing in my little room, headphones on, listening to music because the bleeps of the game didn’t really matter - well, they certainly didn't when you had a ZX Spectrum. 

All that changed over the last couple of years when I realised what I was doing. The big releases were all the same – run into a room, shoot everything, move onto the next room. The only thing I found interesting to play was Rock Band, and that time has passed for most of the world.

Then along comes the new console releases from the big-boys – the Playstation 4, and the XBox One. And you know what? I don’t really care at all. New hardware that isn’t compatible with anything I have – what a great idea. All those games I’ve kept because I love them – GTAIV, Red Dead Redemption, and even Halo. Can’t play them on the new console thanks to a new operating system.

And the hardware I’ve bought. Rock Band guitars, drums, microphones, drum-stools, mic-stands – every incarnation of Rock Band… The Kinect sensor, the Lips mics, the Scene It buzzers… all hunks of useless plastic when the new XBox comes out. They’ll all be worth about £2.50 when you try to trade them in as well, because no one will want them. The hardcore shoot-em-up gamer will have bought the new consoles without thinking and they’ll have no need for these peripherals anyway.

So I guess I’ve been well and truly XBoned. 

Backwards Compatibility

You know what IS backwards compatible though?


Okay, so there are always new versions of games coming out. The market leader of the roleplaying game hobby is previewing its Fifth Edition at GenCon this year. But still, five editions (well, more than that if you count revisions an 0.5’s) in forty years is pretty good. The other biggies like Vampire has revised once or twice (if you count the recent nWoD update), and sometimes game systems change altogether – I’m one of the biggest culprits of this both in my GMing and professionally (after all, I was behind the massive change to the game system of Conspiracy X, stripping out the old game system and plugging in Unisystem). 

But you know what? You’re not forced into the changes. Because the game’s operating system is the most powerful one on the planet – your brain. If you were a hardcore Conspiracy X player and didn’t like Unisystem, but wanted the updates to the setting – you buy the new books and keep playing with the old system. Nothing is stopping you. 

You want to play D&D but prefer 1st Edition to 4th, but quite like the adventures and the settings of the newer games? You keep using 1st Edition rules, and with a little tweaking by the Dungeon Master, the new information can be plugged right in. 

Campaign Length

One of the regular gripes about roleplaying games is the price. It’s an odd one, really when you think about it. Let’s look at a couple of examples (and excuse the UK pricing).

The core set for the 11th Doctor edition of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is £39.99. Sure, that’s a lot, but it’s the same price as BattleCall of Halo 4. Let’s look at one of the heavy hitters of the games industry of the last few months – Bioshock Infinite. There main game itself takes around 10-15 hours to complete, so that’s already double most of the shooters out there (your average Halo / Call of Duty campaign is around 6-8). And then what?

GTA Multiplayer lobby.
To quote Nine Inch Nails - "Where is everybody?"
It’s kinda over. Most of the shooters have the online multiplayer that’ll give you hours and hours of the same rooms, and repetitive gunfire, or watching the screen while you wait to respawn if you’re as good at FPSs as I am. And if you find a game that you really love, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world may give up on it and leave you behind. My favourite multiplayer video game? Grand Theft Auto IV, especially GTA Race. Sure people still play it now, but I have to sit in a lobby for ten-twenty minutes until the few people around the globe who still play the game decide to log on. 

Once that wait becomes too much, or if they retire multiplayer servers for that game, it’s over. You can play the campaign again, but the villains appear at the same moments, you know what’s coming and it’s all a bit linear.

Tabletop gaming however, going back to the Doctor Who core set, you’re given a main adventure to get you going that’ll take about three or four sessions to play (so you’re looking around 9-12 hours for the basic adventure). Then you have a couple of smaller adventures that you can run, or expand into something bigger. There’s 6-12 hours there on top. And in addition to of all that, there’s a host of little story ideas that you can turn into adventures that’ll last you another… oh, I dunno… you could run a 4-6 hour game a week and still have a year’s worth of gaming there. 

Then, when you run out, you can just make up your own! Go onto one of the many fan sites and download some free adventures, and you don’t need to buy anything else!

You can stop playing for a year, put it on the shelf, and if you fancy a game with some friends, you can dust the game off and play any time you like. The servers for it aren’t going to be shut down from lack of use. You won’t have to go onto a new system or download countless updates. You can just play.

On that subject…

Downloadable Content.

DLC seems to be a big part of the video games industry. The big companies have realised that you don’t need to give everything to the gamer in one package. You can hold some of it back and release it for more money later.

