Friday, November 2, 2012

We should be happy Disney got Lucas Films

Disney recently acquired Star Wars. There has been a lot of hubbub around the internet and, as I was surprised to find out, real life. People still care about Star Wars? I mean, I know that nerds cared, but normal people? I was kind of surprised.

Anyway, being the king of nerds within my social circle, everyone wanted to know what my opinion was. I hadn’t given it much thought so after considering for a couple seconds my initial reaction was that this was good, though I couldn’t really nail down why beyond the fact that Lucas was getting kicked upstairs to creative consultant. Now that I have had some time to think about this, I feel that I can give a much better explanation of why this is a strictly good thing for the IP.

Star Wars is a deeply damaged IP. Star Wars has been bad for at least 10 years, and nothing truly great has come from the IP since the conclusion of the original trilogy. There have been a few decent books and videogames, but by and large nothing worthy of the Star Wars name. 95% of all things Star Wars related are terrible, and the sequels were especially awful. It has gotten so bad that I actively avoid anything even related to Star Wars. Anytime I break this rule I regret it. No one should be wasting their time with Star Wars.

However, get Lucas out of the picture, bring in new creative talent, and focus on the core of what made Star Wars great all those years ago and you might just be able to overcome all the baggage of the last 13 years.

Disney cannot ruin Star Wars. The only question is if Disney can fix Star Wars. At worst we are going to get more stuff we should just ignore, so there is no downside to this. In fact, we might even win if this is bad for Star Wars. Maybe people will finally realize that Star Wars is dead and move on.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Oswald Review: Academagia - Text was never so magical.


Genre: Hell if I know. Life Sim Text Adventure RPG, I guess.
Platform: PC
Released: 2010
Developer/Publisher: Black Chicken Studios

Breakdown

Writing: 3 - Generally engaging, which is good because the game is 95% text.

Interface: 1 - Very poorly designed and implemented. Will be a deal breaker for many.

RPG Elements: 3 - Fairly deep but very confusing.

Art: 2 - Minimal and of questionable quality, but it serves its purpose well.

Overview

Arcademagia is the first game I have ever played of it’s kind, and it doesn't fit into any common genre. You play as a child who has just received a letter inviting them to attend the Academy of Magic in the city of Mineta, which is basically the Hogwarts of this fictional universe. You attend your first year of school, learn magic, make friends and go on adventures.

The basic gameplay is very simple. Each day you choose what you will do in the morning, afternoon and evening. You name the action and the game calculates how it went, you receive a report on how the day went and you will now have more experience, money or whatever you were working towards. Sometimes random events occur during the day, which are beneficial if your character can handle it or detrimental or not. I will discuss random events in detail later, but for now lets stick with actions.

There are many, many actions available. Most are variations of the theme of practice a skill and get better at it but framed in a fun and interesting way. For example, My character is good enough at reading people that I can increase my study levels by manipulating my professors into giving away what will be on the exam. In additional, I get a couple bonus points in random manipulation skills even if the action fails. Other actions include working a shift at a restaurant to earn money and cooking skills, gossiping about a person you hate to lower their social standing, or encouraging a fellow student so they will become your friend.

You will start the game with only 20 or so actions available, but new actions are earned as you play. If you improve your flowers skill you might earn the ability to go collect herbs which, with enough points in brew, can be used to make a potion. Leveling up skills can give you other benefits, such as learning of new school locations, upgrading your relationship with a certain professor or student, access to bits of lore, and other possibilities too numerous to name here.

With over 200 skills, 11 levels for each and a reward for each level of each skill, there is quite a bit of content and a real sense of progression as you play. You can unlock some really interesting rewards. My current favorite is the max level of calligraphy, which allows you to create invitations so spectacular you can mind control the target for a day or two.

There are problems with the skill system.  There is no clear indication of what earning points in a skill will get you, and the usefulness of the skills varies wildly. Negation magic (counter magic) is probably the best skill in the game, but I have rarely had a use for grammar. Also, redundancy of skills can make things a little confusing. Do we really need three separate skill for seeds, roots and flowers? However, these problems are generally minor and don’t really detract from a skill system where you can base a character around gossip and knowledge of hairstyles and they will actually be useful.

Unfortunately, not all of the systems are as compelling as the skill system. Spell casting is clunky, boring, and generally unfun, which is unfortunate in a game about attending magic school. Each spell requires a roll and most provide a temporary but fairly powerful skill bonus. Spells can be further augmented by adding extra phemes (the basic building blocks of magic) that will add effects but increase the difficulty.

The problem is that most spells you cast will be to temporarily buff a skill so you can pass a difficult skill check, so you will be looking for spells and phemes pertaining to that skill. With 266 spells, 364 phemes and no ability to sort by effect figuring out a useful spell to cast is an extremely annoying exercise in hunting through the poor interface. Having a browser with the Academagia wiki open is practically a requirement, and while hunting through wiki pages is easier it certainly is not fun. Fortunately, spell casting in this way is rarely necessary.

