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‘But when I play video games, I begin feeling guilty and even bored’

I had the great fortune of hearing a question I’d asked to the hosts of the Into the Aether podcast via Discord repeated on the episode “There’s a Troll in this Chili’s”, timestamp 34:51. (Honest to god, the question is more serious than the title of the episode.)

Yours truly:

Howdy! I love video games. I love the idea of playing video games. At work, I get excited by the idea of sitting down for a long bout of video games. But when I do, I begin feeling guilty and even bored. Am I broken, or am I just playing the wrong games? Have either of you dealt with this?

Hosts Brendon Bigley and Stephen Hilger spent nearly 25-minutes thoughtfully addressing these questions, ranging from living in the moment, mental health, and easing up on the burden caused by zeitgeist and “completionism”. Even if this weren’t my question, I’d tell you it’s worth your time.

If you’re unfamiliar with Into the Aether, the hosts bill it as a “low-key video games podcast”, but I think they’re selling themselves short. It’s funny and intelligent; the commentary on video games is never one of snobbery; the subject matter spans beyond just games and into art, community, and culture. It has honestly become one of my favorite shows. And over the past few months, it has quickly jumped up my priority listening queue. Seeing as I only listen to podcasts while out on a jog, I find myself running a bit more often these days.

Additional note: Prior to launching Into the Aether, Brendon Bigley interviewed me about Zero Counts and about my piece “Big-N’s Big Year”. You can find the interview at the bottom of the post or on the Ported Podcast feed.

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‘It’s like friendly punk’

Bennett Foddy, Playdate game developer, in an interview with Edge Magazine (via Apple News+):

We’ve standardised around two hardware platforms: the touchscreen, and ten buttons, two analog sticks. That’s got its benefits, but you miss out on novel experiences. So yeah, there is something that is kind of punk about it, and that yellow case. It’s like friendly punk.

I recently restored my Game Boy. I don’t play it. It just sits on my desk. But I pick it up every now again because, aside from nostalgia, there’s something so pleasing about it.

As I’ve been thinking about Playdate today, it dawned on me — that something is the buttons.

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Playdate

Playdate press release:

Playdate is both very familiar, and totally new. It’s yellow, and fits perfectly in a pocket. It has a black-and-white screen with high reflectivity, a crystal-clear image, and no backlight. And of course, it has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C, and a headphone jack. But it also has a crank. Yes, a crank: a cute, rotating analog controller that flips out from the side. It’s literally revolutionary.

There’s more: Playdate includes games — a full season of them. The games will be delivered over-the-air, once a week for 12 weeks, and they’ll be a surprise: when the new game light flashes, you’ll never know what you’re about to play. Panic recruited some of the world’s best game designers — some well known; others under the radar — to make games exclusively for our system. Playdate isn’t just hardware: it’s a complete experience.

Hot on the heels of the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy, this little handheld console is a sight to see.

Since bringing my Game Boy back to life, I’ve been yearning for the good ol’ dot-matrix days. But I’ve also had the feeling they‘d likely disappoint. Rose-colored glasses and all. Seeing the Playdate feels like a realization of that pining. Something new of something old:

Playdate’s 2.7-inch (68mm) screen is a unique, black-and-white, low-power LCD from Sharp, with a resolution of 400 × 240. On the surface, it might be tempting to compare the screen to, say, the Game Boy. But Playdate’s display is quite different: it has no grid lines, no blurring, is extremely sharp and clear, and has much higher resolution. It sounds odd to say, but: it’s truly a “premium” black-and-white screen.

And it wouldn’t be the same without Teenage Engineering. At initial glance, I knew something looked familiar. Sure enough, I noticed that Teenage Engineering had a hand in the design (and crank!) of the Playdate. I keep a PO-20 in my nightstand and am constantly enthralled by its ingenuity.

I encourage you to read the press release in full — ideally on an iPhone or iPad as there’s a very cool AR experience to check out. The damn thing is so cute!

I’m signed up to receive updates about the Playdate and I recommend you do too.

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A Video Game Developed To Detect Alzheimer’s Disease Seems To Be Working

Zack Zwiezen, Kotaku:

According to researchers, every two minutes spent playing the game is equal to five hours of lab-based research. Because Sea Hero Questhas been out for a few years and downloaded and played by over three million players they’ve collected the equivalent of 1,700 years of research data on Alzheimer’s

Researchers involved with the project studied people who carried the APOE4 gene, which is thought to increase that person’s risk of developing dementia, as they played the game. They then compared these people’s results to the results of folks who played the game who don’t have that gene.

“We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse on spatial navigation tasks. They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals,” said Professor Michael Hornberger, a member of the team.

Two minutes. 99.33% of time shaved off. Truly incredible.

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Nintendo Knew How

Shahid Kamal Ahmad on the Remaster Podcast, looking back on Reggie Fils-Aimé‘s legacy:

This is a real problem with video games, right. You go into video games as a new person who hasn’t played video games. You play a modern AAA game, and first of all, you have tutorials that are extremely patronizing for the really experienced player. But still bewildering for new players. How do you get those players in? Nintendo knew how.

Nintendo knew that they had to make the controls more accessible, and Reggie knew [those controls] were coming with the Wii. He knew that would be suitable for people who were intimidated by the controller. Personally, I thought that was an absolute genius move.

I’ve had issues with controllers for a long time. Not personally, but in terms of accessibility. There’s been this steady increase in the complexity of a controller. It hasn’t become easier to use; it’s become more complicated to use. Yes, it’s got more features — now you have touchpads; now you have analog buttons; now you have analog sticks; now you have two or three or four more buttons on the thing; now you have pro controllers and elite controllers, £120 controllers. What Nintendo recognized was, “oh, we can do something that does away with all of that and introduce an entirely different type of technology that ‘hey! It’s actually not that expensive to manufacture.’” It was utter genius.

Keying in on the phrase, “I’ve had issues with controllers for a long time”: You and me both, Shahid. You and me both.

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Polygon: The battle between Steam and Epic Games Store is heating up

Ben Kuchera, writing for Polygon:

The good news for players is that everyone wants their business, and the battle for that business is structured in such a way that prices are going down, while profits — at least, in some cases — may be going up. Epic Games has found a way to get players to more closely consider the economics of storefronts, and it did so with both exclusives and a lower price. This won’t be the last time we see this approach as the platform wars continue in 2019.

I nearly titled my piece Activision, Microsoft, and Platforms “Platform Wars”.

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Switch Is Selling Like Wii, Thanks To Traditional Nintendo Games

Chris Kohler, Kotaku:

NPD didn’t release the exact sales number for Smash, but it gave us enough to roughly figure it out. It said that Ultimate exceeded the launch month sales of Super Smash Bros. Brawl by over 70 percent. Since that number is known (2.7 million), we can add 70 percent to it to get rough first-month sales for Ultimate at a little over 4.5 million units—again, not counting download sales.

In fact, Ultimate’s debut was, NPD said, the best launch month for a console-exclusive game in “video game history.” The strength of the Switch overall also boosted the sales of its major games, sending 2017 games Mario Kart 8, Breath of the Wild, and Super Mario Odyssey into 2018’s top 20. Overall, NPD said, Nintendo made more money on software than any other publisher this year, a feat it hadn’t achieved since—you guessed it—the salad days of Wii, in 2009.

Back-to-back big years?

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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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