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Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Friday Interview: SpaceChem's Lead Designer

Person A: “Hey have you played that new game yet?”
Person B: “Which one?”
Person A: “SpaceChem”
Person B: “Nah, what is it though? Sounds Awesome!”
Person A: “It’s a Chemistry based puzzle game”
Person B: “Ummmm…”

This is probably a fair representation of a few conversations that have taken place in recent months. Admittedly it doesn’t sound too thrilling unless you like puzzle games and chemistry (which I happen to). But I think this game has something to offer to everyone. It basically involves a visual representation of a flowchart in which actions like bonding or synching particles are put together to create a manufacturing process for a compound or molecule. It’s quite difficult to explain but timing and thinking outside the box is crucial.

5B583FEB80C127D24EBB939488C389B3E5DCA050 (1366×769)
One of the simpler levels!

Amazingly for a game like this, the storyline is superb. It’s well-written, engaging and humorous. The tutorial is fantastic too guiding you through the game mechanics without ever feeling like you’re in a tutorial. It’s a rare game In that when you finish or solve a level you get the same feeling as when you complete a difficult room in Portal. It has a great soundtrack that fits the style of the game superbly. The graphics are perfect as well, very slick and effective whilst also original. I spoke to the lead designer on SpaceChem -  Zach Barth.

Bob: When did you start developing games?

Zach: I’ve made “games” for almost as long as I can remember, although it really picked up in college when I learned enough about programming and game design to make games that weren’t absolutely terrible.

Bob: How did you get the idea for a Chemistry-based puzzle game?

Zach: The Codex of Alchemical Engineering was a relatively successful game for me, so when it ran its course I thought about making a successor game. One of the challenges when developing the Codex was inventing the alchemical rules and compounds, so making a game based on chemistry seemed like it would solve this problem. I’m not a huge fan of making derivative works, though, so I shelved the idea and made a game about integrated circuits instead.

After visiting Gas Works Park in Seattle it struck me that I could combine the atomic construction mechanics of the Codex with some sort of chemical pipeline construction metaphor resembling the structures found at Gas Works Park and the idea for SpaceChem was born.

Bob: Have you got much of a background yourself with chemistry?

Zach: Barely! I’ve taken a few courses between high school and college, but chemistry was never a strong subject for me. In many ways the chemistry of SpaceChem is what I always wished chemistry was like –logical, with fairly simple rules!

Bob: How well do you think it works as an education tool?

Zach: I’ve talked to a few teachers who used or were planning to use SpaceChem in their classrooms, although it was more often for teaching programming than teaching chemistry. Although it may not match up perfectly with any existing curriculum, I think that SpaceChem is a great metaphor for many programming and chemistry concepts and provides excellent practice for true problem solving that problem sets cannot.

I have a quote from a teacher who was using the Codex in an afterschool club that I think really sums up the value of games like SpaceChem and the Codex in an educational setting:

“However, it did do one thing immediately that I really appreciated. It got them to start trying to solve puzzles. Even students that in my physics classes have completely balked at venturing an answer to anything that they haven't been directly taught were saying "this is fun" as they were trying things that didn't necessarily work.”

Bob: Did you get many responses from people saying "A chemistry game won't sell"?

Zach: Only after we started selling it! I made the mistake of testing the game with people who all thought that chemistry was a completely legitimate theme for a game. It wasn’t until we shipped the game that we realized people mistook it for educational and refused to have anything to do with it.

Bob: How many people worked on the game?

Zach: Seven people!

Design & Production:     Zach Barth
Programming: Collin Arnold
Anti-programming : Keith Holman
Visuals: Ryan Sumo
Music: Evan Le Ny
Sound: Ken Bowen
Narrative: Hillary Field

Bob: Are you pleased with the reaction after joining the last Humble Bundle?

Zach: Yes – it’s gone quite well! There are now a ridiculous number of people playing SpaceChem, which I think is the best measure of success for a game.

Bob: Have you got any plans to release more DLC?

Zach: At this time, no.

If you want to check out SpaceChem, you can purchase the game here (A demo is also available) or visit the website here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

DLC Launch Schedules

Downloadable Content (DLC) has caused much controversy in recent years. Games used to be developed until released in which case the developers would work on patching the game and releasing a £20 expansion pack 6 to 12 months after release. Nowadays, DLC is released a very short time after the game has released and there has been evidence of pre-planning the DLC before the release.