The last type of action I am going to touch on is going on an adventure. You choose an adventure, from exploring a haunted forest to helping another student with their bullying problem, and attempt to navigate the adventure through a series of skill checks. For example, I went on an adventure in which I explored an abandoned tower. Through the use of my negation magic I was able to disable the magical defenses of the place, and using rhetoric I was able to befriend a resident ghost who helped me as I explored. Most adventures have several steps (requiring several actions to complete) but they have rewards as you go along and usually a big reward at the end. Also, if you fail in the adventure you can just try again so you never have to reload when you fail. The adventures are generally fun and entertaining.

The random events I touched on before are essentially mini adventures that can come at any time. Random events usually consisting of “This happens! What do you do?” followed by a skill check based on your response. For example, as I was exercising the star athlete of my class wanted to challenge me to a race, knowing that everyone would bet against me. She would then throw the race and, with a third person acting as a bookie, make a bunch of money. I used my gambling skill to accept, hoping that I might also place a few choice bets and make some cash myself. This blew up in my face and I got beat up by the people I had hoped to con. Random events are fun, break the monotony of the daily gameplay cycle and add a great deal of depth to the world.

All in all, Academagia is a very unique and interesting game. If you don’t mind reading and enjoy non standard game design, it is certainly worth checking out.

Final Score

3 - Interesting and fun but not for everyone.


For a breakdown of my scoring system, view this post.

I am currently accepting recommendations on what to review! I will review anything, from soundtracks to web browsers, but I can only claim expertise in video games and I will only review something if I feel like it. Put recommendations in the comments or send them to oswaldReviews@gmail.com.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Women in video games: Bad solutions don't fix problems.


The video game industry has recently been getting a lot of flak for having too many overtly sexual female characters.  I have seen several people say that a potential solution to the problem would be to include unattractive women in games. When given examples of unattractive women in games, these people inevitably respond in one of two ways, and often both at once:

1. Those characters are the exception, not the rule.
2. That character doesn't count because they are bizarre or outlandish.

These responses are ridiculous. This is why.

Video games are not movies or books, they do not need a good story to be good. They can stand on their gameplay alone. Street Fighter, for example, does not need a good story and I would even go so far as to say it would be worse if they had tried to shoehorn a deep story into the game. Not every game needs a deep story, not every game should have a deep story.

What every game does need are interesting characters. But if you are not going to have a deep story, there is no point to having deep characters. There is no payoff and that characterization becomes time wasted that detracts from the game.

Because of this, developers are often tasked with creating interesting but shallow characters. This is accomplished by making the character outlandish, especially on a visual level. They need to stick in the mind from the moment they are seen. This basically means they need to be notably strange, ugly, or attractive. Notably ugly is generally not used because no one wants to look at an exceptionally ugly character for any length of time. This leaves us with notably strange and notably attractive. Visually uninteresting characters (average looking) only work when they can be fleshed out by deep story and engaging dialog, which is often not possible

Even when a good story and engaging dialog are possible, average looking characters will always be in the minority because they are boring. The only time it is good to have such a character is when their lack of exceptional features contributes to their character, such as Lucca in Chrono Trigger (setting her apart as the only average looking person in a group of freaks,) or the setting, such as Alyx Vance. Otherwise the developer is passing up on an opportunity to put something interesting in the game for no reason and the game is worse for it.

In summary, average looking or ugly characters will always be rare because it is a really bad idea, with a few exceptions. This is not the solution to the overt sexuality problem. Stop suggesting it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Classic Review: Gimmick

Genre: 1980’s style platformer.
Platform: NESReleased: 1992
Publisher: Sunsoft
Developer: Authentic Entertainment

Breakdown

Gameplay: 3 - 80’s style platforming with a few unique twists.

Level Design: 3 - Generally solid with a few cheap shots thrown in.

Art: 4 - Amazing use of limited hardware.

Music: 3 - Strong, but not remarkable.

Overview

I like platformers, especially the 1980’s style platformer. There is an elegance of design in the 1980’s style platformer that generally isn’t seen anywhere else. The technological constraints and prevailing design sensibilities of the time created a genre that was extremely focused, delivering a simple but surprisingly deep challenge at the core of the game.

Gimmick is a great example of the 1980’s platformer. Inhabiting a space somewhere between Super Mario Bros. and Kirby’s Dream Land, Gimmick brings enough unique ideas to the table to set itself apart from the mess of platformers of the NES and SNES era, including an approximation of a physics engine that will play havoc with your platforming skills until you work out the quirks of the system. Overall, the unique features add a great deal to the game, making the old platformer genre feel new again.

There are 2 other fairly unusual mechanics. First, when an enemy is jumped on it is not killed. Instead most enemies can be ridden, SMB 2 style. Second, Gimmick can throw a star shaped projectile. The projectile is thrown at a sharp downward angle, conserves momentum,  and can be ridden like the enemies. These two mechanics, combined with interesting level design, make for some interesting platforming. Many jumps require creative use of enemies and your projectile.

Another highlight of the game is the artwork. The limited NES hardware is used brilliantly to create a game that looks good 20 years later. People interested in sprite art should take notes.

