Tag Archives: video games

Jim Guthrie and the Below soundtrack

Polygon and Bandcamp recently profiled and interviewed composer Jim Guthrie (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Planet Coaster) on his soundtrack for the years long project Below.

The game has been receiving luke warm reviews, but the aesthetic and score are something else entirely. In fact, the Below announcement trailer that debuted at E3 2013 propelled me to (illogically) purchase an Xbox One. The game wouldn’t actually be released until 2018. I still have yet to purchase it.

In any case, these bits from the aforementioned interviews stuck out to me:

Polygon:

A few years ago, he happened upon a series of YouTube tutorials about a studio technique using a four-track cassette recorder. The idea was to record a single, sustained note — hence the EHX Superego — and stack it on top of several similar, harmonic pitches to form a chord.

“You record that drone for one whole side of the tape,” Guthrie says, “so it’s like a 30-minute drone. Then I did that on the other three tracks, so I had four different chords made up of drones. And you basically run all that through a bunch of delay and reverb. You press play on the tape, and then you can essentially play the faders, and just swell the volume up and down really slowly and cycle through different chords. That’s when we hit a mood that was really dark and pretty, and sort of lonely. I managed to get a lot of mileage out of that.”

Bandcamp:

I noticed that when you’re crafting items in the game, there’s this tonal/harmony thing that happens there. Did you have a hand in that?

Yeah, I don’t know where the idea really came from, but that was super intentional. I made noises that would sort of stack on top of each other and create a chord. I worked with Kris on that. But yeah, we’re always looking for things like that where you’re making music with the game. It wasn’t so subtle. It’s a little happy succession of notes that sort of lead up to a moment when you craft.

This reminded me of a version of Silent Night I’d recorded years ago. I looped single, droning notes performed with an Ebow into a Line 6 DL4 to create chords. These were then recorded into GarageBand and used as samples:

If you’d like to hear more Death Starr, why not check out my cover of The Talk Show with John Gruber’s theme song “Pickin’ Booger’s with John”.

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20 Years of StarCraft

Kosta Andreadis, writing for IGN:

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the real-time strategy (RTS) genre was not only popular but ubiquitous. RTS games of various styles and settings were everywhere, and a company named Blizzard Entertainment was at the forefront. The studio had become a household name with gamers thanks – primarily – to three titles: 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, 1995’s Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and an action role-playing game released on the final day of 1996 (and developed by Blizzard North), Diablo. These games cemented Blizzard as a company that made high quality cinematic story-driven experiences that were fun, accessible, and infinitely repayable.

With StarCraft, its third real-time strategy game, Blizzard would leave behind the fantasy world of the breakout Warcraft franchise and set its sights on the distant future. It would take players to a science-fiction setting where humans and strange alien races engaged in isometric high-tech warfare. And the studio would go on a journey of its own; in the time between Warcraft II and StarCraft’s launch in 1998 the look and feel of the game would change drastically – alongside its story, characters, vehicles and other player-controlled units. This is the story of that evolution… and the success beyond.

I remember seeing the original StarCraft trailer for the first time. If memory serves, the trailer was included in the WarCraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal expansion set CD-ROM. At the time, the trailer felt like something out of a Ridley Scott film, only grander. Comedic space goons alarmed and destroyed by a large, brooding, mysterious craft. I was bewildered.

Andreadis has put together a tight, well-written retrospective of StarCraft. If you enjoyed the original in the late ‘90s, there are lots of great bits of development insight in here.

The following might be my favorite bit:

Compared to the advances made in digital recording technology available today, to create the sounds and music for StarCraft the team made use of a suite of external synthesizers and outboard hardware, utilising more traditional recording techniques. “Early versions of some of the sounds were pretty cringeworthy,” Glenn admits. “Certain units required more experimentation to get something really unique and special. The first version of the Hydralisk was just plain silly until we figured out how to make them ‘talk’ without words.” This experimentation led to some interesting sources for what many consider to be some of the best sound effects for an RTS of any era.

“Lots of units in the game started with voice as the origin; our voices,” Glenn reveals. “Though most are tweaked beyond recognition. We also used voice for sound effects, such as the Marines’ walkie talkie static. Voice and mouth sounds, like whispers, hisses, and breathing were a big contributor to creating source material to be processed into various strange effects, sweeteners, ambiences and even in the music. One of the chittering Zergling sounds is just me grabbing my cheeks and flapping them open and closed quickly. Processed with pitch and other effects afterwards.”

