Tag Archives: gaming

App In Review: Candy Crush Saga

Note: This is a new series that I’m going to attempt to push out weekly. (Wishful thinking, I know.)  Cell phone gaming is a monster. A micro-transaction fueled monster. I cannot deny the allure of the brand of extremely portable gaming that a cell phone can offer — indeed, I like lots of cell phones games. In my quest to understand the “social gaming” market, however, I will review one of the top games on the Android (free) market every week. Stay tuned!

Candy Crush Saga
The Search For Riesen (Get it?!)

Candy Crush has been number one on the Android game market for several weeks now. I see Facebook posts about it. I see rage memes that have been created about it. All I knew before going in was that it involved candy and Facebook. So, I downloaded and installed to be met with the screen below.

FACEBOOK IS YOUR GOD

FACEBOOK IS YOUR GOD

Facebook integration! Joy! Look, I use Facebook daily. Millions upon millions of individuals do. Many of those people also play games through Facebook — we’ve all seen invites to Farmville/whatever to help water crops or collect taxes. These social games introduce the so-called “socially linked” elements in order to create a larger user base that, in theory, will increase ad revenue and microtransactional (I am making that a word) revenue from said games. Candy Crush Saga, therefore, integrates Facebook into its game in order to entice the friends of players to join in on the sugary fun.

Friends connected through Facebook can, most importantly, provide boosters to the player that make difficult levels easier to accomplish through the use of power-ups. If the player chooses to not connect to Facebook, the same boosters may be bought with ridiculously inflated cash prices. ($1.99 for a pack of three boosters.) It’s an obvious grab for cash that appears to be incredibly successful: not only is Candy Crush Saga the number one downloaded game on the Android market, it is also the highest grossing (as of 4.17.13).

So! Gameplay. Candy Crush Saga is Bejeweled with a few twists. There are stages presented to the player through a candyland-esque gameboard that have no real bearing on the game itself — the player is simply presented with one stage after another, a la Bejeweled.

Match the colors of candy to reach a predetermined score before you run out of “moves.” If you create a combination of four or more, a special piece of that color will appear that has a particular effect. Some of the stages require specific goals to be met for completion through the use of so-called “jelly” that add a locational challenge specific boards.

That’s it, really. It’s Bejeweled with a new theme. Is that what you want to play? If it is — Candy Crush is the game for you, that is, if you don’t mind the constantly nagging Facebook integration with a helping of frequently pushed microtransactions.

Candy. Crush it.

Candy. Crush it.

Verdict: Personally, I have no interest to play this game. I tried it for the sake of fun and for the sake of the review, but I found myself wondering why I would play this when it is nothing more than a rehash of a decades-old concept.

On top of the stale nature of the product is the deeply-ingrained system designed to take money from the user in order to move from level to level. As any game like this is naturally tuned around the idea of “random,” certain levels can become very difficult to accomplish without a fair bit of repetition. See those three buttons at the top of the screenshot toward the right? Those are all images of the powerups that, through a press of a button, can be bought and utilized immediately to get past a frustrating level.

While it is a shrewd business model, it smacks of greed. I understand that the microtransactional model is the new status quo for “social” gaming, but that does not mean that I accept it in all iterations. There is, to put it simply, no need for boosts in a game such as this unless you wish to beat all of the stages as quickly as is possible. If this casual game is played casually, it will be beaten in time. Eventually the candy will crush itself — your wallet need not become involved.

Take a pass on this one.

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PSMore

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Real creative name, guys.

The Playstation 4 was finally announced at a Sony presser on Febreuary 20th with a two house marathon of buzzwords, game reveals, and some questionable design choices. Sony’s latest push into the console arena appears to be an effort, before all else, to being the PS brand back into the majority of gaming households. The words “accessible,” “simple,” and “social” were consistently thrown about during the announcement — a sign that Sony recognizes the issues that some had with the technical behemoth that is the PS3.

All of those who had an original Playstation or Playstation 2 (for most of its life) can remember that the PS brand was always significantly different from its competition. It was the undisputed master of the high-end gaming market (Dreamcast doesn’t count, sorry). At the end of the life of the PS2, however, Microsoft created the XBOX and a healthy dose of capitalistic competition was inserted into the mix.