Final Score

3 - A very strong NES platformer. Highly recommended for anyone interested in old school platformers.

For a breakdown of my scoring system, view this post.

I am currently accepting recommendations on what to review! I will review anything, from Shakespeare to taco salads, but I can only claim expertise in video games and I will only review something if I feel like it. Put recommendations in the comments or send them to oswaldReviews@gmail.com

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Oswald Scale

My rating system is very simple. The possible scores are 1-5, with a single special category, 1*. Note that these categories cast a wide net, so 2 things with the same score may not be of the same quality. I make no attempt to be objective, all the reviews and scores I give are my opinions. I encourage you to post the score you would have given and the reasons why in the comments.

1: Category 1 casts a very wide net. Anything that is simply not worth your time makes it in here, from simply bad to truly offensive.

Examples: Sonic 2006, the Zelda CD-i games, Michael Bay's first Transformers movie (the only one I have seen and can therefore rate.)

1*: Anything that falls into a 1 category but has some unusual property that may make it worth watching. Usually these are things that fall into the “so bad it’s good” category or are historically relevant.

Examples: “Trapped in the Closet” by R. Kelly, Trolls 2.

2: Things that are ok. Generally speaking 2s are not worth seeking out but they aren't really bad either. If you like the genre or medium and material is scarce, you may want to check it out.

Examples: GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Michael Bay's Armageddon, Zombie Driver.

3: Generally good. Worth your time, especially if you enjoy the particular area that the thing falls into. A 3 is always a good score and is never an insult.

Examples: Gladiator, Super Mario Bros, Super Meat Boy.

4: Excellent. Highly recommended and must view for those who enjoy the category. Among the best.

Examples: Super Mario Bros 3, Half-Life 2.

5: The best. Very few things ever make it to category 5 and even fewer stay.

Examples: Super Mario World, The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight.


Scores can and do change over time. For example, I don’t put anything in category 5 until it has sat for a few years and I see that it’s value remains over time. On the other hand, something like the first Super Mario Bros would have probably received a 4 at release but has lost points over the years as better things have come along.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Game Design Part 1: Learning to Program

Part 1 of my game design articles. Each article will contain my insights on how to create an indie video game. This article will discuss how to learn to program.

Many people want to make video games, but few are able to. From what I have seen, the biggest obstacle for most is programming. The task of programming can seem daunting. Many begin by attempting to teach themselves C++ or Java. This is a big mistake, you will almost certainly burn out before you are able to make anything more complex than tic tac toe, if you even make it that far.

Instead, I would recommend starting with game creation software. I started with Game Maker, which is a great program. It includes a number of excellent tutorials, thorough documentation, and is free. You can pay for a pro version that includes additional functionality, but for the beginner game designer the free version will be more than adequate. 

The best thing about using game creation software like Game Maker is that you don't need to learn everything at once. You can see the big picture with greater ease and learn how to program by filling in gaps. You will be able to create simple games before you burn out which is very encouraging  and taking advantage of the scripting tools provided (which you should do as soon as possible) will allow you to create surprisingly complex games.

Of course, there are drawbacks to software like Game Maker. A game creation tool like Game Maker is much easier to use than C++, but the price is that it is far less adaptable. Eventually you may want to move onto a tool that allows greater flexibility, but I would recommend you first learn to create simple games within the limitations of Game Maker. This will not only help you learn to program but will also give you actual experience creating video games, which will be more important to making a good video game than anything else you can do.

Friday, September 21, 2012

I can't draw and I know it.

A few years ago I decided I was going to learn to draw. I had always wanted to be able to draw, but I just couldn't. Even my stick figures were full of suck. I figured if I was ever going to learn to draw, I had better do it right. So I started drawing. A lot. Every day I drew for hours, starting with a routine of exercises that took about an hour to hone basic skills. After those exercises were complete, every spare moment of my time was spent drawing. On the train, in between classes, while I watched TV, every moment my hands were not otherwise engaged I drew. I was really bad, but I was showing steady if minor improvement.

A quick aside: When people see you drawing all the time, they want to see your sketch book. They assume that because you are drawing all the time, you have been that way for life and you must be pretty good by now. If you are really bad then it is funny when you show them your work. They feel like they have to say something, but they know that your work is trash and they don't want to be mean. So they end up feeling really awkward about the whole thing and get really uncomfortable. It was quite fun to watch. Their relief was visible when I told them I had been drawing for only a few weeks and I knew my work was total trash.

Anyway, after four months I sat down and looked at my progress. It was significant, but I realized something: I couldn't draw. After 4 months of practice, I couldn't draw consistent shapes. One of the exercises I did daily was to draw basic shapes over and over. The intent was to train myself to create consistent basic shapes. It was like in grade school when they had you draw the letters over and over until it looks right every time, but it never started looking right. I probably drew three thousand circles over those 4 month and I showed no sign of improvement. My circles, squares and triangles were as inconsistent as ever. Even worse, over those four months I discovered that I didn't like to draw. I enjoyed having the finished piece, but I didn't like the actual process of creating the art.

So I quit.