Unfortunately, no details on the Nintendo 64 port.

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UK video games market is now 80% digital

Christopher Dring, reporting for GamesIndustry.biz:

It seems a bit negative for the physical market, but these figures do not include hardware. And actually more consoles were sold in 2018 than in 2017. GamesIndustry.biz can reveal over 2.4 million games machines were sold in the UK last year. PS4 was the biggest selling console, with sales flat year-on-year, but Nintendo Switch was the biggest growth area, with Switch console sales up more than 20 percent.

Indeed, physical remains a strong part of the games retail business. According to ERA, the best-selling game of the year was FIFA 19 with 2.5 million units sold… 1.89 million of those sales came physically. That means when it comes to AAA releases, digital sales only account for around 25 per cent of the games sold. However, that percentage is getting bigger. Last year, 20% of FIFA 18’s sales were digital.

I don’t find it terribly surprising that an annual sports title garners the top spot for physical game sales. I can already see the GameStop shelves littered with used copies of FIFA ‘19 this fall.

The trend of the rise in digital also comes as unsurprising when physical games are all met with a barrage of software updates. Sure, one may be able to save a few bucks on a physical copy — and sell it back — but in the world of instant gratification, digital download — albeit a tens-of-gigabytes download — is quicker than a trip to the store plus a tens-of-gigabytes update.

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The year in gaming controversies

Colin Campbell, Polygon:

These events must lead most observers to the view that game companies have a long way to go before they can truly present themselves as caring about their employees, their customers, or the world that they inhabit. But they are at least now subject to vociferous disapproval when they make their most grotesque mistakes.

Perhaps meetings are taking place right now, in which execs are noting the previous damage of their own actions, and making necessary alterations. More realistically, as we enter the new year, the issue of unions is in the air. If and when employees organize themselves into unions, game companies will have more to worry about than bad publicity. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for the better. Maybe.

This article is a great retrospective of an industry on the cusp of being held accountable. I don’t say that lightly. These are incidents on record. There’s bound to be many, many more that have not been to light. It’s wonderful to see focus put on these issues by media outlets.

I’ll admit that I remain glued to the video game industry for the fun and surprise of it all. But to see the harsher reality elevated more than ever is refreshing.

In any case, the comments on this article are something else. No one should ever be harassed. No one should ever be expected to work 100 hours per week. No one should be subjected to cheap gambling tactics or unjustified lockout to earn a company an extra penny or two. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for empathy and maturity from companies and audiences alike. Maybe.

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The Xbox One X makes a lot more sense in 2018

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

The ability to play classic games in 4K is one of the most interesting, and sometimes under-discussed, features of the Xbox One X. The system currently provides the only way to play the first Red Dead Redemption in 4K, and doing so is absolutely worth your time. The list of Xbox One X-enhanced games that are backward-compatible isn’t huge — there are currently only 21 as of this writing — but there are some jewels in there, from the original Mirror’s Edge to Portal.

I bought a 4K HDR TV last weekend. My first thought after purchasing it was, “PS4 Pro or Xbox One X?”

Thankfully for my wallet, the original PS4 supports HDR, and that’s more meaningful than 4K in my book. But had I owned neither, I’d be all over the Xbox One X.

While the breadth of catalog isn’t there, there’s certainly enough for my casual needs. But most importantly, for cross-platform games, I’d know I’m getting the best console experience on the market. That’s tough to swallow for a snob like me.

Between (enhanced) backwards-compatibility, early adoption of cross-platform multiplayer, and unmatched performance, I agree with Kuchera. This will be a holiday to watch Microsoft.

Storytelling. Corner.

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Hunch: Nintendo Revives “Super” Branding

Moments ago, WSJ broke news that WSJ breaking Nintendo news.

Earlier this evening, after seeing reviews for Super Mario Party emerge, it dawned on me the appropriateness of the “super” brand in an era of mid-cycle console refreshes. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a next-gen console at the time, but “Super” now feels like a supreme version of an existing console.

My crack-pot hunch is that this new Switch will be named the “Super Switch” (as opposed to “Switch XL”) and will feature a larger display (smaller bezel), richer speakers, better kickstand placement, and Bluetooth headphone support at a minimum. Just a hunch.