Unfortunately, Sony did not fare well against the ambition that Microsoft pushed out for the XBOX 360. While the PS3 is the more powerful machine, it does not have the same level of consumer infiltration that the XBOX 360 has managed to pull off. The PS3 isn’t as flashy. It didn’t have Halo. The price point was too high when it was released. It was slow to get good console exclusives. These factors, coupled with Microsoft’s aggressive marketing of the 360, left Sony too far behind to ever create a parity with Microsoft.

Now, however, the tables have turned as Sony is primed to release the PS4 before the new XBOX. They have the ability, through the mere fact of being the first to be “next-gen” (and yes, the Wii U also doesn’t count), to dominate the field. How? Take a look at the following list of system features followed by my thoughts on them for some armchair insight:

  • The Dual Shock 4: The latest Sony controller has the same form factor as previous iterations, with one notable exception — the touch pad. Although the Vita has been much maligned in the gaming press (and subsequent sales), it is a fantastic piece of hardware with truly interesting control mechanisms. Having a touch pad on the fore and rear of the Dual Shock 4 will give the standard controller a versatility that has been completely absent from a console experience. Touch pads allow nuance — they allow subtlety. Analog sticks are useful for precise control in a shooter, but what could be more precise than your actual finger?Also, the controller has a “Share” button, which leads me to …

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    A square affair.

  • The Social Angle: We live in an absolutely connected world. Love it or hate it, it is a fact of technological life. You can deny Facebook all you like. You can block it out of your life completely … but that does not change the fact that millions of people use it and will continue to use it. Smart phones are now nothing more than social hubs for your life. Like a photo? You share it to Facebook. Or Instagram. Or Flickr. Or reddit. You share songs, you share quotes, you share statuses, and you share everything in-between (“you,” here, refers to the average internet user. You who take exception to the shared and the sharing should please forgive my second-person assertion).So, in an effort to hop on the social bandwagon, Sony created a social console. You can share any screenshot or video from your time playing a game with a single press of a button on your controller. You can have a profile with your actual name through the revamped PSN. Friends can help your play through games and solve puzzles remotely. Or .. you can be a loner and turn all of that functionality off.

    By creating a social console, however, Sony wishes to create relationship of personal investment between the user and the machine. If your friends are all over your console’s feeds and menus, then (as they reason) you will be more likely to attach to the PS4 over a competitor’s product with lesser personal focus. This will probably work for the beginning of the PS4’s life, though I expect the next XBOX to have very similar social functionality.

  • Content Streaming: Sony also announced that while the PS4 will not be able to play games from previous systems (due to a 180 on technical architecture), they did create a means to get past the thorny issue of backwards-compatibility. Although there are few available details for the game streaming at the moment, the idea is simple: you can play any games you own (or have owned) through the streaming service without having to provide a disk.If this works, it will represent another step toward a physical media-less gaming culture. The questions at this moment, however, are too many for me to make a judgment about the service. How will they know which games you own for the PS3? Will the streaming cost money, perhaps through Playstation Plus? What kind of bandwidth will this consume? What about those of us with relatively poor internet connections? Time will tell.
  • The Software: Software makes systems sell. That’s probably plastered around the cubicles of Microsoft and Sony now, given their technologically-focused histories. Thankfully, the launch titles for the PS4 look promising. Killzone is making yet another beautiful appearance, although they will struggle to make anybody care. A new Infamous game was detailed and previewed, along with a racing game, an action platformer featuring a cute-ish robot, and, of course, Watch_Dogs:

 

What, then, will it take for Sony to succeed? All of the above points will have to work as they’ve advertised them. Sony will have to market the PS4 as not the PS3. There will absolutely have to be good games available with launch. And, ultimately, Microsoft will have to have a lesser offering than the PS4.

We’ll see.

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Innovation > Imitation

Video games.
(That’s the topic.)

Minecraft is the greatest video game to be released over the past decade.

Name any game that has been released over the past ten years, and I will tell you why Minecraft is better. Skyrim? Dragons have nothing on punching trees. First-Person Shooters? Empty calories. Arkham City? Good theme parks are still parks. Parks have boundaries and rules. World of Warcraft? Anonymous idiots ruin the experience for the masses.

In the end, Minecraft has one important feature that makes it stand out from the rest of the herd — it enables the user with the unbridled power of creation.

The common public perception of gaming culture is one of a destructive and mind-melting experience that leaves the “gamer” worse for the wear. While some games are certainly nothing more than cheap entertainment, they are also nothing less — that is, any video game is at least as engaging as an episode of television.

