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09/23/2007 - 09/29/2007

Great Games Don't Need to be Complicated!

September 28, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. I love games, and when you love games as much as I do, you enjoy looking beyond the flashy exterior and deep into a game's soul. And while I spend plenty of time playing big-name blockbusters like BioShock or Halo 3, longtime readers know I'm also a big fan of the indie scene. That's where you find the really wild experimentation, that's where you see new ideas that play around with what it means to be a 'game.'

But I'm not going to get too deep on you, I'm just going to drop a couple of cool games onto your lap. Today's lesson? Good games don't have to be complicated. There's a lot you can get out of a game if you just explore a simple idea or two.

First up I bring you Knytt Stories, a little indie game that I discovered thanks to Danc's awesome Lost Garden blog. You can Download Knytt Stories from FilePlanet.

Little pixelly people having pixelicious adventures.
Knytt Stories has cool little minimalist graphics.

Knytt Stories is basically a 2D platformer, but instead of focusing on the immensely difficult challenges that became the mainstay of the genre (making impossibly-timed leaps onto tiny moving platforms, weaving your way between hundreds of instant-death projectiles, etc.), Knytt is all about exploration. You'll slowly discover a series of powerups that allow you to gradually explore more of the level. And the levels are beautiful in a kind of minimalist way: accented by haunting music and populated with (mostly) harmless wildlife, it's more of a relaxing adventure than a challenge. Knytt proves that there are more ways to have fun than by testing your reflexes. If you enjoy it, try building your own levels with the nifty level editor (bundled with the game).

Here's another great example: Download the Bridge Construction Set Demo, developed by Chronic Logic. A new version of the demo just came out this week. Here's an example of a game where you can use a simulation (and almost nothing else!) to create a great game. Bridge Construction Set presents you with a river and a budget. Your goal is to build a bridge over the river, using iron or steel beams, girders, and cables.

Here come da choo choo
If you build it...

Then it gets nifty. Once you've erected your masterpiece, you can click a button to test your structure using cars or trains. You'll see the different stresses on the parts of your bridge, and you can watch in horror (or glee) as your magnificent construction folds in on itself like a house of cards, sending a locomotive plummeting to the river. It's the second-most fun thing I've ever done with an erection.

What's great about Bridge Construction Set is that it's simple enough that anyone can play, it sparks your creative side, and you actually learn something. Should that even be legal?

Download Knytt Stories and Download Bridge Construction Set to enjoy the simpler side of gaming. Don't worry; you can still go back to playing Halo 3 when you're done.

Posted by at 11:42 AM PDT
Edited on: September 28, 2007 11:45 AM PDT

Some MMO Frontiers Are Still Untamed

September 27, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. In yesterday's post about Ultima Online's tenth birthday, I mentioned that the days of crazy unpoliced online gameplay seemed to be long gone. Modern MMO games, if they feature player-vs-player combat at all, focus it in controlled arenas and manage the experience to keep it from being a free-for-all.

But that's not entirely true. GameSpy reader Ben Jacobs was the first to point out to me a brilliant counter-example: the excellent sci-fi MMO Eve Online. Beyond Empire space is a free-for-all where player battleships prey on the weak. Bold players can target victims even in Empire-controlled areas with a chance of crippling and looting a vessel before authorities arrive.

Meanwhile, most of the drama in Eve Online is in the hands of the players. Player groups ('Corporations') spy on each other, declare war, or get involved in theft or shady financial deals.

Eve is a great counter-example to my earlier point, but more importantly, it's a modest success. The game is doing well and continues to enjoy a passionate fan base. Hopefully it's inspiring other games to follow its example. So there are still places online where a frontier spirit still drives game mechanics and where experimentation lives on...

Posted by at 8:35 AM PDT

Happy 10th Birthday, Ultima Online!

September 26, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. With all the talk about Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa (you can Play the Tabula Rasa Beta now, and by gum, you should), it seems appropriate that this week marks a landmark day in Garriott's career and the history of massively multiplayer games. Happy tenth birthday, Ultima Online!.

On September 25, 1997 Ultima Online, after an intense beta, opened its doors. UO wasn't the first massively multiplayer game (there had been plenty of online games before then, including many subscription games, although they were mostly text-based). And it wasn't the first graphical MMO (3DO's Meridian 59 pre-dated it, using first-person graphics). But Ultima Online is credited with really jump-starting the industry. It was the first real breakout game, soaring to a quarter million subscriptions in the next couple of years and proving that the model could work in a big way. It was published by EA, the world's leading game publisher, and it had the heritage of one of the most respected RPG franchises ever.

Ultima Online was a big deal.

Ultima Online
Ultima Online (with the new Kingdom Reborn graphics upgrade)

We take a lot of Ultima Online's conventions for granted. For instance: Monthly fees. In the years prior to UO, many subscription games still charged by the hour. UO's flat fee set the pricing standard for many years to come. It paved the way for lots of things. Here's a favorite quote of mine from MMO designer Damion Schubert, who was on the Meridian 59 team in addition to being one of the developers on a cancelled UO sequel. He blogs about the legacy of UO:
"I've told people that if UO hadn't come first and whet people's appetite, Everquest would have capped at 75-100K, WoW never gets greenlit, Shadowbane never kicks off, and MMOs would be one of those wacky things the Asians do, like robot dogs and panty vending machines. Ultima Online got people excited about persistent world gaming."
          -Damion Schubert
Another thing that people don't remember is that Ultima Online was the wild-west of online gaming. Nobody had figured out what the rules were supposed to be yet. For instance: Player Killing. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Should the servers regulate it or should the players? What about personal property? Is it more fun to have your house and your possessions safe, or is it more fun if thieves can use their skills to break in and steal stuff? Ultima Online experimented with it all, for better or for worse. These days massively multiplayer games all play it safe: you can only fight other players when both players agree, you can never steal each others' possessions, yadda-yadda. It's hard to imagine someone releasing an MMO as open-ended as Ultima Online today... which is a shame. For a brief period of time the largest publisher in the world and one of the most creative PC game developers were given free reign to blindly experiment in completely uncharted territory!