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There are too many video games. What now?

Excerpts from Steven Wright’s Polygon Cover Story, emphasis my own:

Everyone can make games, but be realistic. … It used to be that you could do something that nobody had ever seen before, or you could do something familiar really well. Now, it has to be innovative and have incredible quality.”

Games are surely easier to make than ever before. Easy for me to say as I’ve never made a game, but I have to believe that today’s technology has decreased the barrier of entry to development. That’s not to say it’s easy to create a good game. Like any good art or media, that is an incredibly difficult feat.

The tech to create games is more accessible than ever. Formal eduction to learn how to make games has become readily available. The distribution of games becomes increasingly easy via tools like Epic’s Unreal Engine which allows developers to “more easily ship games and seamlessly optimize gameplay across platforms.”

For those developers creating online experiences, the choice and complexity of platform to develop for and release to shrinks ever more with cross-platform play becoming increasingly popular.

It begs the question there is inevitably one experience everywhere, how do the plethora of games become seen? I believe indies will come to depend on large publishers for marketing budgets to cut through the cruft. But those publishers will be increasingly looking for guarantees on their investments. Not a chance on a new indie title.

When Finnish studio Housemarque released a twin-stick shooter called Nex Machina into the wilds of Steam in 2017, it didn’t exactly expect the game to to set tills alight. Even with those lowered expectations, however, the team behind the acclaimed defend-’em-up Resogun found itself shocked at the lack of impact that the Housemarque name seemed to have on the droves of consumers scrolling through Steam every day. When the sales numbers finally trickled t in — Housemarque declined to discuss specifics for this story, but SteamSpy and this recently patched achievement leak puts the number slightly below 100,000 copies sold as of summer 2018 — the mood was somber, with the studio’s head of publishing, Mikael Haveri, describing it as “devastating.”

The past few games I’ve played (and enjoyed!) on iOS have been published by Annapurna Interactive. The brand has made its impression. I couldn’t tell you the developer of any of these games.

The frequency at which a publisher for multiple developers can get its brand in front of the player is far greater than any indie developer. Recognition by saturation.

If the publisher is able to consistently publish top-notch experiences, they also become a trusted curator of which players will seek new titles.

If a developer seeks to have the same level of recognition, they are absolutely required to create something “innovative and of incredible quality” to compel a player to invest in their complete experience, thus building a relationship. The longer the experience lasts, the deeper the relationship becomes.

Blizzard and Epic have created addictive experiences that continue pull players back in over and over, again and again, for hours on end; drilling their brand in with each launch of the game as well as their proprietary launchers and stores.

Nintendo iterates on familiar and successful franchises to deepen the association of a particular IP to Nintendo, thus deepening the player’s relationship with and trust in Nintendo. Should a new Nintendo IP comes along, chances are those with a relationship with Nintendo will give it a try. And because Nintendo consistently creates stellar experience, the trust will likely grow.

Capybara Games released an innovative title of incredible quality for iOS in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery days after the iPad 2 was released — arguably the first experience of its kind. The title was of novel design, mysterious, tonally unique, integrated social sharing to encourage peer-to-peer marketing, and was immersive and long enough to draw players back in through to completion during the early days of a platform. While Capybara may not be a household name, their design and tone is now familiar.

All of this said, the chances of a developer becoming a household name are far slimmer than a publisher who’s essentially become a curator. The same could be send for indie record labels and film distribution/production houses.

Devolver’s Nigel Lowry says that although many industry veterans and gamers alike think of the gaming market as a finite amount of money that hungry consumers are willing to spend in a given time period — say, this bloody holiday season, which is particularly awash with high-profile franchises that must duke it out, such as Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption — in the past few years, it’s become apparent that the limiting factor isn’t measured in dollars, but hours. In a climate where every game is stuffed to the gills with five tiers of colored loot, massive open worlds, reams of optional content and a dozen content patches lurking on the schedule before the core package even hits store shelves, it seems that game developers are battering each other harder than ever before to compete for the attention of games worldwide.

“Even if the most hardcore gamer plays 14 hours a day, that’s still a finite amount of time,” he says. “And if you’re spending 10 of those in a PUBG, or a Fortnite, what does that leave for the rest of us? It’s true that timing of release is critical, sure, and I don’t think that single-player, smaller-scope games are going to go away; there’s always going to be room for that. But time is something that you really can’t move, and you have to account for that when people move into these long-term relationships with games.