This is important for the sake of the discussion because it is easy to underestimate the power that video games hold. In 2012 (when all is said and done), global video game sales are expected to bring approximately 64 billion dollars. For the sake of comparison, global movie revenue is about 27 billion and global music revenue floats between 30 and 40 billion annually.

Why is there such a large disparity in forms of revenue-generating entertainment? Video games hold a commanding lead in money gained when viewed in comparison to the other outlets listed above.

There are a few factors here.

  • Video games, on average, are significantly more expensive than movies or music. Not only does this boost numbers in the favor of gaming, it also detracts from the numbers of some of the other categories. Opportunity cost doesn’t only exist in Macro/Micro 101.
  • While most of the money generated for movies and music come from the United States (as they are primarily America-centric manifestations), video games are truly global.
    • As a result, the largest group of people who play video games are not from America. The Asian countries coupled with Europe and, most notably, Japan, take the first three places in the revenue hierarchy.

(This post is far more esoteric than I intended. I apologize.)

As this form of media is clearly one of the most popular in the world, should the general populace be concerned about the quality and content that it offers? Are people playing games because they allow users to escape? To fight? To destroy? To create? The answer is, unfortunately, unknowable.

As it stands, gaming culture is dominated by first-person shooters and sports franchises. These games are enjoyable, but they are also rolled out (every year) in similar packaging with few differences. There is little innovation present in the video game machine of Halo, Call of Duty, Madden, and FIFA. Why fix what is successful? These franchises print money.

(As a side note — I love Call of Duty. Black Ops 2 is a great game!)

It is easy for originality to get lost in a sea of financial juggernauts. Look at movies and music for a good example of this — how many truly independent movies make it to mainstream success? Few. Independent musicians are ground into the ground by the struggling record industries, though the internet has helped their plight some.

The video game industry, however, absolutely encourages independent participation. Minecraft was created by a lone Swedish man. It sold 8 million copies. Braid, created by Jonathon Blow, was the second-highest grossing game of XBOX’s internet store in 2008.

And the list goes on: flower, Limbo, Fez, World of Goo, Bastion, Super Meat Boy, Journey (a personal favorite), and etc are all examples of content creation by a group of very few that reaches true commercial success.

The king among the indie titans, however, is Minecraft. I like to imagine that the environment of creativity engendered by the open gaming culture allowed a creation game to reach success.

What is there to do in Minecraft? Build. Take blocks of the world — build with them. It’s the best Lego set you never had. There are monsters, sure. There is fighting. Don’t want to deal with it? Ignore it. Turn it off. Don’t like how the game plays? Install a mod. Change it entirely. Don’t like how it looks? Texture packs take care of that. You have the control — always. (Yes, I am rather fond of control.)

These practices should be encouraged.
Innovation comes from the individual, not the industry.

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Guild Wars 2: A Hopping Good Time

Guild Wars 2 hosted a game preview event over the weekend of June 8th and I was fortunate enough to participate. As I did not want to spoil too much of the game before it actually comes out, I did nothing but WvWvW (cross-realm siege PvP warfare)  during the brief weekend. To put it bluntly, it was a fantastic time.

The notion of siege warfare is one that has been attempted in many persistent-world games, but it is not one that has been done particularly well. World of Warcraft famously inserted Wintergrasp into its game as a nod toward siege warfare — this did not end favorably. Star Wars: The Old Republic tried Ilum and almost immediately removed it from the game entirely, as it was an unmitigated failure.

The map pictured to the left is the entirety of the WvW playspace. Every little dot on the map is an interactive spot in the world that can be captured and held by one of the three factions at play. These locations range from camps to castles to keeps, for example.

Different locations hold different bonuses for capture and command, and the more spots that are captured for your realm, the greater your bonuses will be. As these bonuses exist in a persistent fashion through WvW into the regular PvE aspect of the game, there is a clear incentive for participation.

The map is massive. The battles are monstrous. What I discovered in a nook of my home base, however, was something entirely unexpected. Inside the castle grounds of my home keep was a mysterious portal — what was there to do but go in?

I immediately found myself faced with a grand dungeon — complete with fanatically complex jumping puzzle. I felt immediately compelled to complete it. Though I never reached the very end of the jumping maze, I did make it most of the way through (I think). The gallery below shows a succession of images from the puzzle.