Bioshock 2 triggered the debate about DLC when upon releasing it’s ‘Sinclair Solutions Test Pack’ just a month after the game launched. Players discovered that the $5 DLC was already on the disc at launch and that users were having to pay for a small file that unlocked the folder. The developers of Bioshock 2 ‘2K Games’ later confirmed that this was indeed true saying “that this was so that all players would have the same files on the disc and so that the DLC would not split the player base”. Needless to say, many fans were annoyed and outraged that it was pre-planned to such an extent.

The newly-released ‘Orcs Must Die!’ already has a paid DLC the ‘Artifact’s of Power’ which offers 2 new weapons and 2 new traps. Although it has been released just a week after launch, many fans of the game are happy to support it because of the pricing (Just £1.59) and also because several fans of the game specifically asked for DLC to be released. I asked the developers of 'Orcs Must Die!' Robot Entertainment when they started working on the DLC and why they decided to release it so soon.

“The development on our DLC began after the initial game was completed. As anyone familiar with game development knows, games are often completed (or mostly completed) well before their release date. There is a certain amount of time between content or code complete and the actual release where bug fixing and platform approvals are occurring. Once OMD! was in that phase, a small handful of developers began to push around ideas of how we could add a little bit more to the game. That's when the work on these items began.”

“Many people who've purchased and played Orcs Must Die! have asked on the forums for more traps and maps. We're really happy to have a very flexible development team that can adapt quickly to allow us to release fun additions to Orcs Must Die! relatively close to the release. In this case, we wanted to give players who enjoy trap variety the chance to mix up their toolbox with deadly results.”

I’m sure it will become more and more common in the future to see these releases although the question still remains as to whether it should be either included before release or as a free update later. With only large companies like Valve releasing free DLC it does look like the paid DLC ethos will become the norm rather than the exception.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Interview: 'Souleye' The composer behind indie hit VVVVVV

In all types of visual media, Soundtracks have become essential. Imagine watching Indiana jones or Star Wars without hearing John Williams’ fantastic compositions in the background. It would become a completely different film. In the same way, music in video games is also essential to the immersion. Playing a game with the sound off is never fun, you need to hear the OST otherwise the lack of sound will significantly detract from the overall experience. The genre that heads the top of the leaderboards for best soundtracks have to be 2D Indie games. VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, Arcadia, and Frozen Synapse all boast incredible soundtracks.

My favourite soundtrack is in ‘VVVVVV’ the indie hit by Terry Cavanagh which is based on the graphics style normally seen on 80’s computer hardware. It looks gorgeous and has the same gameplay mechanics ZX Spectrum users would be familiar to. It is another indie platformer which is a well-trodden genre in PC Gaming second only to Diablo clones. The game stands out because of its simple controls and the incredible anti-gravity mechanic that puts this game to the top of the pile. What keeps it at the top is it’s incredible Soundtrack. The chiptune tracks are heavily influenced by the 8bit sounds of the Commodore 64. I spoke to Magnus ‘Souleye’ PĂ„lsson who wrote the incredible soundtrack that accompanies the game.

Bob: What inspires you to write music?

Magnus: I get inspired by, well, anything. I find that moving my body, eating well and having a lot of fun social interactions makes my brain come up with stuff easier.

Bob: Do you have to wait until you play the game before you can compose the soundtrack for it?

Magnus: I don't have to play the game, but usually I have at least some screenshots and descriptions to go with it. All things the devs can give me helps. Inspirational tracks, graphics, similar games, storyline, mood settings, et cetera.

Bob: What software do you use to create your tracks and how long on average do they take to write?

Magnus: I use Madtracker to make everything. I may change though, as it's got a lot of limitations. A track can take as long as I need it to. A VERY simple and short track can take 10 minutes, but if I want something to sound really GOOD, I need much more time and inspiration. Those tracks can oftentimes somewhere take between 10-40 hours spread over a lot of days.

Bob: What are your favourite game soundtracks?