See Self-competing and Time Blocking.

I truly don’t know what the future of indies is, but it doesn’t look great.

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Cross-platform play coming to PS4, starting with Fortnite

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

Sony has finally stopped fighting the future: A beta for cross-platform play, including support for Fortnite, launches today.

“The first step will be an open beta beginning today for Fortnite that will allow for cross platform gameplay, progression and commerce across PlayStation 4, Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, and Mac operating systems,” PlayStation president and global CEO John Kodera wrote on the PlayStation Blog. “We see the beta as an opportunity to conduct thorough testing that ensures cross-platform play is best on PlayStation, while being mindful about the user experience from both a technical and social perspective.”

This is a major reversal of its longstanding policy of keeping PlayStation fans segregated from the rest of the industry, after arguing that cross-platform play might even be unsafe. Others in the industry had argued that the policy was due to monetary concerns. Many publishers, including Bethesda, had been pressuring Sony to make this change, and developers such as Psyonix have already spoken openly about how easy the change would be to implement from their end.

This is industry shaking news. With this breakthrough, cross-platform play will become a new norm.

Not to belabor the “console wars”, but I suspect this will encourage deeper investment in first-party exclusives (Nintendo’s game) leading to more studio acquisitions (Microsoft’s new game), as well as bigger deals for third-party exclusives (Sony’s game, traditionally).

Finally. Finally. Finally. Finally.

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The Nintendo 3DS and the Importance of Ports

Viewers of Nintendo’s 9.13.2018 Direct were witness to a treasure trove of future Switch titles. To name a few:

  • Animal Crossing
  • Luigi’s Mansion 3
  • Mega Man 11
  • Final Fantasy VII, IX, X, X-2, XII ports
  • Yoshi’s Crafted World
  • New Super Mario Bros. U port
  • Diablo III
  • Civilization VI

But the one announcement I keep coming back to is the 3DS port of Kirby’s Epic Yarn — a 2010 Wii title — in the form of Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn.

This is not the first Nintendo home console port to the 7-year-old portable console — Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii), Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii), most recently Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Wii U), to name a few — but it was the first during this Nintendo Direct. Shortly after, a port of the GameCube launch title Luigi’s Mansion (2001) was announced as a marketing tactic fix to hold fans over for Luigi’s Mansion 3 on the Switch.

Current sales numbers of the Switch reflect that of the hugely popular PS4. But even with that success, it’s fascinating to see Nintendo port back-catalog console titles to it’s aged handheld. The telling reason is the 3DS’s continued sales numbers, continuing to post 6.4 million units sold during Nintendo’s fiscal year 2018 ending March 31, 2018 alone.


It’s one thing that Wii U titles are seeing new life on the Switch — Mario Kart 8, Hyrule Warriors, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker — but it’s even more interesting the see the same tactic for a device that third-party support has all but dried up.

Nintendo sees continued life in the 3DS — a 2017 version in the New Nintendo 2DS XL is probably one clue — and seems to have found a method to maintaining the growth of an already stellar catalog with it’s own IP.

Short of the minority who still own a Gamecube or Wii, there is no other place to play Nintendo titles like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Luigi’s Mansion, Donkey Kong Country Returns, or Xenoblade Chronicles — all of which have or will have a Switch sequel. If you don’t have a 3DS/2DS, these games may be attractive enough to pick one up on the opportunity to play or replay alone. But even for existing owners of the 3DS/2DS, this stable of first-party ports are certain to whet appetites for their Switch sequels.

The 3DS is a brilliant promotional tool for the Nintendo Switch.

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Xbox All Access Pass hardware, software, and services subscription

Ben Thompson, Stratechery Daily Update:

That noted, it is not too difficult to imagine this program morphing into something much more significant in the ninth-generation, which is due in 2020. I’ve already discussed the anticipated shift to streaming, at least for some titles; that, naturally, fits a subscription model perfectly.

What is particularly compelling, though, is idea of assuming regular hardware upgrades throughout the generation. Microsoft could, of course, simply charge its best gamers for those slight upgrades every time they come out, but what if instead of financing new consoles the model was more akin to leasing? Pay one monthly fee, get access to online services, streaming games, and new hardware every few years?

Consumer hardware as a service.

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