There are player-controllable traps in strategic locations. PvP is strongly encouraged. There are off-shoot areas that provide stealth bonuses. There is an entire section of the jumping puzzle that requires the player to pick up a torch, as the puzzle eventually becomes shrouded in darkness. The held torch provides the player with an entirely new skill bar replete with torchy abilities, such as abilities that allow the player to throw the torch (allowing an infusion of light where the torch lands), and abilities that light the ground where the player stands.

I was truly surprised by the thought and depth of design displayed in this completely optional jumping puzzle — it was an entire world unto itself. The level of detail and care put into this sub-area shows the dedication of the people are ArenaNet who are developing this game.

If you have not checked this upcoming game out yet, be sure to read up!
The best source for information for the game is the Guild Wars 2 subreddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/guildwars2

Check it out, and (hopefully) see you in game!

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E3 — Not For Me

As I play video games and write a blog, it is required by the laws of the universe that I write a blog post describing my reaction to the E3 Expo that is taking place over the next few days. By this point, all of the three major companies (Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) have delivered their keynote speeches, and the internets are abuzz with frothing cynicism.

Microsoft: This was a problematic presentation. Halo 4 opened the show with footage of Halo-like happenings. There were glowy monsters and armored soldiers. Bullets. Shiny guns. Boring.

While I am sure that it will be a competent game, it is nothing new. On that note, the entire conference from Microsoft was a catalog of dullness and repetition. People do not care about Kinect. No amount of shouting or arm-waving will ever make so-called hardcore gamers embrace Kinect. It is the definition of peripheral … and it is ultimately pointless.

Eventually, after Microsoft finished showcasing games for the Xbox that are also coming to the PS3 and the PC (and possibly the WiiU), Usher started to dance on stage. I generally enjoy Usher. He appears to have a good attitude about life — and, let’s face it, the man can dance. He does not, however, have anything to do with gaming. The game that he was “promoting,” titled Just Dance 4 (or something, it doesn’t really matter), is just another iterative release designed to pad developer pockets while taking advantage of the “casual” market.

This stunt, however, just shows how incredibly out of touch the creators of the Microsoft presser are with their audience. We do not wish to see dancing. We do not care about Kinect. We want actual innovation (through actual technological advance, not through “SmartGlass,” which is just a pathetically transparent attempt to take some steam out of Nintendo’s WiiU sails) and we want new IPs.

For shame, Microsoft.

Sony: This conference was the best of the lot, though that is not saying much, as they were all failures to some extent. Sony’s strength lies in its extremely talented in-house game designers who continue, every year, to push out new and exciting content. The Last of Us? Looks fantastic. Ellen Page featured in a Heavy Rain-esque thriller? Sounds good. Unfortunately, however, those were the only two standouts.

Sony also needed to push the Vita much harder than they did within the conference. It garnered a few mentions from the various individuals on stage, and two significant games were announced for it (Assassin’s Creed and Black Ops), but there was no price drop mentioned, nor was there any attempt made by Sony to push the handheld as a “must-have” item.

Once the presentation moved into the requisite Playstation Move portion of the conference, Sony fell into the same trap as Microsoft. Nobody cares. The longer these companies try to force gimmicks upon their consumers, the greater chance they have at becoming gimmicks themselves. Wonderbook? While the Rowling endorsement is a financial coup (potentially), I find it hard to rationalize how Sony can declare this meta-reading technology as any sort of innovation whatsoever. Gimmick.

Nintendo:  This presser was easily the worst. Mario, again? Again? And again? Three new Mario games do not inspire confidence that the company can move beyond the “casual” moniker that has been applied to it. The WiiU is a waste of time and money for everybody involved. While there was much talk of detached gaming experiences and “new ways to play,” the WiiU is nothing more than a slightly upgraded Wii with a touch-screen controller. It is silly.

Do we really want NintendoLand? A theme park “game” that hammers the iconic Nintendo character lineup into casual niches is the true measure of the company at this point. There was absolutely no attempt made by Nintendo to distance themselves from the tried and true formula. After all, WiiU is just an extension of the Wii.

Ubisoft presented third-party offerings that could elevate the new console into more mature hands, but while they were heartily endorsed by Nintendo, Nintendo themselves offered nothing truly new. Sure, there is a new Pikmin offering, but Pikmin is an established franchise. Is the tablet controller really an innovation? I doubt it.

WiiU will fail.

In Summation: The pressers are simply out of touch. E3 is problematic in general, as the companies must try to appease the great masses of the gaming world, and those masses are incredibly diverse. Business decisions must be made alongside more practical decisions. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all know what their vocal fans want, but they do not particularly seem to care, with the possible exception of Sony.