Sure, this happens in RPGs too, but in most cases the additional material is being held back purely because of the cost of producing the game. Imagine if Doctor Who was all in one game – every possible creature from 50 years of Doctor Who… the game would be massive. And cost so much that you wouldn’t want to buy it. Or be able to carry it...

It’s another thing when video games companies put the content on the disk and just not let you access it until you’ve coughed up some extra cash. That’s just not on.

Anyway, back to the point. If you want to download a new map for Call of Duty, that’s fine. It adds a bit more multiplayer. In some cases, there are expansions to the single player campaign – and in some rare cases this expansion is huge and fantastic (I’m looking at you GTAIVLost and the Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony showing you how DLC should be done).

The same can be done with tabletop RPGs. Expansions, with new rules and settings are common, as well as extensive campaigns and adventures. But you know what’s controversial? You don’t have to buy the expansion for the game you’re playing.

I know, it’s a surreal concept. But imagine you’re playing World of Darkness and fancy something a bit different. You could buy a Call of Cthulhu supplement, or adventure, and run that with it with just a few system tweaks. I own many supplements for games that I don’t have the core set for. It’s a bit like downloading a map pack for Halo and being able to use them in Call of Duty.

Radical, huh?

Anyway, the first big seminars from E3 are about to start, and I'll be watching - hoping to be surprised. I'm not saying roleplaying games are better than video games, or vice versa. But when you're frustrated by the new announcements from E3 or from the new console launches, just remember tabletop gaming. It gets your brain working, it's social without just being a mass of insults on headsets, and it survives the tests of time.

Until next time, stay multiclassy!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bad at Games (2) - PS, I Loved You...

(Continuing my story of a gaming life, this time through video games...)

It was a time without games. I'd sold my ZX Spectrum, and the Atari VCS, and had no video gaming outlet really at all. My time was dominated with sitting in my room and writing on that old electric typewriter, desperately trying to get West End Games to notice me and commission a Ghostbusters RPG adventure or three.

Then came college, and art and writing still dominated every free moment. And movies. The local Dixons wasn't part of the real Dixons chain, and rented videos as a sideline to selling TVs. Each movie would be 50p for the weekend, so it wasn't unheard of to hire eight at a time to see me through.

An attempt at a social life (for a socially redundant nerd like me) meant that video gaming was on hold most of the time.

Doom, on the PC in 1993
There were a couple of moments of gaming. After relocating for art college I have distinct memories of visiting another student house and encountering Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time (and being rubbish at it). However, a trip back to my hometown exposed both me and my future wife to a couple of games that would become real classics.

Visiting a couple of "the Eight", my old RPGers, while I was back in town we experienced the first real networked multiplayer game - Doom. Mole, one of "the Eight", had a couple of PCs in his house for work, but had them networked. This was like magic in those days. Computers that talked to each other? What witchcraft is this? However, Mole knew we were coming to visit and hooked up a third computer for the evening and loaded up a little game called Doom.

We spent the evening running around shooting nasty demons, and often each other, while Mole's cat took it in turns falling asleep on our crossed legs. About five hours later, we staggered home and I suffered from real motion sickness from a video game for the first time. I wasn't used to it. Hours of just moving around on a little monitor, the hypnotic swaying of the gun and the inability to look up and down.

A little later we visited Coop. Another of the Eight, he'd invested in Sony's little grey whizzing box - the Playstation. Coop had kept playing games when I'd given them up, progressing onto Amigas and then the Playstation. We tried the mindblowing experience that was Wipeout, but the real game-changer was seeing Tomb Raider for the first time.

Tomb Raider (original) - The Lost Valley level
encountering the T-Rex (1996)
Considering the games I was used to, the fairly basic affairs that I'd played for years on the Spectrum, Tomb Raider was amazing. Coop showed us just part of the St Francis' Folly level, and witnessed the sheer size of just one level of the game. The gameplay was simple, easy, and gripping. You targeted automatically, you could shoot while doing midair flips, and you could do insane stuff. It was a cooler Indiana Jones, and I could see the glint of an addiction forming in the wife's eyes.

We saved up, and purchased a Playstation (second hand) and Tomb Raider, and we both worked our way through the huge campaign (wife first, of course). We were stunned by the scale of the game, and the first encounter with dinosaurs had us both shouting at the TV in excitement. And then, when the plot went off and revealed the existence of Atlanteans and the final levels in the pulsating, weird corridors, we were just amazed.

We were hooked. The Playstation had us.