In the past I've mocked Ultima Online's lawlessness, but it definitely marked a unique chapter in the history of gaming.

Ultima Online might not drive the subscription numbers that World of Warcraft or many Korean MMOs are pulling in today, but the game is still going strong with a dedicated fan base. And, of course, there was a complete graphics engine overhaul this past year with Kingdom Reborn. The game still has an influence: current MMO developers look at the continuing presence of UO and know that they have to plan for their game to be online a decade from launch or even longer. It's pretty daunting given how fast the industry moves.

Richard Garriott, UO's daddy, is of course still developing MMOs. Try the Tabula Rasa Beta to see what he's got cooking up these days!

Posted by at 2:48 PM PDT
Edited on: September 26, 2007 2:50 PM PDT

Tabula Rasa: Raising the Bar

September 24, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. It's too early to tell if Tabula Rasa will be a sweeping success or not, but one thing's for sure: it'll definitely introduce some new gameplay concepts to the MMO genre that will have other developers struggling to catch up. Your big chance to see the game in action is finally here, as the Tabula Rasa Beta is now open to all users:

Join the Tabula Rasa Beta!

If you've been following the gaming industry at all, you know that Tabula Rasa is the brainchild of industry veteran Richard Garriott. Garriott is best known for his pioneering single-player RPG series Ultima, as well as the game that established the graphical MMO revolution: Ultima Online. Garriott is known for his creative outlook and rich backstories, but what does he have up his sleeve this time? As I see it, there are three main things that Tabula Rasa brings to the table that'll change the way we look at MMOs.

Three New Ideas in Tabula Rasa:

Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa.
It'll take teamwork and battlefield tactics to success in Tabula Rasa.

1. Action-Oriented Combat: The first new element is apparent within your first five minutes of playing the game. Tabula Rasa 'feels' like a first-person shooter, complete with crosshairs. It's very visceral: you don't select an enemy and then press an attack button to start your attack cycle. You simply point your weapon at a bad guy and start blasting away! There's plenty of RPG-stats working behind the scenes (your skill with the weapon determines if you hit, your weapon stats and skill bonuses determine damage, etc.), but during gameplay you're definitely focused on the action. Tabula Rasa does a great job of keeping all of the relevant info right there on the playfield, so you're not staring down at your skill bar all the time.

Related to this first point is the fact that the game is focused on tactics and position much more than other online roleplaying games. For example: you'll actually need to use cover. You'll find yourself dashing between sandbag bunkers or planning your assaults around shelter. Crouching behind a low wall makes a huge difference on the outcome of a battle. Furthermore, teamwork is encouraged through battlefield situations. For example, a Bane drone might be invincible from the front, so some players will need to distract it while fellow players flank it for the kill. Or an enemy might be projecting a shield around fellow enemies, so someone with good melee skills will need to run in to take out the shield generator up close in order for the other characters to open fire. Tabula Rasa has a very different feel than the "Tank / healer / damage-dealer" class structure you see in other games.

2. Branching Characters: As Producer Starr Long told GameSpy: "Tabula Rasa is the first MMORPG with a save-game system." Most online RPGs front-load all of your big character decisions into the character creation process, and you're stuck with the class you picked before you knew anything about the game. Tabula Rasa changes it up. Your initial character is just a recruit, like all the others -- after playing the game, you decide how you want to specialize as you begin exploring a branching set of character options. Other games have done this before, but here's what's new: you can "Clone" your character at any time, meaning you can always go back to an earlier version of yourself and then start leveling up your character in a completely different way. This is a much more player-friendly approach and I wouldn't be surprised if variants of this become the norm.

3. Dynamic Battlefields: Other games have similar systems, but it's such an integral part of the Tabula Rasa experience that it bears mentioning here. The environment in Tabula Rasa isn't fixed; strongholds will change hands dynamically. Even if nobody is around, the Bane or the Allies will launch periodic assaults. It's not unusual to be running to a location only to stumble on a massive firefight. You might pick up a mission at a base, then return an hour later to find it overrun with enemy troops. If you can fight them off and recapture the base, you'll be able to turn in your mission. Some of the rarest items in the game will only be available by completing quests given by NPCs who won't be there unless you take over and hold massive enemy strongholds. The world really is dynamic, and it shapes the way you play the game.

There's a fourth element that may separate Tabula Rasa from the pack, and while it's not a new idea it's fundamental to a great game. That's the color and texture added by the stories and mission design. Garriott has invented a whole alien language, called Logos, that's littered throughout the game world. Study the alien symbols long enough and you (personally) can become fluent in the language, picking up game hints or discovering new things in the game.

The world is also peppered with ethical dilemmas that don't have clear right or wrong answers. For instance, you may investigate who's stealing supplies from your home base, only to discover that the troops on your most beleaguered outpost are skimming a little off the top just to stay alive in one of the toughest areas. Do you turn them in or look the other way? In another area the vicious Bane are about to get a strategic toe-hold in an area, but you can stop them by blowing up a dam. Do you take the opportunity for a guaranteed military win, or do you risk the operation in order to evacuate the innocent people in the valley below? No choice is right or wrong, but each opens up different paths through the game.

Put it all together and Tabula Rasa plays out very differently from your traditional massively multiplayer game. Will it catch on? Only time will tell. But it's definitely bringing a lot to the party, and all eyes will be on this one.

Join the Tabula Rasa Beta!

Posted by at 1:44 PM PDT

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