The casual peripherals sell well. Dancing and singing games fly off of the shelves. Workout games? Gold mine. In their lust for an assured paycheck, though, the big three companies have forsaken their true core audiences for passing fancy. How many of the Wii balance boards saw use after a few weeks? How many times to people actually “just dance”?

The next generation of consoles must draw a line between the casual and the regular. Ideally, the large companies could create separate devices (branded under their respective names) that work, stand-alone, as exercise or musical entertainment. To lump them into the same console as Halo and Uncharted, on the other hand, diminishes the focus of what the devices were designed to do in the first place — play games. As a result of this dilution, these pressers become focused around the casual and unnecessary, instead of the core and innovative.

Bah.

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The Hero We Deserve: Guild Wars 2

I have played them all. From Everquest to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I have played all of the major releases that have graced the MMO market over the past few decades. While some may argue that MMOs are a grand waste of time, I would assert (instead) that MMOs are games that are to be enjoyed just like any other — within your own bounds of comfort. Unfortunately, however, the marketplace for the MMO has not radically changed in the past few years. At all.

While World of Warcraft is a good game, most people who played WoW have played it into the ground. It was the first to become a mass market success, and it should be recognized for that alone. If WoW had not been half as successful as it was, there would not be such growth in the MMO field today. Rival companies saw the success of Blizzard and attempted to emulate it endlessly. This is what led to countless copy-cat MMOs that failed to make it past a few months out of the gate. The few that have (LOTRO, Rift, and to a certain extent SW:TOR) made it into mass market consumption all made it by taking what WoW does well and then pushing it one or two baby steps forward.

LOTRO and SW:TOR can get by just on their branding alone. After all, who does not wish to be in Middle-Earth or that famous galaxy “far, far away” for a few hours? Rift was able to truly innovate through its usage of a dynamic questing model in the form of … rifts … but failed to break out of the exhaustive paradigm that WoW established nearly a decade earlier.

So where are we now? The market is flooded with MMOs that are all copies of each other. The Old Republic is an enjoyable game, but it suffers from stale combat that no amount of voice-over work can save. Rift, while enjoyable for a time, is also a victim of tried combat. LOTRO is hanging on by virtue of a rabid fanbase alone. WoW has changed into a casual-friendly game in order to boost flagging numbers caused by burn-out. On the horizon, TERA looks to become one of the first to employ “action” combat in an MMO, but every other part of it is as stale as most other Korean MMOs (Aion, etc).

Fortunately, Guild Wars 2 looks to make a lasting impression on the market. While there are some traditional MMO staples apparent in Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet has sought to radically change the way in which MMOs are perceived to the consumer base of gamers.

First, and most importantly, Guild Wars 2 stands with its predecessor (Guild Wars with its numerous expansions) as an MMO that does not charge a monthly fee. Subscription based gameplay has existed since Everquest, and while it may be a lucrative model for developers, it drives a sizable chunk of a potential playerbase away immediately. ArenaNet has not only copied the pricing model from the original Guild Wars, though. It has copied the model and, and the same time, transformed the Guild Wars universe into a modern MMO. Guild Wars 2 is an open-world, persistant MMO experience, complete with all of the bells and whistles that consumers have come to expect from this field.

There is questing in the game, but it is not as one would traditionally expect. There are no quest-givers. Some NPCs want things done for them, but it is never an exercise of fetch and grab. Guild Wars 2 is introducing a dynamic event system that takes the place of the traditional questing system. As the player is running about in the world, events will happen around him or her. Whether the individual chooses to participate is completely up to the player — the event will go on regardless. These events can be player-triggered, but more often than not they are functionally dynamic.

I am not going to go into great detail over all of the innovations that Guild Wars 2 brings to the table. If you are interesting, check out this link that holds an exhaustive write-up of all of the changes that are coming to the new game.

I can assure you, however, that Guild Wars 2 represents a shift in the way in which MMOs are handled by the developers and the consumers. If this game is successful (and it looks like it will be), it will fundamentally change the way in which gamers expect their MMO experience to be handled. This is positive. We are better than a series of stale experiences that all have one selling point specific to each game. We are better than quests that require us to kill an arbitrary number of boars.

We, the consumers, have the ultimate power of the market and industry. If you wish to support a change in the way in which MMOs are created and sold to us, give Guild Wars 2 a close look. You can thank me later.

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