Magnus: My favourite game soundtracks... Well, I recently enjoyed Trine's, but usually reference old school stuff, like for the Commodore 64: Wizball, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Gianna Sisters, and Delta. There's a bunch of classics for NES too: Zelda 2, Punch Out to name a few.

Bob: Have you got any projects on the go?

Magnus: Besides having a couple of tracks released on Rock Band Network (such as this), right now I'm working on a few projects, but can only name one due to some secrecy: Pulsen. It's a rhythm/music game, and I'll be releasing a pack for it at a later stage with new material and a couple of VVVVVV remixes that will blow the originals out of the water. More info will come on my twitter (@mpsouleye), as that's mainly where I do my news. I'm going to release a CD too, around when my pack for Pulsen is released, which will contain some of those tracks, the missing VVVVVV tracks and some new material too. Exciting times!

Magnus' Tracks are a fast paced blitz of electronic chiptune sounds that are unbelievable when listened through headphones - Listen to a bit here and if you like it purchase the game or the soundtrack or both!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Worrying lack of Originality...

A few years ago, Crystal Dynamics released ‘Tomb Raider Anniversary’ after buying the rights to the franchise from Eidos soon after ‘Angel of Darkness’ was released in 2003. The game is a direct remake of the 1996 classic that changed 3D adventure gaming forever. It was reasonably well received for a developer finding its feet for the franchise that year and the subsequent games in the series built on this. The question that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is whether developers have started to run out of ideas and originality. Worryingly, Anniversary has triggered several other developers into doing similar remakes.
Console gamers should be worried even more as the Playstation network plan to release HD versions of classic games. This may be fair enough if the upgrade is charged at maybe five to ten pounds but to release them at a full price of £40 is ridiculously excessive considering that it is still the original game just with new textures and sound effects. The even more worrying trend is that console gamers will lap this up which will only spur on the developers to re-hash even more classics. They would never ever sell even a tenth as well on a PC because of the outstanding modding community. Halo: Combat Evolved is about to be re-released on the Xbox. I love this game on the PC and if I want to upgrade the textures, I’ll be able to download a mod within two minutes and play it for free. But to pay £40 for the remake? No Chance.
The Black Mesa mod for the original half-life is redoing all of the textures, sound, physics and even some engine changes and it will be released for free. The modders have a love and enthusiasm for HL so see it as a fun challenge that will be appreciated by other PC Gamers so a price isn’t necessary. They do have an option to donate to them which a lot of us have done to keep them going in anticipation for such an incredible amount of effort.
The more aware readers will be shouting at their monitor now “What about the Source remakes? They cost money!” Yes Valve did release remakes to an extent. Counter-Strike, Half-Life, Half-Life Deathmatch and Day of Defeat all received a run through the at-the-time brand new Source Engine. These are all classics of PC Gaming so fans addicted to the series were very excited about playing them in one of the greatest physics engines ever to sit on our hard-drives. £5.99 Valve asked for. That’s it. No more, no less.
Another reason this is a much better release system than that on consoles is that HL was released in 1998 so a remake of it in an engine made with 9 years worth of advancement in developing was a significant change. The God of War series being released on the Playstation is a remake of a 5 year old game and the only difference in hardware changes is that of the generation of consoles. The amount of upgrades a PC could have in the period of time is infinite so the difference in gameplay and textures would be staggering.
If we want to avoid seeing this becoming a trend, we should ignore these ‘HD’ remakes and just purchase games with a bit of imagination and originality before the developers and publishers can realise that all they have to do to make a bit of cash with extremely low effort is to re-draw the textures for a few weeks. Will this end up turning into what the film industry is today, when a classic Hitchcock is remade horrendously badly every couple of years? We want to avoid a world where Doom HD, Quake HD and Duke Nukem HD sell better than the likes of Braid, Portal and Trine.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Simple steps

I’ve just started playing the monster RTS that is AI war for a future feature. Well when I say ‘started playing’ I mean completed the first hour of the tutorial. Readers familiar with Strategy games will appreciate the difference in complexness there can be between certain games. For instance, you may be brilliant at SupCom2 but can you understand hotkey frantic games like the original Homeworld?
The trouble with starting a new RTS or even a TBS for that matter is the first few hours. How well do the developers manage to ease you in to a certain level of familiarity with the controls that you feel comfortable with before chucking you in at the deep end? To teach gameplay mechanics and controls to someone can be incredibly difficult and sometimes awkward so a well-scripted tutorial is always a must-have. So after spending 60-odd minutes learning the basic features of the HUD, I started pondering about what makes a good tutorial.
One of my favourites has to be the original Tomb Raider. It featured an assault course that as you progressively work through, teaches you the controls and situations to use them in extremely well. I have fond memories of doing the tutorial several times trying to beat my own time. The third-person shooter stealth game Splinter Cell also features a similar training room. These types of tutorial work really well when merged as part of the story: for example, Half-Life uses a fantastic holographic assistant who talks you through the Black Mesa hazard course using text-prompts as well as voice-guidance.
Text-prompts don’t always work however and can detract from the experience and ruin the immersion. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of my favourite puzzle games this year but it has an awful tutorial comprising of text-prompts that pause the game whilst you click through them hurriedly trying to block that creatures spear which is paused a few pixels away from your sprite. Assassins Creed is an example of developers using text-prompts effectively. The very nature of its Matrix-style storyline enables the player to learn the physics and mechanics in an environment specifically made for training.
Hopefully, developers will learn from past successes and failures to create not only an immersive tutorial but also an informative one and change the fact that great tutorials are exceptions rather than the norm.   

Just one more play...

I admit it. I’m addicted. Trackmania is my addiction of choice. The thrills of getting round that tricky chicane perfectly and the sheer exhilaration of speed felt makes this a game to be avoided at all costs if you value your time. Trackmania abuses our mind into playing into the long evening hours shaving hundredths off of a thirty-second lap. Their developers ‘Nadeo’ have perfected the much admired ‘Just one more play’ factor which many games have tried in the past. This factor is what gives a game replay value.
Another game that uses this effect perfectly is the popular platformer ‘N’ in which simply pressing space after falling into a mine will instantly reset the level to its original state. More recently, ‘Super Meat Boy’ which is commonly known as one of the toughest platformers around requiring pixel-perfect jumps every time. Interestingly enough, the developers ‘Team Meat’ didn’t even include a reset button in their final game simply stating “There’s too many ways to die. If you want to restart just launch yourself into a spinning wheel of death spikes.”
Trackmania is particularly interesting because it isn’t a platformer. I’m not aware of many other games other than platformers who can pull off the ‘Just one more play’ move effectively. Some may argue that ‘Plants Vs Zombies’ achieves this and I would agree. The multiplatform PopCap epic doesn’t really fall into a particular genre however. I wouldn’t class it as a Tower Defence although it does have certain game mechanics that are similar. It could also be seen as a Puzzle, Casual or a Strategy game. If it was in a Venn diagram, I imagine it would be the small squiggly bit in the middle. But it still doesn’t have quite the same reset functionality that a ‘Just one more play’ game needs. A few misplaced Sunflowers or Peashooters early on in a Survival level can really affect the strategy in the late game and because it may be 15 minutes before this point is reached, the reset value isn’t every 10 seconds or so which is what is ideal for this type of game mechanic.
On the subject of PopCap, another casual gaming classic ‘Peggle’ struggles to fit into a genre. It features a ball being launched into the level and being bounced off different colour pegs each of different ability and score. Released in 2007 and inspired by the Japanese pinball classic ‘Pachinko’, it tricks people into having more and more attempts by having a huge range of levels and in-game achievements to beat which all adds up to the embarrassment of playing a game with talking unicorns in at 1 in the morning after being tempted into infinite attempts.
So apart from platformers and the well-polished games produced by PopCap, is Trackmania one of the only games to hit the small line of replay-abilty that most developers desire?

Monday, 17 October 2011

And the winner of most DLC is...

I can’t talk for the other 40 odd million users of Steam, but when I open it up and browse the store, apart from the sales, the ‘new releases’ section is where my eyes gaze next. The more aware users will respond in either of two distinct ways when the word ‘Railworks’ is mentioned. Either they will claw a hole with their bare hands into whatever surface is nearest and cry or they will have a beaming smile on their face and will scream “£1000 DLC”. Yes you heard me correctly. Railworks has almost £1000 worth of Downloadable Content. Me and a few friends have followed the increasing cost of the DLC for a few months now. At least once a week a track or train add-on expansion will appear and we’ll all open up the total DLC page and stare in amazement eagerly viewing the running total.
I have never owned a Train Simulator of any kind so it would be unfair of me to judge the content that is being created by the developers. I have however been an avid Flight Simmer so can appreciate the ideas of an open world base game that third-party developers can push the boundaries into creating unique and interesting content. There are several developers who deal solely in creating add-ons for the now four –years-old Microsoft FSX so there must be a significant market for it. The developers of Railworks could argue that Flight Sims have even more content so it is unfair to judge the game as a content spewing machine. The difference here is that the Railworks DLC’s are all first-party official add-ons, meaning they are made by the company that created the base game not by external developers.
Expansion packs used to be mainstream with Total Wars, Sims and Civilizations all receiving large enough amounts of content to warrant an official release of an expansion pack. DLC on Steam has changed the way we think about this. Instead of £10 being spent on an expansion pack, 8 micropayments of £1.25 each are being made allowing users much more flexibility into what they choose. Don’t what the new maps but are eagerly awaiting the new units? Simple, just cherry-pick the content that interests you.
This is also different from Railworks. Almost all the DLC they sell is at least £12 each even up to £25. Some players may say that it offers enough new content that the price is justifiable and maybe it is but the sheer amount of DLC being sent into the new releases column is mind-blowing. Maybe the amount of purchases against the hours of development conclude that £12 means a small profit as most developers will  lower the price if the community is large enough (excluding Activision).
So I’m sure the DLC is absolutely fantastic to Train Simmers. Imagine if Valve were to release content on such a schedule! I’m sure there are several thousand other people who will rejoice and celebrate the day that Railworks DLC hits £1000 – It will indeed be a moment to tell the grandchildren. So let’s raise a toast together to the incredible output of the Rail Simulator Development and to Steam for allowing such wonderful content to adorn their virtual shelves.


Great moments in Gaming

All of you who are familiar with ‘Microsoft Sam’ will appreciate the hilarity that ensues after typing in a few rude words. For those who have passed through life without this joy, it is a robotic voice that reads whatever you type in. It has been featured on many machinimas including the very popular Halo-based series “Arby 'n' The Chief”. Giggling to yourself at home whilst entering expletives is extremely amusing and we have all at some point asked ourselves whether someone could create a way that it could be experienced with friends. Thankfully, NASA have risen to the occasion.
The developers of the FPS ‘America’s Army’ also made a moon simulator. Moonbase Alpha was released on Steam about a year ago and like America’s Army, it was released for free. NASA themselves say that it is a “Realistic simulation of life on a natural satellite”. The press releases at the time discussed how the player must take control of an outpost on the moon and save research during a meteor strike. Now I’m not sure about you but that sounds incredible. That is until you load it up. On not one occasion have I seen a meteor hit the moon as we rush around in moon buggies trying to save valuable data! The tasks the game asks you to do: ‘mend a canister’ or ‘weld an oxygen tube’ aren’t exactly riveting. (See what I did there? I’ll stop…) But what saves this game from the scrapheap are two features every single game should have.
1)      Multiplayer. Yes a pretty common sight in modern games but Moonbase Alpha wouldn’t be half as good if you couldn’t share the crazy experiences and witticisms that the game brings, with your friends.
2)      Text-to-Speech. This needs to be in EVERY game. Imagine watching a Starcraft II game between some top end MLG players and seeing ‘SOISOISOISOISOI’ read out on the chat by a robot. Ruin the immersion? Spoil the seriousness? Balls to that, this would add hilarity to a slow fight. Although how a Starcraft II player could type that out whilst performing several hundred APM I have no idea.
We all have those great moments in gaming. Realising you can buy a room for the night, sit down and read a book in Oblivion; firing a gnome into space in HL2 or hearing ‘Still Alive’ for the first time in Portal. Well, finding a small glitch on the moon enabling us to jump off into the unrendered world falling indefinitely with several friends whilst hearing Microsoft Sam saying rude words which you can hardly hear over friend’s laughter. That is a moment in gaming not to be forgotten. 
Immature? Yes.
Fun? Unbelievable.  
(Video of this moment - captured for prosperity)